Nagorno-Karabakh: a gender inclusive approach to peace


Research suggests that engaging local women in conflict resolution efforts increases the likelihood of violence ending within a year – a theory worth testing in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Sinead Walsh
9 October 2014

A sharp spike in the fighting in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone in early August saw the worst ceasefire violations since 1994. At least 21 soldiers were killed, and civilians were also drawn into the conflict – as prisoners of war. Although the intensity of the fighting lessened after mid-August, there has been a flurry of analysis regarding the dangers of all-out war in Eurasia, coupled with calls for renewed and intensified talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

What many analysts seem to ignore is that the current format for negotiations is what brought us here in the first place. It is not only the intensity and regularity of the talks that needs to change – there also needs to be more transparency, more inclusivity, and ultimately greater accountability in the peace process. Recent research suggests that engaging local women in conflict resolution efforts increases the likelihood of violence ending within a year by up to 24% – a theory worth testing in Nagorno-Karabakh.

What many analysts seem to ignore is that the current format for negotiations is what brought us here in the first place.

A gentlemen's agreement

The war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which was at its most intense between 1991 and 1994, ended with a ceasefire that should have paved the way for a peace agreement. Instead, negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan have dragged on for some 20 years, and sporadic sniper fire and landmine explosions have claimed hundreds of lives along the ‘Line of Contact,’ which separates the military forces of Azerbaijan from the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia. In the absence of a settlement, Azerbaijan's internally displaced community – which a conservative estimate would put at 600,000 – remains in limbo, while citizens of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic face continuing political and economic isolation.


The masculinised structures of the OSCE Minsk Group have thus far failed to break the Karabakh status quo. Photo CC: oscepaThis conflict is often presented as a classic struggle between the right to self-determination for Karabakh Armenians, and the right to territorial integrity for Azerbaijan. Yet there is another narrative that is favoured by many people living in the region; according to this version, the conflict is unresolved not because of the irreconcilable enmity between the two sides, but because of Russian realpolitik, which views the status quo as a useful lever in its foreign policy towards both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moreover, this is a situation acknowledged and to some extent condoned by Western powers, who by way of a 'gentlemen's agreement' have allowed Russia to call the shots in its southern neighbourhood, and turned a blind eye to much of what goes on in the region.

The result of this is a Kafkaesque performance by OSCE officials – from the team of just six observers charged with monitoring the 180km-long 'Line of Contact,' to the power struggles between the Minsk Group co-chairs: France, Russia and the USA. Even the unprecedented level of violence this August, prompted little more than the usual statements of concern from the handful of individuals with a public role in the peace process. On August 10 – as fighting raged in Donbas – President Putin held a joint press conference with Presidents Sargysyan and Aliyev, in which he baldly declared that ‘there is no greater tragedy than the death of people.’ Almost an entire month had passed by the time the two presidents met with US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales.

Now, all eyes are looking towards the next presidential meeting, to be hosted by President Hollande of France, in late October. Yet why should we expect anything different from the outcome of this get-together? This kind of 'traditional' diplomacy – in other words, elitist, opaque and state-centric – has yielded little in the way of security for the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis and Armenians affected by the conflict in the last 25 years. Even if there is progress in the talks, this is not filtering down to local communities, which remain distrustful not only of one another, but of the political process itself. Nor is it reflected in the situation on the front line, where soldiers are still being killed every few days.

'Traditional' diplomacy has yielded little in the way of security for the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

For the peace process to be sustainable, there must be greater engagement between the chief mediators, lead negotiators, and civil society. This includes women's organisations, which, despite years of peacebuilding experience, have been virtually shut out of the negotiations thus far. Responding to their calls for an inclusive and gender-sensitive process is one way of interrupting the repeat performances by a cast of interchangeable career diplomats. This requires both political will and a deeper understanding of the theoretical and practical aspects of women's participation in peace processes.

Gender and peace

Gender has become something of a buzzword in contemporary peace and security studies, but the deeper implications of gender analysis are often overlooked within the field of international relations as a whole. Often, gender is taken to signify a concern with 'women's issues' that can be dealt with separately from, and with considerably fewer resources than, the major business of conflict resolution and post-conflict statebuilding. Many practitioners still view women as a borderline, homogenous group, whose experiences of conflict can either be left on the margins or reduced to the one-dimensional roles of victims or peace advocates.

