Mediation is Failing; the WPS Agenda Has a Way Forward

Female delegates of the Rome fraction attend a meeting with women's rights representatives during the Afghanistan summit in Koenigswinter near Bonn on November 29, 2001. Members of four different ethnic groups with the exclusion of the Taliban took part in the talks about the basic conditions of peace and the political future of Afghanistan. The negotiations ended with a treaty on the composition of an interim Afghan government. (Gero Breloer/picture alliance/dpa/AP Images)

The adoption of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has marked an important turning point in the history of international relations. Global efforts to recognize the varying roles of women within peace and security have opened the way for an effective and much-needed reconceptualization of international security. However, despite documented advances in the implementation of the WPS agenda’s four pillars of participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery, most of its transformational potential remains untapped.

In fact, as we enter the third decade since the adoption of the agenda, significant challenges and obstacles have arisen in its translation on the ground. Particularly, an increasing number of activists are voicing their concern about mechanisms of securitization associated with the interpretation and implementation of the WPS agenda. Referring to the process of prioritizing certain issues usually deemed a threat as politically significant, securitization is a non-neutral political mechanism of interpretation that can have both useful and limiting effects at the policy level. For example, it can lead to limiting calls for women’s inclusion to the security field, therefore constraining policy responses to narrow militaristic solutions instead of supporting women’s contributions to all dimensions of peace. It also tends to overlook everyday politics and everyday practices that support peace more broadly.

Instrumentalizations of the WPS agenda have become even more salient in today’s international context, marked by increased structural complexity and contested international norms. With the aim of avoiding contradictory policies and practices, these processes should be carefully examined within the specific settings in which they occur. Particularly, expanding feminist research on the participation of women in peace processes and conflict resolution will be key to understanding how these mechanisms take root. A close look at the field of international conflict resolution offers an ideal entry point to effectively address potential policy contradictions, including over-securitization, throughout the four pillars.

Focusing on women’s participation in international mediation

The conflict resolution field currently faces challenges that echo the overall fragmentation and increased polarization observed at the international level. These challenges include a complexification of issues to be addressed, the proliferation of conflict interveners, difficult coordination mechanisms in multiparty mediation schemes, and a lack of leadership for peace that can provide supporting structure and agency. The management of the Syrian and Libyan civil wars are examples of internationalized conflicts for which United Nations (UN) and other peacemaking initiatives were lacking strong international and regional consensus that would support conclusive peacemaking initiatives.

Despite the expansion and increased professionalization of the conflict resolution field, achieving sustainable peace and assessing the overall effectiveness of peace processes is becoming very difficult. In this regard, international mediation needs special attention. Mediation processes specifically have become a privileged tool of conflict resolution in international relations. Given its non-binding nature, it provides a suitable framework for flexible and creative conflict resolution schemes. However, as it is becoming widely used as part of mere political communication strategies in contexts of crises and urgency, it has lost its conflict resolution and prevention capacity to the limited function of crisis management.

Today it is well accepted that women’s participation in peace processes is correlated with more sustainable peace agreements. Since the adoption of the WPS agenda, the participation of women in peace processes via women’s organizations has been increasing. However, studies looking at the participation of women as mediators or negotiators in peace processes are less encouraging, despite the persistent call for greater inclusion of women in these high-level positions. Focusing on the participation of women in conflict resolution and prevention offers important opportunities to enhance the implementation of the WPS agenda, such as reducing interagency silos, and will help fast track efforts tackling all pillars of the agenda. In fact, mediation offers opportunities for women to break silences and influence agenda-setting and strategic decision-making.

Peace processes are the place where crucial political, economic, and social issues which impact women’s everyday lives and their political participation are discussed or, alternatively, disregarded. Mediation techniques aim to bring conflicting parties to discuss sensitive issues. The securitization and desecuritization of issues are also central dynamics observed in international mediation processes and are used as conflict resolution strategies. For example, deescalating tensions often involves de-securitizing a matter to avoid centering a security dilemma that would hinder constructive discussions. Alternatively, the framing of the issues can be further securitized to raise awareness on the urgency of a situation that needs special attention and resources. Therefore, the participation of women as mediators and negotiators in the context of confidential peace processes can help resist or, alternatively, rely on securitization mechanisms to protect their rights.

