Rethinking the Women, Peace and Security Agenda through the Lens of Resistance

The Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS) was launched in 2000 with the passage of United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 and had the laudable aim of mainstreaming gender in all aspects of conflict prevention, management and resolution. In particular, the UN resolution and much of the implementation that accompanies it, including National Action Plans on WPS stressed the value of women’s contributions to conflict transformation. Generally, that has been understood as encouraging female representation in peace negotiations (ideally equal with male participation), gendering the terms of political agreements by including references to specific issues deemed of concern to women (e.g. quotas in political participation, non-discrimination), gendering peacebuilding work including peacekeeping, and preventing sexual violence in conflict through accountability and political condemnation.

Criticisms of the WPS agenda abound, including its selectivity (applying WPS to some conflicts and not others), its essentialism (treating women primarily as victims not as autonomous actors), and its failure to challenge the war system from a feminist perspective (accepting the bona fides of war in contrast to a long feminist tradition of peace activism internationally). All these criticisms are well aimed, and I’d add another, namely the failure to treat women’s resistance to ill-conceived and inequitable conflict resolution as a valid exercise of political power. Without including a framework of resistance in its worldview, WPS may become increasingly irrelevant to women on the ground in conflict zones. For women in warzones, their home-grown understanding of local peace and security needs differs substantially from the internationally mediated peace processes driven by bilateral and regional interests. In some conflicts, it is apparent that local women perceive international interventions (including but not limited to resolution 1325) as part of the problem and not the solution. As the abject failures of many humanitarian and other interventions cogently illustrate, local sentiments are often right about what works and what does not in conflict resolution in the long term. Articulating that viewpoint is not easy for women’s organizations given that funds to support women’s movements and political participation in conflict zones are frequently premised implicitly and explicitly on their willingness to be partners in implementing 1325.

Examples of resistance abound. These include the participation of women in both state and non-state armed forces in conflicts around the globe. Women’s roles as combatants is gaining increased recognition, but requires practical implementation on the ground in conflict sites to ensure their ability to serve on equal terms as their male counterparts, their ability to exercise command and control functions within militaries, and their right to equal treatment in processes of demobilization, demiliterization and re-integration.

A female resistance role in peace-building activism is less visible. This is in part because women are quintessentially viewed as agents of peace-making, and it is generally assumed that women will be on the side of reconciliation and conflict resolution – no matter what the context or the ‘deal’ on the table. Yet, women’s civil society organizations are increasingly articulating their unhappiness with elitist and superficial conflict resolution that doesn’t address the political root causes of conflict and people’s everyday needs. For example, in Cyprus where the long-running peace negotiations have created a marginalized Women’s Technical Committee, and relegated all gender issues related to the conflict to it, women’s civil society groups are debating the value of ‘staying in or coming out’ of peace talks. For these women being included within the framework of the formal talks provides a fig leaf of gender validation for the male political leaders negotiating the conflict’s end, but offers no meaningful engagement with issues of peace and security from a gender perspective. The same might well be said of efforts to include Syrian women in the failed Geneva negotiation process. Here, and in other conflict zones, external resistance to the official peace agenda may be a more effective course of action for women’s organizations and deliver much needed dissent as well as occasional concrete gains from putting external pressure on negotiations.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, Palestinian women’s organizations have stepped away from participating in joint ‘woman-to-woman’ peace projects with Israeli groups. They argue that such engagement only creates cosmetic individual changes while leaving intact issues of structural discrimination and power inequality. These inequalities fundamentally affect Palestinian women’s capacity to engage on an equal and fair basis in intra-communal dialogue, and yet they provide cover for international organizations and interested third parties, who can claim that positive women’s work is being done in conflict. In reality, such work may politically disable women’s organizations from confronting the Israeli occupation in tangible and direct ways, leading to a feminization of relatively powerless peace-building, which is entirely divorced from the political realpolitik.

In conclusion, a highly salient question today is: To what extent is women’s resistance, including non-violent protest, considered a relevant part of the UN’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda? This question seems all the more relevant as we have witnessed an upsurge in women’s national protest activities (in Poland, the United States, and Ireland, for example). While these visible aspects of protest are not conflict-related, they underscore that protest and resistance are an integral part of the conflict resolution landscape.

Moreover, to what extent does the WPS agenda affirm the right to actively work against any conflict resolution that is unrepresentative, insufficiently grounded in conflict transformation, and which fails to address the root causes of conflict? For many women in conflict sites, resistance activism reflects an emphasis on action and not words, on struggle rather than co-existence, and on the everyday as the place in which this work is done. In this context, the dominant pathways that have framed the WPS agenda — including peaceful femininities, global sisterhood and motherhood — are inadequate to support the hard-fought nature of making peace through struggle. Instead, as we witness the weakness of many post-Cold War peace deals to deliver anything beyond negative peace on the ground simply but only limit public violence between male combatants without corresponding political and economic capacity building (see e.g. Northern Ireland, Bosnia) there is a growing need to reconsider the value of resistance within and beyond peace processes. This is perhaps an essential ingredient to reimagining inclusive and transformative peace premised on female political agency and empowerment and not merely about adding women, and stirring them into to an already well-cooked political compromise between male elites. Affirming resistance says that dissent is a vital part of securing peace, and that women have an equal entitlement to opposition in any peace process.

Image: Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG women fighters walk to reach a check point in the outskirts of the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane, Syria. June 20, 2015 – Ahmet Sik/Getty 

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About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).