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Recalling the antimilitarist origins of the WPS agenda

The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has been criticised for essentialism and an implementation that lacks true transformation. Taking the anti-militaristic vision at the origin of the WPS agenda seriously, we can push for an implementation that challenges the patriarchal status quo, push for structural transformation, and push our governments to take responsibility.

UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council in 2000. The landmark resolution marks the success of the advocacy and commitment of transnational feminist networks and women peace activists worldwide – particularly from the Global South – for the formal recognition of the gendered impacts of conflict and the inclusion of women’s perspectives in international security and peace policies. Resolution 1325 and nine follow-up resolutions together form the WPS agenda.

The agenda acknowledges different gendered experiences of armed conflicts, calls for women’s participation in conflict prevention, resolution, peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction, and demands the protection of women, including from sexualised and gender-based violence, in armed conflict. The WPS agenda consists of four pillars: prevention, protection, participation, and relief and recovery.

For many women’s rights organisations and feminist peace activists, the WPS agenda is a useful advocacy tool. The agenda and its implementation, however, have also been subjected to critique from feminist academics and practitioners alike. Points of criticism include: an essentialist understanding of gender by focusing exclusively on women; understanding women as passive victims and as inherently peaceful and therefore better suited to participate in peace processes; a lack of enforceability of the agenda; or that WPS practice focuses mainly on quotas and does not lead to structural transformation.

More than 20 years after its adoption, we see a growing discrepancy between the transformative potential of the agenda, the rhetoric on WPS and its actual implementation. There has been a strong emphasis on the acknowledgement and prevention of sexualised violence in conflict, and on the participation of women in peace processes. This, however, more often than not took the shape of making war safer for women (Shepherd 2016), on the one hand, and using an ‘add women and stir’ approach (WILPF 2020), on the other.

National Action Plans (NAPs), which are policy instruments, have become the primary form of WPS implementation. More than 80 countries so far have developed NAPs on WPS. The NAPs propagate WPS rhetoric, without necessarily contributing to a substantive implementation of the agenda. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the orientation that states give to their NAPs correlates with their geopolitical location. While countries in the Global South implement the agenda domestically, countries in the Global North direct their NAPs almost exclusively to their foreign policy. Haastrup and Hagen (2020) argue that dominant WPS practices thus reinforce global racial power hierarchies. Specifically Global North NAPs can “be seen to perpetuate an image wherein the peaceful North (which nevertheless employs and relies on militarism for its practices of peace and security) is obliged to ‘rescue’ the insecure global South.” (Ibid.: 133). In externalising their WPS agendas, Global North NAPs “exacerbate the racialised norms of international relations and of conflict/insecurity being something that happens in other places, while refusing [to acknowledge, – Ed.] the gendered violence within their own borders.” (Ibid.: 146)

The Swiss NAP is no different from this. It focuses almost exclusively on Swiss foreign policy, with the exception of two goals: an analysis of the situation and needs of refugee women in Switzerland and the increase in the number of women in the Swiss Armed Forces. The NAP’s main implementor is the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). A domestic implementation, however, seems to be appropriate for several reasons, one being that Global North states need to acknowledge and tackle structural violence within their borders, another being that a state exporting arms is complicit in causing conflicts in which these arms are used.

The feminist vision at the origin of UNSCR 1325 was clearly antimilitaristic. It did not want to make war safer for women, but prevent armed conflicts altogether. Several resolutions make the link to demilitarisation explicit, including a mention of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). It is apparent, however, that states readily take up WPS rhetoric linked to increasing the participation of women (without then necessarily contributing to meaningful participation of women beyond tokenism) but resist including demilitarisation policies in their NAPs. Yet, opposing militarisation is at the heart of WPS, which also becomes evident if we take its prevention pillar and the definition of security as genuine security seriously.

In 2020, Swiss companies exported war materiel worth 901.2 million CHF – a 24% increase compared to 2019. It is illegal, according to Swiss legislation, to export war materiel to conflict zones or to countries where human rights are systematically and gravely violated. Numerous examples, however, show that Swiss military material ends up in armed conflicts (WOZ 2021a). Furthermore, dual-use goods and particular military goods not intended for offensive use are not included in this number. If considered, the amount would reach 387.4 billion CHF. Importantly, these kinds of goods can still be exported to countries involved in armed conflict (WOZ 2021b). Switzerland only partly takes arms exports into account in its NAP. It references small arms and light weapons control but does not mention arms exports generally. Arms exports and the militarisation of society are ultimately about financial profit and resources, about budget allocation, about the distribution of power. The political questions of deciding if funds are allocated to militarised security, thus the defence industry, or allocated to social security infrastructure, the decision to commit to ending arms exports – these are ultimately questions that must be addressed domestically.

It would be easy, even obvious, to dismiss the WPS agenda altogether, given the varied and justified critiques and challenges to a transformative implementation. But we as feminist activists can still try to use 1325 as a tool for transformative change, beyond simple quotas and the perpetuation of a patriarchal status quo. We can continue to push for demilitarisation and, in arms-exporting countries in the Global North, start right at our doorstep.

The article was written by Andrea Filippi, programme and advocacy manager at PeaceWomen Across the Globe as a contribution to the first edition of the Feminists Connecting for Peace magazine. Read this and other articles on the topic of demilitarisation in the magazine. You can also find the sources used for this article there.