Making connections and building a movement, WPS in Australia and our region

Originally recorded for presentation at the 2017 ACFID National Conference, this video features Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, Executive Producer – Director femLINKpacific, discussing women, peace and security in the Pacific. Sharon outlines the work of femLINK, framed around UNSCR1325 and centred on amplifying Pacific women’s voices, increasing women’s participation in peace and security, and localising the women, peace and security agenda in Fiji as well as with partners in Bougainville, Solomon Islands and Tonga. Sharon also raises the need for a human security approach, which recognises the important intersections between peace and security and development and humanitarian responses.

 Sharon also covers the important role of women’s movements in building peace in Fiji during times of conflict and extreme violence – “you can’t talk about women, peace and security or women’s human security without that movement”. She goes on to discuss how a unified women, peace and security women’s movement came together in the Pacific and the important role this movement has played in bringing pacific women’s voices to the global stage. 

Getting Out of Our Silos: Leveraging the Women, Peace & Security Agenda to Transform Humanitarian Action

By Pip Henty and Beth Eggleston, Humanitarian Advisory Group.

This is the first in a series of guest blog articles written by WPS Coalition members in the lead up to the Civil Society and Government Women, Peace and Security Policy Dialogue. If you’d like to become a member of the Coalition, you can find more information here.

The fact that women and girls experience conflict differently from boys and men is made clear in the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda – but what about during a humanitarian response? How does the relief and recovery, and the protection pillars of the agenda support humanitarian action, and vice versa?

Protracted conflicts and natural disasters have significant impacts on entire communities and disproportionately on women and girls. 75% of people in need of humanitarian assistance are women and children.  Sexual and gender-based violence dramatically increases in a conflict context, with sexual violence against women increasingly employed as a systematic weapon of war. The increased risk women and girls face is often a result of the breakdown of traditional structures that protect and support women, such as formal institutional structures, as well as the family unit.

The vision of many champions of the WPS agenda is a world in which gender equality, and the contributions and rights of diverse women and girls, are at the forefront of transforming approaches to peacebuilding.  Although all pillars of the WPS agenda are crucial to the full implementation of the agenda, the relief and recovery, and participation pillars are imperative in moving past the common discourse of the protection of women towards harnessing women as leaders in humanitarian response.

Relief and Recovery in humanitarian action

The WPS agenda calls for a strengthening of relief and recovery measures to address international crises through a gendered approach. This pillar aims to ensure a gender perspective is incorporated into all relief and recovery efforts to support the needs, and recognise and strengthen, the capacity of women and girls to engage in peacebuilding. Additionally, women and girls must be given the opportunity to participate in relief and recovery measures at all levels in humanitarian response.

One way of strengthening implementation of the WPS agenda is by exploring the alignment of other high-level global frameworks, and leveraging that alignment. For example, the World Humanitarian Summit’s core responsibilities include preventing and ending conflicts and leaving no one behind. This is directly related to developing solutions with and for people, including empowering women and girls. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Interventions in Humanitarian Action assist humanitarian actors and communities to coordinate, plan, implement, monitor and evaluate essential actions for the prevention and mitigation of GBV across all aspects of humanitarian response. Also, investing in the linkages between humanitarian action and the Sustainable Development Goals can support WPS priorities.  Leveraging these frameworks enhances relief and recovery initiatives to appropriately respond to the needs of women and girls and can contribute to further implementation of the WPS agenda.

Women in Leadership – a Place at the Peace Table

The participation pillar refers to the full and equal participation and representation of women at all levels of decision making, including peace-processes, electoral processes (both candidates and voters), UN positions, and the broader social-political sphere.

Research conducted by Humanitarian Advisory Group found that the gendered leadership gap within humanitarian organisations directly impacts humanitarian outcomes. Having more women in decision-making and leadership positions will likely lead to improved gender considerations in programming and greater achievement of gender equity goals. It is imperative that women in leadership and decision-making roles are not just given tokenistic leadership positions that are then undermined due to social, cultural norms, and systemic discrimination.

To better ensure this happens, in 2000, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, specifically demanded greater representation and participation of women and gender issues at all levels. For example, there are various challenges that need to be overcome in Afghanistan for women to participate and engage in peace negotiations. Women are constrained, often by gendered social norms, with regard to areas they can travel and interaction. This gender restriction is also evident in the representation of women in the High Peace Council in Afghanistan, which consists of only nine women out of a total of seventy members. When women are represented and their voices are heard, it promotes a more inclusive, satisfactory and sustainable peace and security. Peace strategies and humanitarian response are otherwise not comprehensive when women are not represented, including the role they can play and the impact these strategies can have on women. 

