ASEAN and Prevention of Violence Against Women in Conflict and Humanitarian Situations

IMG_1881[1]The Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, with the support of the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, hosted a workshop on ASEAN and Prevention of Violence Against Women in Conflict and Humanitarian Situations in Jakarta on 20 August 2014. The event was attended by 48 leaders from the government sector, non-government organizations and international organizations from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Viet Nam. It was our honour to host Acting British Ambassador to Indonesia, ASEAN and Timor Leste, Rebecca Razavi, who gave the keynote address on the ‘Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative’.

Below is an abbreviated Introduction to the Workshop by Sara Davies, AP R2P Program Director for Prevention of Mass Atrocities. The Introduction has been published in full as a Spotlight Brief at Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

“It is my pleasure to have this opportunity to welcome such a distinguished audience to this Workshop on Prevention of Violence Against Women in Conflict and Humanitarian Situations, hosted by the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Today, we are attempting to address two ambitions.

First, to identify, document and highlight the important regional, national and local work that you – as governments and civil society organizations – have undertaken to protect populations from R2P crimes, which include widespread and systematic sexual and gender based violence.

Second, to explore ways of assisting ASEAN and individual members to fulfill their responsibility to eliminate violence against women. In particular, we are interested in exploring how the principle of the responsibility to protect might assist, what further initiatives may enable a deepening of engagement in this issue, what sorts of capacities still need to be built, and how the international community might support these efforts across Southeast Asia.

Our Centre is particularly focused on the prevention of mass atrocities. Prevention creates the best conditions for stability and prosperity, which enables populations to be protected effectively and inclusively.

We have long argued that the prevention of mass atrocity crimes requires engagement with the conditions that perpetuate gender inequality, women’s human rights violations and the disproportionate risk of atrocity crimes, specifically those that constitute sexual and gender based violence, which sees women and girls disproportionately targeted. It also demands that we pay attention to the empowerment of women as peacemakers, peacebuilders, and sources of protection.

We believe strongly that advocates of R2P should engage with and promote the prevention, protection, participation framework outlined by the Women Peace and Security Agenda, which was first passed as resolution 1325 by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, and successively in resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106 and 2122.

As a result, the promotion of dialogue and mutual understanding between the R2P principle and WPS agenda has become a core focus of the Centre’s work on the conditions for prevention of mass atrocities for four main reasons:

First, it is now well recognized that sexual and gender-based violence can constitute acts of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. At their most basic, R2P and WPS share important goals in common, not least, the elimination of these types of crimes.

Second, there is a strong explanatory relationship between endemic gender inequality and high rates of political violence and one-sided violence against civilians. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed in his 2013 R2P report on State Responsibility and Protection:

‘Gender discrimination and inequality increase underlying risks associated with sexual and gender-based violence, which can constitute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity…Specific gender discrimination practices include the denial or inadequate protection of basic rights relating to physical security and the status of women, compulsory birth control and unequal access to services and property’.

Third, sexual and gendered violence are often the first types of mass atrocity crimes committed against populations to achieve political ends. These crimes can occur before conflict, after conflict and during conflict as Syria, Mali, Sri Lanka and recent tragedy in Iraq with the Yazidi population demonstrate. There is a history of gendered crimes being used as tools of political violence to achieve political aims. This continues today, but its role in fostering other crimes and violence conflict is not yet adequately understood. This is the focus of my own research with Prof. Jacqui True, in the Prevention of Sexual Violence in Asia Pacific Project.

Fourth, R2P and WPS share a common focus on prevention and in the development of international, regional, national and societal level tools to empower women and prevent mass atrocities (R2P – through appointment of government level R2P Focal Point and WPS – through development of NAPs). This means that there is opportunity to align the R2P principle and the WPS agenda on the targets and tools needed to prevent mass atrocity crimes, which – as stated by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in his 2013 report – demands action to address structural gender inequality and gender discrimination.

Today we are interested in exploring the progress made by ASEAN member states in the promotion of the VAW Agenda and in how this may be extended through greater reference to WPS agenda in the Political-Security Community – the area with greatest focus (and responsibility) on populations at risk in situations of civil strife, conflict and humanitarian disasters. We want to explore how the WPS agenda might be advanced through the region’s Political-Security Community to ensure that the resilience built in ‘peaceful’ situations extends to situations characterized by conflict and humanitarian disasters – where there is disproportionate risk to women and girls.

