Could NATO Encourage WPS Uptake among its Members?


Image credit: Corporal Braden Trudeau Trinity – Formation Imaging Services


by Claire Wählen
October 2020


Table of Contents


On the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, NATO continues exploring how to implement the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and improve gender equality in its own makeup. Work has been done to get the organization up to par but the pace has been glacial at best. Perhaps in working together on a straightforward task that benefits the membership at its national level, the alliance can move beyond writing action plans, and boost the momentum that the gender-equality agenda sorely needs two decades later. National action plans (NAPs) are a relatively simple tool in the proverbial toolbox, but they are critically lacking in accountability and assured financial support, which is perhaps why NATO has a chance to push for them across the board. 

NATO could first aim for securing commitments from countries that have not yet produced action plans or have failed to replace or update plans in a timely manner. The political will for action on gender equality has grown year by year, but too little has been done to bridge the gaps. Canada shouted long and loudly about being a leader on WPS at NATO and now would be the time to show it: leading the call, supporting allies in making these critical first steps, and creating a space for nations to work together and bring each other up to a standard of action, financing and reporting. 


Women, Peace and Security at NATO

It is perhaps less than obvious why NATO is an interesting ally on the topic of women, peace and security – gender equality and the military have not been historically strong bedfellows. Women, peace and security earned mainstage billing with UN Security Council Resolution 1325 20 years ago, the result of tireless grassroots advocacy informed by years of research in conflict zones. The research determined that women are an essential – and often absent, neglected or denied – element to achieving peace. Peacekeeping and peace building have transitioned from national dialogues to international agendas. Codifying the work of the Women, Peace and Security agenda and translating it into the alliance’s three core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and co-operative security have marked an important, existential shift in thinking for NATO and an interesting avenue for discussing the WPS agenda throughout its development.

It would be hard to imagine the NATO of Lester B. Pearson’s time releasing a report from the secretary general that dedicated an entire chapter to the success of gender advocacy and integration. Yet, the 2019 report from Jens Stoltenberg features a chapter titled Promoting Equality: Women, Peace and Security. This is hardly a nuanced measurement of implementation, but loud statements are a strong indication of intent, if nothing else. The problem now, as UNSCR 1325 hits the big 2-0, is that there’s a lot of positive intent but too little action. A chapter in the secretary general’s report is good. Giving it five pages out of 132, one of which is a title page and the rest containing just fewer than 1,000 words excluding two sizable pull quotes, is not. 

NATO allies and partners began developing a unifying policy to support implementing the WPS agenda in 2007 at the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. They finally endorsed their first action plan in 2010 at the Lisbon Summit, which marked the 10th anniversary of 1325. By this point, five further WPS resolutions had been made and 19 WPS NAPs were in place across the world. NATO’s action plan has been updated biannually since 2014, and in 2018 was revised together with the policy at large. Canada started drafting its first of two NAPs on WPS in 2006 but didn’t release it until 2010. A second plan was released in 2017 to last until 2022, putting Canada in the second half of its shelf life; eyes are already shifting toward the next iteration.


Action on Action Plans

The NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives held its 43rd annual conference in June 2019, bringing together 150 participants from 36 countries – 25 of whom are NATO members – to discuss accountability and the integration of a gender perspective. While the attendance list is not included in the public reports on the conference, it does not require a leap to guess which of NATO’s members were not interested in attending. 

Seven NATO nations have no NAPs on WPS, although at a high-level meeting Bulgaria and Latvia committed in 2019 to begin the process to create national plans to coincide with the 2020 anniversary. That leaves Greece, Hungary, North Macedonia, Slovakia and Turkey to simply start. Seven others haven’t updated or submitted new plans in at least five years, with Croatia, Lithuania and Slovenia having produced their only NAPs in 2011, 2011 and 2010 respectively – that number was eight when this was first drafted, but Romania has since announced an update. Croatia, however, is one of seven NATO nations that pledged updated action plans at that same 2019 meeting, along with notable ally Norway, whose new plan means the country will have produced more NAPs than any NATO nation. Norway is currently tied with only the United Kingdom with four plans apiece, although Belgium and Italy may join that number before Norway releases its fifth plan. 

The majority of NATO nations have NAPs for WPS, so suggesting a focus on this policy tool is hardly revolutionary. NAPs are one of the most commonly used tools to ideally implement structured plans over various departments with regular accountability checks, legislative commitments and dedicated funding to ensure these plans come through. Not all NAPs are equal though, with some nations producing one to check the box and never coming back to it, as may have been the case for some NATO nations. It’s the nation that makes the NAP work, not the other way around. The London School of Economics and the University of Sydney partnered to produce a dataset looking at every national action plan in WPS, assessing the dominant focuses of the reports, their levels of civil-society involvement, budgets, and monitoring and evaluation specifications, highlighting just how diverse these reports can be and how varied their efficacy can be. 

Which isn’t to say they’re an outdated tool; in fact, NATO’s approach to collaborative growth would likely address the gaps and failings by which many action plans have been defined. Commitments determined by committee, tools developed to raise standards and information sharing on best practices are ways in which NATO could contribute without constricting any nation’s autonomy – a common concern – with political changes proposed at the organization’s table. Rather than top-down structuring, each nation would be motivated to develop a plan that addresses its individual needs while setting an example for allies to admire. With consistent updates and contributions from nation to nation to develop more advanced plans, perhaps we will live to see the day when WPS policy will be produced with adequate funding planned for; progress will be properly monitored and adjustments subsequently made. Perhaps some of the richest countries in the world will go beyond the minimum and inspire real growth from the global community.


So, Why Canada?

Canada has contributed to the development of every NATO WPS action plan to date. It has been the lead financial donor to the Office of the Secretary General’s Special Representative for WPS. There is a Canadian in that very role in the form of the eminently qualified Clare Hutchison and Canada has provided a deputy chair to the NATO Committee on Gender Perspectives for four years.

What also makes Canada an attractive candidate for this unsolicited assignment is its history of pushing NATO to do uncomfortable things. The alliance was militarily focused in its early years but found this single-mindedness to be a shortcoming in practice. The foreign ministers of Canada, Norway and Italy were challenged to “advise the Council on ways and means to improve and extend NATO cooperation in non-military fields and to develop greater unity within the Atlantic Community”. They ultimately succeeded, earning themselves the nickname “Three Wise Men” and pushing the alliance into developing a more fulsome approach by leveraging its political, economic and cultural partnerships.

Canada takes the work of gender equality seriously and well beyond NATO. Despite failing to win a seat at the UN Security Council with gender policy at the forefront of its campaign, Canada does boast a feminist foreign policy. However, such a policy does not currently exist on paper. Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced in a 2019 address that a white paper would be developed during his mandate to establish what exactly Canada’s feminist foreign policy is, and WPS at NATO would be a necessary aspect of that work. As of this paper’s publication, such work is underway at the governmental level via Global Affairs and to a certain degree with civil society partners, but the process has been opaque and limited as the foundations are established. Canada has a lot of work ahead to make a policy that aligns with where its mouth is. An endeavour of this magnitude, quite beyond the usual low-level framework development and planning, but still entirely within the realm of the doable, would be a boon to Canada and a solid cornerstone of future foreign policy work. Champagne spoke with Stoltenberg in September “to discuss collaboration on future strategic initiatives and the upcoming ministerial in December”.  Hopefully, it’s not too late to add an addendum.


About the Author

Claire Wählen is a former Program Director with the NATO Association of Canada. She has worked with the United Nations in Rwanda and as a national security reporter with iPolitics. She is an analyst and researcher.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute 

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