Global perspective Human stories

“It’s so valuable to have women on the ground, whether as a civilian or in a uniformed position” – Lisa Buttenheim

Lisa Buttenheim, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).
UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras
Lisa Buttenheim, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

“It’s so valuable to have women on the ground, whether as a civilian or in a uniformed position” – Lisa Buttenheim


On 31 October 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted the historic resolution 1325, drawing attention to the differential impact of armed conflict on women, their exclusion from conflict prevention and resolution, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and the inextricable links between gender equality and international peace and security.

The past 15 years have made clear that women are a key resource for promoting peace and stability. Research highlighted in the Global Study on the implementation of resolution 1325 has established that women’s participation and inclusion makes humanitarian assistance more effective, strengthens the protection efforts of UN peacekeepers, contributes to the conclusion and implementation of peace talks and sustainable peace and accelerates economic recovery.


Ahead of the anniversary, the UN News Centre spoke with Lisa Buttenheim, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). The United States national, who has extensive experience with the UN in the political and peacekeeping areas, reflects on the impact of resolution 1325 both in the wider world and within the Organization itself. The interview has been edited for content and clarity.

UN News Centre: You’re in New York in the context of the 15th anniversary of resolution 1325, which stresses the important role women have in conflict resolution, peace negotiations and UN peacekeeping efforts. What has your role been in marking this anniversary?

Lisa Buttenheim: In Cyprus we have of course taken note of the fact that this very important anniversary is being marked. Resolution 1325 matters a lot to all of us serving in the UN peacekeeping mission that I’m the head of. Also, the good offices effort of the Secretary-General, which is a separate mission with which I work closely and where I am also the deputy vis-à-vis the negotiations, we pay a lot of attention to 1325 on the island.

You don’t want to ever have the sense that we’re including women for the sake of including women or ticking off a box.

But also here in New York, I was very pleased to be invited by the Department of Political Affairs, the Governments of Finland and Norway, who together with two think tanks in their countries, wanted to have a side event, as kind of a panel discussion alongside the Security Council debate, about some high-level seminars that they have sponsored over the last two years to bring women who have been involved both in mediation and resolution of conflicts around the world to share tools and learn from each other about how to maximize our ability in these conflict situations to make an impact.


UN News Centre: Resolution 1325 is often hailed as a landmark resolution for the UN. What do you think its biggest impact has been over the last 15 years?

Lisa Buttenheim: Without a doubt, it has put the role of women, peace and security in the forefront. Because there has been an annual debate and there have been follow-up resolutions and discussions among ourselves in the UN, among Member States, the fact of women playing this role has helped to change the mindset. I have to say the question of mindset is very important. When I was working in New York in the 1990s, at a time when there were a number of conflicts going on around the world, I was working in a position that had me attend Security Council discussions, including informal consultations. And I remember in Afghanistan, there was a period, I don’t remember if it was ‘95 or ‘96, when the Taliban took control, one member of the Security Council at that time raised concerns among the other members about what impact this would have on women. And I remember at the time, most of the members, not all of them, said this is not the place to discuss it. We’re discussing the conflict and the political, geo-strategic implications, but the impact on women was not going to be discussed in that meeting.


Fast forward to today, it would be impossible to have a discussion about a situation, and sadly there are far too many conflicts underway today, in which people wouldn’t talk about things like sexual violence against women, the role of women… in helping to find a resolution to conflicts and also the way they experience conflict which is quite different than men. I have to emphasize that women and men need to work together. It’s not that only women have a role to play.

We are empowered by resolutions like 1325 to go out and talk about it.

There’s also the Global Study that was commissioned that has come out this year, the lead author being Radhika Coomaraswamy, who has done a fantastic job with the team she has had with her. I hope that that document will be read and studied and digested across the world, not only by Member States, but also civil society organizations, regional organizations and other people who can have an impact.

UN News Centre: What are some of the impediments to women’s participation in peace-making and peacebuilding?

Lisa Buttenheim: I said earlier that mindset has been changed, and it’s also been too slow to change. I think that it’s still difficult. Let’s say if you’re in the middle of a conflict and you’re trying to achieve a ceasefire, usually the combatants are the interlocutors… with a view to having them lay down their weapons and to have a ceasefire… Usually, it’s not the women who are involved in that. There may be women who are part of political parties or movements or part of governments, if there are governments involved, whose views are taken into account. But still, it’s not automatic that they think that women should be at the table. I have to say that you don’t want to ever have the sense that we’re including women for the sake of including women or ticking off a box… Often I feel that sometimes this is pour la forme rather than seriously. But I do think it’s not automatic in most countries.

UN News Centre: It’s often said that peace negotiations influenced by women are much more likely to endure. Have you found that to be the case? If so, what examples come to mind?

