The Cable

As January’s UNSC President, Sweden Sought to Focus on Women and Peace. How’d It Go?

“There’s not been one meeting where we’ve not raised this issue in one way or another,” says Sweden's spokesperson.

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Sweden made women’s inclusion its top priority from the start of its one month-long presidency of the U.N. Security Council in January. But now January is coming to a close, and Sweden’s temporary presidency is ending with it. Which raises the question: Did Sweden achieve what it set out to do?

Carl Skau, spokesperson for the permanent mission of Sweden to the United Nations, said “There’s not been one meeting where we’ve not raised this issue in one way or another.”

Sweden’s aim, he says, is not to have women be a thematic initiative on its own, but rather  thread it into every top issue the U.N. works on (this is known in policy circles as “mainstreaming” — integrating women’s issues into more general conversations).

This has been true, he explains, in high-level events and discussions with the new U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres, who beat women candidates for the top job, but appointed women to his top three cabinet positions. Sweden also brought civil society organizations from Nigeria and Somalia to draw attention to the plight and political promise of women. And they have tried to make it true in implementation — attempting to emphasize the importance of involving women on following up on the political agreement determining the future of the  Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nevertheless, the issue of women, peace, and security, or WPS, — even when discussed as part of peace processes more generally — comes with potential pitfalls. Elizabeth Weingarten, director of New America’s Global Gender Parity Initiative, says that discussion of women in peacekeeping can often serve to stereotype them — for example, that women are more peaceful — or turn people off the discussions.

What is more helpful than simply bringing up women, she says, is to think of the perspectives that are lacking in a particular group, rather than just ticking a box. “Mainstreaming as just forcing something isn’t a sustainable strategy,” she said

There are still other hurdles, such as skepticism from other countries to buy into famously progressive Sweden’s gender agenda. Skau told Foreign Policy that Sweden takes “a listening approach” to other countries. Further, the permanent mission believes that, actually, it is helpful that Sweden is walking the talk on gender equality in politics (see: the aforementioned female foreign minister) at home. That’s more than the United Nations itself can say. As of December, 32 of the top 45 top U.N. jobs were held by men.

There’s also the challenge of the U.N.’s host country, the United States. Although Nikki Haley, Trump’s recently confirmed U.S. ambassador the U.N., said in her confirmation hearings that she supported the U.N.’s global work on women, one would be forgiven for wondering, given her boss’s rhetoric on women, if she will make it a priority.

Finally, there’s the potential threat of becoming a “one-issue country,” a pitfall every new country coming into the Council faces, at least according to Skau. Sweden becoming the country that just talks about women isn’t useful to Sweden — or to women. The inclusion of women, per Skau, “has to be part of a broader approach.”

After January, the Swedish permanent mission intends to focus on how to move from words to actions, including ensuring a bigger role for women in the peace process, said Skau. But maybe there’s still time for Sweden to put more meat on the bones of its women’s initiatives.

“We’re not done with January yet,” Skau said.

Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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