Interview with Hester Paneras, Police Commissioner for the African Union - UN Mission in Darfur

Hester Paneras, Police Commissioner for the African Union - UN Mission in Darfur. Photo: UNAMID

11 November 2013 – In June 2013, Hester Paneras was appointed Police Commissioner for the African Union – United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which was established to help stem the suffering in that region of Sudan, where since 2003 fighting has led to the deaths of and estimated 300,000 people and displaced some 2 million more. Many of the displaced are surviving in camps in-country and many, particularly women, are vulnerable to a range of violent threats.

The first woman to hold the top police position in a peacekeeping mission of this magnitude, Ms. Paneras brings to the job over than 30 years of experience in policing. She joined the Police Service of her native South Africa in December 1978, starting with grassroots level patrol and detective beats before rising to the officer ranks in 1984. She first worked in UNAMID as Deputy Police Commissioner for Policy and Planning from July 2010 to July 2011.

UN News Services spoke to Ms. Paneras after she helped launch a website for the UN International Network for Female Police Peacekeepers as part of UN Police’s efforts to meet a goal of 20 per cent women in UN missions by 2014.

UN News Centre: Can you tell us about UN police activities in Darfur?

Hester Paneras: Our focus can be summarized under protection of civilians.  The host country has the first responsibility to protect its civilians, so we assist them in building capacity towards international standards and for that we are involved with the GovernmentWomen have survival skills which can be given to other women. What I have experienced is that when they see you are a woman, their faces light up. It’s like they get a connection. of Sudan police – training, but also capacity building looking at infrastructure and so forth.  In the beginning of August, we signed the Memorandum of Understanding with the Government.  It is part of the political process, to get cooperation. 

On physical protection, we have formed police units which conduct patrols and other activities.  We also work together with the military [components of UNAMID] and we have individual police officers who interact with the communities.  They work very closely with the military observers as well.  So there’s the presence of the blue helmets on the ground to against possible attacks. 

The third tier is creating a protective environment through building the capacity of communities. In that area we provide English lessons as well as livelihood projects where women are taught how to start businesses and so forth, as well as help to keep the youth busy with recreation activities.  Remember, a lot of these people are living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, where it sounds very lucrative for children to go and take up arms as part of the movements or to become part of crime groups.  So we try to give them alternative views on life.

UN News Centre: Do you think a female peacekeeping police presence is important?

Hester Paneras: It is totally essential.  Most of the people are women and children and, in the instance of a rape case, for instance, the woman will not talk about it easily in this culture.  The culture doesn’t provide for it to be made known.  There is change now; we are doing capacity-building and community education together with the Government of Sudan police. But it is much easier if we have women on the ground to deal with these issues.  A woman also has another way of looking at things, and especially when it comes to the capacity-building and the livelihood projects, women have survival skills which can be given to other women. 

Police Commissioner Hester Paneras greets members of the UNAMID Police at UNAMID Headquarters in El Fasher, North Darfur in July 2013. Photo: UNAMID

What I have experienced is that when they see you are a woman, their faces light up.  It’s like they get a connection.  They relate.  Unfortunately, when we look at individual police officers, we are about 16 per cent women in the Mission.  And when we look at the formed police units the number goes down dramatically.  We are looking currently at getting more females from Arabic-speaking countries.  Recently, Jordan started sending women – a few, but we hope they will increase.   We are also in contact with Egypt.  It is very important that women be encouraged to join police units and be strongly supported by their countries. 

It’s not an easy environment, but we started a women’s network in 2010 to build a support structure and give advice.  I told ladies this past week, for instance, to buy a couple of packs of wet wipes just to use when there is no water.  These are small things that we can assist each other with, to make it easier.  Once women are in those faraway places and they start interacting with the local community, we get very positive response from both the women and the community. 

UN News Centre: How are civilian protection strategies divided between police and military in UNAMID?

Hester Paneras: In UNAMID, one has to work in an integrated fashion, but our formed police units are more focused on crowd control and on smaller protection and inner perimeter protection, especially in IDP camps where we have projects going on. Your military on the other hand, is more focussed on outer perimeter protection.  Of course the types of arms that the military and the formed police units have differ.  The military is more focussed on attacks from outside, the outer environment.  Your individual police officer is more focused on gathering information, identifying a crime situation and following up, and, on the other hand, coming up with community policing types of projects. Your military observers are focused on information gathering.  One cannot do one without the other.

