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Without Prioritization of Peace and Women’s Leadership, WPS in Peril

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by Youssef Mahmoud

UN Security Council resolution 1325 was not the beginning of global gender politics, but it has been instrumental to the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) policy agenda. Since this resolution was adopted in 2000, it has been critical to changing the debates around gender and conflict, helping to consolidate, internalize, and diffuse a new set of global norms. We can see its growth in the seven UN resolutions that followed, in the number of National Action Plans (NAPs) it produced, and in the multiple programs and structures of different national and international organizations whose work on peace and security governance have been inspired by this agenda.

Through the WPS agenda, the Security Council has linked gender equality to maintaining international peace and security. Resolution 1325 provided a legal and political framework for the protection of women and girls as victims of armed conflict, and called for increased participation of women in peace processes as part of conflict prevention and resolution efforts. The WPS agenda expanded the space for discussing women’s contributions to peace and security and instituted an annual open debate on 1325. The adoption of Security Council resolution 1820 (2008) named sexual violence as an impediment to international peace and security, created a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict and an annual report and open debate on the issue.

Over the years, the WPS agenda has also generated vibrant literature on the much-noted gaps between aspirations and prescriptions on the one hand and prevailing local, national, and geopolitical realities on the other.

While these achievements are indeed commendable, a number of developments have emerged over the past few years indicating that the WPS agenda is under stress, if not in peril. Some of the literature noted above analyzes the factors that may be contributing to the increasing contestation of the WPS agenda’s normative moorings, while other studies lament that “peace,” the middle name of the agenda, has been sacrificed on the altar of a narrow understanding of security.

As another yearly open thematic debate on the agenda takes place this week, it is an opportune time to highlight some of the criticisms and suggest some approaches to help shore up what is perceived as the waning legitimacy of the WPS agenda.

A Normative Framework Under Stress

The WPS agenda is sometimes known by “three Ps,” protection, participation, and prevention. Many studies have lamented the marginalization of the prevention “p.” For example, four of the seven resolutions that followed 1325 were devoted to the issue of sexual violence in war, at the expense of the gendered peace approach that informed the resolution. This perpetuated the perception that women are inherently vulnerable and need protection by men. In addition, such a disproportionate focus on protection may have obscured elements of the agenda that create meaningful opportunities for women’s political, social, and economic empowerment.

Although resolution 2242 provided a welcome boost to the prevention dimension and expanded the space for civil society voices, the coopting of women by the resolution as natural allies in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism was a bitter pill to swallow for those calling for the de-securitization and de-militarization of the agenda, and for seeking women’s perspectives on how to build peace rather than just countering violence.

Another criticism is that the most ardent proponents of the WPS agenda are, simultaneously, among the world’s top military spenders and arms-traders that tend to prioritize their own geopolitical interests at the expense of a gender-sensitive agenda for peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Their actions in certain conflict zones make them complicit in the geopolitical dynamics that cause war and drive the violation of women’s rights that 1325 was designed to address. These actions also belie the verbal commitments made by the representatives of these countries in the Security Council’s chamber. Those among them that have developed National Action Plans have often done so largely in pursuit of their national interest and as an integral part of their foreign policy aspirations, reinforcing the perception that the WPS agenda is mostly applicable to countries under stress or emerging from conflict.

In addition to these inherent contradictions and criticisms, the increasing contestation of the liberal international order that underpins the WPS agenda has had an impact on how the agenda is implemented. Over many decades, this order has had far-reaching and complex ramifications on international relations, some of which are viewed as having eroded state sovereignty. As a result, some states have attempted to re-appropriate the WPS agenda by affirming state sovereignty over individual rights. This pushback has been interpreted as a response to their perceived relegation in multilateral institutions over many years.

These dynamics have had consequences. Since 2011, a number of countries have changed their behavior towards the normative process in the WPS agenda. Several countries are questioning the strong involvement of civil society in this process, while others have stopped sponsoring draft resolutions.

Moving Forward

In order to consolidate the achievements of the WPS agenda and guard against their possible erosion at a time of increased global backlash against women’s rights, a number of actions are required.

First, we need to question the web of powerful assumptions about peace and security that has informed the normative development of the WPS agenda. The dominant paradigm makes us believe that if we understand the pathologies of war and addressed the root causes of conflict, then we will build peace. There is an assumption that peace is the order, the stability, and the security that follow the end of war. Under this paradigm, we study peace in the context of war, and peace is invariably depicted as the absence of war. Many men and women have unfortunately espoused this misconception, resulting, at times, in the securitization of women’s human rights.

Researchers and practitioners from the International Peace Institute (IPI) have written extensively on this issue, as have others who are developing new ways to understand, build, and sustain peace. These researchers advocate that understanding the drivers of positive peace, and not just those that sustain conflict, offers a better framework for unleashing the leadership potential of women as agents of positive change. Even amid environments of devastation, women are not blank pages. They have capacities, not just needs. This positive lens for thinking through peace takes people away from the perpetual examination and obsession with conflict and helps to focus on identifying and strengthening the resilient factors that are associated with peaceful communities.

We also need to be wary of the training cottage industry that has been spawned by the WPS agenda. This industry basically organizes women into three broad categories: women soldiers (or peacekeepers), women mediators (some are being morphed into networks), and women activists. For each category a battery of training and development programs have been designed by the international community so that these women can become competent soldiers, mediators, and activists, with local upper middle class educated elites serving as intermediaries.

Given that many modern asymmetric conflicts do not easily lend themselves to outside external mediators and their outcomes tend to be dictated by the interests of regional and global powers, one wonders for which mediation or negotiation table these women are being trained. The reality is that these women have already mastered the art and the craft of local mediation and negotiations for the conflict environments in which they live. There is hope that the newly formed women mediators’ networks across several regions of the world will be able to leverage these capacities for peace and create spaces for these women to imagine plans for peace, when track one negotiations are stalled or in disarray.

Finally, peace is both an enabler and an outcome of the 2030 Agenda. Identifying and leveraging synergies between the WPS agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including goal five, would make the pursuit of the human rights of women, even in conflict settings, a development and governance function and not just a peace and security function. This is particularly essential in light of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ warning in his WPS report released this week of the “shrinking spaces for civil society and increasing security risks for defenders of the human rights of women.” Above all, it is hoped that these measures would attenuate the push-back and unleash the leadership potential of women as active agents of positive peace.

Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Advisor at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

Originally Published in the Global Observatory