Syrian women demand to take part in the peace talks in Geneva

There are over fifty Syrian women in Geneva this week. They are demanding a ceasefire in Syria and to be part of the planned peace talks in Geneva, January 22. Supported by international women's organisations, they are there to break the medieval narrative and to ensure that the voices of those who believe in humanity are heard.

There is nothing like a war to force a retreat into gender stereotypes; a narrative of warriors and victims, of power which is of the violent and destructive kind wielded by men with whom other men must engage to control it. It's as if the Security Council Resolutions which reflected the need to bring the voices of others into the discourse were passed in a vacuum, that our minds could not actually catch up with what they purported to bring about, i.e. a fundamental shift in the medieval narrative. This is true not just of those engaged in the fighting, but of those who drive the politics and therefore the direction of that conflict.

The international women's movement, ( and here is one!) has not let this pass, and there has been an ongoing process of connection, support and networking to bring women into the narrative for almost two years. Amongst other activities, in December 2013 WILPF brought five brave and exceptional Syrian women to Geneva to demand the participation of women in the peace negotiations. Women are still being told that they have to make the case for their inclusion, every move has to be justified in a way that is simply not there for men. In the context of war, no matter the truth of what they are saying, it proves even harder than ever for women to be taken seriously

Juxtapose this against the parties to the Syrian conflict who are being taken seriously: On one side you have a regime which has violated just about every human right ever recognized, violated International Humanitarian Law, the statute of the International Criminal Court and has used chemical weapons against its own citizens. It continues to use civilians as pawns in their own modern version of the Game of Thrones. The Lannisters look good by comparison.  And on the other side? An opposition that has lost legitimacy, which is divided, which now includes criminal elements, and with them - at least in opposing Assad - are the Salafists, the foreign jihadists funded by the Gulf States and referred to by the women as the forces of darkness. The Game of Thrones is indeed being played out- but this version is real.

The first negotiations to end the conflict started in Geneva where the international community is present en masse, and where politics are played out in places where humanitarian and human rights concerns should be pre eminent. A senior member of OCHA gave the most honest assessment of the situation when he said that despite the hand wringing, the story of Syria is like that of Bosnia; the powers that be simply don’t care. History, he said, should forever condemn them for their inhumanity.  They could stop this war but they don’t, When they wanted the chemical weapons, safe corridors were negotiated, when access is needed to feed, clothe and provide medical assistance to people, its not possible. He asked why there had been no summit on Syria? How often has Obama called Putin? Add to that one should ask why Saudi Arabia and Qatar are allowed to provide billions in aid to the Salafists? How is Russia still supporting Assad and no one mentions a boycott of Putin's precious Games. How does the US justify who it will speak to and include in discussions, and who it will not?  The list of incompetence or just plain self serving power politics is horrendous. It is a relief to know that there are still people in the UN system who will say such things.

From the OCHA member's refreshing frankness - to the reality of diplomatic speak. The Syrian women came to Geneva to speak at a side event organized by WILPF, HRW with the support of the UK, France and Norway. It was a major coup of sorts, the special envoy Lakmar Brahimi was on the panel, the DHC of OHCHR, the head of UN women and three of the women spoke. Brahimi opened. Verbatim it was:

“… women have an important role and women must play that role but unfortunately it's not very easy to see women playing that role. “ 

He went on to remind us that this was, and must be, a Syrian process ( so no role for the US and Russia then?)  and that it would be conducted by the two parties to the conflict. He did say however, and I think this was a first that:

“In Syria, we have been talking to the government and opposition and we have been reminding them of resolutions of (pause to ask a colleague the resolution he was referring to) SCR 1325 and 2122 that requires that in negotiations like the one we expect to take place on the 22nd of January that women should be represented and not only in a talking manner….. Allow me to remind them to use the platitude which is national ownership, this should be a Syrian women process not an international process. Syrian women have to claim their right to organize for this purpose. They have the right to do it, but they also have the responsibility to do it. I hope the Syrian women will be in the lead. We support them. I hope following the meeting here and the meeting on 12 and 13 in Geneva, the women will have a credible convincing presence, and we will discuss with them how best to make their voice heard, inside the negotiations and in Syria and in the region......Women have a role to play. Women must play their role. They have to take the lead and do what should be done to make their voices heard. And we have to help them. They have the rights to be equal like men, But also they have a role as women, and this is the role that we want to see them play"

We did not make this up. If he is as incomprehensible in his mediation then there will be no hope!  A diplomat friend translated for me, and reckons this was progress. But what to make of the fact that he said this, listened to the UN interventions and then left before he heard what the women were going to say? No apology for leaving, no explanation, (and there probably was one), but he didn’t feel it necessary to do either.

