The Hillary Doctrine: Are Women’s Rights a National Security Issue?

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The linking of women’s rights to national security became a defining feature of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as US Secretary of State.  The core of what became known as the “Hillary Doctrine” can best be described as follows: when women are given equal rights “nations are more stable and secure,” while when they are not, national instability “is almost certain.” Clinton additionally argued that the subjugation of women was “a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of [the United States].” Or to break this second assertion down further, states that deny rights to women and tacitly accept violence against them tend to be more fragile, politically divided and economically underdeveloped, which means they then pose greater threats to international security, due to the increased terrorism and internal conflict that they invariably invite upon themselves and others.  Well, as powerful as these claims may be, are they actually true? To be fair, Clinton’s claims have undeniably advanced the interests of women and girls around the world, but one can argue that by blending policy with advocacy, they have proven to be politically influential, but also too broad and inaccurate to facilitate the development of reliable government policies.

The Hillary Doctrine as Influential Advocacy

While it is clear that some states in which women’s rights are violated are unstable, that doesn’t mean that they also pose security threats to others. That’s not to say, however, that it isn’t possible. A detailed examination of the depredations that women experience within a state may help reveal whether and why it poses a greater threat than another state, but the Hillary Doctrine has never gone into these specifics. Instead, to support her claim that the denial of women’s rights leads to insecurity, Clinton has largely relied on anecdotes. She did it, for example, at the Women in the World Conference in 2013, where she spoke of the destruction of girls’ schools “from northern Mali to Afghanistan,” the forcing of girls across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia into child marriages, and the visitations of other outrages – human trafficking; honor killings; female genital mutilation; sexual violence, including conflict-related sexual violence; intimate partner violence; and many other troubling illustrations. But while these practices and behaviors clearly have a tragic and life-altering impact, they do not inherently threaten the national security of the state in which they occur, nor do they necessarily make that state a threat to others. By suggesting that women’s rights are a national security issue, Clinton was simply arguing that states that mistreat women should be featured more prominently on the United States’ foreign and security policy radars, and that more actions should be taken on these women’s behalf. In these respects, the Hillary Doctrine has had some success.

The I-VAWA: The Hillary Doctrine in Action?

Even if violating women’s rights doesn’t always create an immediate security threat, by linking them together Clinton and others have insinuated women’s rights into the American foreign and security policy-making process. One example of this is the International Violence against Women Act (I-VAWA), which was initially proposed by a coalition of NGOs led by Futures Without Violence, Women Thrive Worldwide and Amnesty International USA in 2005. The I-VAWA did indeed link the ending of violence against women to making foreign aid more efficient and to strengthening global security. More specifically, the Act proposed a number of mechanisms that a rights-promoting White House could use at its discretion, including investments in police, military, and peacekeeping efforts, as well as the provisioning for military interventions in the case of emergencies. (Note: The act was introduced into the 110th Congress in 2007 by then-Senator Joe Biden, it was resubmitted in the 111th, 112th and 113th Congresses, but it has yet to be enacted.)

One could celebrate the I-VAWA as an example of the Hillary Doctrine in action, but one could also cite it as living proof of the doctrine’s porous and sketchy nature. It doesn’t, for example, seek to permit US intervention in any state where women’s rights are violated.  Instead, it calls upon the US Government to select a minimum of five eligible states to be subject to the act, and only those that aren’t classified as “high-income” in the most recent edition of the World Development Report for Reconstruction and Development are eligible. As Corrine Mason emphasizes, the I-VAWA is therefore not a “universal statute or declaration holding all countries accountable for gendered violence”; instead, it would merely provide legislative authority to “discipline, govern, intervene, and potentially occupy countries of interest to the United States.” Countries such as Saudi Arabia, which are “notorious for [their] human rights abuses,” could be overlooked because it suited American political and economic interests, while other countries, such as Papua New Guinea, which is “rich in extractive resources and of strategic interest to the United States,” could be made subject to the I-VAWA.  These limitations suggest an unpleasant truth about the practical realities of the Hillary Doctrine – i.e., the US’s desire to improve global security by supporting the rights of women and girls around the world could, depending on the legislation, be driven more by Washington’s financial interests and great power politics than by its desire for gender equality and protections.

These genuine concerns aside, however, credit should be given where credit is due. The Hillary Doctrine represents the first time that a senior figure in the US government made the rights of women and girls a first-tier foreign and security policy priority. So, despite the limitations of the Hillary Doctrine and the proposed legislation created in its name, there are positives to be found in their elevation of this important issue.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit ISN Security Watch or browse our resources.

Rosa Brown is a former staff member at the ISN.

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