Security Council Open Debate: Women, Peace and Security, October 2020

Thursday, October 29, 2020

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Zarqa Yaftali briefing the UN Security Council.
Zarqa Yaftali briefing the UN Security Council on 29 October 2020 at the Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security.

At  the time of publication, this analysis covers statements delivered orally during the debate, and does not include written statements.


On 29 October 2020, under the presidency of Russia, United Nations Secretary General, UN Women executive director, and member states commemorated the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 during an open debate on women, peace and security (WPS). 


A draft resolution on women, peace and security was initiated by Russia, but ultimately failed to be adopted by the Council, with 5 votes in favor and 10 abstensions. According to the analysis of our coalition the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, of which WILPF is a founding and active member, “the draft resolution (S/2020/1054) [...] did not advance the WPS agenda on any substantive issue, and in fact attempted to dilute the agenda by omitting and in some cases watering down previously agreed standards on core issues including women’s human rights, prevention of conflict-related sexual violence, support for diverse women’s civil society, and women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation in all aspects of peace and security.”


Despite 20 years of the Agenda there is an urgent need for holistic and full implementation of the agenda, rooted in human rights and conflict prevention. As new research by WILPF indicates, the priorities of Council members on WPS often do not align with the priorities that are defined by women peacebuilders and civil society on the ground. UNSCR 1325 and the subsequent resolutions were not intended to make conflicts safer for women but to end them for good.


In our analysis of the debate below, WILPF covers the briefings, key areas of emphasis by Council members, and providesreflections on the current state of implementation.



Zarqa Yaftali, Executive Director of the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation, briefed the Council representing the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. Yaftali discussed the realities of the conflict in Afghanistan, pointing out that amidst numerous challenges and four decades of conflict, Afghan people, particularly women, have fought hard to reclaim their rights and build a peaceful society based on human rights and social and economic justice. She raised the concern that “women’s rights will be used as a bargaining chip between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan”. She urged the Council and all member states to turn words of support into concrete action, and exert political pressure to ensure that women’s human rights and civil liberties are protected and the widespread and meaningful participation of women in the peace process is ensured. She specifically called on the Council to: 

  • Demand an immediate ceasefire to further the Afghan Peace Process; 

  • Insist on women’s rights and participation as preconditions for support for inclusive peace talks;

  • Preserve all constitutional protections for women’s rights;

  • Establish a joint committee of the United Nations, countries involved in Afghanistan, civil society, and the media to monitor the implementation of any peace agreements; 

  • Ensure safety of women leaders, peacebuilders, human rights defenders and activists.



The other briefers at this open debate included: Danai Gurira, Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women; UN Secretary-General H.E. Mr. António Guterres; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women; and Nataliia Emelianova, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Adviser in the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei.



Twenty years since the adoption of Resolution 1325, structural barriers to women’s meaningful participation in political and peace processesand decision-making persist. Notably, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and the Dominican Republic called for the removal of structural barriers to women’s participation, which is essential as the current exclusionary system, powered by patriarchy, capitalism in its neo-liberal form and militarism, fosters a lack of political will to implement commitments on women’s participation. 


Overall, most states (93 percent) called for increased women’s participation in peace processes while fewer (53 percent) also discussed the role of women in political processes. Multiple states emphasized the importance of women’s participation in all forms of decisionmaking, which is crucial as with the global rise in right-wing governments, policies to further women’s rights are stalled and their political decision making spaces are diminished. Despite the strong emphasis on women’s participation, there was less emphasis on ensuring that this participation is non-negotiable, nor on other aspects that have been identified by women peacebuilders as critical to having their voices heard. These include the need to prioritize action around local women’s analysis of root causes of violence; engaging with women from their own experiences; supporting bottom-up women’s leadership for peace; and supporting, instead of replicating, existing peacemaking structures. 


Moreover, the 20th anniversary of the WPS agenda also coincides with a crucial moment in history for Afghan women, as mentioned by Ms. Yaftali in her briefing. At a point in time where the Council celebrates multiple anniversaries on peace and security, Afghan women and marginalized religious and ethnic communities are doubtful whether they will get a say in the peace process. The trajectory of the Afghan peace process and the ways in which the Council plans to support Afghan women’s meaningful participation will be a testament to their commitment to the WPS agenda.  


