Category: Women

How War and Militarism Are Terrorizing Women in Ukraine

Yesterday, Ukrainian neo-Nazis stormed a European lesbian conference due to be held in the capital city, Kyiv, with the aim of shutting down the gathering before it even starts. Using tear gas and armed with placards, the ultra-right wing ‘protestors’ have spent days hounding the hotel where the conference is to be held, including smashing hotel windows and spray-painting homophobic graffiti. Picket signs read “Go back to hell, sodomites” amongst other unsavoury sentiments.

This targeting of the lesbian conference is just the latest in a string of violence perpetrated by neo-Nazis in Ukraine against women and the LGBQ+ community, which has become increasingly frequent in the last few years. Women and LGBQ+ are not the only targets of this violence – last year, the targeted attacks against Roma in Ukraine by ultra-right wing nationalists made international headlines. Less reported on are the similarly systematic harassment and intimidation of immigrants and other ethnic minorities in the country.

In a country like Australia, we would have a hard time imagining that such harassment, violence, and intimidation against women, sexual and ethnic minorities could become so commonplace. But I think Ukraine is a litmus for the rest of the world in terms of how quickly the polarization of politics can become lethal, and threaten to undo nearly 80 years of human rights advances.

The reason this far-right wing violence has become practically acceptable in Ukraine has to do with the civil war that has affected the country for nearly 5 years and the fusing of militarism, masculinity, and the state that enables the policing of the gender order by these groups to take place.

Tracing the story of war, militarism, and the rise of a particularly violent and aggressive form of neo-Nazi, militarized masculinity in Ukraine requires us to go back a few years.

In 2013, the country was deeply divided between ‘East’ and ‘West’ (or perhaps better said ‘Rest’) on the geopolitical orientation of the country. A very large number of people, particularly in the capital city and Western regions, were deeply upset with the government and with the economy, and held hopes that a new economic arrangement under negotiation with the EU would improve conditions. When the Yanukovich government suddenly reversed its position and refused to sign the EU deal, it sparked mass protests in Kyiv and around the country, which culminated in the 2014 Revolution now known as ‘Euromaidan.’

Euromaidan came under heavy siege from the Ukrainian government. The violence perpetrated against protestors was a strong impetus for many to commit what time, energy, and resources they had to support the movement. But, as with any violence, it also attracted a certain kind of man in droves, seemingly seduced by the opportunity to wield and use weapons and act as masculine protectors. Many of them shared political views that would place them far on the right side of the political spectrum, fostered and developed for many through their love of football (but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

While by no means the majority of participants in the protest, these violent men soon gained prominence and prestige as the ‘heroes’ of Euromaidan. Volodymyr Ishchenko, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, has been tracing the influence of the far-right in Ukraine since Euromaidan. He noted early on that despite their media prominence, the values espoused by the far-right did not reflect the general values of those participating in the protests. Yet, their apparent heroism has allowed for the normalization and even valorization of these extreme views.

Now, the true impetus or cause of the civil war is contested and I’ll reserve my views for now, since the important thing to note for this analysis is how, as heroes of the Revolution, these far-right groups soon became national war heroes for volunteering to take their arms and transfer their violence towards their new enemies – the separatist forces in Donbas. With historical factors and the revolution leaving the armed forces in disarray, when the separatists declared independence in Donetsk and Luhansk regions and seized government buildings by force, the Ukrainian government depended on groups of civilian men who formed ‘volunteer battalions’ to source their own weapons, mobilize to the front line, and fight for the territorial integrity of the state.

Since then, though small in number, these militant far-right groups of men have become an increasingly powerful political force in the state and the government has proven itself unable or unwilling to reign in their violence when it is directed internally at civilians far from the front lines of the civil war. To the neo-Nazis, the enemies are one in the same. According to one with whom I spoke for my own research, the enemy against whom they fight is “homosexuals, paedophiles, and communists.” Those enemies do not just exist in the armed units of the separatist forces, but, by their rationale, in all aspects of Ukrainian society and have the potential to threaten the cohesion and stability of the state anywhere at anytime.

