Among the several stormy changes that 2020 brought, it marked an important anniversary: the UN Security Council adopted unanimously its resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) twenty years ago on 31 October 2000. Being the first resolution recognising the distinct profile of women with respect to violence, armed conflict and war, it represents a milestone for women empowerment and gender equality. Twenty years is an appropriate time for balances and evaluations, but also a time to plot a curse toward the future. It has been twenty years of important battles and historical achievements: women and girls’ agency in conflicts and peacebuilding has been highlighted, their need for specific protection has been stressed and women associations have been able to organise around platforms promoting new impetus for actual consultations. However, there is still a long way to go and it is studded with contradictions.
The ambition of the conference “Celebrating 20 years of UNSCR 1325: Past, present and future of the WPS Agenda”, taking place at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies and online on November 4th, 2020 is indeed to take a critical look at the often-steep path of the implementation of UNSCR 1325, trying to chart the future of the WPS Agenda. The conference is the final event of the project “Enhancing Women's Participation in Peace and Security” (WEPPS), funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and implemented by the Sant'Anna School, in collaboration with Agency for Peacebuilding (AP).
The project, as described by Francesco Strazzari – full professor of International Relations at the Sant’Anna School and scientific coordinator of WEPPS – focuses on enhancing women's participation, going beyond standard narratives addressing women as victims and trying to unpack the possible ambiguities and tensions. The project targets four countries: Tunisia, Morocco, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Developing within a comparative framework and working through ethnographic studies, its aim is to do research while engaging practitioners, to facilitate the implementation of the Agenda and to promote national dialogues.
Security Praxis reports here the highlights from the first panel (read on about the second panel).
De-militarizing and de-colonizing the Agenda: between “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will”
When UNSCR 1325 was adopted, on 31 October 2000, the Security Council was possibly not fully aware of the notions of feminist peace and radical thinking emerging from the wording of the Resolution itself. It was probably neither conscious nor willing to rewrite the rules of international peace and security in a substantial way, although full implementation of the Agenda inevitably goes in this direction. All the major challenges faced by the Resolution can be traced back to this profound initial contradiction. Soumita Basu – Assistant Professor of International Relations at the South Asian University – dedicated her keynote speech to the resulting tensions, noting that it is impossible to realize the transformative potential of the WPS Agenda in contemporary global politics. And that, nevertheless, feminist peace advocates simply cannot afford to disengage. Drawing on the Gramscian notion of “pessimismo dell'intelligenza e ottimismo della volontà” (pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will), it is essential to reckon at the same time with the status quo within the international institutional context and the potentialities of the far-reaching implications of the Agenda, notably in terms of decolonisation and de-militarisation of international politics.
Building on the post-colonial critique of the WPS Agenda, Basu argues that the de-colonization potential of UNSCR 1325 has not unfolded as the enthusiastic proclamations following its adoption seemed to suggest. In fact, the implementation phase risks diverging toward a process of gender washing aimed at putting the conscience of liberal democracies in peace, a fig leaf behind which – to quote Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s words – international interventions are still nothing but “white men saving brown women from brown men” (Spivak, 1988). The same underlying idea of the “Western saviour” is so deeply rooted in international institutions that it is reflected in their structure, first and foremost in the dissymmetry of the balances and powers of the UN Security Council (UNSC).
From this point of view, the WPS Agenda risks becoming a tool for legitimizing these same asymmetries by co-opting the normative implications of gender, without actually introducing and implementing gender-sensitive policies. Since the current conditions do not reasonably allow us to imagine a more representative structure of the sovereignty of the post-colonial States within the organ responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security, the most practicable space for action seems to provide directions on women's marginalisation and vulnerabilities during armed conflicts. However, even this margin for transformation seems jeopardised by the Council's military approach. On paper, the 8 Resolutions that have followed UNSCR 1325, as well as the 86 National Actions Plans (NAPs) and the 11 Regional Actions Plans (including the EU and the AU’s ones) that have been adopted in recent years should move in the direction of a feminist approach to peace. However, to date 5 of the 6 largest arms exporters in the world (i.e. the United States, Russia, France, Germany, China and the United Kingdom) are permanent members of the UNSC. It should also be considered that, on 29 October 2020, Russia submitted a proposal for a Resolution to the UNSC explicitly aimed at diluting the regulatory commitment animating the WPS Agenda resolutions. Fortunately, on 30 October 2020, the proposal was rejected: with the exception of the votes in favour by China, South Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia, the other members of the Council supported the regulatory framework created over the last twenty years on the issue. Though, the risk of taking backward steps and call into question what seems to be acquired is always present. Moreover, militarization has always been a source of insecurity for citizens in general and women in particular, for example by threatening their political participation as it happened in South Asia. However, separating international peace from the security of women means securing women’s rights in an insecure international context that will continue to be complicit in the production of the threats that make women insecure.
