Proposing a feminist foreign policy would raise eyebrows in Armenia, a country that has been involved in armed conflict and has conventional threats to its security and sovereignty in a complicated geopolitical environment. In order to assess the relevance of feminist foreign policy for Armenia, it is important to first understand the challenges of the country’s foreign and security policy, local perceptions and biases in relation to feminism, and the overall lack of representation of women in the field.
At this very moment, Armenia is still going through the heavy security, political, economic, social, and psychological consequences of the military defeat in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, launched by Azerbaijan in violation of international law. Azerbaijan tried to justify the war as a legitimate action to restore its territorial integrity, blaming a lack of progress in negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group although none of the parties seemed interested in conflict resolution. During the last decades, Azerbaijan had invested hydrocarbon profits to prepare for a new war, and Armenia was maintaining the status quo. In 2020, Azerbaijan captured not only the surrounding territories but also parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, which resulted in the depopulation of Armenians from them.
Azerbaijan also started refuting Nagorno-Karabakh’s existence as an entity, claiming that the conflict has been resolved. The war was accompanied by violations of international humanitarian, customary and human rights law. Moreover, since 2020 Azerbaijan started carrying out creeping annexation and military offensives, not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but also in the border regions of Armenia, demanding an extraterritorial corridor and presenting territorial claims to Armenia. Azerbaijani authorities and public figures also intensified hate speech and a war of narratives against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia has genuinely committed itself to a peace agenda to normalize its relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, which is harshly criticized by the conservative Armenian opposition that doesn’t trust the process because of the inconsistency between Azerbaijan’s declarations on peace and the military coercion aimed to force Armenia to make never-ending and unreasonable concessions. To avoid deadlock in the process, the Armenian authorities have been attempting to separate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from the agenda of peace negotiations with Azerbaijan, limiting them to the delimitation of borders and opening communications, suggesting mutual recognition of each other’s territorial integrity. They have proposed that the Armenian authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh directly negotiate with the Azerbaijani authorities for guarantees for their security and rights under an international umbrella.
All of this demonstrates that the Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict urgently need to be addressed in order to prevent further suffering. How have women participated in decisions about war and peace in Armenia and how has their participation changed after the war? How does this align with feminist theories and policies in international relations and security?
Feminist Theory in International Relations
Feminist theory of international relations (IR) combines elements of reflectivism, constructivism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism, and establishes that norms and identity play as much a role in shaping policy as material interests. Feminist IR is not solely focused on the representation of women in the international political system but also argues that the discipline of IR and especially the defence establishment is inherently masculine, which has contributed to the detaching of war from human emotion. Applying feminist IR theory involves looking at how international politics affects and is affected by different genders, and how also the concepts of diplomacy, security and war are gendered.
For instance, feminist IR scholars investigate how masculinities affect women during wartime and peace, at the same time excluding them from participating in negotiating ceasefires and peace agreements. It makes women invisible and their experiences, needs, perspectives and ideas in war and peace unexpressed and repressed. Although women play various roles in war, men are seen as the main actors in war, and women are perceived as “grieving widows and mothers, selfless nurses and anti-war activists”. Besides, sexual violence against women is used as a weapon during the war in violation of key provisions of international law.
Rationalist feminism highlights the ‘democratic peace’ literature, creating an overlap between the paradigms. It explores not only how war arises, but specifically how gender affects the causes, likelihood and outcome of conflict through quantitative foreign policy and comparative case studies, including the correlation between gender equality issues, such as the prevalence of sex-selective abortions in states, or the gender disparity in foreign policy opinions, and likelihood of war. Feminist anti-militaristic traditions oppose a focus on military strength and capability of states even as deterrent and urge disarmament.
A feminist approach to international relations also analyses how women need to endure a higher level of scrutiny for their actions within the public and private spheres, particularly while running for political office. Still, politically ambitious women are often labelled as either being too feminine or too masculine to be capable of their job. Moreover, women are often viewed as weak and maternal and in need of protection. It is typically linked to the expectation that women take care of ‘women’s issues’, while men take care of ‘men’s issues’ such as the military and national security, as well as human and women’s security.
