Fletcher Features

UN Official Emphasizes Importance of Monitoring Women’s Rights During Conflict

Rights monitoring is more than a method for identifying violations, it is a powerful tool to collect and verify information, according to human rights and gender professional, Dr. Syed Sadiq.

A human rights advocate with over two decades serving in conflict, post-conflict and developing countries, Sadiq now serves as the current deputy regional program director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), Southern Africa and Indian Ocean Islands. He gave a talk at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on November 16, where he discussed the critical task of women’s rights monitors in ensuring the safety of victims and other affected civilians in conflict zones.

Women’s rights monitors are the “unique eyes and ears” in conflict areas, said Sadiq, who holds an LLM from the University of Delhi and a PhD in Women’s Rights Law from Dr. Ambedkar Law University, Chennai. He explained how monitors are present in troubled areas and can analyze the conflict dynamics between factions and gather information on ongoing violence.

“The main principle in monitoring is ‘do no harm,’” Sadiq said during the talk, which was jointly sponsored by Fletcher’s Global Women, the Gender and Equality Project, Women in International Security and The Human Rights Project. 

In order to ensure this principle is observed, UN Women’s rights monitors are specifically trained in how to handle various ethical dilemmas they may face where collecting or disseminating information may infringe on the safety of informants.

Monitors are urged to preserve the confidentiality of victims and may at times be forced to suspend information gathering due to the risk to an informant’s life, Sadiq said. Agencies are also urged to collaborate with each other in the field when interviewing victims experiencing trauma so they do not have to repeatedly relive their ordeals.

Sometimes, this is harder to do in practice. Sadiq recounted a case where as many as eight agencies were trying to interview two children, aged between eight and twelve, merely hours after they had been raped by armed gangs. While the UN tried to coordinate efforts to minimize the harm on the victims, it was a difficult process since every group was convinced it had the right to the information and wanted to be the first to get it. 

“It took three months to get a compromise,” Sadiq said.

Despite the difficulties of his jobs within the UN, which have taken him to places such as Ethiopia, East Timor, Sudan, Liberia and Afghanistan, Sadiq says he is glad to be working for the organization because it has the resources necessary for effective monitoring. For instance, each monitoring team is equipped with a few helicopters, which are available within six hours of a reported incident, thus allowing observers to be the first on the scene to document what is going on. 

“Sometimes when we arrive, houses are still burning and attacks are still going,” Sadiq said. “If you can be the first on the scene, that is good.”

He explained that writing reports requires a fine balance between speed and detail while ensuring confidentiality, impartiality, sensitivity and accuracy. Monitors, usually write a few lines when they get back to the office on the same day, and draft a more detailed report two days later which includes an incident summary, the sources and witnesses, perpetrators, and any follow-up actions or recommendations. 

While the job of a women’s rights monitor is tough, the issue is getting more and more attention within the UN. Sadiq’s own organization, UN Women, was created after a historic vote in July 2010, the result of years of negotiation between the global women’s movement and UN member states.

Although still young, Sadiq said UN Women is “growing rapidly” as an organization, particularly under the dynamic leadership of Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet.

During his talk, Sadiq also noted how impressed he is by the number of Fletcher students who are knowledgeable about women’s rights issues, as well as the array of student groups devoted to rights issues and promoting the gender equality initiative at the School.

He encouraged Fletcher students to continue developing skills and experience related to women’s rights because of the large demand for personnel in the field. In a single country like Sudan, Sadiq said, there might be around 200 international vacancies and 250 local vacancies on women issues covering various fields ranging from diplomacy to monitoring.

“That means there are 200 jobs waiting for people just like you,” he said.

--Prashanth Parameswaran, PhD Candidate

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