The WPS mandate of UNSCR 1325, 19 years later: Rhetoric and Reality

UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 was heralded as a major advancement on behalf of and for women at the time of its adoption. However, 19 years later, the member states of the United Nations themselves are addressing the leadership for a stronger method of enforcement. The November 4th sessions within the hallowed circular space of the UN Security Council (UNSC) were focused primarily on one issue - in the last nearly 20 years since its adoption, what have we resolved with UNSCR 1325?

For those of you new to this particular mandate, UNSCR 1325 is Women, Peace, and Security (WPS). The resolution was adopted on Oct. 31, 2000 after observations, both quantitative and qualitative, demonstrated the need for higher numbers of women in all positions of authority and decision making; from political leadership, to UN peacekeeping missions, to the military. In the case of the military and peacekeeping, the research showed that women in conflict zones have a higher rate of positive engagement with civilians, and oftentimes even with the adversarial leadership. Though the reasons were often rooted in gender biases and norms, women still elicited effective change due primarily to the following reasons: civilians tended to trust women more and faster; women tended to be able to be seen as compassionately engaging with, and listening meaningfully to, locals; women were seen to be more trustworthy than men in negotiations; etc.

To be invited to sit in on the UNSC considering the timing of this annual assessment of WPS made it all the more extraordinary. I now have the privilege of giving a brief on what was learned as well as my main take-aways.

The first session of the day focused specifically on the progress in the Horn of Africa - namely Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. Between October 21st-26th of this year, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and Permanent Observer for the African Union Fatima Kyari Mohammed, observed and reported the progress that has been made in these African nations in the last several years. According to the report, the area has seen a significant reduction in conflict, as well as positive democratization and industrialization in specific countries such as Ethiopia. Much was discussed, with a noticeable inclusion of each nation’s commitment to not just women in leadership, but women’s inclusion.

The second session was open to the member states and allowed each country to have the opportunity to assess the progress of WPS in their own nation and at large. All the member states reported progress - some more than others - and all member states submitted opinions and accompanying recommendations on the progress of UNSCR 1325 and what additional steps should be taken. The resounding opinion was that UNSCR1325 has barely made a dent in the proposed mandates, and the UN needed to step up enforcement. Also, the majority of member states recommended that sexual and gender-based violence become stand-alone offenses for which the UN could levy sanctions.

As for my main take-aways, first and foremost, it is an extreme challenge as a professional in the security space who also has a firmly objective point of view to find it at all acceptable that resolutions agreed upon by the member states of the UNSC have made little progress in the last 20 years; especially resolutions that in regarding at or over 50% of the world’s population (*one could say this about the UN as a whole, but this is not territory that will be entertained in this particular blog post). For example, it was the representative from Sudan, a woman, who noted that she might be the first person in the history of the UNSC to address the urgent need for women’s kits to include products for menstrual needs. I was shocked to think that those types of basic accommodations were not only not provided, but no one had up until November 4th of 2019 thought to suggest their inclusion.

There are several aspects of UNSCR 1325, in fact, that seemingly could have been resolved within a year, if not less. For example, increasing the numbers of women in peacekeeping missions has improved, but at a glacial rate as it has increased from lower than 1% globally at the inception of UNSCR 1325 in 2000 to only around 22% now in 2019. To be clear, this percentage represents all organizations globally. When strictly speaking about UN peacekeepers, the percentage of women is only 4%. However, there are several member states that went from zero female UN peacekeepers to more-than-zero in the last 19 years. Notably, several representatives reported increasing their percentages of women participants up to as high as 40% of their peacekeeping force, which is statistically incredible and should be noted as an achievement in that regard. However, if we applaud ourselves or member states too graciously without taking an objective breath, we miss the more important point which is that there is fundamentally no reason that the percentage of female peacekeepers should not have hit 50% representation (if not more) within one year of adopting the resolution. Since many member states have expressed their difficulty in employing their young people generally, how is it possible that there weren’t robust recruitment efforts directed at this category of potential applicants? If the evidence shows that women in peacekeeping missions have a significantly better rate of successful outcomes than their male counterparts, for what reason would these aforementioned member states not be recruiting them in droves? This is merely one example of a “low-hanging fruit” that doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense to not take advantage of on their part.

