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Women, peace and security: the theme of Australia’s Security Council presidency

Raising the issue of protecting women in conflict zones such as Syria should be high on Australia’s agenda when it assumes presidency of the Security Council. EPA/Lucie Parsaghian

A priority mentioned in Australian speeches and statements to the United Nations this year - Women, Peace and Security (WPS) - is likely to feature as the key “theme” of Australia’s presidency of the Security Council.

But what is the WPS agenda? What progress has been made so far, and - given our support has been stronger in rhetoric than practice - what can Australia do better?

Just before the election was called, foreign minister Bob Carr confirmed that:

…[a] key priority for Australia on the council — particularly during our presidency in September — will be to highlight the important leadership role women can play in ensuring long-lasting peace in fragile post‑conflict societies.

The presidency carries great responsibility for holding the crisis management powers of the Security Council bestowed under the UN Charter. It also offers the opportunity to frame an agenda that carries forward the broader themes of the Security Council, which includes the WPS agenda since 2000.

About the WPS agenda

The Women, Peace and Security agenda appears in a cluster of UN Security Council Resolutions. The groundbreaking Resolution 1325 was adopted in 2000 with an agenda framed on the premise that women and girls experience conflict differently from men and boys. It affirmed that women have an essential role in conflict prevention, peace building and post-conflict reconstruction and that governments are required to ensure women are represented in all levels of decision-making.

Later resolutions reaffirmed the first. The most recent is Resolution 2106, adopted in July this year, which focused on prevention of sexual violence in conflict and increasing the participation of more women in the UN’s own “good offices” roles in mediating conflict and negotiating peace.

The UN Secretary-General has also appointed a Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, whose mandate includes empowering women to seek redress,ending impunity for conflict-related sexual violence and increasing recognition of rape.

One key action in terms of WPS is for states to design and implement National Action Plans. Australia launched a National Action Plan in 2012. So far, only around 40 countries have implemented National Action Plans. However, few are funded, and there is little or no baseline data for many of the actions. It seems that institutional commitment to WPS is more rhetorical than real.

In some cases, even the rhetoric has proven controversial. In the last two years, debates on the thematic agendas have been criticised as extending beyond the Security Council’s mandate, such as the focus on sexual violence during election turmoil. But there is some evidence that WPS issues are being considered more routinely in debates.

What will Australia do?

Australia will host a “side event” on September 6 focused on women’s leadership in peace-building. The event is intended to be an interactive meeting between civil society, field practitioners and peace-building and gender experts of Security Council delegations, with an Asia-Pacific focus. Australia will also launch a publication by London-based NGO Conciliation Resources entitled Women building peace. There are essays from women in strife-torn places such Somalia, West Africa, Aceh and Cambodia.

As chair of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), Croatia, together with UN Women, will hold a high-level meeting on women’s economic empowerment in post-conflict peace-building during leaders’ week in late September.

Australia is working closely with Croatia on planning for this event to highlight the close links between the work of the PBC and the UNSC on women’s leadership in post-conflict peace-building.

There are a number of other opportunities for Australia to focus on WPS in September. For example, the UK is planning a high-level event on its Champions Initiative as part of its program to prevent sexual violence.

What more should Australia do?

A positive aspect of the government’s current plans is a clear focus on the participation of women, which is at the heart of the WPS agenda. This differentiates Australia’s focus from the theme so far this year on the protection of women against sexual violence during conflict.

Bringing peace-building experts to talk to gender experts is important, as these experts are often operating within UN silos. So too is presenting the evidence for why these issues deserve to be at the centre of the agenda and not at the margins.

To do this using the direct voice of women involved - such as Sister Lorraine in Papua New Guinea - is crucial.

Groups like UN Women work to end violence against women in conflict zones. CWGL

Another positive aspect of Australia’s plans is to strengthen some of the Security Council architecture such as the Peacebuilding Commission and the Peacebuilding Support Office. It is also important to bring an Asia-Pacific perspective to the debates of the Security Council, which is often heavily focused on Africa. There has been significant civil society consultation, both here and in New York, and civil society actors from the field will be involved.

However, there are also disappointing aspects of the current plans. For example, why is Australia planning simply side events on WPS? There is an array of other mechanisms within the Security Council processes, including a presidential statement and open debate that are recorded in the official proceedings.

Of course, Australia has the opportunity to raise WPS during the business of the Security Council as it plays out in crisis mode. This could be in the sanctions committees and the drafting of mandates, country-based debates and budget decisions - not just in September but for our whole term on the council. Civil society should keep on Australia’s case about this. For example, Australia could draw attention to the evidence that the major cause of flight for Syrian refugees was sexual violence.

The timing of the election has clearly cast a pall over Australia’s first presidency. Let’s hope that Australia starts planning now for a more impressive presidency stint next November.

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