The Risk of securitising the WPS agenda and impeding humanitarian action

The rise of countering/preventing violent extremism (CVE) efforts in many contexts where the humanitarian needs are significant – Myanmar, Syria and Yemen for example – results in a significant risk that both the WPS agenda and humanitarian action will be turned into security instruments. As a result, the CVE agenda may become the dominant priority at the expense of other security and humanitarian issues facing women. The current environment of militarisation, understood as the reliance on the use of force as the sole means of conflict resolution within many national security, political and social spheres, often results in the neglect of a gendered lens of experiences and voices.

Women’s rights and women’s rights organisations would be adversely impacted in many contexts where CVE attempts via military strategies and agendas seep into humanitarian work. A recent study found that measures to CVE have had both a direct and indirect impact on women’s rights organisations to seek, secure and access resources, including funding.  Additionally, this impacts on humanitarian organisations. For example, trust is built between humanitarian organisations, the affected population, and the group controlling the area where the humanitarian needs exist. The success of this trust is often based on the notion that humanitarians abide by the concept of neutrality, and are not acting on behalf of any political or military group. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable in a disaster, including women and children. The perception that women and children are at risk of radicalisation should not impact upon the priorities of humanitarian aid delivery in particular area.

If we want women to be at the centre of humanitarian efforts as well as peace building efforts, there needs to be a shift in thinking, including listening, talking, and engaging the women who are affected – and we must utilise all the tools, and their synergies, in order to make that happen.



What’s next for Australia’s National Action on Women, Peace and Security?

Original article by Katrina Lee-Koo and Anu Mundkur on 12 May for The Strategist

In 2015, 54 countries had developed National Action Plans (NAPs) on UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 to integrate gender perspectives into all areas of their peace and security policy-making and practices. Today, that number has grown to 64. There appears to be growing commitment among UN member states, such as Australia, to implement their international commitments to advance the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

But to have any impact on the lives of women and girls in conflict and to influence the process and outcome of peace processes, these NAPs can’t just be statements of commitment. They need robust monitoring and evaluation frameworks to ensure accountability, with indicators, targets, benchmarks and reporting mechanisms to measure the effectiveness and outcomes of strategies and actions. It’s in ensuring accountability to NAP commitments that civil society has the most pivotal role to play, according to the UN.

The 2015 Global Study on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 highlights Australia’s shadow reporting process, undertaken by civil society organisations, as an example of best practice in facilitating that accountability. The Fourth Annual Civil Society Report Card, launched this week in Canberra, offers an independent and public assessment of the Australian government’s commitment, on paper and in practice.

Many of the Report Card’s key findings echo those of the Independent Interim Review of the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. Noting the absence of a rigorous monitoring and evaluation framework, both the Review and the Report Card point to challenges in holding the government accountable against its commitments.

The Report Card finds that more needs to be done by the government to realise the transformative vision of the Women Peace and Security agenda, specifically in its core areas: facilitating women’s participation in all areas of peace and security activity, and accounting for differential impacts of security policies on men and women.

For example, this week’s announcement of increased funding to the AFP for crime fighting and counterterrorism should be balanced by an equal investment in both international and national women’s organisations working towards stabilisation, preventing crime, terrorism and violent extremism. The Report Card advises that countering violent extremism and terrorism requires an ‘approach that is gender-aware, evidenced-based, preventative in design, and that includes women as decision-makers in all policy responses’.

Similarly, the decision to support US-led airstrikes in Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons needs to consider a gender perspective. That would require more than simply stating, as Prime Minister Turnbull did, that the strikes were a ‘swift and just response to a regime that ‘gass[es] its own people, women, and children, babies.’ It requires leadership and expertise to advise on the impact of the strikes upon women and girls; their continued protection needs in the aftermath of any military action; and the impact of those actions on the resolution of conflict. Australia’s foreign policy, development and humanitarian responses to the Syria crisis must advocate and commit support for women’s rights organisations; for women’s leadership in humanitarian action; and women’s participation in the peace process. Such action—which draws on a rapidly growing evidence base that identifies the positive links between the presence of women’s human rights and political stability—would establish Australia as an outstanding leader on women, peace and security.

