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Women, Peace and Security: Annual Open Debate

Tomorrow morning (21 October), the Security Council will hold its annual open debate on women, peace and security. The meeting will be held at ministerial level and will be chaired by Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Raychelle Omamo. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to provide opening remarks. UN Women Executive Director Sima Sami Bahous, and Special Envoy of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission on Women, Peace and Security Bineta Diop, are expected to brief the Council. A civil society representative from Colombia is also expected to brief on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.

Tomorrow’s meeting will be the first Security Council open debate to include the participation of non-Council members since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems that non-Council member states and observers who have expressed an interest to Council president Kenya to participate in person at ministerial or ambassadorial level will be able to do so. Other non-Council members are invited to submit written statements.

According to a concept note prepared by Kenya (S/2021/875), the open debate will focus on the theme “Investing in Women in Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding” and will aim to recognise and showcase the influence and contributions of local women “at all stages of peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding”. The meeting will also serve as a platform to promote “the visibility of grass-roots women leaders of all ages, human rights defenders and peace signatories” and for member states to express a stronger commitment to the agenda and to inclusive peace.

Bahous is expected to brief on the Secretary General’s latest annual report on women, peace and security, which was published on 27 September (S/2021/827). The report highlights the need to reverse the upward trend in global military spending, with a view to encouraging “greater investment in the social infrastructure and services that buttress human security”. Research commissioned by UN Women and based on data collected from 153 countries from 1990 to 2019 indicates a link between militarisation and gender inequality. The Secretary-General’s report also cites recent research which demonstrates that countries allocating a larger share of their budget to military expenditure were less likely to enact pandemic-related measures to support women and girls.

According to the report, in most of the world, military spending “outpaced pandemic-related health spending” during 2020. Despite the acute stress on meeting social, health and economic needs associated with the pandemic, global military expenditure saw a 2.6 percent increase (the equivalent of almost $2 trillion). The report notes that although the curbing of military spending has been a key historical objective of women’s peace activism, it has not received adequate attention within the normative framework on women, peace and security. For example, the report highlights that weapons and military expenditure are only addressed in four of the ten Security Council resolutions on women and peace and security, with the focus being limited to the Arms Trade Treaty and small arms and light weapons.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender equality goals, and specifically on women in conflict-affected areas, are a likely focus of tomorrow’s meeting. The Secretary-General’s report argues that several factors have had a negative impact on the recovery and on international peace and security in general, including the underrepresentation of women in decision-making on pandemic response, a surge in women’s unemployment associated with the pandemic and the increase in gender-based violence during lockdowns.

At tomorrow’s meeting, several Council members are expected to call for women’s increased representation in political and peace processes. The Secretary-General’s report notes that women remain significantly under-represented in parliamentary politics and in peace processes. Women hold only 25.5 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide, a percentage that goes down to 18.9 percent in post-conflict contexts, and make up only 23 percent of delegates from conflict parties in UN-led or co-led peace processes.

Some Council members are expected to emphasise the importance of the work carried out by women human rights defenders and call for an immediate stop to attacks and reprisals against them. The Secretary-General’s report notes that women human rights defenders continue to face violence, threats and harassment, with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reporting 35 verified cases “of killings of women human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists in seven conflict-affected countries” in 2020. The civil society representative from Colombia may emphasise the important role of women peacebuilders and may speak about the challenges faced by women activists in her country. Ahead of tomorrow’s open debate, the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security circulated an open letter to UN permanent representatives, calling for an end to attacks and intimidation against all human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders. The letter specifies that in Colombia, human rights defenders “especially Afro-descendant, Indigenous and LGBTIQ activists, are at heightened risk of gender-based violence for defending their rights, their land and their communities”.

According to the Secretary-General’s report, the focus of next year’s annual report on women, peace and security will be on women’s rights and will apparently include “recommendations for better protection for women human rights defenders”.

Regarding the work of the Security Council in implementing the women, peace and security agenda in 2020, the Secretary-General’s report indicates a decrease, compared to 2019, in women civil society briefers and in the number of resolutions which included language on women, peace and security. The report notes that some of these trends can be explained by the temporary change in the Council’s working methods following the start of the pandemic. It says that the drop in resolutions with women, peace and security provisions may be attributable to the high number of “technical rollovers and short resolutions” adopted in 2020. At the same time, the report also highlights that women, peace and security language was strengthened in some country-specific resolutions and that 2020 saw the adoption of resolution 2538, the first resolution on peacekeeping “fully devoted to women and gender equality”.

At tomorrow’s open debate states will likely refer to the concerns highlighted in the annual report, with some states emphasising human rights protections and others stressing the importance of issues such as economic empowerment.

It seems that, in recent weeks, members discussed the possibility of a Council outcome for the open debate, such as a presidential statement, but the initiative apparently did not garner support. A Council product is therefore not expected in connection with tomorrow’s meeting. Instead, the concept note says that the debate’s expected outcome is a “declaration of commitment” and calls on member states to “pronounce or renew their political commitment to ensuring greater and more comprehensive investments” in:

Council members are generally supportive of the women, peace and security agenda. However, in recent years, there have been difficult dynamics surrounding Council initiatives on this issue. Following the October 2020 annual open debate on women, peace and security, a draft resolution commemorating the 20th anniversary of the adoption of resolution 1325, put to a vote by Russia, failed to garner the nine affirmative votes needed to pass. Abstaining members questioned the need for a resolution consisting mainly of previously agreed language and perceived the text as being unbalanced between socioeconomic and rights-based aspects.

In addition, disagreements persist among Council members on the inclusion of language relating to women, peace and security in country-specific resolutions. While several Council members, including Ireland and Norway, seek to include such language in Council products, it seems that members such as China and Russia sometimes disagree with such initiatives. The division seems to lie in differences of view between Council members on what pertains to peace and security. Against this backdrop, the presidency “trio” initiative of three successive months with a focus on women, peace and security—during the presidencies of Ireland, Kenya and Mexico—may be seen as an attempt to start moving away from the difficult climate that has surrounded the Council’s initiatives on women, peace and security in recent years.