Advancing Women, Peace and Security in the UN Security Council: Critical Choices for Elected Member States

Election of new non-permanent members of the Security Council: Estonia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia and Viet Nam took office on January 1, 2020.(UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

While the permanent five members (P5) of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) receive the bulk of the attention, how the ten elected members (E10) act, and the issues they raise, can have a lasting effect. On June 11, 2021, at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, five countries—Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—were elected to the UNSC for the 2022-2023 term, joining the five elected the previous year. All five referred to Women, Peace and Security (WPS) in their election promises. Yet, there is a limited understanding of E10 strategies and effects on the promotion of WPS in the Council.

Building on research on states in the UNSC, we carried out a unique, systematic study of Sweden‘s efforts to mainstream WPS into the Security Council’s outcomes during its 2017-18 membership; it had the stated ambition to make WPS “core Council business,” meaning to promote the integration of WPS into the Security Council’s processes and decisions. The findings from the report highlight the strategic thinking that may be relevant to other E10 states, and to prospects for having an impact on the Council’s work. Advancing WPS in the UNSC has become a feature of many elected members’ strategic policy interests; from the critical initial efforts by Namibia (1999-2000) and Bangladesh (2000–01) to the recent examples of Spain (2015–16), Uruguay (2016–17), Sweden (2017-18), Peru (2018–19), Germany and South Africa (2019–20), and Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, and Norway (2021–22).

What is known is that the possibilities for an individual E10 to promote WPS in the UNSC have been assumed to be constrained by the dominance of the P5 members—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. By building on existing knowledge of states in the UNSC and analyzing the experiences of Sweden, three areas of critical choice an E10 state can make to realize its Council ambitions were identified: (1) opportunities and strengths; (2) strategic decisions; and (3) tactical maneuvers.

Opportunities and strengths

WPS is a wide and cross-cutting policy area. An E10 state only has two years to achieve its ambitions. Early on, before beginning Council membership, state assessments should identify concrete gaps and opportunities. Assessments further need to include considerations regarding the dynamics in the UNSC. The varying composition of the E10 and existing contentions and priorities among the P5 could affect opportunities to advance strategic policy interests. Sweden’s term built on processes established during the 15th anniversary of Resolution 1325 and took stock of various issues, including potential differences in priorities and capacity among fellow E10s and rising tensions on WPS between the P5.

To handle this complexity, given the high workload of UNSC members, it is important to establish forms of E10 cooperation in advance of the UNSC term. E10s should also consider their strengths. For example, Sweden’s experience in promoting women’s inclusion in peace processes and gender mainstreaming afforded greater credibility on WPS.

Strategic decisions

When an E10 has assessed opportunities, it needs to form a strategy in order to prioritize and concretize its ambitions. This includes considering both how WPS fits into its overall aims for the UNSC term and its specific and achievable aims for WPS. Overall, Sweden sought to contribute to making the Council more effective and consistent. The specific WPS aim that followed from this was to support making WPS “core UNSC business.” The focus was on integrating WPS content—by requesting and reviewing sex-disaggregated data in reports to the UNSC; soliciting and making concrete context-relevant proposals for increasing women’s participation; and specifying solutions to mitigate gendered effects in the conflict situations on the UNSC agenda—into the daily work of the Council in a consistent manner.

To realize this (or any) WPS aim, there is then a need to develop a method. In the case of Sweden, this meant engaging with the body’s working methods. The final decision in forming a strategy concerns assigning sufficient organizational and personnel resources. For Sweden, strategic organizational choices included setting up functions for coordinating expertise on all UNSC matters and placing an emphasis on implementation, while relying on visible and engaged leadership.

Tactical maneuvers

The best-laid strategic plans then confront reality at the Security Council. There are four tactical conditions that previous research suggests are key for an E10 to maneuver: a) UNSC power dynamics; b) UNSC working methods; c) UNSC external dynamics; and d) the internal dynamics of an individual E10 state.

UNSC power dynamics are linked to the veto powers of the P5 and the changing E10 composition. During Sweden’s term, the situation on WPS was starting to worsen, but Swedish diplomats reportedly met limited resistance from P5s or fellow E10s. Widely understood as supported by the political establishment at home, their interventions followed a pattern of emphasis on WPS matters. Representing the first country in the world to formulate and pursue a feminist foreign policy, the Swedish Permanent Representative’s proposals were given yet further credence since the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, had served as the UN Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict.

