Andrea Thiis-Evensen talks to Dr Eleanor Gordon, who has worked with peace and security for 10 years, making a huge difference to the lives of hundreds of women. Her work has included building state security and justice institutions, working with demobilised guerrilla groups, addressing war crimes and human rights violations, promoting gender equality and inclusive approaches to peacebuilding, and addressing issues related to organised crime and terrorism.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Hey, my name is Andrea Thiis-Evensen. Welcome back to Peace and Gender. In this podcast I'm trying to highlight the issues around gendered inequalities by meeting the people who are actually seeking solutions. I'm trying to get to know not only their research, but also their personal story. In this episode I'm going to be talking to Eleanor Gordon, who worked for the UN with Peace and Security for 10 years.
Eleanor Gordon: A large group of women wanted to return to Srebrenica. They didn't have any homes. The homes had been completely destroyed. Their husbands and their children had been killed.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Eleanor is, in many ways, a living proof that you can make a difference if you just put your mind to it. Eleanor has worked with building state security and justice institutions. She's worked with demobilising guerrilla groups, addressing war crimes and human right violations, promoting gender equality and inclusive approaches to peacebuilding and she's addressed issues relating to organised crime and terrorism. This is Eleanor's story.
Eleanor Gordon: Whilst I was writing up my PhD I decided to do some voluntary work for a peacekeeping training centre because I felt that I had exposure to lots of aspects of what I was interested in and where I wanted to work. All bar the military and I felt that that was a gap in my knowledge and understanding so I decided to do some voluntary work. I was an intern at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Canada for eight months and I completed my doctorate while I was there and it happened also to coincide with an opportunity with UNHCR. There was a UN volunteer's position within UNHCR in Bosnia that I found out about and I was recommended for it.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Eleanor was working for the UNHCR, which is the UN refugee agency. She was head of a small satellite office in eastern Republic Srpska, part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of her responsibilities was to facilitate the return of displaced people.
Eleanor Gordon: So basically Bosniaks returning to their pre-war homes who had been forcibly displaced. I was responsible for facilitating the first return, minority return to Srebrenica. Yeah that experience probably has - yeah, has framed the way I've seen my subsequent engagement.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: When Eleanor was working in Bosnia she wasn't just sitting around in an office.
Eleanor Gordon: If you're right down at the municipal level you're generally working in the field and that's the most - for me, that's the most enjoyable work, when you're in direct contact with the people that you're ostensibly there to help. So yeah we would have an office but every day we would be out.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: I wanted to know if there was a particular moment in Eleanor's career that still stays with her today. Eleanor was working for the UN in Srebrenica. In 1995 Serbian forces separated the Bosnian civilians at Srebrenica, putting women and girls on buses sending them to Bosnian-held territory. The men and boys who were left behind were murdered and it has been estimated that over 7000 Bosniaks were killed.
Eleanor Gordon: I was reflecting on this and I just couldn't get away from this particular event, so I found it really difficult to - because it, yeah it's quite a long time ago and my memory is failing.
So when I was head of the UNHCR satellite office covering Srebrenica, I was responsible for facilitating the first minority return to Srebrenica and as you probably know there was a genocide committed in Srebrenica during the war. Thousands of men and boys, particularly, were killed. So when I was working there with my colleagues in the international community and principally my colleague who was head of the Higher Representative satellite office in Srebrenica, we coordinated and facilitated their return. I guess it stays with me for many reasons, firstly, the amazing courage that people who have suffered such trauma, beyond what you can imagine.
When people are talking about conflict and war, often times we might reflect upon how you become desensitised to violence or how you can be very traumatised and that leads to a cycle of conflict happening. But we rarely talk about those who have the courage to continue with their lives, those who have the courage to fight peacefully against what they believe is wrong. So these - predominately women, a large group of women, wanted to return to Srebrenica, they didn't have any homes, their homes had been completely destroyed, their husbands and their children had been killed.
