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Missed opportunities: gender and the UN's peacebuilding reports

The Open Debate this week on the 15th anniversary of SCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is the UN's chance to answer the key question: why has implementation been so half-hearted? 

Gender issues are now a regular feature of the international community’s approach to promoting peace and security. Two high-profile reports recently issued by the UN - on peace operations and the organization’s peacebuilding architecture  - include significant content on the role that women play in war and its aftermath. Both reports stress the need to see women as agents of conflict prevention and resolution, rather than just victims in need of protection.

Women meet with the President of the Republic, Senegal

However, neither report succeeds in overcoming the ‘add women and stir’ curse familiar to advocates of gender mainstreaming in peace and security institutions. The reports fall short of addressing the structural issues that result in women’s exclusion from peace and security processes, both domestically and internationally. Neither report diagnoses the shortcomings of existing efforts to implement what has come to be known as the women, peace and security agenda. Taken together, the two reports represent a missed opportunity to identify a coherent set of reforms to ensure that existing commitments are fulfilled.

The headline finding of the Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, Uniting Our Strengths for Peace, is that speeding up force deployment and improving peacekeeper training are less important to the success of peace operations than the ability to understand local politics, particularly the prospects for ‘spoilers’ to undercut an agreement between warring parties. The report’s key recommendation in this area is to strengthen the UN’s conflict and political analysis capacity, in part by merging existing units within the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). The creation of a new Deputy Secretary-General position (for peace and security) is also proposed. But nowhere in the political analysis section does the report address gender - a major social cleavage that affects everything from the ideology of armed groups to the delivery of public services.

For example, Uniting Our Strength for Peace analyzes links between demographic change and conflict propensity and notes the high proportion of youth in the populations of conflict-affected and fragile states. It warns that high unemployment among young people is associated with elevated levels of radicalization and violence. Yet the report does not interrogate the gender dynamics driving these demographic shifts. Policy responses should acknowledge the link between steep gender inequalities and the misogyny exhibited by some extremist groups, and incorporate women’s empowerment into long-term conflict prevention efforts.

Apart from the imperatives of preventing (and prosecuting) war crimes against women and increasing their numbers in UN mission staff, many UN member states and senior UN officials lack an understanding of what needs to be done to promote women’s participation in peace and security processes. Reflecting these uncertainties, the report proposes no concrete accountability mechanisms to remedy the exclusion of women from peace talks or from post-conflict planning processes. Instead, as has been the case for years, UN leaders are urged to consult – on a ‘structured, regular’ basis – with women’s civil society groups. There are no specifics about what constitutes ‘structured’ or ‘regular,’ and no indication of how to hold officials accountable if they fail to hold consultations or to respond constructively to women’s concerns and proposals.

Women Demilitarize the Zone, walking for peace and reunification in Korea, 2015

One of the structural obstacles to women’s peace leadership is that women’s groups, decimated by conflict, can be nearly invisible in national politics. Uniting Our Strengths for Peace fails to mention the need to rectify this state of affairs through core funding to women’s organizations. Nor does it mention the resource that matters almost as much as cash: information about upcoming peace and security processes, and a direct invitation to engage in them. A more robust approach would be to mandate routine participation of women’s organizations in peace talks – even if only as observers – and in donor conferences.

The report does express concern about the low proportion (roughly 20%) of women among mission managers. It recommends a review of the factors that have held back progress in this area. While more female staff would not necessarily make mission practice more gender-responsive, their visibility and seniority is significant because it signals to all local stakeholders the sincerity of the UN’s commitment to gender equality. Increasing the proportion of women in senior field positions will require reforms to address serious constraints in their recruitment and retention. So will increasing the proportion of female uniformed peacekeepers. A tantalizing half sentence in the report states that Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) could be offered incentives such as reimbursement premiums for supplying more women soldiers and police. This, however, was not stated explicitly in the report’s recommendations. 

There is also no mention of another potentially fruitful area for reform: increasing the share of women among locally recruited civilian staff in UN missions, such as drivers, secretaries, translators, and policy analysts. Women hold an average of 17% of these jobs. Recruiting more women would require affirmative-action policies and perhaps skills-building, but would send a strong message about the priority of gender equality in the UN’s approach to preventing and resolving conflict. It would also help make the UN more approachable for local women, supporting the push for more sustained and substantive consultation.

Uniting Our Strengths for Peace gives welcome attention to the issue of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) by uniformed and civilian UN personnel. But the recommendations differ little from current practice, except for two changes. First, a ‘naming and shaming’ approach is proposed to call out TCCs that fail to investigate allegations and punish perpetrators.  This will help to signal the sincerity of the UN’s zero tolerance policy.  Second, the report recognizes that victims of SEA need support and compensation − but, strangely, the UN trust fund it proposes would not be used to award compensation to victims. Instead, it would pay for prevention and awareness-raising activities. The already acute awareness of high levels of SEA suggests that a lack of local knowledge is not the key problem. Secure and reliable reporting mechanisms that do not put victims at risk are a shortcoming for which the report does not suggest a remedy. 

It might be expected that gender issues would find a more central place in The Challenge of Sustaining Peace, the Report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 Review of the UN’s Peacebuilding Architecture Peacebuilding - the effort to prevent the outbreak or recurrence of armed conflict – extends more naturally into ‘development’ work, a field in which the promotion of women’s rights is more deeply entrenched. The Challenge of Sustaining Peace does call for renewed efforts by the UN and other international actors to involve women’s organizations in conflict-prevention, and to ensure their full engagement in economic reconstruction.

