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The WPS Agenda and Special Political Missions: A glance at global and regional progress

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Picture: Sourav Sarker / UNSOM Flickr / Taken on September 3, 2023 – Deputy Special Envoy for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia Anita Kiki Gbeho and Somali women members of parliament discuss issues including advancing women’s rights and representation and ensuring women’s full participation in political life in the fourth MPs/UN leadership forum in Mogadishu, Somalia on September 3.

By Abigail Kabandula

Efforts from inside and outside the United Nations (UN) to mainstream gender and implement the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda in UN peace operations have resulted in the creation of the UN gender parity strategy and the gender responsive peacekeeping policy, among other initiatives.

However, in the context of a number of withdrawals of UN missions with large military forces, such as in Darfur, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the international community is seeing an opportunity to revisit the broader range of intervention strategies to support peace. This is bringing new attention to special political missions (SPMs) led by both the UN and regional organisations like the African Union (AU).

The UN Secretary-General’s New Agenda for Peace policy brief, published this summer, supports the use of tools like SPMs as part of its prioritisation of conflict prevention. Additionally, the New Agenda for Peace stresses the benefit of regional partnerships like those between the UN and AU.

It is thus worth exploring the ways in which SPMs, particularly AU SPMs, are prepared to implement WPS goals.

Why SPMs?

While SPMs and multidimensional peace operations serve different purposes, SPMs are attractive for both the UN and AU. This is even more true now, amid pushback and requests for the withdrawal of multilateral military interventions that seem to have made little progress in stabilisation and bringing about peace and security (i.e., the expulsion of the UN peacekeepers in Mali, and calls by both the government and citizens for peacekeepers to leave the country in the DRC and Somalia).

More telling is the threat of war issued by military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso, should the Economic Community of West Africa States (Ecowas) deploy a military intervention in Niger to restore a democratically elected government following a coup in July this year.

Peacekeeping operations are expensive (costing $6.85 billion in 2021-2022), and contributions have decreased, leading to financial constraints. SPMs on the other hand are smaller and relatively less expensive. Field missions average less than 500 staff members, and a Special Envoy support staff average is 50 people, making these options easier to deploy. African Union political missions are even smaller, with approximately ten people per mission.

Moreover, countries seem more willing to accept SPMs, which have not been caught up in other peace operations issues about consent. Today, the UN and AU have deployed missions for conflict prevention, mediation, and peacebuilding in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe.

Gender and Special Political Missions: A Snapshot

There are two ways to begin to understand how WPS is being implemented in the context of SPMs. The first, in line with the UN gender parity goals, is to examine the gender composition of SPMs. The second way to examine WPS in the context of SPMs is to examine the ways the mission mainstreams gender in its work externally, through its engagement with local populations, and in other mandated tasks.

As peacekeeping operations have a large (mostly male) military component, SPMs, which do not primarily engage military forces, provide more opportunities for gender parity. There is some progress in promoting gender inclusion and parity in SPMs for both the UN and the AU, as evidenced in staffing, mandates, and objectives.

In 2021, across twenty UN SPMs, 148 staff offered gender expertise and support, together with 31 full-time gender advisers. Seven SPMs had a gender advisor at the senior level, and most advisors were funded through the SPMs’ regular budget. In addition, the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) has made some strides in promoting gender equality and women’s participation in peace and security by developing strategies to increase the involvement of women across the world and inform strategies based on the priorities of women’s rights.

DPPA works with Special Envoys and Special Representatives of the Secretary-General in designing and implementing strategies for inclusive peace processes. Newer approaches explore pathways for women’s participation digitally as well as virtual consultations in peace processes.

The AU has developed innovative ways to increase the representation of women internally including through the Political Affairs Peace and Security (PAPS) Commission, along with the nomination of women Special Representative, Special Envoys, and mediators. There are currently three women Special Envoys of the AU Commission Chairperson (out of seven), and of the eight Special Representatives, four are women. Two members of the Panel of the Wise out of the five-member committee are women. There are no women High Representatives.

