WPS 2018: Feminist foreign policy in Australia


This article is the second in a series on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ that The Strategist will publish over coming weeks in recognition of International Women’s Day 2018. Eds.

Sweden was the first country in the world to boldly stake out a feminist foreign policy in 2015, claiming that the pursuit of gender equality is ‘not only a goal in itself but also a means of achieving other goals—such as peace, security and sustainable development’. The country’s foreign minister Margot Wallstrom, argues that ‘a feminist approach is a self-evident and necessary part of a modern view of today’s global challenges’.

Justin Trudeau’s government in Canada followed suit in 2017, announcing that it was also embracing a feminist foreign policy, particularly focused on providing international assistance to women’s rights organisations and sending more women soldiers on international peacekeeping operations.

Australia has also pursued a gender strategy since 2016, making gender equality and women’s empowerment part of its core foreign policy objectives. However the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper was widely seen as a missed opportunity to advance a more feminist foreign policy.

Effective foreign policy must always begin at home. This year we have already seen  some major opportunities and constraints for promoting feminist principles in Australian foreign policy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s reference to the #Me Too challenge to conventional gender power relations as he announced the sex ban on ministerial relationships with staffers has implications for international politics as well.

With our prime minister apparently attuned to these developments—which affect domestic and international politics equally—2018 may be an opportune time to push further for commitments to gender equality and women’s rights in Australian foreign policy.

But the announcement in January that Australia plans to become one of the top ten arms exporters in the world within a decade could be a setback for the full implementation of WPS given the disproportionate impact of arms on civilians and their use to perpetrate sexual and gender-based violence.

While the Turnbull government says it will primarily focus on boosting exports to the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, it will also target markets in Asia and the Middle East.

Currently 29% of all weapons produced in the world go to the Middle East (to Saudi Arabia and UAE), where they are then known to be distributed to conflict parties perpetrating human rights abuses against civilians, for example in Yemen.

Of course, Sweden is also an arms exporter, the 11th largest in the world and the third largest per capita. This while purporting to have a feminist foreign policy with human rights at its centre. To address that apparent contradiction, Sweden passed a law in 2017 to limit exports to non-democratic countries.

Similarly, Australia’s commitment to grow its defence budget to 2% of GDP by 2020–21 has implications not only for Australia’s foreign aid and development budgets (defence spending is already 10 times that of aid spending). The push to increase defence and military expenditure also has implications for women’s security, particularly in countries engaged in peace processes that Australia is currently supporting.

In our Australian Research Council Linkage Project ‘Toward Inclusive Peace: Analysing Gender-Sensitive Peace Agreements 2000–2016’, my colleagues and I found that an increase of just 1% in a country’s military expenditure as a percentage of GDP makes it less likely that peace agreements will have provisions to ensure gender equality and women’s rights after conflict.

What this means is that resources used to build up the military (purchased from Australia, the US, the UK, Sweden, Canada, etc.) may lead to reductions in other expenditures such as in education, health services and industry investment. These directly support post-conflict recovery..

I suggest four actions that the government should adopt to ensure such trade does not aid and abet human rights violations.

First, Australia should seriously consider following Sweden’s lead and pass a domestic law to prohibit arms exports to countries where they could be used to harm civilians. Such an approach would ensure that Australia upholds the UN Arms Trade Treaty, especially the clauses that prohibit the export of weapons used to perpetrate human rights abuses, including gender-based violence, which Australia as a UN Security Council member in 2013 strongly advocated.

Second, Australia should make its foreign aid conditional on governments ending impunity for sexual and gender-based violence and adopting transitional justice mechanisms for victims. In the short term this may affect Australia’s economic investments. But Australia’s seat on the UN Human Rights Council involves leading on the protection of human rights and pushing back on egregious incursions to women’s rights around the world.

Third, Australia should prioritise support for women’s peacebuilding in Myanmar, where Australia is a major bilateral donor to the peace process, and in Iraq and Syria. If we are ready to fund military deployments and military training, we should be ready to support women’s peacebuilding.

Finally, Australia should adopt a government-wide, gender-based approach to preventing and countering violent extremism and terrorism, recognising the connection between violent extremist acts and acts of gender-based violence, and involving women’s leadership and participations in communities within Australia and our region.

A feminist foreign policy may be the smart option for Australia, grasping the growing sentiment among citizens of both great and small powers that respect for their human rights is not negotiable.