UN Charter at 70: “We the Peoples” Should Include “We the Women”

Dr. Bertha Lutz, President of the Confederated Association of Women of Brazil, speaking at the San Francisco Conference that led to the creation of the UN Charter. Of the charter’s 160 signatories, Lutz was one of only four women. (UN Photo/Mili)

“We the peoples of the United Nations…” That is how the charter establishing the UN began when it was signed by 50 member states in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. Seventy years later, the UN has expanded its membership to 193 states and elaborated a wide array of tools in pursuit of that initial goal, “…to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

Yet, the world body has struggled to live up to its foundational axiom of “We the peoples,” particularly in the area of peace and security. The UN has achieved virtual universality in its representation of states in the General Assembly, but the same five victors in World War II who ratified the UN Charter in October 1945 continue to dominate decision making in matters relating to international peace and security in the Security Council.

Essentially, the institution has largely been captured by governments that do not represent the diversity of the world’s peoples. This is particularly true for women, who make up more than half of all peoples, but continue to be underrepresented in the decisions that shape their lives and influence whether war or peace will reign in their societies.

The field of international peacemaking illustrates this stark reality. Between 1992 and 2011, just 9% of peace negotiators and 2% of lead mediators were women. Since the year 2000, the Security Council has issued seven resolutions on “women and peace and security,” but progress in realizing the goals of women’s participation in senior peacemaking positions has been slow.

New evidence shared in a recent International Peace Institute report, Reimagining Peacemaking, shows that when women are able to influence a peace process, a peace agreement is almost always reached and the agreement is more likely to be implemented. Scholar Thania Paffenholz and a team of researchers at the Graduate Institute in Geneva examined the role of distinct groups in 40 peace negotiations and political transition processes, including organized women’s groups. They found that the stronger the influence of women’s groups, the higher the likelihood that an agreement will succeed.

Despite this evidence, women continue to experience significant obstacles to participation in peacemaking. Three dilemmas in the field of peacemaking itself contribute to these barriers. First, is the consideration of whether a peace process is about ending violence or building peace. Research shows that mediators and belligerents perceive a trade-off between these two goals and emphasize the short-term objective of ending violence, often at expense of long-term peace. If the goal is only to end violence, then women—who are rarely the belligerents—are unlikely to be considered legitimate participants. If the goal is to build peace, however, it makes sense to gain more diverse inputs from the rest of society—women and others who will be affected by these decisions.

Second, women’s priorities for peace are at odds with the dominant conceptions of peace and security in the international system today, which in turn shape and structure approaches to peacemaking. Like men, women reflect a multitude of interests in society and take on a variety of roles throughout the spectrum of conflict: they are victims, perpetrators, peacebuilders, and political advocates. Despite these diverse roles, it is widely accepted that women experience conflict differently from men. Men make up the majority of combatants during conflict and are more likely than women to die from war’s direct effects. Women are more likely to die from war’s indirect effects after conflict ends—from causes relating to the breakdown in social order, economic devastation, and the spread of infectious diseases.

The dominant understanding of peace and security fails to take these multidimensional threats to women’s physical security into account. For the most part, governments and the UN continue to treat “conflict” and “postconflict” settings separately, based largely on the end of formal combat and the decline in the battle-related mortality rate. Women, on the other hand, face a continuum of violence and insecurity that does not fit into these categories.

Third, the changing mediation landscape today means that multilateral organizations like the UN that have made commitments to women’s participation in peacemaking often have less power to influence the structure of a peace process. The UN’s role in mediation has decreased relative to other emerging actors in recent years, such as regional organizations, private organizations, and prestigious individuals. While UN Security Council resolutions calling for an increase in women’s roles in peacemaking have given women in conflict-affected countries tools for justifying their participation to international mediators, these mediators often lack the power to structure the terms of a peace process. In addition, mediation teams report feeling overwhelmed by women’s demands to have a say. Many argue that the time pressures associated with ending violence—including short timelines created by powerful higher authorities such as the UN Security Council itself—do not allow for such a comprehensive approach that could broaden the set of actors who participate and target long-term peace as well as crisis management.

Beyond these three dilemmas, a deeper resistance is also at play. The research from the Graduate Institute showed that although conflict parties and mediation teams were open to including civil society groups or political parties in negotiations to increase their legitimacy or add new perspectives, they remained unlikely to push for the inclusion of women’s groups. On the contrary, women’s groups were only included when local and international organizations lobbied strongly for their participation.

Although the field of peacemaking may lag behind, there is increasing recognition among governments and within the UN system that women’s participation and inclusiveness more broadly are part and parcel of the solution for peaceful and prosperous societies. An independent panel reviewing the UN’s peacekeeping activities recently made a number of suggestions for addressing the “uneven” commitment to the women, peace, and security agenda “at the most senior levels” in the UN. Another panel reviewing the UN’s implementation of its women, peace, and security agenda emphasizes that if women’s participation can be ensured, then many of the remaining challenges in terms of preventing conflict and protecting women will also be met. (And there are a number of models and strategies that international peacemakers can draw on to support women’s participation.)

Indeed, women’s participation in peacemaking is tied to a broader trend of increasing demands for democracy, accountability, and meaningful representation in societies around the world. The review of UN peacekeeping emphasizes the need for a shift to “people-centered” peace operations and advises the UN to “find ways to draw on the knowledge and resources of others beyond the UN System through civil society—community, religious, youth and women’s groups—and the global business community.”

Much social change today is driven by a new kind of power that is open, participatory, and peer-driven. Women are not the only ones who expect to be able to participate. Fortunately, the mounting evidence of the benefits of participation show that it is also in the interest of the UN’s bottom line: peace. To stay relevant 70 years on, the UN needs to come back to “we the peoples.”

Marie O’Reilly is Editor and Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute. She is coauthor with Andrea Ó Súilleabháin and Thania Paffenholz of Reimagining Peacemaking: Women’s Roles in Peace Processes.