The AU’s Office of the Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security is also noteworthy. It was created in 2014 by erstwhile Chairperson of the AU Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the first female leader of the Commission. Senegalese women’s rights activist Bineta Diop was appointed Special Envoy with the mandate to ensure that the voices of women and the vulnerable are “heard” in peacebuilding and conflict resolution spaces. In pursuit of the mandate, the Special Envoys’ office works with member states, grassroots women and men through dialogues, briefings, and site visits.

However, the office likely lacks sufficient financial resources to carry out most of its activities, calling into question whether the office is set up to succeed.

Regarding mediation, an important component of the work of SPMs, FemWise-Africa, a network of African women mediators, is a 2017 innovation of the AU African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), created through the Panel of the Wise. FemWise aims to train and ready women mediators who can be deployed to the AU to support the Union’s conflict prevention efforts in times of crisis. The network has chapters across the Continent.

Even though both the UN and AU have developed several frameworks and policies to realise Resolution 1325, gender parity in political missions and peace processes is still lacking, and the implementation of policies is fragmented. For both organisations, men dominate mission and other leadership positions.

For instance, most Special Envoys, Special Representatives, and High Representatives in UN and AU SPMs are men. Women make up 29 percent of the UN’s international staff in peacekeeping and SPMs, but only head 15 percent of peacekeeping, political, and peacebuilding missions.

There are policies coming from the AU that have had some success in promoting gender inclusion and equity in SPMs and in the populations where they work. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, African Union Gender Architecture, Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, AU Gender Policy, and Kinshasa Declaration all provide policies and legal frameworks to address Women, Peace and Security. The Maputo Protocol is particularly notable for its focus on increased participation of women in conflict prevention, management, and post-conflict reconstruction.

In the AU, women’s participation in high-level conflict prevention and mediation (i.e., women leading mediation teams, including high-profile ones) is still lacking. High-profile cases continue to be allocated to men, who are mostly former heads of state (High Representatives). AU envoys and mediation teams to conflict-affected areas are all men. Women Special Envoys represent Covid-19, youth, and women, peace and security (two others are the Special Representatives heading AU liaison offices in the DRC and Libya).

Future Hopes

Twenty years after its formal creation, the WPS agenda has a long road ahead to realise gender parity in conflict prevention, peacemaking, and peacebuilding processes (SPMs) at the global and continental levels. The New Agenda for Peace discusses the significance of transforming patriarchal structures for sustainable peace.

SPMs present a unique opportunity to advance UNSCR 1325, given the myriad functions and tasks they perform to advance peace and security across the globe. Moreover, their position as more non-militarised entities, provides an opportunity to reimagine peacekeeping and field presence of the UN and the AU.

The UN and AU have developed several frameworks and policies toward implementing the WPS agenda, albeit fragmented. In the context of SPMs, these efforts focus on the goal of gender parity within missions and on building and mainstreaming gender expertise within SPMs.

Recent evidence points to hopefulness around the commitment to building SPMs’ capacity to mainstream gender analysis, as seen in the positions and infrastructure created in SPMs, especially by the AU. This initial commitment does not guarantee the successful implementation of the WPS agenda and will require continued work by gender experts.

Further, sustainable, predictable, and flexible funding is crucial for the success of SPM generally and especially for advancing the WPS agenda. Sustainable financing will enhance the ability of SPMs to recruit adequate and qualified personnel, purchase equipment that makes the mission agile in implementing the mandate and respond to rising matters.

For organisations like the AU, funding is even more crucial for employing permanent gender experts across its missions (as opposed to gender experts seconded by donors). Nonetheless, political will among leaders is key in realising the WPS agenda, as such, it is time for multilateral institutions like the UN and AU to find the political will and become relevant to serve the needs of a diverse 21st-century citizenry.

Abigail Kabandula is the Director of Africa Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. This article is part of a series reflecting on the 23rd anniversary of the WPS agenda.

This article was first published on the Global Observatory