“Oh but you are a woman”: the Australian woman who transforms the rules of war in the armies of the world | Australia News
In her dealings with the armed forces and militant groups trying to persuade them to obey the laws of war, Kath Stewart has had her fair share of awkward experiences.
The Australian, who became the first woman to be a delegate from the military and armed groups to the International Committee of the Red Cross, says people sometimes take her for a secretary or support person.
“It’s a stereotypical thing, that I would be a support person rather than the main speaker,” the former army officer told The Guardian in an interview focused on the desire to recruit more women into such roles. .
“And often in those groups, even though I was the oldest person, a number of groups would defer to the man who was with me.
Until recently, Stewart was based in Tel Aviv and active in Israel and the occupied territories, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. She has had meetings with groups including the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas, a number of other factions in Gaza, and the Palestinian security forces.
“People often expect, when you see them, to 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 kind of like, ‘Oh, but you’re a woman, we’ll have to find you something else. And sometimes something else isn’t particularly practical.
But Stewart finds her 33-year career in the Australian Defense Force can help her build relationships 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 these weapons on people on the ground and the demands of conflict law. armed ”.
“So we are able to speak in an understood language,” she says.
“We can share the knowledge and experience that we each have gained from our past to be able to understand where the people we are talking to are coming from, what their considerations are from a military perspective, and then try to find a balance with the needs of the populations on the ground and the humanitarian perspective. “
Rules of war
The ICRC appoints delegates from the armed forces and security forces (called “Fas delegates” from the French term “armed and security forces”) to lobby for respect for the rules of war, which prohibit targeting civilians and torture prisoners and limit the types of weapons the can be used 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.
There was only one Fas delegate in 2018. There are now eight, or 13% of all these delegates. The ranks include delegates from the military and armed groups – Stewart was the first woman to be appointed to this post, and there are now four around the world.
The appointment of female Fas delegates, says Stewart, helps break down stereotypes and “opens it up for future women going through.” The ICRC is stepping up its efforts to recruit more women to these posts.
“The big problem is that it’s weak because the ICRC hires people who have previous experience,” says Stewart.
“And most of the military and police did not employ women in all fields, in fact, until earlier in the 1980s – and a number of the defense forces much later.”
In her case, being drawn to electrical engineering sparked her interest in joining the military. She entered the ADF Academy when it opened in 1986 and joined the Royal Australian Corps of Signals, working with computer and radio equipment.
“What was good at the start when I did it was that the training for men and women really started to merge, and so the training I took was exactly the same as my counterparts. male. It gave me greater experience; I was able to deploy on operations and I was able to do many different jobs in the military, ”says Stewart.
“I lived in 11 different countries during this period, I participated in four different operations with the Australian Army, I was also a defense attaché in four different countries and I worked with embassies, and that is where I really saw the work of the Red Cross abroad … I decided after finishing my career in the military that this was a good opportunity for me to use my skills and to take on different challenges to help people.
Understand the complexities
Stewart’s assignment with the ICRC in Israel and the occupied territories – from February 2019 – was not the first time she had been stationed in the region and grappling with its complexities. She had a stint as a military observer with the United Nations Truce Watch around the turn of the century.
“I worked on the border between Israel and Syria, then on the border between Israel and Lebanon in 2000, which was quite an interesting period 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 start of the second Intifada, ”she said.
“So it gave me a good understanding of the area and an introduction to the complexities that exist.”
Tensions resumed 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 launched a public advocacy for the rule of law to be respected, as he warned that rockets in Israel and airstrikes in Gaza represented “a dangerous escalation” in a cycle of violence. He reminded all parties that direct and indiscriminate attacks against civilians are prohibited under international humanitarian law, that any attack must be proportionate and that all necessary precautions must be taken to avoid civilian casualties. A ceasefire was concluded on May 21.
While the ICRC jealously guards its independence and avoids commenting on political issues, Stewart approaches the humanitarian situation on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories in general terms.
“Clearly, the region has had a history of conflict and turmoil. And this has impacts on the humanitarian situation. Long-term conflict and long-term occupation have obvious impacts on the population, ”she said.
She cites the restriction of movement, the use of force and house demolitions as factors affecting the humanitarian situation: “There are impacts; these are negative impacts. And these are negative impacts on the dignity of the people there, their ability to earn a living, their ability to develop or sustain growth.
Brereton War Crimes Inquiry
Stewart will remain in contact with the Australian government in his next role with the ICRC. After being based in Canberra for the past two months, she is due to fly to Tokyo on Thursday, where she will serve as a delegate of the ICRC armed forces working mainly with the Japanese government and its self-defense forces. Although based in Japan, her responsibilities will include conversations with Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, “reminding them of their obligations under international humanitarian law and providing them with information. on what could be best practices in certain areas ”.
It comes as Australia grapples with the results of a long-standing investigation into alleged war crimes committed by its special forces in Afghanistan, with the Brereton investigation finding “credible” evidence involving 25 current and former members of the military. ADF in the alleged unlawful murder of 39 people. and the cruel treatment of two others.
The government has set up an office of the special investigator, who will examine the available evidence before possible prosecution. The ICRC mission in Australia is committed to working with the ADF to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law.
Asked about the fallout from the Brereton investigation, Stewart is reserved on specific cases, but underlines the importance of the Geneva Conventions.
“It is really important that we have limits around the actions that can be taken in time of war, and in particular legal limits well known to all who carry arms, because they have such an impact on the fate and the means. livelihoods of civilians who are not part of the conflict but who are severely affected, ”she said.