I will make some final notes regarding areas where we see alignment across three areas – WPS, PSVI and VAW – in the ASEAN region.

ASEAN and WPS PowerPoint

First, with passage of Resolution 1325 in 2000 it was recognized that the maintenance of international peace and security depended upon women’s equal and full participation in the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. The ASEAN Political-Security Community has developed parallel to WPS and have made statements suggesting supportive of its goals but, thus far, ASEAN Member States have made few specific engagements relevant to 1325 in terms of taking both a whole-of-government and regional organization approach to incorporate WPS into political and security sectors. Of interest to us, the one area where we have seen significant ASEAN foreign ministry-led engagement in WPS has been the UK’s PSVI.

The PSVI, which we will hear more about next from UK FCO Acting Ambassador Rebecca Razavi, has been one of most important normative developments in foreign policy in recent years. There has been much focus on the UNGA Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the recently, the International Protocol on Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Within this region, 8 ASEAN member states have committed to this Declaration. The Declaration calls upon states to legislate against and prosecute individuals for these crimes, have police and justice mechanisms in place to punish anyone for these crimes, and requests states and regional organizations to recognise and implement the WPS National Action Plans; as well as promote women’s full participation in all political, governance, and security structures.

The commitment of Indonesia, Philippines and East Timor Foreign Ministers, at the June 2014 Global Summit on PSVI, to serve as Champions of PSVI and promote the UNGA Declaration against Sexual Violence amongst the ASEAN membership is a further significant development. This public support provides an opportunity to sharpen attention on the participation, protection and prevention elements of the WPS agenda that is not present within the ASEAN Political-Security Community. The PSVI falls directly under the purview of the ASEAN Political-Security Community and may provide an opportunity to formalise inclusion of WPS agenda.

To date, we have identified a considerable gap in reporting on the work being done every day to protect people from these grave crimes. We focus a lot on the failure but give too little focus and attention on what works. This gap in knowledge exists not just in the area of WPS but across a number of areas of concern to R2P – in relation to asylum seekers and refugees, ethnic and religious minorities, children and other vulnerable populations. This workshop is the beginning, we hope, of a process of documenting the work you are doing which contributes to the goal of preventing atrocities and provides opportunities for participation and engagement that may inform future policy and programs.

As such, we are very keen to hear from you about what the priorities should be as we move forward to achieve the goals of WPS and R2P in our region.

A report detailing the event and recommendations from the participants will be available at the Asia Pacific Centre for Responsibility to Protect in late September.  The program for the event may be found here.

Aiding Iraqis Meets Responsibility to Protect and Could Lead to Common Ground on Syria

Yazidis flee

Originally posted at IPI Global Observatory

Since its emergence around April 2013 as a major player in Syria’s civil war, the radical jihadist group which calls itself the Islamic State (known as ISIS) established a formidable reputation for brutality, arbitrary killing, and mass atrocities. In Syria, the group used extreme violence against non-combatants as much as enemy fighters to impose its will. Intent on forcibly and quickly re-engineering society to fit its own ideological vision, ISIS employed massive violence and extreme brutality to cow dissent, enforce its rules, and eliminate potential opponents. In pursuit of its objectives, ISIS crucified, beheaded, stoned, shot, knifed, tortured, and bludgeoned thousands of Syrian non-combatants to death.

Past history teaches us that the road to genocide is paved with the ideological fervor of extremists bent on imposing their particular vision of utopia upon unsupportive populations. This week, many miles away from Syria, a court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, found two elderly communist extremists–leading members of the Khmer Rouge–guilty of crimes against humanity that contributed to the destruction of a quarter of that country’s population in a little over three years. ISIS offers the Middle East a similarly destructive blend of unworldly ideology and massive doses of unbridled violence.

Earlier this year, ISIS launched an offensive into Iraq. Fearing the brutality of their opponents and unwilling to fight fellow Sunnis, Sunni elements of Iraq’s armed forces melted away. Unprepared to risk their lives for predominantly Sunni towns, the army’s Shiites also fled their posts. In a matter of weeks, ISIS occupied around one-third of Iraq and had taken its second city, Mosul, and other major towns such as Fallujah and Tikrit.

