OAS joint mission, Cayes, Haiti © Sally Anne Corcoran

From peacekeeping to academia
An insight into the life of Dr. Sally Anne Corcoran, international expert and advisor on Gender and Human Rights
1 Jul 2024

Dr. Sally Anne Corcoran served the UN from 1994 to 2011 in the human rights, political, legal and gender areas. An Irish Research Council Scholar, she received her PhD in Law from the University of Galway in 2022. Her book Gender Equality in UN Peacekeeping Fact or Fiction? investigates to what extent the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (UNSCR 1325/WPS) has functioned in practice, to advance women’s equality and empowerment in the peacekeeping context and beyond.

Please can you give a detailed rundown of your career at the UN: what were your highlights and what did you learn at the organization?

My UN career started in a roundabout way. As an undergraduate, I did an internship at the OAS in Washington, DC. As I’ve always been interested in women’s rights and empowerment, I then interviewed for a job at the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Women, where the first question they asked was: what do you know about Haiti? They needed an emergency team of human rights observers to go into Haiti via a joint UN/OAS mission post-coup d’etat. The mission was eventually declared persona non grata by the de-facto authorities and we were given 24 hours to evacuate to the Dominican Republic. The worst thing was that we had to leave our local staff behind. This was traumatic for them and us. I think it’s important to acknowledge the trauma that UN staff experience in the field, some vicarious and some explicit. The organization I’m currently working for, COPE Galway, explicitly acknowledges and addresses trauma in staff and in ‘trauma-informed practice.’ 

I resigned from this role to start my MA at Johns Hopkins University. After, I was rehired to go to the UNTAES mission in former Yugoslavia as a Civil Affairs Officer from 1996 to 1998. A highlight during that time was being able to help save a young, mixed-ethnic couple that had received death threats, to immigrate. From 1998 to 2001, I was the Special Assistant/English speechwriter to the DG of UNOG, Vladimir Petrovsky. The highlight was the wonderful team in his Cabinet: Lisa Buttenheim, Aminata Djermakoye, Ullie von Blumenthal, Patricia Stott, Raymonde Martineau, Alex and Susan Thompson, to name a few. I did a few short stints: UNECE with Dantua Hubner, WHO, UNICEF and then for a year, another highlight of my career, served as Special Assistant to the UN Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bertie Ramcharan. That gave me a wonderful opportunity to work with a true humanitarian and observe the workings of OHCHR from the top. My last UN post was the UNFICYP mission in Cyprus, from 2004 to 2011, where I served on DPKO’s Gender Advisory Team, an incredible group of women committed to women’s human rights. 

My almost 20 years in the UN showed me practically how systems and structures can abuse but also protect human rights. These include internal (organizational) structures as well as external structures/societal microcosms that don’t allow women to participate equally, because of how they’re designed. When the UN first started in the 1940s there were few women in senior leadership. The human resource policies implemented reflected that reality. To bring about lasting systems/cultural change we must change people’s perceptions about the root causes of inequity and disadvantage that constrain equality. We need to consider how supportive current structures are to women’s equal participation and counteract discriminatory structures with specific policies. Structural gender discrimination remains, as there’s an underlying resistance to equal power sharing, particularly with women. 

This was the perfect lead into a PhD in Law, which was an academic exploration of legal structures and how they impacted or assisted the enjoyment of human rights. I analyzed how the Women Peace and Security framework was implemented practically, into structures and operational protocols on the ground. The Irish government (Irish Research Council) funded my research on WPS that I’d begun while in the UN, which culminated in a PhD in Law and the publication of my book: Gender Equality in UN Peacekeeping: Fact or Fiction by Routledge in April 2024.

The biggest lesson I learned from my UN career is that you must always remain true to your own values and that your real strength comes from drawing on who you really are. One of the lines in an Emily Dickinson poem has always stuck with me: ‘If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool one pain, Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.’ The little things that one person can do in sometimes overwhelmingly oppressive and upsetting situations, conflict or post-conflict, can make a huge difference, especially to individual lives.

How did your work inspire and transition your career as a writer and everything you have achieved since working for the UN?

