Dare More Ethics in International Politics! The Global "Women, Peace and Security" Agenda
The wars of the 1990s in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia brought new uncertainties back into world politics. They also confronted the global community with the forgotten fact that not only do combatants fall in wars, but all armed conflicts also have direct consequences on the civilian population. Women in particular are exposed to often gender-based physical and psychological violence in war and refugee situations. They are forced into the role of victim – the one who is marginalized, in need of protection and forced to flee – and thrown back entirely into the private realm with no opportunity to play any significant role in shaping political life during and after the conflict. This is brought home to us again by the current war in Ukraine, which at least on the face of it seems to be accompanied by a regression into these gender stereotypes. With a general mobilization, male Ukrainians became soldiers, while women and children mostly became displaced persons and refugees.
The UN Security Council is the United Nations body charged with primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace. In the year 2000, it responded to this human insecurity in violent conflict, to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and to the lack of women’s participation in conflict resolution and political reconstruction: It adopted resolution 1325 on women in armed conflict, commonly referred to as “Women, Peace and Security” (WPS). This article outlines the background to the WPS agenda, which was initiated with this resolution in the United Nations. It examines the focuses of the ten resolutions and dozens of national and regional action plans which this project now comprises, and comments critically on its current state of implementation.
The origins of the “Women, Peace and Security” agenda in the United Nations: a feminist project
The disastrous consequences of war on women’s rights and protection were an early concern for feminist women’s groups. As long ago as the Hague Peace Conference of 1915, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) – still the leading women’s rights group for WPS today – pointed out the connection between war and gender-based violence. Following the failure of attempts to enshrine this link in the UN Charter, the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) took up the issue in the 1970s. Parallel to the UN, feminist civil society groups constantly engaged with the question of how the consequences of war on women could be mitigated, or how a gender-just and peaceful world could be developed. “Women, peace and security” was and still is an issue supported by activists inside and outside the United Nations. Without the strong commitment of these civil society groups, it would not have arrived on the Security Council’s agenda.
At the same time, cooperation between the political and activist levels is an almost feminist kind of governance, since the characteristic feature of all feminist (foreign) policy is the link between the local and global levels of policymaking. Activists made their breakthrough at the UN during the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995, where they exerted a strong influence on the United Nations and the group of so-called “friendly” governments that were open to the subject. In Beijing, it was agreed that gender mainstreaming should be incorporated into all areas of national and international policy.1
The Windhoek Declaration and Namibia Plan of Action (2000) were key outcomes of this conference. The Windhoek Declaration urged UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to do more to address the gender dimension of peace and security.2 It stated that gender mainstreaming should be implemented at all levels of peace support operations to ensure their effectiveness. Today, the link between the effectiveness of a peacekeeping operation and gender equity is still an important argument inside and outside the United Nations for establishing gender programs in the armed forces.3
The Windhoek Declaration already goes far beyond the so-called protection component, i.e. it views women not only as victims of gender-based violence in war, but as equal partners in all aspects of the peace process. According to the then widely accepted “women bring peace” theory, women should play an equal role in peace processes – at the global, national and local levels – in order to achieve a gender-equitable and therefore sustainable peace.4 This is because it was assumed – based on the gender stereotype – that women are intrinsically more peaceful, communicative and friendly, and therefore more likely to bring and build peace.5 This hypothesis has been strongly criticized and rejected by feminist academics because of its adherence to a long-outdated stereotypical image of women.6 In the United Nations, however, the argument was consistently used until a few years ago to promote the participation of women in peace missions.
Since the Beijing conference, countries such as Namibia and Sweden, together with women’s associations such as the WILPF, have engaged in strong advocacy efforts inside and outside the United Nations to put the link between gender-based violence and war on the agenda.7 The real goal of these initiatives has been to implement gender mainstreaming in all areas of UN peace support operations, in the spirit of the Windhoek Declaration, in order to understand the specific role and situation of women in armed conflicts, to integrate this into policy, and as a result not only protect but also empower women. In July 2000, the government of Namibia submitted the Windhoek Declaration and the Plan of Action on “Mainstreaming a Gender Perspective in Multidimensional Peace Support Operations” to the UN Security Council (S/2000/693).
