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June 5, 2011

WILPF Secretary General Madeleine Rees speaks to WILPF US

WILPF's highest office is Secretary General. We are honored that for the last year, our Secretary General has been Madeleine Rees, who previously worked at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and who is portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in a new movie, The Whistleblower, about the obscene human trafficking in Bosnia that accompanied international peacekeepers. Below is a rough transcription of her speech. (I apologize for being too tired to get down every word.)

As most of you know, I worked in Bosnia for many years and before that I worked in Latin America, wherever there was a war zone I was there to deal with what was happening with women. When I was in Bosnia, it was when all these things were coming together in what was happening.

It was so clear that there were no women involved in the process. Many women said if they knew in 1990, 1991 what was known now, maybe they could've stopped the conflict. The women on the ground didn't know how to reach up to international forums to tell what was happening...And we were complicit, sitting in Europe and not reaching out to them.

Attempting to move from conflict to post-conflict to rule of law to reconciliation. People absolutely forgot the women of Bosnia. We forgot what happens in the militarization of a population. Men in uniform raping women in brothels puts the women in domiciles at risk. What Odile said today about peace imperialism, we coined the term international imperialism: it meant women were not able to work within those systems. They were marginalized and more marginalized. I am a human rights lawyer, that's what I've done. I believe in using the law to create

I moved to Geneva to be in charge of the Gender Unit at the UN Human Rights High Commissioner of Refugees. I tried to intertwine gender into all aspects of UN work. It didn't work. The UN system is very compartmentalized. When I was leaving the UN, I was asked if I would be interested in working with you. This organization is the only one who makes the connection and doesn't give up. I wanted to see how the international part of WILPF could actually use the tools we have in the modern day context.

If we're looking at demilitarization and the root causes of war, how do we use the UN and help them to improve, to make those connections? What I was trying to do when I first took over was how to make those links.

As you know, we have an excellent project, Reaching Critical Will to monitor the Conference on Disarmament and the First Committee. We're the only NGO receiving money from UN member states to monitor the UN. They sit really in a disarmament corner, stage right.

Maria Butler now leads our PeaceWomen Project, about 1325. We had the tools before, and now it sits in the Security Council. We have a Nigerian section working on sexual rights under the rubric of 1325. There's a PeaceWomen Project in NY looking at Security Council decisions.

What's Geneva doing? Bringing those two strands together under the rubric of human rights to hit all the areas of the UN. We can't look at disarmament unless we look at international law of why you can't have these missiles. Human Rights law would say we can't pay all this money on weapons when you can't afford healthcare. You can't have these conferences in isolation. Through human rights lens, we bring the work of PeaceWomen into the Human Rights Council in Geneva through the front door, and with 1325

The treaty bodies, and the Commission on the Elimination on all forms of Racial Discrimination. The 3rd Committee. Then we have all the other committees, most of which don't apply to the US. With our Sections we can put our reports in. We've got good language through CERD on racial discrimination and the amount of money spent on conflict. It's a great advocacy tool and you have language from the international human rights council to hold your government accountable for moving

The idea is we build up our ability to work in conflict and post conflict areas. So for example, Sri Lanka. I've reached out to how to find them when Sri Lanka was reporting at Human Rights Council. So we helped them to produce a report for the CEDAW committee that was very legalistic.

Next report was Nepal in Human Rights Council - didn't hear back from our section. WILPF organized a whole afternoon side event, to discuss exactly what was happening, the legal framework, we invited the offices of various human rights bodies who attended. That went into the periodic review, and the obligation to investigate sexual violence and what should happen with women who were armed fighters. And we will see now if the CEDAW committee will come back to us. The human rights committee is actually listening to the grassroots women. And they tell member states, these are your five points that you must work on in the next 3 years and report on. Meanwhile, civil society here are your gifts - hold your governments accountable. That will in turn feed into things like the Council on Disarmament. When we have a country that is spending a lot of money on arms, we will be making those submissions to the various treaty bodies. You're spending this much on arms and your not spending money on healthcare.

