Madeleine Rees

Making Implementation of the WPS Agenda Possible: Q&A with Madeleine Rees

Madeleine Rees at the United Nations. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

Today, the United Nations Security Council open debate on women, peace, and security (WPS) marks the twentieth anniversary of resolution 1325. As the secretary-general of the oldest women’s peace organization—the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)—Madeleine Rees has worked to strengthen implementation of the WPS agenda, and advocated for human rights and an approach to security that is human centered. In this interview with the International Peace Institute’s Gretchen Baldwin, Ms. Rees talks at length about the state of the agenda and what lessons it offers for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What role do you think the WPS agenda can or should play in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Madeleine Rees: I think the conversations we’ve been having among some of the international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) is that if you want to have a transformative approach, we need to look at what we’ve learned from getting out of previous crises. The conflict analogy “the boys” love to have is that we’re in a conflict and “at war with the virus.” They then position themselves as if they are [in a conflict.] If they’re going to call it that, let’s respond with what we would do in conflict, following a WPS approach either during or after getting out of a conflict towards a process for transformative change at the end.

So, what we need to do is hold the line on what we understand about the absolute importance of participation and inclusivity. In this way, we get all the necessary people who must be part of the design of the new post-COVID moment, as you would do to get a diverse range of people in the room for a peace process. That means that those who have been most impacted by the virus are the ones who should play the central role: front line workers, communities hit disproportionately, those hit most economically, those who have suffered from the massive increase in gender-based violence because of the lock down. The list is long, but participation would also vary according to context.

After ensuring inclusive participation, the second part is using human rights as a basis for how to move forward. This needs a series of issues to be prioritized. At WILPF  [Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom] we have developed a set of principles using a conflict lens. The first thing you would have in a conflict is a ceasefire and an ending of the violence. For a pandemic, the ceasefires are literal where there is violent conflict ongoing, following the secretary-general’s demand. But then what’s necessary to keep a ceasefire sustainable and end the violence?

Part of this is the pandemic within the pandemic: domestic violence. How do you address that? Look at the good work that MADRE has done collecting data on good responses and how they work, and then how to take that through into a transformative framework for ending domestic violence, reinterpreting domestic violence in law and practice. It is also vital to think about: who is the responder to domestic violence? The demands of Black Lives Matter regarding police abolition make it clear that law enforcement is not necessarily the right first responder.

Research and practice shows that in order to move us out of the “pandemic of violence” we have to address gender, political economy,  the creation of a particular masculinity which feels entitled to use-and-abuse, and cultural ways that violence against women is sustained. It’s not just violence against women, it’s the sorts of violence perpetuated against those who are not part of the hierarchy of power.

What you then have is this transformative approach to justice more broadly, socio-economic health, the way the economy has locally and internationally and globally caused this pandemic, because if it weren’t for the environmental degradation and destruction caused by our obscene materialism, then we would not have unleashed COVID in the first place.

In crisis response, and in this pandemic, we have to be thinking way upstream as well as how to cope in the moment. One of these elements is to think about the economy and how the economy works. You have to also look at how the military is implicated in economic systems which require constant spending on weaponry, security, the military to sustain them, and neoliberalism. As WILPF said over 100 years ago “the one washing the hand of the other.”  Separate them so that we can actually look at an economy free from a need for militarized security and investment in arms and arms trading. It’s about ending a militarized security approach and prioritizing a human security approach.

If you look at all of this as a process, that would lead to the WPS approach to get us to that transformative interim period where we reinvent our systems of social justice and our understanding of it. That would be a good way of using the WPS approaches that we’ve got in crisis response.

You can apply those approaches within the local community as well—it doesn’t all have to be “up there.” Because the macro political economy is the macro of the micro. It all starts in the household. It’s a build-up of how we conduct this patriarchal notion in conducting our business. A good example of how WPS approaches influence crisis response is how women leaders responded to the pandemic. Originally, media outlets were reporting that women had done well because they were risk-averse—so they’d closed everything down. A really interesting paper examined the data on how the women leaders responded to see exactly what happened and how it was done. What they found is that the male leaders were risk-averse because they did everything they could to protect the economy and the military—the bastions of patriarchy. Whereas the women risked the economy and militarization in order to preserve life. The risks women leaders took were very, very different, and their risks were based on human security.