To unpack the negotiation dynamics taking place in the closed and confidential context of peace processes, it is necessary to look at the varying roles women could play in relation to the specific conflict’s characteristics, including its cultural and national setting. The issues different groups of women face, their identities, and the strengths and strategies that they can bring to the table should be understood in their context specificity, rather than prescribed by third-party interveners.

Renewing and reinvesting in approaches to women’s participation in peace processes will also be key to working through emerging challenges in the conflict resolution field and will bring much-needed reform by impacting structural factors of peacebuilding at all levels of interventions.

Recent studies looking at emerging challenges for women’s participation in both peace processes and conflict resolution[1] provide useful approaches through which to move the WPS agenda forward with the aim to pursue a realistic and effective reconceptualization of security.

Reducing process ambiguity through clarifying roles and responsibilities

Studies examining women’s involvement in mediation initiatives underline the lack of conceptual clarity that characterizes international mediation processes. The terminology used reflects the confusion that exists in the uses of terms and implementation of procedures, which hinders the effectiveness of the processes themselves. Varying and narrow definitions of mediation adopted by different international organizations can limit women’s participation at all levels.

In peacebuilding efforts, different types of conflict-resolution “tracks” can be initiated, each referring to distinct levels of engagement and issues addressed. Simply put, “track one” points to mediation processes undertaken with official and top leadership, “track two” involves middle-range leadership, and “track three” initiatives are conducted with civil society organizations. Although designing interventions that include the different tracks can maximize the chance of effectively managing conflicts, coordination remains a challenge. For example, the UN has been broadening the scope of its mediation activities by diversifying tracks when relevant and increasingly relying on nongovernmental organizations to address local conflicts. The case of the Libyan civil war is an example where partnerships between the UN and NGOs were effective in facilitating track one–type discussions.

In this context, women’s roles are usually more visible in track two and track three initiatives and are generally associated with social issues and focused on local interventions. This can positively impact and help legitimize a greater involvement of women in peace processes given their specific expertise and access on these issues. Yet, it is also important to identify the obstacles preventing them from participating in official and high-level tracks.

Introducing mandate distinctions between specific roles and functions of the third party will reduce ambiguity for women and open the way for creative and context-specific strategies to be implemented. Measures that aim to clarify roles and procedures will also enhance mediation effectiveness since they will help bring greater process transparency and thus build confidence in the conflict-resolution measures chosen to address a given conflict situation.

This would ultimately entail revisiting definitions of mediation in international settings to include women’s perspectives and, more generally, a reformulation of conflict-resolution theories. More research looking at women specifically across a wide range of conflict types and third-party interventions will be needed to foster greater theoretical and conceptual coherence in conflict resolution. That will in turn support effective processes and norms to avoid the instrumentalization of the WPS agenda and the principles of international law more broadly.

Committing to feminist interdisciplinary epistemologies

Important research looking at the role of women mediators intervening outside the framework of women’s organizations shows that women mediators can influence the processes’ outcomes through diverse approaches and conflict-resolution behaviors. Therefore, the participation of women in peace processes must not be restricted to the question of equal representation and the voicing of women’s specific concerns. Rather, it should be expanded to examine the diverse forms of contributions women mediators and negotiators bring to the talks.

Understanding women’s participation in peace processes will require a strong commitment to a feminist interdisciplinary research, as women stand at the intersection of foreign policy, diplomatic practices, and organizational settings. This international context can therefore only be apprehended through integrating various analytical frameworks. In the context of international mediation, more research looking at women’s leadership and empowerment can bring pragmatic contributions to enhancing women’s inclusion. In the same vein, focusing on positive dimensions of power could support constructive and much-needed cooperation at all levels.

Looking at gender studies in other disciplines such as behavioral and organizational science is key to gaining useful insights into the role of women in international relations processes. For example, recent studies examining the role of gender in organizational negotiation have rendered groundbreaking findings that could help reduce gender-biased inequities in negotiation.

As definitions and concepts in the field of conflict resolution are broad and diverse, there is a need for greater theoretical and conceptual coherence to facilitate practice across issues and sectors.  In a context where multiparty mediation is becoming the norm, fostering consensus on basic principles and definitions can help in advancing transparent processes and better coordination mechanisms.

