Good substance, bad politics: the row over 1325

Why won’t the Security Council endorse the Secretary General’s strategy for enhancing women’s role in matters of peace and security? Is it because of the deep divisions within the UN system itself? Or is it because of the Russians? Lyric Thompson reports on the battle behind the scenes at the UN

Lyric Thompson
15 October 2010

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010 could have been among the most important days for women, peace and security since the day UNSCR 1325 was passed by the Security Council ten years ago. It was supposed to be the day the Secretary General presented his Report on Women’s Participation in Peacebuilding to that body for its endorsement. But an eleventh-hour challenge by the Russians sparked a heated battle that waged through the night and threatened to reverse years of tenuous progress in bringing women, peace and security to the centre of UN leadership and programming priorities.

As of even the day before, the outlook was positive. A strong report was due to be presented to the Council, which proposes a seven-point action plan for gender-responsive peacebuilding and, if implemented, could dramatically increase attention to women’s post-conflict needs and offer women enhanced opportunities and resources to engage in preventing, resolving, and recovering from conflict. The report is the culmination of seven months of often fraught internal negotiations among UN departments and agencies and extensive consultations with Member States. On October 7th, the day the report was published reasonably intact from earlier drafts, it looked as if the battle had been won.

Moreover, the Secretary General was slated to present the report himself, a symbolic gesture of his commitment to the issue and a strong follow-on to his legal endorsement of the action plan within system-wide UN operations. And on top of all of this, the report was presented to the Security Council during yesterday's debate on peacebuilding reform - as opposed to at the debate on women, peace and security scheduled for October 26th - an important step in the mainstreaming of women, peace and security beyond the debate dedicated to the anniversary of 1325. The crowning achievement would be the Council’s endorsement of the report, a strong signal from the paramount security institution in the world that the UN means business, this time.

However, in the Presidential Statement issued at the conclusion of the debate, the Security Council did not ‘endorse’ the report. The Council did not even ‘welcome’ the report – a standard formulation that signals a generally positive reaction. Instead, the Council merely ‘notes with appreciation’ that the report has been presented. Apart from ignoring the report, or openly criticizing it, which never happens, this was about the least enthusiastic response the Council could have offered.

The key obstacle to more warmly embracing the report’s analysis and content, according to UN sources, was the opposition of Russia, which has been lukewarm to the women, peace and security agenda at the best of times, and frequently outright hostile. Why precisely the Russians chose to single out this report for the diplomatic cold shoulder is not immediately apparent, even to those who have interacted frequently with Russia’s UN delegation. No specific complaints were raised – either during the Member State consultations that took place during the report’s preparation or during the negotiations over the text of the Presidential Statement.

There is speculation among insiders that Russia’s opposition to strong Council backing for the report may be the result of lobbying by forces within the UN Secretariat itself. There are a number of UN agencies and departments who would rather that the Secretary General’s report did not contain such strong and explicit ‘commitments’ to specific actions, which will place them under increased pressure to deliver on the long-deferred promise of Resolution 1325, now ten years old. Many key entities, such as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, as well as large humanitarian agencies like UNICEF, strongly resisted the provision (which made it into the final report) requiring UN entities to earmark at least 15% of their post-conflict expenditures for projects focused on women’s empowerment and the advancement of gender equality. Having been more or less shamed into agreeing to this provision – which now has the explicit endorsement of the Secretary General – many UN departments and agencies would like to find ways of avoiding having to fulfil this and other commitments. A tepid reaction by the Security Council, while not sufficient to overturn a decision of the Secretary General, furnishes additional grounds for delaying implementation.

Part of what concerns some UN departments and agencies is the timing of the report’s presentation. By discussing the report as part of a Council debate on peacebuilding – at which another report on progress in reforming the UN’s approach to post-conflict reconstruction will also be presented – the UN system was signalling that consideration of women’s security is integral to all issues on the Council’s agenda. Indeed, Resolution 1325 itself calls for gender issues to be “mainstreamed” into all aspects of peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict-prevention, economic reconstruction, and so forth. But making the Action Plan for Gender-Responsive Peacebuilding part of the UN’s wider peacebuilding reform program, rather than another fine-sounding statement of principles to be discussed during the 1325 annual debate, might trigger internal implementation mechanisms. This would mean closer, and more frequent, scrutiny of how UN entities are fulfilling the Action Plan’s seven commitments.

