Mediating Violent Conflict: Where are the Women?

by Dr Catherine Turner

Durham Law School, Durham University.

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Former Irish President Mary Robinson (left) and Ethiopia’s Hiroute Guebre Sellasie, the UN’s only female lead mediators

In his December 2016 inauguration speech, the newly elected Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guetterres, indicated that one of the priorities of his term in office would be conflict prevention. He emphasised the need to take more creative approaches to prevent the escalation of conflict, including notably a much stronger emphasis on the use of mediation and creative diplomacy. Prevention, it is said, is better than cure, particularly when conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Israel/Palestine are proving so difficult to ‘cure’. The emphasis on mediation marks the culmination of a longer process of review within the UN of the ways it responds to violent conflict. A series of reports evaluating the UN’s peacebuilding architecture led to the 2016 adoption of the ‘Sustaining Peace Agenda’, marking a commitment to increased coherence across the organisation in co-ordinating peacebuilding activities.[1] Resolution 2282 (2016) emphasises ‘the importance of a comprehensive approach to sustaining peace, particularly through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes, […] and promoting […] inclusive dialogue and mediation…’

 This priority is also accompanied by a commitment by the new Secretary General to address a persistent problem within the UN – the need to ensure gender parity.

Resolution 2282 reaffirms the importance of women’s participation in peace and security, as well as stressing the importance of increasing women’s leadership and decision-making in relation to conflict prevention. The bringing together of these two priorities, namely an increased role for mediation in international peace and security and a commitment to increasing the participation of women in leadership roles within the UN, presents a good opportunity to consider the role of women in conflict mediation.

Of course, a commitment to increasing women’s participation in conflict prevention and peacebuilding is not new. Since the Security Council passed its landmark Resolution 1325 in 2000, the role of women in conflict resolution and peacebuilding has been on the Security Council agenda. The ‘Women, Peace and Security Agenda’ has consistently highlighted the underrepresentation of women in peacebuilding and a number of strategies have been implemented to try and redress this imbalance. There is a very significant body of work on the reasons that women should be included in peacebuilding. This work has highlighted the benefits of including women and has highlighted the different roles that women play within peacebuilding,[2] however it has largely overlooked the specific category of women in the role of mediator. This is despite clear policy commitments throughout the WPS resolutions that call for greater representation of women within high-level UN mediation teams.[3] And yet, despite over 10 years work on the WPS agenda, the number of women actively included in peace talks as mediators remains persistently low. Research shows that, of 31 UN-led mediation processes between 1991 and 2011, only 3 were led by women as the chief mediator. This translates into only 2.7 % of all chief mediators.[4] As a result in 2013 the Security Council passed resolution 2122 further requesting the Secretary General to support the appointments of women at senior levels as UN mediators and within the composition of UN mediation teams. By 2014 the UN had appointed two female lead mediators – the former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Hiroute Guebre Sellasie of Ethiopia – and women held a further 14% of senior UN mediation positions.[5] However this figure remains low in light of the Secretary General’s 2010 commitment to increasing the number of women appointed to lead UN peace processes.[6]

The very low statistics of women in the role of chief UN mediator creates an impression that women are simply not engaged in the mediation of violent conflict. Yet, in practice, we know this is not true.

In conflicted states across the globe women are actively involved in the mediation of violent conflict. The roles they play are increasingly being recognised through the creation of networks of women mediators such as those created by Nordic States, by African States, and in support of the peace process in Colombia. So why, when women are so active in mediation at the local level, do we not see more women in high level UN led processes? My research suggests a number of reasons for this apparent contradiction.

Responsibility for increasing the participation of women in mediation is divided across different departments within the UN. The appointment of high-level envoys or Special Representatives of the Secretary General – those we all recognise as the public face of UN-led mediation – lies with the Department of Political Affairs. The appointment of a mediator in this context refers specifically to the appointment of an individual by the Secretary General to pursue conflict diplomacy on his behalf. These are high-level political appointments and are almost exclusively at the discretion of the Secretary General himself. The Envoy will be the person responsible for convening the Track I – or state-level- talks. Women are very under-represented in these positions.

