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Prospects for Women Peacebuilders Vastly Worse than before Pandemic as Spoilers Ramp Up Action Aimed at Silencing Their Voices, Human Rights Chief Warns Security Council

Civil Society Representatives Describe Reprisals against Individuals Who Brief 15-Member Organ, as Delegates Present Ways for United Nations Corrective Action

Despite best efforts to ensure that peace is built by and for women, the prospects for their participation in the very negotiations intended to secure their future are “vastly worse” than before the pandemic, the High Commissioner for Human Rights told the Security Council today, as she and other experts warned of an insidious uptick in a host of actions by spoilers aimed at silencing their voices.

“This harms all of us,” said Michele Bachelet, as she briefed ministers and other officials from around the world during the Council’s open debate on “Protecting participation: addressing violence targeting women in peace and security processes”.

In 2020, Ms. Bachelet said the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified 35 killings of women human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists in seven conflict-affected countries where data could be retrieved. This number — an undercount — surpassed the confirmed numbers of killings in 2018 and 2019. Between 1992 and 2019, only 13 per cent of negotiators, 6 per cent of mediators and 6 per cent of signatories in major peace processes were women. “Decisions on peace that do not reflect women’s voices, realities and rights are not sustainable,” she emphasized. She pressed the international community to push back against attempts to attack, silence and criminalize women’s fundamental right to participate in decisions and express dissenting opinions.

Perhaps nowhere are the challenges more visible than in Afghanistan, said Zarqa Yaftali, Executive Director of the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation, who stressed that “the rhetoric of the women, peace and security agenda collapsed on 15 August 2021”, the day Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. A year ago, she had beseeched the international community to better protect hard-won gains in women’s participation. “The world did not listen,” she said.

Today, she is addressing the Council as a refugee, having lost her country to a designated terrorist group overnight. Women and girls are now demonstrating in Kabul and elsewhere to regain the right to work and to education, facing violence and threats from the Taliban for doing so. Some have been imprisoned or disappeared, and thousands of women who worked with the military and security forces of Afghanistan now live in fear for their lives. “Afghanistan is an example of what can happen when the international community fails to live up to its promises,” she warned.

Kaavya Asoka, Executive Director of the Non-governmental Organization (NGO) Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, similarly sounded the alarm over reprisals against individuals who brief the Security Council. While welcoming the adoption of resolution 2242 (2015), enabling more women to share their expertise, she said that as the number of briefers increased, so too have the repercussions for speaking up. “The more women assert their rights, the greater the backlash,” she explained, noting that one individual was abducted the day after a Security Council briefing.

In fact, one third of the women supported by her organization who have briefed the Council since 2018 have faced intimidation or reprisals, she said. About 67 per cent of these cases were perpetrated by State actors. Yet, the United Nations has publicly documented only a fraction of them; many instances have not been reported at all. This gap in information means that policy responses are failing to consider basic facts that can determine whether a woman lives or dies. “Your political support can keep a human rights defender at risk alive by deterring attacks and raising the costs for perpetrators,” she stressed.

In the ensuing dialogue, speakers offered ideas for United Nations action, with Ghana’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration prompting the Council to urge the Secretary-General to ensure the allocation of targeted, rapid resources for responding to threats against women peacebuilders. Sanctions committees should be used to bring justice to perpetrators of such acts. The United Nations at large must be “unequivocal and consistent” in its defence of women briefers and condemn all attacks against them, she insisted.

In that vein, Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation for Political Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, said her country plans to move the women, peace and security agenda “out of its siloes and into all discussions relevant to peace and security”. It has joined other elected Council members in issuing a “Shared Women, Peace and Security Presidency Commitments” statement, reflecting a zero-tolerance approach towards reprisals.

Mexico’s representative added that peacebuilders who brief the Council on their national situations deserve special attention as, by doing so, they put their own lives and those of their families at risk. He called on the High Commissioner for Human Rights — in coordination with other United Nations entities — to establish a protocol for protection and monitoring of individual cases, as required.

The Russian Federation’s representative, meanwhile, said the Council’s efforts should not morph into broader thematic areas or an attempt to merely meet quotas. He cautioned against creating new categories of victims or employing preferential processes, which could dilute protection efforts, ignite new conflicts or exacerbate existing ones. Iran’s representative similarly clarified that the Council should deal with these issues only as much as they relate to the maintenance of international peace and security, while China’s delegate advocated for progress through dialogue, mediation and consultations.

A number of delegates focused on national efforts to bolster women’s participation, with India’s delegate pointing out that 20 states in his country have reserved 50 per cent of seats for women in local legislative bodies. Slovenia’s representative said his country regularly deploys women in its peacekeeping operations and has helped establish a special training centre for participation in peacekeeping operations and missions.

Albania’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs drew attention to her country’s long road towards reconstruction after decades of ruin under a radical communist regime, during which it denied women a role in laying the foundation for a new country. “We have paid for that mistake,” she said. “But we also have learned from it.” Today, Albania ranks among the top five gender-balanced Governments in the world, with 75 per cent of ministerial posts held by women, she said.

Indeed, women’s participation must become “the new normal”, Anniken Huitfeldt, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway and Council President for January, affirmed. Speaking in her national capacity, she said women peacebuilders and human rights defenders at all levels of society must be provided the resources they need. “If the worst happens, we must ensure an adequate response,” she said. Sanctions and other deterrent measures must be considered, and the Council must demand accountability.

Also speaking today were representatives of the United States, Ireland, United Kingdom, Gabon, Brazil, France, Kenya, Japan, Malta, Canada, New Zealand, Italy, Poland, Estonia, Greece, Switzerland, Rwanda, Turkey, Germany, Bulgaria, Portugal, Belgium (also on behalf of Luxembourg), Ecuador, Morocco, Liechtenstein, Slovakia, Georgia, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Lithuania, Indonesia, Austria, Fiji, Malaysia, Jordan, Latvia, Egypt and Denmark (on behalf of the Nordic countries), as well as the observer for the European Union.

Source: UN Security Council