That every element of “sustaining peace,” from security sector reform to administrative restructuring, has a gender dimension is never in doubt. The panel even acknowledges that 15 years of rhetoric about involving women in peacebuilding “have yet to translate into sufficient material changes in women’s lives, or even in the UN’s peacemaking and peacebuilding processes” (78). Unfortunately, the report provides very little analysis of the causes of continued under-performance. On some issues, there is no recognition that a problem exists at all. While noting that “electoral reforms can … introduce quotas to increase [women’s] representation in elected bodies at all levels”,” (79), the report is silent on whether the UN is doing all it can to ensure that quota-based systems are adopted in countries where women are chronically under-represented in politics. Consequently, the report proposes no reforms – not even a requirement of more concerted political pressure from UN officials – to ensure that promoting gender quotas is an integral component of UN electoral assistance.

As for financing, The Challenge of Sustaining Peace refers to the commitment, in the Secretary-General’s 2010 7-Point Action Plan on Gender-Responsive Peacebuilding to spend at least 15% of resources in peacebuilding contexts on projects that promote gender equality or women’s empowerment. To its credit, the report acknowledges that, with the partial exception of the Peacebuilding Fund, the 15% pledge has gone largely unfulfilled. There is no explanation for why this might be the case, though the report’s recommendation for how to improve this glaring failure implies that a lack of management incentives is at the root of the problem. It suggests that achieving the 15% pledge “be written into the Secretary-General’s performance compacts with senior UN leaders on the ground, in mission and non-mission settings, and backed up with an enhanced system for monitoring and tracking achievement” (182). 

If adopted in concert with one of the report’s key overall recommendations – that all UN agencies operating in Security Council-authorized missions be placed under a single leader, such as an Executive Representative of the Secretary-General – this could introduce the incentives that to date have been lacking. Making senior field managers specifically accountable for achieving the 15% spending commitment would in effect reverse the exemption from this pledge that DPA and DPKO negotiated for themselves five years ago. It would also make the 15% commitment applicable at the country (rather than the global) level, a change that might further enhance accountability.

Sustaining Peace’s recommended reforms to the management of UN field operations might also have included, but did not, institutional changes to elevate the status of gender issues within UN mission planning and operations. To date, gender advisors are sometimes, though not always, deployed. They are often isolated from senior mission management and from the priority technical functions of missions. This issue is addressed in Uniting for Peace, which recommends integration of gender experts to all functional components of missions, as well as the placement of a senior gender advisor in the office of the mission leader. This would be a major improvement, but only if recruitment guidelines, terms of reference, and reporting lines are carefully designed to ensure collaboration with UN Women.

Both reports reference the potential role that UN Women could play in a revised mission architecture, but remain vague about how this might work. Uniting for Peace states that ‘Missions should have full access to the policy, substantive and technical support from UN Women’ (243, 3). Sustaining Peace issues a bland call for DPA and DPKO to “actively explore enhanced ways to work in partnership” with UN Women and other relevant UN agencies (159). The absence of details (or a timeline) for this enhanced collaboration allows the two departments with the most decision-making authority in peacebuilding contexts – departments whose power would be enhanced if field leadership is consolidated, as Sustaining Peace recommends – to avoid institutionalizing sustained attention to gender issues. 

In fact, the only other concrete gender-equality proposal in Sustaining Peace concerns UN entities that DPKO and DPA can safely ignore: the intergovernmental Peacebuilding Commission and the secretariat-based Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) which supports the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). Sustaining Peace urges the PBSO to “work closely” with the rest of the UN system (including DPA and DPKO) “to ensure that gender expertise is available” to the PBC as it develops peacebuilding plans with the countries on its agenda (183). The PBC is also encouraged to engage with women’s organizations as it develops these plans and monitors their implementation (185). Neither measure would influence decision-making at any level, least of all among senior management in the field.

Both Uniting for Peace and Sustaining Peace state that implementation of the UN Security Council’s seven resolutions on women, peace and security must improve. The element of these resolutions that has seen the most focused and sustained action is conflict-related sexual violence, which is an international crime. The promotion of women’s leadership and participation in conflict-resolution, peacemaking and post-conflict recovery does not have the same legal status. Implementation instructions, whether from the Security Council or from within the UN system, typically take the weakest possible form, e.g. “encouraging engagement with women’s organizations.” There are no consequences for failure. These two reports have continued this pattern. 

One more major review of the UN’s peace and security work will be launched on October 14 at the UN the “Global Study on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security”. This is the UN’s chance to address some of the questions that are dodged in the other two reports: why has implementation been so half-hearted?  Which institutions and systems need to change, and how, to deliver results in terms of engaging women in conflict prevention, resolution, and recovery? This might be one of the most important opportunities created by the many soul-searching exercises in which the UN has engaged in this its 70th year, to recommend bold accountability reforms, without which its longstanding commitments will continue to remain unfulfilled. 

This an updated version of an article first published by the Center on International Cooperation, 30 July 2015.

Read more articles on 50.50's platform on Peacework and Human Security

About the authors

Anne Marie Goetz is a Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University. She was formerly Chief Advisor on Peace and Security at UN Women. Follow her on twitter @amgoetz and @nyucga

Dr. Robert Jenkins is a Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, where he is the Associate Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.

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