In Hindsight: Women, Peace and Security—Golden Threads and Persisting Challenges
The women, peace and security (WPS) agenda was inaugurated in 2000 with the adoption of Security Council resolution 1325. Trepidation marked the agenda’s 20th anniversary last year, with difficult Council dynamics characterising engagement on this issue in 2019-2020. Against this backdrop, the “presidency trio” initiative on WPS led by Ireland, Kenya and Mexico during their consecutive presidencies (September, October and November) may be understood as an initial attempt to find a way forward for the agenda at the Council.
The two most recent WPS resolutions were adopted in 2019 and were both characterised by fraught negotiations. Resolution 2467, on conflict-related sexual violence, was the first WPS resolution not to be adopted unanimously; China and Russia abstained, citing concerns about what they perceived as the undue expansion of the Council’s mandate (S/PV.8514). Further, the US threatened a veto over the proposed inclusion of language on sexual and reproductive health and, equally, rejected a fallback proposal based on agreed language from resolution 2106 (2013). While the omission of language on sexual and reproductive health in resolution 2467 did not erode rights that had already been recognised, it nevertheless triggered concern about the agenda’s future and also about the Council’s ability to preserve the normative developments the WPS agenda had achieved.
The second WPS resolution of 2019, resolution 2493, reiterated the need for the “full implementation” of the agenda and echoed previous Council calls for women’s inclusion and participation in peace talks. While this text saw a return to consensus, some Council members and civil society actors regretted its lack of ambition. The resolution’s initiator, South Africa, had made a number of concessions—including on women human rights defenders and the Informal Experts Group (IEG) on WPS—to secure consensus. For instance, it seems that an initial draft called for the IEG co-chairs to submit an annual update on progress towards implementing recommendations presented at its meetings may have been unacceptable to China and Russia. Despite the ultimate consensus, some members believed that the negotiation process itself exacerbated the already difficult dynamics surrounding this issue.
Council dynamics did not improve in 2020 when a draft resolution commemorating the 20th anniversary of resolution 1325, proposed by Russia, did not garner the nine affirmative votes needed to pass. Some members doubted the added value of a text consisting mainly of previously agreed language, arguing instead that implementation of the WPS agenda should be prioritised. It seems, too, that some members perceived the proposed text as not being well-balanced between the socioeconomic and rights-based aspects of the agenda.
As a result of this uneasy climate, most Council members—and several civil society actors—have come to emphasise the importance of implementing the existing normative framework of the agenda, which is generally understood as being adequate, over its further development through new WPS resolutions, in order to avoid the risk of regression.
New developments and persisting challenges
On 31 August, Ireland, the Council president for September, circulated a joint statement of commitments on WPS with Kenya and Mexico, the respective October and November Council presidents. (Ireland and Mexico are the current IEG co-chairs, while Kenya presided over the annual WPS open debate.) On 1 September, Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason (Ireland) described the WPS initiative as “a golden thread” that would run through the Irish, Kenyan and Mexican presidencies.
Spearheaded by elected members and assuming a cross-regional character, the trio-initiative appears to be an attempt to strengthen Council engagement on the agenda through means other than new WPS outcomes, thus helping the Council to emerge from the shadow cast by the difficult dynamics on this issue in recent years.
The trio committed to a series of actions during their presidencies, including:
- attaining gender balance among briefers and strong representation of women civil society speakers in Council meetings,
- making WPS the focus of at least one mandated geographic meeting of the Council,
- ensuring that Council products drafted integrate strong WPS language, and
- holding WPS press stakeouts.
While other Council members have previously emphasised some of these aspects, this was the first time that a fairly broad list of WPS commitments has been undertaken across three consecutive presidencies. Through this initiative, members are following up on some of the commitments already expressed in the WPS resolutions. For instance, in resolution 2242 (2015), the Council expressed its intention to invite civil society briefers, including women’s organisations, to country-specific and thematic meetings. In September, Ireland invited 16 women from civil society to brief the Council, 11 of whom briefed during country-specific meetings. In October, Kenya invited ten women civil society briefers, eight of whom briefed in country-specific meetings.
In addition to following up on members’ prior commitments, the list features novel elements. One of these has been the WPS press stakeouts which, according to the trio statement, are aimed at heightening the visibility of Council discussions on WPS. So far, there have been two of these stakeouts. The first, attended by Ireland and Mexico, followed the 28 September Council briefing on Somalia, which was held as part of the trio’s commitment to focus one geographic meeting on WPS. The second was attended by all three members and was held on 10 November after the annual briefing with the heads of police components of UN peace operations, which had a focus on WPS as part of the trio initiative.
Though the presidency trio initiative may be an attempt to start moving away from the difficult climate that characterised Council initiatives on WPS in recent years, it seems that Council members still believe that the dynamics on this file are not conducive to the adoption of new products. Ahead of the WPS open debate, Council members discussed the possibility of a formal outcome, but the initiative did not find support and was abandoned.
