In dealing with the military and militant groups trying to persuade them to abide by the laws of war, Kath Stewart has had her fair share of uncomfortable experiences.
The Australian, who became the first woman to serve as a military and armed groups delegate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, says people sometimes mistake her for a secretary or support person.
“It is somewhat stereotypical, that I would be a support person rather than the keynote speaker,” the former army officer tells The Guardian in an interview that focuses on the push to recruit more women for those roles.
“And often in these groups, even if I was the highest ranking person, several of the groups would refer to the man who was with me.”
Until recently, Stewart was based in Tel Aviv and operated in Israel and the occupied territories, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. He met with groups that included the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas, various other factions in Gaza, and the Palestinian security forces.
“People often hope that when you see them, you will be a man rather than a woman because of the work I do,” she says.
“Very often I will get there and it will be things like, the thank you gift is a kaffiyeh [headscarf], which is for men, and then they give me a kaffiyeh, and it’s like, ‘Oh, but you’re a woman, so we’ll have to find something else for you.’ And then sometimes the other thing is not particularly practical. “
But Stewart finds that her previous 33-year career with the Australian Defense Forces can help her build rapport with the people she meets. When they begin to talk about substantive issues, she engages them in an in-depth discussion “about the types of weapons that could have been used, the impact of those weapons on people on the ground, and the requirements of the laws of armed conflict. ”.
“Then we can speak in a language that is understood,” he says.
“We can share the knowledge and experience that each of us brought from our past so that we can understand where the people we are talking to might come from, what are their considerations from a military perspective, and then try to balance it with the needs of the people on the ground and the humanitarian perspective. “
Rules of war
The ICRC appoints delegates from the armed and security forces (known as “Fas delegates” from the French phrase “forces armées et de sécurité”) to push for compliance with the rules of war, which prohibit attacking civilians and torturing prisoners and limiting the types of weapons you can use to avoid unnecessary suffering.
But like the many armies from which it draws its delegates, it has made slow progress in improving its gender balance.
It had only one female Fas delegate in 2018. There are now eight, or 13% of all those delegates. Included in the ranks are delegates from military and armed groups: Stewart was the first woman to be appointed to that position, and now there are four worldwide.
Appointing women delegates to the Fas, says Stewart, helps break down stereotypes and “opens it up for future women who are moving forward.” The ICRC is intensifying its efforts to recruit more women for these positions.
“The big problem is that it is low because the ICRC is hiring people who have prior experience,” says Stewart.
“And most military and police forces did not employ women in the breadth of jobs, actually, until the early 1980s, and various defense forces much later.”
In her case, being drawn to electrical engineering sparked her interest in joining the military. He entered the ADF academy when it opened in 1986 and joined the Royal Australian Corps of Signals, working with computer and radio equipment.
“The nice thing about starting when I did it was that it was when the men’s and women’s training really started to merge, so the training I did was exactly the same as my male counterparts. That gave me a greater experience; I was able to deploy in operations and I was able to do a lot of different jobs within the military, ”says Stewart.
“I lived in 11 different countries during that time, I was involved in four different operations with the Australian Army, and I was also a defense attaché in four different countries and I worked with embassies, and that’s where I really saw the Red Cross work abroad. … After finishing my career in the military, I decided it was a good opportunity to use my skills and face a few different challenges to help people. “
Understand the complexities
Stewart’s assignment with the ICRC in Israel and the occupied territories, beginning in February 2019, was not the first time she was stationed in the region and grappled with its complexities. She had a stint as a military observer at the UN Truce Oversight Organization around the turn of the century.
“I worked on the Israel-Syria border, and then on the Israel-Lebanon border in 2000, which was quite an interesting moment because it was Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, it was when Bashar al-Assad came to power in Syria and it was also the beginning of the second intifada, ”he says.
“That gave me a good understanding of the region and an introduction to the complexities that exist.”
Tensions erupted earlier this month when 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas left at least 230 Palestinians dead, including 65 children and 39 women, according to figures compiled by the Gaza Ministry of Health. The death toll in Israel was 12, including a five-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.
On May 11, the ICRC issued a public statement so that the rules of the law are followed, since it warned that the rockets in Israel and the airstrikes in Gaza represented “a dangerous escalation” in a cycle of violence. He reminded all parties that international humanitarian law prohibits direct and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, that any attack must be proportionate and all necessary precautions must be taken to avoid civilian casualties. A ceasefire was reached on May 21.
While the ICRC jealously guards its independence and avoids commenting on political issues, Stewart addresses the humanitarian situation on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories in broad terms.
“Obviously, the region has had a history of conflict and unrest. And that has impacts on the humanitarian situation. Long-term conflict and long-term occupation have obvious impacts on people, ”he says.
He cites the restriction of movement, the use of force and the demolition of houses as factors that affect the humanitarian situation: “There are impacts; they are negative impacts. And they have a negative impact on the dignity of the people there, their ability to earn a living, their ability to develop or sustain growth. “
Breretón investigation into war crimes
Stewart will remain in contact with the Australian government in his next position at the ICRC. Having been based in Canberra for the past few months, she will travel to Tokyo on Thursday, where she will serve as a delegate for the ICRC’s armed forces and work primarily with the Japanese government and its self-defense forces. Although it is based in Japan, its responsibilities will include discussions with Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, “reminding them of their obligations under international humanitarian law and providing them with information on best practices in some areas.”
It comes as Australia grapples with the results of a long-running investigation into suspected war crimes by its special forces in Afghanistan, and Brereton’s investigation finds “credible” evidence to implicate 25 current or former staff of the ADF in the alleged illegal murder of 39 people. and the cruel treatment of two others.
The government has established an office of the special investigator, who will review the available evidence before possible prosecutions. The ICRC mission in Australia committed to working with the ADF to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law.
When asked about the consequences of the Brereton investigation, Stewart is cautious about specific cases, but emphasizes the importance of the Geneva conventions.
“It is really important that we have some limits on the actions that can be taken in war, and in particular some legal limits that are well known to all those who carry arms, because they have a great impact on the destiny and livelihoods of people. civilians who are not part of the conflict but are seriously affected by it, ”he says.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism