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FEATURE: A conversation with female ambassadors about the UN Security Council

Raimonda Murmokaite greets Ouided Bouchamaoui (right), President of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts and co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet.
UN Photo/Cia Pak
Raimonda Murmokaite greets Ouided Bouchamaoui (right), President of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts and co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet.

FEATURE: A conversation with female ambassadors about the UN Security Council

While the gender ratio between female and male diplomats at the United Nations is becoming more balanced overall, the number of women ambassadors in the Security Council has fallen from its peak of six women in 2014 to four in 2015 to just one this year. How has this influenced the top collective decision-making body on peace and security, and what, if anything, does this say about the future of UN diplomacy and peacebuilding?

“Numbers aren’t everything. The Security Council is absolutely clear on the importance of the women, peace and security agenda,” said Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, referring to the landmark Council resolution 1325 (2000), which recognizes the critical role that women and girls play in maintaining peace and security.

“But the fact that we are back to one out of 15 shows that we all need to make a sustained commitment to gender parity in the peace and security architecture of the UN,” continued Mr. Feltman, who moderated a panel on Wednesday comprised of Ambassadors Dina Kawar of Jordan, Raimonda Murmokaite of Lithuania, Sylvie Lucas of Luxembourg and Samantha Power of the United States.

The event, organized by the UN Department of Political Affairs and hosted by the Permanent Mission of the Netherlands to the UN, took place on the sidelines of the annual session of the 60th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The forum, one of the largest in the world focused on women and girls, is this year reviewing progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment.

“If it [gender equality] depended on hundreds of women descending on New York for CSW, we would be there,” Ms. Power said. “A lot of our progress on gender equality is going to depend on men. We need, fundamentally, men around the world to take up these issues.”

Ms. Power, who once shared the iconic Security Council horseshoe table with the three other women ambassadors on the panel, is now the lone woman on the 15-member body. The US has a permanent seat on the Council, along with China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom.

Overall at the UN, the number of women ambassadors has increased to 37 – out of 193 Member States – from 31 in 2014.

Different tenor of discussion

The decrease in the number of women has made a difference in the Security Council, suggested Ms. Power. She recalled the Council’s decision on 11 March to adopt resolution 2272, which endorsed special measures recommended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to prevent and combat sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.

It was the first time she felt “acutely aware” that she was the only woman on the Council, the Ambassador said, calling the meeting “one of the most disappointing debates that ended up with a good outcome.”

She said that during the debate she “could see the little thought bubbles in some of my counterparts who were listening to me thinking, because she is a woman, she is this fired up about this issue. It didn’t have anything to do with being a woman. But with basic decency, justice and what the UN stands for.”

She noted that afterwards some called her “passionate,” a word she called her least favourite when used to describe issues and principles, while some dismissed her statements by saying “she’s so emotional.”

Reflecting on the debate, she said that “it would have been harder to take positions that not only aimed at weakening the resolution, but I think as a matter of human conscience, very distasteful, it would have been harder to take those positions in the kind of room we were able to constitute there a year or a year and a half ago.”

Ms. Lucas, who served on the Council in 2013 and 2014, and Ms. Kawar, who was a Member in 2014 and 2015, also noted that women ambassadors seemed more concerned than their male colleagues about humanitarian and human right issues. Ms. Lucas emphasized that these were equally important and very much tied to the credibility of the Council.

What the eye catches gets fixed in the brain

“It’s worthy to look at the Security Council and the horseshoe to see one woman at the table in 2016; that’s crazy. To see there has been no woman Secretary-General and only two women presidents of the General Assembly over 70 years,” Ms. Power continued.

The fact that we are back to one out of 15 shows that we all need to make a sustained commitment to gender parity - USG Jeffrey Feltman

“It’s important because each of those is very symbolic and they send signals. When a young girl comes and visits the UN and sees the Security Council and sees one woman ambassador, she thinks that’s normal. That’s a problem. Because it shouldn’t be normal, and it should look much more the way it used to look.”

Ms. Murmokaite, who served on the Council in 2014 and 2015, agreed that examples and symbolism matters, as much for the credibility of the UN as for creating role models for young diplomats. She noted, for example, that two-thirds of her staff in the mission were women. 

“There’s always a line between talking the talk and walking the walk. We’re very good at talking the talk. We’re not as good at walking the walk,” she said, referring to the UN overall.