My UN field postings were essentially socio-cultural macrocosms of injustice. When we’re in a relative position of power, we’ve a responsibility to use that power differential for good. As UN staff, when you see the human rights of a minority being routinely and grossly violated daily, and you report on this daily and advocate for change with little impact, over the long run this has a traumatic impact on you. We can work at the individual levels and hope that some of our recommendations will impact policy. The awareness of gender discriminatory structures that work to exclude women to greater or lesser extents made an impact on me and provided impetus for my research and book.

Dr. Sally-Anne Corcoran’s
book, released this year

Whilst conducting your PHD on UN peacekeeping, what was the most interesting discovery? 

I think one of the main hopes for peacekeeping is that it serves as a locus for human rights and gender equality norm advancement. The most interesting discovery I made during my research for my PhD was that there actually have been concrete gender equality wins as a result of UN presence. The UN’s gender equality mandates have had some successes externally at the local levels in the countries in which the UN operates, while internally, organizational structures have not always adequately adapted. For example, in Timor-Leste, the UN, as the transitional administration, set up the civil service and implemented affirmative action for women, enlarging the societal space in which they participated. Currently, the parliament still has over 30% women, the highest female political participation in the region, which has resulted in low levels of discriminatory laws. However, Timor-Leste also has the highest domestic violence rates in the region. The mission left no legacy that called into question the status of women in society. This needs to be addressed through education and media campaigns. 

My research also found that an underlying patriarchal culture continues to persist in the UN. As an example, current mission structures continue to be ill equipped for women’s full and equal participation. Even protective equipment is not always adapted for women. How can women participate fully and equally if their equipment is modeled on the male physique? 

The first step is making sure that structures actually enable equal participation. The UN’s clear positive policy progression is evidence of the organization’s political commitment to furthering women’s equality and the WPS agenda, notably DPPA’s most recent WPS policy iterations of 2019 and 2023. So why is there a continued lack of implementation on the ground? Like many peacekeeping mandates, a contested transfer of power from one group to another, is at the heart of WPS implementation. Both political and cultural will are needed. There is also a de-prioritization of gender in humanitarian situations, but the more that women participate in the security dialogue, the more this impacts on the prospects for sustainable peace in the future. 

What would your advice be to future and current staff members at the UN? 

My advice would be to prioritize self-care as we can only do our best for others when we are well ourselves. Also, integrate trauma-informed practice into the work you do.

In your view, what are the main obstacles to achieving gender parity in peacekeeping missions?

Discriminatory structures persist and continue to work against women’s full and equal participation in peacekeeping. My research showed gender bias in recruitment, particularly in senior leadership appointments and the persistence of discriminatory practical structures such as equipment and camp facilities that are not fit for purpose for women. 

The global military structures of Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) is also at issue. How can women contribute equally in military leadership positions in PKOs when, for example, Italy didn’t allow women in the military at all, until the year 2000? Obviously women cannot be put forward for leadership positions, because there are none in senior leadership in the first place. The UN authored the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), so I believe the organization needs to stand by these standards and implement them in practice by addressing resistance to equal power sharing with women. This can be done via cash or other incentives to TCCs.

What concrete actions do you recommend to achieve gender parity?

Concrete actions to achieve gender parity and an increase in overall gender equality must include the standardization of gender-disaggregated data. If women aren’t included in the data, then the inequalities that persist remain invisible, so policies cannot be made to address them. Both quantitative and qualitative adjustments are necessary to achieve parity. We need a human rights based policy response to counter existent systemic discrimination. Specific individuals need to have specific timelines with specific accountability for the implementation of specific gender targets with consequences for non-implementation. Also, in line with critical mass theory, quotas are needed in senior leadership to enact real cultural change. I think the current Secretary-General has done a lot towards that, but there are still not enough senior women for sustained cultural change in the organization. 

Most importantly, for the WPS agenda ‘writ large,’ to be achieved, meaning women’s empowerment and equality, women’s and girl’s rights must be consciously and purposefully advocated for. Research has shown that the more gender-equal a society, the less likely that society is to engage in conflict. My research showed that national contexts are precisely the space in which the UN can contribute to the implementation of women’s basic human rights and gender equality objectives via conscious and precise planning at all mission stages. 

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
Read more articles about UN MEMORIES