They wanted to return, even though they knew they'd be sleeping under sheeting, there were no schools, there was no water, electricity, because it was their homes. They wanted - that was where, where they felt was home. But they also wanted to reclaim that - not accept what has happened. So there was a strength behind their decision to wanting to return, even though at that stage those who were responsible for the crimes, the horrific war crimes that had happened in Srebrenica were still in positions of power in the municipality.
They were exposing themselves to serious threat and there had been a number of returns in my area of responsibility to that stage - until that stage, that had gone wrong. There had been security incidents, and one in particular in the neighbouring municipality and a teenager had lost their leg because the day before they were going to return home, someone had placed a landmine in the villages. During the time that I was there, eighteen months, thousands of people were returned to their pre-war homes. They were often completely destroyed and they would put up sheeting.
UNHCR would be able to help with basic sheeting and basic essentials, nothing else. Then we would facilitate the response of the NGOs and other organisations, and to respond to their other needs, but of course there wasn't sufficient resources to respond to everyone's needs. We would also ensure that the responsible authorities and the local authority, the police, and the municipal authorities, responded to their security needs.
We would work alongside [S4] which was NATO, NATO forces who would address the security side of things. So I was saying why Srebrenica stood out, many people believed that people wouldn't want to return to Srebrenica after everything that had happened to them. They were returning to a village that was very remote, as I said, there were no houses, they were completely destroyed.
There were still people who had - we believed, had been responsible for the crimes in positions of authority, so there were many people who didn't think that these returns would be sustainable, that people would stay there because UNHCR had a mandate to facilitate the safe and sustainable return of refugees and displaced people. If you didn't think it was going to be sustainable it wasn't our responsibility as UNHCR to facilitate that return. My gut knew that - and so did, fortunately I also had a colleague, as I said, in the Office of the Higher Representative. We knew that we were there to respond to the needs of those who wanted to return home, we weren't there to cause an obstruction to it, and my gut knew this was the right thing for me to do.
At the time I was a UN volunteer I was relatively young and relatively new to the job. I had all my supervisors at headquarters and it went to New York, many people saying this - you're exposing these people to security threats, you're not being responsible, you need to stop this now. I knew it was and - I'm pretty stubborn anyway but sometimes when you know things are right you have to stick to that, and we facilitated their return, it went very well. They didn't overnight but that was not the intention and eventually they have returned, that - it's a sustainable return, NGOs have responded to the education needs, providing hospitals and building the houses and roads, water, infrastructure and so on. It just - taught me a lot that when you know something is right you have to stick to it, even if you've got everyone, a thousand people, saying this can't happen. If you know something can happen and it should happen, it's your responsibility, you have to reflect upon why you're working in these environments. It's not to get a pay check, get a promotion, be a yes man, it's to respond to those who have suffered.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Did it make any difference that you were saying no it is and I want to - you know what I mean, or was it you and a lot of other people, just to kind of understand your role in the whole thing?
Eleanor Gordon: Yeah, because UNHCR was the lead agency responsible for facilitating the return of refugees and displaced people, our organisation could make those decisions. So my role, even though I was a volunteer, was pretty significant because I was head of the satellite office of UNHCR, however, elsewhere in UNHCR and other organisations - so those on the ground knew differently. We were quite near the border with the Federation, those across the Federation I think in many - conflicts, post-conflict environments; there are many sides to a conflict. You can have neighbours who have very different perspectives, so those in the Federation that only - that rarely travelled to the Republic of Srpska would consider that it was much too dangerous to set foot in and that anyone who expects people to return there's got to be crazy.
So I would get a lot of - particularly from my most senior boss, my direct supervisor, a lot of criticism that I was exposing these people to danger, I was being irresponsible. But he could not, in order for him to stop what I was facilitating, he would need to take quite a bold step in stopping the return of refugees and displaced people to their pre-war homes. In Srebrenica, because it was Srebrenica in the first return it had global attention so any move that anyone made would have - would've generated a lot of publicity, but it - so they were in a difficult position in that they couldn't stop the return but because I could've done, and I could've postponed it.