Women, Peace and Security and Gender Parity on the International Agenda
The growing influence of feminist and women-centric approaches within international institutions is reflective of the liberal feminist emphasis on women’s role in peace and security and women’s perspectives to be equally valuable and represented in policy-making. In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In 1995, the UN conference in Beijing adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, an agenda for women’s empowerment considered the key global policy document on gender equality.
The UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, introduced the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda, which served as a milestone underlining the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, peace negotiations, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction. Other international organizations, such as the European Union, African Union, the OSCE, and NATO have also adopted various policies, strategies and action plans to ensure women’s role in the areas within the regional and thematic scope of their mandates.
Since the 2010s, feminist foreign policies have been developed and implemented in a few countries, such as Sweden, Canada, France and Mexico. Feminist diplomacy calls for a state to promote values and good practices to achieve gender equality, and to guarantee through diplomatic relations that all women enjoy their human rights. Feminist diplomacy aims at involving women in decision- and policy-making as well as peace negotiations, and at achieving gender parity in the number of ambassador posts. A statistical analysis of signed peace agreements reveals that peace agreements where women are involved are “35% more likely to last for fifteen years”.
Armenia’s Formal Commitment to UNSCR 1325 vs. Implementation
Armenia has formally committed to the implementation of UN SC resolution 1325. However, there is a gap between formal commitments and reality, declaration and substance.
The WPS Agenda is based on four pillars - Participation, Protection, Prevention, and Relief and Recovery. Armenia adopted its first National Action Plan (NAP) for the implementation of WPS in 2019. The NAP was developed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with contributions from civil society. Armenia’s NAP focuses on increasing women’s participation in and awareness of the protection of women’s rights within the defense system (military, police, and peacekeeping missions). It also puts particular emphasis on creating comprehensive programs to address the needs of women and girls impacted by or displaced because of conflicts. Moreover, the document specifically states that Armenia considers the NAP “as a national mechanism for the protection and promotion of women’s rights in public life”. It identifies 18 objectives with corresponding actions, indicators, and responsible parties; however, it doesn’t allocate funding for them.
Although there is no report on the implementation of Resolution 1325 by Armenia, the recent findings by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on Armenia’s implementation of CEDAW may offer some insight. Some of the key problems found include the higher risks of sexual violence, exploitation, and poverty for internally displaced women and girls in conflict-affected areas in Armenia. The Committee calls for sustainable solutions to ensure their rights. It is also concerned about the lack of progress in abolishing the list of jobs considered dangerous for women, urges Armenia to abolish it, facilitate women’s access to these occupations, and refocus its employment policies on gender equality.
The Role of Armenian Women in Relation to War and Peace
Because of the complicated geopolitical environment and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia’s foreign policy has been focused on security and human rights issues since its independence. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and broader geopolitical and security problems of Armenia have had distinct gendered impacts. Women have lost their homes and have been displaced due to the war; several thousand men of at least two generations have been killed in wars leaving their mothers, partners, daughters and sisters in pain. Since most of those killed were young conscripts, the impact on mothers is the most obvious; however, the impact on demography is also significant. Many of those men were too young to have a family or children, which also means loss of potential partners and fathers of potential children for many women.
Women’s organizations have been at the forefront to demand peace; however, they have been excluded from high-level diplomatic negotiations. Women have not been involved in the team negotiating for the resolution of the Nagono-Karabakh conflict, and only one woman diplomat has been recently present in two meetings of the ongoing peace talks with Azerbaijan on the delimitation of borders, opening communications, or other difficult issues.
The 2020 National Security Strategy recognized the low level of women’s engagement in social and political life, especially in state governance, which prevents the country from fully utilizing the human capital towards national security and sustainable development. The Strategy also committed the state to not only ensure equal rights but also create opportunities and conditions for women and men and to promote women’s participation in decision-making. The 2020-2022 Human Rights Strategy also focused on promoting the engagement of women in the armed forces. Non-discrimination is defined as a principle of the organization of military service in the Law on Military Service and Status of a Serviceperson.
The Representation of Women in Armenian State Institutions
The leadership of Armenia doesn’t delegate any visible policy-making roles to women in foreign and security policy. Those areas have been traditionally monopolised and dominated by men, and even if women often have important advisory and support roles, they remain invisible and backstage. There is resistance to positive discrimination or affirmative actions in favour of women because of the perception that appointments should be merit-based. However, in reality, even if there are qualified women specialists in the areas of foreign policy and security governance, they are not considered for senior roles while many men don’t prove to be good managers, decision- and policy-makers.
