Reform Is Never Easy: What the Women, Peace and Security Agenda Can Learn From Security Sector Governance

18 June 2020   ·   ​Megan Bastick

Many of the barriers to effective security sector governance also apply to the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. In its new National Action Plan, Germany should draw from its approach to security sector reform and strengthen institutional oversight, commit to long-term funding, and put the goals of the WPS agenda at the centre of diplomatic dialogue.

Over the last fifteen years, as the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has grown in visibility and scope, much work has been done to explain why this agenda is important for supporting security sector reform (SSR). In fact, some of the first ground-breaking discussions on the connections between gender and SSR were held in 2008 at the Freie Universität Berlin. Five of the ten UN Security Council resolutions on WPS explicitly refer to SSR.

But less attention has been given to how centring good security sector governance can help achieve the goals of the WPS agenda. I argue here that applying a security sector governance lens to WPS helps to reveal the key barriers to and drivers of change. As such, Germany’s strategy on support to SSR, launched in September 2019, provides essential concepts and approaches that should be integrated into Germany’s next WPS National Action Plan (NAP).

Three Important Lessons From Germany’s SSR Framework: Oversight, Long-Term Commitments, and Political Dialogue 

Thanks to the sustained engagement of feminist practitioners and scholars, Germany’s inter-ministerial strategies on support to SSR, the rule of law, and transitional justice are robustly gender-mainstreamed. They are models for other nations that provide bilateral assistance in that they articulate a conceptual framework for more gender-responsive and gender-transformative approaches. More holistically, Germany’s framework for support to SSR is grounded in a focus on good governance, democratic oversight, and accountability. In the following, I will focus on three key elements and how they can be applied to WPS.

First, Germany’s framework for support to SSR prioritises strengthening democratic oversight of the security sector, including through support to work with members of legislatures, supervisory bodies, and complaints procedures. Parliaments, national human rights institutions, and ombuds institutions are crucial actors in terms of oversight and accountability of security and justice institutions, and in a state’s human rights infrastructure. Second, Germany’s framework for support to SSR recognises the need for a long-term approach to transformation, envisioning that an inter-ministerial strategy for supporting a country’s SSR might be as long as ten years in duration. Third, it emphasises the importance of political dialogue measures; that is, Germany’s collaborative dialogue with partner nations around human rights, gender equality, and the rule of law as a key part of supporting SSR.

Institutional Oversight Plays a Critical Role in Achieving WPS Goals

Oversight actors have been relatively neglected in national and international strategies relating to WPS. Much German WPS funding rightly supports women’s civil society, and Germany is an important supporter of the Elsie Initiative on the deployment of women in UN peacekeeping. Civil society and cultural change within security sector institutions are important. But, progress in changing institutions requires progress in developing their formal governance structure.

Research by DCAF - Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance demonstrates the critical role that parliaments can play in monitoring and driving work on WPS, and in promoting gender equality in the security and justice sector. In Sri Lanka, for example, the Parliament’s Committee on Public Finance has held public hearings on WPS, questioning ministries on their budgets and plans related to gender equality and the advancement of the agenda. Where parliaments form cross-party committees on WPS, they can challenge ministries on the gaps between rhetoric and reality. Parliamentary security and defence committees, too, should actively monitor whether security sector institutions are meeting their commitments to WPS.

Support Parliaments and National Human Rights Institutions as Champions of WPS

Likewise, national human rights institutions and ombuds institutions can be key players in holding police, militaries, border services, intelligence services, and other parts of the security sector to account in how they ensure women’s protection and participation and meet their NAP commitments. They generally have special powers to access information and the ability to receive and investigate complaints, make special investigations, consult civil society groups, and issue reports and recommendations. A demonstration of this potential comes from Georgia, where the Office of the Public Defender monitors the government’s implementation of its WPS NAP commitments. The Public Defender assesses the activities of the institutions responsible for the implementation of the National Action Plan. Their monitoring goes well beyond what ministries produce themselves, drawing upon focus group discussions with internally displaced women as well as discussions with non-governmental organisations. The Public Defender is also strong on issues such as reproductive rights and discrimination against LGBT people, which have increasingly recognised intersections with WPS.

In shaping the next WPS NAP, Germany should set out specific aims to support an active role for parliaments and national human rights institutions in WPS. German support could take the form of advice on setting up WPS monitoring structures, training staff, and facilitating dialogue on WPS between oversight institutions in different countries. Supporting processes that build long-term meaningful engagement between grassroots and national women’s civil society groups, parliamentary committees, and human rights institutions on WPS can help oversight to be responsive to the real needs of diverse communities.

Local Projects Need Sustained Funding and Support

This year sees the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325. We know that the transformation of society and institutions towards realising the vision of the WPS agenda does not happen quickly. Like other areas of development and diplomatic work, it takes time for capacity to be built, for structures to become established, for trust to be grown, for change to take hold. Where WPS strategies are short term and projects run merely for months, rather than years, it is extremely difficult for them to build sustained change. This is recognised in Germany’s approach to SSR which – as highlighted above – envisions inter-ministerial strategies with eight-to-ten-year elements.

Germany’s WPS National Action Plan should demand that all inter-ministerial country strategies define WPS goals in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term (eight-to-ten-years). Funding for work on WPS should be correspondingly multi-year and optimised to support sustained impact. This is particularly important where funding is directed to local groups and coalitions and the like that have little infrastructure to manage grants and reporting: with short funding cycles, there is a risk that too great a proportion of the project’s time is being spent on getting and reporting on the grant.

Germany Should Actively Promote the Goals of WPS in Any Political Dialogue

2020 is not an easy time to be working on women’s rights. In many countries and over recent years, there have been increasing attacks on women human rights defenders and a rolling back of reproductive and other freedoms. Now that COVID-19 has ushered in laws curtailing freedom of speech and assembly and new levels of surveillance, repressive regimes have more powerful means at their disposal to quash those fighting for equality.

SSR has an important role to play in countering these challenges, offering the means to protect civil society’s access to information and democratic freedom of speech. The quality of public scrutiny over the security sector that a government allows and enables is always politically sensitive. This is why Germany’s SSR strategy commits to political dialogue with other countries to instil the importance of SSR in the perception of their political decision makers. Germany recognises that it has a role to play in building the political will for reform.

So too, in WPS. IFA’s review of German-funded WPS projects identified “the creation and maintenance of political will [a]s a central yet fragile factor for success.” Germany’s NAP should deepen its commitments to bilateral political dialogue on women’s rights. The language in the last WPS NAP was weak on this, referring only vaguely to encouraging implementation of resolution 1325. Promoting women’s equality, the human rights of all people, and the broader goals of the WPS agenda should be an explicit priority within Germany’s political dialogue with any state, and part of its diplomatic and development strategies at every level. When Germany is supporting specific WPS projects in a country, its mission should be amplifying the messages of that project. Political dialogue is an essential way through which Germany can show that it stands fully behind its commitments to WPS.

Security Sector Reform English Frauen

​Megan Bastick

Megan Bastick is Gender and Security Fellow at DCAF - Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance. @MeganBastick