Asia is characterised by democracies and dictatorships, by developed economies and developing ones, by high-intensity conflict zones and low-intensity and post-conflict zones, and by empowered women and oppressed ones.
Yet this complex region is tied together by the powerful notion of sovereignty. No wonder, then, Asia has failed to develop a discourse around the responsibility to protect (R2P) – the doctrine has become synonymous with international intervention. But particularly in relation to sexual and gender-based violence, this is a grave misconception. The preventative, capacity-building first and second pillars of R2P apply as much to low-intensity conflicts in Asia as the interventionist third pillar applies to active warzones (including active warzones in Asia). This article briefly outlines why R2P is desperately needed but steadfastly rejected in Asia, how it interplays with women, peace and security, and how it can be implemented in Asia to prevent sexual and gender-based violence.
Dismissing the idea that R2P is not ‘needed’ in Asia is the first step to promoting R2P. West and Central Asia plainly host many ‘hot’ conflicts, including in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But East Asia, and in particular Southeast Asia, is home to a hotbed of internal tensions that threaten to break containment at any moment – notably in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. This challenge actually represents a unique opportunity for the region. Clearly, R2P is important once mass atrocities are occurring, but the low-intensity internal conflicts of Southeast Asia are precisely the conditions that can precede the occurrence of mass atrocities and sexual and gender-based violence.
Normalising R2P in Asia, even in this preventive capacity, is not a simple task. Decades of territorial conflicts in the region have heightened concerns over sovereignty, and advocates of the doctrine are mostly regional outsiders – South Korea and Japan are supporters in the north of Asia, but in the south, only Australia and New Zealand promote it with consistency. ASEAN certainly has not made any efforts to institutionalise it. China, which sits on the UN Security Council, the authorising body for R2P interventions, consistently vetoes it. Creating internal momentum for the doctrine would require those sovereignty concerns to be alleviated. The focus of R2P must move away from international intervention.
Changing this focus is actually quite achievable. Despite international hype, R2P has a much larger focus on domestic elements, and they are especially applicable to preventing sexual and gender-based violence. Sexual and gender-based violence is amongst the most recurrent abuse of women during war, and is widespread in conflict and non-conflict zones alike. Early indicators of it are plentiful: low economic and political participation by women, wage gaps, domestic violence, low literacy rates, high maternal mortality and an off-kilter ratio of male to female mortality in infants and children all correlate with the likelihood of conflict. Further still, these indicators become exacerbated with conflict. They should be of utmost concern in Asia, where an estimated 100 million women are missing due to sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and lesser care for girls.
The protection of women is embedded in the four mass atrocity crimes that R2P is concerned with (ethnic cleansing, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity), and the capacity-building measures of the doctrine can be effective tools in Asia to address the aforementioned indicators. And indeed, states that do address them are more stable, and more able to avoid sexual and gender-based violence and mass atrocities. Justice and security sector reforms (including unlocking the great potential of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights), an end to impunity for crimes against women, and initiatives to encourage women to become soldiers, judges, legislators and law enforcers are all worthy pursuits to empowering women and involving women in policy, and thus preventing sexual and gender-based violence.
Capacity building will also help transcend the paradigm of women as victims. The joint narrative of femininity and weakness is a significant impediment to sexual and gender-based violence – and not just for women. Men who experience such violence are even less likely to report it than women, facing severe stigma and emasculation arising out of gender roles. Recognising that men can be victims and not just aggressors or saviours, and that women can be active agents with capacity to prevent, reacting to and rebuild after conflict, helps deconstruct the gender binary that encumbers gender equality.
R2P is an important norm for Asia to embrace, and a valuable tool in the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence. But R2P does not have to force massive economic and political change in the domestic framework of a state, nor does it necessarily include humanitarian intervention. In fact, if implemented early and with rigour, R2P will prevent breaches of sovereignty. Promoting gender quality through R2P will dramatically reduce the risk of civil war, mass atrocities and sexual and gender-based violence, reducing the need for intervention and moving Asia closer to a lasting peace.
Aneta Peretko holds degrees in law and in international studies and is a practicing solicitor and Chair of the South Australian International Humanitarian Law Collective. In 2015, she was a delegate at the ‘R2P At 10 Conference’ in Cambodia and received her sponsorship from the British High Commission on the basis of this article.
Image credit: UN Women