International Humanitarian Law and Women UN Peacekeepers

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Conflict is a perpetual feature of society. To minimize the impact of conflict, scholars and policy makers have adopted various institutional mechanisms to contain violence and its consequences. These include International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the United Nations (UN). Together, UN Peacekeeping Operations (PKO)1The term PKOs is to be understood in reference to UN PKOs as opposed to other multinational operations. serve as a key instrument for the application of IHL in conflict zones across the world.

Notwithstanding, women and children are the primary victims of violence in conflicts. Faced with structural and institutional inequalities, they encounter sexual harassment and abuse, including at the hands of PKO forces. It is against this context that female peacekeepers can play a positive role in PKOs by minimizing the occurrences of such events and enabling justice for victims.

Applicability of IHL to UN Peace Support Operations (PSO)

The UN increasingly turns to peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations to stem conflict.2Marten Zwanenburg, Accountability of Peace Support Operations 28 (Martinus Nijhoff 2004). Peace support operation (PSO) is an umbrella term covering “conflict prevention and peacemaking; peacekeeping; and peace-building.”3The Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, 10, delivered to the Security Council and the General Assembly, U.N. Doc. A/55/305, S/2000/809 (Aug. 21, 2000). PSO forces are authorized under Chapter VI, UN Charter and are characterized by the three rules of peacekeeping: impartiality, consent of the parties, and non-use of force except in self-defense.4Alex J. Bellamy, Paul Williams & Stuart Griffin, Understanding Peacekeeping 95-96 (Blackwell Publ’g 2004); n.b. traditionally, use of force in peacekeeping was limited to self-defence, but over the years, the use of force broadened to include self-defence of the mandate. The latter is referred to as robust peacekeeping; peacekeeping operations containing mandates allowing for greater use of force.

In comparison, peace enforcement operations constitute a “forcible military intervention by one or more states into a third country with the express objective of maintaining or restoring peace and security by ending a violent conflict within that country.”5Katharina P. Colman, International Organisations and Peace Enforcement 4 (Cambridge Univ. Press 2007). These forces, sanctioned under Chapter VII, UN Charter, are categorized by their explicit authorization to use force in defense of the mandate —typically to establish peace and order.6See Charter of the United Nations, art. 42, Jun. 26, 1945, 1 U.N.T.S. 16 (providing that the Security Council may take such actions “as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security”).

Theoretically, these two types of operations seem distinct, but in operational reality, UN operations rarely fit neatly into a single category due to the fluid nature of conflict.

In determining the application of IHL to UN PSOs, it is necessary to establish whether the UN possesses international legal personality such that it can be a subject of international law, and whether the conduct of PSO personnel may be attributed to the UN. The former has been affirmed by International Court of Justice (ICJ).7See Interpretation of the Agreement of 25 March 1951 between the WHO and Egypt, Advisory Opinion, 1980 I.C.J. 73, 89-90 (Dec. 20) (holding that “[i]nternational organizations [such as the UN] are subjects of international law and, as such, are bound by any obligations incumbent upon them under general rules of international law”); Liesbeth Zegveld, Accountability of Armed Opposition Groups in International Law (Cambridge Univ. Press 2002); see Accountability of International Organizations, 71 Int’l L. Association Rep. Conf. 164, 196 (Berlin 2004) (asserting that the United Nations is “subject to international humanitarian law insofar as it is engaging in activities of the kind regulated by international humanitarian law”). As for the latter, if the UN is “the responsible entity for conduct of [the] operation,”8Zwanenburg, supra note 1, at 34. then UN peacekeepers must comply with IHL.9Christopher Greenwood, Protection of Peacekeepers: The Legal Regime, 7 Duke J. Comp. & Int’l L. 185, 187 (1996). The Secretary-General’s Bulletin on Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law (the Secretary-General’s Bulletin)10Secretary-General’s Bulletin, Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law, U.N. Doc. ST/SGB/1999/13 (Aug. 6, 1999). reinforces the application of IHL to UN PSOs.

