WILPF Analysis of the 2021 Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security
This analysis reflects on statements delivered orally during the annual Security Council open debate on Women, Peace and Security, which took place on 21 October 2021.
On 21 October 2021, led by the Kenyan presidency, the UN Security Council (UNSC) held its annual Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security under the theme “Investing in Women in Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding”. The Council was briefed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Sima Sami Bahous, Executive Director of UN Women, and Bineta Diop, African Union Commission Special Envoy for WPS. Among the key themes that came up frequently in the discussion included women’s participation in peace processes, women in peacekeeping, and protection; less frequently discussed themes that are nonetheless critical to implementation of the WPS agenda included conflict prevention, militarization and small arms and their effects on women and girls, support for women human rights defenders.
Celia Umenza Velasco, member of Cxhab Wala Kiwe, Association of Councils of the North of Cauca, spoke as the civil society briefer on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. She briefed the Council about the rising violence against human rights and land defenders in Colombia, including against Indigenous leaders who are targeted for challenging powerful economic interests and opposing damaging extractive and infrastructure projects on their territories. In her statement, she called for full implementation of the peace accord, demilitarization, and ensuring free, prior, and informed consent for development.
Last year, WILPF’s global report on 20 years of WPS implementation found that the agenda has suffered from a gap between commitments and action due to a variety of factors, including a lack of accountability for implementation and rising militarization. Militarization is a fundamental barrier to peace that directly contradicts the WPS agenda and undermines conflict prevention and the durability of peace after violence has reduced.
The 2021 report of the Secretary-General on Women and Peace and Security reflected these WILPF findings, and called for disarmament and reducing military expenditure as priorities for WPS implementation. The report highlighted that “curbing military spending...is especially resonant in the current moment, when people’s lives and security are threatened by disease, forced displacement, hunger, racism, violent misogyny and the climate crisis.” According to SIPRI, amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, world military expenditure reached US$1.98 trillion in 2020, with the top five military spenders being the United States, China, India, Russia and the United Kingdom (four permanent and one elected member of the UNSC).
During this year’s debate, Secretary-General António Guterres and Executive Director of UN Women Sima Sami Bahous focused portions of their briefings on the harms and tradeoffs resulting from rising militarization. Secretary-General Guterres highlighted that these issues are not separate from, but integral to WPS, stating that “conflict prevention and disarmament are at the very heart of movements that have been led by women for over a century for peace”. Celia Umenza Velasco also reflected on the impacts of militarism on lasting peace. She stated that “violence against our communities also demonstrates the devastating impact of militarized responses to social crises. Indigenous communities in Colombia have been calling for demilitarization for decades…. [But] Although we have peace in name, lack of implementation of the Peace Accord has refueled conflict.”
This focus was not reflected equally by member states throughout the debate. Security Council members Mexico and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines spoke about small arms and light weapons, and Mexico called on states to abstain from transferring arms when there is a risk they will be used to perpetrate gender violence. Namibia stated that WPS is a “means to an end” of lasting peace, and spoke about why rising military spending fails to serve this goal. Austria spoke about the contribution of disarmament to conflict prevention, and about the harms caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Costa Rica echoed the findings of the SG that disarmament and demilitarization have been almost entirely absent from WPS discussions, and called for more incorporation of these themes as well as others such as militarized masculinities to robustly implement the prevention pillar. Ireland highlighted the choices states make between welfare and warfare and criticized the increase in military spending during the pandemic, noting the direct correlation between militarization and gender inequality.
As in past open debates on WPS, most states, however, did not engage substantively with these issues, and instead focused on women’s participation in militarized structures such as the police and military forces. This narrow lens reflects an ongoing gap in member state attention to root causes and structural barriers to implementation that ignores women’s civil society’s ongoing and repeated calls to divest from militarization.
Women’s participation has increasingly received a great deal of attention in the programme of the UN Security Council and in National Action Plans on WPS, but implementation of the participation pillar has been relatively slow, including in peace processes in Syria and Yemen. As highlighted by several briefers, women represented only 23 percent of delegations in UN led or co-led peace processes in 2020. To address these gaps, earlier this year, the UNSC held an Arria-Formula meeting on International Women’s Day on the topic of ensuring women’s participation. During this year’s WPS open debate, the UK echoed the theme of the Arria and called for the establishment of mandates for women’s participation in peace processes. In their statement delivered by Canada, the Group of Friends of 1325 similarly called on all UN supported peace processes to require and ensure women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation as a key priority. In relation to the theme of participation of women and civil society, Ireland also raised the fact that civil society continues to be barred from participating in person at the United Nations, although other stakeholders, member states, and UN staff are able to return to the premises.
There was additionally an extensive focus on women’s participation in peacekeeping and on the ways in which peace operations can engage with communities, in line with the theme of the debate. Peacekeeping is also a theme which receives attention in National Action Plans, with over 60% of NAPs containing some focus on this area. However, as WILPF has highlighted through our research and analysis, the emphasis on peacekeeping should be parallelled by a focus on the prevention pillar, which merits equal or greater attention.
The nexus between participation and protection was the focus of this year’s Multi-Stakeholder Meeting on Women, Peace and Security organised by the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and UN Women.and was echoed in the debate. Rising violence against women peacebuilders and human rights defenders have brought this issue into a brighter spotlight over the past few years. Norway spoke extensively about the need to ensure protection and physical safety as vital elements to achieve full and effective participation, and announced new funding for a rapid response mechanism to act when women leaders are faced with threats and reprisals. A number of other states connected participation with the need to address the protection pillar of the agenda, and for UN and state actors to do more to protect women peacebuilders, human rights defenders, and other activists to do their work. Sweden called for the implementation of the recommendations of this year’s open letter of the NGOWG on WPS, which focused on protection of women human rights defenders. The Dominican Republic raised the issue of hate speech and misinformation and their impacts on civil society.