As an analytical tool, however, gender enables us to look more closely at the power relations within a society, and to see how these may have contributed to conflict in the past, be affected by conflict in the present, and require reshaping in the future. Far from encouraging the view that 'all men are perpetrators, all women are victims,' gender analysis also requires us to consider the ways in which men can be victimised within a patriarchal, militarised society, and the ways in which women participate in conflict, whether as perpetrators, supporters, or agents of change. This leads to a better understanding of conflict both as a social and political phenomenon; and can hold some of the keys to resolving conflict and building sustainable peace.

Including a gender perspective in conflict resolution and peace processes often means addressing issues that affect everyone, but tend to have a disproportionate impact on women – such as social and economic violence, political representation and electoral processes, access to justice mechanisms, and community cohesion. Making these changes, can interrupt cycles of violence and help to transform the political system in ways that benefit everyone – rather than the cynical transition to politics as war by other means, which tends to benefit a select group of privileged men. However, achieving positive change also requires women's groups – as well as other civil society actors who have mobilised around peace, justice, and social equality – to find ways of accessing the negotiating table.

An international campaign on precisely these issues led to the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, a landmark resolution on Women, Peace and Security, in 2000. Focusing on the twin pillars of protection and participation, UNSCR 1325 calls on UN member states to increase women's representation in decision-making at the national, regional, and international levels. Furthermore, it calls on all actors – not just states – involved in negotiating and implementing peace agreements to adopt a gender perspective, singling out the need to support local/indigenous women's peace initiatives, and to ensure the protection of women's human rights in conflict transition.

Marginalisation of women and gender issues persists across the board.

In spite of annual debates on Women, Peace and Security at the UN, and the adoption of six follow-up Resolutions, implementation of UNSCR 1325 has suffered from what Sanam Anderlini, one of the architects of the campaign, describes as ‘apathy, ad hoc practice, and amnesia’ on the part of states and international institutions. A study of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 revealed that only 4% of signatories, 2.4% of chief mediators, and 9% of negotiators were women. Moreover, the increase in the representation of women in negotiations over time is negligible.

In the past year alone, Women, Peace and Security campaigners have drawn attention to the exclusion of Syrian women from the Geneva II talks, and the absence of women in the discussions on Afghan security at the most recent NATO Summit. Marginalisation of women and gender issues persists across the board, in spite of mounting evidence that women's collective agency can be a deciding factor in the transition from war to peace. In the case of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the major actors appear to have been more than happy to leave gender off the agenda until now. Local women's organisations, however, are beginning to challenge this state of affairs more and more.

Experienced peacemakers

Supporters of women's engagement in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process often cite the example of Arzu Abdullayeva and Anahit Bayandur, who were joint recipients of the 1992 Olof Palme Peace Prize, in recognition of their success in facilitating prisoner-of-war exchanges and promoting dialogue during the height of the conflict. While this remains one of the most visible examples of women in a peacemaking role, my fieldwork in the Caucasus in 2012-2014 brought me into contact with about a dozen women's organisations that were variously involved in local and/or regional peace initiatives. Their experience at the grassroots level gives them a claim to expertise that rivals that of many conflict resolution specialists.

Russell Pollard.jpg

A gender inclusive approach to the Karabakh process may provide the best hope for lasting peace. To understand the complex role played by women's organisations in Armenia and Azerbaijan, we must consider not only the devastating impact of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, but also the political and economic chaos that ensued as both states withdrew from the Soviet Union. Many women first became active in civil society during perestroika, and were part of the national independence movements in Armenia, Azerbaijan – and Nagorno-Karabakh. In the post-Soviet period, the collective nature of women's organising became more pronounced. It focused on two key aspects: women's roles in nation-building, as they worked to promote women's human rights within the new political order, and the national relief effort, centring on support for women and families affected by the conflict through bereavement, injury, and displacement. Women's NGOs also began to break the taboos on speaking out against violence against women, especially in the home.