It is worth mentioning that part of UNSCR 1325 included what some may argue is the reason that recruitment of women in peacekeeping missions is difficult: the lack of accommodation for unique needs that many, if not all, women require for these posts, as well as the increasing problem of female peacekeepers being targeted with sexual harassment and violence while there are in post. Almost all the member states addressed this issue as one that is in critical need of being eradicated. It goes without saying, though I will say it nonetheless, that it would be nearly impossible to do peacekeeping work as a woman if you knew that the chance of experiencing a sexually violent act was practically a guarantee. A deeply flawed contrarian might now say this is exactly why we should not grow the numbers of female peacekeepers, that their safety is in peril more than a male peacekeeper would be due to the increased likelihood of women being targeted for such retaliation or violence. The rebuttal to this argument, written here for the permeant record, is that the behavior, violent acts, and crimes, are what need to change. Not the recruitment, inclusion, and equity of women in this field. Full stop.

In fact, sexual and gender-based violence exacted against our military and peacekeeping sisterhood was cited by nearly all of the member states, as well as the Deputy Secretary-General and Fatimah Mohammad as untenable from not just this moment forward, but as never having been. The violence against women in these roles has increased over the last several years according to UN reports. While investigating the “why” is important, for the purposes of this blog I will focus instead on the response which is simply this: No more, and no longer.

I cannot properly articulate the fury, revulsion, sadness, and urgency that hearing information like this creates in the heart of women not just in the security sector, but in general. It is extremely encouraging to hear from the bulk of the representatives that they think sexual violence should be a stand-alone reason for imposing sanctions against a nation, but it is still only one step and is itself still incredibly distant from the issue. Increasing the percentage of women who serve in peacekeeping missions is the most effective and expedient way to combat the incidences of sexual violence as a tool of fear and intimidation. This might seem counter-intuitive at first, as it might be argued that having more women serving only increases the pool of people who can be violated. However, I posit that if the sheer force of those serving in these missions becomes majority-female then empowerment will be the default, oversight between the peacekeepers will be more vigilant, and the norms of the mission will lean in an altogether different direction.

The resounding opinion among nearly all member states in both sessions was most succinctly summarized by the representative from Spain during the morning session as she highlighted that we need to “end the gap between rhetoric and reality.”

Amen, Spain. It is all too easy for the adoption of resolutions to feel like enough, but clearly even the member states do not think this is the case. The UN at large sadly has a bit of a reputation of “setting it and forgetting it,”, as if the machine of the effective policy ends with adoption and marginal follow support/oversight. Though I suppose that is an entirely different conversation, and certainly one I do not have the space to broach here and now. I am, however, heartened by hearing member states either say or agree to the likes of what Spain highlighted.

The question in this immediate moment, however, is that in a room full of predominantly men who espouse their desire to have the urgent enforcement of UNSCR 1325, how quickly will we reach the necessary numbers for change? If the last 19 years is any indication, perhaps in 100 more years. I’m sure among them there is a subconscious concern of a majority-female anything leading to a fundamental shift into majority-female leadership and representation. Do you not think they have some mental caveats within their passionate, general declarations? Or are they perhaps outright hypocrites?

“Rhetoric and reality.” This is but one point to consider among many about the flawed nature of the process. It is an embarrassment to us all that such marginal progress has been made. In this moment of third-wave feminism, which is moving globally at an exponential pace compared to our previous movements of the sister and brotherhoods of the past, perhaps we can expect this as well in the hallowed, circular spaces at the UN. I’m going to choose optimism and say yes, it will happen. I believe in my generation, which is now beginning to take positions of influence and leadership. We can make this rhetoric a reality.

Useful links:

UN information distributions on the two sited sessions:

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