22 February 2023
The conceptualisation and scope of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda have long been contested, with questions of what, when, and who is included in the agenda approached from diverse standpoints. An emerging space of this contestation is the domestic implementation of WPS, specifically in relation to the refugee and asylum policies and processes of global north countries, which in many cases are in direct contradiction to their commitments under WPS.
Understood as a global policy architecture, WPS was established in 2000 through UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325,(1) which linked gender equality to the maintenance of international peace and security. In the subsequent 20 years, 10 further resolutions were passed by the UNSC, which make up the policy framework of WPS as we know it today. These Resolutions establish WPS as an approach to promote gender equality, protect the rights and lives of women affected by conflict, and ensure the participation of women in peacekeeping and conflict prevention. WPS, however, has a rich life beyond and outside of these resolutions, developed and defined by the varied and multiple actors that engage with and use WPS in their work, including states, civil society actors, UN bodies, and regional organisations. Here I engage with one particular actor who plays a substantial role in defining the bounds of WPS as a global policy architecture - states - and the tool that shapes and implements their interpretation and conceptualisation of WPS - National Action Plans (NAPs).
Whose peace and security? And where?
A key issue of contestation in WPS is its application in the domestic context of ‘non-conflict-affected states’. Essentially, is WPS relevant in countries where there isn’t ‘active’ conflict? Over the years of WPS’ proliferation, critiques have been levied at WPS actors, particularly states located in the global north, that their approach to WPS is outward-facing, creating a binary opposition between the ‘safety’ of the global north and the ‘insecurity’ of the global south.
This exportation of WPS to ‘over there’ is explicitly seen in the NAPs of global north countries. NAPs function as the implementation and accountability framework of states, where they set out their priorities and actions on WPS. Government agencies are responsible for implementing their WPS commitments made in the NAP and measuring progress against the monitoring and evaluation frameworks set out alongside the NAP; this provides a useful tool for civil society to advocate for accountability. Many NAPs of global north countries exclusively or predominantly focus on selected ‘conflict-affected priority countries’ - often set out in NAPs as ‘focus countries’ - where WPS is exported through humanitarian, development or peacekeeping interventions. Many focus countries for WPS intervention are tied to colonial histories or military intervention, contributing to the continued dynamic of ‘us’ and ‘them’ produced through racialised hierarchies of progress.(2)
NAPs of the global north have come under scrutiny for their re-production of racialised and colonial hierarchies.(3) The binary opposition between north/south, conflict affected/safe, civilised/uncivilised produces an explicit hierarchy within the WPS agenda where WPS is something applicable only to ‘the other’ with the global north situated as the bringer of safety, security and rights. Further, in global south countries where NAPS are developed, often, these are funded, overseen and provided technical support by countries from the global north and/or UN agencies - meaning that the global north still holds power in dictating WPS approaches and priorities. The global north therefore becomes both the knower of WPS, and its guardian, holding countries accountable rather than being held accountable themselves. These practices fail to account for the colonial histories and subsequent global geopolitical contexts that have shaped the present and directly contributed to the insecurity in many conflict affected countries. In this context, it is, therefore, unsurprising that many NAPs of the global north do not interrogate the insecurity at or within their own borders.
This is clearly seen in the approach of global north countries to refugee and asylum-seeking women, who are often invisibilised or removed from the bounds of WPS. As argued by Aiko & Reeves, “the WPS agenda has successfully constructed the figure of the conflict-affected woman as a subject worthy of attention, inclusion and protection on the part of the international community”.(4) But within the WPS agenda, what defines the conflict-affected woman? Aiko & Reeves go on to argue that “the concern for the conflict-affected woman is defined by her geographical closeness to the active conflict itself, the further they move away from conflict, into humanitarian settings, and then through seeking safety and security in Europe, in countries such as the UK, the less visible she is in WPS policy, and therefore the less support and intervention is provided”.(5) This conceptualisation of WPS is limited in its understanding of both peace and security. If both the interpretation and implementation of WPS goes beyond these narrow avenues of understanding, it holds substantially greater potential for achieving inclusive and sustainable peace both at the personal and political level, as well as beginning to address the hierarchies created in current approaches to who and where WPS is applicable .
Case study - Domestic Implementation and the UK
This limited interpretation of WPS focusing on external conflict affected focus countries can be seen in the UK’s approach to the agenda. The UK has engaged substantively with the WPS agenda since its inception and proliferation in the early 2000s, publishing its first NAP on 8th March 2006, fourth globally, following Denmark, Norway and Sweden.(6) So far, the UK has produced four further NAPs, with its fifth due to be published in early 2023. At the multilateral level, the UK is a permanent member of the UNSC. With all its work on WPS, the UK has begun to "construct an image of itself as a global 'leader' and 'expert’".(7) The UK’s approach to foreign policy and WPS aims to centre those vulnerable to harm. For example, taking a global advocacy role in addressing conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) through the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI); playing a leading role in establishing the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies; and focusing programming on topics such as women’s role in decision-making as outlined in the UK’s WPS NAP.
Despite this, the UK also plays a substantial role in the global military industrial complex, being one of the top 10 arms exporters in 2019 and playing an active role in overseas military operations, including, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.(8) These actions contribute to global insecurity and are therefore connected to displacement, leading to those affected by such insecurity to seek sanctuary in countries such as the UK. The UK has been heavily critiqued for its refugee and asylum policies which make life unbearably difficult for those seeking sanctuary in the UK.(9) This disconnect between the UK’s focus on WPS externally and its own actions can be seen in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which feature as focus countries in the UK’s fourth NAP (2018-2022) and are expected to remain as such in the fifth NAP. However, refugee and asylum processes for those affected by conflict in both countries have been criticised for failing those most vulnerable, particularly women human rights defenders and civil society actors.(10) The situation for those that are in the UK is not much better, as explored below.
The compliant environment, formerly known as the hostile environment, and years of legislation and policies aiming to reduce migration to the UK have created a system that (re)produces harm and violence against all those seeking sanctuary, including the ‘conflict-affected woman’ the WPS agenda works to protect. In their recently published policy brief on ‘The Future of the UK’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda’,(11) Kirby, Wright and Swaine highlight this dissonance between the international and domestic policy approaches of the UK, arguing that “while WPS resolutions urge states to recognise risks facing female refugees, the current government’s commitment to reducing net migration and decades of legislation designed to reduce migration to the UK from the global south have produced policies that enact a range of gendered and racialised harms against migrants and asylum seekers”.(12)
This environment is created to block access to public services, as well as push migrants, refugees and asylum seekers into extreme poverty. Under the compliant environment, employers, landlords, NHS staff, and other public servants have to check individuals' immigration status before offering them a job, housing, healthcare or other support.(13) This ensures those seeking sanctuary are unable to access essential services, including, for example, a refuge for those escaping an abusive relationship. This dissonance is also seen in “the government’s refusal to ratify Article 59 of the Istanbul Convention, which would grant residence to individuals whose immigration status depends on an abusive partner, further traps people in abusive situations”.(14)
Further, within the detention system, female detainees have made multiple reports of sexual abuse by detention centre staff as well neglect and inhumane conditions.(15) The UK’s recent withdrawal from the EU and subsequent introduction of regressive legislation on the pathways to refugee and asylum in the UK and the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, has further contributed to insecurity and harm against communities the WPS agenda purports to ‘support and protect’.
In their 2021 Shadow Report, GAPS - the UK Civil Society Network on WPS - outlines the threats the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 poses to women and girls seeking asylum from persecution and argues that the UK government must take a gender-sensitive approach to the implementation of national legislation on asylum in order to fully meet its commitments under the WPS agenda. GAPS states that “clauses 31 and 32 of the Bill place a higher threshold for women and girls to reach to be afforded protection in the UK. The Act also criminalises women and girls reaching the UK through irregular routes, thus subjecting them to further control and exploitation from traffickers and putting women and girls with heritage (or assumed heritage) outside of the UK (particularly from non-European countries) at risk of losing their citizenship for reasons beyond their control”.(17) In the context of the current crisis in Ukraine, there are also reports of sex traffickers targeting women and girls through the UK’s refugee resettlement programme ‘Homes for Ukraine’ due to refugees being hosted without any safeguarding checks being made.(18)
The UK is due to publish its next 5 year NAP in 2023, and “there are some signs that the UK government is considering a more explicit ‘internal’ face to the next NAP”.(19) This change would be substantial and indicate a move towards a more holistic understanding of insecurity and a more cohesive cross-government policy approach on WPS. The inclusion of a domestic focus on refugee and asylum policy would begin to address the insecurity and harms committed by the UK’s current approach and is required to ensure that women and girls in the UK are afforded the same rights and support that the UK advocates for internationally.(20) The expansion of WPS to include refugee and asylum seekers may also provide the leverage and opportunity to address the UK’s actions overseas that contribute to conflict and insecurity. Of course, the domestic implementation of WPS, both in the UK and elsewhere, extends beyond refugee and asylum policy;(21) however, this shift provides a potential entry point to continue to expand conceptualisations of whose security WPS applies to and where.
Changes in concept and practice
The answer to the question of - ‘whose peace and security? and where?’ -comes down to how both peace and security are defined. The case of refugee and asylum-seeking women affected by conflict is one example where WPS, in certain forms, fails to understand and address violence and harm outside of the state-defined ‘conflict zone’ and human/gender security at the personal level. For WPS to contribute to a positive and sustainable peace, global north countries must implement WPS within their own borders and interrogate their approach to WPS overseas and its relationship to dynamics and histories of race and colonialism.
If meaningfully and effectively undertaken, this shift would allow WPS to be used as a powerful tool for both structural and transformative change. However, NAPs would need to be interpreted and implemented with a holistic people-centred approach that applies across contexts both domestically and globally, locating the personal and interpersonal within systems and structures of power. Not only does it begin to address security at and within the borders of global north states, it would also afford attention to the structures and relations of power on a global scale that both produce conflict and instability and shape the global relations of power within the policy ecosystem of WPS. Whether it is possible for this vision of WPS to become a reality for state actors remains to be seen both in its conceptualsiation and implementation. Despite their limitations, NAPs provide an entry point and tool for this possibility. However, their development and implementation must take a consultative and collaborative approach to enable a cohesive policy environment, meaningful partnerships and the redistribution of power and resources.
Florence Waller–Carr (@florencewallerc) is a PhD candidate at the LSE Gender Department, where her research focuses on the role of CSOs in shaping and implementing WPS. Florence also works for Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS), the UK civil society network on WPS, as a Policy Advocacy and Communications Manager and is one of the Co-Founders of Our Generation for Inclusive Peace (OGIP).
(14) See footnote 11
(20) See footnote 17
(21) For example, in the UK movement towards fully and effectively implementing WPS in the case of Northern Ireland. See The Future of the UK’s Women, Peace and Security Policy by Paul Kirby, Hannah Wright and Aisling Swaine (footnote 12) for further discussion of this topic.