Discussion with Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at Women for Women International's 2013 Annual Luncheon, moderated by Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman, May 8, 2013

Susan E. Rice
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
U.S. Mission to the United Nations 
New York, NY
May 8, 2013


Coleman: Well, thank you, Jule. And thank all of you for coming here today. And you‘ve given me an easy job in introducing Susan since Ambassador Rice really doesn’t need much of an introduction at all. I was trying to remember the first time we met, and I think it was almost—or more than—25 years ago. Susan and I were at the same college and in the same PhD program at Oxford, and anyone who knew Susan then—actually, I think anyone who knew Susan when she was probably 18 months or two years old—would know that she was going to go on to have an extraordinary career, which of course she has. She was assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. She was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and she took a (inaudible) of some young senator from Chicago, Illinois and has been a key member of President Obama’s foreign policy team, a member of his cabinet, and, of course, is his ambassador to the UN. And she has been working a remarkable schedule over the last couple of years to try to keep foreign policy moving in a positive direction, when there have been so many things going on (inaudible). So, thank you, Susan for joining us here today.

The topic of this lunch is “Is Democracy Possible with Extremism?” And, Susan, we can see struggling democracies across the Middle East, in particular, that many are concerned have brought (inaudible) groups into power. And they have been talking about constraining freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and, of course, women’s rights, which always seems to be on that front line of a protracted battle between conservative forces and more moderate forces. When you look at the Middle East today, how concerned are you about women actually losing ground in this so-called Arab Spring or which many would say is now an Arab Winter? And what is the U.S. and the UN doing to try to protect women’s rights in the Middle East?

Ambassador Rice: Well, thank you, Isobel. That’s a hugely important question, and I will answer it. But I want to just say a couple of words if I might. First of all, it’s great to be here with you, and thank you so much for doing this. (applause) We do go back a long way, and we had a lot of fun together as graduate students. And I also want to say thank you and congratulations to Women for Women. I have been a fan and supporter of this organization, along with my husband, for many years. And I wanted to say congratulations on your 20th anniversary. And I’ve seen the incredible work you do in some of the world’s toughest places, and I have enormous admiration for the contributions that you’re making every day.

And it’s very relevant to the question that you asked because indeed throughout the countries of the so-called Arab Spring, women are struggling. They were an integral part of most if not all of the revolutions that we witnessed and, in some places, the driving force to an extent far greater than many perhaps appreciate. I had the opportunity to witness that first hand when I visited Libya and met with the women who had helped drive out the Qaddhafi regime, but the reality is that they’re facing egregious setbacks in some places and enormous pressures—whether they’re pressures from law, pressures from politicians who trash the role of women and are seeking to reduce their opportunities, whether it’s rape as a tool of war as in Syria or as a tool of intimidation in some instances in Egypt. I meant, it’s really something that does worry me and worries the U.S. government enormously. We recognize that these revolutions are first and foremost those that belong to the people who brought them, and their future is theirs. But we have an abiding interest in key universal values, and those values are things we’re going to fight for regardless of gender, regardless of religion, regardless of (inaudible). We will stand up to protect those who deserve protection, and throughout the Arab world, that includes first and foremost women.

And so the kinds of programs that we are investing in across the spectrum are tools to empower women—supporting their education, supporting their economic opportunity, their political participation. The United States has started something called the Arab Women’s Leadership Initiative under MEPI, which is training women to participate in politics, to be leaders in civil society, leaders of parties. We’re also very much promoting freedom of the press and training women in how to use the modern tools of media to get their voices heard. We are fighting violence against women through support for NGOs that are active in places from Yemen to Libya that are trying to protect women. So we’re trying to cover the spectrum in terms of our focus and attention to this challenge.

But we recognize this is going to be a long-term struggle, as are many aspects of the Arab Spring—I mean, I sometimes refer to this phenomenon from the U.S. point of view as having to keep our hands on the wheel with white knuckles on occasion when things gets exceedingly turbulent and rocky. But at the end of the day, it’s not us driving the vehicle. It’s us sitting there side by side, to the extent we can, in partnership. And I think we need to remind ourselves that over time and with great difficulty and sometimes in far from linear fashion, the progress towards increased respect for human rights, towards democracy is fundamentally in our interests as well as in the interests of people in the region.

