Women, peace and security: the UN's rhetoric-reality gap

UN Security Council resolution 2242 passed with overwhelming support. but effective implementation was immediately called into question when the Russian Ambassador then spoke out against the resolution’s key provisions.

Jessica Dawn Wilson
16 November 2015

The new women, peace and security (WPS) resolution (2242) passed at the UN Security Council’s Open Debate marking the 15th anniversary of resolution 1325 will be remembered for the enthusiasm with which it was met.  An exceptionally long list - in fact a Council record - of 112 UN Member States and regional organizations lined up to make statements. Seventy one countries co-sponsored the resolution; another record.  It was also clear, however, that the very high level of participation in support of the new resolution reflected the real exasperation of women's rights advocates everywhere with the maddeningly slow progress toward increased involvement of women in conflict resolution.

Key speakers at the Open Debate on women peace and security, resolution 2242. Photo: UN, Rick Bajoras/Cia Pak

Women's exasperation in this area is nothing new. The familiar rhetoric-reality gap was unintentionally illustrated on the spot by several statements where concrete proposals fell woefully short of high commitments. France, for instance, committed just fifty thousand euros to the perpetually under funded UN Trust Fund to Eliminate Violence Against Women. Spain, which as President of the Council that month had sent its Prime Minister to chair the meeting, committed just one million euros this year to the newly created Global Acceleration Instrument to boost financing for women’s peace efforts.

The starkest illustration of the fact that some countries do not take this agenda seriously was a statement from one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the Russian Federation, criticizing major components of the new resolution and declaring that it wouldn't be bound by those measures - at the same time it had voted to adopt them.

The language of the resolution itself is very encouraging. The resolution is notable for a new focus on the role of women in countering violent extremism, and it calls on the Security Council, the entire UN system, and Member States to acknowledge that "acts of sexual and gender-based violence are known to be part of the strategic objectives and ideology of certain terrorist groups, used as a tactic of terrorism" and indicates that, in order to stop atrocities by such groups and improve the security of women, Member States need to "ensure the participation and leadership of women and women's organizations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism" (UNSCR 2242, operational paragraph 13). The resolution also urges member states to increase the number of women in (and increase financial and technical resources for) formal peace processes and to increase funding for women's civil society peace organizations.  It encourages states to adopt individual National Action Plans. It calls for a doubling of the number of women in police and military peacekeeping positions in the next five years, and it reiterates the Secretary-General's recent commitment to freeze deployments for countries whose peacekeepers are accused of sexual exploitation or abuse.

With respect to the UN itself, the resolution urges the Secretary General and UN entities to advance more women to leadership positions, in part by undertaking an investigation of the reasons for their current low rates of promotion and retention. The resolution’s operational paragraph number 7 encourages key parts of the UN system that manage UN missions (e.g., the DPKO and DPA) to pay more attention on gender-sensitive perspectives in peace making, including by making adequate gender expertise and funding for gender equality work more consistently available.

While the parts of 2242 addressing Member States and the UN itself are not really new (just strengthened), the part of the resolution  - operational paragraph number 5a - that is most likely to generate effective Security Council action to advance women's peace leadership is the part that is least likely to attract attention -  a call on the Security Council to establish an Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security.

While the Council has a few dozen working groups addressing specific sanctions regimes, the causes of conflict, children and armed conflict, and the challenges of peace keeping, there has never been an official working group on Women, Peace and Security. The UK has for some years hosted an ad hoc group of "friendly" Council members that meets to consider specific country situations from a gender perspective, and it is the substantive recognition by the Council on the need for all members to participate in the informal expert group to establish procedures for generating data about women's experiences in conflict and their roles in conflict resolution (as suggested on pages 338-342 and 413-414 of the Global Study on Implementation of UNSCR 1325) that incites much optimism. At least in theory, recognition of this group should stimulate UN entities to supply more and better information on the politics of women's engagement in conflict and to improve the quantity and quality of gender and conflict analysis.