Increasing uniformed women’s participation in UN peace operations is a significant part of WPS conversations among member states. How can we reconcile the call for increased participation of uniformed women with efforts to demilitarize peace operations?

Rees: This is the question that we have to answer. Number one, women in the countries where there are peace operations often do not want peace operations. I had a conversation with a woman who lived near a UN mission who told me that she was conflicted, because she did not want more killing, and she saw UN peacekeepers as a barrier to more killing. But those peacekeepers actually disrupted the peace they could’ve had. What those peacekeepers are doing is reenforcing a miltarized narrative that arms bring security, which is not what is needed after armed conflict. Not just because of all the trafficking and the exploitation, economic distortion, but the very presence of men in uniforms with guns was terrifying to the women, annoying to the domicile men and it antagonized where it shouldn’t have done.

And as a model, sending a bunch of people with guns into a gun-ridden society doesn’t help. It’s actually reinforcing the violence of the conflict. From my perspective, based on what I’ve seen, peace operations are hugely expensive and they don’t work. Likewise, putting women into the military will expand the power of the military, but it’s not going to change the military. Do not, for one minute, think that a woman is not going to go in and strafe a village because she’s been ordered to—of course she’s going to do so. It’s the military, it’s what you do. You obey orders.

The idea that getting women prepared to use violence on behalf of the state in order to be part of peacekeeping is just insane. What about the poor women who have to go into the military to be able to achieve that in the first place? You talk to women peacekeepers, and the stories they will tell about the abuse that many of them have endured is just staggering. And this is because the military mentality is misogynist.

If we take those three points then we need to rethink peacekeeping so that it’s not militarized.

Take the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for example. Think of all the millions of dollars that have been poured into the DRC. What has it accomplished? Virtually nothing. Now think about what would have happened if all those millions had been given to local peacebuilders, who know the context, who know the communities. There would not be conflict in the DRC now if we had given the right sort of support. And there’s nothing wrong with civilians going in and being peacekeepers! What if all the women they want to have as peacekeepers didn’t wear a uniform? They could better perform the role that is ascribed to them, i.e., act as the bridges between women in the local community and the internationals, but differently, almost acting as a  ‘cocoon’ to enable the growth of local peace building. That, in fact, should be the role of all peacekeepers regardless of gender.

The basic, obvious needs are making sure that human security is central—when we are building roads, hospitals, schools, are we making sure that these things are accessible to people without cars, more vulnerable populations, local women? While we are fretting about getting more women in uniform, we are not having those discussions. And we are assuming that when we do get more women in uniform, that will just somehow happen. No, it won’t! Because the women in uniform are not the ones with decision-making power, and you cannot expect someone to walk around with a gun all day and not be affected by the power that confers. Peacekeepers should not automatically be associated with blue helmets, in uniform, often carrying guns. Peacekeepers should be peacekeepers—building peace with the local communities, supporting local communities, giving ownership to local communities. But it’s an economic interest, isn’t it? The [troop-contributing countries] TCCs get a lot of money for this. For several of the TCCs, peacekeeping is 25 percent of their GDP. And, it assuages their military, because the individuals who are deployed for peacekeeping get loads of money out of this as well. So, you know, [peacekeeping is] a bereft concept, and just including women in that is never going to change it, it’s just going to get more women in it.

Who, if anyone, in the international community is getting WPS right?

Rees: We’re not getting it right. Even the [international non-governmental organizations] INGOs cannot because the structures within which we are trying to work are inimical to being able to realize what needs to be done. I think some INGOs, and I count WILPF and Madre as pretty good at this, are constantly reframing and reassessing what needs to be done and how we are approaching peace and security issues. By doing this, we are constantly seeing what women are doing on the ground and communicating with the grassroots level. From there, we assess how we can help to keep what’s working, working. We map practice and progress, it’s not easy, but  it can be done.