It was a favorable time for such an initiative, as during the preceding months the Security Council had deliberated at length on so-called human security and the responsibility to protect, which relate directly to feminist security policy. The UN Secretary-General himself was an advocate, indeed initiator of thinking about individual security and sovereignty. So the window of opportunity was wide open. In October 2000, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1325 on “Women in Armed Conflict”.
But it was not only the theme of women and unanimity that were unusual in the Security Council. At that time, so-called thematic resolutions such as WPS, which tackle a general security policy problem and not a situation in a specific country, were not part of the Council’s standard practice. This is an indication of how urgent this issue was perceived to be. Even though feminist NGOs would have liked to see a more broadly based approach to the topic – focusing on gender, rather than on women – there was great euphoria in the United Nations. Kofi Annan, described as a “champion for women’s rights”,8 underlined the importance of the resolution for the United Nations peace regime with the following words: “Only if women play a full and equal part can we build the foundations for enduring peace – development, good governance, human rights and justice.”9 This “gender equality peace hypothesis” remains a strong argument for women’s empowerment in peace and security.10
Resolution 1325 was intended to mark the end of gender blindness in peace and security. It initiated “a wealth of research, initiatives and subsequent resolutions”,11 but not without further challenges, risks and dilemmas.
The normative core of resolution 1325 and the follow-up resolutions
After this first step, the UN Security Council adopted another nine resolutions, creating the Women, Peace and Security agenda: S/RES/1820 (2008), S/RES/1888 (2009), S/RES/1889 (2009), S/RES/1960 (2010), S/RES/2106 (2013), S/RES/2122 (2013), S/RES/2242 (2015), S/RES/2467 (2019) and S/RES/2493 (2019). It is clear from this that there have been WPS-“friendly” years, mostly coinciding with WPS anniversaries or particularly WPS-friendly agenda setters on the Security Council – like Sweden or more recently Germany. Each of these resolutions addresses equality norms as well as SGBV, with a focus on protecting and strengthening the peacebuilding role of women. But each sets different thematic priorities and responds to different gender-specific issues in the field.
To systematize the broad agenda, the content of the resolutions is usually divided into three thematic categories: “participation”, “protection” and “gender mainstreaming”.12 The goal of female participation is a numerically and qualitatively balanced gender ratio; this is frequently referred to as “meaningful participation” in UN jargon. It refers to the participation of women in all phases of the peace process. Women are needed as soldiers and police officers in UN peacekeeping missions, as mediators in conflict resolution, and in the social and political reconstruction of a country.
The norm of “protection” comprises two aspects. Firstly, the agenda emphasizes the recognition and protection of women’s rights as human rights. Secondly, it is about protecting women from sexual and gender-based violence, which is also often used as a “weapon of war” in armed conflicts. The agenda’s strong female focus is widened somewhat with “gender mainstreaming”, because this category calls for the integration of a gender perspective in all peace and security policy processes. This also includes Security Council resolutions, into which a gender perspective is to be integrated. Under the Swedish non-permanent membership of the Security Council, this goal was implemented and all resolutions have consistently incorporated a gender perspective.
The literature also divides the global agenda into other categories that should be mentioned and considered for the sake of completeness. Basu and Confortini differentiate between prevention, protection and participation.13 The prevention aspect is especially central for feminist activists, as the entire feminist international community aims to prevent war through a feminist transformation of international politics. Prevention here, then, is not aimed at individual prevention of SGBV. Rather it underlines the conflict prevention impetus that implicitly runs through the agenda. The United Nations itself categorizes the agenda into five pillars, namely conflict prevention, participation, protection, peacebuilding and reconstruction.14
Resolution 1325 established the Women, Peace and Security agenda. With this resolution, the Security Council focused global attention on the neglected other half of the world’s population: women. It affirmed the necessity of gender mainstreaming in all phases of peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and of combating violence against women. Women are “active agents of change” as this historic resolution puts it. Resolution 2122 (2013) had a similar broad political impetus. It introduced the integrated approach as a central instrument of the WPS agenda, which seeks to establish close collaboration between all UN institutions both at the New York headquarters and in the field. Above all, integration is a signal to the UN system to network more effectively. The resolution also emphasized that the situation of women will only be improved in the long term by targeting the roots of conflict. Here the idea of prevention appears again.
