Australia’s second WPS action plan: was it worth the wait?
14 Apr 2021|

Australia has a new national action plan (NAP) to guide its engagement on women, peace and security (WPS) over the next decade. After more than two years without an updated or revised NAP, the government has finally released its strategic plan to advance the human rights of women and promote gender equality in conflict-affected contexts.

This is a welcome move, but the timing and disconnect between this plan and the Morrison government’s approach to addressing barriers to women’s meaningful participation in political life here in Australia is likely to strike some as odd.

Australia’s second NAP draws on growing evidence that upholding human rights and advancing gender quality can break cycles of conflict and support peace. It sets out four key strategic outcomes to guide Australia’s implementation of WPS: ‘supporting women’s meaningful participation and needs in peace processes’; ‘reducing sexual and gender-based violence’; ‘supporting resilience, crisis, security, law and justice efforts to meet the needs and rights of all women and girls’; and ‘demonstrating leadership and accountability for WPS’. The plan makes clear that Australia’s efforts will be grounded in a human-rights approach. Importantly, it recognises that gender is only ‘one aspect of identity and experience’ that contributes to discrimination and inequality.

NAPs have become a tool used by governments to translate international commitments on WPS into national programs and policies. Since Denmark developed the first NAP in 2005, more than 85 countries have adopted NAPs, some of which are now on their second and third iterations. The most effective NAPs incorporate inclusive-design processes, effectively engage civil society and focus on strategic approaches to change.

The development of Australia’s second NAP has leveraged many of these strengths, facilitating consultations across government, and with civil society and academia. It recognises the value of supporting ongoing research and the role of data in anchoring the framework for monitoring and evaluation.

The NAP is only a starting point in demonstrating Australia’s ongoing political commitment to WPS. Australia’s efforts to progress the WPS agenda will be contingent on the support of implementing departments and agencies, namely the departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence and Home Affairs, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Civil–Military Centre. They have been tasked with developing their own implementation plans every two years. The ACMC will have the lead in collaborating with civil society, although it’s unclear whether that will entail financial support. There’s no dedicated budgetary funding to implement the NAP, so it will be up to departments alone to prioritise it. This is a known shortcoming of NAPs.

The challenge for the decade ahead will be ensuring effective, funded and accountable implementation in a ‘dynamic strategic environment’. Some government departments will be tempted to prioritise ‘hard security’ issues and ignore gender-sensitive analysis and diversity, despite their value as potential force multipliers.

While DFAT, Defence, the AFP and the ACMC have considerable experience in taking forward commitments under Australia’s first NAP, Home Affairs is a new addition to the list. The department didn’t exist when the first NAP was developed. Consequently, Home Affairs has escaped scrutiny on progressing WPS since its establishment. This is despite the department’s responsibilities for a range of security issues that require attention as part of the WPS agenda, including border protection, immigration, counterterrorism, critical infrastructure protection and cybersecurity.

The extent to which Home Affairs chooses to engage on the NAP’s implementation will be important in assessing how effective the plan is in effecting change. The new NAP doesn’t assign responsibility to any departments for taking forward particular measures. While that has the benefit of allowing for flexibility and innovation in responding to our rapidly changing security environment, it may diminish accountability. The independent reviews that have been scheduled as part of the process for reporting on and reviewing the NAP are likely to highlight some of these gaps, but they will only take place every five years, reducing the time for recalibration.

Unlike Australia’s first NAP, the foreign minister (and DFAT) will have the lead, rather than the minister for women (and the Office for Women in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet). While the Office for Women will remain engaged in the interdepartmental committee that oversees the plan, responsibility for coordinating whole-of-government implementation will now rest with DFAT. There’s a certain logic behind this shift, given that DFAT leads Australia’s international WPS engagement. However, it also reinforces the view that Australia’s approach will be an externally focused one, overlooking calls for an approach that recognises what peace and security mean for Australian women.

While the NAP acknowledges the government’s domestic commitment to ‘supporting women’s economic security, leadership aspirations and taking action to ensure women and children are safe from violence’, it suggests these areas are addressed by other ‘strategies, plans and commitments’. Furthermore, although the NAP recognises women’s ‘equal right to participate in all areas of peace and security decision-making and to be active in governing their communities and societies’, there’s no acknowledgement of the domestic political climate around women’s equality and human rights or that women are still seeking to overcome hurdles to exercising those rights within our own borders. Forthright assessments of these shortcomings and barriers to women’s meaningful participation could provide a valuable platform for engaging with other countries in our region that are also struggling with these issues.

The past 18 months have highlighted many of Australia’s domestic security vulnerabilities in relation to natural disasters and pandemics. Countries with traditionally outward-facing NAPs like Canada and Ireland have started to recognise the importance of addressing ‘domestic priorities related to peace and security’. The responses to Covid-19 have highlighted yet again that many women—particularly migrant and indigenous women—are not safe at home.

For Australia, the lines between outward-facing security challenges and internal ones will continue to blur further in the decade ahead. Cyber incidents, foreign interference and disinformation will continue to have gendered impacts across Australian society. Government departments must consider how they might address these challenges in their implementation plans. This will be particularly important for Home Affairs, which has scope to shape engagement on a range of issues that are traditionally overlooked in NAPs.

It’s relatively easy to criticise a document that has been painstakingly negotiated over more than two years. And while this plan doesn’t go as far as some thought it should on issues such as disarmament, conflict prevention and domestic security, it nonetheless offers a solid framework to guide Australia’s advocacy and support for WPS in the decade ahead. This is more important than ever as some countries continue to seek to roll back gains that have been made on WPS over the last 20 years. Australia’s commitment advancing WPS—along with like-minded counterparts—will be essential to addressing the peace and security challenges of a post-Covid world.