In its wake, ISIS ruthlessly imposed its vision of sharia law. It was not long before reports of mass atrocities emerged: Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported that the militants were seeking out and sometimes killing anyone associated with the government; ISIS publicized evidence of one mass atrocity, claiming it had slaughtered 1,700 prisoners; in Mosul, ISIS murdered the city’s religious leadership and established itself as the religious law. Throughout this time, it was reported that ISIS was forcibly converting civiliansby threatening to impose a religious tax or execute those who did not. Some of those who did convert were immediately beheaded afterwards. Things came to a head in August, when ISIS closed in on Yazidis in northwestern Iraq. The jihadists threatened to kill those who refused to convert to Islam, causing a mass exodus. Perched precariously in the highlands of Sinjar, with no food or access to water, the Yazidis faced a serious humanitarian emergency at best–and potentially genocide.

It was in this context that US President Barack Obama authorized air strikes against ISIS positions and air drops of humanitarian aid to the Yazidis. Other countries have also joined the effort. Australia, for example, announced that it, too, would launch humanitarian operations. Although the decision to act was clearly influenced by strategic considerations, not least the developing ISIS threat to Erbil where the US maintained key installations and the group’s seizure of the Mosul dam, there can be no doubting that the administration acted, in part, to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. In announcing his decision, the president was very clear on this point:

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world. So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain—with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help—in this case, a request from the Iraqi government—and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

There was clearly a need to use force to protect Iraqi civilians from ISIS. Obviously, the threat to the Yazidi was massive and imminent, but there remain hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis cowering behind ISIS lines, fearing for their lives. To the north, Kurdish forces are finding it difficult to prevent the extremists from seizing yet more land—and people. The use of air power to target ISIS positions, heavy weapons stores, and logistical chains offers significant support to the Iraqi government and creates a viable route toward creating a future opportunity to score a decisive blow against ISIS and wind back their advances. In the immediate term, the action promises to stem the tide of ISIS advances and give Baghdad the time it needs to establish an inclusive government representative of all Iraq’s peoples and marshal its forces to restore order. For these reasons, the president’s decision should be welcomed.

This US action to help protect Iraq’s civilians from ISIS sits squarely under pillar two of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, which relates to the international community’s responsibility to assist states to fulfill their responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The use of force comes in response to a specific request for assistance from a member state—helping a state fulfill its R2P (as mentioned in paragraph 138 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome on R2P) and assisting a state under stress (paragraph 139 of the same agreement).

Although “assistance” to the state is usually conceived in non-military terms, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explained clearly in his 2009 report on R2P that assistance could include the use of force with the consent of the state concerned. As the Secretary-General put it, “pillar two could also encompass military assistance to help beleaguered States deal with armed non-state actors threatening both the State and its population” (para. 29). Further, “…international military assistance may be the surest way to support the State in meeting its obligations relating to the responsibility to protect and, in extreme cases, to restore its effective sovereignty” (para. 43).

Over the coming days, the UN Security Council will consider adopting a range of measures to support the Iraqi government in its campaign against the extremists. Besides lending important diplomatic support to the effort, the Council should look to restrict the capacity of foreign fighters to join the fray, limit the access ISIS has to funds and resources, consider targeted sanctions against key individuals, step up the delivery of humanitarian aid, and consider how accountability for crimes against humanity committed by ISIS might be achieved.

Sometimes force is tragically necessary to protect populations from mass atrocities. The threat in Iraq is obvious and pressing, and the use of force against ISIS is the only feasible way of diminishing that threat in the near term.

But the use of force is never without its dangers. Some experts worry that this might be the start of a slippery slope back to full entanglement in Iraq. From this perspective, the use of force might save some Iraqis, but it would likely not serve US interests or wider regional stability well. By contrast, there are concerns that US strikes will not go far enough to degrade ISIS’ capabilities–especially given the group’s access to refuge, weapons, and ammunition in Syria, beyond the reach of the US.

Entanglement is best avoided by limiting operations to the air. That would seem to be a sensible limitation–and within the bounds of what the Iraqi government has asked for. However, the Obama administration will need to show the resolve needed to deal a significant blow against ISIS–even if that takes some time. The US and its allies will need to stay the course. The international community–through the UN Security Council–ought to offer the support they need.