UN PSOs may also be bound by IHL through the law of occupation which clearly states that IHL applies in occupation,11See, The Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, art. 42, Oct. 18, 1907, 2 A.J.I.L. Supp. 90 (“Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.”); see also Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, art. 2, Aug. 12, 1949, 75 U.N.T.S.135 (“Convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance.”) and if the PSO is the “sole authority capable of exercising control over the civilian population,” then they will be considered as an occupier under international law.12Michael Kelly, Legitimacy and the Public Security Function, in Policing the New World Disorder 399, 407 (Robert B. Oakley, Michael J. Dziedzic & Eliot M. Goldberg eds., 1998).

While PSOs and peace enforcement operations are successful in reducing conflict, their efforts are spoiled by allegations of IHL violations. For example, torturing and targeting civilians in Somalia13Brian D. Tittemore, Belligerents in Blue Helmets, 33 Stan. J. Int’l L. 61, 88-89 (1997). and sexual misconduct in Congo.14Kate Holt & Sarah Hughes, Sex and the U.N.: When Peacekeepers Become Predators, The Independent., Jan. 11, 2005, available at In an attempt to address such grave violations and misconduct by UN personnel, in the 1990s the UN issued two major reports aimed at reforming PSOs: The Secretary-General’s Bulletin15Secretary-General’s Bulletin, Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law, U.N. Doc. ST/SGB/1999/13 (Aug. 6, 1999). and The Report of the Panel on UN Peace Operations (the Brahimi Report).16The Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, delivered to the Security Council and the General Assembly, U.N. Doc. A/55/305, S/2000/809 (Aug. 21, 2000). Although the Brahimi Report suggested more than eighty ways for the UN to reform their PSO and peace enforcement operations,17UN Peacekeeping Reform: Seeking Greater Accountability and Integrity: Hearing before Sub. Comm. on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations of the H. Comm. On International Relations, 109th Cong. (2005) (Statement of Victoria Holt, Henry L. Stimson Center) [hereinafter Sub. Comm. Hearing]. rather than focusing on violations of IHL, most of the recommendations focused on rectifying administrative deficiencies, among others.

Thus, although IHL is applicable to UN PSOs, breaches of IHL remain unaccounted for. The traditional approach adopted by the UN to address IHL violations – that breaches must be addressed by the troop-contributing country’s national courts and laws18See Secretary-General’s Bulletin, supra note 18, § 2 (stating that “[t]he present provisions do not constitute and exhaustive list of principles and rules of [IHL] binding upon military personnel, and do not prejudice the application thereof, nor do they replace the national laws by which military personnel remain bound throughout the operation”).– remains ineffective in serving justice.

Notwithstanding, under its WPS agenda, the UN has recruited women at all levels of its PSOs to address violations, highlighting that women can play a positive role in ensuring IHL compliance in PSOs.

UN Peacekeeping & the WPS Agenda

Despite controversies surrounding PSOs due to their evolution over the years, particularly in their broadening mandates, there are multiple studies demonstrating their importance. Lise Howard19Howard, Lise Morjé. UN peacekeeping in civil wars. Cambridge University Press, 2008. notes that there are three essential approaches to power in the context of PSOs: the use of coercive means, where emphasis is on the use of force; the use of inducement strategies based on material incentives; and persuasion which can only be achieved successfully through a higher moral ground. She establishes that when PSOs have been successful, and conflict has not broken out to date, it is primarily because the UN mission relied heavily on persuasion as a means of power.

Considering the above and the context of this paper, this leads to the question: are women persuasive at the negotiating table? If so, why do women fail to be visible enough?

