By Dominique Vidale-Plaza
Image: ASPI (Link)
The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on October 31st 2000, under the chairmanship of Namibia, marking at the time, five years following the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. UNSCR 1325 called broadly for the increased protection and participation of women and girls, in both times of conflict and peace. The resolution formed the cornerstone for what would eventually become, over the course of two decades, the UN Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda, consisting of 9 other resolutions.
Now twenty years later, despite a number of important advances, we are still a long way off from seeing full and systematic implementation of the pillars of UNSCR 1325 and of the WPS agenda as a whole. Not only has progress in translating the WPS agenda from policy into practice been slow and jerky; in many instances, the rights of women and girls are being aggressively rolled back. We know that more and more women and women-led movements are playing crucial roles in peace processes, but these are still largely informal, under-recognised and exemplary. As a whole, it has not become systematically easier for women and girls to access and participate in the peace and security space, it has however become more and more urgent that they do so.
I struggled to write this reflection of twenty years of WPS for a number of reasons. I found myself faced with so many questions all at once; some uncomfortable, exciting, frustrating and some promising. Questions like, does the WPS agenda aim simply to see more gender equity in peace and security processes? Does it only aim to prevent sexual violence in war and ensure that women and girls are no longer disproportionately targeted as civilians in conflict? Or does it go even further – and cast a vision for the ever elusive: gender-just peace. How do we get there? How do we move from a few shining examples of women’s participation in peace, justice and security processes to this gender-just and inclusive peace? How do we see women participation as less of a metric and more of the transformative and disruptive process it can and should be? Twenty years onward, progress notwithstanding, why do the watershed UNSCR 1325 and WPS agenda seem to stall out, at the level of policy meetings, workshops and speeches; rather than taking root in countries around the world, creating meaningful impact in the lived experiences of people, and paving the way toward inclusive peace?
Any reflection on twenty years of WPS would be full of questions like these. We would not be the only nor the first ones to ask them. As to why some might feel that the WPS agenda is slow to gain traction, the usual culprits have been noted, including the realpolitik of a States-based international system and United Nations, as well as (and perhaps relatedly) systemic obstacles with implementation.
Some have suggested that the Security Council is not the appropriate landing spot for the WPS agenda. Gender is still seen as a ‘soft’ or ‘women’s’ issue, apart from ‘hard’ and more ‘masculine’ topics related to peace and security. This gendering of certain policy issues also plays out within States, communities and within institutions. When women and girls participate in local peace and security processes – their contributions may be limited to so-called “women’s issues” like those related to sexual violence and child protection. This can happen in local security councils as well as within civil society organisations, peacekeeping missions and NGOs.
In some instances, the WPS agenda has been utilised by UN member states to further their own, at times exploitative foreign policy interests, even justify support for militarised interventions or “gender-wash” neo-imperialist interventions. Some have highlighted that when 1325 national action plans are developed by many Western countries, these tend to focus on WPS in other countries, typically in the Global South, which may be in conflict or post-conflict settings. This may entrench beliefs of war as something which takes place overseas or in ‘other’ places or that the WPS agenda is only applicable in conflict settings or in ‘those’ places. WPS commentators have also raised the need to decouple the WPS agenda from security-related policies and agendas and in so doing – demilitarise it and its objectives. For many critics of international interventionism, this instrumentalization of WPS to further States’ foreign policy objectives, only deepens concerns about an international system that may inadvertently (or advertently) enable the neo-imperialist interests and agendas of certain powerful States.
A brief from the International Peace Institute, on opportunities for UNSCR 1325 in 2020, discussed how States may consider the agenda to be “a threat to their preferred world order.” (Taylor & Baldwin, 2019). States occupied with preserving patriarchal status quo within their borders may balk at a WPS agenda that infringes upon their own domestic practices, beliefs and interests. While most States are limited to their traditional sovereign borders though, only a few are able to put up significant resistance to the shaping and communication of norms within an ‘international’ WPS agenda. The case of UNSCR 2467 in 2019 and how pressure from the United States, a veto holding, permanent member of the Security Council, ensured that the resolution was devoid of meaningful language on sexual and reproductive health rights and services, is one such example. Since then, the American regime has only locked in their global position on sexual and reproductive health, stripping language on SRH from its various foreign policy strategies and mechanisms.