An additional concern is that US strikes will succeed only in further uniting the Sunnis against the US, thus strengthening–not weakening–ISIS. Such fears are not well founded at present, owing to evidence that Sunni support for ISIS in Iraq is weak, and that most would choose Iraq over the militants should Baghdad form an inclusive and capable government. The organization’s weak support base is also exemplified by its reliance on foreign fighters. That might change, of course, if US strikes prove ineffective or–worse–if they cause civilian casualties. Finding the right balance between military effectiveness, force protection, and minimizing civilian losses will be absolutely critical.

The elephant in the room is Syria. ISIS thrived and grew in the maelstrom of Syria’s civil war and is one of the Assad regime’s principal opponents. Action against ISIS in Iraq will inevitably weaken the group in Syria and strengthen the regime in Damascus. But rather than viewing this as a problem to be managed, Western governments might instead see this as offering an important diplomatic opportunity. In the war against ISIS, the West can find genuine common interest with Russia–and, for that matter, so, too, can Damascus and the Free Syrian Army.

On that basis, new impetus might be brought to the search for a common international position on how Syria’s civil war should be resolved and common interests established between the Syrian government and the legitimate opposition. All parties can agree on their opposition to ISIS’ vision of the country’s future, yet the more divided they remain, the more likely it is that this vision will come to fruition. Therefore, along with military efforts to stem the tide in Iraq should come diplomatic efforts to isolate ISIS in Syria.

Alex J. Bellamy is Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and a Non-Resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

Breaking Cycle of Impunity in Gaza: Accountability is the Key, the ICC the Best Route



Originally posted at IPI Global Observatory

A little over a week ago, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisers on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (Adama Dieng and Jennifer Welsh, respectively) issued a joint statement on the situation in Gaza. The statement advanced a bold account of the situation in Gaza and outlined steps to strengthen the protection of Gaza’s population. Sadly, the statement generated little interest beyond a small community of diplomats and analysts. It deserves to be revisited.

The Special Advisers noted that Israel (as the occupying power), the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas all shared in the responsibility to protect the population in Gaza, and that the international community had a responsibility to assist in protecting the civilian population. The Special Advisers expressed “shock” at the civilian casualties, observing that the high toll could “demonstrate disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force” by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They concluded that both sides “are in violation of international humanitarian law” and pointed to the “disturbing” use of hate speech on social media directed especially against the Palestinian population.

The Special Advisers urged all parties to comply with their legal obligations to international humanitarian law, called on the international community to “encourage and support” negotiations toward a ceasefire, recommended the delivery of humanitarian aid and the establishment of “humanitarian corridors,” insisted that those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity on both sides be held accountable for their actions, called for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza, and urged the parties to enter serious negotiations to end the cycle of violence.

Last Friday, hopes emerged that at least some of these objectives could be achieved when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a 72-hour “humanitarian ceasefire” and won a commitment from the parties to begin negotiations on a durable ceasefire.  But the ceasefire collapsed almost as soon as it came into force, due, it seems, to a callous attempt by Hamas to exploit the pause for its own tactical advantage. All too predictably, Israel responded with overwhelming force, much of which rained down on civilians. Included in the target list were buildings apparently struck because of their cultural or religious value—not because they were military targets. Once again, the UN and those civilians sheltering under what limited protection its flag still offers, were targeted. On Sunday, at least ten civilians at a UN-run school were killed in what appears (at best) to have been a disproportionate strike on three suspected members of an armed group riding near the school.  This was the third time the IDF had directed fire against a UN school with deadly consequences for civilians. Ban Ki-moon described the attack as “reprehensible” and “criminal.”

The conflict in Gaza clearly needs to be understood within its broader historical context. There will be no end to the violence until durable solutions to the underlying political problems are found. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is agnostic on precisely what that solution should look like, though the Secretary-General’s 2013 report on “State Responsibility and Prevention” gives powerful clues as to what ought to be included. R2P is most certainly not agnostic when it comes to the urgent need to protect populations from atrocity crimes and the looming need to break the cycles of escalation and impunity that keep Gaza’s civilians in an intolerable condition of acute risk.