As such, it has become increasingly dangerous to be not only left-wing, but liberal in any sense of the word in Ukraine. In such a situation, the rights of women and of sexual and ethnic minorities are facing quick erosion. Not only are these groups systematically targeted by far-right groups, but so too are the formerly mainstream, acceptable demands now being de-legitimized. For example, far-right groups harassed and attacked organizers of Ukraine’s International Women’s Day march, arguing that IWD is a ‘Soviet holiday’ and that women should be celebrated on Mother’s Day, instead.

Certainly, as we have seen with the recent Christchurch terror attack, the values and sentiments expressed by the far-right are not confined to Ukraine. There is a rising polarization of politics, globally. We have to stop thinking of the violence perpetrated by far-right militant men in the West as “lone wolf” attacks and begin placing their violence within the context of militarism, misogyny, and xenophobia that unites their vision of the world and glorifies violence perpetrated against women and minorities.

The Global Political Economy of Sexual Exploitation

I recently attended a workshop aimed at preparing a submission for a UN consultation on business & human rights on the role of the so-called ‘sex industry’ in Australia. One of the key observations made by scholars, practitioners, and activists was that this legal, regulated industry in Australia enjoys a special, exempted status from the scrutiny of business ethics such as the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. While there is much to be said about the incongruity of the ‘job like any other’ discourse regarding the sex industry and mechanisms to ensure corporate responsibility for upholding basic human rights, one aspect I find far less considered is the way in which both legal and illegal forms of sexual exploitation seem to undergird so many aspects of our regular, licit economy.

It struck me from socializing with men and women in the banking and IT sectors how normal it is for workplace socializing to be conducted in strip clubs. A number of my friends and acquaintances admitted the regularity with which their ‘team’ would wind up after Thursday night drinks at a strip club, while others relayed rumors of their company holding corporate accounts with such establishments. It has made me wonder just how integral is sexual exploitation to lubricating our core economic sectors in an advanced, capitalist country?

With this ‘feminist curiosity‘ in mind, I came across an article about 50 formerly prostituted women suing Salesforce for facilitating their being sexually trafficked. Salesforce is an American Fortune 500 tech company perhaps best known for its ‘customer relationship management’ (CRM) software, used by millions. This week, fifty “Jane Does” have filed a lawsuit in San Francisco accusing Salesforce of “sex trafficking, negligence, and conspiracy” for providing CRM services to the notorious classified advertising site Backpage.com.

Last year, Backpage made international news when its CEO pleaded guilty to an array of charges associated with sex trafficking and money laundering as a result of publishing ads relating to prostitution, sex trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of minors. This new lawsuit against Salesforce alleges that the company and CEO, Marc Benioff:

engaged in nefarious activities while claiming to be fighting trafficking. “Behind the scenes … Salesforce kept taking Backpage’s money and supporting it with the CRM database of pimps, johns, and traffickers that Backpage needed to operate.”

Most perniciously, at the same time the company was attempting to paint itself as ‘good guys’ concerned with global corporate responsibility,

“Salesforce knew the scourge of sex trafficking because it sought publicity for trying to stop it. But at the same time, this publicly traded company was, in actuality, among the vilest of rogue companies, concerned only with their bottom line,” the suit alleges. “And human beings—many more than just these 50—were raped and abused because of it.”

“The Jane Does were forced, coerced, and made victims of sex trafficking by means of force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to themselves and others, including family members,” the lawsuit claims. “Salesforce committed acts at issue with malice, oppression, fraud, and duress.”

The claim of Salesforce’s complicity rests on the recognition that the industry of sexually exploiting women and children cannot operate alone, but requires all the same support services, technical services, and financial services as any other. Thus, the claim lodged by the 50 women accuses Salesforce of complicity in actively maximizing “customer acquisition” of johns/punters and aggressive marketing towards this acquisition. As such, the suit claims that not only did Salesforce’s technology provide “the backbone of Backpage’s exponential growth,” but it was also under Salesforce’s guidance that Backpage came to dominate the illicit industry in the trafficking and trade in women’s and children’s bodies.

Such recognition of the complicity of giants in our economy in the sex industry is an important first step. For as research has shown, the sexual exploitation of women and children isn’t done just by a handful of deviant, lonely men. Rather, it is sustained by both a widespread culture of acceptance that women’s bodies can be bought and used as commodities, as well as by an economic system that enables the trade.

