Germany and South Africa together can protect and advance the women, peace and security agenda

While the world ‘celebrates’ the 20th anniversary of UN security resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, Sophie Desmidt is less impressed with the progress made. In her latest commentary, she calls on Germany and South Africa to ensure that momentum is not entirely lost in the last months of their respective EU and AU presidencies.

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      This month marks the 20th anniversary of UN security resolution 1325, the UN Security Council’s first resolution on women, peace and security. An open debate will be held in the Council, with a new resolution as a possible outcome. There is not much reason for celebration however, and all the more so for vigilance.

      Existing commitments and norms on women, peace and security – and gender equality more broadly – are being undermined, both globally and nationally. Germany, the current European Union (EU) president, and South Africa, the current African Union (AU) chair, could help ensure that momentum around the 20th anniversary is not entirely lost in the last months of their presidencies. But there is not much time left this year, and defending the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda has shown to be an uphill battle. Concerted efforts beyond 2020 are crucial.

      A global clawback on women, peace and security


      In the past two years, both South Africa and Germany have experienced first-hand how the current international political climate has shifted from advancing the WPS agenda to (barely) protecting agreed commitments. The latest Security Council Report finds that within the UN Security Council, the context surrounding women, peace and security “has become more contentious and less conducive to a progression – or even maintenance – of the agenda”.

      In April 2019, the Council adopted resolution 2467 on sexual violence (tabled by Germany), with 13 members in favour and two abstentions (Russia and China). The text was watered down after difficult negotiations (including with the United States) on language used, and ultimately the resolution was stripped of all language on sexual and reproductive health rights for survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

      There were disagreements on the mandate of the Security Council and its competencies vis-à-vis other parts of the UN system (UN Women for instance) and objections to establishing new formal mechanisms. No surprise there. But what was striking was the toughness of the negotiations on existing norms and language. The fact that certain Council members objected to issues that they had previously agreed as part of the WPS agenda, set a bad precedent according to women’s rights groups and observers.

      Other members of the Council regretted this too. South Africa stated that the Security Council resolution was essentially telling “survivors of sexual violence in conflict that consensus [among members] is more important than their needs [by denying them essential services when they need them the most]”. Several EU member states, including Germany, but also France and Belgium, aligned with South Africa.

      When South Africa held the monthly presidency in October 2019, it tabled resolution 2493, the tenth resolution on WPS. This was seen as an attempt to restore consensus around the WPS agenda and focus on accountability and implementation.

      The good news is that it was adopted unanimously, suggesting there is still some level of cross-regional support for the WPS framework and agenda. But it took aligned effort and action by like-minded members of the Security Council in the face of growing objection by permanent member states against key elements of the WPS agenda. Moreover, civil society observers were disappointed with the lack of ambition in the text.

      South Africa and Germany put WPS in the spotlight, but…


      South Africa outlined ambitious commitments to gender equality at the start of its AU presidency, raising expectations for this celebratory year. This included attention for women’s entrepreneurship, promoting women’s financial and economic inclusion, but also combating gender-based violence and “addressing the harmful social norms that contribute to and perpetuate such violence”.

      Since 2019, South Africa has made WPS its most visible priority as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, although it seems to be struggling to address violence against women at home and implement its national action plan on resolution 1325.

      Germany on the other hand was less ambitious in its EU presidency. It recommitted to mainstreaming equality, including gender and LGBTQIA+ rights and equality, but the stated priorities did not explicitly include the promotion of gender equality beyond Europe’s borders. Germany did however continue to co-chair the Council’s Informal Experts Group (IEG) on women, peace and security.

      In April 2019, Germany tried to establish a formal working group on sexual violence in conflict, to make this issue part and parcel of the Council’s work. It faced opposition from Russia and China, who objected to the establishment of a new reporting and accountability mechanism, and the United States, who objected to the proposed language on sexual and reproductive healthcare for survivors of wartime.

      Germany and South Africa were expected to attend the sixth AU-EU Summit later this month. That summit has been postponed to 2021 due to travel restrictions and public health concerns related to COVID-19. While the summit would have been a golden opportunity for a strong joint communication on women, peace and security and gender equality, both continents continue to prepare for the celebration of 1325+20 later this month, as well as Beijing+25 (the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action), which is ongoing.

      Domestic opposition


      Many worry that we are losing time to advance the implementation of WPS in the midst of global clawback and growing domestic opposition by populists movements, combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are latent and explicit internal disagreements on elements of the WPS and gender equality agendas in both Africa and Europe.

      The Istanbul Convention on violence against women is an example of internal disagreements among EU member states. Some of them, including Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, object to the Convention’s definition of gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men”. In both regions there is also internal disagreement on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

      Many African and European countries, including South Africa and Germany, continue to face serious challenges to implement their national action plans on WPS. Despite immense progress in terms of female representation in the parliament, as well as police and defence forces, 26% of women in South Africa face intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

      Germany will adopt a third national action plan on women, peace and security later this month. But according to some NGOs, there is still room for improvement when it comes to tackling violence against women. They also called on Germany to include the WPS agenda more strongly in its foreign policy, as the world’s fourth biggest weapon exporter.

      What is needed beyond 2020


      The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the fragile progress towards gender equalityData gathered by the UN shows growing rates of domestic abuse, the double/triple shifts of unpaid care and domestic work carried out by women as a result of working from home, job losses and declining income, increasing poverty, and vulnerability for the 740 million women working in the informal sector. The UN expects a one-third reduction in progress towards gender equality by 2030 as a result of the pandemic.

      South Africa and Germany should use the remainder of their presidencies this year to initiate a shared EU-AU custodianship over the global WPS agenda, and seek out their remaining allies, such as Canada, which has launched a feminist foreign policy.

      There is no shortage of initiatives and activities to promote WPS in either Europe or Africa, ranging from the AU’s Continental Results Framework on WPS, a new AU gender equality policy, to the EU Gender Action plan and the EU’s Strategic Framework on WPS, complemented by a growing number of national action plans adopted by member states.

      If the EU and the AU are serious about promoting the WPS agenda beyond 2020, they need to capitalise on these processes. At the very least, South Africa and Germany should use their remaining time to ensure WPS gets a central spot in the next AU-EU summit joint declaration.

      Together, they can punch above their weight and operate in tandem to ensure greater implementation of the WPS agenda both domestically and globally. No one else will do it for them.


      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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