UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, keynote speech on Dag Hammarskjold’s Legacy


UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, keynote speech on Dag Hammarskjold's Legacy in the 21st century. New York, 22 September 2011.

[Check against delivery]

Mr. Secretary-General,
Mr. Prime Minister,
Dear friends,

Let me first express my pleasure to address you here at the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld. The honour to talk about his legacy is certainly as great as the challenge of doing justice to his inspirational impact on the United Nations and his role in enabling the UN to be a dynamic and proactive instrument for international peace and security.

At a time when the world was ruled by the division of superpowers, Dag Hammarskjöld showed courageous leadership in guiding the United Nations to be a mechanism to empower governments to prevent tensions before they escalate into war. In Asia, in Africa and the Middle East, he personified the power of dialogue in alleviating conflicts. His dedication to the pursuit of peace and progress, his talent in easing tensions and his personal commitment to establish more independence and effectiveness in the post of Secretary-General have all been infinite sources of inspiration for our actions as UN officials, as political leaders and as human beings.

Dag Hammarskjöld deeply believed in a proactive approach to peacemaking. His commitment to preventive diplomacy marked a profound change in the traditional conceptions of peace and security. He taught us that preventive diplomacy is not an abstract art of anticipation. Effective conflict prevention and resolution require thorough analysis of the causes, triggers, dynamics and patterns of conflict, as well as the factors and social dynamics that strengthen a community's resilience to conflict. Early analysis and ongoing monitoring are essential for anticipating conflict and for transforming conflict dynamics so that social groups committed to non-violent conflict resolution can be supported. Echoing his vision, in recent years a number of United Nations organizations have developed conflict warning, assessment and analysis frameworks to enhance their operations in conflict-sensitive areas.

History bears out the important function of women in anticipating and preventing conflict. Let me give an example from West Africa. In 2005, Guinean women involved in cross-border trade activities they experienced a sudden increase in incidents of gender-based violence in the areas bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia. This information was communicated to the State authorities, and these reports led to targeted interventions by defense and security forces to counteract the movements of illegal armed groups. In this and in other contexts, women's perspectives on tensions in social relations, their awareness of threats to personal, family and community security, their knowledge of the flow of small arms and light weapons through communities, all add up to a complex and important system of early warning and intelligence about impending conflict.

During the Congo crisis of 1960-61, Dag Hammarskjöld embodied a new approach of peacemaking in which official negotiations are only part of a conflict resolution continuum, ranging from early warning to peacekeeping and longer term peacebuilding. This philosophy is reflected in subsequent developments and most recently in important changes in the UN's peacebuilding architecture, with the creation of the Peacebuilding Commission and the Peacebuilding Support Office. These instruments recognise that preventive diplomacy and dialogue are crucial and cost-effective means of preventing outbreaks or recurrence of violence.

While Dag Hammarskjold might have anticipated and welcomed these changes, there is one change that he might not have anticipated, but I am sure he would have welcomed, and that is the prominent role of women in the prevention of conflict and the building of peace. Dag Hammarskjold was a man of his era, when there was no UN agency or entity dedicated to advancing women's empowerment and gender equality. The creation of UN Women represents an important new component of the UN's institutional provisions in preventive diplomacy as well as in many other areas related to peace, security, and development more generally. UN Women is acting on the widespread recognition that the inclusiveness of peace processes and the democratization of conflict resolution generally, are crucial to sustained peace. And women's engagement in conflict resolution and democratisation is well-understood to be an effective method of building inclusiveness and broad social engagement in sustaining peace.

For the last 50 years, calls for inclusiveness have been constantly repeated in the international normative framework on mediation and more recently in resolutions on women, peace and security. Since 2000, the UN Security Council, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General have repeatedly called for the inclusion of dedicated gender expertise and greater numbers of women in peace negotiations.

However, although effective conflict prevention needs women's engagement in conflict analysis, monitoring and diplomacy, it remains unfortunately the case that there is a long way to go in effectively engaging women in conflict resolution. In addition, even though gender inequality is known to play a role in exacerbating conflict, conflict prevention frameworks still do not include efforts to end discrimination against women. A full decade after Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) was unanimously adopted, the women remain strikingly absent from formal peace negotiations. Gender-based inequalities and extremes in discrimination against women are not issues regularly tracked in conflict early warning systems. This reveals a troubling gap between the aspirations of global and regional commitments and the reality of peace processes.

War is still largely conceived as a confrontation of two belligerent actors made up of male soldiers. Most peacemaking efforts have focused on secret talks between male leaders and therefore they have further marginalized entire parts of conflict-affected societies. Women's empowerment and their participation in public life are still not seen as essential to sustained peace and democratization. It is still commonly believed that the specific threats women face should be addressed only once broader security issues are solved; that their voices should be heard only once peace is consolidated; that their needs will be considered once the country is stabilized.