Can Conflict Resolution & Peace Building Survive Right-Wing Populism in Colombia?

I don’t feel that Duque can jeopardize my legacy,” asserted Juan Manuel Santos, the outgoing Colombian president and Nobel Peace laureate in an interview with the news website La Silla Vacía published on July 7, 2018.  Santos’s response might calm down some of the fears of Colombian peace process supporters, as much of them see in the entry into office of the president-elect Iván Duque on 7 August 2018 a serious menace to the ongoing implementation of the peace agreement signed by Santos’s government with the FARC guerrilla in 2016.

But statements made at the 2017 National Convention of the Democratic Center Party have even sparked the fears of those who were confident in the implementation of the peace agreement, as one of its most relevant members asserted that the first challenge to be undertaken by Duque’s political party will be “to shatter this cursed paper called final agreement with the FARC.” Nevertheless, during the presidential campaign which led to his election in May 2018, Duque was able to play a more moderate card by using a double-edged strategy. One the one side, Duque claimed that he we will make some adjustments to the peace agreement and, on the other, he pledged to support the ongoing process of FARC demobilization opened up by this agreement. When starting his government on August 7, Duque will have a comfortable absolute majority in the Parliament, which will secure him the ability to pass any proposed reform. However, the peace accords have been enshrined in the Constitution and, moreover, a ruling of the Constitutional Court obliges the next three governments to implement them.

All well and good, but can we trust Duque’s independence from the hard-liners of his right-wing party? Why should we be cautious about the populist imprints of the Democratic Center? And more precisely, how might the Democratic Center’s populism endanger gender mainstreaming in the peace-building process?

Why Should We Fear the Democratic Center’s Populism?

Contrary to what this question might suggest, I must start by asserting that I don’t reject populism outright. As Chantal Mouffe suggests, there is a necessity of certain forms of populism in order to enhance the agonistic relations that are essential for a vibrant democratic debate to exist. In their defense of populism, Mouffe as well as Ernesto Laclau explain that populism is not an ideology but “a way of constructing the political” (Laclau 2005). It is a way to build a transversal political identity by articulating different political demands. Not limited to concerns of class, populist demands may stem from other cross-cutting social relationships including, for instance, nationality, gender, race, religious belonging, or even environmental relations. A populist chain of demands is not fixed, but rather can be re-articulated or fall apart. That is another reason why populism is better defined as a way of “constructing the people,” and not as an ideology.

To put it shortly, the need for left-wing populist alternatives, that Mouffe prompts, arises as the current post-political consensus has rendered the adversarial model of politics obsolete and has achieved to turn the rule of technocracy into a hegemony. But at the same time, it is precisely the increasing rule of technocracy, with its ability to depoliticize and foreclose any debate about possible alternatives to, for example, measures of austerity, the rules of neoliberal globalization, or the global refugee crisis, what is at the roots of the current global success of right-wing populism.

Unlike a current elite unable to formulate alternative answers, right-wing populist parties claim that they embody the voice of the people, and their ability to construct a collective difference between an Us opposed to a Them is one their basic features. Notoriously, the other key feature of right-wing populism is its ability to build a political identity based on the articulation of a chain of identities and demands against a current elite, who they claim has failed or betrayed the people. And precisely, this recurrent practice whereby a political group labels those who dissent or oppose them, for instance, of being unpatriotic or supporters of terrorism, has been one of the most prominent footprints of Duque’s party Democratic Center. Thus, in order to map the populist architecture of this right-wing party, it is good to start by scrutinizing this practice.

Founded by Duque’s godfather, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, the Democratic Center fiercely opposed not only the Havana peace talks all along, but reparation to the victims. Insofar as Santos deepened his commitment to these causes throughout his presidential mandates (2010-2018), Uribe’s response was not long in coming and expressing his fury. Uribe labeled Santos as a traitor  who was leaving the country in the hands of a communist menace that he called  Castro-Chavism  and, moreover, accused Santos of  leading the surrender of the country to the FARC. The gendered dimensions of Uribe’s rhetoric are close to the surface, and that, coming from a politician whose war-centered approach to end the Colombian armed conflict and to deal with the coca cultivation entailed a serious militarization of women’s lives, is not surprising. Echoing the sense suggested by Cynthia Enloe, by militarization of women’s lives, I mean a governmental rule that provides a sense of worthiness and normalcy to military –and paramilitary– ideas.

