The nascent Responsibility to Protect (R2P) approach to international humanitarian law (IHL) in armed conflict is a relatively new addition to the discussion of the rights and responsibilities of sovereign states and the international community in times of internal conflict. The crux of the approach is that the governments of individual states have the responsibility to protect their own populations; if they are unable or unwilling or do so, the international community, whether in the form of the UN or individual states, has a responsibility to act to protect the vulnerable populations from mass atrocities. The international response can be diplomatic overtures, economic sticks (or carrots) and even military intervention, although only in the most extreme cases.
The approach is gaining more credibility worldwide, with more sovereign governments beginning to adopt the language of responsibility towards vulnerable people, though effective and consistent implementation under that pretense remains an elusive dream as of yet. While R2P signals the long-awaited advancement of IHL into the new era of modern globalization, it fails to address one of the most marginalized components of these vulnerable populations: women. Its new framing of responsibility is gender-blind and threatens to leave the gender considerations behind. Doing so would inevitably cripple any effective implementation of R2P in the future,
The focus of R2P is three-fold: prevention, reaction and rebuilding. Considerations of the degree of gender equality is of paramount importance for any of these steps and a gendered response is crucial in giving any reaction or rebuilding process the chance to succeed in the long-term. Conflict affects men and women in different ways, and ignoring women in any way is a recipe for half-hearted attempts at creating peaceful institutions after a conflict.
In the area of prevention, there is a strong link between the level of equality of women in a state and their access to development opportunities and the prevention of conflict. It must be considered that gender inequality in a state increases the likelihood of internal conflict in that state. A study in 2005 found that states with high fertility rates were nearly twice as likely to experience internal conflict as those with low fertility rates. States with women making up 10 percent of their labor force are nearly 30 times more likely to experience internal conflict than states whose labor force was made up of 40 percent women. Based on these conclusions, addressing gender inequality as a preventative measure could clearly have dramatic results in decreasing violence in their countries. Women’s organizations are also well placed to warn of any impending conflict because women are often the first victims of any violence. As concerns the reaction of international actors to a conflict, the measure of the impact of any reaction on women must be considered. Gender-sensitive responses could include the development of specialized police units and the training of peacekeepers in areas of gender-based violence and protection. Women’s organizations are again instrumental in achieving a sustainable peace and must have a voice in peace negotiations. Women are also a pivotal voice in any rebuilding process; the exclusion of women from any peace-building effort effectively excludes half of the population and cannot be sustainable. Studies have shown that the rate the female suffrage in a state is directly correlated to that state’s use of violence. Women’s political participation is almost the only way that a country can rebuild in a permanent and representative way; their marginalization could be a death knell for any fledgling peace effort.
The argument for including women in a discussion of preventing conflict, reacting to violence or rebuilding for a peaceful future is not only a feminist cause, but a practical aspect of peace and conflict. Cultures that resist the full and equal inclusion of women, which is certainly the majority of them, can hide behind cultural relativism while their government fail, economies weaken, opportunities disappear and violence rages. Cultures are flexible, adapting to technology, altered lifestyles and adjusted goals over time; why should the marginalization of women remain intact while the rest of the culture morphs and shifts? While gender inequality does not guarantee internal conflict, it is a consideration in determining the potential of a state to fall victim to violence; taming the specter of bloodshed within its borders should be impetus enough for cultures to accept the healthy inclusion and participation of women.
This bright new future in IHL heralded by R2P can pave the way for gender to be an essential part of any conflict-related discussion instead of being the afterthought that could determine the fall into violence or the success of peace.