The General Debate of the 70th session of the General Assembly took place 28 Sept. - 6 Oct. 2015. During the debate, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, President of the General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft, representatives from 191 Member States and three observer delegations put forth their concerns, positions and priorities under the theme “The UN at 70: The Road Ahead for Peace, Security, and Human Rights.”
The main topics during the General Debate included the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the refugee crisis in Europe, the threat of non-state terrorist like Daesh and Boko-Haram, and the conflict in Syria. Many states praised the adoption of the 2030 Agenda by the General Assembly and spoke hopefully about the potential of the Global Goals to end poverty, reduce gender inequality, protect against climate change, and promote human rights. However, several states also voiced concern that the Agenda does not adequately account for differences between states in capacity and circumstance. By far the most prevalent topic at the debate was the conflict in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis. There was a general consensus that the global community must act to end the Syrian conflict, although there was dissension as to what form this action should take. Both the United States and France called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad while Russia argued that Assad must be part of any solution to the conflict. Most states expressed concern over the current refugee crisis and called for the global community to do more, although few states made actual commitments to take in more refugees. The European Union referenced its plan to spread out 120,000 refugees across Europe, but states that absorb the majority of the burden in caring for refugees (Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Germany) urged European and North American states to drastically increase their quotas.
This year’s General Debate was preceded by the United Nations Summit on the Adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, where states officially committed to the Global Goals. The United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris will follow the General Debate in December 2015.
The 70th General Assembly General Debate was a slight improvement over last year’s debate in terms of gender language. This was mostly due to the timing of the debate between two significant events that impacted women and gender. The adoption of the 2030 Agenda, with its standalone goal (Goal 5) on gender equality, immediately preceded the debate. Immediately following the debate, the UN Security Council will be marking the 15th Anniversary of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. 2015 also marked the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing Plan of Action for Women.
Overall, out of a total of 196 statements, 108 contained references on women and gender. Of these the majority (67) made general references to gender equality and/or the human rights of women and girls, particularly in connection with the 2030 Agenda. For example, Bulgaria stated, “Gender equality is an absolute necessity for the full realization of human rights and the functioning of democracy.”
Many speakers (37) encouraged participation of women at local, national, and international levels (Spain: “Spain therefore takes time encouraging participation and leadership of women in all aspects of community life.”) In light of the 15th Anniversary of 1325, many states made specific reference to the WPS agenda and the linkages between women’s participation and sustainable peace.
In their statements, most speakers highlighted the prominence of gender equality and women’s empowerment in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Iceland, Myanmar, Tuvalu, Canada, Zambia, Tonga, Costa Rica, Angola, Vanuatu, Mauritius, Denmark, Kenya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Philippines all made specific references to the Agenda. Iceland, for example, remarked, “We are particularly pleased with the prominence of gender equality and the empowerment of women, which are key to sustainable development.” However, many states framed women as just another ‘vulnerable group’ in their statements, rather than a group that comprises half of the population and has the potential to be a dynamic catalyst for development (Trinidad and Tobago: “The 2030 Development Agenda would not be fully implemented if the most vulnerable members of our societies, that is, women, children, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples are not placed at the very centre of the development paradigm.”)
During the debate, many speakers called on states to prioritise women’s participation in decision-making processes, Mongolia acknowledged, “For societies to advance, we need more women in public service at all levels - local and global. If women hold more positions of power, we will have less suffering and conflict, and more harmony and civic engagement.” Many praised the positive progress made by their governments in this area, with Afghanistan stating, “During the 2014 election, voters comprised of 35% females” and Mauritius “I am proud to announce that for the first time in history, my country has three women in high positions, as President of the Republic, Vice President and Speaker of the National Assembly of Mauritius.” In addition to political participation Liberia, Costa Rica, Ireland, Finland, and Iceland called for a female to be elected as the next UN Secretary General (Ireland: “I hope SG Ban may be succeeded by a brilliant female Secretary General in due course - this would send a powerful message to women and men around the world that here at the UN, we are willing to remove the barriers that prevent women from fulfilling their potential.”)
Furthermore, Switzerland, Liberia, Monaco, Slovakia, and Ireland specifically mentioned women’s participation in peace processes. Switzerland stated, “The inclusion of women contributes to the sustainability of peace agreements by expanding the range of topics on the negotiations agenda and by strengthening public support and approval of the agreements ahead of their implementation.” This was part of a trend of specific references to the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda due to the upcoming 15th Anniversary of the landmark UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security and the 13 October Security Council Open Debate on WPS. Eighteen states voiced their support for the Resolution. Sweden said, “It is time to fully realise UN Security Council Resolution 1325, granting women their crucial role in peace and state building.” Norway praised the Resolution but criticised its implementation, “Fifteen years ago, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. It was a landmark resolution, but its implementation is taking too long. In several war-ravaged towns in Syria, groups of women are calling for a ceasefire and evacuation. They do this at great personal risk. Their bravery should inspire us. We must intensify the implementation of the Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security.” As a whole, states that discussed the Resolution were supportive of the WPS agenda but stressed that more work must be done.
Female Speakers at the Podium
It should also be pointed out that the number of female speakers during the general debate was distressingly low. Out of 196 statements, twenty-two (22) -eleven more than last year – were delivered by female representatives (Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Dominica, Granada, Honduras, India, Kiribati, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, the Maldives, Niger, Norway, Republic of Korea, Suriname, Switzerland, Turkmenistan, Vietnam.) Ten (10) of them referred to women or gender issues in general terms, and nine (9) specifically spoke about women in the context of peace and security. No member state spoke of women in connection to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), arms trade more generally, disarmament, or non-proliferation.
Liechtenstein, represented by Minister of Foreign Affairs Aurelia Frick, gave by far the most comprehensive statement on Women, Peace, and Security at the debate, stating, “As we consider how we can sharpen our tools for conflict prevention and resolution, one conclusion is already foregone: We must get better at including women and their perspectives in these processes. The 15th anniversary of the Women, Peace and Security agenda (Security Council resolution 1325) is therefore a bittersweet moment. The agenda sets out a comprehensive vision of how to include women in peaceful solutions, and how to protect them from the effects of armed conflict - in itself a remarkable achievement. Yet we have largely been unable to fulfil the promise made fifteen years ago. Girls born into a post 1325-world still suffer from abuse, sexual violence, forced recruitment and displacement. Let us take decisive steps forward when we meet later this month in the Security Council.”
Slovakia also spoke very extensively about the WPS Agenda’s successes and failures, saying, “It has been 15 years since the adoption of the landmark Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security…Yet, the impacts of conflicts on women and children are still inordinate and their engagement in peace processes is still insufficient. The presence of women negotiators in high-profile United Nations peace and mediation processes, role of women deployed by the United Nations to major conflict zones and high-stake inter-state negotiations, as well as in peacekeeping and peace-building in general, is irreplaceable and should continue to grow."
As part of WILPF’s engagement with the General Assembly, PeaceWomen and our sister program Reaching Critical Will will be working together to monitor the debate for gender and disarmament issues.