Sadly, however, celebration of this important step by the Security Council hadn't even begun when Russia's Permanent Representative, Vitaly Churkin, took the floor to say that, although Russia had voted in favor of the resolution, Russia does not "agree with the need to set up an informal expert group on the issues of Women, Peace and Security" because it believes that "establishing new structures is not a guarantee of the effectiveness of the work but [instead] a dubious approach that is aimed at establishing more and more auxiliary bodies covering various items of the agenda". Later in his speech, Churkin also discounted the importance of National Action Plans and suggested that Russia has no interest in developing a plan to increase efforts toward ensuring the greater participation of women in Russia’s civil and political society. In effect, Churkin was saying that Russia, although voting in favor of the resolution, wouldn't support or be bound by the resolution's most important and potentially effective provisions.

Ambassador Churkin reiterated Russia's view that any National Action Plans should be produced voluntarily by states that are dealing with post-conflict situations.  He argued that "plans are not an end in [themselves] that will ensure greater participation of women and greater peace and security", saying that what mattered more than plans were actual outcomes.  In that regard, Churkin pointed to Russia's own progress toward women's rights.  Ironically his list of Russian women’s achievements illustrated that he had missed the point.  Outcomes are undoubtedly important, but Russia has a long way to go in supporting women’s civil and political leadership.

Ambassador Churkin claimed that Russia is "fully dedicated to realizing the potential of women", and he said that Russia has "many bright women in politics and many involved in social and political life".  According to the US State Department, however, in 2014 women in the Russian Federation's lower house of Parliament held only 60 of 450 seats (approximately 13.6%; significantly less than the 22.9% global average). In the Global Gender Gap Report for 2014, Russia ranked only 75th out of 142 countries in achieving gender equality (the United States ranked 20th and the UK ranked 26th). Although Churkin pointed to the fact that women "make up over 70% of civil servants in Russia", he failed to note that, according to the Worldwide Index of Women as Public Sector Leaders, women only held about 13% of leadership positions within Russia's public sector.

Churkin also talked about the successes of women in Russia's non-profit sector, saying that "1/3 of all non-profit organizations are women's organizations which carry out a good amount of charity work supporting women, children and families and preventing violence in the family, human trafficking, [and] sexual violence, and doing other very useful work".  He did not remark on the scale of the task facing those addressing domestic violence.  Domestic violence is an ongoing threat to women in Russia, and yet, according to the U.S. State Department's Country Reports for Human Rights Practices for 2014, "there is no significant domestic violence provision in the [Russian] criminal code and no legal definition of domestic violence".  RIA Novosti (Russia’s international news agency until 2013) published a survey that revealed that 70% of women in Russia said they had been subjected to at least one form of violence (physical, sexual, economic, or psychological) by their husbands and that 36% experienced both physical and psychological violence. Furthermore, the same 2013 study indicated that "approximately 14,000 women were killed annually by their husbands or other intimate partners". Civil society groups are limited in their capacities to address the deeper structural drivers of this violence – including the gender-biased legal framework  - because of the risk of being shut down if they appear critical of the state.

Churkin’s remarks, made only a few minutes after the adoption of resolution 2242 put its new commitments on shaky foundations.  They put into stark relief the fact that the core challenge in the WPS agenda is uneven political will to identify and advance women’s peace and security leadership.  If a permanent member of the Security Council can dismiss a resolution's core concepts and instructions immediately after voting to support it, yet not be challenged by any other member, it is a sign of a political failing.  It is difficult to imagine a Council member taking such contradictory or dismissive positions on other relevant and important decisions, for instance regarding specific countries in conflict. 

Alaa Murabit.jpg

Alaa Murabit from Voice of Libyan Women addressing UN Council members. Photo: UN, Rick Bajoras/Cia Pak

One of the three women civil society speakers at the Open Debate, Alaa Murabit from ‘Voice of Libyan Women’, emphasized that only “when the Security Council finds it unthinkable to address a crisis without addressing women’s rights, when humanitarian responders have full funding for their gender-specific services, when women grassroots leaders find their work fully funded and politically supported, when it is unimaginable that peace talks be held without women’s full engagement, only then will the full potential of 1325 be realized.”

Another sign of true political commitment will be when Council members stake political capital to challenge the positions of colleagues who dismiss the Women, peace and security agenda.

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