Human Rights Watch couldn't go there because they would only say that international law must be upheld, but couldn't speak against militarization per se. And the other NGOs came along with WILPF. Ambassadors are now coming and sitting in our office in Geneva asking us what they should do to uphold these laws.

What we're trying to do. Obviously the Middle East has been critically. Just to say how great the organization is. When the attack on Gaza flotilla happened, we received a phone call from Israel saying "I know you will create the integrated response to this crisis, what will you do?" We did a statement on the flotilla, a legal analysis on how that was illegal and why, we mentioned for the first time the responsibility to prevent bombing of civilians, and people read it and people responded to it from the Human Rights Council. Then we got phone calls asking well that was great, what are you going to do? So then we got into bed with all the other NGOs to figure out what to do.

We have a plan to bring women from the Middle East to Geneva. Two people from each country going through transition, a mentor who has been involved in the movement for change for many years and an activist who has taken part in recent events. Participation in State Building. We applied for funding. Cynthia Enloe will come. It will happen the last week of September, probably the 27th.

Obstacles to participation. Request a special session of the HR to say these are these obstacles women are facing in participating in state building. Women must be participating in state building. And the UN can charge the office of the high commissioner for human rights as the body to make that happen.

We are a broad church, we have to be inclusive. We show leadership in having this broad approach. We can bring everyone in. We can put it all together and then make a difference. With all these little building blocks we're trying to create, that will help advise what's happening at the security council. What does it mean for the people on the ground? Because it’s nothing if it stays in the bubble of Geneva.

The idea is to increase our reach. we have 38 sections, but not all of them are active. We have an incredible section in the Democratic Republic of Congo with almost 100 members. The leader has a bakery and while women wait for their bread to bake, she tells them about their human rights and they end up joining WILPF before their bread gets out of the oven.

From Trinidad and Tobago they did a resolution on linking human rights and peace. It went through as a resolution to be considered in 2012. We need to create the opportunity for it to happen. Women, peace, and security and disarmament, nuclear disarmament, in the same sentence.

In Geneva, a woman from Pakistan walked into our office and listened to us talk. She said, that's it, we're joining WILPF. I asked who she was referring to. Turns out, she has an organization of 500 members and said, "We want to join WILPF." She's got 30 people coming to Costa Rica.

People in Sri Lanka have also contacted me to say they want to revive the section. So there's a woman coming to see me, she's actually exiled in The Hague at the moment, to discuss reviving the section. People understand that we're naive idealists and never give up. We now have a structure to work. Yes, we're fighting above our weight. We don't have enough money. We don't have enough staff. So there's slippage. We do what we can and we have to pick and choose.

We have a strategy with other NGOs to make submissions to the UN when we don't have sections in the area being reported on. Yes, the international systems are important. And I say that through gritted teeth. It is what we've got and it is what we make of it.

Imagine the Bosnian situation - if there had been a universal periodic review and if it was analyzed properly. If we had a mechanism in place to get that information into a forum like the Human Rights Council, maybe in 1989, 1990 that should have, could have made a difference.

The international bodies are responsible to respond to reports from NGOs. If you look at our website, we did do an analysis for how to use all the different human rights

We have to take a long, hard look at ourselves. But it takes all of us to do this. It takes more than WILPF international to do this. As I say, I'm only the hired help - you are WILPF. We have to find a way of mobilizing ourselves to be the social movement creating this change.

Women, Peace & Security is so broad and so inclusive. The thing that we're lacking right now, apart from this desperate funding situation is communication. I look at our website and I just weep. We need to get our listservs up to date. If you want to work with international, and of course you do, how to get going. And the other thing we need is more members. And when I saw Team 15 yesterday and I thought well there you are, WILPF has a future. And to get young people involved should be the easiest thing. And we have to convince people that we have the answers - make our argument good and strong and sexy. So it's a lot of work and a lot of challenges and I hope that what we’re doing at the international level is what WILPF wants.

And from a legal perspective, I'm absolutely sure what we're doing is right. We should never forget to do the activism. It is what works. It's absolutely right.

Posted by cj at June 5, 2011 9:27 AM


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