Women do have some leading roles in Armenia but mostly in the areas considered traditional for women, such as health, justice, social affairs, education, and culture. Most Armenian officials, as well as wider public, including many women, tend to deny that there is discrimination towards women. Moreover, the term feminism is perceived negatively in Armenia; it is not perceived as aimed at seeking equal opportunities for women but is instead associated with women being overambitious, dominant, bossy, not wanting to have a family and a partner, and seeking attention to artificial problems.
The number of women is highest in the National Assembly - due to the quota introduced in the Law on the Parties adopted in December 2020, one third of the legislature consists of women. However, if in the former parliament, there was a woman deputy speaker, the head of the ruling faction was a woman, and there was one woman committee chair, currently, one female committee chair is all we have. The Standing Committee on Defence and Security of the National Assembly has one woman MP. Only one woman (out of 15 members) has been represented in the two post-war boards of the ruling Civil Contract Party while earlier there were up to three.
In the last two governments, there has been only one woman minister who is in charge of health. In the earlier governments, the maximum number of women in the government has been three, and they have always been in charge in social and labor affairs, education and culture, environment. There are several deputy ministers, such as in the ministries of justice and economy. The newly appointed Ombudsperson is a woman.
Admittedly, women constitute more than half of the Armenian diplomatic corps. However, there seems to be a glass ceiling for them – their career development usually stops at the middle management level. There has been only one woman deputy foreign minister, few heads of departments, and only one fifth of Armenian ambassadors are women.
At the same time, no woman has ever been a member of the Security Council of Armenia for a simple reason: No woman has occupied any of the leadership positions in the ministries of defense, foreign affairs and emergency situations, in the staff of the Armed Forces, police or National Security Service. At the same time, women have had middle management and advisory roles in the Secretariat of the Security Council. The 2020 National Security Strategy recognized the low level of women’s engagement in social and political life, especially in state governance, which prevents Armenia from fully utilizing the human capital towards national security and sustainable development.
Thus, men have directed the foreign policy and security governance of the country for three decades, and it has neither led to conflict resolution or prevention of war through diplomacy, nor to building armed forces in line with contemporary standards and the challenges that Armenia has been facing.
Women in the Armed Forces of Armenia
As expected, the situation is much worse in the Ministry of Defense. There are a few women in middle management roles, such as in the Human Rights and Integrity Center and in the Department of Social Affairs of the MoD. According to the Ombudsperson’s 2021 annual communication, women composed 9,5% of the contractual service personnel of the Armed Forces of Armenia. 14,3% of the officer corps (4,7% senior officers, 9,6% junior officers), 34,9% of senior non-commissioned officers, 50,8% of junior non-commissioned officers and privates are women. A positive development had been the prioritization of the involvement of women in peacekeeping in 2017. In 2019, the number of servicewomen in the Peacekeeping Brigade increased by 8% compared to 2018, and their number in the UN and NATO peacekeeping operations increased by 60%. After the September 2022 attack, the MoD of Armenia started organizing trainings teaching interested civilian women to use firearms. The number of women taking part in the trainings by non-governmental organizations aimed to strengthen civil defense skills of civilians has been increasing as well. However, there are no women in visible leadership positions in the Armed Forces.
The Armenian public holds mixed views about women’s military service. Some believe that considering the increased security challenges for Armenia, women should also serve in the army along with men, like in Israel that is perceived as a country with similarly severe security challenges. The Secretary of the Security Council, Armen Grigoryan, has touched upon it in public statements. On 6 November 2022, the Ministry of Defence organized a training for civilians, including for women, to learn to use a firearm with participation of three women MPs. However, in order to integrate women in the army, necessary conditions should be put in place – both in terms of appropriate service conditions and infrastructure and also the ethics and code of conduct, to exclude harassment of women in an army that is struggling with human rights abuses and bullying of servicepersons.