While there are chances to improve practice, Australia has already made some strides.. The Report Card notes the progress made by the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Federal Police in operationalising the Women, Peace and Security agenda. That includes: the significant steps taken to address sexual and gender based violence; DFAT’s work supporting women’s participation in peace processes; and the whole-of–government assistance provided by the Australian Civil-Military Centre, including its support for civil society through funding the Annual Civil Society Dialogue and Report Card.

And the government’s establishment of the Office of the Ambassador for Women and Girls; its commitment to increasing the number of women in senior and pivotal peace and security decision-making roles; its efforts to recruit and retain women in the ADF and AFP; and its commitment to mainstream gender in all foreign policy and development practice remain positive signs. And what’s more, the message is penetrating across government.

The government’s Women, Peace and Security efforts and civil society’s responses have, as the Report Card notes, started a conversation. That conversation is replete with promising rhetoric and commitments, but has some distance to travel. The goal is to make Women, Peace and Security mundane; an everyday and unremarkable part of peace and security policy-making and practice. It’s time to move beyond measuring successes in ‘firsts’ or in the language of ‘laying foundations’. Continuing the conversation between government and civil society and working in partnership to develop a strong second National Action plan is the next step.

Remembering the justice in Women, Peace and Security

Article by Susan Hutchinson. 

Justice has been a prevalent aspect of every WPS resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council. The resolutions are grounded in the architecture of women’s rights and international justice. The relevance of a gender perspective is articulated with regards to a range of security related justice tasks. Most significantly, the resolutions have continued to build on accountability mechanisms for conflict related sexual violence. But, perhaps because it doesn’t naturally fit in any of the ‘pillars’ that were developed to support implementation; issues of justice are often lost along the path to implementation.

Since resolution 1325, all the WPS resolutions have recalled or reaffirmed the rights of individuals and obligations of states under international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Six out of eight resolutions have recalled the Beijing Platform for Action, which remains the most comprehensive document on women’s rights; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Many also recall the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, which allows individual’s recourse to the UN if a state fails to uphold the provisions of the Convention.

A range of security related justice tasks are discussed in the suite of WPS resolutions. In resolution 1888, the Security Council focus on access to justice, the rule of law, legal and judicial reforms, investigations and prosecutions. Resolution 2106 draws attention to transitional justice mechanisms. Resolution 2122 outlines measures to enhance women’s participation in post-conflict peacebuilding, electoral processes, legal & constitutional reform, and security sector reform.

But over half of the WPS resolutions are primarily concerned with sexual and gender based violence in armed conflict. Operative paragraph one of resolution 1820 “stresses that sexual violence, when used or commissioned as a tactic of war in order to deliberately target civilians or as a part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations, can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of international peace and security…effective steps to prevent and respond to such acts of sexual violence can significantly contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Sexual violence is rife in situations of armed conflict. When sexual violence is committed as part of an armed conflict, it is a war crime. When that violence is committed in a widespread and systemic way, against the civilian population, it is a crime against humanity. When it used to destroy, in whole or in part, an ethnic, racial or religious group it is genocide. The WPS resolutions reiterate that sexual violence is not a natural consequence of war. Nor is it a “lesser crime”. In resolution 1960, the Security Council acknowledged the woeful lack of prosecutions for these crimes in national, international or hybrid courts.

The resolutions have become increasingly proactive in their calls to end impunity. It was in resolution 1889 that the Security Council most succinctly stated that it’s “the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for all forms of violence committed against women and girls in armed conflicts, including rape and other sexual violence.” That responsibility comes not just from the Security Council Resolutions, but from the principle of complementarity of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court which requires all States Parties that have the capacity investigate and prosecute the crimes contained therein.

Significant evidence has been compiled on the use of sexual violence as a war crime, crime against humanity and genocide by Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. But, international security assistance has appeared to be been blind to the WPS aspects of the conflict. When the battle to retake Mosul began last year, thousands of enslaved Yazidi women were held captive in the city, but no planning or operational considerations provided for their rescue and thousands still remain captive there today.

