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War on Gaza exposes Germany's feminist foreign policy as a sham

As Palestinian women and children suffer under Israel's onslaught, Berlin has failed to prioritise their plight
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is pictured in Berlin on 28 February 2024 (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

When German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock presented the guidelines of her feminist foreign policy in March 2023, she proclaimed: “If women are not safe, then no one is safe.”

Considering Germany’s extensive support for the Israeli war on Gaza, that sentence now sounds like a farce. Since 7 October, more than 35,000 people, most of them women and children, have been killed in Gaza. In a matter of months, Germany has tarnished its reputation as an advocate for feminist principles, peace and adherence to international law. 

The Federal Foreign Office laid out 10 guidelines as part of its feminist foreign policy. The first guideline speaks to the importance of protecting civilians in armed conflicts.  

This focus is sensible, as research shows that women and children suffer particularly from the indirect consequences of armed conflicts, such as impeded access to food, water and medical care. 

It is thus all the more astonishing that it took the German government until this past March to begin advocating for a permanent ceasefire. Previously, Germany had explicitly rejected such a prospect, even though several UN agencies had already sounded the alarm that women, children and babies were suffering disproportionately from the Israeli bombardment. 

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If the first guideline had guided German policy, the protection of civilians and an end to the violence would have been the government’s top priority - yet it clearly was not. 

Germany’s feminist foreign policy also focuses on arms control, which can reduce the likelihood of conflicts and increase security for all people. In the case of Gaza, the discrepancy between this strategy and actual policy is especially glaring. 

Arms exports

Instead of focusing on de-escalation, the German government has fuelled the conflict through arms exports. In 2023, the state’s arms exports to Israel increased tenfold over the previous year, with the majority approved after 7 October. The German government licensed nearly 327 million euros ($355m) worth of arms exports to Israel last year. 

This past February, UN experts called on all states to immediately halt arms deliveries to Israel, including export licences and military aid. Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, states must refrain from supplying arms and ammunition if they are likely to be used for violations of international law. 

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In a recent report, the UN special rapporteur on Palestine, Francesca Albanese, cited “reasonable grounds” to believe that Israel was committing genocide in the Gaza Strip. Yet, the German government confines itself to reminding Israel to comply with international humanitarian law. And despite international recommendations to the contrary, Germany continues to export arms to Israel. 

In view of the apocalyptic situation in the Gaza Strip, Germany has increased its humanitarian aid, but this is little more than window dressing. It is schizophrenic to supply weapons to a warring party, while simultaneously lamenting the civilian victims of the use of these very weapons. 

A year after the publication of Germany's feminist foreign policy, it is clear that it has not only failed the cause of feminism, but also blatantly violated its own guidelines

Germany’s feminist foreign policy also emphasises the fight against sexual violence in armed conflicts. UN experts have concluded that conflict-related sexual violence likely occurred in several locations when Hamas launched its attack on Israel on 7 October. The same UN investigators also said that in the absence of forensic evidence and survivor testimony, it would be impossible to determine the scope of such violence. Hamas has denied its forces committed sexual violence and the German government has rightly condemned this, pushing for EU sanctions against the perpetrators. 

But UN experts have also denounced sexual violence against Palestinian women and girls since 7 October, including credible reports that those in detention have been subjected to multiple forms of sexual assault. The German government has not addressed this, even though a genuine feminist foreign policy would aim to protect the rights of all women affected by war.

The third guideline states that a feminist foreign policy should actively address areas where the rights of women and marginalised groups are at risk. The situation of women in Gaza could hardly be worse. Some 60,000 pregnant women in Gaza suffer from malnutrition, dehydration and a lack of access to medical care. Caesarean sections are performed without anaesthesia. 

Colonial feminism

The German government has rightly criticised the situation of Afghan women under the Taliban and the Iranian regime’s violations of women’s right. Its failure to comparably address the immense suffering of Palestinian women and children suggests that the German government only takes a critical stance on women’s rights when the violations are committed by a political opponent.

The state’s inability to implement a foreign policy that is heavily advertised as feminist is also damaging to feminism itself. This is particularly dangerous because feminism has had a difficult time in the Arab world since the colonial era. 

Under the logic of colonial feminism, advancements for women can be achieved only if local culture is abandoned. Calls for women’s rights reforms by colonists were thus understood as attacks on local culture, and as an instrument of colonial rule. 

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In the recent past, the American government presented the invasion of Afghanistan as serving the liberation of women. This instrumentalisation of women’s rights left its mark.

In interviews I have conducted with women’s rights activists in Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Syria, many have emphasised the frequency of attacks against them by social conservatives, who allege they are in the service of “western agents”. Actors in Arab countries who portray feminism as a purely western instrument of power - one that is used selectively - can feel vindicated by the German government’s current policy. 

Arab states regularly come last in global rankings of gender equality. The reasons for this are manifold, but it is clear that conflicts, wars and western military interventions are particularly damaging to the rights of women and marginalised groups. 

A feminist foreign policy should always entail a special commitment to peace, focusing on political solutions over militarism. Because Germany’s policy has a special focus on the Arab world, it can only be effective if Berlin is perceived as an honest broker in the region. That perception is gone. 

A year after the publication of Germany’s feminist foreign policy, it is clear that it has not only failed the cause of feminism, but has also blatantly violated its own guidelines. Here, a progressive veneer is being given to a policy that accelerates war. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Dorthe Engelcke is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law. She received her PhD in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford in 2015. Her work focuses on the interaction of law, politics and gender issues in West Asia and North Africa.
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