This is a perpetrator-centered paradigm of peacebuilding, not a peacebuilder-centered one. It focuses on the disruptive role of potential ‘spoilers' of the peace, not on the constructive potential of building a broad social constituency for peace. It is time for this paradigm to change. Women's inclusion in conflict prevention and resolution is not only a matter of human rights. As the current Secretary-General stated recently in his report on women's participation in peacebuilding, ensuring women's participation is critical “in shoring up three pillars of lasting peace: economic recovery, social cohesion and political legitimacy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am not here to tell you that women are more committed than men to promoting the greater good for the population. All women are not by essence attached to peace or better connected to the grassroots. Like men, they are exposed to political, ethnic, or religious tensions. Just like men, they may contribute to violence and participate in armed groups. But more than men, women have direct experience of the brutal consequences of violent conflict and often bear the extra burden of a vastly lower social and economic status. As the first victims of sexual and gender-based violence, they often see more clearly how conflict stretches from the beating at home to the rapes and killings on the streets and the battlefield. As such, they also are critical in bringing peace back to the communities. During the summer 2010 crisis, women in Southern Kyrgyzstan mobilized into informal groups of peace activists, and took responsibility for providing immediate support to conflict survivors and for demanding that the specific needs of women and vulnerable groups be taken into account in the post-conflict recovery process. With support from UN Women, these groups are now institutionalized in 20 local Women Peace Committees. From the village to the province levels, they constantly advocate for inclusion of women and they continuously contribute to the processes of conflict prevention and peacemaking in the South of Kyrgyzstan.

In spite of the resistance that women often face and the exhaustion of conflict-affected women and girls, they have continued to find creative ways of expressing their concerns in peace processes. When excluded from the peace talks, they have held parallel processes of their own. When locked out of the rooms where decisions are made, women have pushed their position papers and their recommendations through the gaps under the doors. When ignored, they have approached decision-makers on airport tarmacs or barricaded the meeting room to force the delegates to reach a settlement, as in Liberia in 2003. When silenced, they have taken to the streets and even the chamber of the UN Security Council to make themselves heard. In Northern Ireland, Guatemala or El Salvador, women's inputs broadened the scope of the peace talks and have a bias towards a longer term, focusing on how a peaceful society might be achieved, rather than simply looking to accomplish an immediate cessation of violence.

However, too many of these initiatives remain small-scale, ad hoc and/or under-funded.

If women's contribution to conflict prevention and participation in the peace process is not significantly increased, if we, as the United Nations, don't join our efforts to break the vicious cycle of their exclusion, our pursuit of sustainable and equitable peace is in danger. Dag Hammarskjöld once asked: “Do we refer to the purposes of the Charter? They are expressions of universally shared ideals which cannot fail us, though we, alas, often fail them. Or do we think of the institutions of the United Nations? They are our tools. We fashioned them. We use them.

Dag Hammarskjöld knew that the pursuit of peace cannot be left up to good-willing individuals only. He taught us that the United Nations must be an instrument of change. In its brief existence, UN Women has already strengthened many partnerships within and outside the UN family to advance the women, peace and security agenda. In cooperation with the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms Margot Wallstrom, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations; UN Women developed scenario-based training materials for peacekeepers on how to protect women in conflict situations from high levels of sexual violence. The recently launched joint strategy on gender and mediation jointly implemented by UN Women and the Department of Political Affairs seeks to increase the availability and quality of gender expertise in mediation processes; and support greater and more effective participation by women at all levels of conflict resolution and peacemaking.

There is still much that must be done to fulfill Dag Hammarskjöld's visionary project of an inclusive and integrated preventive diplomacy process. A number of bottlenecks specific to the United Nations system still hinder women's representation in the peace process. More women must be identified and appointed as Special Envoys and technical experts to mediation teams. Training is needed so that mediators, mediation experts and women's rights advocates on gender issues in peace processes can address gender issues. In addition, institutional mechanisms are needed to ensure women's participation in conflict-resolution efforts, as part of delegations, observers or as third party participants.

In 1955, Dag Hammarskjöld warned us that the UN must not work in isolation from its beneficiaries, and thus the founding values of the institution. He stated, “Everything will be all right — you know when? When people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction, and see it as a drawing they made themselves.

Inclusiveness is not an outcome of a peace process; it is the very foundation of the process.
Fifty years after the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, it is now time to fulfill his vision for men and women to equally become agents of peace. In UN Women they have a steadfast, committed partner.

Webcast archive