Ms. Murmokaite also said that when voting for Member States competing for a non-permanent seat at the Security Council, one consideration could also be whether the country was represented by a male or a female ambassador.

The Secretary-General has made gender equality a priority, appointing more than 150 women to Assistant Secretary-General or Under-Secretary-General positions in the past seven years, resulting in nearly one-quarter of political and peacekeeping mission in the field being led by women. 

Despite this progress, less than 10 per cent of all UN mediators are women, and all-male panels continue to be held at the UN on topics related to major issues. 

When the Security Council visited Mali earlier this month, the contingent was all male (it was the only field visit that Ms. Power was unable to attend). During at least one meeting, the Council members found themselves seated across from Malian women’s groups and civil society. They made all the correct points and discussed the importance of women’s empowerment in politics, but the reaction from the Malians was, not surprisingly, sceptical, the ambassadors said.

Importance of gender mainstreaming

Resolution 1325 was the first UN resolution to specifically address the impact of war on women and the need for women's participation in peace processes and political institutions. The resolution also for the first time raised the need to address sexual violence in armed conflict.

Yet there are different interpretations among Council members on what issues should be raised under the Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda item, said Ms. Lucas.

These include, for example, the issue of sexual violence in conflict. For some Permanent Representatives, it is an inevitable by-product of war, and should not be a focus of the Council, according to Ms. Kawar. In fact, the topic has gained a permanent place on the Council agenda with the passing of multiple Security Council resolutions, including through resolution 1888 (2009) which created an entire Office and an Under-Secretary-General to lead the UN effort to eliminate this scourge.

In another anecdote recalled during the event, one Security Council member questioned why a senior political official spent time during an urgent field visit to a conflict zone meeting with representatives of women’s groups and civil society.

To counter such thinking, Ms. Lucas said that the women ambassadors look for opportunities to include gender-related topics as part of other agendas – to mainstream them – so that they are not sidelined as “special interest” or “soft issues.”

One way is through official reporting channels between the Council and UN heads of political and peacekeeping missions. For example, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the country, or SRSG as he or she is known, might need to find out about specific data and needs of women and girls in displacement camps – a conversation that he or she might not have had otherwise, but which they are now mandated to include in briefings and reports to the Council.

Member States also play a role through national action plans, created by governments to implement 1325.

Different styles of engagement

The ambassadors ultimately report to their capitals, whose political compasses also guide UN-level discussions and negotiations, but there is some ‘wiggle room’ around official lines.

“Between the red lines and what you do is always this no-man’s land. We all navigate in this no-man’s land. That’s very female,” said Ms. Kawar.

She said women ambassadors are more likely to take detailed notes and listen to other points of view. “We don’t say, I’m American. I’m Arab. I’m this. I’m that. No, we say, this is the problem, how can we deal with it. There’s something about this nature in women where you want to find solutions.”

Women are more likely to put down their prepared notes, engage with other members, and respond directly to other members’ statements, the ambassadors said.

That is not indicative of all women, Ms. Kawar said. She told a story of meeting a world leader involved in an ongoing conflict, and was relieved to see that his wife was attending the meeting – in hopes that she might be able to sway him towards peace. It turned out that the wife was actually more hawkish, refusing to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict, and influencing her less bellicose husband.

“All of us in some sense are a reflection of the pipelines that lie behind us,” Ms. Power said, noting that there would not be more force commanders until there were more senior women commending people in national militaries, or that there would not be more women at the top diplomatic offices at the UN or within their Member States unless they were progressively moving up through the ranks.

The presence of women has also opened the Council up more to civil society. Both Ms. Power and Ms. Kawar referred to the impact when hearing directly from victims in meetings, which then sometimes triggers concrete action. Ms. Power also discussed the need to put a human face to the issues as “trying to break people out of our collective slumber.” 

The next Secretary-General 

The current discussions about gender equality at the UN have also focused on the Organization’s top seat – and there is a strong push for the next Secretary-General to be a woman.

To enhance transparency in the candidature process, which will ultimately be decided by the Security Council, Member States are publicly nominating candidates. So far, three women are on the list: Vesna Pusic of Croatia; Irina Bokova of Bulgaria; and Natalia Gherman of the Republic of Moldova.   

Ms. Kawar recalled a recent meeting on that very topic where the only real message from the male ambassadors seemed to be that if a woman was selected, she would need to be competent.

She reacted by suggesting that nobody would talk about competence or qualifications of men in a similar way: “Who is the woman who is going to become Secretary-General because she is bored that day?”