As for the first question, Manal Omar20Manal Omar is a renowned activist and author of Barefoot in Baghdad along with being a Truman Security Fellow argues that women have and continue to play a crucial role in many male-dominated societies with success. For instance, a woman ultimately negotiated a ceasefire between opposition militias and the people of Bani Walid.21Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown. Furthermore, various studies demonstrate that when women are involved in a peace process, the process is more likely to be sustainable for up to 2 years by 20 percent, and for up to 15 years by 35 percent.

Yet, despite the above, less than 4 percent of signatures for peace agreements are signed by women, and less than 10 percent of negotiators are women.22O’Reilly, Marie, Andrea Ó. Súilleabháin, and Thania Paffenholz. “Reimagining peacemaking: Women’s roles in peace processes.” (2015).

The need for incorporating an all-gender exclusive approach to PSOs in conflict zones has surfaced as a key driver of the PSOs’ effectiveness. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that women make unique contributions which advance the efficiency of PSOs, including:

  • Female peacekeepers can fully perform the same roles to the same standards as their male counterparts, including in hardship posts, according to UN assessments. In fact, research demonstrates that women can gain access to information that male counterparts often cannot.23Louise Olsson and Johan Tejpar, “Operational Effectiveness and UN Resolution 1325 – Practices and Lessons from Afghanistan,” May 2009, pg. 117; pp. 126–127; Institute for Inclusive Security, “Attention to Gender Increases Security in Operations: Examples from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO),” April 2012, pp. 7–13.
  • Female officers are more receptive and able to respond to concerns regarding women’s physical safety. Indeed, women are more likely to report instances of gender-based violence to female officers across police, military, and peacekeeping personnel in thirty-nine countries.24Amalia R. Miller and Carmit Segal, “Do Female Officers Improve Law Enforcement Quality? Effects on Crime Reporting and Domestic Violence Escalation,” UBS International Center of Economics in Society at the University of Zurich, August 2014, p. 4.
  • Women’s participation in the security sector noticeably improves conflict resolution. Various studies indicate that women in police forces are less likely than their male counterparts to use disproportionate force and are more likely to de-escalate tensions.25Kim Lonsway et al., “Men, Women, and Police Excessive Force: A Tale of Two Genders; A Content Analysis of Civil Liability Cases, Sustained Allegations, and Citizen Complaints,” National Center for Women and Policing, April 2002; Katherine Spillar, “How More Female Police Officers Would Help Stop Police Brutality,” Washington Post, July 2, 2015,
  • Women’s participation in the security sector is associated with less misconduct complaints and enhances citizens’ perception of UN forces.26Tara Denham, “Police Reform and Gender,” Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), 2008, p. 5.
  • A noticeable presence of female peacekeepers has been linked to female empowerment in host societies. This has led to raising women’s participation rates in local police and military forces.27“Report of the Secretary-General on Women, Peace and Security,” UN Security Council, September 2015; “Report of the Secretary-General on Women and Peace and Security,” UN Security Council, September 2014, p. 27; Women in Peacekeeping,” United Nations Peacekeeping,

Despite evidence that women’s presence in peacekeeping and security sector roles offers substantial benefits, women remain underrepresented. For example, in 2015, only 4 percent of military peacekeepers and 10 percent of police personnel were women, which falls far short of the UN target of 20 percent.28“Report of the Secretary-General on Women, Peace, and Security,” September 2015.

In recognizing the relevance of women in PKOs, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed its landmark Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) in 2000, and Resolution 2242 in 2015, with a view to achieving greater gender parity in peacekeeping contingents. The latter pushed for an increase in the participation of female peacekeepers by doubling the numbers of military and police contingents over a period of 5 years. Following the adoption of the resolution, the proportion of female peacekeepers in PSOs experienced an upward trend from 4.1 to 5.6 percent. The largest hike is observed among female military observers and staff observers, whose presence increased from 4.7 to 14.2 percent.29Sofia Sacks Ferrari, “Is the United Nations Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy on track to reach its goals?” Relief Web/SIPRI, accessed 15th January 2021,

