Civil society diplomats at the UN

" We’re not interested in making war safe for women… There are many substitutes for oil, but I can't think of a single substitute for a peace woman." Cora Weiss

Lyric Thompson
29 October 2010

As the Security Council met to debate women, peace and security and 10 years of progress in implementing SCR 1325, about a hundred women in white T-shirts inscribed with the words “Put Peace Women at Peace Tables: Implement 1325 Women Peace and Security NOW!” gathered outside the Church Center building across the street from the United Nations.

The women carried protest signs and a large banner; a few of them chanted; a few more clapped; one or two sang a line from John Lennon’s, “Give Peace a Chance.” They came from around the world—Sudan, Sierra Leone, Colombia, and Ireland’s former president, Mary Robinson. A few men were in the group, including Bangladesh’s Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, the founding father of SCR 1325.

When the group arrived before the gates of the UN posters were rolled up and vanished into satchels; the banner was dismantled; T-shirts disappeared beneath suit jackets and women produced small yellow admission slips to the UN complex. As they headed for the balcony overlooking the Security Council’s formal debate, they were shushed by a few security guards instructing them to be quiet, show their badges and sit down. One officer whispered to another who was about to protest about something to Mary Robinson, “Not that one, that’s the former President of Ireland!” Robinson and Chowdhury had elected to sit in the balcony with the women, rather in the Security Council Chamber below.

Women like Cora Weiss, President of the Hague Appeal for Peace, which has an office in the Center, had organized months in advance so women participating in the “walk” (you had to have a permit for a “march”) would have passes and security clearance to be admitted to the Security Council debate. With the help of sympathetic staff in the American mission, the 100 yellow passes were issued.

As the Security Council debate on 10 years of progress implementing 1325 got underway, there  were key questions about to be answered. Would the Council endorse the set of comprehensive indicators designed to increase system compliance and coherence on 1325 implementation that were put before it? To what extent, if any, would it take on 1325 within its own operations—would it systematize its efforts by including 1325 in its country debates, or perhaps appoint a member to take a leadership role within the council on ensuring women’s issues were included in everything the Council does?

In his opening remarks, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called on the Security Council to take leadership on 1325, specifically asking it to endorse the indicators and hold peacekeepers in the UN system accountable when they were the perpetrators of violence. Several member states, including Council members like Austria and Lebanon, joined the chorus. 

Austria’s foreign affairs minister, Michael Spindelegger, delivered a strong statement outlining commitments his country was making nationally and internationally, encouraging the Council to do its utmost to act: “We have the briefings, reports, commissions of inquiry, sanctions—we need to be ready to use these tools and put words into practice must use them to ensure those who ignore the words of the Security Council are held accountable. Women, peace and security needs to be on agenda every time the Security Council debates a country.”

The Swiss delegate emphasized the importance of working with civil society, and even wore a scarf that Burundian peace women had given him bearing the word “peace” in their language.  Nigeria emphasized the importance of working regionally through bodies, and Gambia linked 1325 to larger commitments in the human rights framework, such as CEDAW, while also advocating using local and traditional justice mechanisms such as elders councils, even in countries not affected by conflict. This is an important point, as some member states, such as Egypt, oppose implementing 1325 in non-conflict-affected countries. The one civil society representative who was permitted to speak, Thelma Awori of the Civil Society Advisory Group on 1325, also delivered a strong call to action on behalf of her sisters in the balcony and on the ground.

The surprise of the day came from the Americans, who announced that the U.S. will now join the twenty other countries who have developed National Action Plans on 1325. Secretary Clinton also committed $44 million in new funding to programs benefiting women on the ground.

But alas, the Council failed to take as much action as it could. Although it gave the green light to UN agencies to move forward with the indicators as they saw fit, the Council did not explicitly “endorse” them. Although the Presidential Statement does include some of the language that civil society advocates put forward, it does not formally name any responsibility within the Council to adopt SCR 325 in its own work, or name a member state that will take leadership in the oversight and implementation of the resolution.

Alluding to a few of these points, Russia again demonstrated an adversarial relationship to 1325, suggesting that Security Council leadership on 1325 would “create imbalances,” and that the indicators needed to be “further checked against reality.”

In the battle of the states to coalesce around a core set of commitments to action on 1325, the debate continues to continue. The representative from Lebanon said it best: “The framework and the tools are there. Now let us make sure we back them with the political will.”