At last year’s open debate on WPS, Iraq called for international assistance for the investigation and prosecution of those crimes within their territory. Last week, the human rights lawyer who represents victims of the Yazidi genocide addressed a meeting at the UN. She demanded to know, “why has nothing been done?” She said, “there has been no vote, no resolution, no investigation… Instead, mass graves in Iraq still lie unprotected and un-exhumed. Witnesses are fleeing. And there is still not one ISIS militant who has faced trial for international crimes anywhere in the world.”

Over 100 Australians are estimated to be fighting with Da’esh and other extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. Under Australian legislation, sexual violence as a war crime, crime against humanity and genocide is outlawed under the Criminal Code Act (1995), from the War Crimes Act (1945), Geneva Conventions Act (1957) and International Criminal Court Act (2002). Australia’s legislation against sex trafficking, may also apply. All these laws apply to Australians overseas. Despite that, the Attorney-General’s Department remains stubbornly unengaged in the implementation of the

The ABC’s 7.30 Report has gathered first hand testimony from Yazidi survivors who were purchased and abused by Australian foreign fighters. ‘Layla,’ who gave her testimony with a protected identity, hoped that someday, the Australian government would punish the terrorists who so brutally violated her. She said ‘if those terrorists are ever caught, they must make sure that they will never escape. I want them to punish those terrorists.’ But rather than investigate and charge the individual responsible for these crimes, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection merely revoked the citizenship of one of the individuals concerned.

For Australia to truly support an end to impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict, the government needs to investigate and prosecute our own nationals.  These investigations need to occur alongside those for terrorist offences; and need to not be subordinate to those, immigration or other offences. The relevant ministers need to provide tasking and resources to the investigative authorities and provide any necessary policy support from the public service.

If you would like to join the campaign for justice, visit prosecute; don’t perpetrate to find out more and take action.

Susan Hutchinson is the architect of the prosecute; don’t perpetrate campaign and is undertaking a PhD at the Australian National University. She is also a member of the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women, Peace and Security.


The role of the WPS agenda in countering violent extremism

Original article by Dr Laura J. Shepherd on 8 March for The Strategist


As today marks International Women’s Day, it’s timely to reflect on the Australian government’s commitments and priorities in implementing the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda’s international policy framework of eight UN Security Council resolutions. The agenda supports the participation of women in peace and security governance, the protection of women’s rights and their bodies, and the prevention of violence.

Historically, the ‘prevention’ pillar of the agenda has been somewhat overlooked in favour of close and sustained engagement with participation activities (ensuring that women are involved in peace negotiations, for example, or that women are represented in national security organisations) and protection activities (ensuring that women are protected from sexualised and gender-based violence). Where prevention has featured, it has predominantly related to the prevention of sexual violence in conflict.

This is changing, however, as new priorities in the WPS agenda emerge. The most recent resolution, UNSCR 2242, brings counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CT/CVE) into conversation with WPS initiatives. The resolution therefore articulates violence prevention in a new and different way: the prevention of terrorism and violent extremism becomes central to the women, peace and security agenda.

Three paragraphs of UNSCR 2242 are devoted to explaining how the WPS and CT/CVE agendas could align better, with priority given to mainstreaming gender in the operations of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) and the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) (OP 11). The resolution also calls for better data collection in this sphere, and ‘the participation and leadership of women and women’s organisations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism which can be conducive to terrorism’ (OP 13).

In the Australian context, we need to explore what that means both for our commitments under the WPS agenda (which are captured in the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012–2018) and for our CT/CVE activities, not least because the government is now beginning the process of consultation around the next iteration of the National Action Plan for launch in 2019. It’s important that this next NAP reflects the integration of WPS and CT/CVE, but it’s also equally important that this integration is thoughtful, sophisticated, and informed by consultation with communities and community organisations across Australia.

There have been a number of concerns raised about the creeping integration of CVE with WPS. Those include issues with CVE strategies and initiatives articulated by many working in this field, including cases where program initiatives are poorly specified and poorly understood, addressing neither women, peace, security, nor violent extremism adequately. There’s also often a lack of appropriate gender training for practitioners engaged in CVE program delivery both within the national context and overseas, and a lack of confidence in government and a lack of trust between community groups and state actors. The government needs to state clearly what programs are intended to achieve, to ensure comprehensive gender training and to engage in extensive community consultation, such that community groups are active participants not only in delivery but also in formulation of initiatives.