UN News Centre: Have you gone on patrol?  If so, what have you seen?

Hester Paneras: Yes. The last time was a long-range patrol from Al Fasher to Nyala.  It took us nearly eight hours to travel 250 kilometres.  There are no developed roads, it’s like a gravel road and one goes very slow; it’s sandy.  One wonders how people survive.  People still live very close to the earth; there is really not a lot of development. When you get closer to a town you see a little piece of tarred road and a little bit more development.  A lot of women are alone and if you look in the fields, it’s women mostly doing the work and children are playing where there’s basically nothing. 

Commissioner Paneras leads a meeting of the UN Sudan country team along with other officials at UNAMID headquartrs in El Fasher, North Darfur in September 2013. Photo: Albert González Farran/UNAMID

When you go into an IDP camp [I wonder] how people can still smile under the circumstances.  If you go into those areas and you don’t feel a stirring inside then you’re not human.  I have a heart for the children, to see if we can make a better future for them. You see children laugh, but when you look at their eyes, you see that they have been through a lot.  But still people are trying under those circumstances and they are surviving. 

UN News Centre: You say you see mainly women on your patrols.  Where are the men?

Hester Paneras: Well, as far as we know, a lot of the men have been taken up in the movements, some in fighting and some have lost their lives.  So it is mostly women left behind in the IDP camps, along with some men, community leaders and so forth.  That is what we know.  We are just informed that most of these women don’t have men.  The men passed away. 

UN News Centre: What is the role of community policing in Darfur?

Hester Paneras: We started with community policing structures and training community volunteers.  Around 1,700 volunteers have been trained all over and we are continuing.  We’ve trained some women in IDP camps to be first-level responders for victims of crime and also to make it easier for women victims.  We are currently in process with the Government of Sudan police to see how we can further improve the community policing processes. 

In the culture of Darfur and in Sudan as a whole, a lot of issues are dealt with under customary law.  I make a difference between customary and Shariah law – Shariah law is your real Islamic law, whereas customary law is the definite ethnic group’s way of dealing with things.  A lot of that is an alternative justice system.  In principle, the culture in Darfur is actually a community-policing-based culture and it is important to have understanding of the culture in order to utilize it. They have mediation roles; they have alternative resolutions like blood money and so forth. Where the alternative process is followed, we also talk to the leaders to see if we cannot also go through official processes in order to determine what the level of crime is, even if it’s resolved in an alternative way. 

UN News Centre: Is the alternative way of resolving things acceptable?

Hester Paneras serving as Deputy Police Comissioner in 2010, when she helped establish UNAMID Police Women NetWorking. Albert González Farran/UNAMID

Hester Paneras: It depends.  One cannot say somebody else’s culture is not correct. For them, yes, it is working, but on the other hand, to get a real judicial process that is not always working.  That is why we are always looking to see how we can marry the two so that there is a due judicial process while utilizing the alternative processes.  In South Africa we have gone that way again, where people can be referred to the alternative process, even though [a crime] is reported in the official manner.   In your customary processes, you don’t always get the statistics.

UN News Centre: So the records are not kept.

Hester Paneras: The records are not kept and, for instance, it is possible that you will find that people who’ll say that there was a stray bullet that came through the roof that hit a person and it is not then always reported to the police and investigated, which means that it does leave a loophole to possibly cover up some crimes.  And one cannot always act preventively if one doesn’t have the total picture.

UN News Centre: Going back to the participation of women police officers in UN peacekeeping operations, do you think the UN is on track to achieve the goal of 20 per cent women police in peacekeeping operations by 2014?

Hester Paneras: I don’t think we are going to achieve it on time, but recently, there was a UN women’s peacekeeper forum established.  There was also a website launched last week in South Africa at the International Association of Women Police conference, where we had the police commissioner of South Africa who is a woman as well as the Inspectors General of Zambia and Senegal who are women.  They were invited to be honorary members.  I also had discussions with people in the gender office.  It will put us on track if we can get senior women who are leaders in the police from all over the world involved and provide a common understanding of what the women are exposed to and what role they can actually play.