As for the WPS resolution, the Secretary-General office of the UN has taken a keen interest in promoting and implementing the WPS agenda, recognizing its growing importance. In 2018, the Secretary-General put forward six key areas for the advancement of the agenda: (1) ensuring women are decision-makers in economic recovery processes; (2) protecting women’s rights defenders and civil society in conflict situations; (3) boosting funding for the WPS; (4) placing more women in uniform in UN police and PSOs; (5) guaranteeing women’s meaningful participation in peace processes; and (6) generating and making available more data, evidence, and analysis on women, conflict, and peace.30UN Women Report 2019-2020, “Women, Peace and Security in Action,” accessed on 10th January 2021,

Finally, on the International Day of UN Peacekeepers (2020), the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, highlighted the 20th anniversary of WPS UNSCR 1325, acknowledging that women have a right to be part of the peace process at all levels and stages, and in fact, their participation is essential, including in decision-making processes.31Jamille Bigio, “UN peacekeeping recognizes that women are key to lasting peace amid COVID-19,” The Hill, accessed on 20th December 2020, He further reiterated that women play an essential role in PSOs which allows for better access and communication with local communities, and this reduces the frequency of conflict and confrontation. More importantly, they ensure the protection of civilians and prevent sexual violence and sexual abuse, which are essential objectives of IHL.

Pakistan’s contribution to UN Peacekeeping Operations (PKO)

As a top five troop-contributing country, Pakistan has deployed around 200,000 troops over the past six decades in UN PKOs. These troops include Pakistani female soldiers which were introduced by the Pakistani Army in 2017, and Pakistani civilian women who serve as volunteers.

The first Pakistani female deployed in the UN mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1997) was Shehzadi Gulfam, a deputy superintendent police. She subsequently served in UN missions in Kosovo (1999) and Timor-Leste (2007). In 2010, Gulfam was re-deployed in Timor-Leste as the team leader for the UN police in the Timor-Leste National Police Vulnerable Persons Unit. In 2011, she was awarded the ‘International Female Police Peacekeeper Award’ by the UN police division in the Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and the International Association of Women Police. The induction of policewomen and civilian contractors from Pakistan has now become a regular feature of PKOs.

Pakistani female officers act in various capacities, including as psychologists, medical professionals, gender advisors, and IT professionals. Belonging mostly to the Islamic faith, Pakistani female peacekeepers are uniquely positioned to handle cultural sensitivity, thereby increasing the effectiveness of PKOs as countries deploying these forces comprise of Muslims. Their presence has been linked to female empowerment: they serve as role models in the countries of deployment, and as individuals, they experience intellectual and emotional growth due to their exposure to different cultures and the difficulties faced by women and children during conflict.

The Pakistani armed forces remain committed to the UNSC’s call and aims to double the number of women in uniformed PKOs by 2028. Indeed, throughout the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, female peacekeepers remained actively involved in assisting governments and local communities as frontline responders, implementing mission mandates while taking precautionary measures. Furthermore, Pakistani female peacekeepers have been recipients of various awards, and Pakistan’s contribution to female peacekeepers stands at 17 percent – surpassing the required 15 percent UN deployment goal.

Key Findings of the Report

In terms of female representation, Pakistan ranks third in countries contributing the most staff observers and military experts on mission and has met the UN target of 18 percent. Pakistan has further tried to meet gendered representation targets for senior roles.

It was generally agreed among discussants that female participation in PKOs has a positive impact on the operational environment, but the impact is contingent on the religious, cultural, and social practices of the local community. Female officers deployed to Muslim populated conflict zones in Bosnia and Kosovo believed that they contributed positively, but in conflict zones that had largely non-Muslim populations, the socio-cultural preferences of the locals had a substantive sway on the peacekeeping context. Heinecken states similar situations concerning the deployment of female peacekeepers in Sudan where “they don’t recognize ladies as soldiers.”32Lindy Heinecken, ‘Are Women “Really” Making a Unique Contribution to Peacekeeping?’, Journal of International Peacekeeping 19, no. 3–4 (24 November 2015): 227–48, However, the attitudes of local communities towards peacekeepers vary from mission to mission, and there is no conclusive answer as to whether male and female peacekeepers are perceived differently as more research is required to understand community perception.