Had he stayed, he would have learnt exactly why he needs women at the  table. They spoke with the experience of those who have lived though the conflict, worked hard to end it, and are organising. They spoke of how women had actually managed to broker ceasefires to enable aid to get through, how women could move more freely, that roles were changing because of this, and why this was important for the future. They cautioned against the narrative of sectarianism, and demanded that the third voice - that of women and non violent civil society - be heard, as the only way of reaching a political settlement.  A pro Assad intervention was beautifully responded to by asking if there were any opposition supporters in the room so that they could all sit and discuss how to end this war. When one of them politely remarked that she regretted Brahimi had not stayed to hear them speak, even the wizened ambassadors joined the NGOs in their applause.

Many of those same ambassadors were at an evening “supper” hosted by the UK, so that there could be greater interaction. For one brief evening it seemed as if there had been a shift. Whether it was the wine, the passion and commitment of the women, or a genuine moment of clarity, but it felt as if there was a shift, small but perceptible. Those present seemed to respond more as human beings rather than in their official function. It felt as if the combination of civil society, the UN and States could actually be made to play the roles each should play in bringing peace.

The acceptance of women at the table was there, the question that was not answered was how to make this happen without spoiling the board that had already been prepared by Brahimi with the US and Russia. Therein lies the problem. A brutal reality check was the meeting with the US the following day. Brutal in that there was an insistence on two parties only at the table, and women would have to show what they would bring to it. How can you convince us you are inclusive and representative? Can you prove that you have all confessions in your ranks. And so it goes. The women had heard this before, and are getting more fearful of this narrative which they see as being artificially created over time, but which is becoming the reality. You ask the wrong questions because you have the wrong analysis and hence the wrong approach. The war was not about sectarianism, but by repeating over and over the mantra of sectarianism, and with states fueling it with arms and support, sectarianism is being created, and unless that narrative changes it will destroy the “deep peace” that women and civil society are trying to explain is needed.

Brahimi stressed in press statement on the 21st December that this should, and must be, a Syrian process. At present it is not. Women may not be at the table, but the following will be: the United Nations, the P5, the Secretary General of the League of Arab States, the High Representative of the European Union, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Algeria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and United Arab Emirates.  How many of those delegations will have women in them or any gender expertise? 

In the same press statement he said: ‘We also spoke about women, and the importance of making certain that their voice is heard about the future of their country. …we want it to be a Syrian process, not an international process with Syrian participation. These Syrian women have got to express themselves about their country, and the future, and we will make sure how we will discuss with the Syrian parties, how the voice of the women will be heard during negotiations.”

That, for sure, is progress, but it is still lacking in imagination. It now seems that the talks will have 15 members in the two delegations only. There is one woman in the opposition. The regime has a token female too. A box will have been ticked if Brahimi gets away with it, and he mustn’t.

It must also be recognized that women have come as far as we have by organizing together for change; from the Vienna conference of 1993 through the Beijing Platform for Action and the subsequent Security Council resolutions. None of these would have happened without international women’s solidarity. Syrian women were heard in Geneva because of the advocacy and support of other women who raised funds, did the logistics, and provided expertise and support when asked for. It would not have been as successful but for the strong support of women in powerful positions in Geneva- and indeed the support of some powerful men! That’s how it will have to be until women are taken seriously and we no longer have to fight to get our voices heard, when it is as normal and natural for women to be there as it is for men.

As of today we are still not 100% sure that the talks will take place. Brahimi and the UN are still demanding that for women to be at the table they need to have a political agenda and must be legitimate representatives. This is to misunderstand both elements.  Of course civil society and women have an agenda, and their issue is about the distribution of power, which is political. What they seek is progressive steps towards goals based on human rights, which if effected properly will ensure inclusion and legitimacy, but over time. They need to be in these talks not necessarily as negotiators for a particular political settlement, but to ensure that what is said is based on the demands of civil society, that gender dimensions are taken into account, and that women’s rights are in no way compromised. 

There is an agreed formula for this participation, which States should take a look at and make happen. The UK has taken a strong position on demanding women at the table, and a civil society forum. The Netherlands and Norway are pushing. Right now the words being used are those of “common interest” as in all parties, both Syrian and the likes of Russia, the US and neighbouring countries, have an interest in stopping the break up of Syria and the continued presence of foreign fighters. 

There are over 50 Syrian women in Geneva right now at a UN Women meeting. They are supposed to go home on the 14th.  We have to make sure we can keep them there to be part of the talks. On the 21st WILPF, CODEPINK and MADRE have a round table of women from Syria and from other war zones and peace processes, discussing their experiences and how to get women to the table. Two Nobel laureates will be there, Shirin Ebadi and Mairead Maguire. We will all be demanding the same thing.

There will be some 30 States opening the peace talks. All will have 5 minutes to express their position. If all of us lobbied all of them to demand a cease fire and women at the table, at what price Brahimi can continue to obfuscate? We can break this medieval narrative. We must do whatever it takes to make the voices of those who believe in humanity heard.

 

 

 

 

About the author

Madeleine Rees is Secretary General of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom ( WILPF). She worked as a lawyer on behalf of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission, bringing cases to the European Court of Human Rights and The European Court in Luxembourg. In 1998 she began working as the chief of the OHCHR in Bosnia - Herzegovina. From 2006 to 2010 she was the head of the gender unit for the OHCHR.