In terms of the immediate challenge, like others before them, the Special Advisers called on the “international community” to do what it could to persuade the parties to agree an immediate ceasefire. There are few good options in this regard, and the diplomatic context is becoming only more difficult.  Would-be mediators have to contend with the extraordinary and blatant display of bad faith by both parties in the wake of the “humanitarian ceasefire.” If reports are correct, it seems that Hamas planned to violate the ceasefire for tactical gains and that the IDF was simply waiting for an excuse to drive its own coach-and-horses (in this case, tanks and mortars) through the ceasefire agreement. Clearly, neither party believes that their ceasefire agreements are worth the paper they are written on, and each expects the other to renege on their agreements and acts accordingly.

The problem of bad faith is compounded by the absence of a trusted third party. The Egyptian government is avowedly opposed to Hamas. Indeed, it is likely that it was Egyptian moves against Hamas, which are reckoned to have seriously damaged its capacity to import goods and raise funds, that prompted the group to step up attacks on Israel in the hope of winning much-needed concessions on the blockade. Meanwhile, negotiating on one hand, while supplying ammunition to Israel on the other, makes the US more an ally to one of the parties than an impartial third party. On the other hand, regional activists such as Turkey and Qatar have associations with Hamas that make them unsuitable as mediators. The Quartet’s Tony Blair is, at best, a lame duck envoy and always was—his appointment being more a sign of their lack of seriousness than anything else. 

While the UN itself has a long and tortuous history in Palestine, the Secretary-General has adopted a strong and consistent line in defense of civilian protection and human rights and is uniquely placed as arguably the most appropriate mediator. But, as political figures with all the responsibility and no power, UN Secretaries-General have a notoriously difficult time extracting concessions from parties unless they are backed strongly by the Security Council. Simply put, the parties are likely to reach a durable ceasefire only if the anticipated costs of not doing so are increased by promises of international action. That would be very hard to achieve in this case. On the one hand, besides raising all sorts of normative questions, it would be difficult (at best) to persuade the US and its allies to support the adoption of one-sided measures designed to push Israel to the negotiating table. On the other hand, as it is already proscribed as a terrorist organization in the West and confronted directly by its two neighbors (Israel and Egypt), it is difficult to see what additional measures could be usefully adopted to make Hamas more cooperative.

Partly as a result, the most likely endgame for this particular crisis is a unilateral cessation and withdrawal by Israel without any agreement with the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. In the short term, Hamas will emerge weakened, but if the past is any guide to the future, it will rebuild itself with a new generation scarred and traumatized by the seemingly indiscriminate destruction of their civilian neighbors and therefore more radical and determined than the last. Far from breaking the cycle of escalation, as called for by the UN’s Special Advisers, events over the weekend have reinforced them and likely planted the seeds of Gaza’s next war in which more civilians will suffer and die.

The Special Advisers identified one potential way of breaking the cycles of escalation and impunity: holding those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law accountable for their actions.

Few would disagree that accountability is critically important. One of the most striking aspects of the current conflict is the appallingly low regard that both parties have for civilian life. Through its actions, the IDF has exposed the hollowness of its rhetoric about compliance with the law. Time and again, it has fired directly on civilians, its actions clearly lacking discrimination and proportion. But Hamas has been no better. It has stored weapons in vacant UN facilities, deliberately targeted civilians and willfully violated a “humanitarian ceasefire,” squarely placing civilians in harm’s way. 

How is accountability to be achieved? The mandating of an investigation by the UN’s Human Rights Council is a step in the right direction. However, while illuminating the evidence of atrocity crimes, the Human Rights Council’s past efforts did not lead to accountability. Nor, in recent years, has either the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority investigated allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in an independent and impartial manner.

As such, the only viable way of ensuring accountability is for the situation in Gaza to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). If true, the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to consider signing the Rome Statute should be applauded and the Authority encouraged down that path. But the Authority cannot yet become a state party and its actions would be largely symbolic. The practical engagement of the ICC requires a referral by the UN Security Council. Given that the Council has referred other matters to the ICC, including complex and difficult ones, the only legitimate reason for not doing so in this case would be the viability of alternative accountability mechanisms. Given that no such alternatives exist, it is imperative that the Security Council consider referring the situation in Gaza to the ICC. I can see no good reason not to do so. In the absence of accountability, impunity will give rise only to further escalation—and civilian suffering—in the future.

Alex J. Bellamy is Director (International) of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and a Non-Resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

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