If we want to make the world a better place we have to assist each other. We cannot stay in our own little corners and expect the world to change.  So to make a difference for the women elsewhere in the world it’s important.  And I think if we can have the involvement of these women, and to look and to have an influence on police contributing countries in order to start understanding what it is about, I think if we understand these things then the support can be there and then we can look at deploying more women.  Currently we are looking at the possibility of even keeping women a little bit longer in the Mission so that there’s more of an overlap to have more women at a time than their male counterparts, but we cannot do that if we don’t have the support of the contributing countries. 

UN News Centre: What other challenges are preventing more women from participating in peacekeeping operations?

Hester Paneras: I think women in policing is relatively young in the whole world.  Countries themselves are not always in the position to get to the relevant numbers.   We are looking, in my country, at 30 per cent women.  We’re getting there, but is it sufficient?  Currently, nations are also trying to retain their women to deal with issues in-country but I think if deployment from 18 months to two years could be possible they will get enriched women back, because they will be exposed to things that will make them stronger and give them more experience which they can then plough back into their countries -- with the understanding that when these women go back they’re optimally utilized.  So what is in it for the country itself has to be very clear as well, because this is a capacity-building process for them that costs them very little.

UN News Centre: What inspired you to become a police officer, when you first applied in South Africa?

Hester Paneras: I was twelve years old. This was 1972, the year that women were first admitted into the police in South Africa.  Since I was a kid I always played “police and crooks” with the boys and I was always interested in topics like drugs, different crime issues.  In school debates, I would always choose a topic in that regard.  I was twelve when I told my parents that I wanted to go into the police.  I didn’t have a second alternative even in mind.  When I finished school, in my final year, I applied. At that stage they only took in 96 women in the country at a time – three platoons. At that stage it was also only white women. Coloured – Indian, African women – only came in starting in 1982. When I applied, women had to go through a complex process.  We were 12 on the day that I went to the interview and two were selected. I was lucky to go to the college at the beginning of 1979.

So I always wanted to be a police officer.  If they didn’t take me I don’t know what I what have done.

UN News Centre: What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome in your career?

UNAMID police women march to celebrate the launching of an expanded Police Women Network in El Fasher, North Darfur in 2012. UN Photo/Albert González Farran

Hester Paneras: I did my Master’s thesis on the disparity of gender representation in the police in South Africa.  I found out things that I didn’t even realize.  When women first joined in 1972, they were appointed to the same structure as men and they wrote the same exams.  Then in 1976, a telex said that women at an alarming rate were passing the exams, and if this was allowed to continue women would take over the most senior positions, which could not be allowed, because women did not have the capacity physically and mentally to take charge of men.  And then women were put on a separate structure, allocating a number of posts for them.  In 1984, when I went on the officer’s course, we could not be immediately promoted, because there were no posts for women. 

Women also had to get special permission to get married.  If they were not happy with the person you married, or if a woman got pregnant, even if the father was a police officer, the woman was dismissed.  Women were also not allowed to be in charge of men.  Men were also discriminated against, because if a woman worked a night shift in the 70s or 80s, you had to be picked up at your home, which was a privilege that men didn’t have. In 1989, however, the first woman was appointed as a station commander and in 1992 the male and female structures became one again.  I was lucky, because they put us back where our rank should have been.  In 1995, affirmative action processes started kicking in. 

UN News Centre: In your perspective what are some of the key elements to protecting civilians in conflict areas like Darfur?

Hester Paneras: One really has to look at the cultural undertones, and I’m not talking culture in a sense of necessarily ethnicity, I’m talking about the culture that was created by the conflict.  In a lot of instances, one will find a situation where women were so abused that they started accepting it as the way of life.  This is they way it is.  One of the things is to start working with that mindset to get into a mode where they are willing to stand up for themselves.  There is a male issue as well; it’s not only about the females.  One has to start changing perceptions and then build on that.  Part of it is capacity building.  A good example where a country has gone from conflict into good community police and protection of women is Rwanda.  I think in South Africa we’ve also done quite well. 

Opening up to alternative approaches is very important, but the most important is to show that it doesn’t have to be like that.  You can get out of it.