On Selectivity, Virtual Reality and the Art of Non-debate: The United Nations Security Council Annual Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security

This post by Dr Catherine O’Rourke,  from the Transitional Justice Institute (TJI) University of Ulster, critically reflects on the recent United Nations Security Council Annual Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security.

One of the key criticisms of the inaugural UN Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security, UNSCR 1325 (2000), was the absence of accompanying implementation measures for a broad new agenda around women’s participation, protection and the adoption of a gender perspective throughout the UN’s peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities. In order to respond to this criticism, and to ensure that the resolution remained central to the Security Council’s activities, civil society successfully lobbied for an annual debate on the theme. Having engaged with the texts of the WPS resolutions for a number of years, most recently in work with PSRP colleague Aisling Swaine on the relationship of CEDAW to the WPS resolutions, it was with considerable interest that I finally had the opportunity to attend this year’s annual Open Debate on October 25, 2016. (With thanks to the Irish Fulbright Commission for its support in enabling me to be based in the US this semester.)

The format of the debate is for the UN Secretary-General to open the discussion on the theme. This year’s contribution from the Ban Ki-moon brought the added significance of it being his last such address (the most noteworthy feature of his statement), as he will step down to be replaced by António Guterres of Portugal in the new year. The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, made a robust intervention about the continuing failure to improve the gender balance of senior UN appointments.  Although this year’s unsuccessful campaign for a female Secretary-General was not referenced, it was clearly a factor in the room. There was also one permitted civil society contribution – on this occasion from Rita Lopidia of South Sudan. Speaking entitlements then turned to non-permanent members of the Security Council for statements from their respective ambassadors to the United Nations and, in turn, to the Security Council’s permanent members. From the contributions of the Security Council permanent and non-permanent members, some clear dynamics are worth observing.

The Art of Non-Debate: The annual Open Debate is not a ‘debate’, or at least not the sort of activity that one would normally expect from that term. This was not a discussion that involved the airing of disagreement and the thrashing out of ideas in order to persuade and work towards a consensus on agreed measures to move the agenda forward. The ‘Open Debate’ is in fact a succession of prepared statements on Women, Peace and Security, generally affirming the importance of the theme and speaking broadly about activities that the particular member state deems relevant. Other than resistance expressed by Russia to the ‘artificial linkage’ that was being made in some statements between of all manner of gender equality activities and the WPS agenda, there was little apparent contestation – or ‘debate’ – about the agenda and the appropriate way forward. Noted feminist scholar of international humanitarian law, Judith Gardam, observes that ‘the debates about women and armed conflict in the Security Council are always conducted in open meetings, whereas the practice nowadays is for any topic of any real importance for States to be conducted behind closed doors’. This year’s Open Debate did not offer much evidence to counter Gardam’s belief.

Selectivity: Security Council member states demonstrate a truly remarkable degree of selectivity in their formal engagement with the WPS agenda in the Open Debate, most notably in how the agenda ostensibly applies only to certain limited external activities. Some of my favourite examples of this selectivity are the following (in no particular order):

  1. Non-permanent member Spain focused its statement on its (very worthwhile) activities to develop a network of national focal points on WPS across UN member states. The relevance of the WPS agenda to its substantial – and growing – arms exporting industry was not mentioned.
  2. China welcomed the civil society statement on the violence being faced by women in South Sudan. Given China’s substantial ongoing political and economic investment in South Sudan, the absence of any specific reference to how the WPS agenda was informing its activities there was a notable silence.
  3. Egypt, also a non-permanent member, talked about how, for example, WPS is informing its international development activity. The statement was entirely silent on the substantial domestic civil unrest the country is experiencing, the noted patterns of violence against women in that context, and the relevance of the WPS agenda to addressing the domestic context.
  4. In what was a strong statement from the UK, the emphasis given to the importance of women’s participation in peacebuilding nevertheless jarred with this author’s experience of advocating a gender perspective in dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. (It’s also worth noting that the UK government’s own figures now show it to be the second largest arms exporter in the world, certainly not a factor in its statement.)

Virtual Reality: The noted disconnect between the well-intentioned statements of successive member state ambassadors, with the reality of women’s lives in conflict zones that are directly and indirectly impacted by the activities of these same states, contributed to a general air of unreality about the debate. Indeed, the only contributions that seemed to acknowledge the realities of women’s lives in conflict came from the South Sudanese civil society intervention and – interestingly – a back-and-forth between Russia and the Ukraine about the treatment of women and girls in the Crimea. (A particular dynamic of this year’s Security Council membership is that it includes both Russia and the Ukraine. Much of the Ukrainian contribution pertained to violence attributed to Russian-supported rebels in the Crimea against women and girls. This contribution prompted a last-minute amendment to the Russian statement, which highlighted abuses of women and girls attributed to Ukrainian armed forces.) Otherwise, the Security Council appears to operate as a sort of virtual reality, where states with the greatest responsibility for the proliferation of arms in the world – and many with very significant domestic issues of gender and conflict – have little hesitation to re-state their commitment to a WPS agenda that they have selectively-defined.

The Elephant in the Room? It was Disarmament Week at the UN last week. You could have attended the full day at the Security Council’s WPS debate without hearing a single mention of it. While formalists will attribute this silence to the division of labour between the Security Council and the General Assembly – the Security Council deals with maintaining peace and security, while the General Assembly deals with disarmament – that these two agendas at the UN operate so entirely discretely is surely cause for reflection. It turns out that there actually was a significant development on women, peace and security at the United Nations last week. It just wasn’t at the Security Council. The UN General Assembly’s First Committee adopted a very significant resolution – led by six states including Ireland –  to convene negotiations in 2017 on a ‘legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination’. As for the Security Council? Four of the Security Council’s five permanent members voted against the resolution, while the fifth permanent member, China, abstained.

About the Author: Dr Catherine O’Rourke coordinates the PSRP Gender Research Theme. She is currently a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University of Minnesota Institute for Global Studies Human Rights Program, where she is advancing a monograph on international norms for gender equality and domestic peacebuilding.

Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown