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Champions for Change is a series highlighting male allies working to advance equality across the globe. In this post, parting Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, Ambassador Apakan, reflects on his experiences in integrating a focus on gender equality issues in matters of peace and security; from his years in the UN Security Council to experiences on the ground in Ukraine.
In 2009, Ambassador Ertuğrul Apakan sat in the United Nations Security Council when then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over a debate on Women, Peace and Security. As the Turkish delegate, two points from the discussion stand out in his memory. First, the numerous NGOs present to witness the adoption of the new resolution. He recalls “there was a very positive and refreshing mood around this large civil society presence… illustrative of civil society’s key role in shaping the women, peace and security agenda.” And secondly, Secretary Clinton was among the few women among the delegates in the council. “So while we were discussing the importance of women’s protection needs and, above all, their active participation in peace and security matters, it was very visible that on the highest-levels the gap was far from closed.”
In 2012, Amb. Apakan retired after four years as the Turkish Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Or so he thought. In March 2014, with tensions and hostilities in Ukraine mounting, he received a phone call asking if he would be interested in leading the newly established OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM). “I accepted, never imaging though, I would still find myself in Ukraine five years on. I packed my suitcase believing this would be a short-term post.”
Through its 57 participating States, the OSCE SMM is mandated to contribute to reducing tensions and fostering peace, stability and security throughout Ukraine. The Mission, formally established on 21 March 2014, monitors the security situation, facilitates dialogue on the ground, and supports respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Ukraine.
Unlike many other UN and OSCE missions, gender equality, women’s rights, and UNSCR 1325 on women, peace, and security, are not explicitly referenced in the mandate of the SMM. Despite this, participating States, the OSCE’s Secretariat, and SMM leadership agree that a comprehensive approach to security and human rights requires a particular focus on gender mainstreaming and the role of women in making peace and keeping peace.
“It was clear for me that I was represented with an opportunity, or even more so a duty, to bring into practice this women, peace and security agenda I had become so familiar with during my time at the UN,” recalls Amb. Apakan. However, translating knowledge from meeting rooms and strategic documents drafted in New York, into practical actions in the context of a newly-formed mission in Ukraine, in the midst of increasing hostilities, was not an easy process.
Recognizing the need for gender expertise, the SMM, from the outset, has had a gender expert in its management team. Additionally, the mission established a network of Gender Focal Points within the field teams. “This small but very energetic network is actively advising colleagues on how to ensure we monitor and report on how conflict affects men, women, boys and girls. The Gender Focal Points in the mission also function as important entry points for civil society representatives, especially women’s groups.” Apakan adds, “in order to understand security concerns of the local population it does not suffice to interact with security actors, mainly men, only.”
Civil society in Ukraine is vibrant, and women often form the backbone of communities affected by conflict. “So the challenge was not with us identifying women active in contributing to lowering tensions and fostering peace,” Amb. Apakan notes, “some of the challenges related more to our internal structures and approaches.”
Internally, he refers to the example of personal protective equipment sets for monitoring officers –20 percent of whom are women. “Female monitors at some point in the initial stages of the mission showed me that all clothing started with size L and also the flack jackets and helmets often were an ill-fit.” Although dismissed as an unimportant detail by some, he understood that it is these smaller things that can add up to actual exclusion.
Amb. Apakan worked to realize a better gender balance among staff, appealing to OSCE participating States to take gender balance into account when seconding monitoring officers to the SMM. He emphasizes the importance of mixed teams in how the SMM is perceived on the local level, and what information the Mission is able to obtain. As the Mission also noted in its recent Thematic Report Gender Dimensions of SMM Monitoring: “monitors often speak about the added value of mixed teams and have shared experiences of, for instance, local civilians specifically asking to share their concerns, including about human rights, with female monitors.”
Externally, Amb. Apakan has been vocal on ensuring women’s voices are heard in decision-making processes. The fact that women’s participation in conflict prevention and conflict resolution strengthens such efforts is well documented. Research finds that peace agreements with female signatories are associated with more durable peace, and that peace agreements signed by female delegates demonstrate higher implementation rate for agreement provisions.
In the context of the ongoing negotiations on the situation in eastern Ukraine, the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) format represents an important mechanism for peace negotiations. Four working groups on humanitarian, economic, political and security issues, chaired by Coordinators appointed by the OSCE, address specific topics through regular rounds of discussions in Minsk. Amb. Apakan, as the head of the SMM, also functions as Coordinator of the Working Group on Security Issues within the TCG.
“Unfortunately, women are severely underrepresented in the Working Group on Security Issues nor do any women currently function as OSCE Coordinators in the talks at Minsk,” Apakan comments. He explains that one of the mitigating steps he took in this regard was to have regular meetings with female civil society representatives in advance of his talks in Minsk in order to keep a connection between initiatives on the grassroots level and high-level negotiations. Although these meetings kept him informed, particularly on civilian protection issues, he emphasizes the importance of women having an actual seat at the table.
Women are already playing an essential role at the community level in providing concrete solutions to conflict-related problems. As the SMM also noted in its thematic report, and a publication of personal stories of women living around the so-called contact line, thousands of women defy ongoing violence every day to ensure that schools, hospitals, village councils and other communal services remain functioning in Eastern Ukraine. Far from the glare of media attention, far from UN Security Council meetings, their efforts contribute to much-needed social cohesion and to a sense of normality in a context of violence.
“While speaking with the local population in Eastern Ukraine, it often occurred to me that women are particularly outspoken on the need to continue to believe in peace, to invest in peace,” reflects Amb. Apakan, “We need to ensure we better tap into this drive, this resilience. I believe it could be a transformative power for the better, for peace.”
Yvette Langenhuizen, OSCE SMM Senior Gender Adviser, contributed to the development of this piece.