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A Failed Multilateral Consensus on Women, Peace, and Security

In 2014, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) endorsed an action plan to further the organization’s efforts on women, peace, and security (WPS) issues. Five years after the ratifying Wales Summit NATO has successfully raised the profile of the WPS agenda among nation states but has failed to meaningfully integrate these concepts into essential treaty activities. Rather than representing a particular failure on NATO’s part this dismal performance is indicative of a broader misunderstanding of the WPS agenda.

NATO Leaders gather for the traditional family photo at the meeting today in London (Image source: U.S. Embassy in U.K. © 2019)

The most basic understanding of WPS is the idea that women’s perspectives and capacities must be included in policy making around conflict prevention and resolution. While it has been empirically demonstrated that having women at the table enhances the quality and resilience of peace agreements, WPS is too often siloed within “women’s issues,” offering a gendered perspective on sexual violence, reproductive health, and children’s education without commanding a fundamental reassessment of international policy-making practices to embrace the contributions of women. Officially, NATO has committed to adopting the WPS agenda, including a gendered lens in all of the organization’s initiatives. While this is an important step, particularly given the number of partners backing the Wales Summit action plan, NATO’s record on WPS has been largely rhetorical with little substantive advancement. 

A key commitment of the 2014 action plan was for NATO to undertake a Diversity and Inclusion report to track representation among NATO personnel. Although women still make up less than one-third of all employees, they have steadily been gaining representation among civilian staff. On the military side, however, female officers have failed to gain much ground, actually losing representation in some positions. This certainly is not due to a lacking female talent pool – many NATO states are world leaders in representing women in their armed forces. Rather, the lack of progress towards gender equity speaks to fundamental flaws in NATO’s efforts to attract and retain top female candidates. If NATO is to fulfill its commitment to ensure “women’s active and meaningful participation in decision-making,” they must demonstrate the ability to have female leaders well-represented within the organization.

While progress has been slow, NATO is working to bring greater diversity to its Brussels-based infrastructure. Mentoring programs and efforts to promote female officers into leadership roles will gradually bring the organization closer to gender equity. But the WPS agenda is about more than internal diversity; it also requires a conscious effort to imbue women’s perspectives in outwards-facing initiatives. It is in this respect especially that NATO’s current efforts prove grossly inadequate.

Under the leadership of former Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller, NATO stood up a task force to address the WPS action plan through initiatives such as gender training for senior leadership, fora with civil society actors to develop best practices, and dialogue with military field commanders on women’s participation.  These efforts are noble and if fully executed would represent significant steps towards embracing the WPS agenda. However, NATO’s WPS task force is grossly under-funded, particularly since Gottemoeller left the organization in October 2019. As a huge organization with disparate funding models, NATO understandably has many competing financial commitments. If the organization is going to achieve its commitments under the Wales Summit Agreement, WPS initiatives must receive the funding necessary to enact robust programming.

Five years ago, NATO committed to bringing women’s perspectives to the forefront of peace and security issues. While their rhetoric has been good it has not been followed by substantive action, as the organization was slow to enact programs in the field and has consistently underfunded these efforts. Over the next five years, WPS advocates will be looking to NATO to rectify these issues as well as enhancing the role of women within the treaty organization, stepping up the number of female military officers and senior leaders. Ultimately, however, NATO cannot unilaterally advance the cause of WPS, regardless of how fervently the organization embraces progress on the issue. Multilateral organizations, national governments, and private sector firms must all commit to embracing a diversity of perspectives.

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Kathryn Urban

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