For women foreign ministers and activists, a historic first in Montreal

At the first official Women Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Canada provided a window for activists to shape ideas about what a feminist foreign policy should look like. Those present tell OpenCanada what they’ll be watching for from the ministers at the UN General Assembly and going forward. 

By: /
September 25, 2018
Women Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Montreal, September 21, 2018. (Credit: Global Affairs Canada)

The Queen Elizabeth Hotel in downtown Montreal has seen its fair share of notable visitors since its opening in the 1950s. Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and the eponymous queen herself have all graced its halls, and in 1969 it reached international fame with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “bed-in for peace.”

On Friday, September 21, the Queen Elizabeth hosted another historic event: the first official meeting of women heading their countries’ international affairs. Sixteen women foreign ministers, including Canada’s Chrystia Freeland and the European Union’s Federica Mogherini, the gathering’s co-hosts, were in attendance over two days. 

That evening, one by one, in bold, bright colours, patterned scarves and skirts, and statement necklaces, the women ministers — some the first women to be appointed to the role in their country — filed onto a riser for a family photo quite unlike any other before it. As the cameras flashed, the ministers beamed. 

“One with Minister Kono!” a woman shouted from the side of the stage. The ministers cheered and clapped, as their Japanese counterpart — the only male, in a pink tie and pocket square — joined them on stage for a second shot.

In her opening remarks to the group, Mogherini said the idea for the meeting came during a different family photo of foreign ministers last year that included only a handful of women. “[We] realized that women are already in power in some parts of the world...and that maybe we had a responsibility to show that side of power,” she said.

“I think that our stories can be a great source of inspiration for millions of women around the world. Our stories can tell girls that they can be anything they want, if they believe in that, if they work on that and if they’re given the right opportunities to do that.”

Mogherini emphasized that the focus on women’s rights was not meant to be perceived as “against men.”

“It is not just an issue of equal rights, of achieving fairness for women, it is working to avoid a clear waste of human capital that this world cannot afford anymore. Because when women are not fully empowered, our collective potential in the world is not fully used.”

Over the course of the two days, the ministers attended four working sessions, as well as a breakfast with representatives from civil society. The topics of discussion spanned a variety of subjects, some specifically focused on gender and others on wider foreign policy issues.

“This is not about creating a pink ghetto,” Freeland said in a press conference on Saturday. “We talked about Rohingya, Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the pressing issues that concern us as foreign ministers, and that we can work on those together very much in partnership with our male colleagues.”

Freeland announced the Canadian government’s intention to create Canada’s first ambassador for women, peace and security (WPS), to be based in Ottawa. Additional details on the new position will follow in the coming weeks, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said.

Freeland also announced “more than $25 million in funding to strengthen the active and meaningful participation of women in peace processes, support the investigation of sexual and gender-based crimes, build sustainable and inclusive peace, and advance women’s empowerment and gender equality in developing countries,” and confirmed that, with Uruguay, Canada will co-chair the WPS Focal Points Network, an international forum on advancing the WPS agenda, in 2020.

An opportunity to engage

Canada, like Sweden before it, has espoused a “feminist foreign policy.” Critics and proponents alike have charged that the term is vague, with many asking exactly what it means in practice.

Freeland said that’s something ministers talked about “in very practical terms” and that the work is “by no means complete…[and] a process of constant evolution.” The announcement of the new ambassadorial position was “just one step in [an] ongoing effort to put some meat on the bones” of a policy Canada is “very committed to.” 

Freeland also said the ministers were “very conscious of the leading role” that civil society activists play in figuring out what it means to have a feminist foreign policy. One of the important elements of the meeting, she added, was the “participation of civil society representatives in the sessions, and the work that civil society has been doing alongside ministers.”

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Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland meets with civil society representatives in Montreal, September 22, 2018. (Credit: Global Affairs Canada)

“It doesn’t normally happen in a lot of foreign policy discussions that there’s room to hear from activists, especially feminist activists,” said Beth Woroniuk, the policy lead for The MATCH International Women’s Fund and the coordinator of the Women, Peace and Security Network — Canada (WPSN-C). Various member organizations of the WPSN-C came together in an informal coalition ahead of the meeting, releasing a statement calling for “concrete and accountable commitments.”

“We had a number of conversations with Minister Freeland’s office, and people at Global Affairs, and actually some officials from the European Union…and they were very open to discussing how did civil society want to be involved,” Woroniuk told OpenCanada. 