A number of issues are raised within communities of scholars and practitioners about the alignment between CVE and WPS. Gender equality initiatives must be consistently applied and not bartered to appease certain political actors and to achieve specific political ends. Further, there’s often too little attention paid to the gender dynamics of radicalisation and, specifically, to the radicalisation of women and a lack of understanding of the various and often conflicted roles that women play in counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. The Australian government would do well to leverage the extensive research expertise in this sphere, both within and beyond Australia, to ensure that plans and initiatives are evidence-based and pay due attention to gender as a power dynamic as well as the roles and representation of women within the domain of CT/CVE.

It’s critical that women are neither instrumentalised, nor put at risk, in the service of CT/CVE. As advocates of the Women, Peace and Security agenda have consistently reminded us, the WPS agenda isn’t about ‘making war safe for women’. Prioritising CT/CVE within WPS in Australia, both immediately and in the next iteration of the National Action Plan, mustn’t pay lip service to the roles and representation of women but truly value women’s experiences and reflect the concerns of communities and community organisations if it is to be effective.

Contributions to debate on sexual exploitation and abuse

As a member of the Coalition, I recently presented at a workshop on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) by peacekeepers. The workshop was in response to preliminary research findings from a pilot project funded by Transforming Human Societies at La Trobe University. Participants and panellists were provided a discussion paper, ‘mapping the impact of sexual exploitation and abuse by interveners in peace operations’ by lead investigator, Jasmine-Kim Westerndorf. The paper mapped the phenomenon of SEA in peacekeeping and provided valuable categorisation of different types of SEA. Those categories were:

  1. Opportunistic sexual abuse
  2. Planned, sadistic abuse
  3. Transactional sex
  4. Networked abuse and exploitation

My response focused on the categories of SEA that were defined as illegal, namely: opportunistic sexual abuse; planned, sadistic sexual abuse; and networked abuse and exploitation. This choice was largely due to the fact that Jacqui True was also to provide a response. Given her ground-breaking work on the International Political Economy of violence against women, she would have provided a most eloquent response to the research findings on transactional sex.

The discussion paper asked, given the vast range of acts of SEA, was it still helpful to consider each of the categories under the umbrella of SEA? “Rape is a world away from negotiated transactional sex, even in the context of unequal power dynamics.” However the research identified that children who had been interviewed by the UN even questioned whether transactional sex is in some cases, “rape disguised as prostitution whereby the perpetrator ‘pays’ his victim after raping them in order to suggest a legitimate consensual transaction.” In this context, it is apparent that while the categories defined in the research are useful, they still fall on a scale of violence that should continue to be defined as SEA.

SEA is an issue related to, and imbedded in the WPS agenda but the nature of this relationship was contested at the workshop. In March this year, the Security Council passed resolution 2272 specifically on SEA. SEA is connected to the WPS agenda in the preamble, but because WPS is not the driving factor in the operative clauses, it has not been included in the suite of WPS resolutions. UNSCR 2272 does, however, encourage “the appropriate United Nations mechanisms, including those related to Children and Armed Conflict, [and] Women, Peace and Security… to continue to include allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in their regular reporting to the Secretary-General”.

The most recent WPS resolutions explicitly discuss SEA. Resolution 2242 devotes a good deal of attention to the issue. Operative clause nine “expresses deep concern over continuing allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations peacekeepers and non-United Nations forces, including military, civilian and police personnel”. It goes on to urge troop and police contributing countries “to provide robust pre-deployment training on sexual exploitation and abuse and vetting of their peacekeeping personnel, to conduct swift and thorough investigations of their uniformed personnel and, if appropriate, to prosecute, and to inform the United Nations in a timely manner of the status and outcome of investigations,” it also calls for appropriate and timely cooperation between UN agencies and national authorities responsible for investigations.

In operative clause ten of that resolution, the Security Council “welcomes the Secretary-General’s continued efforts at implementing his policy of zero tolerance of misconduct, in particular the wide-ranging proposals on prevention, enforcement and remedial action which promote greater accountability, including his commitment to bring to public light misconduct by United Nations personnel, as well as his proposal to keep the Security Council informed of developments regarding implementation of his zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse”.

