Protecting Women’s Participation: Ministerial-Level Open Debate
Tomorrow (18 January), the Security Council will hold a ministerial-level open debate on women, peace and security (WPS) titled “Protecting participation: addressing violence targeting women in peace and security processes”. Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt will chair the meeting, which is one of the signature events of Norway’s January presidency. The expected briefers are UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of the NGO Working Group on WPS Kaavya Asoka, and a civil society representative from Afghanistan. No outcome is expected.
Non-Council member states are invited to participate in person at tomorrow’s open debate or submit a written statement to be included in the meeting’s official record.
According to the concept note prepared by Norway, the open debate aims to highlight the “persistent shortfalls” in establishing a safe and enabling environment for women peacebuilders and human rights defenders to carry out their work. The meeting will also serve as a platform to share recommendations on ways to reinforce prevention and response to threats, intimidation, and attacks against women participating in peace and security processes. Noting that women’s full participation in public and political life depends on the presence of a safe and enabling environment, the concept note says that the UN and its member states should work towards ending violence targeting women in peace and security processes to “meet the globally agreed objectives on women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in peace and security”.
Tomorrow’s meeting will be the first time that the Security Council holds a formal meeting on reprisals and their effects on women’s participation. It has discussed the issue informally, however. In February 2020, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Niger and the UK organised an Arria-formula meeting on reprisals against women human rights defenders and peacebuilders who engage with the Security Council and its subsidiary bodies.
At tomorrow’s open debate, Council members and the briefers are likely to call for an end to intimidation and attacks against women human rights defenders and peacebuilders and to stress the importance of strengthening accountability for reprisals against them. The concept note highlights the links between participation and protection and argues that normalising and elevating women’s participation in peace and security processes, as well as adopting robust accountability measures when attacks occur, are critical measures to create space for women’s participation. Building on the ‘presidency trio’ initiative launched by Ireland, Kenya and Mexico during their consecutive presidencies in 2021 (September, October and November), then-Council member Niger, Albania, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates issued a statement of shared commitments on WPS in December 2021 for their respective presidencies. Among other issues, the four members committed to call for accountability, taking “a zero-tolerance approach” on reprisals against briefers, and pledged to follow up on recommendations and priority issues raised by civil society briefers in Council meetings. Tomorrow, these and other Council members may echo such commitments.
Bachelet is expected to focus her briefing on the persistence of threats and violence faced by women human rights defenders and peacebuilders. She may focus on specific country situations, including those in which women human rights defenders are facing heightened risks in the aftermath of government takeovers, such as Afghanistan. Bachelet might highlight that women’s disempowerment can contribute to security crises, as seen in the Sahel region. According to the Secretary-General’s latest annual report on WPS, which was published on 27 September 2021, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified 35 cases of “killings of women human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists in seven conflict-affected countries” in 2020. However, as the report notes, data remains incomplete and “[m]any more” women have faced threats and harassment in relation to their work and activities. A key expected focus of the Secretary-General’s 2022 annual report on WPS will be women human rights defenders. As such, tomorrow’s meeting may provide impetus for Council discussion on this theme ahead of the upcoming annual WPS open debate in October.
Asoka may warn of an increase in the number and severity of threats and reprisals faced by women human rights defenders and peacebuilders, including those who brief the Security Council. She might provide recommendations on how the Security Council and the UN system can strengthen prevention and response to these threats and reprisals. In a 1 September 2021 open letter to UN permanent representatives, the NGO Working Group on WPS stated that the protection of women human rights defenders and peacebuilders “remains one of the starkest gaps in the Security Council’s implementation of the WPS agenda”. At tomorrow’s meeting, Asoka is likely to stress that Council members should not settle for reducing the number of women civil society briefers to minimise possible risks but should rather put in place enhanced support to ensure their safety.
The civil society representative from Afghanistan may describe her experience to illustrate the links between women’s protection and participation. Tomorrow, several Council members may refer to Afghanistan in their interventions, including with regard to protection and resettlement practices for women fleeing the country in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover in August 2021. The concept note for tomorrow’s meeting recalls that the Secretary-General’s annual report on WPS referred to Afghanistan as a stark example of the “juxtaposition of violence targeting women and their rights, on the one hand, and their extreme marginalization and exclusion, on the other”.
At tomorrow’s meeting, some speakers may call for improved monitoring and reporting, including through the collection of disaggregated data on attacks and threats against women human rights defenders. The Secretary-General’s report on reprisals against individuals cooperating with the UN, which was published on 1 December 2021 and covers the period from 1 May 2020 to 30 April 2021, stresses that the cases relating to threats against “those who face gender-specific or sexual orientation-specific barriers and those protecting or claiming land and resource-related rights” remain underreported. The report identifies increased documentation efforts, disaggregating data “by the gender, age, minority group and indigenous status” as a way to strengthen both analysis and response.
Another issue that may be highlighted at tomorrow’s meeting is the need for increased resourcing to support women peacebuilders’ peace and security work. Some speakers might also emphasise the need for adequate resourcing of the relevant UN entities providing protection and support to enable women peacebuilders’ participation, including when they brief at the Security Council. Some Council members may welcome the new funding window opened by the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF) for women human rights defenders working for peace and humanitarian action in crisis and conflict contexts. (The WPHF is a multi-partner trust fund whose board is composed of UN entities, civil society organisations, and states.) The funding window for women human rights defenders is scheduled to open tomorrow morning (18 January) at a virtual launch ahead of the open debate.
Council members are generally supportive of the WPS agenda. However, there are differences in tone and focus among members, with language on women human rights defenders proving contentious in past negotiations on Council products. At tomorrow’s open debate, several states may recall resolution 2493 of 2019 on WPS, which in its sixth operative paragraph encourages states to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society, including women community leaders, political actors, peacebuilders and “those who protect and promote human rights”, and to address threats, harassment, hate speech and violence. At tomorrow’s meeting, China and Russia may echo similar positions to those they expressed after the adoption of resolution 2493. China—which reserved its position on operative paragraph six—stated that NGOs “are expected to play a constructive role by observing the laws of the countries concerned”, while Russia argued that the resolution contained “provisions that go beyond the Security Council’s mandate”.
At the February 2020 Arria-formula meeting on reprisals against women human rights defenders and peacebuilders engaging with the Security Council, China maintained that “there is no clear and unified definition that was arrived at through intergovernmental negotiations” of the term “human rights defender”, adding that “the defenders of human rights should not be treated as a special group to be afforded special rights and legal status”. At the same meeting, Russia stated that “linking reprisals with the Security Council agenda is unjustified” as, in its view, this is a human rights issue which can be better addressed in other UN fora, particularly the Human Rights Council.