Most states (73 percent) in this open debate focussed on expanding women’s participation in peacekeeping as an important element of the WPS agenda. This reflects the trends of the past 20 years in terms of implementation; according to WILPF analysis of National Action Plans (NAPs), 64 percent of NAPs have a significant focus on women in peacekeeping, particularly in terms of advancing the participation and protection pillars. This emphasis on peacekeeping was also reflected in the briefing  of Ms. Natalia Emelianova, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Adviser in the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei, who discussed the training of women peacekeepers and their efforts to tackle SGBV. However, among other instances, by referring to the “delicate and considerate approach of women peacekeepers”, her briefing reinforced stereotypes about women peacekeepers. Similarly, statements from the United States, Russia, Indonesia and China also focussed on adding and training more women in peacekeeping and national security roles to protect victims of SGBV. However, as many women-led civil society organizations have long emphasized, this focus on peacekeeping misses the point. To fully prevent all forms of sexual violence, it is vital to stop adding women to the war system and instead, address the root causes of this violence, including structural inequalities, discrimination and partiarchal norms - which were largely lacking in this debate.  

WHRDs, Peacebuilders and Civil Society

While many of the statements on this anniversary open debate focused rhetorically on increasing women’s participation numbers in peacekeeping, there were a smattering of mentions from certain states on the critical role and situation of women human rights defenders (WHRDs), peacebuilders, and civil society at large.


In her briefing, Danai Gurira focused on the fact that the UNSC regularly receives updates and recommendations from strong women civil society briefers (who come with the weight of their co-activists voices), but: is the Council hearing them? Gurira provided a short list of names and demands of these women, for example: Wafa’a Alsaidy, who called for an end to the direct and indirect support for military intervention in Yemen; Naujeen Mustafa from Syria who underlined to states “nothing about us without us”; Clemencia Carabalí from Colombia who reminded states that violence against WHRDs and land defenders continues unabated despite a peace agreement on paper; Dr. Rida Al Tubuly from Libya who called on the international community to take peace building efforts seriously and stop “giving power to a violent minority”; and Ilwad Elman, a young Somali woman who informed members in 2015 ”I have seen first-hand the catastrophic consequences of violence against civilians and of protection strategies which are gender-blind and have failed to meaningfully include women”. 


Access to the UN spaces and protection of civil society space at national and regional levels was largely absent from the discussion, missing an opportunity to address how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already shrinking and fragile space. In the last year we have seen increased attacks on civil liberties and protections for defenders, with rights defenders attacked in countries including Colombia, Nigeria, Belarus, Afghanistan, among so many others. The pandemic has also become an excuse to enact emergency measures for public health against populations that mimic or embolden counterterrorism measures. The representative from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines acknowledged women’s civil society organizations as the "early architects" of the WPS agenda, calling for increased funding to organizations doing the work on the ground. 


The few states that mentioned civil society did so to remind one another that women’s groups and civil society need to play a greater role, with China speaking patronizingly about the need to “guide” them to play a greater role. Belgium called for an increased and strengthened role of civil society in the implementation of the Agenda, while Germany reminded all Council members that UNSCR 1325 is a result of advocacy by women’s groups  in the first place. It is critical for Council members to heed their own advice and continually work to strengthen early, regular, and sustained engagement with civil society and heed their demands. Additionally, all member states - particularly the powerful states in the Council - have an obligation to ensure that all civil society are able to operate safely and freely including in their own countries, without censorship, repression, or reprisal.


Speaking on women peacebuilders has also grown in popularity among states, often as a replacement to civil society and to WHRDs, which are both touchier subjects for some states. Germany and Niger voiced their support for women peacebuilders, with Germany urging donorship support to peacebuilders and Niger going as far as to “pay homage” to women who advocated for the WPS agenda, especially women peacebuilders and those working for social justice or human rights.

Resourcing and COVID-19 

COVID-19 has impacted the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, and women have been impacted among the hardest. There has been a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women’s safety and security, education, and economic access, and the pandemic has added to existing burdens of unpaid care work. Women and girls have been also facing a great spike in domestic violence globally since the start of the pandemic. 


The open debate was an opportunity for states to address how the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating gender-based violence in all its forms, including domestic violence and increased child marriage, but few took up the opportunity. Some states at the open debate chose to acknowledge the additional threats and the underlying, pre-existing inequalities COVID-19 has laid bare, particularly underlining their concerns for women and girls in fragile and conflict affected settings. Women have been first responders to the pandemic in their local and national contexts, including as essential health workers, ensuring that the people in the communities receive health, food, and protection services. Despite continuing to be silenced and sidelined as active and substantive participants to peace, women have also continued to show leadership and a strong voice for a global ceasefire and the prevention of further conflict.


Funding the work for the implementation of the WPS agenda is critical for progress to be met. This includes the need for provision of resources to support the meaningful participation of women in peace negotiations and implementation of peace agreements, as well as consistent and adequate funding for gender advisors and senior gender advisors equipped to contribute gender-sensitive analysis within missions, and in the offices of Special Representatives and Envoys. Ultimately, funding for WPS across the UN system and by states has to be prioritized for the long term, ensuring that women’s civil society organizations are part of this priority programming.