Coleman: You mentioned Libya and one of the first things that the transitional government in Libya set up after the fall of Qaddhafi—was, well great, Qaddhafi’s gone. And we’re going to have this whole new government, and we’re going to bring back polygamy. And there were a whole bunch of women who stood there in the crowd saying, “Uh, really, is this our pressing issue?” When leaders in the region go down a path like that, is there some back channel from the U.S., from the UN, saying “hey guys, you know, maybe this shouldn’t be what you’re leading with right now.”

Ambassador Rice: Absolutely, and on that issue specifically, they heard not just from the Untied States and the United Nations but partners near and far. And the attention to that issue has diminished. Obviously, Libya’s got many more challenges—

Coleman: They have a lot of challenges. Afshan in her opening remarks talked a little bit about Afghanistan and the concerns that people feel about the international drawdown of troops, what’s going to happen in Afghanistan, particularly to those who are moderates in the country, who have been promoting human right broadly and promoting greater freedom of a more progressive order, in particular for women. There is a lot of talk and action to roll back some of the rights that women have enjoyed in the country over the past decade. How do you think about Afghanistan, specifically about the role of women there?

Ambassador Rice: Well, we are—if you look at where we are today, in terms of women’s status in Afghanistan versus where we were 12, 13 years ago, it’s extraordinary—simply the life expectancy statistic, which has gone from 44 years of age in 2001 to 64 today. You can see (inaudible) how much progress there’s been—37% of students enrolled in schools now in Afghanistan. That’s not the 50% or the 51% that it ought to be, but that’s certainly far better than what it was. And these gains have been hard fought, and we are absolutely committed to ensuring that they are sustained. We have tried to work that into almost every aspect of our engagement with Afghanistan, so when we negotiated the Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan, enshrined in that are Afghan commitments to maintaining and indeed advancing the role and the rights of women in Afghan society. And the United States has made clear that our partnership—and the success of it—will be in part a function of how well they adhere to those commitments.

In addition, we have changed the nature of our assistance program in Afghanistan. And we’re in the process of launching through USAID a $300 million, five-year program called Women in Transition, where we’re really trying to build and support the ranks of actually quite highly educated women in Afghanistan, enabling them to get into the private sector, to government roles, to all kinds and forms of leadership. And even as, over the years, our assistance program will necessarily shrink in Afghanistan, proportionately what is dedicated to women is actually going up, and it’s been going up progressively over the last several years, including this upcoming fiscal year (inaudible)—support for women, their health, their education, their economic empowerment, their political empowerment into all aspects of our assistance.

And then one final thing that’s very important because we’ve talked about supporting Afghan-led reconciliation and negotiations, potentially between the government and with the Taliban. We have insisted and the Afghans have insisted that among the few conditions that the Taliban must meet in order to be able to come to the table include respect for the constitution of Afghanistan and specifically including this provision protecting women. So, across the spectrum, we’re doing our utmost to ensure that there’s no meaningful rollback to the progress that’s been made and that progressively it can even be enhanced.

Coleman: One of the tools that the UN has to enhance the role of women, particularly in post-conflict settings, is resolution 1325, which the member states passed more than a decade ago to include women in these peacebuilding initiatives. But it has been slow getting 1325 actually implemented—to get member countries to fully implement this resolution. When you look at a country like Afghanistan or maybe Syria, which is in the midst of a terrible civil war, where are women’s voices in that post-conflict reconstruction—not that we’re at a post-conflict situation in Syria yet? In myriad conflicts around the world, women have been under-represented. How do you think about 1325 and the UN’s role in really making it a reality?