Many of the follow-up resolutions focused on sexual and gender-based violence against women. This gave the impression that the agenda was too victim-centered, that women were being cast too much in the stereotypical role of the weak protection-seeker.15 However, despite all the justified criticism of the agenda’s tendency to reproduce stereotypes, it should be kept in mind that sexual and gender-based violence is an expression of militarized masculinity rituals, a weapon of war and a real threat to women in war. One in five displaced or refugee women has experienced violence, and more than fifty parties to conflict worldwide are suspected of having perpetrated SGBV.16 So the problem is by no means marginal.
Resolution 1820 (2008) condemned the use of SGBV as a weapon and tactic of war. The resolution condemned SGBV as a war crime, a crime against humanity, and a constitutive act with respect to genocide, which could also provide a basis for sending perpetrators to the International Criminal Court under international criminal law. Resolution 1888 (2009) reiterated that this kind of violence exacerbates armed conflict, and resolution 1960 (2010) called for an end to SGBV in all conflicts.
Resolution 2467 (2019), introduced by Germany, was a particularly important step in the fight against SGBV. It placed SGBV on a continuum of societally tolerated violence against women, and underlined the point that a society which does not prosecute those who commit violence against women is more prone to conflict than a society that condemns such violence. UN Secretary-General Guterres also emphasized the link between the extent of violence against women in a society and that country’s propensity to conflict, in his recent reform recommendations report, “Our Common Agenda”. To lift women out of the victim role, resolution 2467 (2019) also establishes the “survivor-centered approach”. This sees women as active, contributing, equal members of society, who use their skills and experience to benefit the future of the country. In addition – and this is important – it ensures that women have the opportunity to recover from the physical and psychological consequences of violence.
This approach calls on conflict countries, out of a sense of national responsibility, to prosecute perpetrators of SGBV, to recognize women as survivors, and to empower them. Ultimately, the goal of such a resolution is to create all the conditions for a “healed” society that can shape a lasting and sustainable peace. In the original draft resolution, Germany had prominently included the right of women to reproductive health (care). This proposal failed, however, due to a threatened veto by Russia and the United States (under the Trump administration).
Only resolution 1889 (2009) explicitly focused on women’s participation in all stages of peace processes. The resolution cites the central role of women in conflict prevention and resolution, social reconstruction and the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence as a central argument for increasing the quality and quantity of female participation. S/RES/2538, from 2020, is not genuinely one of the thematic WPS resolutions, as it deals with UN peacekeeping. But it strongly urges the “full, effective and meaningful participation” (paragraph 1) of “uniformed women” in peacekeeping operations at all levels and in all positions, including senior leadership positions.
The ten resolutions also include three resolutions calling for the operationalization and implementation of the agenda (S/RES/2106 (2013), S/RES/2242 (2015), S/RES/2493 (2019)). One implementation measure, cited here by way of example, was established by resolution 2242 (2015): The UN Secretary-General was called upon, in collaboration with member states, to launch an initiative to double the numbers of women in military and police contingents of UN peacekeeping operations by 2020. With almost six percent female uniformed personnel in 2020, the UN has achieved this – albeit very modest! – goal, at least in quantitative terms.
State of implementation
These resolutions represent only broad targets of the global agenda. They are adapted and implemented in national and regional action plans (NAPs/RAPs) by countries and regional organizations such as the EU and African Union in line with local needs. Denmark presented the first action plan in 2005; 98 countries and eleven regional organizations have now launched one or more NAPs/RAPs. 72 percent of the NAPs recognize the essential role of civil society in implementing the agenda at all political and social levels.
The so-called “grass roots level” is an integral part of the overall agenda, in both normative and practical policy areas. This is seen in the NAP drafting processes, for example in Germany and Sweden, where civil society networks such as “Netzwerk 1325” were explicitly invited to help shape the process through their own input and expert operational discussions. Ministries such as the German Foreign Office recognize that NGOs such as medica mondiale, UN Women Deutschland or the International Red Cross are able to put the agenda to the test in practice, through their close relationship with populations in war zones. They can continuously draw lessons learned, reflect experiences back to the political levels, and contribute to the national NAP process. However, the national action plans of the so-called global North in particular are still too outward-looking and lack a critical inner perspective. This becomes problematic precisely when any form of violence is understood as potentially destabilizing and conflict-inducing. This applies to the German National Action Plans too, which lack an inner perspective as well as any WPS-related budgeting.
