Reflecting on the 10th Anniversary of the CEDAW’s General Recommendation 30 on Women Peace and Security

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the CEDAW General Recommendation 30—a landmark  document giving “authoritative guidance to countries that have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on concrete measures to ensure women’s human rights are protected before, during and after conflict”—I discuss some key debates on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. A High-Level UN report published on the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 points to several markers of progress on the Women, Peace and Security agenda, as well as ongoing challenges. While the report notes that “there has been an appreciable rise in the number of references to women in the text of peace agreements,” one of the overarching concerns was that out of the four pillars of UNSCR 1325—typically defined as prevention, protection, participation, and peacebuilding—the protection pillar generally was given more attention than the participation and prevention pillars. The idea is not to make war safe for women but to have women lead in peace building and conflict prevention by addressing power structures through a transformative, feminist and Global South approach.    

New challenges—including the Taliban’s exclusion of women and girls from education and certain forms of employment—push us to reimagine the UNSCR 1325’s paradigmatic focus on women’s bodies toward a more holistic understanding of violence against women. The term of art, “conflict-related sexual violence” as defined by Security Council Resolution 1820, must be reconceptualized in light of the current forms of violence against women in geographies such as Afghanistan.

The confluence of a pandemic, an economic crisis, the war in Ukraine also highlight the nexus between UNSCR 1325—the seminal resolution that located women as agents of peace rather than as victims of violence—and a panoply of intersecting UN Security Council Resolutions, including UNSCR 2417 on the threat of food insecurity in conflict and UNSCR 2601 on safe schools in conflict.

Physical vs. Intellectual Violence: Dismantling Dichotomy

A WPS agenda which only looks at violence against women through the main prism of conflict-related physical violence is inadequate to cover the full range of violence and discrimination against women and girls. Often crisis is accompanied by denial of women’s access to education and economic resources. This reality is powerfully played out in the stunning reversal of women’s rights in Afghanistan, but is also present in other theaters of war and conflict. Conflict results in low school enrollment and the erosion of resources for education. At the same time, denial of access to education, land tenure, and credit creates the perfect storm of inequality and disempowerment of women and their communities. The WPS agenda needs to be interpreted broadly to cover the range of security concerns for women in Afghanistan and beyond.

The corpus of WPS resolutions has emphasized conflict-related sexual violence. This particular form of violence has received increased attention within the Women, Peace and Security agenda since the establishment of UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2007, the adoption of UNSCR 1820 in 2008, and the establishment in 2009 of a Special-Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC). Seven of the ten WPS resolutions address sexual violence in conflict specifically: in SCR 1820 conflict related violence was noted thirty-four times; in SCR 1888, forty-eight times; in SCR 1960, forty-five times; and in SCR 2106, forty-seven times. In comparison, education was mentioned only in UNSCR 1889 five times, twice in SCR 2242, and once in 2467 and 2494, respectively. Women’s and girls’ education as a security issue needs to be a focus, especially with the ban on women’s and girls’ education in Afghanistan. Although a few of the UNSCR’s invoke education, none go far enough to address the attacks against girls’ education as part of the WPS oeuvre.

The primary focus on sexual violence limits the focus on WPS to women’s bodies as the only battle ground of violence. The dichotomization of violence must give way to an understanding of the overlapping forms of physical and intellectual violence. Women’s minds are battle grounds as well, especially in the context of the Taliban’s control over women’s educational and intellectual advancement. More on this subject could be found in the author’s longer study on “Expanding the Women Peace and Security Agenda to Protect Women’s Education in Afghanistan and Other Geographies of Conflict.”

Aligning the WPS Agenda with UNSCR 2601

In October 2021, for the first time, the UN Security Council recognized the criticality of protecting and facilitating the continuation of education during armed conflict. Through Resolution 2601, the UN Security Council categorized educational institutions as safe spaces in armed conflicts and emphasized the need to maintain the right to education as a key priority for the international community. The Council also urged the international community to develop domestic legal frameworks to remain accountable to international legal obligations, including measures to prevent attacks against schools, children, teachers, and other related civilians. In the first of its kind, Norway and Niger led the Security Council resolution reaffirming the right to education during conflict and education as a tool to the contribution of peace and security.

Although not specifically focused on women and girls, the Resolution focuses on “heightened risk for children in armed conflict, of not resuming their education following school closures, particularly girls, making them more vulnerable to child labor, child recruitment as well as forced marriage.”

It also expresses deep concerns that girls and women may be the intended victims of attacks targeting their access to and continuation of education, and notes the specific consequences of such attacks including but not limited to incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence including sexual slavery, threats of attacks, at school and on the way to and from school, abductions, forced marriage, human trafficking, and any resulting stigma and grave consequences on their health, all of which may further impede the continuation of their education.

While UNSCR 2601 did not solely focus on girls’ education, it did provide the connection between school closures and increased risks of child and forced marriage, early pregnancy, and gender-based violence, all of which further decrease girls’ likelihood of continuing their education. It is important that the WPS agenda is read together with UNSCR 2601.

WPS Agenda and Small Arms Light Weapons

Presenting the Secretary-General’s biennial report on small arms and light weapons  (SALW) Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs argued that the proliferation and stockpiling of illicit weapons continue to threaten international peace and security, exacerbating the plight of civilians in strife-torn countries worldwide.

