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The UN General Assembly Ignores Gender in Debates on the Responsibility to Protect

By Hannah Sarokin and Brandon Golfman

The 90s were a time of multiculturalism, grunge music, Friends, and the world-wide web.  It was also a decade marked by devastating humanitarian crises, including widespread sexual and gender-based violence.  From Rwanda to the Balkans, mass conflict and genocide rattled global security and peace processes and shed light on the resounding failure of the international community to act.  The principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was born from such atrocity.  

First addressed by the UN during the World Summit in 2005, R2P is the collective recognition that protecting vulnerable civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity is both a domestic and international obligation.  The three pillars of R2P oblige states to protect their populations from such atrocities, require the international community to assist in that protection, and if a state has failed, other states must take appropriate actions to intervene.  Despite a unanimous commitment to R2P at the World Summit, there remains a severe gap in domestic implementation, especially in regards to gender.

On Monday, June 25, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) held the first official debate on R2P in nearly a decade.  Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted the importance of atrocity prevention in R2P and urged member states to strengthen their preventative capacities, including conducting national risk assessments, designing policies to address vulnerabilities, and emphasizing the role of civil society in enhancing early warning and ensuring the effectiveness of national human rights institutions.  State representatives affirmed their commitment to protecting vulnerable communities and echoed the Secretary-General’s message that early warning and early action are key tools in preventing mass atrocities.  Of the twenty speakers at the morning session, however, only six states mentioned gender as a key component in the fulfillment of those commitments.

The global community has historically taken a “gender-neutral” approach to addressing mass conflict.  Gender neutrality, however, is often gender exclusive.  A neutral approach to gender de facto eliminates the myriad ways that gender informs how atrocities begin, are carried out, and are addressed.  In a 2014 resolution, the UN Security Council recognized that sexual and gender-based violence often serve as important early indicators of impending conflict.  When rape and other forms of sexual violence systematically target women, it can be an early warning sign that perpetrators are attacking vulnerable groups in the build up to mass conflict.  The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s 2001 Report on The Responsibility to Protect, which first introduced the principle of R2P, highlighted rape and other forms of sexual violence as avoidable mass atrocities, and called upon states to protect their populations from gender-based violence.  Despite numerous studies linking sexual and gender-based violence to early warnings of mass atrocity, the international community has continually failed to discuss gender and peace substantively and synchronously.

Of the few representatives who commented on gender and sexual violence at the UNGA debate, the discussion of women largely started and ended with their role in mediation and community building.  While women can, should, and do play key roles in those processes, the United States stood alone in recognizing gender and sexual violence as a precursor to mass atrocities and emphasized the consequent nexus between women as victims of violence, and women as uniquely positioned reporters of early warning signs.  Proponents of Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) frameworks have called for R2P to engage more with the WPS agenda, including increased reporting of systematic discrimination against women economically, socially, and politically as an indicator that states contain structural inequalities that make them vulnerable to mass atrocities.  Women are on the front lines of violence and inequality, and are thus also on the front lines of recognizing early indicators of conflict and the escalation of international crimes.  

Gender informs how mass atrocities are carried out, including how they begin, and therefore, any truly comprehensive approach to prevention must include a gender lens.  While gender was paramount to the foundational priorities of R2P, it has been largely overlooked in its implementation.  The international community has acutely failed in its obligation to recognize the importance of sexual and gender-based violence as a precursor to the escalation of impending atrocities.  The UN and its member states must commit to including women in reporting processes and mechanisms for responding to early warning signs of atrocity and must cast aside the fiction that gender neutrality has any role in global peace and security processes.