But Germany is not alone here – on the contrary. Only 35 percent of all action plans have a budget for program implementation. And just 32 percent of action plans mention a core concern of feminist foreign policy, namely disarmament, which has found its way into the new German action plan, for example. In view of the worldwide regression into undemocratic and patriarchal structures, a critical internal perspective, a closer examination of structures of militarized masculinity, and a long-term financial and structural institutionalization of the WPS agenda at national level would be in order.
Critical reflection with a world in crisis
This criticism directed at the NAPs needs to be applied to the entire project and extended in the case of the global agenda. If one reflects not only on the agenda’s general, chronic and systematic lack of resources, but also takes into consideration the current global political situation, there is no escaping the fact that all ethically oriented policymaking – and here the WPS agenda should be included – must brace itself for more hard years ahead in the face of a global relapse into authoritarianism, militarism, nationalism, indeed conventional war.
We live in an international order in which the political system most able and willing to make gender equality a reality is in deep crisis, and in the minority: liberal democracy. Instead, we are witnessing the rise of patriarchal systems of power that stand as a block against the few countries that are committed to a feminist foreign policy. There is no need to remind ourselves that these same autocracies rarely outlaw violence against women. In recent years, these hardened ethically normative fronts have also been increasingly evident in the Security Council, as countries such as Russia and China began to use the threat of vetoes to dilute or scupper resolutions. This regression to patriarchal interpretations of a global world order is gaining ground at the global political level as a contest between great powers, and is also creating divisions within societies. Lines of conflict are deepening between patriarchal social structures and feminist activist groups, as seen in the discrimination and persecution of LGBTQI+ in Poland and Hungary. The pandemic has further catalyzed this global trend. It has led to a reversion to traditional gender stereotypes even in welfare democracies like Germany, along with growing inequality, an increase in domestic violence and a destabilization of societies.17 The war in Ukraine has brought the consequences of militarized masculinity to the attention of western observers – via a patriarchal macho despot, fleeing mothers, and the barbaric crimes of Russian soldiers.
Nevertheless, the agenda must not stand still. It must be pursued and developed, especially in these troubled times. Beyond implementing the resolutions already adopted, steps should be taken to broaden the agenda, away from victimhood and toward the role of shaper; away from a focus on women and toward consideration of gender in general; and overall even more explicitly toward intersectionality.
The “Women, Peace and Security” agenda was and is merely the lowest common denominator of UN gender policy in the area of peace and security. The agenda needs to find its way out of a polarizing binarism and ill-advised gender stereotyping, so that it can turn its back on the notion of women as “women in need of masculine protection”.18 Since the gender concept encompasses more perspectives than the agenda addresses, gender should also be explicitly included in the WPS agenda. While it remains important to protect and empower women, the role of other genders in violent conflicts should not be ignored. Issues such as violence against boys and men, or against LGBTQI+, or even women perpetrators should feature more prominently in the discourse. The intersectional approach has implicitly resonated in the resolutions for a number of years and is explicitly implemented in UN Women. It should become the linchpin of the agenda. Intersectionality widens the focus from just gender to consider equally important aspects of discrimination, namely the social, ethnic or also religious context. Especially in a violent conflict situation, these are crucial criteria to take into account for conflict resolution adapted to the needs of the respective society.
Why must there be no standstill? Not just for the sake of human or women’s security, but because of the great transformative potential of the women, peace and security agenda. As a growing number of countries commit to a feminist foreign policy, an important connection is revealed between the thematically focused WPS agenda and a general choice of foreign policy direction: The ethical impetus for a country to commit to the concept of feminist foreign policy stems from its engagement with the global women, peace and security agenda.19 In 2014, Sweden became the first country to adopt a feminist foreign policy. Margot Wallström chose this course based on her involvement with Agenda 1325. Canada followed in 2017 with a feminist development policy, and in 2019 France, Mexico and Luxembourg declared their intent to develop a feminist foreign policy. Spain and most recently Germany followed suit. However, the approach to this new kind of foreign policy depends on each country’s context. In its report on Germany’s feminist foreign policy, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy proposed the following definition, which distills the essence of such a policy: It focuses on “feminist peace, gender equality, climate justice, and the eradication of inequalities [...]. It would disrupt [...] patriarchal [...] power structures.”20 That alone should be reason enough to advocate for the advancement of this agenda. Especially now.