UNSC working methods relate to the bureaucratic handicraft of an E10 when operating in the UNSC. The Council’s working methods primarily stem from established practice. These include formal methods (such as penholder, presidency, field visits, and missions), informal methods (such as Arria Formula Meetings and the Informal Expert Group on WPS), and UNSC-UN Secretariat coordination (regarding the translation of the decisions in the Council to UN policy and implementation of resolutions in the field). For Sweden, the exclusive P5 penholder system meant that it had to find creative ways to inject suggestions of WPS language into resolution texts, including by informally offering concrete proposals as part of early negotiations. Concerning informal methods, Sweden appears to have placed more emphasis on the Informal Expert Group on WPS rather than on organizing Arria Formula Meetings, a preference interpreted as a cost-benefit analysis to focus its resources on an integrative rather than a campaign-driven approach to WPS.

UNSC external dynamics situate the processes of the Council in the context of the broader political landscape at the UN and in New York. The Group of Friends of 1325 played an important role for Sweden, as the group serves as a platform for mobilizing member states and maximizing leverage in the UN system for WPS. Other important actors were civil society and women’s organizations—particularly in advancing practical context-relevant WPS issues. Think tanks and academic forums created external and more neutral platforms for discussing upcoming issues, setting the scene for generating new material to support policy development. Nationally, Sweden consulted widely with Swedish civil society and created the Reference Council to discuss issues linked to the Security Council agenda regularly.

Internal dynamics of an individual E10 state put the limelight on a state’s in-house order. This cluster takes as its starting point that the workload of the UNSC is high, and its processes are fast-moving. New situations can appear suddenly. The degree to which an E10 has access to organizational resources and capacity will affect its performance on WPS. E10 states can utilize support staff—such as WPS experts or focal points—as well as training others to raise capacity on WPS and enhance the E10’s ability to meet its aims. Rather than depend on a few WPS experts, Swedish diplomats and personnel throughout the ministry and its permanent mission were required to integrate WPS into their portfolios, thus increasing prospects for timely and relevant proposals to come up through the system.

How can impact be appraised?

An E10 can seek different forms of impact when striving to advance WPS. Five E10 approaches can be observed: 1) raise visibility; 2) champion a new thematic resolution; 3) alter the working methods of the UNSC; 4) strengthen sanction criteria; and 5) promote WPS integration in regular UNSC resolutions and statements. Given the power hierarchies and working conditions, an E10 is expected to have a limited impact in any given negotiation, regardless of approach.

Sweden chose to promote the integration of WPS language into regular Council resolutions to improve the chances for implementation. What is the impact of an integrative approach? To allow for a granular analysis of how this progressed, three criteria were developed to track resolution language. The first is frequency, that is, the number of WPS references disaggregated by the WPS theme. The second is clarity, which measures WPS language in terms of the extent to which it is related to specific tasks and objectives in the operative sections of resolutions determining expected action. That is, if the WPS language is specific enough for a mission or state to know what should be achieved. In this respect, it also matters if WPS references appear in the preamble or the operative sections. The third and final criterion is priority, that is, what instructive words are associated with WPS language, as a signal of high importance in the resolution?

Analysis of UNSC resolutions from 2016–19 shows that WPS language tended to be in the preamble section rather than in the operative section. While references to protection predominate, there was a slight increase in participation and gender mainstreaming references. The category of resolutions that Sweden primarily focused on—peacekeeping operations and political missions—was the most frequently discussed and had the highest volume of WPS references. This means that progress on WPS had a similar trajectory to the overall priorities Sweden sought to promote. Sweden made progress in other areas beyond language—such as in the representation of women briefers and heightened WPS engagement inside the Council. That said, when leaving the Council, Sweden noted that improving language remains a major challenge.

As a new contingent of E10 states prepares to enter the Council in 2022, each has ambitions for the promotion of WPS. Albania, a first-time member, championed WPS as a major focus. Brazil connected WPS to better peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Gabon and Ghana called for women’s inclusion in peace processes. The UAE promised to promote gender equality, underscoring its five-year record on the Executive Board of UN Women.

What critical choices will they make?

This article is part of a series reflecting on the current state of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.

Patty Chang is a Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Louise Olsson is a Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). Angela Muvumba Sellström is a Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) and a Non-resident Fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI).