Why Should Localising the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Australia be a National Priority?

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 4.49.04 PMThe Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda is primarily viewed as an international instrument focused on improving gender relations in internationally recognised “conflict” and “post-conflict” zones. As a result, the Australian government has made little effort to localise this agenda as established within UNSCR 1325 and later associated provisions. This is evidenced in the recently formulated Australian 1325 National Action plan which is focussed primarily on actions relevant to Australian involvement in conflict abroad. This interpretation of the WPS agenda misses one of its key underlying, though rarely articulated imperatives: justice. Further, viewing the WPS agenda through a gender and justice lens, pinpoints a potential injustice in relation to “who” has the power to define an internationally recognised “conflict” and hence, “where” the WPS agenda should be localised. Such an injustice commonly arises in “settler” countries where internationally recognised indigenous/settler “conflict” frames are rare. Yet the lives of those caught up in the violence inflicted by such intra-State, domestically-situated “unrecognised conflicts” is marked by profound injustice. This profound injustice, reflected in and through recurring (violent) indigenous/settler relations, demands Australia localise the WPS agenda as a national priority.

Reading the WPS agenda as gender and justice creates a space that allows any relations based on the unjustified domination of one group over another, whether based on gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, race, etc., to be recognised as an actionable injustice. Viewing the WPS agenda as a matter of gender and justice highlights the various subordinations that prevent women from being full participants in social life. Based on these highlighted subordinations, the WPS agenda develops new inclusive structures. As such, the WPS agenda calls attention to the gendered injustices that have evolved from unequal indigenous/settler relations and other internationally “unrecognised conflicts”.

The legacy of ignoring the justice imperative of the WPS agenda can be illustrated by the “Troubles” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which the British government refuse to classify as an internationally recognised “conflict”. The British government’s reluctance to recognise the endemic violent relations as a “conflict” permits denial of any obligation to apply the WPS agenda. Contesting the “who”, in this case the British government’s power to withhold “conflict” status, an alternative space opens in which the WPS framework can be utilised to further claims by both sides, focused on issues of gender and justice. This space creates previously unexplored and unimagined possibilities, moving towards a sustainably peaceful solution.

A similar situation is found in Australia with its long history of unequal and unjust indigenous relations and denial of an internationally recognised “conflict” status. By refuting the status of indigenous/settler relations as an internationally recognised “conflict”, any sort of post-conflict reconstruction/reconciliation in an emotional, cultural, political or economic sense is denied and the injustice suffered by indigenous populations is perpetuated. The very act of denying the symbolic status of violent indigenous/settler (State) relations as a “conflict” has the tendency to inflict violence against those who are deemed at odds with the State, at the same time as it continues to perpetuate that violence.

Over the last decade, the Australian government has grappled with the symbolic denial of the status of indigenous/settler relations as a “conflict”. The Rudd government’s “Sorry” speech saw the symbolic acknowledgement of violence, while continuing to withhold the status of an internationally recognised “conflict”. It also recognised the injustices that arise from these relations through its Closing the Gap Agenda, without formally acknowledging claims for justice. Openings for new, innovative, transformative policies, actions and programs can arise by applying the WPS agenda framework to these rather cautious and slow moving responses to indigenous/settler relations in Australia. This would be a step forward, if and only if, it is localised as a national priority, focused on both gender and justice. Such a project would cut across and through lines of subordination that are interweaved throughout Australian indigenous/settler relations. With its seat on the Security Council (2013-14) and on the board of UN Women, Australia is in a position to initiate an international shift in how the WPS agenda is globally interpreted and locally implemented. This would be a courageous move in national and international policy-making contexts. The only question:  Is Australia is up to the challenge?

Michelle Dunn

University of Queensland