With the colleagues that I was working with, so with NATO and with the Office of the Higher Representative, there were other UN representatives there in - who also didn't agree that this return was sustainable, they thought it was politicised, they thought it was dangerous. So it - the pressure got quite significant and on the actual day we were travelling up the hill and I - I and I think some of my colleagues were really worried thinking shit. Have we done the right thing? We knew we had, we'd gone - we'd - you have to, in those circumstances, there is always a security risk and you have to plan, prepare and just make sure you've addressed every potential outcome.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: When did you know you'd made the right choice? You said you were like travelling up the hill and you were worried?
Eleanor Gordon: Yeah, when they got to the top and none of the cars had crashed or fallen off the cliff. It was a long way. It was a - the return was longer than that because there could've been attacks, at a later stage. But it - there were no roads and you were in trucks - I can't even recall how long the journey took, but a long time. Up the edge of a really steep, I wouldn't call it a hill, like a mountain] so - little bit nerve-wracking.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: After spending five years in Bosnia, Eleanor moved to Kosovo. She was the political advisor to the Kosovo Protection Corps coordinator, reporting to the United Nations.
Eleanor Gordon: The Kosovo Protection Corps, they are - they no longer exist, they were comprised primarily of demobilised Kosovo Liberation Army personnel. They were basically the guerrilla fighters during the conflict. They were a civil emergency organisation as the Kosovo Protection Corps, with aspirations to be the future army of Kosovo and now exist - the Kosovo Security Force. So my role as political advisor was to liaise with prospective donors, the media, to address gender issues, ethnic minority issues. To facilitate the further development of the Kosovo Protection Corps as it aspired to further professionalise and develop into the Kosovo Security Force. But the two are quite different organisations for political reasons, but it's a complicated history.
There was a mandate, the UN had a mandate to facilitate the implementation of the peace agreement, and part of that peace agreement was to insure that the establishment of the Kosovo Protection Corps and it's further development. The UN was obliged to insure that this organisation adhered to various standards, that it recruited a number of ethnic minorities, that it responded to the needs of everyone on its territory. That it was transparent and accountable, and there were policies developed and practices developed that enabled its further professionalization. Depending on who you spoke with, that was to lead the way to it becoming a future defence force, and at least that's how the Kosovo Protection Corps saw it and some external actors as well.
But it was a civilian emergency organisation and when you have any conflict you have to demobilise the combatants. You can't simply take away their guns and get rid of their internal structures, you have to find a way in which they can coexist with those they might've been fighting against. There needs to be some reintegration program. Oftentimes, you might have a program whereby former combatants of non-state armed groups would be recruited or join the army, the state armed forces. Or there might be other programs that will enable them to socially, economically, politically participate and address their psychosocial needs.
Unless you do that, there is always a risk that you're going to return to conflict because you have a large number of former combatants whose grievances might not have been addressed, who don't have any jobs, don't have any income to support their families. These are the people that you need to attend to if you don't want further conflict. I would argue that you also need to attend to those who don't pose a threat to peace. Those who are - those are often ignored.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Who are these people who are ignored?
Eleanor Gordon: Generally speaking, those who aren't seen as what is called a spoiler to the peace process. Those who aren't seen as potentially destabilising, those who might not take up arms. Those who might not challenge the legitimacy of the government, who might protest or disrupt what those who are trying to establish a sustainable peace are trying to do.
Often there's quite a narrow interpretation of what a spoiler is, who they are, and people generally assume that spoilers are simply those who might take up arms and cause an escalation or an outbreak of conflict. But of course if you have the majority of the population who don't accept the legitimacy of the government, or who don't have faith or confidence in the police process. You're not going to have a sustainable or meaningful peace, even though they might not take up arms. So you do need to respond to the needs of those who have been marginalised, those who continue to be marginalised and - ignored ethnic minorities, women, disabled people, young people, children, elderly people, they're often ignored. It tends to be young, fit men, stereotype who are considered to be those who might be potential spoilers.