Specifically, in recent years, many women who have briefed the Security Council or otherwise engaged with the UN system have faced reprisals and threats. A number of states brought up this issue during the debate. For example, the UK is supporting the work of OHCHR to address reprisals against briefers to the UNSC, including on the gender dimensions of intimidations and reprisals, and noted that failure to address reprisals and threats could undermine the work of the Council. Ireland, speaking about their focus on CSO briefers during their presidency last month, also stated that the Security Council has the responsibility to ensure that there are no reprisals against briefers and their families.
Civil society briefers to the Council have repeatedly called for increased implementation of the WPS resolutions within country work. However, the incorporation of WPS language faces barriers within the Security Council, both in terms of prioritization as well as outright resistance from some members. In country work, there is also wide variation in the extent to which WPS is considered and WPS language is incorporated. In their statement, Estonia called for more regular country briefings on WPS to close these gaps. Currently, there is a trio of presidencies - Ireland, Kenya, and Mexico - focusing on WPS, which has resulted in a sustained focus on WPS in the UNSC these last few months.
A number of country situations were brought up over the course of the debate, with the most extensive focus on Afghanistan. Afghanistan represents a country situation where WPS and women’s rights have received a great deal of attention in the Council vis-a-vis many other country and regional discussions, but where currently the basic human rights of women and marginalized groups are reportedly being denied and remain at risk. The representative of Afghanistan spoke about his country serving as a litmus test for the credibility of member states and UN commitment to the WPS agenda as a result of the heightened attention it has received. Estonia stated that the situation in Afghanistan “presented a clear question about whether the Council is able and willing to stand up for women’s rights and participation in political and peace processes”. Yet Afghan women peacebuilders and human rights defenders have been repeatedly excluded from peace negotiations and decision-making. In addition, other situations such as the democratic transition in Sudan, the impacts of the occupation in Palestine, the coup and crisis in Myanmar, and sexual violence in Tigray were discussed by states.
One further theme was the need for more systematic follow-up on recommendations. Reflecting on the findings of the 2015 Global Study on WPS, Niger lamented that only half of the recommendations have seen clear progress thus far. Niger, Sweden, and Switzerland were among the states who called for following up on the recommendations made by civil society briefers to the UNSC, and for briefers to be updated on how recommendations are being implemented.
National-level implementation on WPS remains critical, and was the subject of many member state interventions during the open debate. Currently, WILPF analysis shows that 98 states have developed a National Action Plan on WPS. However, only 36% of these include an allocated budget for implementation, and around a third of NAPs are out of date.
During this year’s debate, a number of states reflected on their experiences with implementing their NAPs, and several states announced that new or updated NAPs will be forthcoming. AU Special Envoy for WPS, Bineta Diop, remarked on the leadership of the African continent in NAP development, but also reflected on barriers to translating NAPs into national development policies and securing funding for implementation. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines pointed out NAPs must have budgetary allocations to fund localization programs led by women's civil society in order to end gender inequality. Echoing this call, the representative from the European Union called on states to adopt NAPs with adequate budgets.
Since our founding, WILPF has highlighted how militarism, capitalism, and patriarchal power structures are among the interrelated causes and drivers of conflict and instability. Conventional approaches to peacebuilding that reward the actors fighting wars rather than those building peace are a barrier to addressing root causes and establishing lasting security.
Changing this will require deepening our approaches, including on gender and emerging trends. A few states spoke to the critical importance of addressing root causes, intersectionality, and diversity, in contrast to the majority of states that ignored these themes. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines called for anticolonial, intersectional gender analysis to be incorporated into all UNSC action. Switzerland spoke about their increased work on digitalization and WPS, including through their partnership with WILPF. Argentina, Malta, and Mexico spoke about participation of diverse women, and Mexico called for adopting an intersectional focus that addresses the needs of all groups including Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and people with disabilities into account. Costa Rica raised the fact that WPS is still premised on a binary notion of gender, despite the violence faced by trans and gender non-conforming people. They called for looking at the gender dimensions of disarmament, including small arms and light weapons, cyber operations, and the use of explosive weapons. Sri Lanka also pushed back against some of the gender essentialism that can pervade WPS discussions, particularly around justifying women’s participation on the basis of purported “unique” attributes.
The statements made at this open debate continue to spotlight (either through inclusion or omission) the ongoing gaps in the implementation of and accountability to the agenda. The human rights of women human rights defenders, peacebuilders, and other activists must be respected and protected so they can continue to carry the WPS agenda forward; states and the UN must move from words to action that centers women’s human rights, including in the ability to meaningfully, and effectively participate in political and peace processes; and demilitarization and moving the money from war to peace are essential. Ending unequal power structures and building peaceful communities requires that the UN and member states hold themselves accountable for WPS implementation.
In the words of Celia Umenza Velasco, “Peace is more than the absence of war. To Indigenous women, it means an end to discrimination, respect for human rights, justice, economic equality and transformative change with human life at its center.” This is the vision that is at the heart of what women peacebuilders aim to achieve through the WPS agenda -- a vision that requires action for conflict prevention and equality.