Ambassador Rice: Well, I think it’s been a mixed bag. I mean, there certainly has been some progress since that resolution was adopted, and the progress that we’ve seen is in the increased number of women who are leading the UN’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions—we’ve had women special representatives to the Secretary General, the highest level official in-country running the peace processes and the peacekeeping missions in places from Liberia to Cyprus, Central African Republic, Burundi, and various other places.

We just had, I think encouragingly, the appointment of former Irish President Mary Robinson as the Secretary General’s Special Representative, Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region. And she just briefed the Security Council earlier this week for the first time, and she is, for those who know her, an incredible dynamo. And she’s approached this very differently, of taking the bottom up as well as the top down approach to peacebuilding between the people of Congo and Rwanda and Uganda and bringing in civil society and very consciously and explicitly bringing women to the table as the centerpiece of peacebuilding efforts. She’s doing it differently because she, one, understands the principles and the objectives in trying (inaudible) that she’s been living in and practicing her entire life, so she’s bringing that unique perspective. And we also have gender experts and many more such people focused on women and women themselves in negotiating processes. It’s about now half, but it should be more than half. It should be all of them. And that’s only one piece of it. When you look at women’s representation in parliaments or in legislatures around the world, it’s on average only about 20 percent. It’s better than it was; it’s not nearly enough. Where the UN has been involved in promoting elections and supporting elections and political processes, that number is slightly higher—about 23.5 percent—but the reality is there is a huge amount more to do.

Now, there’s one other piece of the women’s empowerment agenda within the umbrella of 1325 that the U.S. has been particularly active on, which has made somewhat more rapid progress, and that’s the drive to confront sexual violence in conflict. And we passed resolutions 1888, 1889, and many others that created a special representative of the Secretary General (inaudible) to combat sexual violence across conflict areas (inaudible) reporting on the treatment of women and violence against women in conflict zones now. We have women protection advisors embedded in peacekeeping operations throughout the world. So we’ve seen more tangible progress in that area than in the broader universe of women’s political empowerment. But it’s something that the United States and a number of countries are very much committed to, and we’re working to accelerate that progress.

Coleman: Ambassador Rice is on a tight schedule, and I know you only have time for one more question. So let me just ask about UN Women, which is a special organization within the UN that rolled up several women-oriented elements within the UN and had Michele Bachelet as its first head, who has now stepped down to run again as president of Chile. What do you think is going to (inaudible) and what would you expect for it to achieve in the coming years?

Ambassador Rice: Well, I’ve been lucky because I was around when UN Women was created, and I’ve seen its early birth and infancy. And it has made a meaningful difference. It’s barely three years old, but what’s happened is that women’s issues and women’s concerns used to be scattered across the UN system in a very disparate and uncoordinated way. And there was no one venue, no one leader to look to ensure the concerns of women were mainstreamed throughout all the UN does. And when UN Women was created—and we were very keen on its creation— (inaudible) one big reform was not just to bring everything under one roof but to elevate the sets of issues that relate to women and basically insist and demand that they be integrated throughout the rest system.

Now, that was hugely aided by, as you mentioned, the leadership of Michele Bachelet, who was just an extraordinary first leader of UN Women, and it’s going to be very hard to fill her shoes. I can assure you that we’re working hard to identify candidates who will lead at her level because we believe that’s vitally important. But she’s grown the budget. It’s still small by UN standards—actually it’s about $227 million annually, but that’s 300 times what it was when she started. She’s roped in the private sector, the NGO community, and we’ve seen UN Women active in so many ways across the Arab world, supporting women in the Arab Spring countries. She’s been active on the sexual violence agenda. We had the most successful session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which was focused on violence against women, in many years, largely due to her leadership and the role that UN Women has played.

Political empowerment, economic empowerment—all of these things are getting more juice, to put it plainly, than ever before, and that’s good. But this is new. And it’s fragile, and it can’t be an institution that depends on the extraordinary leadership of somebody of Bachelet’s quality. It’s got to be firing on all cylinders, all day long, every day and for years to come.

Coleman: I have 50 more questions, but we’re out of time. I just want to thank you so much for joining us here today. (applause)


PRN: 2013/074