Lisa Buttenheim: I think women tend to look at the big picture. I think that’s because of the role they play in society… and okay, let’s be honest, they’re half the population… but also they’re looking at how to get back to normal life following a conflict or in a post-conflict situation. And if they are included and their thoughts and perspectives are taken into account, you definitely see, and studies show, that the follow up, the implementation rate, tends to be enduring when women have been included from the outset. But they also have to be included in the implementation… In fact, this panel that I was on indicated that in some conflicts that were discussed there, that in fact once the implementation came, women tended to back away and not be so involved.


I would say, for example, in Cyprus where I am right now, I’m delighted that the two leaders of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities have appointed women, and men, to be members of a technical committee on gender equality which is looking into the impact of gender perspectives on a reunited Cyprus, and what role 1325 can also play in that regard. That’s a tremendous step forward I think.

UN News Centre: How do we get more women into decision-making on critical peace and security issues?

You feel a kind of camaraderie today that I didn’t have when I was a young woman.

Lisa Buttenheim: Let’s start at home, at the UN where I work, and where we both work. I want to give credit to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he has made it a priority to appoint more women in leadership positions who can in a way be role models for other women who are coming up through the ranks. But it’s also important, for example in the peacekeeping mission where I serve, that we have more women in uniform, both as military and police. We’re doing better in terms of our statistics, compared to some other peacekeeping missions because we have 7 per cent women on the military side and over 25 per cent on the police side, which is fantastic. But I think Member States also have to know that when they’re contributing for peacekeeping missions, they should include more [women].


I should mention that it’s a great privilege for me to be serving alongside the first ever female Force Commander. Major General Kristin Lund joined us in August 2014. She’s fantastic. I love working with her. She goes out to the field. She’s approached by women, as the women who are working in the Force are, by people on the island. I too am approached by people, by women, who say to me, ‘I feel better that you are there.’ People I don’t even know. They’ll come to me and they’ll say, ‘It’s so nice to see you.’ They see me on TV at the negotiating table and they say, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, ‘You know it’s so nice to see you there’… And we have other senior women. We’ve managed to make it almost 50-50 in the senior management which I’m proud of.

UN News Centre: You’ve served with the UN for a number of years. How do you think the Organization has done in terms of the inclusion of women in preventing conflict, in securing peace as well as in keeping the peace? And how can it do better?

Lisa Buttenheim: I joined the UN in 1983, so that’s more than 30 years ago. At that stage, there were very, very few women, especially in peacekeeping. My first assignment was with the oldest peacekeeping mission which is based in Jerusalem, UNTSO [UN Truce Supervision Organization]. And I remember I was filling out forms here at Headquarters before I went out to the field. And there was a man who was processing the papers and he said to me, ‘You landed on the top. You’ve landed on the top.’ And I looked at him with a big smile thinking, you know I’m so pleased because I’m getting my first job in the UN. I didn’t really know what I was going to be facing out there but I thought, you know, he meant that it was an interesting job. And I said, ‘What do you mean.’ And he said, ‘You’re lucky to be surrounded by all those men… 5,000 men, you can find a husband.’ So that was the kind of thinking. But to be fair, and I have to pay tribute to her, and she has since passed away, but there was a woman on assignment in that mission, a very elegant Japanese lady who greeted me at the airport when I arrived… I found that she set a good example and then she came back to New York and she was a director. But at the same time, you didn’t have these sort of senior women to look up to.


Now it’s much more common. I mean it’s not 50-50 but it’s definitely much more common to see women, both in the peacekeeping field and also in the peace-making and peacebuilding fields, and also at Headquarters. We are empowered by resolutions like 1325 to go out and talk about it. For example, a follow- up resolution adopted in 2013 requested women to report on what was happening in the missions where we were serving regarding 1325 when we came to brief the Security Council. So in a way I felt even more empowered because I could say to my interlocutors, this is something that we’re expected to do. I think that’s something positive.

UN News Centre: Do you have any advice for women who want to get more involved in the field of peacekeeping, whether as peacekeepers or as part of the police force?

Lisa Buttenheim: My advice is to go for it. Don’t be discouraged. This morning I had quick coffee with three different women serving in senior positions here in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Political Affairs and Department of Field Support. And you feel a kind of camaraderie today that I didn’t have when I was a young woman. I had one friend who was working in a neighbouring mission like me who came in as a very junior officer. And we got to know each other and we’re still friends and she and I are both still in the UN today. But it’s very nice to know that there are people also for purposes of mentoring, that we have the ability to mentor younger women coming in.


I would say take the opportunity. If you have a passion for a different part of the world, and to see… I mean again, in places, especially the most destitute or the most embattled, it’s difficult… I’m in a country where it’s no longer at war, but it’s a conflict that still needs to be resolved without a doubt. But I have served in other missions and I visited other missions where the situation was raging. And I think it’s so valuable to have women on the ground, whether as a civilian or in a uniformed position, to be able to be there and to liaise and talk with women. It’s an invaluable experience. If it’s something that compels you, like it has me all these 30-plus years, I would say seize the opportunity. And hopefully, we’ll continue to have Secretaries-General who will, as the head of the United Nations, continue to encourage us to be there in all sorts of positions.