Australian Academics Want Women’s Voices Heard at the Security Council

Woman laying out leather
An entrepreneur drying leather in Bangladesh,where it will be sold on the market. A new class of small-business women in the country is emerging, raising economic levels nationally. RASHID PROBAL/UN WOMEN

A new network of women academics from Australia and New Zealand is keeping a close eye on Australia’s new two-year term as an elected member of the United Nations Security Council. The academics have organized a collective to track how well the UN’s most powerful body and Australia itself adhere to the landmark Women, Peace and Security resolution, a legally binding mandate passed in October 2000 to foster greater incorporation of gendered perspectives in armed conflict, peace-building and post-conflict situations.

More than a decade later, the results of the resolution’s adoption have been negligible: in 2012 the UN reported only 9 percent of peace negotiation participants and 4 percent of signatories to peace agreements were women.

The group, calling itself the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective (or WPSAC), wants those numbers changed and is relying on Australia to make that happen. Formed by feminist professors from Australia and New Zealand in November 2012, the collective is promoting and extending the Resolution 1325 agenda during Australia’s 2013-2014 Security Council term, which started in January and will include sitting in the rotating presidential seat twice. (The council has five permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, and 10 elected members, all of whom take turns chairing as president on a monthly alphabetical basis.) The timing is also right for action, as Australia now has a seat on the UN Women executive board.

Moreover, Rwanda, which holds the council presidency in April, has planned an open debate on women, peace and security to be held on April 17.

Jacqui True
Jacqui True of Monash University in Sydney, Australia.

“We aim to hold the Australian government accountable for its national and international commitments to promote the WPS agenda,” said Laura Shepherd and Jacqui True in an e-mail to PassBlue. Shepherd, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and True, who teaches at Monash University, outside Melbourne, founded the group.

Its scrutiny of the Security Council’s progress on this particular agenda item is not new, but the collective has posted its letters to government officials online, which is unusual for academics and other advocates. Some of the letters have been addressed to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and others to the foreign minister and senator, Bob Carr, who was at the UN in March for a council debate on Afghanistan.

In one letter to Carr, the women wrote: “We note that the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations delivered a speech on the protection of civilians in armed conflict to the Security Council (12 February 2013) and that this speech made no mention of the connection between protection of civilians and the WPS agenda. We also note that the website devoted to tracking activity on the UNSC reports no news related to the WPS agenda.”

More recently, they sent Carr a missive on the Arms Trade Treaty, which was negotiated in March but failed to win consensus and was adopted instead in the General Assembly on April 2. The academics wrote: “We urge Australia to take concrete steps to support a strong ATT and the inclusion of a specific gender criterion in the negotiated text. The criteria of an Arms Trade Treaty should require States not to authorize an international transfer of conventional arms where there is a substantial risk that the arms under consideration are likely to be used to perpetrate or facilitate acts of gender-based violence, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.”

The treaty negotiations were presided over by Peter Woolcott, Australia’s permanent representative to the UN.

Although the women have not been able to meet with Carr yet, they are attending a civil society consultation with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in May to talk more about their goals. The Australian mission to the UN spokesperson told PassBlue that Carr would not be able to comment on the collective’s work for months.

The government had no trouble using the Resolution 1325 agenda in its multimillion-dollar campaign for the much-contested Security Council seat it won last fall. It released, for example, the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security 2012-2018 in March 2012.The plan promotes its principles domestically and internationally. As part of it, the Australian government appointed a global ambassador whose role is to advocate gender equality and social empowerment of women and girls, with a focus on the Asia Pacific region.

Laura Shepherd
Laura Shepherd of the University of New South Wales, near Melbourne.

True and Shepherd said that “whether the Australian mission would have had more difficulty enacting the WPS agenda without our contribution, it’s impossible to say.” Nevertheless, they added, “We just plan to make the best of every opportunity to assist the government in extending and enhancing the WPS agenda.”

One gender expert who has worked for international organizations said the collective was much needed at the UN.

“The Secretary General’s 7-point Plan [which outlines women’s participation in peacebuilding] is just a collection of words,” the consultant said in an e-mail to PassBlue, asking to remain anonymous because of her criticisms. “Where are Middle East and North African women, for instance, in the high-level deliberations post Arab uprisings? No Libyan women at SSR [security sector reform] conferences in Europe; no efforts to meet Syrian women. UNDP’s Senior Gender Advisors have now been let go — contracts not renewed due to lack of funds.”

As an academic collective, the group hopes to use its primary expertise in research and teaching to expose such shortcomings. It has already made connections with government offices and civil society organizations that are interested in using research to help further the causes of women in peace talks and other related areas.

“We have provided a brief to Amnesty International (Australia), for example, on the topic of Australia’s support for the WPS agenda, and are in the process of consulting with government agencies on the background issues of gender and conflict,” True and Shepherd wrote in an e-mail.

The agenda’s three pillars for promoting a gendered perspective include: prevention of violence and the loss of rights; protection from violence; and participation in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction. The group aims to add a fourth pillar: creating the structural conditions for lasting peace.

Since its formation, the collective has engaged in numerous efforts with like-minded organizations. For example, it worked with the Afghan-Australian Development Organization to develop strategies to help protect women’s rights in Afghanistan post-2014, when NATO and American armed forces are slated to leave. In addition, it has organized a project titled “Eyes on 1325,” to monitor the rates of representation and participation by women in peace negotiations worldwide.

Through its social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, the collective is aiming to inspire other groups to encourage their own governments to more actively pursue the women, peace and security agenda. True and Shepherd have already made contact with feminist academics in Finland and Indonesia, they said, and they’re hopeful that more scholars will soon get involved in monitoring the UN’s commitment to the women, peace and security agenda.

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