Dialogue on RtoP

Bridging the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda With the Responsibility to Protect in Conflict Prevention

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (shown on screen) delivers opening remarks at the General Assembly’s informal interactive dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect. (UN Photo/Kim Haughton)

In the multilateral arena, this year marks several significant anniversaries: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on women’s rights; the twentieth anniversary of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security (WPS); and the 75th anniversary of the UN itself. While these milestones are significant opportunities to further the gender equality agenda, increasing headwinds threaten to push back against progress.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ 2019 WPS report stresses that the international community “cannot afford to backslide” in advancing the WPS agenda. There are measures that can be taken to protect against push back. One area identified in the 2015 Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 that needs greater attention and financial resources is how member states are advancing women and girls’ participation and leadership in preventing conflict.

Women and girls’ substantive participation and leadership in conflict prevention is vital because of their unique lived experiences and expertise, stemming from the various roles they hold as members of their communities. If conflict prevention efforts do not include their perspectives, implementation of prevention and response activities run the risk of not only being inadvertently harmful to women and girls, but also of creating substantial gaps in being able to identify potential sources of conflict. An example is how weapons accumulation and proliferation may be an indicator of conflict, and local women in the community are often aware about the location of arms caches and the routes used to transport them.

While women’s participation and leadership does not guarantee that the needs of women and girls will be fully met, intentional effort is needed in the design of prevention efforts and a commitment of sufficient financial resources specifically focused on the inclusion of women and girls. This includes appointing individuals who promote feminist leadership in order to change the entrenched gendered structures and cultural norms of the political system.

One strategic way to advance the feminist participation and leadership of women and girls in conflict prevention is through bridging the WPS agenda and the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) norm to help maximize efforts and outcomes in conflict prevention. RtoP is a commitment by states and the international community to take timely and decisive action to prevent and stop atrocity crimes.

While the needs, participation, and leadership of women and girls is integral to upholding RtoP, it has been a struggle to incorporate a gendered lens in the dialogue and action around its implementation. For example, the commission tasked with RtoP’s creation, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), did not consider gender discrimination as a root cause of atrocities, nor addressing those imbalances as a key prevention activity. ICISS also omitted gender-based components when conceptualizing the norm. This is partly because ICISS had an extreme gender imbalance, and an Advisory Board where no women actually made presentations to the panel. Research for the commission was also problematic in only portraying and conceiving of women’s roles as victims, and neglecting their unique roles in conflict prevention and response, and within peace processes.

So why haven’t WPS and RtoP been bridged more intentionally and effectively before? Both have been used selectively and implemented unevenly as a result of being hyper-politicized by member states. While resolution 1325 applies to all types of crises, not just those before the UN Security Council, in practice the Council has primarily focused on implementing the resolution through the use of sanctions on the widespread and systematic use of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

The politically contentious nature of the RtoP norm also makes its implementation difficult. The norm is increasingly misunderstood and critiqued for being a political tool for regime change, which some scholars, practitioners, and policymakers interpreted the Security Council intervention in Libya to be, and was also seen in Council deliberations around Syria.

As a result of the multiple interpretations and perspectives on both of these agendas, each have steered away from bridging together out of fear that the linkages would either stall or halt the progress of the other. Despite this, it is vital to point out that women’s leadership and participation through their representation within civil society organizations in conflict zones has allowed resolution 1325 to be used to advocate for relief from suffering due to individual governments being unable or unwilling to protect them, such as in the recent cases of Myanmar and South Sudan.

Scholars of both RtoP and WPS have argued that there “is little to no evidence to suggest that in diplomatic or operational practice, RtoP ‘crowds-out’ other initiatives.” In reality, both agendas are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Breaking down the silos will help to advance women’s participation and leadership in conflict prevention and broader gender equality, peace, and inclusion efforts, and help to advance broader development agendas, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. However, to advance both agendas sufficiently, the international community needs to address two critical issues that are hindering the ability to respond to current and future crises.

The first is the failure to fully integrate, implement, and monitor gender-sensitive indicators, including but not limited to: monitoring the levels of gender-based violence within societies; monitoring specific types of violence against women, such as violence against politically-active women; and monitoring the development of policies or measures that restrict or impede the rights of women and girls—such as in the most recent Security Council debates on rolling back the sexual and reproductive rights of women—as early warning signs for atrocity crimes. Both gender-based violence and access to sexual and reproductive health services are listed under the Strategic Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes by the Office of the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide. Proper integration of gender-sensitive warning signs would help advance the understanding, implementation, and accountability measures taken by the global community to prevent conflict.

The second is the overall lack of disaggregated data—by areas including sex, age, and ethnicity—across key development indicators. This limits the international community’s ability to monitor how specific groups are being impacted by conflict. Data is crucial in building evidence-based policies and decision-making and supporting broad cultural norm change. A consequence of the limits of data is difficulty in understanding and responding to the needs of women and girls, and as a result, the ability to sufficiently address possible root causes of the overall conflict at hand.

This year presents an opportunity for UN member states to specifically invest in and support the participation and leadership of women and girls in conflict prevention efforts, including ensuring their decision-making ability and presence in current ongoing peace negotiations and post-conflict recovery environments. Investment and resources also need to be given to women-led and women-focused organizations working to change the gendered institutional structures and cultural norms of the political system, such as those working to address institutional violence against women or institutional bias against intersectional groups. Aligning and bridging efforts in conflict prevention through the WPS and RtoP agendas is just one strategic way to further peace, inclusion, and sustainable development.

Jessica Roland is a Senior Associate for Policy and Advocacy at Women Deliver. She tweets @JAndersonRoland. Marijke Kremin is a former Program Associate at the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. Thoughts expressed belong solely to the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations.