Human Rights, Peace and Conflict Resolution
By: Asha Asokan
My interest in human rights, peace, and conflict resolution emanates from an amorphous childhood desire to help others in need. This desire I believe is derived from the early teachings of my father who believed in helping fellow human beings as his obligation rather than just showing sympathy. Inspired by my father, I obtained a bachelor’s degree in law and a master’s degree in human rights law. After my law studies, I started my career as an advocate for a corporate law firm. However later I realized that corporate life was not a good fit for me and started thinking of working in the field of human rights.
It wasn’t long before I decided to put the teachings given by my parents and the education that I got from school into practice, and I moved to Sudan from India to embark on working in the field of human rights, civilian protection, and peacebuilding. I took the position as a contractor with the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) without regard to salary or benefits. In the course of my stay in Sudan, I witnessed the displacement of thousands of civilians and the killing of hundreds of civilians, including women and children, during the Sudanese conflict that occurred between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). During the crisis, I worked at the Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camp as a volunteer distributing food and water to the needy. I stayed in the UN camp witnessing severe fighting and bombardment, and at times there were several threats to the UN base as well, where I was residing and working. The humanitarians and other UN officials working in the area, including me, were evacuated to Khartoum when the fighting intensified, and we left the vulnerable civilians behind. I was very frustrated by the fact that I was incapable of stopping the violence and that intensified my desire to be involved in peacebuilding and conflict prevention and resolution.
With the desire to work for women and child protection, I later moved to South Sudan in 2012 and worked with the International Nongovernmental Organization (Nonviolent Peace force) and the United Nations Mission In South Sudan on civilian, women’s, refugee and child protection issues. While working with the Nonviolent Peace force, an organization involved in peace and civilian protection, I had the opportunity to support conflicting communities in averting many conflicts by creating safe spaces for reconciliation and dialogues. Furthermore, it supported the communities in the establishment of women’s protection teams (WPTs) who later took part in the South Sudan peace process and advocated for their role in decision making.
Later in 2016, I joined the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) as a Child Protection Officer and in this capacity, I supported the mission in monitoring and reporting of six grave violations against children committed by armed forces and groups in the context of armed conflict. I also had the opportunity to support the mission in the release and reintegration of approximately 600 child soldiers from armed forces and groups in South Sudan.
From Child Protection Officer, UNMISS to Rotary Peace Fellow at the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center
After six years of my work in conflict and post-conflict regions on peace, civilian protection especially women and child protection, I decided to take a break from service and to pursue my second masters on policies, to contribute in a better way for the protection of children and women in conflict and post-conflict countries. In 2018, I was awarded a generous Rotary Peace fellowship to study a two-year master’s program on policies at Duke University, including a three-month Applied Field Experience (AFE). The mid-career master’s program at Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Centre is equipping me with all the policy tools that are necessary to shape social, political and economic development efforts worldwide and to understand conflict mitigation mechanisms in depth. This course is helping me to learn in-depth about policies and is enhancing my analytical skill and I am studying more about the ethical dimensions of policy decisions.
Later in April 2019, I was also awarded another grant from Margaret McNamara Education Grants (MMEG) to support my career development activities, including attending conferences, speaking events and to partially fund my three months of applied field experience with the United Nations in New York.
Three parts of Applied Field Experience in three different countries
In addition to the opportunity to study on policies, I also got the opportunity to do a summer AFE and for me, it was an ambitious AFE as I decided to utilize my entire summer to understand and learn more about the human rights and humanitarian issues around the world.
My AFE consists of three parts. Firstly, during the last week of May 2019, I attended a 5-day intense course on Humanitarian Action in Geneva, Switzerland, organized by Duke University. This course gave me the opportunity to learn the current humanitarian issues, challenges and gaps, and how coordination between different organizations happens at the headquarters level. I also had the opportunity to network with different experts, both from human rights and humanitarian, especially those working for the protection of women and children in conflict and post-conflict countries. I strongly believe that the professional connections that I made through this course will be helpful for my future work.
Secondly, in the first week of June, I had the opportunity to speak at the Rotary Peace Symposium in Hamburg, Germany on inclusive peacebuilding, mainly inclusion and participation of women in the peace process in conflict and post-conflict countries. I along with two other speakers stressed the importance of inclusive peacebuilding. The inclusion of women is very important for peace and sustainable development of any country, and for the same reason, advocacy is a tool to ensure inclusivity. It was a great opportunity to advocate for the rights of women in the peace process and decision making to a large audience.
Thirdly as part of my AFE, I am currently working at the UN Office of the Special Representative to the Secretary General on Children and Armed conflict (UN OSRSG – CAAC) in New York, USA. The office of the SRSG CAAC is mandated to report on six grave violations against children, in the context of conflict, around the world to the United Nations Secretary General. Around the world, there are twenty country situations that have been in the UN CAAC mandate and have been specifically monitored by the UN because of the active conflict. Before becoming a Rotary Peace Fellow, I had the opportunity to work with the UN in South Sudan on children and armed conflict issues. This AFE is giving me the opportunity to understand children and armed conflict issues around the world and expand my horizon outside South Sudan. Protecting children in conflict countries is one of the major human issues faced by different countries, the UN and the international community. Reports from the UN and other organizations indicates that more than 240 million children are living in conflict countries around the world.
The AFE is giving me opportunities to understand the children and armed conflict issues at a headquarters level, where advocacy is done with the parties to the conflict and with the United Nations member states, to ensure the protection of children in the context of armed conflict. Furthermore, it also helped me to understand how political engagement is done with parties to the conflict and how the peace process is used as a window to ensure child protection. The AFE is giving me the opportunity to attend many high-level meetings and network with different experts working on the issues.
During my AFE, I had the opportunity to attend different high-level meetings and events. I witnessed the release of this year’s Secretary General’s Annual report on children and armed conflict and also to attend the full day Open Debate at the Security Council on Children and Armed conflict.
Discussion with Special Representative to the Secretary- General on Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Virginia Gamba
SRSG Gamba, since her appointment, has been tirelessly working for the protection of the rights of children affected by armed conflict, and in this respect, she is always on a mission to different countries to advocate for the protection of children in armed conflict. In the second week of joining the office, I requested for an official meeting with her, to understand her strategies for the protection of children in conflict. During my meeting with the SRSG Ms. Virginia Gamba, it was promising to hear from her how she and the office are working with different actors to strengthen the protection of children affected by armed conflict, to raise awareness, promote the collection of information about the plight of children affected by war and foster international cooperation to improve their protection.
My future work
These opportunities are helping me to strengthen my skills and my responsibility to contribute in a better way for the protection of women and children in conflict and post conflict countries.