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20 Years of UN Security Council Resolution 1325: The Evolving Role of Women in International Peace

By Rioghnach Theakston

This year marks the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which sets out the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. UNSCR 1325 was adopted unanimously on 31st October 2000 and it is recognised as a landmark resolution for numerous reasons. It is unique due to the close involvement of NGOs and women’s movements in pushing for its adoption and, later, its implementation. The measures it calls for, and how it officially recognises women as key actors and stakeholders in peacemaking for the first time on the international stage, makes it ground-breaking. However, resolutions without actions achieve little; the UN itself acknowledges that the declarations made in UNSCR 1325 have not all been translated to the operational level. The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women adds another layer of complexity to the current situation. Considering these factors, the 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 is the ideal year to reflect on the impact of this resolution to date, and to ensure the continued involvement of women in peace and security.

Firstly, to evaluate whether the WPS agenda has had a transformational impact on international perceptions of women’s rights and roles in conflict, it is worth understanding the historical context in which UNSCR 1325 was adopted. During the 1990s, the civil wars in Bosnia, West Africa and Rwanda highlighted the disproportionate impact of conflict on women, an example being the widespread weaponisation of sexual violence. Nevertheless, these wars also helped bring attention to women’s contributions to sustainable peace and security, thus shifting perceptions from women being mere victims of war, to being key actors in peacemaking and post-conflict reconstruction. NGOs, activists and branches of the UN such as UNIFEM (succeeded by UN Women) were determined to bring down the barriers that women faced when entering peace talks and began to lobby extensively for the resolution.[1] Prior to the adoption of the resolution, the Security Council rarely considered women in conflict, apart from the occasional passing reference to women and children as vulnerable groups in need of protection. The two-day debate on the resolution was the first time the Council dedicated a discussion specifically to women.[2] Furthermore, it was the first United Nations Security Council resolution that recognised the importance of women’s leadership in achieving international peace and security and their active role in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peace-building. It was also the first formal, legal document from the Security Council that required parties in a conflict to prevent violations of women's rights, to support women's participation in peace negotiations and in post-conflict reconstruction, and to protect women and girls from wartime sexual violence. Although the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action had contained a chapter focused on women, peace and security, before UNSCR 1325, these issues had largely been off the radar in international politics.

Clearly, Resolution 1325 was historic at the time of adoption. More crucially, it has had an important impact within the UN ever since, perhaps most significantly in making gender mainstreaming a key consideration in the planning of peacekeeping missions and other UN operations. Resolution 1325 has also spurred the adoption of ten related resolutions to date, with many focussed on ending the impunity for sexual violence in armed conflict and promoting the importance of female leadership in peace and security.[3] Furthermore, the recognition of women’s diverse roles in conflict and the importance of incorporating them in peace processes has led the UN to transform its peace and security programmes, with the help of dedicated gender advisers. The aim is to achieve more sustainable and durable peace, thanks to the increased diversity of voices at the negotiating table. Already in 2012, all UN support teams included women and the majority of UN-supported peace processes held regular consultations with women’s organisations. On a general level, in the decades since Resolution 1325, there has been a significant change in rhetoric, with even more UN agencies, representatives, and member states discussing the impact of gender inequality on peace and security. Although rhetoric does not guarantee changes on the ground, it signals that attitudes and strategic thinking are changing and that the importance of including women in all aspects of UN peace and security work as key stakeholders and leaders is being recognised.

Outside the UN, Resolution 1325 has been used globally as a policy tool to implement gender-sensitive, conflict-related policies. Two years after Resolution 1325 was adopted, the Security Council began encouraging the development of National Action Plans (NAPs) to ensure that member states implemented the resolution’s objectives. As of August 2020, 86 UN Member States (45% of all UN Member States) have UNSCR 1325 NAPs.[4] Developing and conflict-affected countries generally use NAPs to support women's internal participation in politics and peace processes, as well as to set out commitments to protecting women from sexual and gender-based violence. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this has included training 525 mediators in three provinces affected by armed conflict in conflict resolution and women’s rights.[5] Women have also been promoted in the military and police; awareness has been raised on sexual violence within these institutions. Additionally, Local Action Plans (LAPs) have been put in place in countries such as Serbia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines, to ensure the resolution is implemented at the local and community level. On the other end of the scale, regional organisations have embraced Resolution 1325 and have created Regional Action Plans (RAPs) to coordinate regional priorities, funding and actions on women, peace and security. RAPs have been adopted by significant international entities such as the EU, ECOWAS, the Pacific Islands Forum, the African Union and, perhaps most significantly, NATO.[6] There, policy has been crafted around the overarching principles of integration (gender mainstreaming of NATO policies), inclusiveness (increased representation of women in the armed forces) and integrity (enhancing accountability for the WPS agenda). Furthermore, the deployment of gender advisers, initially pioneered by the UN, has become routine within NATO. Altogether, this allows for inclusive responses to conflict situations and the systematic integration of gender mainstreaming into all doctrine, policy and functions in a substantial number of conflict settings.

