Looking Back and Looking Forward: An Overview of Australia’s Activity on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ in 2013.

Australia is into its second and final year as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Given that the mid-way mark has just passed, this is a good opportunity to look back on Australia’s activity on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ (WPS) over the past year and to recognise some of the work that Australia has done in furthering the WPS agenda in 2013.

Australia and Guatemala together hosted a Security Council Arria Formula meeting in May 2013, which provided the members of the Security Council the opportunity to informally meet with members of civil society. The focus of this meeting was ‘Gender practitioners in UN Peacekeeping Operations’, and it sought to demonstrate the difference between Gender Advisors and Women Protection Advisors, and the value of both roles to peacekeeping operations. Arria Formula meetings are useful for advancing the WPS agenda for a number of reasons: they are easily convened; they include civil society actors that would otherwise not have the opportunity to provide information about their on-the-ground experience to the Security Council; and gender-related Arria Formula meetings have been held multiple times over the past decade. We therefore hope to see Australia convene another such meeting in 2014.

The Security Council held Open Debates concerning sexual violence in conflict in April 2013 and June 2013, and the annual WPS Open Debate was held in October 2013. Australia expressed its unequivocal support for both the preventing sexual violence in conflict agenda and for the Women, Peace and Security agenda; Gary Quinlan, Australia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, expressed his ongoing support for these agendas in his statement at the October open debate, by stating: ‘we must continue, across the whole breadth of our work, to rigorously to strengthen the Council’s consideration of the gender dimensions of conflict’. Australia strongly expressed its support for the WPS agenda and related thematic items; we hope to see this continue in the coming months.

Australia assumed the Presidency of the Security Council for the first time in over twenty-seven years in September 2013. During the first half of 2013, the government indicated that women and peacebuilding would constitute a ‘key priority’ for this month. However, the September Presidency was immediately preceded by domestic political turmoil, which resulted in a subsequent change in government. This saw the original focus on WPS displaced, and replaced with a ‘centrepiece’ meeting on the issue of small arms and light weapons (SALW). Australia did hold a WPS side-event on 6 September 2013, in the form of forum on women and peacebuilding which was chaired by Penny Williams, Australia’s then-Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.

Photograph of Julie Bishop at the UN Security Council in September 2013, during Australia's Presidency (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras). Retrieved from www.un.org and shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Photograph of Julie Bishop at the UN Security Council in September 2013, during Australia’s Presidency (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras). Retrieved from http://www.un.org and shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Despite this disappointment (which many saw as indicative of the incoming government’s policy intentions), Julie Bishop, who was sworn in as Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister on 18 September 2013, has indicated continuing support for the WPS agenda and has shown an appreciation of the complexity inherent to addressing WPS issues. For example, in a speech she delivered on 24 September 2013, she stated:

Preventing sexual violence also requires us to recognise and address the nexus between sexual violence and weak rule of law, illicit extraction of natural resources, forcible displacement of civilians, security sector reform, and the often all too easy availability of small arms, and the illicit trade in them.

She reiterated that she considered the WPS agenda to constitute an important part of her portfolio when, in December 2013, she indicated that the government sees the role of Ambassador for Women and Girls ‘as being pivotal to our foreign policy policies and initiatives… [The Ambassador is] our voice on the international stage as we promote important issues surrounding gender equality and gender empowerment’.

In February 2014, Julie Bishop explicitly confirmed the government’s support for the WPS agenda for the remainder of Australia’s term on the UN Security Council; during Question Time on 11 February, she stated that ‘the women, peace and security agenda… will continue to be a priority for Australia’. She then went on to detail Australia’s work in this regard:

… [W]e are using our two-year term to pursue a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to these issues across the Council’s entire agenda, including advocating for: peacekeeping mandates to include gender perspectives; the appointment of gender advisers and women protection advisers in Council mandated missions; and for WPS to be more effectively integrated into conflict prevention and peacebuilding. We are for example highlighting the impact of conflict situations on women and girls, as well as advocating responses which seek to empower women, and also respond to sexual violence in conflict.

It is important for us to ensure that the government maintains their support for the WPS agenda even as other pressing matters in international affairs vie for their attention. However, there is ample reason to be hopeful that 2014 will see a continuation of the fruitful WPS activity that Australia undertook in 2013.

Caitlin Hamilton, UNSW Australia