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UN: Women Ask Council For Greater Role In Conflict Resolution

Women have borne a heavy burden from the world's wars of the past decade, but they play a limited role in global peacemaking. An unusual United Nations Security Council session has heard a strong call for both protecting women during armed conflict and engaging them more in peace building. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 25 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- UN studies show that the late 20th-century shift from interstate wars to interethnic conflicts has taken a particularly heavy toll on civilian women from the Balkans to sub-Saharan Africa.

Women have suffered rape, terror, and homelessness, sometimes finding themselves deliberate targets of warring sides. At the same time, women are poorly represented on conflict resolution teams and peacekeeping missions.

The problem reached the forum of the UN Security Council for the first time yesterday (Tuesday), with a day-long debate devoted to women's experience in conflict and post-conflict situations.

The executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, Noleen Heyzer, urged the council to make the protection of women in conflict a priority.

"We are here because women continue to be targeted in wars, because rape and sexual violence continue to be used as weapons of war, because the vast majority of refugees and displaced people are women and children."

Heyzer called for UN observer and peacekeeping missions to pay attention to violations of women's human rights as part of their duties. She said peacekeeping personnel should be trained to not abuse women, a problem sometimes in areas controlled by UN peacekeepers.

The special adviser to the UN secretary-general on gender issues, Angela King, said more attention should be paid to appointing women as special envoys or special representatives, positions traditionally dominated by men at the United Nations.

King said that as the council considers the sweeping reforms to peacekeeping suggested in a recent high-level report, it should look for opportunities to involve more women in a revamped department. For example, she said, strong consideration should be given to appointing a woman as assistant secretary-general in the peacekeeping department. She said more efforts should be taken to encourage women to enter the peacekeeping service.

"Gender equality issues are absolutely essential to the success of any peace mission. We cannot exclude half the world's resources from participating in peace."

The Security Council this year has already held special sessions on the threat to children and to humanitarian workers in areas of armed conflict. It has also debated for the first time the role of infectious diseases such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in destabilizing countries and regions.

By agreeing to discuss the issue of women and armed conflict, the Council has signaled that women need to be given a greater role in the prevention and solution of wars. Council representatives yesterday were generally supportive of the recommendations made by women's advocates.

Representatives of more than 20 countries not on the council also spoke at yesterday's meeting. Many reiterated the need to observe existing UN treaty obligations concerning women's rights.

South Africa's ambassador to the UN, Dumisani Kumalo, spoke about the importance of women in holding together communities in developing countries. He said the societies in these countries are crumbling under the combined weight of civil wars, poverty, communicable diseases, and economic restructuring. Women, he said, must be a greater part of the peace and stabilization efforts.

"Given the central role that women play in the social, political and economic development of our society, it is morally right and logical that the full realization of equal political and economic rights for women must be treated as an essential component of our collective approach to preventing and resolving conflicts."

A number of speakers pointed out that women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles in their countries. Nancy Soderberg, a high-ranking member of the U.S. mission, noted that only 5 percent of the UN's 189 member states had women ambassadors to the United Nations.

But other speakers cited progress in supporting women's rights in conflict zones. France's ambassador Jean-David Levitte, speaking on behalf of the European Union and EU candidate states, noted that the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court describes sexual violence as a war crime. He appealed to all states to sign and ratify the statute of the court.