There are also concerns about the possibility of torture, degrading treatment and sexual violence by the Azerbaijani military in case if Armenian women officers and soldiers, serving on the frontline, are captured. This is based on the reports of heinous war crimes committed by the Azerbaijani armed forces towards Armenian civilians, including women, and military captured by Azerbaijani armed forces during 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Most recently, four Armenian military service women, who were surrounded by the Azerbaijani armed forces during their military offensive in a border region of Armenia in September 2022, were mutilated, degraded, filmed naked and killed. The video was circulated by Azerbaijani telegram channels and reached the Armenian audience, including relatives of the victims.
It is commonly perceived that since there is no mandatory military service for women, and Armenia is a country with severe security and defence problems, women cannot sufficiently understand security issues. However, while there are women serving in the Armed Forces, some men occupying decision- and policy-making positions in Armenian security policy have been exempted from serving in the army for different reasons.
Women’s Activism in Peace and Security in Armenia after the 2020 War
The expert community dealing with foreign and security policy and governance has been male dominated until recently, when a few women experts took up active roles addressing defence reform and security governance issues. However, women are highly regarded among civil society activists, human rights defenders, and humanitarian NGOs. They have provided assistance to displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh and in conflict-affected border regions of Armenia, conducted fact-finding missions, reported on war crimes and other violations of human rights, and raised human security concerns. They have been active in public diplomacy and peace-building, conducting advocacy towards both national authorities and international organizations.
Notably, progressive women activists’ perspectives and approaches to peace and security have significantly changed since the 2020 war. Former pacifists and peacebuilders were targeted by the conservative opposition with false narratives that democracy, human rights and pacifism have weakened the security and “immunity of the nation” leading to military defeat. These women also felt disappointed in traditional peace-building activities, facing the attitudes of some Azerbaijani women groups and parts of civil society legitimizing the war as a means of unilateral and coercive conflict resolution. Most importantly, while some women members of civil society considered making concessions as Armenia’s only choice in the complex geopolitical environment, the more publicly active group of women came to the conclusion that in light of the aggressive behavior of Azerbaijan, as well as the fragility and unreliability of international support in the current geopolitical environment, it is not sufficient to trust the peace process.
Therefore, women activists and experts have started advocating for a pro-active, value-based and human-centric foreign and security policy aimed at using international political and legal mechanisms and accountable defence reform to strengthen the armed forces. The goal is to deter against a probable military aggression based on the principle of “if you want peace, prepare for war”. They call for a more accountable security governance, crisis prevention and management, strategic planning and communication by the Armenian authorities. This perspective may look different from the contemporary Western liberal idealistic approaches to feminist foreign policy building upon pacifism and anti-militarism. However, it is in line with the approaches of the UN and other international organizations on the need to increase women’s role in peace and security. Finally, it simply makes more sense for a country under a consistent threat of external aggression.
In relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, women experts and activists involved in public diplomacy are advocating for the application of the principle of Responsibility to Protect, endorsed by the UN in 2005, and further reflected in the 2009 UN SC Resolution 1894 on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. They prioritize the use of the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court for achieving justice and excluding impunity for war crimes and other human rights violations during the conflict, as well as fighting ethnic hatred and further violence. They also point out the lack of access to development assistance to Nagorno-Karabakh, in violation of the principle of “Leave no one behind”, pledged by the UN member states for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They see the deployment of an international peacekeeping mission in Nagorno Karabakh as means to protect the security and rights of Armenians there. Moreover, they argue that relatively more democratic Nagorno-Karabakh, as assessed in the reports of Freedom House, cannot be placed under the jurisdiction of autocratic Azerbaijan. Finally, they underline that yet another military aggression and ethnic cleansing will further jeopardize the international order based on the UN Charter, and other norms of the international normative framework.
That group of women experts, human rights defenders and other civil society activists have been advocating for the deployment of a long-term EU or OSCE border monitoring mission on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border as a deterrent to exclude coercive diplomacy and the further use of military force by Azerbaijan. Thus, they support the diplomatization of security through international political and legal mechanisms provided by value-based organizations and partners promoting democracy and human rights. They favor peace with Azerbaijan, but human-centric, positive, and sustainable peace guaranteed by reliable national and international security arrangements in line with international standards, without jeopardizing the sovereignty, territorial integrity and viability of Armenia and conflict resolution in Nagorno Karabakh.
The content of the publication is the responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to express the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region
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