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Who's missing from Syria's peace talks?

Those organising Syria’s peace talks must go beyond merely ticking the gender representation box. It's essential to move towards real inclusion of women peace advocates and larger civil society.

No one said that Staffan de Mistura’s job is easy. As UN Special Envoy, de Mistura has been tasked with seeking a peaceful resolution to the war in Syria. But all of his hard work to restart the negotiations will be for nothing if he doesn’t include women.

Syrian women peace advocates, UN Women press conference, Geneva, January 2014. Photo: UN Women.

The process to this point has been plagued by breakdowns and delays. The most recent postponement earlier this week resulted from a last minute maneuver by Russia and Iran, supporters of the Syrian government, alleging that some opposition representatives are members of terrorist organizations. Opposition groups responded by demanding their own concessions prior to negotiations.

The dispute over which opposition members should be allowed in the negotiations has nothing to do with finding a genuine peace settlement, nor is it about safeguarding the ban on participation by terrorist groups. For Russia it serves as a useful stall tactic and leverage for its own opposition picks - including the PYD Kurdish militia members - which Turkey has, in turn, labeled as terrorists. For Western allies, it’s about expediting a regime change in Syria.

Last month, the UN Security Council rushed to pass a unanimous resolution setting out a peace process that includes a series of international talks. Beyond humanitarian aid and a ceasefire, the resolution also commits to a political transition process that includes removing Assad from power. At the vote, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called on all parties invested in the peace process to ensure the participation of women in the intra-Syrian talks. Several states echoed his sentiment.

Moving from ceremonious speeches to concrete action isn’t easy. De Mistura’s team has been public in its efforts to include women in the talks. But their participation has been conflated with that of the opposition and relegated to vague promises that women will most likely be included on the government side as well.

What’s missing?

From the beginning, Syrian women peace advocates have made clear their intent to be included as a civil society third party to the negotiations. This is a distinct departure from the prevailing assumption among heads of states, that the role of local women’s groups in conflict is limited to that of caretaker for those left vulnerable. Some have gone as far to dismiss women as too “emotional.” Such speculators fail to recognize the critical work of these same women’s rights groups in community-level peace building. Consequently, and very often at critical policy moments, women’s voices representing civil society’s concerns in conflict resolution are assigned a “second-tier” status, based on the notion that other “hard” security issues are a “prerequisite” for human rights and must take precedence. This leads to the conclusion that, if there is to be women’s participation at all, it should come from female members of warring parties. For Syria, it has led to the presumption that women peace advocates are necessarily part of a particular, definable opposition.

Strategies for change: Iraqi and Syrian women's rights activists. WILPF. All rights reserved

While many Syrian women's rights activists do oppose the Assad regime, and were critical actors in the initial peaceful uprising against his government, the Syrian “opposition” has come to mean different things to different geo-political actors. Lumping women into the opposition does not do justice to the difficult peacebuilding and gender rights work they have been conducting throughout the conflict and across battle lines.

Unfortunately, de Mistura’s success isn’t being measured by his realization of a sustainable peace agreement to the Syrian conflict; it rests on whether he can bring two warring parties to the table. With the renewed negotiations, his team now says members of the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Development, a group of Syrian women’s organizations representing a broad range of women’s civil society voices for the negotiations, can participate as civil society “consultants” who may advise the Special Envoy. However, participation as an independent third party actor is simply not possible.

If the goal were sustainable peace, the conveners of these negotiations would look to expand the participation of civil society, not sideline it.

Syrian peace advocates with UN Women Executive Director,  Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria,  Lakhdar Brahimi. Geneva, 2014. Photo: UN Women  

Syrian women's organizations have been working on local peace measures and advocating for inclusion in the peace process since the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, which first called for a transitional government. By 2013, with the help of international organizations such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), later joined by MADRE and CUNY Law School they started meeting with each other across battle and sectarian lines to formulate their demands. Last year, they started working with Iraqi and other women affected by ISIS to develop joint strategies for change.

Sustainable peace requires inclusivity. Research shows peace negotiations that meaningfully involve civil society greatly reduce the risk of failed peace agreements. Women raise critical issues in peace processes that affect all of civil society. They contribute practical solutions, from law reform and implementation to rebuilding a more just and sustainable society. But this has only been the case when civil society negotiators have been given meaningful opportunities to engage and bring their issues to the agenda. To ensure the space for these contributions, those organizing peace talks must refrain from merely ticking the gender representation box and move instead towards real inclusion of women and larger civil society.

Despite the recognized importance of including women in peace talks, they are rarely included in either formal or informal peace processes. They are underrepresented, whether as civil society participants or as representatives of warring factions. An assessment conducted by UN Women of 31 major peace processes demonstrated that women represent a strikingly low number of participants—only 4% of signatories to the peace agreements and 2.4% have been appointed chief or lead mediators.

So how can we achieve meaningful representation that takes into consideration the peace work already in motion on the local level? We know the consequences of failing to do this. The cantons set up for Bosnia resulted from viewing stakeholders at the peace negotiation solely through the lens of religious or ethnic identity. That proved to be fatal, resulting in a peace agreement that institutionalized a permanent state of ethnic division in an impossible constitution. They failed to include local women peace activists or other representatives of civil society. Only warlords were invited. Now warlords have been invited to the Syria talks.

A Syrian woman stands in the rubble of her house in al-Qsair. Freedom House/Flickr. Some rights reserved

We need a peace process rooted in a gender perspective that honors the efforts of local Syrian activists who are crossing sectarian lines and working towards real, achievable peace. Expanding civil society representation to include those working on the ground would preserve and build on the nuanced work these activists have carried out for the last four years. It would protect local agreements from the dangers of outside interests and more faithfully represent a ground-up approach, which nurtures sustainability. It also gets to the heart of Security Council Resolution 1325 and its predecessors, which require women's involvement in peace processes. This is the proposal of the Syrian Women’s Initiative - the very same representatives of women’s civil society organized under the auspices of UN Women.

De Mistura has his work cut out for him. Last month, Russia’s targeted airstrikes on Syria - which constituted its biggest intervention in the Middle East in decades - killed Zahran Alloush, lead rebel commander and a peace negotiator for the opposition. The Kurdish PYD, the political wing of their armed militia, has formed a front that controls about 15% of the country. While excluded from the invitation list for this first round of “proximity” discussions, they continue to demand a seat in the negotiations table.

What must not be lost in the geopolitical wrangling is that the most viable solutions lie within Syrian civil society, and in particular amongst the organised base of Syrian women’s groups. Given the current armed violence and political instability in Syria, it’s critical to strengthen the voices of Syrian women in advocacy to lay the foundation for building community resilience and ending impunity for human rights violations. It is precisely this approach that will help weave solutions out of uncertainty and build more equitable foundations for peace in the long term.

About the author

Lisa Davis is Human Rights Advocacy Director at MADRE, and Clinical Law Professor at CUNY Law School. She provides litigation and advocacy services for women’s human rights organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Follow her on twitter @lisadavisnyc


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