A bunch of pink and orange roses awaited Annalena Baerbock as she arrived at the Qadiya refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, but the German foreign minister could not get rid of her gift quickly enough. “It’s not just International Women’s Day for ministers,” she said while frantically pulling the bouquet apart and handing out individual flowers to the throng around her.
She looked decidedly more in her element when she started walking around the camp south of the city of Zakho, joining an all-girls five-a-side football match and crunching into a tackle seconds after kick-off, or hitting uppercuts into punch mitts at a boxing club for girls.
Baerbock, Germany’s youngest ever foreign minister and the first woman to hold the role, has strong ideas about how diplomacy can better represent women’s interests, which she recently presented in a manifesto on “feminist foreign policy”. Her critics say the concept is little more concrete than designating a day to celebrate womanhood. But watching Baerbock in action, it is clear that the very act of getting stuck in is a vital part.
That the 42-year-old Green politician does not shy from conflict has been apparent to the rest of the world at least since last month’s UN general assembly, where she publicly clashed with China while rebutting the claim that the west was escalating the war in Ukraine.
Baerbock’s persistent harrying of the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in favour of more material military support has won her admirers in Kyiv but also enemies at home. At “peace” rallies in Germany, she has been painted as a warmonger; one party ally from the Greens’ pacifist wing recently called her “the shrillest trumpeter of Nato’s antagonistic new strategy”.
The programme of her four-day trip to Iraq this week – the longest visit to a foreign state in her 16-month tenure – was also dominated by the repercussion of Russia’s war of aggression, as western allies try to hold together an international consensus in condemnation of the invasion.
Iraq is situated in what Baerbock diplomatically called a “complicated neighbourhood”, with armed conflicts in Syria and Iran repeatedly spilling out on to its turf. And while the prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, needs the US military that remains in the country at his government’s request to keep a fragile peace, it is also reliant on gas and electricity imports from Russia-allied Iran. Last month, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, landed in Baghdad with heads of energy companies in tow.
Having stayed out of the US-led invasion 20 years ago, Germany has a trusted standing in Iraq that it hopes will allow it to nudge the country away from Iran and Russia’s advances.
Travelling to Baghdad in Lavrov’s wake, Baerbock vowed to keep up support for Iraq’s fight against Islamic State, whose command structure was defeated in 2017 but is believed to still have cells in the country waiting their turn. In the presence of German envoys, Iraqi officials on Tuesday signed a deal tasking the German company Siemens Energy to help the country generate up to 6GW of additional homemade electricity.
For Baerbock, however, the trip to Iraq is also an opportunity to demonstrate that “feminist foreign policy” could become more than just a slogan. The concept – first championed by Sweden’s former foreign minister Margot Wallström almost a decade ago, and since claimed with varying degrees of vigour by governments in France, Canada, Chile, the Netherlands and Spain – is not new. But with Sweden’s new conservative government recently publicly disowning the concept, Baerbock is now its most prolific champion.
In Germany, her guideline paper on “shaping feminist foreign policy” was mocked even in Green-friendly media for relying too heavily on academic jargon and trying to sell established diplomatic practices as a radical fresh start.
In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Baerbock did not exactly deflect allegations of woolly thinking when she described German support of the war-torn region’s military forces as “part of our feminist foreign policy”, since “living in dignity does not entail having to hide in your house all day”.
As an attitude rather than an idea, however, feminist foreign policy proved capable of focusing the minds of the minister and her hosts.
At a press conference with the Kurdistan region’s prime minister, Masrour Barzani, Baerbock made a statement almost identical to one she had voiced after meeting the Iraqi foreign minister, Fuad Hussein, the previous day and the Nigerian foreign minister in Abuja last December: “Societies live in more stable and peaceful coexistence if women can take part in shaping them,” she said, while holding her male counterpart’s gaze.
Such comments can risk coming across as lectures delivered mainly to a western audience, especially in a country such as Iraq, with memories of grand speeches about women’s liberation as a mere prelude to the US-led invasion 20 years ago. But when presented with a degree of brazenness by a female politician in front of exclusively male counterparts, such lines also have force.
When Germany declined to join the US-led invasion in 2003, it was another Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who led the resistance, telling Donald Rumsfeld at the Munich security conference that year he was “not convinced” of the need for military action.
Baerbock’s inspiration for joining the Greens, however, was not Fischer in 2003 but his decision four years earlier to lead Germany into Kosovo as part of the Nato campaign to stop ethnic cleansing. Iraq to her generation of German Greens is less of a place where the west fatally burned its fingers, than somewhere where it was right to hold out a protecting hand over endangered minorities, as part of an anti-IS coalition in 2014.
In Erbil, she urged Barzani to address the situation of children born of Yazidi women who were raped by IS fighters.
The Spiritual Council, the highest religious authority among the Iraqi religious minority, said in 2019 it encouraged female Yazidi survivors to return with their children, but explicitly excluded those born of rape since it considers them Muslims. Since Iraqi law requires fathers to authorise passports for minors, most of these children remain in legal limbo.
“Like all children in this world these children have human rights,” Baerbock said. “That also means the right to their own surname.”
Located about 12 miles from the border with Turkey and surrounded by green fields and rolling hills, the Qadiya camp, where some such children live, holds more than 12,000 people, almost all of them Yazidis who were driven out of the Sinjar region by militias eight years ago.
With their homelands still devastated and politically volatile, the number of people in the camp has grown rather than shrunk, and hopelessness has been rising.
Germany, which is home to by far the largest Yazidi diaspora community worldwide and whose parliament in January declared IS crimes against the minority a genocide, has a justifiable stake in their fate.
“Gender-sensitive budgeting,” one of the phrases from Baerbock’s guidelines mocked in the press, may in practice mean nothing more and nothing less than assessing whether all sexes benefit equally from aid projects targeting communities in need such as Iraq’s Yazidis, and readdressing the balance if they do not.
The project Háwar.help, which the German ministry starts funding in April, offers psychological care and a suicide prevention programme especially for women in Yazidi camps, among whom an estimated 10% have contemplated taking their life.
“If we want to have stability in Kurdistan, we need to find ways to bring peace to this region,” said Düzen Tekkal, a German entrepreneur of Kurdish-Yazidi descent who founded Háwar.help. “We need to start recognising that this is a German problem too.”