Over time, a number of women's organisations have shifted their attention to peacebuilding, and sought to build up a network of like-minded individuals across the conflict zone. While they remain committed to justice for their fellow countrymen and women, they are also convinced that a non-violent resolution is possible and that greater dialogue will lead to new opportunities for conflict transformation. Women's rights experts explain that while men and women both suffered from conflict and displacement, traditional gender roles in the Caucasus mean that women have a particularly intimate knowledge of rebuilding family and community ties. Meanwhile, a younger generation of women, some of whom identify as feminist, are also aware of what it means to mobilise against violence at the domestic, community, and state levels.

Many of the women's rights activists I interviewed during my research insisted that their work was ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical.’ While they often criticised the implementation of constitutional protections for women's rights, they seldom criticised political actors – at least, not publicly. Although they hoped to instil in the younger generation a stronger sense of democracy and civic activism, their experience in lobbying and advocacy had given many of them the belief that the best results are often achieved through dialogue and compromise, not outright opposition. At the same time, they were conscious of a gap between grassroots peacebuilding initiatives and the formal peace process; and the need to develop bridging mechanisms in order for women's voices to be heard at negotiations.

Despite scepticism about the efficacy of the UNSC Resolutions, civil society activists are increasingly turning to the international legal framework on Women, Peace and Security, in the hopes of bridging the gap. Apart from UNSCR 1325 itself, this includes a series of indicators, which allow civil society to monitor states' progress on implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Since 2013, a number of women's and peacebuilding NGOs in Armenia and Azerbaijan have formed two separate working groups (one in each country) to monitor UNSCR 1325, and advocate for the adoption of National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security. It is not just their own governments that they hope to be able to influence – the members of the Minsk Group are also bound by the Resolutions, as is the OSCE itself under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.

Women in decision making

Sajida Abdulvahabova is the chairperson of the Women's Problems Research Union (or Women's Institute) in Baku, one of the oldest NGOs in the country and one that has spearheaded action on UNSCR 1325 since the early 2000s. In a phone interview in August 2014, she stated that the problem of being shut out of negotiations is not unique to women's organisations, but affects civil society as a whole. Nevertheless, the civil society monitoring report, which is due to be released in the coming months, will draw attention to the lack of women in political office and call for an increase in the proportion of women in decision-making. She also said that there is an urgent need to strengthen women's peacebuilding at the grassroots level, if the government and international community are serious in advocating for the return of IDPs and refugees to their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian women's NGOs have already released their first monitoring report, and are working to compile deeper research for a second. A major challenge for women's NGOs is lack of access to official data about the conflict and negotiations process. A further issue is the isolation of women in Nagorno-Karabakh, who are not covered by the civil society monitoring process in either Armenia or Azerbaijan. Last month, the Women's Resource Centre (which has a branch in Shusha/Shushi) was instrumental in organising the first ever conference in Nagorno-Karabakh addressing women's roles in peace and conflict. The issues discussed – domestic violence, economic insecurity, and the problems facing refugees – could just as easily have been on the agenda at a similar conference in Azerbaijan.

Looking beyond the Minsk Group

Short of a breakthrough in the relations between Russia and the West, it is unlikely that the Minsk Group is going to deliver a new peace plan for Armenia and Azerbaijan in the near future. Those who are genuine in their concern over the conflict need to find new ways of approaching the problem and to think in terms of long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. We also need to find a balance between creative and legal mechanisms for supporting civil society, including women's NGOs, in their search for access to negotiations.

It is unlikely that the Minsk Group is going to deliver a new peace plan for Armenia and Azerbaijan in the near future.

All too often, politicians and diplomats express themselves as being open to approaches by women's organisations, but fail to follow through with concrete steps for women's inclusion in the formal process. Sometimes, they do not even provide public acknowledgment of the meetings with civil society representatives. This is something that needs to change. Inclusivity – of women's groups and other organisations – needs to be a priority, not a sideshow.

While the chances of all-out warfare have mercifully receded in recent weeks, other political developments – such as the repression of civil society in Azerbaijan, and Armenia's declared intention to join the Eurasian Economic Union – signify that the window of opportunity for action may be small. There are numerous individuals, in local, international, and state-run organisations, who favour a more inclusive peace process. They need to act in concert – and they need to act now.

Image two: Russell Pollard via demotix (c)


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