Top 10 troop contributing countries and gender considerations
Top 10 contributors[1] Total troops & police Including female personnel Gender inequality index Women’s physical security scale[2]
Ethiopia 8326 (528) 129 3
India 7471 (39) 130 4
Pakistan 7161 (21) 121 4
Bangladesh 6772 (196) 111 4
Rwanda 6146 (240) 80 3
Nepal 5131 (172) 108 3
Senegal 3617 (85) 118 3
Burkina Faso 3036 (118) 144 4
Ghana 2972 (330) 127 4
Egypt 2889 (4) 131 4

The top ten troop and police contributing countries to UN peace operations all rank very low on the Gender Inequality Index. With the exception of Rwanda, they all rank lower than 100. They also have poor legal frameworks relating to violence against women. Four of the top ten have a score of three on the WomanStats physical security scale. This indicates that while they have laws against domestic violence and rape, but not necessarily marital rape, those laws are rarely enforced. There are also taboos or norms against reporting these crimes, or ignorance that these are reportable crimes, which affect the majority of women. The remaining six of the top ten contributors have a score of four, the worst possible score on this scale. This score indicates that there are no or weak laws against domestic violence, rape and marital rape and these laws are not generally enforced. Honour killings and/or femicides may occur and are either ignored or generally accepted.

While the discussion paper reminds us that peacekeepers are deployed to relatively unregulated situations in relatively unregulated environments, we must also remember that when it comes to sexual and gender based violence, peacekeepers also come from relatively unregulated environments. So we must ask ourselves, what is illegal in these contexts? Peacekeeping operations occur in countries where the rule of law is lacking and the police and judiciary are often in tatters, so the notion of these acts being illegal under local law is somewhat meaningless. Furthermore, troops are often deployed under Status of Forces Agreements and Memoranda of Understanding exempting them from local laws.

International Human Rights Law is certainly relevant, but similarly unenforceable unless a perpetrator comes from a country such as the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe where the European Court of Human Rights has jurisdiction. There may also be scope for perpetrators from Latin American countries to be prosecuted, including through to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. More states have laws criminalising human trafficking, but these crimes are notoriously difficult to prove, even when they occur in relatively stable countries with reliable police and investigative authorities.

While increasing the regulation is undoubtedly important in addressing the scourge of SEA, this is also a point of divergence with the WPS agenda. The feminist movement from which the WPS agenda comes, has recently reminded us that WPS is not about making war safer for women, it is about preventing war from happening in the first place.[3] As such, while combatting SEA and advancing WPS will continue to remain connected, it seems relatively unhelpful to try to push UNSCR 2272 exclusively under the WPS banner, or to rely on WPS to combat SEA in peace operations.

[1] ‘Ranking of Military Police and Contributions to UN Operations’ August 2016 (accessed 7 Dec 2016)

[2] Mary Caprioli, ‘Multivariate scale #1: Physical security of women’ in WomanStats database (accessed 7 Dec 2016)

[3] Cora Weiss, ‘We must not make war safe for women‘ in Open Democracy, 24 May 2011 (accessed 10 Dec 2016)

Susan Hutchinson is a member of the Steering Committee of the Coalition. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Coalition. 

Promises to Keep: Reflections from the 2016 UN Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security

Original article by Dr Laura J. Shepherd on November 8 2016 for the London School of Economics, Centre for Women, Peace and Security. 


The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, 1923, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’

The UN Security Council hosts an Open Debate on the thematic area of ‘Women and Peace and Security’ (WPS) each year, traditionally in October to coincide with the anniversary of the adoption of the foundation resolution, UNSCR 1325. I attended my very first Open Debate this year. I passed through the airport-style security, proceeding to the third floor of the Secretariat, and took a seat in the gallery, above the famous horse-shoe table. As we waited for the debate to begin, people all around me (and on the floor of the Council chambers as well) took selfies and scenery shots, clearly as excited as I was to be witnessing this performance. And what a performance it was: surreal, fabulous, fascinatingly dull.

One of the things I was most struck by was the fact that the purpose of this debate is clearly not to debate. Each statement is given, and received, and while there is ‘right to reply’ there is no real interaction between the actors involved. After several hours, moreover, there can be no reasonable expectation that those present are paying close attention to the statements as they are delivered. So, it is manifestly not a debate, as such, which led me to wonder what it was… A performance, I concluded. A tightly scripted, exceptionally well-staged, and well-rehearsed performance, with particular political functions.