The result was the breakfast on Saturday morning attended by the ministers and 10 women activists — five from the Global South, three from Canada and two from Europe. Nobel Peace Prize winners Beatrice Fihn and Leymah Gbowee gave some opening remarks, after which ministers and activists sat together at various tables. They “were able to exchange [ideas] at a very informal level,” Woroniuk said, with activists raising particular subjects having to do with their expertise and highlighting “the richness and diversity of issues that feminist activists are working on and care about.”

Making concrete requests

Civil society representatives will also be looking for concrete action from the ministers as they head to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week.

Fihn, who won the Nobel last year as part of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, was frank: “We’re not just your cheerleaders because you’re doing something good and you call it a feminist foreign policy.

“We’re not just going to be here so you can look good…we need to work together.”

Fihn told OpenCanada that at the breakfast the activists raised questions around peace and security “for everyone.”

“Peace and security issues is not just for white, old defence ministers,” Fihn said, adding that women foreign ministers “are in a position of power, and they need us to help legitimize these issues and make them top priorities.” 

Ahead of the breakfast, Fihn and the others met with around 60 civil society representatives to get a sense of what was important to them. Woroniuk says there were two levels to the asks from civil society. The first, in broad terms, was for the women foreign ministers to keep advancing the definition of what a feminist foreign policy really means — how countries can pursue one, how to keep discussions going, how civil society can be involved.

"What we’re seeing in many parts of the world is a closing down of civil society space — that the space for activism, the space to organize, the space to speak out, in many countries, is shrinking."

The second — as a counterpoint to the “very broad, nebulous” idea of feminist foreign policy — was something more specific: the coalition called on ministers to commit to recognizing, protecting and supporting women human rights defenders and women’s movements at UNGA.

“What we’re seeing in many parts of the world is a closing down of civil society space — that the space for activism, the space to organize, the space to speak out, in many countries, is shrinking,” Woroniuk said.

“That’s really what binds us all together in the feminist movement — really making sure that the women human rights defenders and their organizations and movements have space, are safe, and are really able to do the work that they’re doing,” Diana Sarosi, manager of policy at Oxfam Canada, added in an interview. 

“We didn’t want to present another massive document with 50 recommendations...we wanted something very concrete that can happen right now at UNGA.”

As ministers headed to breakfast, Sarosi said, they walked through a small exhibit on women’s rights organizations working to support women affected by the Rohingya crisis (earlier in the week, the Canadian Parliament unanimously declared the acts of the Myanmar military against the group an act of genocide).

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Flowers with short profiles of women's rights defenders at risk attached were presented to the ministers in Montreal. (Credit: Global Affairs Canada)

Each minister was handed a glass vase with a daisy, and each flower came with a short profile of a woman human rights defender at risk, a “symbolic message [to] please keep these women in mind as you’re at this meeting here this week.” 

Ministers then heard from, among others, Rohingya human rights lawyer Razia Sultana, and Anielle Franco, the sister of Marielle Franco, a black, feminist city councillor who was murdered in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year. 

“We heard very moving accounts from women about their experiences and we concluded that there is much more that we can do together to help women and to advance their status,” Croatian Foreign Minister Marija Pejčinović Burić told OpenCanada. “We also discussed the responsibility that we as foreign ministers have to continue raising awareness and addressing challenges facing women around the globe.”

In her closing remarks, Freeland noted that she would be hosting a dinner in New York on September 25, as is customary for foreign ministers whose country holds the Group of Seven presidency. She said that she and Mogherini had committed to sharing the “discussions and conclusions” that came out of the Montreal meeting with their G7 counterparts. 

The small army of activists involved this past week will be watching. “Our intent is, at the end of UNGA, to go through all of their statements and see whether this has been reflected in it,” Sarosi said. She adds that another measure of success, for her and her colleagues, will be how priorities around gender equality are reflected in Canada’s bid for a 2021 UN Security Council seat. 

Mogherini said that ministers will “meet again as often as we can — for sure again next year, just before or after the UN General Assembly — hopefully and potentially again in Canada.”

Fihn hopes civil society will be back at the table, with an even bigger role to play.

“We really want them to not just feel like they had their breakfast with us and that’s great, they checked the box, but now create the space for us by inviting us to more meetings, continuing the dialogue, helping us amplify the message,” Fihn said.

“They are not going to be able to do things on their own, as individuals, so they also need us to be able to deliver transformative change of the international world order.”