With Islam as a common underpinning for many of the societies in turmoil where NATO is likely to be involved in the foreseeable future, USIP expert Hamid Khan says the alliance needs to be better prepared to deal on those terms.

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NATO’s push to improve its record of involving and protecting women under a 2000 United Nations Security Council resolution makes it imperative that the alliance venture into a field where it otherwise hesitates to tread – the religious precepts of Islam.

That’s the case put forward by Hamid Khan, a senior program officer for Afghanistan in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Rule of Law Center. The greatest instability -- and thus the future terrain of many NATO operations of any scope -- is likely to be in nations where the rule of law is failing, and current trends show that’s happening most frequently these days in predominantly Muslim societies, Khan said in a recent interview. He cited Taliban extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s actions in Yemen, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Islamist groups that have terrorized northern Mali.

Such volatile dynamics makes it crucial that the 28-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization be equipped to address the conditions on the ground, not by trying to patch well-known Western legal traditions onto Muslim societies, but by working from the common cultural underpinnings that already exist. Most often, that’s Islam, Khan said.

“If you’re going to talk about gender empowerment, you have to talk about it within the context of their values,” said Khan, who has lectured on Islamic law at institutions including NATO, the U.N. and Stanford Law School and teaches a training course on the subject for USIP. “It fundamentally is a question of sustainability.”

That doesn’t mean accepting hardline practices that severely constrain women’s rights just because they’re carried out in the name of Islam. To the contrary, drawing on legitimate interpretations of Islamic law, which tend to be far more moderate and closer to a more commonly recognized rule-of-law system, would be a powerful antidote, Khan said.

Khan is among experts convened as part of a review that heads of state and government for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ordered in Chicago last year. The study is intended to examine the “practical implications” of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security for alliance operations and missions.

“Widespread sexual and gender-based violence in conflict situations, the lack of effective institutional arrangements to protect women, and the continued under-representation of women in peace processes, remain serious impediments to building sustainable peace,” the NATO leaders said in the declaration stemming from the summit.

The review is being conducted by the Sweden-based Nordic Center for Gender in Operations, which hopes to complete its work by the middle of this year.  Khan presented his views during a two-day seminar in December at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm. The more than 100 senior-level political and military officials and specialists who attended examined the realities of carrying out the terms of the U.N. resolution in NATO-led operations.

“NATO has a policy and an action plan and is showing political leadership,” Mari Skare, the NATO secretary-general’s special representative for women, peace and security, told the group gathered in Stockholm, according to a copy of her remarks. “But we need to deepen this commitment and ensure a systematic approach to developing targets, monitoring implementation, measuring results and reporting back to decision-makers.”

The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 in 2000 to acknowledge the disproportionately large effect of conflict on women and children and the failure of most peace and stabilization operations to involve women in decision-making. USIP will host a forum with the Department of State, the Pentagon and other agencies on Jan. 30 to examine the first year since the U.S. adopted its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security to accelerate implementation of the terms of the U.N. resolution.

The resolution calls for greater participation by women in conflict resolution, military operations and decision-making on a broad basis. It also appeals for the protection of women from gender-based violence, prevention of abuse with steps such as increasing their rights under national laws and addressing the needs of women and girls in relief and recovery operations. A three-day USIP-cosponsored event on Feb. 14-16, the Missing Peace Symposium 2013, will explore policies on gender-based violence and the causes, scope and patters of sexual violence. The public will be able to watch a live webcast of the forum.

“It is more than 12 years since UNSCR 1325 was adopted,” Skare, a Norwegian diplomat appointed to the NATO post in August, told the group in Stockholm. “But the issues still remain much in the margins of international affairs.”

NATO member nations need to better deliver on the promises of the resolution, Skare said, advocating better information-sharing and use of best practices, particularly in recruitment and retention of women in armed forces. Females make up between two percent and 20 percent of the militaries in the alliance, according to a Dec. 18 NATO profile of Skare.

Australia’s ambassador to NATO and the European Union, Duncan Lewis, told the Stockholm group that, while the U.N. resolution has many provisions, “participation is the key.”

“Women must participate increasingly in military planning and mission execution,” Lewis said, according to the text of his remarks posted on the web site of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “Women and children must be a principle focus during the planning and conduct of our operations. They are vital for post-conflict resolution and normalization.”

Lewis cited his experience during the 1982 war in Lebanon, when his forces relied most on the female population for an accurate assessment of conditions in the field. “The men I found to be full of bluster,” he said. “The women were typically the source of ground truth.”

The alliance also needs to work more with the U.N. because respect for women’s rights in many of the countries where NATO is involved requires broader reforms, Skare said.

That tracks with Khan’s recommendations that implementation of the U.N. resolution for NATO needs to go beyond the numbers.

President Barack Obama referenced the need for greater attention to the rule of law in his Inaugural speech this week.

“We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law,” Obama said. “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully –- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

Rule of law can extend from legitimate interpretations of Islamic law as applied in local contexts, Khan said. Trying to impose, or even just propose, western justice systems for such traditional societies is bound to be unsatisfactory for all sides, Khan said. Under legitimate interpretations of Islam, women do have the right of consent to marriage or to control property or to be free from abuse, he said.

As an example, Khan cited recent tidy-looking laws placed on the books in Afghanistan that are modeled after legal standards in the U.K., Germany or the U.S. Such statutes risk irrelevancy in the face of Afghanistan’s own traditional, tribal “customary” laws.

In an example of how such customary law can be effective, once-common cases of girls being traded to resolve family or tribal disputes dropped precipitously in Afghanistan because the national government campaigned against the practice as un-Islamic, Khan said. The remaining instances tend to occur mainly in areas where local governance is weak and authorities aren’t able to enforce the customary laws prohibiting the practice.

Khan said he disagrees with those who believe NATO would be overstepping its brief to venture into questions of Islam’s standards for a society. To the contrary, he says, NATO already has taken on that mantle by embracing the UN provision for its own operations. And ignoring the role of Islam in the countries where the alliance is involved can create or exacerbate tension.

“If you want to play a helpful role in reforming these societies, you have to look at it from the point of view of their values,” Khan said. “You’re actually going to breed insecurity by ignoring these issues.”

The U.S. Department of Defense acknowledges the role of informal justice sectors in Afghanistan.

“Rule of law programs that address commonalities between Afghan Constitutional Law and Sharia Law should be created or expanded, preferably utilizing Provincial University Law Faculties,” the department said in its December semi-annual report to Congress.

An understanding of Islam’s role and how it can accelerate progress in the role of women in their societies makes practical sense, Khan said. Many of the Islamic countries in turmoil have sometimes crippling ethnic divisions and lack a strong national identity or robust national legal systems, so Islam provides the de facto underlying common identity. Men also have to be involved in the process, he said.

Navigating the roiling waves of religion isn’t easy and takes time, but that’s not a reason to neglect the imperative, Khan said.

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