The UNSG spoke of the priority for the UN to support the financing and support the inclusion of women in peace processes, while the ED of UN Women spoke of the fact that the percentage of  funding that goes to conflict affected countries for gender equality is only 4 percent, with funding for women civil society groups having declined in recent years.


France shared its commitment to financing training of women in the security sector and that the Generation Equality Forums in Paris and Mexico City would serve to raise financing for reaching implementation of existing commitments. Tunisia was among the only states who echoed what WILPF and other civil society have been underlining: women human rights activists and peace-builders are currently struggling to do their critical work, because their resources are being diverted to other forms of crisis response during this COVID-19 pandemic. Estonia was the only state to call for adequate funding of women protection advisors, gender advisors, and for ensuring that gender expertise exists in sanctions and experts groups. Germany also announced increased contributions that will support the work of women peacebuilders in Yemen and Libya.


Development and peacekeeping were the main themes raised by China, a UNSC member that has increasingly been bringing up the topic of development in discussions of WPS, reflecting its strategic economic ambitions. Sustainable development is critical to achieving lasting peaceful, just, and inclusive societies and preventing conflict. However, these policies must center human rights and the environment -- not be part of great power competition and the pursuit of power and profit. UNSC members must indeed take action to address the root causes of violence, which include gender inequality, and stop the rising threat of climate change. However, “development” and “economic empowerment” alone cannot build lasting peace and equality unless they reflect structural shifts towards economic and social justice. 



Multiple CSO briefers have raised the fundamental contradiction between UNSC members calling for peace throughout the world, while fueling these very same conflicts through military interventions, extremely high levels of military spending, and the arms trade. This key fact was almost entirely absent from the statements of Council members, many of whom are among the world’s top military spenders, arms traders, and some of whom also possess nuclear weapons. However, Yaftali highlighted the need for an immediate ceasefire and laying down of weapons in Afghanistan in order to create the space for peace talks and prevent more human suffering. Gurira remarked that the 2019 global military expenditure of $1.9 trillion USD “does not make us safer”, and the Secretary-General Guterres and Mlambo-Ngcuka similarly discussed rising military spending as a barrier to peace. The Dominican Republic highlighted that the gendered impacts of small arms and light weapons (SALW) proliferation must be addressed, and that conflict prevention requires shifting away from a culture of impunity towards accountability. 


The issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), which is vital to women’s bodily autonomy, has experienced serious pushback from some Council members including the United States in recent years. It was raised during the open debate by states including Estonia and France; France brought up that the barriers to SRHR have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Estonia similarly highlighted the lack of services available in conflict-affected areas. Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed how critical this issue is for the feminist movement and women-led CSOs, who continually raise that basic human rights must be assured in order for any other rights, such as participation in decisionmaking, free expression, and autonomy over one’s own life to be fully realized.


Ultimately, as raised by Estonia in the beginning of its statement, WPS at its core is a human rights agenda. Gender equality is the foundation of peaceful and inclusive societies, and is non-negotiable for building lasting peace. The Dominican Republic and Tunisia stressed the interlinkages between WPS and human rights frameworks such as CEDAW and its general recommendation 30 on women in armed conflict. 


However, the full implementation of the agenda - particularly regarding critical issues such as women’s human rights - has been repeatedly under attack in recent years by some Council members. Noting this, multiple states reiterated their commitments to the full and holistic implementation of the WPS agenda. St. Vincent and the Grenadines called for an end to structural barriers that inhibit the WPS agenda, and for the realization of gender justice - a prerequisite for sustainable peace. The United Kingdom stated that it “will not accept roll back on women's rights in the agenda,” and that the 10 resolutions must be “implemented fully”. The Dominican Republic emphasized that full implementation consists of recognising that the agenda has interrelated, inseparable, and reinforcing elements, and that ending intersecting forms of discrimination is vital. Other states, including South Africa, Indonesia, France, and Tunisia, also stressed the importance of full implementation.


After 20 years, it is critical for member states to recognize that the lack of progress on WPS is not just due to a lack of “political will”, although this is a key part of the problem. Implementation is also hindered by structures that promote militarism over peace; injustice over equality; and economies that are centered on greed, not human security. Powerful states in the UNSC continue to publicly undermine the women, peace and security agenda, despite a robust normative framework supported by the international community. The WPS agenda has become  another battleground for women’s human rights to be weakened and it is the responsibility of the responsible members of the UNSC to not allow this rollback to continue.


Conflict prevention in particular needs far more emphasis on WPS implementation than it has received over the past two decades. Without a focus on prevention, gender equality, and ending structural, intersecting systems of oppression, it will not be possible to end violence against women and girls. Women peacebuilders are not just calling to be at the table -- they are calling for radical shifts in the way the peace table is designed, to actually center peace and accountability, not prioritize the ambitions of perpetrators of violence.