Their agency isn't recognised and it's not that people might consider that young, fit men, to stereotype and generalise, need to be fixed, but they need to either be controlled or prevented from destabilising a fragile peace. Former combatants, those who have access to arms, those who've been fighting and are trained, and those who may have grievances, those who may not have attachments or who have been desensitised to violence or traumatised they are likely - more likely than others to take up arms again so you need to address that threat. I'm generalising quite a lot so of course there are many organisations that do attend to the needs of women and children and marginalised groups, and this is going from experience 10 years ago so things have moved on.
Even if you do stop armed conflict, if you're not addressing the security and justice needs of women, of children, of the marginalised groups for whatever reason, you can't consider that the security and justice is meaningful, that peace is being enjoyed by everyone. Therefore, in my opinion, there's no meaningful peace, if only a small minority are able to enjoy the dividends of peace.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: As I said in the beginning of this podcast, Eleanor is in many ways, a living example of how we can actually make a difference in the world. But what began her journey to work with social justice issues?
Eleanor Gordon: I guess when I was younger, what began my interest or passion in social justice issues and - it's something that drives many people inside and there may not have been an incident that ignited that desire to respond to what you see as injustices. But I remember being very young and wanting to do something positive. I lived in a bit of a rubbish town, you were lucky if you got out, a lot of drug and drink problems. A lot of people, even in the school, would say don't be silly you can't change anything, who do you think are. It's just never - I think it's important for students to know that you can change things, just the way we treat each other on a day-to-day basis, you change people's lives. If people say no, do not ever let it stop you, you can make a positive difference.
We have a responsibility if we're lucky enough to have a good life we have a responsibility to respond to those who haven't been as fortunate. It could just as easily be us who is in a conflict affected environment, who've been forced to leave that country, who've become an asylum seeker, who are living in conflict or living in a household and suffering violence or insecurity. We can do something about it, and we know these things are going on and we can change things for the better. If we're told no, just - we know that we can do things.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: Eleanor has spent eighteen years working in the field of international development, after leaving the UN Eleanor's worked with a number of universities and she's now a lecturer at Monash University. So the last years Eleanor has used her past experience in her academic work.
Eleanor Gordon: My research - I decided to reflect upon my experience in order to inform my research and hopefully use my experience to potentially inform policy and thereby practice. Because I saw that there was a significant disconnect between those engaged at the state level in peace building and those engaged at the ground level. International NGOs tended to focus on communities, I'm generalising greatly but in the security and justice sector, that's my experience. International organisations focused on building institutions, policies, processes and structures. My research was looking at ways in which to build sustainable peace, focusing particularly on the security and justice sector.
By bridging those two endeavours so that the people who are affected by conflict, people at the ground level, were able to inform the security and justice structures and policies and legislation that was being developed at the state level. Too often, what happened was, you would build a state security institution or draft a piece of legislation or policy and thereafter you might consult with the people who the institution was there to respond to their needs. Or you might tell them about it, but there wasn't comprehensive engagement by local communities at the early stages of the reform process.
So my research was looking at ways in which this could be done, ways in which the two approaches to building security and justice after peace could be integrated. As part of that, it's led on to further research which is looking at ways in which peacebuilding in the security and justice sector can be more inclusive. Ways in which it can involve women, ways in which poor people tend to be marginalised and why they need to - their needs need to be addressed.
Andrea Thiis-Evensen: That was Eleanor, thank you so much for listening to this episode of Peace and Gender. My name is Andrea Thiis-Evensen and this podcast was produced for Monash Gender Peace and Security, and MOJO news.
Music: "Solitude" by Broke for free – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-
Artwork: Shayla Rance