Any practitioner could probably also speak to the incredibly frustrating reality of the lack of financial, technical and human resources – that would be needed to implement even the essentials of the WPS agenda. While many would counter that WPS, and in particular work related to sexual violence response, seem to be the donor darlings of the past decade, the 2015 Global Study on the implementation of UNSCR 1325 highlighted “a consistent striking disparity between policy commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment and the financial allocations to achieve them.” There would not be enough space in this article to unpack all that takes place among policy commitments, financial allocations and end-spending on so-called ‘beneficiaries’ in countries – nor to truly investigate the investments that would be required to achieve the institutional reform and societal change, for which the WPS agenda calls. Still, I, and I’m sure many others, have vivid memories of similar short term projects with big goals, even bigger funding shortfalls and a distinct feeling of always seeming to be falling short or missing the mark, even when good work was done.
In reflecting on twenty years of 1325 and WPS, it is evident that how the agenda has taken shape over the years, is just as important as how it is (or is not) implemented. I have sat in different forums, discussing UNSCR 1325 or WPS in general; and almost without fail, there are individuals, more often than not: women and girls from rural and marginalised communities, who express that they do not see themselves in the documents or in the discussions at hand. “Are these for us?”, they ask. This is not a ground-breaking revelation. It is well known that governments, organisations and everyday people may struggle to bring their own context-specific meaning to the generic text of UN resolutions and esoteric conceptual understandings of gender, peace and security. “Are these for us?”, they ask, and the response is usually some version of a proposal to translate the resolution into ‘local languages’, write another national action plan, or the ubiquitous ‘sensitisation’. I would daresay though that attempts to contextualise and operationalise an agenda that people don’t see themselves in à la base, – are just like continuing to build beautiful and expensive walls, without first checking in on how your foundation is laid.
Some critics have contested that the WPS agenda is rooted in Western feminist ideals, noting that much of WPS discourse emerges from northern European countries, and that this may be counter-productive or even potentially destructive, to addressing gender, peace and security related issues in non-Western settings. In their post-colonial critique of the WPS agenda, S. Parashar described it as a “cog in the wheel of the larger protection/saviour narrative that seems to have become part of the contemporary feminist vocabulary.” As someone who works in the WPS domain, I wrestle with this critique quite a bit on a personal level. I and I believe many of my colleagues would agree that the protection of women and girls in conflict and peace, is a universal right, regardless of ideological cleavages, geo-political interests, socio-cultural backgrounds or what hashtag is currently trending. The active work of decoupling this baseline truth from ‘Western’ feminist ideals, that may be wrapped up in coloniality or patriarchy, is a continuous one though, for institutions and individuals alike.
It is important to keep returning to the origin of UNSCR 1325, the cornerstone of the WPS agenda; which was not solely the product of Western feminism, nor of Western exceptionalism. Women’s civil society organisations, including some from countries affected by armed conflict, like Guatemala and Somalia, collaborated closely with then UNIFEM and Member States including Bangladesh, Namibia, Jamaica and Canada, as well as the five permanent members of the Security Council, to see UNSCR 1325 become a reality. Civil society advocacy following the Beijing Platform for Action was one of the driving factors behind the eventual adoption of the Resolution. Over the course of twenty years though, somewhere along the line, the truly ‘international’ nature of the WPS agenda has been mostly side-lined and ‘WPS’ has indeed become synonymous with a particular brand of Western feminism that is more exclusionary than anyone would like.
C. Jamieson has posited that post-colonial critique toward the WPS agenda can be seen as revolving around three main themes: 1. The agenda as a tool which has been co-opted by the Global North to serve their policy aims. 2. The positioning of the Global South as the victim, if not expressly within the agenda’s resolutions, then in its implementation, and 3. The agenda’s limited approach to intersectionality, rooted in Western feminist thought.
The positioning of the Global South as a victim, mentioned by Jamieson in their essay, is not only a post-colonial critique reserved for the WPS agenda, but for many, is rather a key determining characteristic of the post-Cold War international system. In their book “The International Humanitarian Order”, M. Barnett unpacks the complexities and ethical quandaries of a United Nations occupying the messy space of providing legitimacy to States, generating and ‘enforcing’ norms around the world. Barnett discusses how the UN developed into a mechanism for communicating ‘liberal and democratic norms’, generally to newly democratic or independent countries, which were more often than not, countries in the Global South. Barnett asks the important question of, what is the power of the ‘weak’ to give consent to international politics, when the very international political system within which they operate, was built to “represent the interests of the powerful and (permit them to) operate to their relative advantage”. 