Feminists, as Meger reminds us, “have documented the role that discourse plays in constructing gender symbolism and naturalizing hierarchies of dominance and subordination.” Moreover, she claims, “the discourse of counterterrorism is not only a means of delegitimizing insurgencies but also of feminizing them” (Meger 2016: 90). Uribe’s strategy to deny the FARC guerrilla belligerent status during his mandate was not an exception in this respect. But here, in order to sabotage Santos’s peace process, Uribe was able to use the discourse the other way around. Crafting an analogy between the Havana peace talks and military surrender, and equating Santos’s peace politics with a betrayal to the long effort of the Colombian Army against the FARC’s terrorist menace, Uribe sought to turn the military and their supporters against Santos. And in fact, in the view of public opinion, Uribe succeeded in creating a climate of distrust between the executive and the military. In Uribe’s populist rhetoric, Santos’s peace politics meant the dishonor and emasculation of the Colombian National Army, rendering both the long military struggle against the FARC as if it has been of no value and the sacrifice of Colombian people in the war of drugs as if it would have been in vain.

But, just as Santos counteracted the effects of Uribe’s rhetoric by including the military at the negotiating table, so too the Democratic Center was also able to reframe its chain of equivalences (interests-identities) and to keep its populist architecture going. In this endeavor, another maneuver particularly gendered that serves the purpose of securing to Uribe’s party a large section of the Colombian electorate was set in motion during the campaign on the plebiscite for peace that took place on October 2016. At that time, the Democratic Center orchestrated a misleading campaign that led not just to the resignation of Education minister Gina Parody but, even worst, to the rejection of the Havana peace accords. In what has been one of its most successful attempts to destabilize Santos’s government, the Democratic Center appealed to the religious beliefs and fears of the Colombian electorate by directing its attacks to the mainstreaming of gender in schools and to the inclusion of the term gender in the Havana accords. Crafting a discourse to stir up fear among the growing Christian community (Protestant and Catholic), the Democratic Center targeted as its new scapegoat the minister Parody. Blaming her for smuggling a supposed gender ideology into the schools and into the peace agreements, this party claimed that the inclusion of such foreign gender ideology would jeopardize the heterosexual basis upon which the traditional Colombian family is grounded. In the aftermath of such a defeat in the plebiscite, which journalist Maria Jimena Duzán has called “The Night of Tears”, Santos managed to achieve a new peace deal which included amendments and clarifications suggested by sectors of the “No” vote.  Approved by the Colombian Congress on December 2016, yet the new peace accord maintained the use of the gender-based approach, which broadly speaking was referred to as the recognition of equal rights for men and women. Despite the fact that Colombia has not issued a National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325, the final peace agreement has been recognized for having incorporated 122 gender-specific provisions.

In its ambitious architecture, the Colombian peace agreement with the FARC seeks to tackle the following aspects: First, what have been identified as the causes of the war, and which, worthy to mention, have underpinned the FARC insurgency’s political grievances, such as inequality in land access and concerns related to territorial control. Second, factors and dynamics that fuel the war, being the most significant drug trafficking and others such as illegal mining. Third, socio-economic and political inequalities that have allowed human rights violations, which include but are not limited to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and political beliefs or affiliation. Four, the peace accord aims at offering to the victims a comprehensive system for truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. Thus, going beyond the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of the FARC guerilla, the final document addresses the above-mentioned aspects in six chapters: (1) comprehensive rural reform, aimed at reducing the socio-economic gap between urban and rural areas  which, worth mentioning, involves measures aimed at bringing about sustainable development; (2) political participation, with a view on enhancing democratic pluralism broadly understood; (3) DDR of the FARC members in order to guarantee their political, social, and economic integration into civilian life; (4) comprehensive solution to the drug problem which promises to overcome the over-criminalization produced by the war on drugs and, instead, involves a comprehensive plan with an equity-based and gender-based approach for the substitution of crops tackling the structural causes that lead families to cultivate illicit drug crops; (5) comprehensive system of transformative transitional justice;  and (6) system for the verification of the implementation of the agreement.