Although in the 20 years since its adoption the WPS agenda has catalysed crucial advancements for women and girls globally, the UN itself admits that progress has been far from linear. This is especially the case given the current COVID-19 pandemic, which, just like conflict, has a disproportionate impact on women and girls. The current crisis could present a serious setback for the WPS agenda. It jeopardises recent gains on women’s participation in peace and political processes, having placed women and girls at greater risk of poverty and has led to soaring sexual and gender-based violence. In fact, the African Union Peace and Security Council has recognised that the pandemic constitutes a direct security threat, constraining the continuation of mediation efforts in ongoing conflicts on the continent and reducing resources allocated to refugees and internally displaced people, as well as being a potential conflict driver in itself.[7] Even though the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutiérrez called for a global ceasefire in March due to the pandemic, and the chairperson of the African Union Commission made a similar plea, fighting in Libya, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin continues – with specific targeting of women and adolescent girls. Nonetheless, the UN remains committed to the implementation of women, peace and security mandates and seeks to have women emerge from the pandemic more equal, resilient and on a road to lasting and inclusive peace. Thus, the Department of Peace Operations has adjusted priorities to respond to the immediate crisis, whilst continuing to promote the meaningful participation of women in decision-making. Female peacekeepers are on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus and play an integral role in implementing mission mandates, within current constraints and while taking precautionary measures. Peacekeeping operations are maintaining current partnerships with national authorities and women’s organisations, leaders and networks, including advancing Gutiérrez’s call for a global ceasefire and finding creative ways to accelerate women’s participation in political processes.

Even without the pandemic, the WPS agenda faces several problems that must be addressed, if sustained progress in achieving the WPS agenda’s objectives is to continue. Whilst it is manifestly the case that the agenda has strong support from governments worldwide, this has not plugged persistent implementation gaps. For women, progress is important – but it does not equal parity. And, in the case of WPS, even progress has been slow. According to the UN, when women are at the negotiating table, peace agreements are more likely to last 15 years or longer. If this is the case, why have peace agreements with gender equality provisions only increased from 14% in 1995 to 22% in 2019?[8] Why have women constituted only 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators and 6% of signatories in major peace processes between 1992 and 2019?[8] According to the UN, 10% of participants in the February 2019 peace talks in the CAR and 20% of the members of the 2019 Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Mali were women.[9] I do not wish to suggest that this is not a laudable achievement, but I cannot help wondering: where are the remaining 40 and 30%? It is commendable that the rhetoric within the UN and other international organisations has been changing, but there is vast gulf between that and operational implementation and equitable representation. Whilst the UN has endeavoured to implement Resolution 1325 and measure progress, there is little evidence of concrete impacts in conflict-affected countries. The UN's own evaluations show limited progress in only a few, select areas, notably women's political participation. One key shortcoming is that, despite the UN’s best efforts to increase training and legislation, sexual and gender-based violence continues to be widespread, with impunity for perpetrators. In fact, a 2014 survey of NAPs found that the most common funding gap was security sector reform and access to justice.[10]

It has long been clear that peace is a prerequisite for global health, equality and human security. UNSCR 1325 recognised that women are key actors who need to be fully acknowledged and incorporated in conflict resolution processes, if we are to achieve peace. The 20th anniversary of Resolution 1325 is taking place in a pandemic-stricken world where 2 billion people live in conflict-affected countries. Women continue to work against these odds to build and sustain peace – and also continue to be sidelined: even now, in conflict-affected countries, women’s representation in COVID-19 taskforces stands at merely 18%.[11] Undeniably, Resolution 1325 has contributed to changing perceptions of women in peace and security and spurred gender mainstreaming in key international institutions, policymaking and peacemaking settings. Yet, on the operational level, women remain predominantly on the periphery of formal peace processes, even in instances where they have been signatories to peace agreements, such as in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Does this mean that the impact of Resolution 1325 has been negligible or that the role of women in peace and security has not really evolved? I would dispute such a view. Not because women have achieved parity – far from it – but because, as with any lasting social change, transformation begins in institutions, culture and discourse, and finally moves into practice. Let us keep in mind that, for 2,500 years of human diplomatic history, war and peace have been negotiated by an exclusive political military elite: men. Hence, women remaining sidelined in this process 20 years after the Resolution 1325 is frustrating – but hardly surprising. UNSCR 1325 has recognised WPS, putting it on the agenda as something that needs to be addressed and has helped shape the conversation in international policymaking circles. Resolution 1325 constitutes a first step towards an end goal that remains remote, but far from unattainable, thanks to the groundwork now in place. Given the long history of female exclusion from peace processes, that is no mean feat for a single resolution.


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