UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Increasingly vast military expenditures and “the extreme marginalization and exclusion” of women from peace negotiations are risking renewed conflicts instead of promoting peace and stability, the head of the U.N. agency promoting gender equality warned Thursday.
Sima Bahous told the U.N. Security Council that curbing military spending has been a strategic objective of the women’s movement for peace for many decades. But even in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging and the global economy was shrinking, worldwide military expenditures increased by 2.6% to nearly $2 trillion, she said.
“The evidence clearly shows that high levels of military spending in post-conflict setting increase the risk of renewed conflict,” Bahous said. “It also shows that investing in gender equality has a high return in peace dividends.”
“Yet, we continue to overspend in the former and under-invest in the latter,” the executive director of UN Women said.
Bahous said the resolution adopted by the Security Council 21 years ago demanding equal participation of women in peace processes has only resulted in “a glimmer of light.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also criticized the absence of women from rooms where decisions are made, saying, “We can no longer exclude one half of humanity from international peace and security.”
He reiterated his warning to world leaders last month that the world faces “the greatest cascade of crises in generations,” including a return of military coups, a new arms race, the risk of use of nuclear weapons “at its highest level in almost four decades” and the largest annual increase in military spending as a share of GDP last year since 2009.
“There is a direct relationship between greater investment in weapons and greater insecurity and inequality for women,” Guterres said.
The U.N. chief called the power imbalance between men and women “the most stubborn and persistent of all inequalities,” pointing to rising rates of violence and misogyny that women and girls face in every society and “the extreme underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions.”
He cited the exclusion of women from the political process by the warring parties in Yemen, the closing space for women’s rights after two coups in nine months in Mali, the rapid reversal of women’s rights in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15, “chilling reports of sexual violence being used as a weapon of war” in Ethiopia, and a large number of women’s organizations in Myanmar that have long been a force for peace moving underground after the Feb. 2 military takeover.
UN Women’s Bahous noted that the rapid takeover by the Taliban “was preceded by a wave of killings of female civil society activists and journalists, and the targeting of academics, vaccinators and women judges.
“This is happening in other countries, too,” she said, pointing to the U.N.’s verification of 35 killings of women human rights defenders, journalists, and trade union members in just seven countries in 2020.
In Colombia, Bahous said, 10 of the 16 members of the forum monitoring gender provisions of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the country’s main rebel group “reported threats made directly against them, as did women who participated in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in 2020.”
Colombian indigenous rights activist Celia Umenza Velasco told the Security Council that despite the peace agreement, the country remains “one of the world’s most dangerous” for human rights defenders, especially women, as well as Afro-descendant, indigenous and gay rights leaders.
“On average, at least one indigenous defender is killed every week,” she said in a virtual briefing. “In my territory of Cauca, three indigenous women leaders whom I worked with were killed in 2020. Their brutal murders illustrate how women often pay a terrible price for their leadership.”
Bahous urged the international community to promote participation of women in decision-making on defense expenditures, and to adopt quotas and other special measures to accelerate increased representation of women in peace negotiations and related activities.
Guterres called for increased representation and leadership of women across every aspect of the U.N.’s peace activities.
He urged Security Council support to strengthen partnerships with local women leaders, help protect women human rights defenders and activists, and to work with the United Nations to promote women’s equal participation “in peace talks, peacebuilding, and political systems as countries transition to peace.”
Colombia’s Velasco echoed calls for Security Council action.
“I urge you not to allow this open debate to be yet another occasion where you listen to women civil society, but fail to act on our concerns,” she implored council members. “The plight of Afghan women illustrates all too clearly the cost of doing so. Women around the world show you daily that they have the courage and the conviction to fight for peace. Today we call on you to fight for us all.”