Protecting women and girls in conflict

3 June 2008

In the second of four reports from the UN conference on women targeted by armed conflict, Rosemary Bechler talks to military peacekeeper Patrick Commaert about the responsibility to protect, and learning from Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica.

Click here for the first report

2. "The good news"

I caught up with Patrick Commaert once he had delivered his speech on how to meet the protection needs of women in armed conflicts. After serving in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Major General spent eight years with the DPKO both in the field and at HQ, and the last years of his career in the DRC, as the General Officer of the Eastern Division of the UN mission, MONUC, commanding some 15,000 men and women from 53 different nations 'with robust armament'. His paper drew its examples largely from the DRC, where the unchallenged use of sexual violence especially in the eastern part of the country was "probably among the worst things I have been directly confronted with during my entire military career". I asked him why this conference was being held now? He was ready to acknowledge that when he first encountered this disturbing problem in 1992 in Cambodia, it had not been obvious where to turn. Now, over fifteen years later, thanks to global communications, there was a wide enough understanding of the epidemic scale of the damage to make it impossible for the international community to ignore. The DPKO, especially in the wake of the landmark 'Brahimi Report' that recommended sweeping changes in the way that UN peacekeeping and associated post-conflict peacebuilding were conceived, planned, and executed, had 'advanced enormously' in that time. To be sure, it now had to deal with 21 missions all over the world, and up to 125,000 people in uniform deployed in the field at any one time, on a budget of only seven billion dollars. But the climate now was very different.

Commaert's main message was a simple one: despite decades of neglect and the absence of state authority in these countries, "provided with a robust mandate, peacekeepers can play an important role in protecting civilians from sexual violence during armed conflict." In the aftermath of the failure of the UN Missions in Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica, the United Nations Security Council mandated new UN missions to "protect civilians under imminent threat of violence within their capabilities and deployment" under Chapter VII of the UN Charter; i.e. using all necessary means, including the pre-emptive use of deadly force. This phrase, as the Major General sees it, gives force commanders in the field all the tools they need to act. In his opinion it is not a stronger mandate that is needed, but that troops, and in particular, their commanders, fully understand this mandate and their rules of engagement. The willingness of UN Commanders to take swift decisions when the presence of armed groups is reported is key to the effective protection of civilians: 'If they fail to act because they give scant regard to sexual violence, perhaps because their society or culture does not pay this much attention - then they have failed in the implementation of the mandate. That is the job. Commanders of all sorts of levels of command must understand this. They need to be taught this in their staff colleges, think tanks and preparation for missions by people who know the business. Preventing and dealing with sexual violence is part of that protection."

If it was amongst military peacekeepers that the analytical gap in identifying this type of threat seemed most glaring, it is also amongst military actors that innovative ad hoc responses could be found, thanks to the individual commitment of certain commanders in the field and the empathy of some of their troops. To the firewood patrols, night patrols in camps for internally displaced persons, and efforts to protect women collecting water, Commaert added the suggestion that donor countries should invest in the training of military prosecutors and judges and the establishment of Mobile Military Courts of Justice. After three years of lobbying, the Congolese Army Chief of Staff had issued a call for the setting up of Follow-Up Committees to monitor proceedings on human rights violations perpetrated by his soldiers and ensure a follow-up. This was a start. As for the UN, Commaert had found that a visible UN presence on the ground could inspire a sense of security among populations and encourage them to continue their daily lives. Of course they had to take action if needed, and limited troops often found themselves saddled with an enormous area of responsibility: the DRC is the size of Western Europe.

Here, Mobile Operating Bases were invaluable. Temporary camps set up in areas dominated by illegal armed groups could lay on intensive day and night patrolling for a few days, before moving to another site, only to return shortly afterwards. This effectively deterred illegal armed groups from settling in the vicinity of villages and committing atrocities. Quick Reaction Forces were able to identify hot-spots through close collaboration with the local chiefs of villages and humanitarian actors on the ground to set up alarm systems that could alert UN forces, using church bells, beating drums or mobile phones. Further measures Commaert was after included supporting the International Criminal Court; strengthening national judicial systems; effective investigation and documentation of alleged sexual violence; and strengthening medical services in places where health infrastructure is often entirely absent. Lastly, "a critical mass of women in peacekeeping missions can enhance confidence-building with the host community by presenting an organisation that looks more like a civilian society than a military occupation force. Military and police components should include female community police, liaison officers and military observers, female medical doctors, and language assistants."

Of course, it wasn't all unalloyed progress. This March, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations had complained bitterly at the decision of the United Nations Human Rights Council not to renew the mandate of its independent expert on human rights for the DRC, calling this "a betrayal of its responsibilities toward the Congolese people." Patrick Commaert had to agree. It was contrary to the UN Secretary General's commitment to intensify actions to end violence against women and children. But, "it shows yet again that any UN mandate is only as strong as member states want it to be."

Commaert's final message however, he directed once again to the commanders of UN military peacekeeping troops:

It doesn't specify in the mandate against whom they have to act: it can be militias, gangs, it can be criminals, and it can be government security forces who may arrest and threaten their own populations. So that means that if you are faithful to your mandate, the force must look into and act in all those eventualities. And that, as you can imagine, has political consequences - because that means that you may find yourself saying to your host nation, 'Hey listen - your forces are misbehaving! Do something about it because otherwise I have to do something about it - I will have to arrest the perpetrators of that violence.' If you want to preserve the credibility of the United Nations in general and your mission in particular, and if you want to keep the confidence of the local populations, then you should act. Otherwise those people will say, 'Why are you here? You are not defending us. You are not protecting us.' Now, of course, you can argue that, 'In my division I had 15,000 troops in an area twice the size of France.' But you have been told to do, 'everything within your capacity and where you are deployed' and you cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening where you are deployed. Don't give me Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica. Yes a lot of things went wrong then. But since then, we have made good progress and we can and must do more."

Women targeted by armed conflict

Read the four reports from the conference

The changing face of war

Protecting women and girls in conflict

Sexual Violence not just a gender issue

Pray the devil back to hell

Stop rape now: UN action against sexual violence in conflict

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