UN entities who do not consider gender issues a priority, and would rather not be closely monitored by their peers in interagency forums, would vastly prefer to see the Secretary General's Report on Women’s Participation in Peacebuilding returned to what they consider its rightful place – in the ‘women’s issues’ ghetto, where little action is expected and even less is delivered.


But it could be general discomfort within the G77, the group of 130 developing countries, many of whom have been uncomfortable with the women, peace and security agenda. The opaque political process behind the language battle makes it difficult to point directly to the core problem, but the fact that what had been anticipated as an inevitable endorsement was then watered down is a disheartening development indeed.

Whatever the motivation, the Russians’ rearguard action will certainly lead observers to question the extent to which, in this 10th anniversary of Resolution 1325’s passage, the Council is truly committed to advancing the women, peace and security agenda. The report language is powerful, provocative and promising, all the while walking the political tightrope of not engaging in the “name and shame” campaign abhorrent to member states who have been lax in implementation of 1325 to date. The Report goes where other reports have not, presenting an action plan that holds real potential. UN departments and agencies have reportedly agreed an internal process – which includes technical support by UN Women – including a matrix for operationalizing the Action Plan’s elements in phased manner, and for monitoring and reporting on progress.

Specifically, the seven point plan commits the UN to:

  • Engage women in substantive roles in peace talks
  • Engage women in substantive roles in post-conflict planning processes, including donor conferences
  • Provide adequate financing for women’s needs in both targeted and mainstreamed efforts
  • Ensure adequate gender expertise is secured for everything from peace negotiations to post-conflict rebuilding of state institutions
  • Promote women’s political participation and leadership, including through quotas
  • Enhance accountability and protection efforts to prevent, respond to and prosecute violations of women’s rights, and
  • Prioritize women’s equal involvement in economic recovery

Critically, the Report goes beyond simply stating seven general areas in which progress is needed; it goes a step further by outlining concrete commitments the UN will adopt to advance implementation.

So, under the first point’s general rubric of promoting women’s participation in peacebuilding, the Secretary General commits to naming female chief-negotiators in UN-brokered peace talks (a first) and to incentivizing negotiating parties to include women in their delegations. Under the second point of promoting women’s engagement in post-conflict planning, the Secretary General commits the UN to sex-disaggregated tracking of resource allocations and allotting space on the agenda of donor conferences for women to articulate their needs and recommendations (they customarily have to shout from the sidelines). Under the promise to ensure adequate financing to programs supporting women in peacebuilding, the Secretary General pledges 15% of all UN peacebuilding funds to programs whose primary purpose is women’s empowerment. Against a context where some agencies award as little as 4% of funding to such programs, many see this commitment as the report’s primary achievement.

Additional, concrete commitments of note within the report include a commitment to promote the use of quotas for women’s political participation in the UN’s technical assistance for states emerging from conflict and increasing the number of female police officers in UN peacekeeping operations to 20% by 2014. The United Nations will also make legal services to support women’s access to justice and law-enforcement services standard components of UN rule-of-law programming. And finally, the UN will correct the current overwhelming tendency to channel economic recovery resources to men by implementing a range-of-parity principle to ensure neither sex receives more than 60% of employment person-days.

This kind of honest, innovative and holistic rethinking of the UN’s approach to women, peace and security resonates throughout the report, inspiring real hope that the next ten years of practice might considerably improve upon the last. Yet the last-minute decision by the Security Council to withdraw endorsement of it is in itself as discouraging as the report is welcome. Said one disappointed insider wishing not to be named, “Although the report doesn't really, legally need the Council to authorize it, it would send a strong signal for all UN entities to get serious if the Council did in fact say something vaguely positive in its Presidential Statement. Instead, the Council message is: "go slow...this is not a Council priority...business is usual is what we expect."

With a strong endorsement from the Security Council, the anniversary celebrations could have done much to correct the image of a United Nations that has to date failed to pass muster on women, peace and security.




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