Important attempts have been made to bridge the North-South divide within the UN system of policy-making; largely through encouraging more contact between Security Council members and civil society actors, via briefings, consultations and the like. UN staff and civil-society actors alike from different countries around the world, have shared with me however, how frustrating and ultimately ineffective, these limited and brief interactions can be. ‘Participation’ has become a useful buzzword but it is unclear if we all have the same idea of what it means – and what it should, or rather could, look like. Short, ad-hoc ‘participation’ exercises can become more of a box-checking exercise than an attempt to change status quo, challenge norms and create meaningful change. Attempts to bridge, but continuously initiated from the same (settler) vantage points, may even further entrench the divide between North and South, ‘policy’ and ‘practice’, the presumed ‘centre’ and the ‘field’, the ‘international’ and the ‘national’.
Jamieson discusses how postcolonial critiques with regard to WPS must be taken with a grain of salt. They do not mean that the agenda in and of itself is of no use in today’s changing world, nor that it is unable to pivot and become not only more diverse in its language and implementation but also more inclusive, and truly transformational. The WPS agenda has, particularly in recent years, steadily adopted language that is decreasingly paternalistic and increasingly “welcoming to realignment”.  But realignment is not enough.
In this year alone, a global pandemic has rocked our ideas of normal and put us into situations we would never have imagined, even just a year ago. The myth of Western exceptionalism is slipping and there is an urgent need to reimagine an international system that is not determined by hegemonic powers. Furthermore, around the world there is growing unrest toward prevailing orders and hierarchies. We can see it and we can feel it, a fatigue with the institutionalised and internalised oppression of gender, sexual, ethnic, racial, religious, cultural and geographical minorities. Like ‘participation’, ‘decolonise’ has also become a buzzword now – but it is clear that there is an urgent need and a waiting space for the WPS agenda to be an aggressively anti-colonial instrument and platform. What better international policy instrument to challenge colonial and patriarchal hierarchies? What future for WPS could there be, without tackling these questions about the agenda, its place within a broader international system, how its norms come to be, how they are implemented, who carries its messages, and who has a say in all the above and when.
In the next decade for an anti-colonial WPS agenda; workshops, discussions and an endless stream of events, plans and other documents are not going to be enough. The status quo with regard to how we conceptualise ideas about gender, sexual violence, conflict and peace are decidedly insufficient, narrow and exclusionary. The same old ways of working need to be challenged and questioned. It is no longer going to be enough to only speak about the importance of participation or make attempts to have selected individuals from ‘the field’ participate in occasional forums and meetings. Member States will need to hold the UN system and themselves accountable to a WPS agenda that is going to be increasingly inconvenient, inclusive against the odds, and one that is truly ‘international’.
An anti-colonial WPS agenda might not look like young foreign women ‘teaching’ gender in village rooms. An anti-colonial WPS agenda is not going to look like one-off speeches or briefings from survivors, images of war-torn cities projected on big screens in the General Assembly. An anti-colonial WPS agenda is not going to look like the same kinds of projects funded by international donors, with easily counted results. An anti-colonial WPS agenda is not going to trot out tired tropes about sexual violence. An anti-colonial WPS agenda is not going to be one so stuck in heteronormativity and imbued with patriarchy that ‘gender’ = ‘women’.
An anti-colonial WPS agenda is going to mean a lot of questioning, for institutions and individuals alike. An anti-colonial WPS agenda is going to be constantly learning, it foregrounds the work of those on the frontlines, in communities. It dismantles patriarchal and colonial structures and ways of working, it ‘decentres’ States and refocuses on people. An anti-colonial WPS agenda will be one that is more alive in the streets than in meeting halls. It is going to be radical and a starting place for rethinking international relations. An anti-colonial WPS agenda is going to be one that is not only celebrated by women, girls, and other genders, but one that is fully owned and led by them, across the globe.
References  Taskforce on Women Peace and Security (Read)  The Future of Feminist Foreign Policy: Towards a More Understanding of Women's (And Men's) Security (Read)  S. Parashar, ‘The WPS Agenda: A Postcolonial Critique’ in The Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace, and Security, Eds S. E. Davis and J. True (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) pp. 830-837, p. 837.  The Women, Peace, and Security Agenda: An Assessment of the Postcolonial Critique – Crawford Jamieson, Student Reflections on the 20th anniversary of the WPS Agenda, UPenn Law (Read)  Michael N. Barnett, The International Humanitarian Order, 2010  The Women, Peace, and Security Agenda: An Assessment of the Postcolonial Critique – Crawford Jamieson, Student Reflections on the 20th anniversary of the WPS Agenda, UPenn Law (Read)