It is therefore clear that ambitions related to the de-colonization and de-militarization of the WPS Agenda are radically opposed to the status quo logic of peace and security. Nevertheless, in this discouraging scenario, Soumita Basu warns against giving up the optimism of the will. In fact, the relevant growth and development of movements and other forms of activism linked to the WPS Agenda should not be underestimated. If in these twenty years the international peace and security apparatus has not substantially changed, UNSCR 1325 has made it possible to promote some crucial transformations in the discourse and language used: a starting point from which a strategic approach to the Resolution and a transversal reading of the Agenda across other cooperation frameworks could lead to a deeper entrenchment of the feminist peace agenda in international politics.
Where are we? Italy and Europe between empowering and othering
Also in Europe and Italy, things have perhaps begun to change, although there are still fundamental reasons for concern. In 2019, after a highly consultative process, the European Union adopted its Strategic Approach to WPS followed by its Action Plan. The latter is a very comprehensive document but – as argued by Laura Davis, Senior Associate at the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office – it cannot under any circumstances be considered the final result of EU implementation of UNSCR 1325. Also in the EU, the WPS strategy has met different resistance within institutions – both at the governmental and non-governmental level – and, as a result of a deliberate policy choice, has not been integrated with the larger EU peace and security architecture. Even in Europe, which claims to present itself as extremely sensitive to gender issues, a relevant portion of the problems that feminist and post-colonial thinking has placed at the centre of the discussion are still on the table. First of all, in many forms of consultation, women are expected to speak with one voice in a homogeneous block, often including children and without considering identities, perspectives and experiences. On the one hand, this results with women in conflict situations being sideloaded in “pre-defined women issues” determined by other people elsewhere, while on the other hand this has brought to the “othering” of non-European women throughout security and policy documents. The EU Global Strategy, for example, tends to present women in conflict-related zones not as agents but as vulnerable and victims, often infantilising them. Moreover, the WPS Agenda has been separated from the notion of gender equality, somehow ignoring that gender relations are power relations and that, being at the heart of peacebuilding, only an inclusive understanding of gender equality can transform deep structural inequalities in conflict situations. So as not to fail and do harm, EU external action should make sure that women in conflict zones set the agenda and have their needs met, providing them space to dialogue with policymakers. Here, the role of civil society is central.
As far as Italy is concerned, despite the 4th edition of the national action plan is to be adopted in December, the problems are not substantially different. However, there are good reasons, according to Maja Bova – of the Comitato Interministeriale Diritti Umani (CIDU), Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – to recognize how much Italy is supporting the WPS Agenda in further promoting a holistic approach on gender equality, women’s empowerment, and meaningful participation in all areas of life, also in accordance with the 2030 Agenda. This attention confirms the significance that Italy attaches to preventing multiple discriminations against women, understanding that gender equality is key – both internationally and nationally – to preventing all forms of violence, from the domestic one to sexual violence used as a tactic of war during mass atrocities.
In conclusion, the effective implementation of the Resolutions and policies on women, peace and security requires a thorough review of the very structure of international politics and institutions. It is such a long and complex process that it is difficult to figure out when or where it could end. However, to chart the future of the UNSCR 1325, the research and the involvement of different perspectives have an indispensable and transformative role to play in persistently pointing in a different direction. The imperative of conducting more research – despite the difficulties – discloses indeed crucial opportunities.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1988), “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Nelson, Cary; Grossberg, Lawrence (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Basingstoke: Macmillan, pp. 271-313.
Cover photo: Hambastagi – Solidarity party of Afghanistan's activists unhappy with the US-Taliban 'peace' deal for reasons going beyond the lack of women's participation. Kabul, 2017.