Women’s participation in international peace and security: From theory to practice

Speech given by Mirjana Spoljaric, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. United Nations Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace, and Security. 25 October 2023
Statement 25 October 2023 United States of America

Mr. President, excellencies,

I thank the Federative Republic of Brazil for convening this important debate.

Current developments in the Middle East and elsewhere are a shocking reminder of how rapidly humanitarian conditions can deteriorate.The desperate situation we are seeing today is happening on our collective watch. Reprieve must come quickly for all civilians no matter where they are: it is urgent that warring parties maintain a minimum of humanity even during the worst of war. 

All parties to a conflict must - under all circumstances - do their utmost to ensure civilians are protected and international humanitarian law is strictly adhered to, in particular in the conduct in hostilities and in providing humanitarian relief.

Full compliance with international humanitarian law also requires that diverse women, men, girls and boys, are equally protected, whether they are civilians, combatants, wounded or prisoners of war.

In conflicts globally, the International Committee of the Red Cross - and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies - consistently recall the rules of war to the parties. The law is clear:
- Protect all civilians and civilian infrastructure,
- Do not resort to indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks,
- Do not take hostages,
- Treat detainees and prisoners of war humanely,
- Allow impartial humanitarian organizations, such as the ICRC, to work unhindered.

As an organization mandated to play a neutral intermediary role, the ICRC regularly works with the parties to facilitate their agreements:
- So civilians can safely cross frontlines,
- So people deprived of liberty are accounted for and can be released,
- So families separated by armed conflict are reconnected.

Reflecting on my first year as president of the ICRC, I have regularly seen how women and girls are gravely affected by conflict. Yet the harms they suffer are too often considered marginal: insufficiently understood or addressed. Many violations against women go undocumented and continue to be considered an inevitable side-effect of war.

It is the reality of these women that must urgently be addressed:
- Women killed or injured from the reverberating effects of hostilities on health services,
- Women who suffered and survived sexual violence, and those who did not survive it,
- Women who are missing and whose families urgently seek news,
- Wounded and detained women combatants,
- Women recruited by armed groups in non-combatant roles.

Earlier this year, I addressed the Security Council on ICRC's perspective on the gendered impacts of armed conflicts. I wish to further these messages today and outline three areas for change.

First, to prevent and address the harms caused by sexual violence.

Sexual violence is clearly prohibited under international humanitarian law. And respect of international humanitarian law is an ingredient to achieve a lasting peace.
There is growing recognition by States and armed forces that any durable peace process must address sexual violence committed during conflicts and prioritize the needs of all survivors. Accountability must be ensured, to assist in curtailing repeated patterns of violence. However, sexual violence continues to occur with frequency and impunity.

States must therefore adapt their national laws:
- To ensure that sexual violence is always designated as a war crime,
- To provide special measures of protection for victims and survivors, and to ensure respect for their privacy.

These laws must be known, respected, and acted upon by relevant authorities. And States must increase their efforts to promote restraint within the ranks of their armed forces and those they support.

Second, the faithful application of international humanitarian law requires an understanding of the gendered harms caused by armed conflict.

Women and girls are impacted differently by the conduct of military operations, for instance:
- In their ability to flee – as they are more likely to care for children, the sick or elderly and may need special consideration.
- In their access to medical care – as they are likely to have fewer financial resources to cope with injury; or to access specialized health services especially when pregnant or giving birth.

The ICRC has been working with legal and military experts to understand these impacts so that States can better comply with their obligation under international humanitarian law to not discriminate and to reduce civilian harm. States can fix gender gaps in operational data related to civilian demographics, their patterns of life, power relationships, and risks faced. The participation of local women's organizations who know their communities in this aspect is crucial.

Third, the full participation of women is a critical pathway to peace.

The ICRC sees every day that where women who control assets are able to equally, meaningfully participate in their economies and societies, it yields benefits for the resilience of the whole community and improves the prospect for peace.
Complying with international humanitarian law and providing for principled humanitarian action are important contributions to protect women's lives and dignity; to preserve their assets and the essential infrastructure they rely on; and to safeguard cohesion and trust in their societies.

Some crucial humanitarian issues, experienced primarily by women but impacting whole societies, are currently not adequately addressed. For instance, the issue of the missing and bringing closure to family members is one of the many steps towards trust, reconciliation, and stability.

I have spoken with women who were the frontline negotiators in the search for their missing relatives. These women are courageous activists and leaders. Their knowledge and role in influencing and mobilizing their authorities must be acknowledged and respected in peace negotiations.

Mr. President,

There are a hundred steps to peace, and the first are always humanitarian. Without direct input from women, without the recognition of the gendered impact of armed conflicts on women, and without the acknowledgment of women's roles in all aspects of their societies, peace responses will fall short and therefore lack the prospect for true security.

Thank you.