AUSTRALIA: Australia is Failing to Live Up to its Responsibilities to Protect Women

Thursday, August 29, 2013
The Guardian
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

Australia's Security Council presidency, set to commence on 1 September, has already been tarnished by the government's broken promise to women.

Just two months ago, foreign minister Bob Carr announced to the world's media that Australia would make women's rights and leadership in conflict and peace-building a "key priority" during its presidency of the UN Security Council. Fast forward to today, and it appears that this commitment is about to become another policy casualty of Julia Gillard's ousting.

Australia owes its place on the UN Security Council in part because of its promise to tackle violence against women and boost women's participation in resolving conflicts. This pledge can be traced back to Labor's 2010 election commitment to develop a National Plan on Women, Peace and Security.

Rape and sexual violence have long been a feature of war. Usually the victims are women and girls (the perpetrators are, in the vast majority, men). The Ancient Greek and Roman armies used these abusive tactics. The Vikings acquired a reputation for "rape and pillage" in 8th century Europe. In both world wars, rape was widespread with atrocities committed by all sides.

Recent conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sri Lanka point towards what Amnesty International described nearly a decade ago – that rape is now used as a deliberate military strategy rather than a side effect or spoil of war.

The international community has been slow to respond to this trend. In 2000 Namibia used its position as chair of the UN Security Council to pass resolution 1325 to tackle the problem. Passed unanimously, UNSCR1325 requires all governments to “put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls”. It also calls for women's systematic involvement in the prevention, management and resolution of conflict.

It took the Australian government more than 10 years to act on this UN resolution. In 2012 it launched the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security to implement UNSCR1325. The plan commits various government agencies – ranging from AusAID, Defence, the Australian Federal Police, and the Department of Families – to undertake 24 actions and sets out a six year framework.

Why the sudden flurry of activity after a decade of inaction? After all, 37 countries produced National Action Plans before Australia did. And eight of them have already had time to revise them. Australia's bid to join the UN Security Council gave impetus to the plan. However, now that the seat has been won attention is faltering: the government appears to have done next to nothing.

On 3 June, I asked the official from the department of families in the Senate Budget Estimates whether she was responsible for implementing the plan within her department. Her answer: “Perhaps!”. All general David Hurley, chief of the defence force, could say when I questioned him on 4 June 2013 was, “in terms of many of the projects that we have undertaken in Uruzgan [in Afghanistan] and at the national level, the role of women and the consequences of actions for women have been a very important consideration.”

Commissioner Tony Negus of the Australian Federal Police, who often sends officers overseas, had never heard of the plan when I asked about it on 30 May 2013.

In written answers to my questions, the AFP outlined a few capacity-building initiatives aimed at women. The hard numbers reveal that there is still a long way to go: women made up only 15% of Pacific law and justice officials trained by the AFP in 2012-13. In several countries – Fiji, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Tuvalu, Niue, Marshall Islands – no women were trained at all.

These government's representatives did not inspire confidence that a program of real work for the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security is underway or there is effective coordination between departments.

The first progress report will be released in 2014. Going on the current status of the plan, one could assume that a few weeks before the due date there will be a flurry of activity as agencies race to write documents and policies.

The real world impact will be zero and Australia will have failed to live up to its international responsibilities to protect women and girls and to honour one of the reasons that it sits in the UN Security Council. If that scenario is not to eventuate the Australian government better getting cracking on what the relevant departments must do – and this election campaign is an ideal time for Labor and the Coalition to detail their intent.