During the general debate in 2016, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, the President of the UNGA, Peter Thomson, country representatives from one hundred and ninety-three (193) member states, and two observer delegations put forth their concerns, positions and priorities under the theme, “The Sustainable Development Goals: A Universal Push to Transform Our World.”
The debate provided an understanding of the current state of our world. Spotlighting examples of persistent inequality around the globe and highlighting failures to move the Sustainable Development Agenda forward, world leaders participating in the general debate nevertheless expressed optimism that efforts to promote equitable growth, peace and prosperity would prevail. In this vein, world leaders focused on the promotion and protection of human rights and the urgent need for concerted efforts to resolve conflicts and eradicate terrorism. Other important topics included climate change, situations in the Middle East and Africa and in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and Gaza. A considerable number of leaders also acknowledged the close link between peace and sustainable development and invited all stakeholders to create a variety of partnership to move the post-2015 agenda forward.
This year’s general debate was preceded by the first ever High-Level Summit on Refugees and Migrants on 19 September 2016, where leaders discussed a global vision to address the international response to refugee crises, agreed to adopt a declaration on refugees and migrants, and pledged to develop a comprehensive framework for refugee response.
WILPF PeaceWomen's analysis of the statements at the general debate reveals that there is certainly much more work to be done to build adequate political will and commitment to gender equality and holistic understanding and implementation of women, peace and security.
Out of a total of one hundred and seven (197) statements, one hundred and nine (109) statements (56 per cent) contained references to women and gender. Many of these were focused on gender equality and women’s rights since these issues are at the center of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted just last year. However, specific gendered references were included only in thirty-seven (37) statements (18.88 percent). In this regard, the representative of Mali noted that “the employment of youth and women’s empowerment” is one of the best ways “to ensure the implementation of the seventeen (17) Sustainable Development Goals.” However, WILPF PeaceWomen did not locate an in-depth discussion specifically aimed at the women, peace and security agenda. Even though some countries, including Sweden and Croatia, have highlighted the necessity of including women in peace processes, their voices were in the minority. Only a few speakers highlighted the need to ensure greater gender balance in all disarmament discussions. The need to increase women’s participation for a stronger implementation of the SDGs also remained under-prioritised.
Regrettably, only eighteen (18) female leaders (9.13 percent) spoke at the general debate.
As noted above, most speakers recognised the need to strengthen gender equality and women’s rights in their statements. Forty-eight (48) member states (48 percent), including Australia, Estonia, Liberia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Thailand, and the Republic of Korea, attached great importance to the goal of achieving gender equality that can unlock the economic potential of women. According to the representative of Sweden, “it is ultimately our task to enhance rights, representation and resources for women and girls all around the world.”
Another prevalent theme of the debate was displacement and humanitarian response. Fifty-seven (57) speakers (28.93 percent), including Brazil, Slovakia and Guyana, focused on the rights, concerns, and needs of people in conflict and post-conflict situations, including those affected by conflict-related displacement. However, less than half of these speakers (9.13 percent) expressed an appreciation of the different impact conflict can have on women. Referring specifically to the situation of female refugees and other displaced women and bearing in mind that women and children are the main victims of organised crime of modern slavery, the representative of Liberia called on the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to forge an effective response to resolve the issues of migrant smuggling and human trafficking.”
Twenty-two (22) speakers (11.17 percent), including Niger, Luxembourg and Argentina, also emphasised the need to increase women’s protection and address sexual violence in the conflict. The representative of the Netherlands argued that “more consideration is [now] given to the protection of civilians, tackling gender and sexual violence and the importance of establishing the rule of law.” Similarly, twenty (20) speakers (10.15 percent) focused on the prevalence of violence against women in conflict and post-conflict settings. The representative of Morocco, in this vein, underscored that “women still suffer so much violence and discrimination, and the unacceptable increase of sexual violence.”
