In her dealings with armed forces and militant groups trying to persuade them to respect the laws of war, Kath Stewart has had her fair share of awkward experiences.
The Australian, who became the first woman to serve as a military and armed groups delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross, says sometimes people mistake her for a secretary or a support person.
“It’s a stereotypical thing, that I would be a support person rather than the main speaker,” the former army officer tells the Guardian in an interview focusing on the push to recruit more women into such roles.
“And often in these groups, even if I was the more senior person, a number of the groups would defer to the man who was with me.”
Until recently Stewart was based in Tel Aviv and active within Israel and the occupied territories, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. She had meetings with groups including the Israel defence forces, Hamas, a number of other factions in Gaza, and the Palestinian security forces.
“People often expect when you’re going to see them that you are going to be male rather than female because of the job that I do,” she says.
“So often I will get there and it’ll be things like, the thank you present is a kaffiyeh [headscarf], which is for males – and so then they hand me a kaffiyeh, and it’s kind of like, ‘Oh but you’re female so we’ll have to find you something else.’ And then sometimes the something else is not particularly practical.”
But Stewart finds her 33-year previous career with the Australian Defence Force can help her to strike up a rapport with people she meets. When they start talking about substantive issues, she engages them in an in-depth discussion “on types of weapons that might have been used, the impact of those weapons on people on the ground, and the requirements of the laws of armed conflict”.
“So we’re able to talk in a language that is understood,” she says.
“We can share knowledge and experience that we’ve each brought from our pasts to be able to understand where the people we’re talking to might be coming from, what their considerations are from a military perspective, and then try and balance it with the needs of the people on the ground and the humanitarian perspective.”
Rules of war
The ICRC appoints armed and security forces delegates (known as “Fas delegates” from the French phrase “forces armées et de sécurité”) to push for compliance with the rules of war, which prohibit targeting civilians and torturing prisoners and limit the types of weapons the can be used to avoid unnecessary suffering.
But like the numerous militaries from which it draws its delegates, it has made slow progress improving its gender balance.
It had just one female Fas delegate in 2018. There are now eight, or 13% of all such delegates. Included in the ranks are military and armed group delegates – Stewart was the first woman to be appointed to that role, and there are now four worldwide.
Appointing female Fas delegates, says Stewart, helps break down stereotypes and “opens it up for future women who are coming through”. The ICRC is stepping up its efforts to recruit more women to these positions.
“The big issue is it’s low because the ICRC are hiring people that have previous experience,” Stewart says.
“And most militaries and police forces did not employ women in the breadth of jobs, really, until at the earliest the 1980s – and a number of defence forces way later than that.”
In her case, being attracted to electrical engineering sparked her interest in joining the army. She entered the ADF academy when it opened in 1986 and joined the Royal Australian Corps of Signals, working with computer and radio equipment.
“What was good about starting when I did was that was when the training for males and females really started to merge, and so the training that I did was exactly the same as my male counterparts. That gave me greater experience; I was able to deploy on operations and was able to do a lot of different jobs within the military,” Stewart says.
“I lived in 11 different countries during that time, went on four different operations with the Australian military, and was also a defence attache in four different countries and worked with embassies, and that’s where I really saw the work of the Red Cross overseas … I decided after I’d finished my career in the army that it was a good opportunity for me to use my skills and have some different challenges in helping people.”
Understanding the complexities
Stewart’s assignment with the ICRC in Israel and the occupied territories – beginning in February 2019 – wasn’t the first time she had been stationed in the region and grappled with its complexities. She had a stint as a military observer with the UN Truce Supervision Organization around the turn of the century.
“I worked on the border between Israel and Syria, and then on the border between Israel and Lebanon in 2000, which was quite an interesting time because it was the withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon, it was when Bashar al-Assad came to power in Syria and it was also the start of the second intifada,” she says.
“So that just gave me a good understanding of the region and introduction to the complexities that exists.”
Tensions boiled over earlier this month when 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas left at least 230 Palestinians dead, including 65 children and 39 women, according to figures compiled by the Gaza health ministry. The death toll in Israel was 12, including a five-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl.
On 11 May, the ICRC issued a public plea for the rules of law to be followed, as it warned that rockets in Israel and airstrikes in Gaza represented “a dangerous escalation” in a cycle of violence. It reminded all parties that direct and indiscriminate attacks against civilians were prohibited by international humanitarian law, any attack must be proportionate, and all necessary precautions must be taken to avoid civilian casualties. A ceasefire was reached on 21 May.
While the ICRC jealously guards its independence and avoids commenting on political matters, Stewart addresses the humanitarian situation on the ground in Israel and the occupied territories in broad terms.
“Obviously the region has had a history of conflict and unrest. And that has impacts on the humanitarian situation. The long-term conflict and long-term occupation has obvious impacts on the people,” she says.
She cites the restriction of movement, use of force and housing demolitions as factors that affect the humanitarian situation: “There are impacts; they are negative impacts. And they’re negative impacts on the dignity of the people over there, their ability to have a livelihood, their ability to develop or sustain growth.”
Brereton inquiry into war crimes
Stewart will remain in contact with the Australian government in her next role with the ICRC. After being based in Canberra over the past couple of months, she is due to fly on Thursday to Tokyo, where she will serve as an ICRC armed forces delegate primarily working with the Japanese government and its self-defence forces. Although based in Japan, her responsibilities will include conversations with Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, “reminding of them of their obligations under international humanitarian law and providing them information on what might be best practice in some areas”.
It comes as Australia grapples with the results of a long-running inquiry into alleged war crimes by its special forces in Afghanistan, with the Brereton inquiry finding “credible” evidence to implicate 25 current or former ADF personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others.
The government has set up an office of the special investigator, which will review the available evidence before potential prosecutions. The ICRC’s mission in Australia vowed to work with the ADF to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law.
When asked about the fallout from the Brereton inquiry, Stewart is guarded about specific cases, but stresses the importance of the Geneva conventions.
“It’s really important that we do have some boundaries around what actions can be taken in war, and particularly some legal boundaries that are well known to all of those that do carry weapons, because they have such an impact on the fate and the livelihoods of the civilians who are not part of the conflict but are grossly impacted by it,” she says.