So what change will there be at the UN in the next decade for women working for peace and security? The path will be long. At a minimum, UN Women will become operational in January 2011, bringing more financial and human resources to gender issues than ever before—1325 prominent among them.  It will be headed by the ex-president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. Her strong testimony at the Global Open Days in New York gave reason to believe that UN Women will take the leadership 1325 needs. With the other agencies in the Secretariat, the new agency will begin rolling out the global indicators and the Secretary General’s 7-point action plan for more gender-responsive peacebuilding. More countries will roll out National Action Plans to implement 1325, but whether we will see the first female chief mediator to peace negotiations appointed, sufficient funds allocated, or more attention paid to women’s role in early-warning and conflict prevention measures - only time will tell.

One thing is certain—the Church Center and the Peace Fair it hosted this week is a universe apart from the United Nations, and one whose existence is essential in ensuring that the voices and proposals of women peace activists around the world keep the spotlight on this agenda at the UN.

Where the UN was heavily secured, requiring any number of passes, screenings and corroborating testimony for admittance, the Peace Fair was open to all. On a nonexistent budget the Peace Fair hosted a cyber-dialogue that allowed women on the ground in countries like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Burundi to speak real-time on the same panel with UN leadership like UNDP’s Helen Clark.  While the UN had accepted an exhibition of 1,000 women peace activists across the globe, it was all but inaccessible due to construction and a confusing maze of tunnels behind which the exhibit had been hidden. Meanwhile the Church Center’s walls were adorned with colourful scraps of cloth onto which women were inscribing their messages of peace to be quilted by the United Methodist Women.

Opening the week long fair, Harriet Olson, the head of United Methodist Women, emphasized the prescience of the decision her predecessors made in buying the entire building when the UN was established: “They knew women, religious communities and civil society would need access to the UN, and that it would not come naturally,” she said.

But perhaps the largest value lies in the open space in which allies within the Secretariat and friendly Member States can liase with civil society, working together to develop structured messages and workable recommendations for furthering women's role in peace building and security.

“The Peace Fair can bring people together from a variety of countries around a focused agenda,” says Weiss, “We’re here because we want to put peace women at peace tables. We want to call on the Secretary General to implement 1325 throughout the UN system, and to appoint a liaison to hold him, and it, accountable. We’re not interested in making war safe for women… There are many substitutes for oil, but I can’t think of a single substitute for a peace woman.”

Hence the refrain, Put peace women at peace tables. From the impregnable headquarters of the UN to the peace negotiations in the field, where not one woman has been a chief mediator and only 8% of peace talks have included women at any level.  “We don’t just protest we propose,” says Weiss, pointing to not only the importance of women’s voices, but also the utility of their recommendations. The women who participated in the “women’s walk” to the UN are experts who have, as Weiss says," “hands-on, heads-on, hearts-on” experience implementing 1325.  They are women like Mary Robinson and Bineta Diop, the chairs of the UN’s formal Civil Society Advisory Group on 1325. They are women like Sanam Anderlini, whose research on women’s peacebuilders around the world is being published in cooperation with MIT. They are women like Maria Butler of peacewomen, whose report “The Women Peace and Security Handbook” was referenced in the debate as a must-read tool for the Council members.  They, and many others, are developing concrete research and recommendations that the UN system relies upon to execute its own work and which have been included in the Secretary General’s Report on Women Peace and Security, the Council’s Presidential Statement, and the formal debates. 

“I think of us as civil society diplomats,” says Weiss.

One such diplomat participating in the Peace Fair dialogue from Sierra Leone, Gladys Brima, brought a valuable perspective from the ground. She reminded the audience of important but often overlooked details, such as gaps in implementation in peacetime, and questioned our very definitions of peace. For Brima, poverty is a form of violence, and one that calls just as urgently for action as conflict:

“Peace and security concerns for women should not be limited to wartime. How do we define peace? Are we saying using women’s bodies in violence does not matter? That it is only important when soldiers use AK-47s and bazookas? Even at a time like this, when we are safe, we need to be acting… Poverty in Sierra Leone has kept women in multiple layers of violence. How can we talk about women’s security when women can’t afford a day’s meal?”

Ms. Brima raises key points that were not addressed in the Security Council’s debates this week. For women, war is still a brutal reality and peace rarely means justice, inclusion or prosperity. It is women like Ms. Brima that will continue to remind us of this, in the hopes that one October day, ten years from now, the groundbreaking words on paper will look more like the realities of women on the ground.





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