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Action Needed to Protect Civilians in Conflict


Salwa Bugaighis

Efforts to silence people like Salwa Bugaighis and Razan Zetouneh “are efforts to silence hope, curtail progress, impede justice, and infringe on the dignity of women.

Both were women in the midst of civil strife who vocally championed human rights and whose voices were silenced: Libyan lawyer and democracy activist Salwa Bugaighis was shot to death in her home in Benghazi in June 2014; Syrian attorney and rights defender Razan Zeitouneh was abducted in Douma by unknown assailants in December 2013 and has not been heard from since.

In remarks to the United Nations Security Council, David Pressman, Alternate U.S. Representative to the U. N. for Political Affairs, noted that efforts to silence people like Salwa Bugaighis and Razan Zetouneh “are efforts to silence hope, curtail progress, impede justice, and infringe on the dignity of women, not just in Syria and in Libya, but around the world.”

While women and girls are not the only victims of conflict, they are uniquely affected by it. Women and children make up the majority of refugees and displaced persons, and suffer disproportionately from sexual and gender-based violence. Ambassador Pressman pointed to events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the presence of armed groups “has led to shocking cruelty and rampant sexual violence.”

To combat such atrocities, the Security Council has mandated peacekeeping missions in places like the DRC. The troops are charged, said Mr. Pressman, with the difficult and important work of protecting civilians.

Tragically, he noted, there is a gap between what the U.N. says must happen, and what actually happens on the ground. The U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services reports that in 507 attacks against civilians from 2010 to 2013, U.N. peacekeepers never used force to protect civilians under attack. Thousands of civilians, including women and children, may have lost their lives as a result. Such a gap between promise and performance must be closed.

Ambassador Pressman also called not only for more female participation in UN peacekeeping operations, but for more women leading them. He further highlighted the increasing number of references to women, peace and security in peace agreements as a positive trend.

Ambassador Pressman stressed that empowering women in peacetime is “essential to tackling the unique problems women confront in wartime…The best protection from sexual violence in conflict targeting women and girls is building societies where women and girls are respected … where women enjoy equal protection under the law and equal access to political space.” The best protection, he said, is “the difficult and imperative work” of building societies that value women’s lives, minds and potential.

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