The first of these political functions is outward-facing, and relates to the affirmation to an external audience that the Council itself, and its member states, are enacting their support of the WPS agenda. Video snippets of the debate have been archived through the UN’s WebTV channel and it is live-streamed. There is widespread discussion of the debate on Twitter, with various media departments tweeting pictures of their representatives. So there is a sense in which the performance of the Open Debate is indeed open: its mediation – through television, Twitter and other platforms – opens up the Council chambers, normally assumed to be (or in actuality) closed to public scrutiny and public engagement.

Picture of a tweet featuring US Ambassador Power at the Security Council Open Debate

And then there is an inward-facing function: it delimits the parameters of Women, Peace and Security discourse, producing (while simultaneously productive of) the boundaries of intelligibility in the sphere of Women, Peace and Security politics and practice. This changes – slightly, sometimes imperceptibly – year on year; part of my ongoing research is to investigate the process and implications of these discursive shifts because one of the key contentions I make in relation to Women, Peace and Security (and other political phenomena) is that discourse matters. Women, peace, security itself emerge through the discourse that is (re)produced, in part, at these Open Debates.

There are five key features of contemporary Women, Peace and Security discourse in the Council chambers (noting, of course, that discourse is contextually, and temporally, specific) that I perceived as particularly prominent:

  1. Women are not only victims of violence but agents of change. Feminist scholars and practitioners have consistently argued that to consistently represent women as broken, bleeding bodies, as violated and/or inherently vulnerable victims of violence is to diminish or preclude entirely the possibility of constituting women as agents in peace and security governance. The significance of this invocation, then, is in the very fact of its ritual incantation: the boundaries around the subject of women are differently constituted when women’s agency is acknowledged.
  1. Peace agreements are 35% more likely to last 15 years when women are involved in peace processes. This is a statistic drawn from the 2015 Global Study; I draw attention to this articulation in part because it was striking how many member state officials recited this statistic in their statements, and in part because it speaks to the construction of women’s agency: the change that women are expected to effect in Women, Peace and Security discourse relates to nothing less than lasting peace.
  1. We commend the creation of the Informal Experts Group and/or the National Focal Points Network and/or the adoption by the UN Peacebuilding Commission of the institution’s first Gender Strategy. The Informal Experts Group was founded in UN Security Council Resolution 2242 (2015), the eighth Women, Peace and Security resolution. The National Focal Points Network, by contrast, is a member state initiative led by the Spanish government that brings together government officials to discuss best practice in the formulation and implementation of National Action Plans. Overall the performative function of holding up these moments of practice for recognition and plaudits is to firmly situate the ‘hard yards’ of Women, Peace and Security work within the practices of member states and the UN itself. Reciting commendations for these practices – valuable though they might well be – serves to anchor Women, Peace and Security in the realm of the state and/or inter-state co-operation.
  1. Boko Haram/ ISIL-Daesh are perpetrating terrible violence against women. This is doubtless empirically, shockingly, horrifically, true. But the repeated invocation of this reality also functions not only to locate violence against women over there in Syria, Nigeria, Iraq (and, simultaneously, locate the perpetrators of this violence over there, thus configuration the perpetrators of violence according to specific logics of gender and race) but also brings Women, Peace and Security into closer alignment with global efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism. This move has significant implications for the future of the Women, Peace and Security agenda.
  1. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still more to do… This is, at first glance, a refreshingly honest admission from member states about the limitations of implementation, which is also a commitment to continued effort in the sphere of Women, Peace and Security activities. But there is another reading of this little lament. As Nadine Puechguirbal notes, ‘“We still have a long way to go” is the catchphrase used by patriarchy to gain time, justify its opposition to change and lull feminist analysers into believing that real progresses are made’. It seems churlish indeed to refuse to celebrate the modest achievements of member states and of the UN itself when they are by their own admission modest, and when by their own admissionthey ‘still have a long way to go’. Churlish, unreasonable, idealistic, even radical to demand not just incremental gains and little wins but transformational change. The function of this statement, then, is to appease and to discipline. ‘Be patient’, is the message, which too often means ‘Be quiet’.

The performance of the Open Debate forces member states to recite their achievements and commitments, to articulate – on one day each year – their account of Women, Peace and Security. It is for civil society organisations and individuals to leverage this account into accountability. The four-minute statements delivered by each ambassador or delegate are seductive, alluring in their promise of change underway, but it is the change to come we must focus on, and we cannot rest. Member states have promises to keep – and we indeed have miles to go before we sleep.