The multilateral system, on the whole, is not getting it right. The states that have feminist foreign policies and good [National Action Plans] NAPs at least have those things! This opens doors. However, the way it’s been done in many places has been very neocolonial. If you had a truly feminist foreign policy or NAP, you would include the people you are writing policy toward. For example, if you have adopted a feminist foreign policy but are still selling arms to Saudi Arabia that are being used to commit war crimes in Yemen, that is not what a feminist foreign policy looks like. Foreign policy must be driven by your interaction with people in other countries—it cannot center the one nation state making the policy.

It is also important to note that a primary reason it is so difficult to get WPS-driven work right is the system. The Security Council is wrong on a great many things to do with WPS, but I do not hold them accountable for the implementation of the agenda. That responsibility sits with the rest of the community. It is for the UN agencies to make the agenda work and report back to the Security Council to make sure it’s working. The Security Council is not going to look at the minutiae of every implementation—this is for example [the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs] DPPA and UN Women.

Anything that starts in the Security Council as a thematic is going to be fairly amorphous. But that’s our job as feminists, to grab that amorphous concept and make it real, through policy implemented through legal obligation and accountability mechanisms—that’s how we make it real. There’s fantastic, agreed-upon language in the WPS agenda that never gets rendered into policy or programming.

Unfortunately, the silo-ing of the UN system makes it almost impossible to ensure that thematic resolutions—and suites of resolutions—actually permeate the entire system. But the good news is that solutions are being presented in a lot of emerging work. To this end, I reference WILPF’s recent “Where are the Words” report. Decision makers: if you don’t have the information, ask for the information. It does exist. It is a breach of the social contract to do otherwise.

In what ways would you like to see WPS expand or change in the future? Are there certain types of questions or issue areas policy experts and researchers should be more curious about right now?

Rees: No more resolutions. There is very little we don’t have in the resolutions, when broadly interpreted. But the more we do in the Security Council, the further we get from interpreting the agenda as it was originally intended.

Institutions must move toward structural change that makes implementation of the WPS agenda possible. Feminists have got to keep making linkages between silos and advocating, and decision makers must support the mandate that the WPS agenda presents and accept accountability mechanisms when they fail to implement that mandate.

The other part of that is that states must change the way they are approaching WPS. Currently, they write and institutionalize a NAP, which almost always deliver a colonial approach to WPS. Instead, they should flip this approach. This includes having a real discussion at the grassroots level about what feminist, gender-sensitive work toward peace looks like. All the elements WILPF puts forth in our principles—ceasefires, ending violence, ending the arms trade, abolishing policing in its current form—are based in real, human security rather than relying on people who dress like robots and can shoot you. What we need to maintain and grow is a global movement that has WPS values at its core.

Another change needed in WPS is the way we understand gender. When we talk about gender, we’re really just talking about women. That’s how it has been understood outside of niche conversations. That’s why, in some respects, those who understand the implication of using gender rather than women—as in militaries, the Holy See, and the Russians—don’t like the word because they know we’re going to sneak in the rest of it. That’s why there’s been so much work done to remake it as a binary. And it’s not! And it mustn’t be.

A simple example is to look at the types of violence that happen within the political economy of the household, which is domestic. And then who does that impact? In COVID times we must include and think of the trans person, the gay, bi queer, and lesbian whose parents reject them, who is trapped in their bedroom. The violence of that isolation is just horrific and is often accompanied by physical violence. People are made homeless because of that rejection.

Finally, policy researchers need to show that the WPS agenda works. We have the data to show the positive impacts. You want to have peaceful communities, you want to be able to address climate change, we have the empirical evidence to show it. We can grow that evidence base, but leadership must trust the science and the data. This will be difficult, of course, because many leaders do not actually want this to change. But we continue to fight the battles, create our communities of care, and push for transformative change.

I live in hope.