Myths and Realities – What is the Women, Peace and Security Agenda?

Rosie Ireland is a GJA Student Ambassador for 2015-16, and is reading for an LLM in Human Rights. Rosie co-authored our first student report on international law and peace negotiations with her colleague, Siobhan Cuming. In this report, Rosie reflects on the 2015 Crystal Macmillan Lecture, which was delivered by Madeleine Rees. 

Last semester on the 26 November, the distinguished international lawyer and human rights advocate Madeline Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, delivered the second Chrystal Macmillan Lecture of 2015. The report provides a brief summary and covers some of the key points made during the lecture.

Law has developed since 1948 to address conflicts, promote peace and end war. Addressing the root causes of conflict – such as inequalities between people and nations – is essential to the prevention of future conflict.

The 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action marked the beginning of a movement within the United Nations of recognising women’s rights as human rights. In 2000, UNSCR 1325 focused upon the inordinate impact of conflicts on women and the role of women in conflict resolution. The resolution aims to be transformative; focusing on protection, prevention, post-conflict reconstruction and participation. It was followed by a number of other resolutions addressing women, peace and security (‘WPS’). Today, however, the UNSCR 1325 does not seem to have had the transformative effect it aspired to. Rees argues that the implementation of the resolution has to be understood in the context of the real world and geopolitics. She describes 9/11 as a “catalytic moment” that, inter alia, has contributed to the situation today in which the default position of states is militarisation. Militarisation, however, is not always within the boundaries of the law: an illegal war of aggression and numerous violations of international humanitarian and human rights law has taken place.

Rees goes on to illuminate the interplay between crucial concepts such as gender, patriarchy, militarisation, neoliberalism and the global economy and how these are implicated in and impact the WPS agenda. This terminology is regularly invoked in WPS discourse, yet their actual meanings are complex and need to be interrogated. ‘Gender equality’ is a critical concept. However, Rees argues it also poses difficulties since ‘gender’ is a social construct. This raises the question: can one construct be ‘equal’ to another? Or rather, to achieve equality and/or overcome prejudices is the solution to interrogate the constructs themselves and neutralize the concept of ‘gender’ altogether? In practice, ‘gender equality’ can become a box-ticking exercise: achieved by simply adding women to various peace processes. Whilst this might work towards achieving formal equality, it does not necessarily achieve substantive equality. Rees argues that we need to be more intelligent in how we think about gender.

Patriarchy, militarisation and neoliberalism are, Rees argues, to some extent reflected in the UN system and this is highly problematic. In practical terms, drafting the WPS onto institutions characterised by masculine or patriarchal approaches to law, policy and development is unlikely to be successful. She additionally argues that the political economy is about power; in that sense, unequal gender relations mean that gender runs through the political economy. These unequal power relations are aggravated in the context of conflict. Constructions of gender also play a role in conflict and conflict narratives. Historically, men are expected to go to war. If they do not they are branded ‘coward’. Women, on the other hand, tend to be conceptualised as ‘victims’. This means that their multifarious contributions during war-time can be written out of mainstream history. These historical notions remain relevant today. Although these conceptualisations are not ‘real,’ they are institutionalised and implicit in the narratives used to frame conflicts.

Overall, despite legal systems being in place, the law is being overlooked. Rees argues what is needed is to insist on law and the placement of human rights at the core of conflict resolution and peace making processes. To fulfil the WPS agenda also requires recognising the gender division and developing understandings of how it relates to power, conflict and peace.

To watch Madeline Rees’ talk in full, follow this link:

If you are a matriculated student at the University of Edinburgh and are keen to get involved, click here to find out more about being a GJA Student Ambassador.