Creating new spaces of cooperation and partnerships for conflict resolution

Rethinking current conflict resolution strategies will depend on the type of conflict, mediators’ roles, and the cultural and geopolitical context in which conflict occurs. Conflict-resolution schemes require various fields of expertise and entail managing several levels of interventions, starting with the need to ensure international and regional consensus to supporting national conflict resolution initiatives as well as addressing localized conflicts. This is particularly the case in the context of civil wars.  Given the complexity of these processes and the disconnect that often exists between parallel or competing initiatives, fostering strategic linkages between initiatives can facilitate consensus building.

Today, causes of conflicts are more likely to be associated with compounding global challenges and interrelated issues involving a broad range of actors. For example, the pervasive effects of climate change are increasing the risks of conflict and aggravating resource-related tensions. In this context, science diplomacy is an expanding field in which scientific advice informs foreign policy objectives and can be used to either advance diplomatic goals or reduce conflict.

The water resources field is rich with experiences and illustrations of collaborative approaches that involve the intervention of scientists. Institutions such as UNESCO, the Global Water Partnership (GWP), and the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) are active in providing expert and dedicated support for all stakeholders, including women. However, in the context of specific regions, including many areas most at risk of water shortages, such as the Middle East, only a few studies have looked at the challenges women face in specialized fields like water diplomacy. The main challenge is the design of processes through which scientific knowledge can concur with political will and decision-making. Building trust and sustaining relations between different stakeholders is thus key to ensuring sustainable collaboration over this vital resource.

Despite the professionalization in the mediation field concerning the inclusion of gender perspectives, there is a need to move toward more strategic partnerships and holistic approaches. In the world of conflict resolution, pragmatism and urgency are the norm. Therefore, to succeed in the advancement of the WPS agenda, measures to be introduced must be context specific, adaptable, and at scale. According to the type of conflict, better integration between the political and technical tracks is crucial to achieving effective conflict-resolution schemes and fostering women’s engagement through different channels and at different stages of a conflict cycle. Better coordination will also entail taking into consideration the political economy of conflicts and the allocation of sufficient funds for implementing complex processes of resolution and prevention. Establishing specialized accompanying structures and building networks of actors can help support effective conflict-resolution initiatives. The Colombian peace process with its Gender Sub-Commission offers examples of creative process designs that can support women’s inclusion at several stages of peace talks.

To respond to complex conflicts, it is necessary, to some extent, to transcend thinking about the given dynamics of the conflict to consider prevention and conflict-transformation schemes.


The WPS Agenda has succeeded in bringing together scholars from different backgrounds and areas of expertise to conceive of practical ways to give women a central role in peacebuilding. As such, it has guided major advances and breakthroughs in the way peace and war are understood, acknowledging the essential role of women which had been previously excluded from international security conversations.

However, as new challenges and obstacles arise in the implementation of the WPS agenda, there is an urgent need to shift directions and introduce new methods and procedures in peacemaking and peacebuilding to address increasing tensions worldwide. The WPS agenda thus presents a unique space for the international community to introduce much-needed reforms in the field of international conflict resolution as contemporary approaches are proving their limits and, in the same way, to help address the incoherencies associated with the agenda’s implementation.

In order to pursue effective reconceptualization of security beyond military understandings and overcome women’s limited participation in politics, feminist schools must all work together in order to bridge the disconnect between theory and practice, paving the way for the establishment of realistic and sustainable approaches to international peace. Placing the participation of women in peace processes at the top of international efforts will thus have positive transversal effects on all other pillars of the WPS agenda and reinforce a coherent and integrated implementation of the agenda. In the context of increased tensions between different approaches to peace, building confidence and consensus will bring new momentum to the WPS agenda.

[1] Forthcoming, findings retrieved from Ph.D. dissertation “Mediation: a conceptual approach to rethinking international relations,” Christelle Comair.

Christelle Comair is a political scientist and conflict resolution specialist. Her recent doctoral research focused on the theory and practice of mediation in international relations. As a 2021-2022 Research Fellow with the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, she built on her doctoral research findings to develop feminist approaches to mediation in diplomatic practice and theory building.