So far, so good. But can we be sure that in his attempts to adjust the peace agreement, the newly elected president Duque could resist its political party’s tendency to resort to right-wing populist strategies?

Ivan Duque: Under the Shadow of Populism

Since he was picked up as the Democratic Center’s official candidate, Ivan Duque was depicted for many as Uribe’s new puppet; a shadow from which Duque has not been able to free himself. And that despite the active support of the media, which facilitated him to elude any serious public debate. The media played its part directing the spotlight towards Duque’s experience working at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and thereby helped him to build a pro-business profile. In the meantime, Duque refused to attend various debates, and notoriously a debate organized by women’s movements and feminist organizations, so-called “The Women Ask.” Yet, the Democratic Center could not afford to overlook the LGBT constituencies. Hence, it found a way around not just to repair the rifts caused by its misleading campaign on gender ideology, but to counteract the fears of the LGBT community that the Democratic Center will re-open the so-called anti-gay referendum. Without hesitation or shame, Uribe rushed to give a hand to his protégé by addressing a public statement to the LGBT sector and declaring that the Democratic Center will respect all acquired rights.

As for the peace process, Duque maintained his positioning as a moderate politician by emphasizing that he will adjust the agreements rather than shatter them. However, history might repeat itself and, hence, Duque might face serious difficulties to maintain a margin of autonomy from his party. As it happened with Santos, any step Duque might take in an opposite direction from Uribe’s rightist approach or from the Democratic Center’s hard-liners could cause him to be labeled as traitor.

The latest developments show that Duque’s government has begun to reshape the peace-building process even before its entry into office. Just some days after Duque won the presidency, the Congress passed a reform proposed by his party which weakens the power of a backbone institution created through the Havana agreements, so-called Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish). The JEP is a transitional justice mechanism whose main function is to investigate and prosecute serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during the Colombian armed conflict. Since the creation of the JEP, the Democratic Center has argued that this tribunal places on equal footing guerrilla members and the military. Thus, recycling the argument according to which the peace agreement undermines the honor of the Colombian Army, the Democratic Center succeeded in obtaining from Congress approval of a reform that obliges the JEP to create a special chamber to judge military personnel. Law scholars, such as Rodrigo Uprimny, have argued that this measure disarticulates the entire transitional justice architecture, while others have warned that this reform leaves over 2,000 military personnel who have expressed their intention to appear before the JEP in a legal limbo. But beyond that, what this amendment suggests is that the attacks to the peace-building process that Duque’s right-wing party may put in motion will be brutal, though not necessarily frontal. While keeping his technocratic façade, Duque can be tempted to resort to populist tropes and strategies aimed at disarticulating the institutions created through the peace agreement.

For instance, Duque might cast doubts on their design or on the neutrality of the functionaries appointed to work at these agencies asserting that they are ideologically biased. Thereafter, he can use that argument as a pretext to change their organization, turning them into dysfunctional agencies unable to accomplish their mission. Even starker, Duque’s government might provoke a division between the traditional poor and the victims. For instance, and given the huge cost of victim reparation programs, hard-line factions of his party can spread rumors asserting that, because of such expenses, the government might be obliged to reduce social investment for the poor. Or finally, as a report of the International Crisis Group has warned, the government might render transitional justice institutions inefficient by starving their operational budgets.

Yet, by way of conclusion, the Colombian peace-building experience does not suggest that we should reject all forms of populism, or that populism is antithetical to peace building and democratic rule. If the tropes used by populism include, for instance, those related to gender equality and respect for diversity, populism can help societies to bring about transformative justice and durable peace. In contrast, when the tropes and mottos adopted by populism work to promote patriarchal masculinities, to undermine democratic pluralism or to maintain inequalities, it is most likely that the only kind of post-conflict context populism can help to bring about is one ruled by an oppressive peace.

Note: at the time of submitting this article (July 2018), the Colombian Supreme Court announced that it has widened a criminal investigation to include Ex-president Uribe on charges of bribery and intimidation of witnesses. This investigation stems from another case concerning alleged participation of Uribe in the formation of death squads during the 1990s.

Acknowledgments

My grateful thanks go to Lucy for permission to use her cartoon. I would like to thank also Carine Middelbos for her invaluable comments and editorial support.