Security Council members unite to protect the Women, Peace and Security agenda on its 20th anniversary

By NGOWG Office

Russia, which holds the presidency of the UN Security Council in October 2020, presided over the annual open debate on women, peace and security (WPS) on 29 October 2020 as well as negotiations over a draft resolution (laid out in S/2020/1054) that failed to be adopted. The draft resolution put forth by Russia, on the pretext of commemorating the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), the groundbreaking resolution that recognized the disproportionate impact of war on women and girls and their critical role in building peace, received 10 abstentions from a cross-regional group of Security Council members in a strong show of support for protection of the normative framework and progress achieved over 20 years, and refusal to accept any attempts to water down the agenda. Russia, China, South Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia voted in favor of the resolution. There were no votes against.

Given Russia’s demonstrated lack of support for the WPS agenda in the past, the proposal of a resolution immediately raised concerns among Member States, the UN and civil society. Russia has also repeatedly questioned whether “human rights and gender issues,” including the WPS agenda, fall within the purview of the Security Council, suggesting they are better addressed in other fora including the General Assembly, Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council.

Analysis of the proposed resolution

The draft resolution (S/2020/1054) proposed by Russia did not advance the WPS agenda on any substantive issue, and in fact attempted to dilute the agenda by omitting and in some cases watering down previously agreed standards on core issues including women’s human rights, prevention of conflict-related sexual violence, support for diverse women’s civil society, and women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation in all aspects of peace and security. Nor did it address any of the well-known and clearly identified gaps in the existing normative framework. 

Had the draft resolution been adopted, it would have been the weakest resolution ever to be adopted by the Security Council on WPS. 

In particular, for the first time in the history of the WPS agenda, the draft resolution would have had:

  • No language calling on Member States to uphold their fundamental obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law or for accountability for gender-based violence.
  • No reference to CEDAW General Recommendation 30, which provides authoritative guidance for Member States on their obligations to protect and promote women’s rights in conflict, and has appeared in every WPS resolution since it was first approved in 2013.
  • No strong references to civil society’s role in the implementation of the WPS agenda; this would be the first WPS resolution ever adopted to exclude such language.
  • Inconsistent references to women’s “full, equal, and meaningful participation and leadership,” the standard set by Resolution 2493 (2019). 
  • Incomplete language on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women by failing to  include basic, widely agreed references to increasing rates of gender-based violence.
  • Narrow and regressive references to the root causes of gender inequality that failed to capture the structural nature of gender inequality, and more broadly failed to lay out a  holistic framing of obstacles to full realization of women’s rights that balances cultural, social and economic barriers with civil and political barriers.

Council dynamics and interventions at the Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security

In an anniversary year, the day after so many Security Council members had spoken at length about their commitment to the full implementation of the WPS agenda, the adoption of the Russian text would have sent an extremely damaging and countervailing signal. It also would have masked that there was strong resistance from many Security Council members to Russia’s text from the time of its introduction. A clear majority disputed that the Council even needed to consider a new resolution as they had already commemorated the 20th anniversary of the WPS agenda in a consensus text led by South Africa last year. When Russia persisted, States felt obliged to engage constructively and provide proposals to improve the draft, including, among others, Dominican Republic, Germany, Belgium, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Tunisia and the penholder of the agenda, the United Kingdom, on a variety of issues such as human rights, accountability, civil society, as well as addressing women’s socio-economic marginalization and the impact this has on realization of their rights. China attempted to pitch development against human rights and accountability during the negotiations; but states like Tunisia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Niger made strong efforts to ensure that both issues were better addressed and ultimately abstained from the final vote when their proposals were discounted. Although South Africa engaged constructively during the negotiations, in a disappointing final decision, they ultimately voted in favor of the resolution. The proposed draft text clearly demonstrated that the stronger recommendations of Council members were not taken on board, revealing the underlying intention behind Russia’s push for a new resolution: weakening the normative framework by undermining core components of the WPS agenda such as human rights, accountability and the role of civil society. 

Several of the statements Security Council members delivered in the open debate on WPS yesterday captured the strength of the commitment to full implementation of the WPS agenda, and why Russia’s resolution did not find a groundswell of support. The UK stressed that it would not accept any “roll-back of the progress made on women’s rights over the last 20 years,” and urged Council members to ensure that the ten existing resolutions on WPS be implemented fully, warning against efforts to “unpick the framework that has been so hard-fought.” Germany emphasized that the Council has a “joint responsibility” to fully implement Resolution 1325 and all subsequent resolutions on WPS, “without watering down any of the commitments” previously agreed upon. The Dominican Republic encouraged fellow Council members to guarantee that the “gains achieved over the last 20 years are not derailed” and to work together to advance the agenda.

It is also important to review Russia’s failed resolution through the prism of the difficult negotiations the Council had on two other WPS resolutions in 2019. The broad consensus amongst civil society and many Council members at the start of 2020 was that unless a new resolution advanced the normative framework significantly, the Council should not pursue an outcome that merely maintained the status quo and faced a real risk of regression, given the global pushback on women’s rights that has been clearly reflected in the dynamics at the Security Council over the past year. This position was informed by the difficult and highly contentious negotiations that took place in 2019, resulting in the adoption of Resolution 2467 (2019) last April, and Resolution 2493 (2019) in October. Although Resolution 2467 (2019) does provide some strong language on areas such as survivor-centered approaches to gender-based violence, references to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) were removed by the penholder, Germany, due to threats of a US veto, and ultimately failed to reach consensus within the Council, with Russia and China abstaining. In order to ensure there was consensus, the language in Resolution 2493 (2019), penheld by South Africa, modestly advanced the WPS normative framework. 

A strong show of support for the WPS agenda

In 2000, diverse women civil society leaders and advocates took on the Security Council to demand that they be included in all efforts to maintain international peace and security. Instead of a full-bodied celebration of the first 20 years of the WPS agenda, women’s rights advocates have been forced to defend the progress they have made. The strong show of support by a cross-regional majority of Council members today, which is also reflective of the diverse coalition that came together to push for Resolution 1325 (2000) in 2000, is a very welcomed and an encouraging signal to women’s human rights defenders, humanitarians and peacebuilders around the world. It demonstrates that Security Council members are willing to draw a line in the sand and take action to block erosion of women’s rights. That should be the key takeaway from this 20th anniversary of the WPS agenda and a signal to Russia that civil society and other Security Council members alike are committed to the full implementation of the WPS agenda for the next 20 years and beyond.