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NATO Gender Mainstreaming and the Feminist Critique of the Law of Armed Conflict

We have the pleasure to host on our blog a post by our colleague, Jody M. Prescott, Senior Fellow, West Point Center for the Rule of Law, and adjunct professor, Department of Political Science, University of Vermont. For those interested the full article is available at Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, Volume XIV, Issue 1, Winter 2013, pp. 83-133.

 “Will NATO gender mainstreaming efforts  accomplish greater protection for women and girls from the disparate impacts of armed conflict they have traditionally suffered, whilst also promoting gender equality within its ranks and the career progression of women, consistent with UNSCR 1325?  NATO Gender Mainstreaming and the Feminist Critique of the Law of Armed Conflict suggests these efforts must take a more holistic approach to be effective.

It is the year 2020.  In one of the many conflict zones that have flared across the world in the wake of accelerating climate change and the mass movements of people, a young NATO infantry lieutenant and her platoon are conducting a security mission.  Whilst seeking to exclude armed bands from continuing to attack civilians in an area of villages and refugee camps, her platoon comes under a heavy cross-fire from buildings in one particular location.  The lieutenant’s platoon is effectively pinned down and prevented from moving forward.  Her joint terminal air controller enquires whether he should request that the drone assigned to support them should engage the buildings from which the cross-fire is coming with precision high explosive munitions.

 The platoon leader quickly assesses her unit’s situation.  She has a decent view of the buildings, which look to her like dwellings, but she cannot see or hear any civilians.  Her rules of engagement are sufficiently robust that she could call in a strike to target the buildings from which her unit is taking fire.  However, she is mindful of the guidance given by her theatre-level commander to exercise tactical patience, and avoid destroying dwellings unless necessary for her unit’s self-defence.  She knows from her training and education that armed conflict has a disparate impact upon women and children, and that the loss of dwellings can have multiple cascading negative effects upon the most vulnerable civilian – generally women and girls.  Prior to their deployment, she and her platoon went through realistic and stressful situational training exercises that required them to consider the differentiated impact of their actions on the female civilian population in their area of operations.

 The lieutenant pulls out her smart phone and accesses an application that uses her GPS location to go back to the cloud of intelligence analysis maintained by the theatre-level command and instantly pull up the demographic profile of the village from which her unit is taking fire.  The reliability indicator on the analysis glows green – the village has been visited recently by both a human terrain team and a special forces unit accompanied by a cultural support team.  The demographic data collected by these units is detailed and disaggregated on the basis of gender, and it shows the lieutenant that the dwellings from which her unit is taking fire are ordinarily populated by large families.  Consistent with local cultural norms, women and girls generally remain within dwelling compounds, whilst males engage in herding and farming.  These dwellings have access to clean well water within their compounds – a luxury in this parched land – so that the women are not exposed to potential dangers outside their compounds as frequently as they would be if their water sources were a distance away.  Further, the intelligence source potential indicator glows green as well – the women in the village provided useful information to the human terrain team and the cultural support team that had been vetted and confirmed.

 Having trained and exercised with her platoon on conducting effective withdrawals under fire, she is confident that she can extricate her unit without casualties to a position where her soldiers can watch the village and be ready to engage their adversaries if they leave the dwellings.  The lieutenant makes her decision – this village left intact will likely have a greater beneficial impact on the overall mission than neutralizing the armed band at this moment.  “We will get them next time!” she yells to her platoon sergeant.  The lieutenant tells the joint terminal air controller to hold his request for air support, the platoon sergeant nods and orders the squads to fall back, and reports to her company commander.  Her company commander confirms her decision, and she begins to redeploy her troops to be able to intercept any of the shooters they had encountered at the village.  Patiently, they wait . . .

 What changes in technology, doctrine, education, training, planning, intelligence gathering, and operations had to happen in order for the lieutenant to make the decision to spare the village even though she would have been legally, and potentially morally, justified in damaging or destroying its dwellings as she sought to eliminate the threat to her unit?

 General Sir Rupert Smith coined the term “war amongst the people” to describe the new paradigm in which military action increasingly takes place in a human-centric environment.  For too long, however, “human-centric” has ordinarily been understood from a normative male perspective, rather than including and valuing female perspectives as well.  NATO gender mainstreaming is an attempt to implement UNSCR 1325 on women, peace and security in its activities and thereby factor female perspectives into its operations.  Although well-intended, at least from a feminist theory perspective of agency and an ethic of justice, how effective is NATO gender mainstreaming likely to be?  This article suggests that when assessed in light of the unique and largely underappreciated feminist critique of the law of armed conflict, despite continuing work and efforts to further gender mainstreaming within the organisation, the stretch to the finish line appears to lie quite far in the distance.

 To truly implement gender mainstreaming, this article suggests that mere tinkering will not work.  Facilitated by cyber, a full scale overhaul of military doctrine, education, training, planning, operations, personnel selection and promotion needs to occur to incorporate female perspectives in a manner that it operationally effective.  This overhaul should be guided by dialogue between feminists and militaries, between the domains of human rights law and the law of armed conflict, between civilians and soldiers, between women and men, and it must take a holistic approach in order to create innovative and practical measures to achieve greater protection for women and girls in armed conflict.