Still, the recent period has seen some shift in Council dynamics. The US has recommitted to the provision of “sexual and reproductive health care and services for women around the world” (S/2021/375), and China and Russia now attend and intervene during IEG meetings.
Moreover, strong WPS language was recently included in resolution 2594, on UN peace operations transitions, adopted on 9 September. The resolution:
“Requests the Secretary-General to ensure that comprehensive gender analysis and technical gender expertise are included throughout all stages of mission planning, mandate implementation and review and throughout the transition process, as well as mainstreaming of a gender perspective, and to ensure the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women and the inclusion of youth, as well as measures to safeguard the interests of persons with disabilities”.
Nevertheless, differences of view persist among Council members on when and how WPS or gender are relevant to thematic and geographic situations. At the October open debate, Ambassador Sven Jürgenson (Estonia) said: “The link between women and peace and security was affirmed by the Council over 20 years ago, yet it continues to be questioned in almost all of our deliberations” (S/PV.8886). Deputy Permanent Representative Gennady Kuzmin (Russian Federation) countered that the Security Council “should focus on situations that pose an imminent threat to international peace and security” as the “work to promote the role of women” is already carried out by other UN bodies, such as the General Assembly.
While WPS language is regularly included in mission mandates, provisions advancing the agenda or going beyond agreed language in country-specific resolutions often remain difficult to agree. On 17 September, the Council extended UNAMA’s mandate until 17 March 2022 through resolution 2596. While earlier drafts of the resolution would have asked the Secretary-General to provide “strategic and operational recommendations for the mandate of UNAMA, in light of recent political, security and social developments, including the situation of women and girls”, the reference to the situation of women and girls was seemingly removed at the insistence of China and Russia. Resolution 2596 includes a preambular reference to “the importance of the establishment of an inclusive and representative government” and of the “full, equal and meaningful participation of women, and upholding human rights, including for women, children and minorities”.
Differences of view between Council members on gender and WPS are unlikely to wane anytime soon, and it does not appear that widening the outlook of WPS discussions beyond the established normative framework is among the Council’s imminent priorities. This year’s Secretary-General’s report on WPS (S/2021/827) paid particular attention to the need to reverse the upward trend in global military spending with the goal of encouraging “greater investment in the social infrastructure and services that buttress human security”. The report noted that while curbing military spending has long been a pivotal objective of women’s peace activism, it has received only scant attention within the WPS normative framework. During the WPS open debate, none of the P5 and only a small minority of the elected members referred to these elements in their statements. For instance, Ireland referred to the “strong correlation between militarization and gender inequality”, while Mexico called on states to refrain from transferring weapons in situations when there is a risk that they could be used for gender-based violence.
Currently, future Council engagement on WPS appears to be more likely to take the shape of initiatives like the presidency trio. At press time, it appeared that some Council members were considering building on the trio list of commitments to expand this initiative into one open to all Council members in their role as Council presidents. All five incoming elected members (Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, and the United Arab Emirates) referred to WPS in their election campaigns.
During the October open debate, Celia Umenza Velasco, legal coordinator for the Indigenous Reservation of Tacueyó and member of the Association of Indigenous Cabildos of the North of Cauca (Colombia), urged the Council “to not allow this open debate to become yet another occasion where the Council listens to women civil society representatives but fails to act on our concerns” (S/PV.8886). Regarding future engagement, Council members may want to develop ways to meaningfully follow up on the information shared by civil society briefers. Another option is to develop ways to better capitalise on expertise and the recommendations shared during IEG meetings, including through continuing to encourage the participation of delegations’ country and other relevant experts alongside gender experts. For instance, it appears that during the 16 November IEG meeting, which focused on women protection advisors in peacekeeping and special political missions, Fifth Committee experts were invited to attend.
More generally, members supportive of the WPS agenda may want to continue to develop strategies to promote the holistic and substantive implementation of the agenda. This could include enhancing cross-presidency planning on WPS to promote sustained Council work on the agenda. The most important consideration, however, remains how Council-level initiatives have an impact on the ground.
 See Christine Chinkin and Madeleine Rees, “Commentary on Security Council Resolution 2467: Continued State Obligation and Civil Society Action on Sexual Violence in Conflict”, LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security 15; Louise Allen and Laura J Shepherd, “In pursuing a new resolution on sexual violence Security Council significantly undermines women’s reproductive rights”, LSE Women, Peace and Security blog, 25 April 2019; Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, “Gutting the Substance of a Security Council Resolution on Sexual Violence”, Just Security, 24 April 2019.
 The figure for women civil society briefers does not include officials of international organisations. At the time of writing, complete data for November was not available.