1 Steans, J. (2013): Gender & International Relations. 3rd ed. Cambridge, p. 1.
2 https://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/wps/windhoek_declaration.pdf (accessed April 21, 2022).
3 Bridges, Donna and Horsfall, Debbie (2009): Increasing operational effectiveness in UN peacekeeping: Toward a gender-balanced force. In: Armed Forces & Society, 1, pp. 120-130.
4 Maoz, Ifat (2011): Women and Peace Hypothesis. Hoboken.
5 Aharoni, Sarai B. (2017): Who needs the Women and Peace Hypothesis? Rethinking modes of inquiry on gender and conflict in Israel/Palestine. In: International Feminist Journal of Politics, 19, pp. 311-326.
6 Davies, Sara E. and True, Jacqui (2019): The Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace, and Security. Oxford.
7 Hudson, Natalie F. (2010): Gender, human security and the United Nations. Security language as a political framework for women. Milton Park.
8 Powell, Catherine (2018). Kofi Annan. Champion for women’s rights, council on foreign relations. https://www.cfr.org/blog/kofi-annan-champion-womens-rights (accessed April 21, 2022).
9 United Nations (2002): Women, peace and Security: study submitted by the Secretary-General pursuant to Security Council resolution 1325. New York, p. ix.
10 Wood, Reed and Ramirez, Mark D. (2018): Exploring the micro foundations of the gender equality peace hypothesis. In: International Studies Review, 20, pp. 345-367.
11 Duncanson, Claire (2016): Gender and peacebuilding. Cambridge, p. 9.
12 Gizelis, Theodora-Ismene and Olsson, Louise (2015): Gender, peace and security. Implementing UN Security Resolution 1325. Milton Park, pp. 4-15.
13 Basu, Soumita and Confortini, Catia C. (2017): Weakest “P” in the 1325 pod? Realizing Conflict Prevention through UN Security Council Resolution 1325. International Studies Perspectives, 18, pp. 43-63.
14 UN Women (2015): Trends and Projections for Gender Parity. DPKO. New York, p. 13.
15 Zürn, Anja (2020): From Sex and Gender to Intersectional Approaches? UN-Written Identities of Local Women in Participation and Protection Discourse. In: Scheuermann, Manuela and Zürn, Anja (eds.): Gender Roles in Peace and Security. Prevent, Protect, Participate. Cham, pp. 11-34.
16 DGVN (2019): Eine-Welt-Presse “Frauen, Frieden, Sicherheit”. https://dgvn.de/publications/PDFs/Eine_Welt_Presse/EWP-Frauen-Frieden-Sicherheit-web.pdf (accessed April 21, 2022).
17 Scheuermann, Manuela (2020): “Frauen, Frieden, Sicherheit” unter den Bedingungen der COVID 19-Pandemie. In: Zeitschrift für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, 9, pp. 321-335.
18 Shepherd, Laura (2011): Sex, security and superhero(in)es: From 1325 to 1820 and beyond. International In: Feminist Journal of Politics, 13, pp. 504-521.
19 Aggestam, Karin (2019): Theorizing Feminist Foreign Policy. In: International Relations, 33, pp. 23-39.
20 Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (2021): Make Foreign Policy Feminist. A Feminist Foreign Policy Manifesto for Germany. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57cd7cd9d482e9784e4ccc34/t/61432508e0c62f33f0a54cea/1631790357163/CFFP-Manifesto-EN-Final4.pdf (accessed May 13, 2022).
Prof. Dr. Manuela Scheuermann is currently Deputy Chair of International Relations and European Studies at the Institute of Political Science and Sociology, University of Würzburg. Her research focuses on the United Nations, the global “Women, Peace and Security” agenda, and relations between the EU and UN in peacekeeping. She is the author of “Die Vereinten Nationen. Eine Einführung” and co-editor of “Gender Roles in Peace and Security”. Professor Scheuermann is a member of the Board of Directors of the United Nations Association of Germany, and of its research circle.