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The UN's R2P Report Is Missing Out by Half

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This post was coauthored by Sheila B. Lalwani, a graduate student at Harvard who is focusing on conflict and gender.

A few days ago, the United Nations released its latest report on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the international commitment to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The report comes at a good time: President Obama is taking a strong stance against the violence in Darfur, and he's chosen as his ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, a sharp critic of the Bush administration's handling of those killings.

He's wise to have a woman at the helm. Why?

R2P is a mandate for global intervention when governments or state actors are either incapable or unwilling to protect their citizens. This is not interventionism by imperialists or greedy neighbors, but rather a key tool the international community can rely upon to prevent yet another bloody and violent century. To be expected, debates inside the UN are vociferous. And likewise true to form, absent from these wide-ranging discussions is a core constituency: women.

From a democratic perspective, this oversight is fundamental negligence. Women make up more than half of the world's population, but their voices are severely underrepresented in formal conversations and the resulting security policies. It's ludicrous that groups that are almost exclusively male are trying to secure societies that, at the community level, are run by women. The result is a policy concept of loose parts, but missing its backbone.

Women are in touch with what's really happening on the ground. They're often the eyes and ears of their communities, best suited to observing changes at the grassroots. For decades, they've led organizations addressing fundamental causes of violence: ethnic conflict, economic disparity, lack of education, and human suffering. Consider Liberia, where women organized across religious lines to stop a fourteen-year war (see "Pray the Devil Back to Hell") -- and where this weekend in Monrovia they're hosting 400 world leaders to celebrate their progress. Or India, where the Dalai Lama has established the Women In Security and Conflict Management Program, engaging women and youth who reach across the India/Pakistan border. The two of us have worked in dozens of conflict areas. Every one of them has multiple women's groups working across lines.

In addition to women's potential effectiveness in preventing or stopping war, it's important to have them in security design because conflict affects girls and women differently than males. Even where a culture of violence against women exists before conflict, it's aggravated by war. And seasoned observers know that the use of rape as a weapon is an early warning sign that a social order is completely breaking down. By including them in decision-making, their experiences of atrocities -- often sexual violence -- are put on the table; if women are shut out of the meetings and the mindset, attacks against them are likely to be overlooked.

Now an ironic twist: Having strong women leaders at the R2P table is critical because, with their lower social status they're less threatening to the other side. They can go places, collect testimony, and observe dynamics that men are cannot -- either because they're barred from the space, or because of their male frame of reference. This is the idea of "gender mainstreaming" -- consistently examining the impact of policies and practices on males versus females. For example, when international advisors go into a refugee camp, is the visiting group balanced? Do they accept meeting only with men leaders? Will food aid end up in the hands of a warlord or a midwife? And are the distribution sites in a place girls can go to without being raped?

Seeing the world through the experience of women provides a whole new dimension to "responsibility" and "protect." Understanding the gender norms and customs of a society is essential in providing "early warning." But the information and influence women provide is useful only if they are also among the formal actors. That's where R2P as a concept is failing.

Granted, the UN has been increasingly responsive to the impact of armed conflict on women and girls -- most recently through UN Security Council Resolution 1820. But the implementation of UNSCR 1325 -- declaring the importance of bringing gender to the center of all UN efforts pertaining to conflict prevention and resolution -- has been abysmal. And while Gareth Evans, president of the highly regarded think tank Crisis Group and the author of R2P, agrees (when prompted) with the importance of women in preventing mass atrocities, examples of women's essential role receive barely a mention in his writing.

What Evans, the UN, and others are missing is that women have proven to be courageous and creative participants in prevention, intervention and peace building. Their movements focusing on the shared social experiences of women create solidarity across lines of division and makes it harder to see the "enemy" as a dehumanized other. When conflict subsides, they're the first to pick up the pieces and rebuild not only their families but also the society. Thus they can play an extremely important role in demobilization, disarmament, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Yes, women and girls are vulnerable in times of conflict and are used as vehicles for widespread oppression. But they're strong in the wisdom of their culture, and without their voices at the table, R2P will not succeed.

So it's tragic that R2P is not rising to the standard of inclusion mandated by the UN itself. Tragic, but understandable, since the traditional security paradigm was created by men for men. Women making it to the top of the male pyramid must always prove they're tough enough for the male war culture, although with Ambassador Rice and Secretary Clinton leading US foreign policy, we're seeing an increasingly inclusive diplomatic style. But in terms of the UN, the bad news is that most of those designing security policies don't grasp the necessity of bringing women's voices into the R2P debate. Still, the good news is that the responsibility to protect has huge hidden resources (i.e. half the population), through whom we can secure our world once and -- it must be -- for all.