The speakers refrained from linking the issues of disarmament and conflict prevention with gender. However, a few countries constituted an exception from the rule. Only seven (7) speakers (3.5 percent) of the speakers have discussed the active role of women in disarmament, while one hundred and eleven (111) speakers (56.34 percent) highlighted the critical importance of advancing disarmament. The representative of Guinea, for example, said that “substantial investments in empowerment for women and youth are all the more necessary in the face of the scourges of terrorism, extremism and intolerance, and the illicit traffic of arms and drugs.” Moreover, the representative of Trinidad and Tobago reminded the international community of its action directed towards encouraging women's participation in all disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control decision-making processes at the local, regional and national levels.
Only ten (10) speakers (5.07 percent) urged other states to think and collaborate more in terms of conflict prevention. The representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in this regards, expressed that the country’s government is committed to humanity, with renewed focus on conflict prevention and resolution, strengthened efforts towards sustainable development, equal opportunities for all, promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Despite this statement, the references to conflict prevention were very general and gender-blind.
Many member states acknowledged the devastating impact of conflict on people, including women and girls, particularly in Ukraine and Syria.
Ninety-five (95) speakers (48 percent) referenced the situation in Syria in their statements. The situation in Syria was generally brought up in the context of disarmament or the refugee crisis. The representative of Turkey noted that in Syria [...], hundreds of thousands of children, women, young and elderly continue to be killed.” The representative of Holy See noted that the international community failed to respond to the hopes and promises of all who consider that region sacred and holy. However, the representatives of members states consistently failed to acknowledge that women have power and agency to participation in finding alternative solutions.
The crisis in Ukraine was mentioned less often. Only twenty-two (22) speakers (11.16 percent) have referenced the situation in Ukraine. The situation remains a big concern for the international peace and security. President of the Republic of Bulgaria, for example, claimed that “any attempt to destabilize Ukraine is unacceptable.” The issue of equal participation of women in conflict resolution and peacebuilding processes in Ukraine, however, has not been addressed.
In light of a recent missile test conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the speakers referred to this situation quite often. As expressed by the representative of Australia, “the provocative and dangerous actions of this rogue state breach unanimously-agreed United Nations Security Council Resolutions and threaten global peace and security.” Some member states, however, had an opposing view on this situation. Acknowledging the violation of Security Council resolutions by the DPRK, the representative of Russia said that “it is inadmissible to use this situation as a pretext for massive militarization of North-East Asia and deployment of another position area for US global missile defense there.” Again, all statements on the situation in the DPRK remained gender-blind.
Female Speakers at the Podium
This year, there were eighteen (18) female speakers in the general debate. These speakers represented the following countries: the United Kingdom, Chile, Myanmar, Croatia, Gambia, Bangladesh, Lithuania, Norway, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Sweden, Venezuela, Liechtenstein, Dominica, Iceland, Barbados, India, and Suriname. Of these speakers, only two (2) (from Dominica and Barbados) did not mention women or gender at all, whereas six (6) of them (from the United Kingdom, Croatia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, Marshall Islands), specifically referenced women. The remaining ten (10) speakers used only general references to gender equality and women’s rights.
As the government of Sweden is proudly pursuing a feminist foreign policy, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, Margot Wallström, called for “a true shift in the way we approach global gender equality work.” In her statement, the representative highlighted the role of women and the necessity of including women in peace processes while working on the prevention of armed conflicts.
“On the International Day of Peace, it is necessary to emphasize that women are powerful agents of peace and security,” said the representative of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovié. In addition, the speaker stated that women’s increased contribution to preventing and resolving conflict, as well as to maintaining sustainable and inclusive peace, should be encouraged. For example, she claimed that “more female peacekeepers could help us combat sexual violence, promote gender awareness among the host nations' populations, and improve relationships with local citizens.”
Additionally, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated he is a feminist. “Women hold up half the sky and are essential to meeting all our goals,” he said. He called upon the international community to do far more “to end deep-seated discrimination and violence against women to advance their participation in decision-making, and to ensure that every girl gets the start in life she deserves.”