Asking a Different Set of Questions? Dealing with the Conflict Legacy in Northern Ireland and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 Part Two

Dr Catherine O’Rourke is Senior Lecturer in Human Rights and International Law and Gender Research Coordinator at the University of Ulster Transitional Justice Institute, where she also directs the LLM Gender, Conflict and Human Rights. Her new book, Gender Politics in Transitional Justice (Routledge, 2013), examines feminist engagement with, and gendered outcomes of, transitional justice in Northern Ireland, Colombia and Chile. 

Part One was posted on Monday.


UNSCR1325 in Northern Ireland: The Twilight Zone

It is critical to note the surrounding political and legal environment of efforts, such as the recent Inquiry, to secure implementation of the UNSCR1325 in Northern Ireland and to integrate the resolution into formal activities to deal with the past. The UK is, by international standards, regarded as a champion state for the resolution. It has, since 2006, operated a National Action Plan to implement the resolution and has more recently updated the plan. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is responsible for discharging the plan, while the Westminster Associate Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security monitors the UK’s implementation of the National Action Plan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it is housed within the FCO, the action plan makes no reference to Northern Ireland, nor any provision for implementation of the resolution in the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland. However, in the absence of an FCO role in the implementation of the resolution in Northern Ireland, no other government department has stepped into the breach. The Home Office has conceded no role in implementing the resolution in Northern Ireland. One important local initiative that has drawn attention to the relevance of the resolution to Northern Ireland is the establishment of the All-Party Group on UNSCR 1325: Women, Peace and Security in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ‘to raise awareness of the lack of participation of women in political and public life in areas outlined in UNSCR 1325’.  The group includes MLAs from all of the political parties at the Assembly and receives administrative support from the Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform.

The UK has been challenged for its refusal to implement the resolution in Northern Ireland in both of the most recent sets of Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In 2008 and again in 2013, the Committee called on the state party to implement the resolution in Northern Ireland. In the most recent state party hearing, when questioned on its failure to heed the Committee’s 2008 recommendations, the state representative stated that:

The situation in Northern Ireland demonstrated the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peacebuilding… The position of her Government, which had been endorsed by the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Unionist Party but not by the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland or Sinn Féin, was that the situation in Northern Ireland did not constitute an armed conflict as defined under international law.

This position seems based on the willful disregard of the following compelling set of facts:

  1. The actual text of the resolution makes no reference to meeting conflict thresholds under international law as a prerequisite to the resolution’s application, and only three provisions of the resolution reference ‘armed conflict’,
  2. The UN Secretary-General’s stated interpretation of the resolution is that:

[T]he present resolution does not seek to make any legal determination as to whether situations that are referred to in the Secretary General’s report are or are not armed conflicts within the context of the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols thereto, nor does it prejudge the legal status of the non-State parties involved in these situations.

  1. The determination of the CEDAW Committee – the Committee charged with monitoring the UK’s obligations under the CEDAW Convention – is that the resolution applies to Northern Ireland and that the UK should implement the resolution in Northern Ireland in order to discharge its treaty obligations under the CEDAW Convention,
  2. It is entirely feasible for the UK to commit to the spirit of the resolution’s implementation in Northern Ireland, whilst expressly precluding any legal inferences concerning the conflict status to be drawn from that implementation. Moreover, the UK can confine its implementation of the resolution to the (vast bulk) of the provisions that do not reference ‘armed conflict’,
  3. The Irish Government’s National Action Plan on UNSCR1325 mandates the Irish Government to:

Engage with appropriate Northern Ireland authorities to encourage development of policies and measures consistent with the aims of UNSCR 1325, in consultation with civil society organisations.

The British and Irish governments are the co-guarantors and guardians of the Good Friday Agreement 1998, and are supposed to act cooperatively on the implementation of the Agreement in Northern Ireland.

  1. Local civil society and rights bodies are in agreement that their concern is implementation of the resolution, not gaining concessions around the legal status of the conflict in the jurisdiction, and
  2. The cross-party membership of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s All-Party Group on UNSCR1325, demonstrates overwhelming local political consensus that the resolution is in fact applicable to the jurisdiction and has a role to play in the advancement of women’s equality in Northern Ireland. (The high-level disagreement between the First and Deputy First Ministers as to conflict status noted by the UK state representative in the CEDAW hearing appears to be very far from actual political party practice in Northern Ireland).

The Way Forward? A Focus on Implementation

The question of conflict status has become an unfortunate distraction and detractor from implementation of the resolution in Northern Ireland and the important work of advancing women’s equality in all efforts to deal with the conflict legacy. Against the backdrop of UK inaction on implementation, local civil society in Northern Ireland have pressed-on with extraordinary activism and advocacy based on the spirit and text of the resolution. The devolved administration stands to learn much from the tenacity and resourcefulness of this civil society activity. Whilst it may be desirable that the implementation of the UNSCR1325 in Northern Ireland is integrated into the UK’s National Action Plan, as it would release greater resources and Westminster oversight as to implementation, it is by no means a prerequisite to local implementation of the resolution. The urgent need to press ahead with implementation by the devolved administration is starkly illustrated by the exclusion of women and women’s organisations from the formal process to deal with the past and the narrow terms of the current debate on how to deal with the conflict legacy. The Assembly, and more specifically, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, has sufficient authority and capacity to develop a regional action plan for the implementation of the resolution. The existing All-Party Group on UNSCR1325 (which has, frankly, struggled to motivate its members and suffers from very poor attendance) could be given a clear role and purpose in the development and monitoring of such an action plan. The All-Party Group could also, importantly, be a key vehicle for agreeing the necessary formula of words to permit implementation of the resolution in Northern Ireland, whilst precluding any legal inferences concerning the conflict status to be drawn from that implementation. The provision in the Irish National Action Plan addressing Northern Ireland already provides a sound basis for north-south cooperation on implementation of the resolution. With internal Northern Ireland agreement and action on the implementation of the resolution within the jurisdiction, and some degree of north-south cooperation on the issue, two of the Good Friday Agreement’s ‘Three Strands’ approach to the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict would be activated in the implementation of UNSCR1325. (The value of such a ‘three-strand’ bi-national approach to the implementation of the resolution has been consistently advocated by the feminist peace project Hanna’s House.) Ultimately, local leadership on the Northern Ireland and north-south strands of implementation may create the necessary momentum and pressure to secure buy-in from the British government also and, in the meantime, ensure that we begin the critical process of asking new questions about how to deal with the past.