The Report emphasizes the impact of illicit small arms and light weapons on women, peace, and security and calls for strengthened integration and analysis of sex- and age-disaggregated data on small arms and light weapons, and for support to be lent to civil society organizations.

Moreover, reports from communities in post and continuing conflict show that the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, both legal and illicit, exacerbates violence against women in the family. The WPS agenda must be seen in the context of the SALW and the Arms Trade Treaty. In fact, UNSCR 2467 underscores the Arms Trade Treaty and notes that exporting States Parties shall take into account the impact of the arms trade on gender-based violence.

Balancing UNSCR 2467 and Sanctions

In April of 2019, the Security Council continued to augment UNSCR 1325 by passing UNSCR 2467, the  ninth and penultimate resolution in the corpus of WPS resolutions. The Resolution’s first operative paragraph “reiterates its demand for the complete cessation with immediate effect by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence and its call for these parties to make and implement specific time-bound commitments to combat sexual violence.” Further, in paragraph 10, the Security Council “urges existing Sanction Committees … to apply targeted sanctions against those who perpetrate and direct sexual violence in conflict.” Sanctions can have the indirect consequence of impeding the flow of humanitarian aid to those in need and paralyzing commercial and financial activity that could aid civilian women and their families.

Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on Human Rights has urged the UN to adopt a rights-based approach in its application of due diligence procedures in monitoring the impact of sanctions regimes. She also called on international organizations, including businesses, and multilateral actors to integrate the assessment of human rights impact of unilateral coercive measures and over-compliance with sanctions in their work. The WPS Agenda must be interpreted in a way that examines a gender-sensitive human rights impact of targeted sanctions.  

The Evolving Concept of Gender Apartheid

Apartheid was defined as a crime against humanity by the General Assembly in 1966 by the Security Council in 1984 and under the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (adopted in 1973). Apartheid was also recognized as a war crime, when committed in the context of an international armed conflict, under the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. Following apartheid’s end in South Africa in 1990, apartheid was recognized as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998 and as a violation of jus cogens norms by the International Law Commission in 2001.

By definition, apartheid requires race-based discrimination. The Apartheid Convention defines apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

Recently, the UN Secretary General and the UN Under Secretary General for Sexual Violence in Conflict have referred to Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan. Karima Bennoune (a former UN Special Rapporteur) and other experts have argued that severe forms of institutionalized gender-based discrimination may rise to the level of apartheid, if the definition included discrimination on the basis of gender. Given that gender apartheid has not been defined in international law, it will be important for the WPS agenda to address these evolving questions as part of its jurisdiction.

Conclusion: A Three Pronged Agenda for General Recommendation 30

In a thumbnail mapping of the CEDAW Committee Concluding Observations on WPS over the last ten years  we see how the CEDAW Concluding Observations to state parties expand the praxis  of the WPS Agenda. The CEDAW Committee, while addressing the root causes of conflict and recommending new approaches to peace building through temporary special measures for women and intersectional communities in peace negotiations, emphasize the enforcement imperative of National Action Plans on WPS.

General Recommendation 30 highlights and expands the WPS agenda in profoundly important ways. First, states parties are held accountable to international human rights and humanitarian law when they exercise both territorial or extraterritorial jurisdiction. Secondly, General Recommendation 30 applies to an expansive range of conflict prevention, “internal disturbances, protracted and low-intensity civil strife, political strife, ethnic and communal violence, states of emergency and suppression of mass uprisings, war against terrorism and organized crime, which may not necessarily be classified as armed conflict under international humanitarian law and which result in serious violations of women’s rights and are of particular concern to the Committee.” The way in which General Recommendation 30 frames conflict prevention provides a new understanding of the security sector and what constitutes a security threat locally, nationally and transnationally. It also urges the international community to view gender not as monolithic but as only one axis of difference.

As we mark a decade since the passage of General Recommendation 30, it is important to keep in mind that new and growing forms of conflict and crisis have marked the last ten years. From Afghanistan to Ukraine, to the Sahel region to Iran, to global wars on poverty and climate crisis, women are impacted because of their gender. Five years ago, Mary Robinson spoke at Harvard Law School’s “Celebration 65” marking the 65 years of women in her alma mater. She quoted Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who started the Green Belt Movement in Kenya: “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground.” The question remains on how we may rise to this higher ground. I suggest a three-pronged approach. The implementation of General Recommendation 30 and UNSCR 1325 and its progeny needs the political commitment at the highest levels of domestic and foreign policy, including the adoption of feminist foreign policy. Secondly, the accountability of business and corporate stakeholders is part of the non-state actor ecosystem in the WPS agenda. An example of the business and WPS nexus was illustrated in the Dodd Frank Bill of 2010 which addressed the US financial crisis in 2008. Section 1502 of the Bill imposed on businesses additional reporting on trade in conflict minerals which helped to finance conflict, particularly sexual and gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and adjoining countries. Finally, the WPS agenda needs to be mainstreamed into academic curricula and into international relations and security studies programs to ensure that it will have enduring intergenerational impact.

Rangita de Silva de Alwis is the CEDAW Committee Expert and Focal Point for Women, Peace and Security. She is faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Senior Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center for the Legal Profession and Visiting Fellow at Oxford University in the Trinity Term of 2024. The reflections in this post are the author’s personal views.

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