This focus on high-level talks and on the leadership role of international mediators can be contrasted with the approach taken by UN Women, the body tasked with working with member states to further the empowerment of women and support peacebuilding capacity within the State. At this level, mediation happens at a local level, within and between communities. It is at this level that women mediators are most strongly represented.[7] Women are regarded as bringing significant skills to mediation not only while official Track I processes are happening, but before and after those processes, in some cases enabling the process to take place. Through their roles as intermediaries women can create the conditions whereby talks are possible, for example by negotiating the cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian access or opening channels for dialogue.[8]

The division of responsibility between the DPA and UN Women, both of which have very different operational mandates, creates a potential gap between mediation in local or national contexts and mediation that occurs at the international level. While women may demonstrate strong mediation skills and have considerable experience of mediating disputes, this experience does not result in inclusion in international mediation teams. There is a point at which women mediators tend to drop out of peace talks, and this is the point at which international actors become involved. At this stage, women are not considered to be ‘political’ enough to want to play a role in high-level mediation.

In these circumstances, women’s local experience is often overlooked in favour of bringing in international experts (who may also be women) to consult on the design and delivery of mediation processes. This means that not only do local women become marginalised in the process, but their insight into the conflict dynamics is also lost.

When women return to the process they return in the role of participants in the process—as a vulnerable group to be consulted rather than as the agents of change they have been. Further, the extent of women’s participation is also largely dependent on how willing the mediator is to include them,[9] leaving women inherently vulnerable to exclusion.

Of course not all women who engage in mediation at the community level will seek international opportunities. Similarly, there may be local gender dynamics that make it difficult for local women to step into political positions. But it is patronising to suggest that all women mediators are satisfied with working at the local level. Many have the skill, the experience and the ambition to play greater roles internationally. What is missing is a route to integrate them into formal processes.[10] While the role of Envoy will always be available only to a very small category of people, there is no reason that women should not play more prominent roles within high-level mediation teams.

There may be a very practical reason for the failure of women mediators to make the transition from local or national experience to international experience. It may simply be, for example, that they are not coming to the attention of the DPA at the time at which mediation teams are being selected. Member States therefore have a role to play in the career development and the nomination of women for inclusion within UN teams. If the DPA relies on nominations from Member States for identifying suitable candidates, then States can potentially support the work of both UN Women and the DPA by bridging the gap between the local and the global. This would include identifying women working as mediators within the community sector, the private sector as well as the Women’s sector, thereby casting the net much wider than traditional approaches. It would involve recognising the contribution that women mediators are already making to conflict resolution.

Taking a proactive approach to identifying women mediators, and ensuring that they benefit from the necessary career development opportunities at the national level, would be a big step towards a more coherent approach to ensuring that women’s contribution to mediation is made visible internationally.

Taking such an approach is consistent with the Sustaining Peace Agenda and speaks directly to the need for greater synergy between the relevant agencies responsible for sustaining peace and promoting gender parity.

[1] Resolution 2282 (2016)

[2] Anderlini, SN and J Tinman (2010) ‘What the Women Say: Participation and UNSCR 1325’ International Civil Society Action Network and Centre for International Studies; Paffenholz T et al. (2016) ‘Making Women Count- Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on Peace Negotiations’ (Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative & UN Women)

[3] Resolution 1325 (2000); Resolution 1889 (2009); UN Strategic Framework on Women Peace and Security 2011-2020; Resolution 2122 (2013)

[4] UN Women (2012) Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Connections Between Presence and Influence. New York. United Nations

[5] Statistics from the International Peace Institute, 2013

[6] UN, 2010 UN Doc A/65/35- S/2010/466

[7] Conciliation Resources (2013) ‘Women Building Peace’ Accord Insight 16

[8] United Nations Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2015) 54

[9] Global Study

[10] UN Women (2012) Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Connections Between Presence and Influence. New York. United Nations

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