From the viewpoint of female peacekeepers, community engagement roles have helped them to build greater trust with local inhabitants, especially their interaction with females and children because these groups are more inclined to engage with female personnel as they feel comfortable with them.

Summarizing the FGDs, participants felt that Pakistan deploys a significantly higher percentage of female officers for staff roles and mission experts to carry out peacebuilding activities. As for combat roles, there was broad consensus among academics and policy makers that involvement of females in a hyper-masculinized environment is more challenging. Not only do males have more access and mobility than female soldiers, but local stakeholders, including national and rebel representatives, denigrate the authority of women peacekeepers, and often target them, which has an impact on optimum utilization of mission personnel.

Nonetheless, one of the discussants elaborated that the UN is adopting parallel measures for a more gendered approach in PKOs that can concurrently lower the risk for female peacekeepers, by partnering with local non-governmental organizations and civil society groups.

It should be noted that the above findings cannot be deemed definitive. The research is constrained due to the absence of authorization allowing direct coordination with female peacekeepers from the Pakistan Army, and therefore it relies on selected publications by female soldiers which were few and uneven. Indeed, some written accounts of female soldiers indicate that they have settled well into their peacekeeping role and have faced no difficulty in adjusting. One officer who served as an operational planning officer with MONUSCO wrote, “working in a peacekeeping mission is one of the best experiences I have ever had as a woman and as a uniformed member of the Pakistani army.”33UN Peacekeeping, “My 8 Favourite Things about Being a Peacekeeper,” Medium (We The Peoples, March 6, 2020), Another officer currently serving in UNAMID believed her experience helped her in becoming a “more competent professional and a humbler human being.”34Misbah Qureshi, “A COVID-19 Survivor’s Journey to Mission Area Darfur, Sudan,” Hilal Publications, accessed January 28, 2021,,-sudan/NDc2Mw==.html. This demonstrates the desirability of including women in PKOs as their involvement fosters more connectivity and empathy, but only in domains where they are culturally accepted by locals.


This paper attempted to highlight the participation and achievements of Pakistani female peacekeepers in various UN PKOs. For a conservative country such as Pakistan where women have not traditionally held combat or frontline roles in the military, the decision to pledge the desired 15 percent requirement for women in PKOs is a major benchmark for Pakistan, both in terms of female empowerment and Pakistan’s commitment to peacekeeping. Furthermore, Pakistani female peacekeepers have earned great laurels for their country, and upheld the high standards set by the UN. Acting as ambassadors for their country, they have left positive impacts in the areas they have served and adhered to the principles of IHL. It is therefore no surprise that there have been no reports of female peacekeepers indulging in violations of IHL.

That there is a desire to further enhance the number of female peacekeepers serves as evidence of the efficacy and impact of PKOs consisting of female peacekeepers. Indeed, female peacekeepers themselves are presented with a unique opportunity to witness the challenges faced by women and children in a conflict-ridden society. The determination of female peacekeepers to contribute to PKOs is elucidated in their resolve in crossing various bureaucratic hurdles to achieve success.


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Salma Malik

Dr. Salma Malik is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. She specializes in the areas of Conflict and Security Studies, and South Asian Affairs. She is an alumnus of the Uppsala University, Sweden, the Asia Pacific Center for Strategic Studies APCSS, Hawaii and Visiting Research Fellow, Sandia National Labs, New Mexico, USA. Besides being a member of IISS London, she is part of various for a such as the Regional Center for Strategic Studies, Consortium Of South Asian Think Tanks, Social Sciences Research Council, WISCOMP and WDN-USA.