Interview with Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, President and CEO of IPI, chairing an event on women, peace and leadership, September 2021.

In this first interview since being appointed president and CEO of the International Peace Institute (IPI) in March 2020, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, longtime diplomat and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, shares his views on the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the role of the United Nations.

The interview was conducted by Phoebe Donnelly, Research Fellow and Head of Women, Peace and Security program at IPI, on August 19, 2021.

Where have you seen progress in Women, Peace and Security (WPS) work?

It is remarkable how much work has been done, and I am very encouraged by what we have learned, notwithstanding the challenges. With every passing year, we understand in greater detail some of what we face in implementing this particular agenda—for example, how we mainstream representation; how we ensure women are involved in all parts of peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding; and that women’s views are incorporated in an integral sense within this architecture. It is extraordinary in the last 21 years how much attention has been given to WPS, because it is all a matter of learning for the UN, and for us as individuals.

It is also very difficult, because the UN has been bedeviled—has always been bedeviled—by a fundamental dilemma: it is an organization of member states, and yet it has a duty to uphold the rights of individuals within those states. Most of the UN, regrettably I would say, is partial to the former, because of the ways the organization has been structured. The independent human rights bodies are part of the movement that upholds rights. WPS is really part of a movement—or it ought to be—and so trying to incorporate into the thinking both of the UN writ large and the member states that there is another way to look at this has been challenging.

Can you share a particular area you think the UN, and its member states, have learned related to the WPS agenda?  

They have realized how difficult these issues are. It is one thing to encourage participation by those who are not male in these processes—when you have representation of other genders within government circles, it is not that hard to do this. However, I should say, for 76 years, the UN has not been led by anyone but a male; the head of peacekeeping has always been a male; representation of three permanent members on the UN Security Council have not been led by anyone other than a male. The International Peace Institute president has always been a male. We are very aware of the amount of learning that has to be done, but the amount of understanding has grown considerably.

We are reaching a point to address these dilemmas. If it is easy to encourage diverse representation from government circles, how easy it is to convince those government circles that members of an opposition, a rebel group, those who are activists fighting for the rights of others, are in fact not terrorists, extremists, they are human beings fighting for their rights? Many are women who need to be incorporated into UN processes. When there is a specific case, can the member state be encouraged to open the aperture of its understanding? Ban Ki-Moon famously said that he noticed, just in speaking to opposition groups, that every human rights defender in so many member states is branded a terrorist, so how on Earth do you incorporate them into these processes if you have already decided to label them off-limits for any discussion? These issues are difficult.

What I am proud about is IPI has led the way in peeling back the many layers, looking at things from an angle that is not often looked at. Take the sexual exploitation of peacekeepers themselves—to look at the hypermasculinity/toxic masculinity that exists in these conditions is really a novel way of looking at it.

These topics have to be deeply understood, but the challenges remain. You only have to look at the secretary-general’s 2020-2024 strategy report for the Peacebuilding Fund to see that WPS remains chronically underfunded, especially those bilateral arrangements where WPS is given a priority—it is still a very small amount of funding. More focus needs to be given to those attempts, initiatives, movements, that are women-led and women-focused. It used to be the case that most disbursements from the Peacebuilding Fund went to mainstream, large UN agencies and not to grassroots, women-led, and women-focused organizations which can make a huge difference. I think that is where we need to keep pushing.

Looking ahead, what are some key issues on which members of the international community need to move beyond rhetoric toward implementation of the commitments they have made to the WPS agenda? What will it take for this to be realized?

Before you get to implementation, you have to have a plan, and so often in the UN, the discussion is focused on what it is we are looking at, and why does it exist, but then the “how” is often left unanswered. We leave it to the member states, we leave it to the Peacebuilding Commission, we leave it to the Peacebuilding Fund.

But we can’t just do it like that—we have to actually think of the “how,” as to who is leading, in what capacity, with whose support, and all of that has to be meticulously laid out—otherwise, will never get to the “how,” and we have these frustrating discussions about the “why” and the “what” or the “what” and the “why,” and then we can’t see proper implementation anywhere.  The dissection of the discussion has to move decisively to understanding the mechanics of getting decisions taken.

I think it is just laziness, because it is hard, better to avoid it altogether and just leave it to member states and governments, and encourage them to show political will. Yes, they need political will, but no government is monolithic—every government will have allies, and those detractors who will fight the allies tooth and nail. So how do you empower the allies and create these discussions? This can’t be in the abstract sense, because we can’t wait another twenty years to see enormous progress. There is an immediacy to see results obtained. It is very clear that the “how” needs to be examined in detail, but quickly, and then programs put in place to see that it is realized.

The UN Security Council continues to undermine the security risks associated with climate change, including by failing to include a gender-sensitive approach to climate security. What opportunities do you see to link gender and climate change in the UNSC?

It is a very complex issue—and for any issue to enter the agenda of the UN Security Council, it must be established, after some examination, that it presents a threat to international peace and security. If climate change were to lead to the destruction of a state or humanity, while horrific and appalling, in a narrow legal sense, it may not represent a threat to international peace and security. That link has to be proven. There are many times we see droughts, famine force people to flee—and of course, those who suffer the greatest in many respects are women and children, they are the first casualties in so many of the situations we see—but there is no attendant violence, and it can be argued no threat to international peace and security, and therefore doesn’t qualify to be on agenda of the UN Security Council. It is not an automatic thing.

What one has to do is prove that the alignments of certain variables would make it the case, but you have to deal with exculpatory cases as well. Why is it that we have tens of millions of people moving, and no violence at all? In a very strict legal sense, you separate the well-being of the human being from the threat to international peace and security in legal terms. But there are other aspects to this. If you have a particular community within a state that is targeted—this is not the climate change agenda—but targeted by acts of genocides, then it comes to the international community, and neighboring states, to react to that. We haven’t reached those thresholds yet with climate change. It is hugely complicated, and needs desperate attention, and I am glad to see that IPI recognizes the complexity of this and has been involved with climate security and the nexus between climate change, peace, and security.

In what ways do you think the COVID-19 global pandemic has changed thinking around the WPS and human rights agendas?  

It is still too soon to know. The unraveling is still continuing against a backdrop of an overall feeling that we are entering a phase of abandonment. We are abandoning certain country-specific situations, we are abandoning a basic sense of collective resolution of our problems, a togetherness, and we have a tendency to go it alone. One has to be concerned that you will find these very important agenda items also suffer. So maximum attention must be given to them, and there must be resolutions to ensure that backsliding in these areas is stopped. The problem is that the bandwidth for most governments is limited, and we have compounding emergencies that make it extremely difficult to organize, prioritize, and sort out. The pandemic has no doubt had a serious impact simply because the attention span within governments, which was already limited, is now strained. This pandemic that doesn’t seem to go away—with these new variants—has posed enormous fiscal pressures on many countries. So, I expect that vulnerable groups, marginalized groups, groups under pressure, will continue to feel that form of pressure, no matter where we look in the world.