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Syria: women, peacework, and the lesson from Bosnia

Below the radar of the Geneva-2 peace talks, Bosnian and Syrian women are meeting to discuss the lessons that must be learnt from the failure of the Dayton Agreement. Without the voices of those who have the greatest stake in preserving peace in their countries, peace agreements don't work.

Something is missing in the discussions, somewhat secretive though they be, as to finding some sort of solution to the war in Syria. There was also something missing in the post-Libya crisis. Something missing in the Egypt of Morsi and absolutely missing after the “coup” by the generals. It was missing too, in the numerous processes which culminated in the Dayton peace agreement which “ended” the violent conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Somehow in some places, lessons have gone missing.

Something is missing in the discussions, somewhat secretive though they be, as to finding some sort of solution to the war in Syria. There was also something missing in the post-Libya crisis. Something missing in the Egypt of Morsi and absolutely missing after the “coup” by the generals. It was missing too, in the numerous processes which culminated in the Dayton peace agreement which “ended” the violent conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Somehow in some places, lessons have gone missing.

To end wars we rigidly stick to negotiating with the  opposing forces perpetrating  the conflict, those who have power because they bear arms, control territory and claim legitimacy when in real life, most of them have none. There is a singular lack of imagination of democracy and of representation in such a model and it doesn’t work. Less than 50% of peace agreements work in keeping the peace and even a cursory examination of the countries where that peace has held, questions need to be asked as to the quality of that peace.   The something missing is the voices of those who have the greatest stake in preserving peace in their countries, who benefit not at all by the use of violence: its women, not exclusively and not all women but there is a gender dimension to conflict which has been given rhetorical recognition by the Security Council in its numerous resolutions on Women Peace and Security, but which has never found expression in either conflict prevention nor negotiation to end them.  Indeed, when there has been opportunity to actually demand  and secure the participation of women as in Libya, the UN’s representative, the G8 and the Security Council said not a word as the rights of women were rolled back.

What are these lessons? Can the responses rolled out to ending conflicts teach us how to approach democracy building in a more intelligent way?Are they applicable and relevant to new conflicts and if so, how can we apply them?  In my view our failure to pose these questions in the fora where they should be raised, and to have a serious and honest review of what has worked or failed, has been to the detriment of international enagement in ending conflicts and dealing with transition.

Take the lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina: Its been more than twenty years since the outbreak of conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In 1995  the Dayton Peace Agreement set out the post conflict structures for Bosnia and Herzegovina, brokered predominantly by the US after talks in Geneva and elsewhere. In the post Dayton BiH the ‘international community’ was heavily involved in running the country, and more than 28 billion dollars was “invested” in the process. It hasn’t worked. The Agreement contained the seeds of its own failure not least as there was no participation from any other than the warring factions.and not one woman, in any capacity and no representative of civil society. There are lessons that must be learnt for Syria.

On justice, despite the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as a mechanism for adjudicating war crimes, there has been little justice for the large number of victims and survivors formally or informally; the ICTY in the Hague given size and resources has had to focus on the most notorious criminals, intending that the BiH courts would deal with the rest. Sadly this has left many of those who committed crimes to enjoy de facto impunity and continue to lead normal lives in BiH. The number of women, and indeed men, who were subjected to sexual violence will never be accurately known but it is in the thousands. There have been only 50 convictions which include sexual violence charges at the ICTY and around 18 in BiH where the fact that you have children is considered a mitigating factor in sentencing, one year less for each child.

The economy remains in tatters and instead of transition from an ethnically and politically divided society -, the warring factions have become deeply entrenched in almost all elements of public and indeed, private life. The process of constitutional reform, demanded inter alia by the European Court of Human Rights, that could  lead to transformation has stalled as a result of political intransigence, and the mechanisms  such as those of transitional justice that could open the reconciliation process struggle to take root.

It sounds horribly depressing, more so as it could have been avoided. Negotiations only with the warring ethnic groups enabled them to create the Constitution that suited them. Holding elections just four months after the Agreement and then funding and supporting the participation of the same political parties that led the country into the war, was hardly intelligent democracy building  Less the legitimation of the peace process, more creating the ability of nationalists to claim legitimacy in directing the  post conflict  reconstruction in their own interest.

The emphasis on ethnicity, underpinned by religious affinity, as the dominant identity and  writing it into law, inevitably means that diversity within that community can be oppressed by political leadership to avoid losing control. This has lead to stagnation of the country and makes citizens hostages of one and the same paradigm – the ethnic one. It ignores the fact that Ethnic groups are hardly ever homogenous and within a group exists class, gender, generational, sexual  and other differences that are  ignored and resisted  so as to entrench sectariansim. And this is exactly what has taken place in BiH. The de facto and de jure ethnic division of the society has and continues to  condition the  achievement of human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. It has also made it extraordinarily difficult to transcend ethnicity in order to build social movements for change, The solidarity, the empathy, the sense of community has been eroded by this forced identification process. Words of warning for those who believe the Balkan solution for Syria is the right one.

Syria war zone. Credit: Mulham al-Jundi/Freedom House/Flickr

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So what happened to the women’s movement in the former Yugoslavia?  Was there one even? Simple answer is yes ….sort of. In 1996 there was a degree of solidarity, there were many women’s organisations which had been active during the conlfict and had been working with women from Croatia and Serbia.  A network of sorts existed and in early 1996 there was a major conference in Zenica to bring them together to establish the Bosnian Womens Initiative. 

The “movement’ was not able to endure. A combination of the need to survive financially, to secure livlihoods, coupled with donor policies  of support for particular concerns, meant that many of the nascent NGOs became service providers not activist organisations engaging in reform.  A major contributing factor was the lack of access to social and  economic rights which were subordinated to the need of the politicians to appease the veterans whose support is vital to their continued  tenure of power. A cursory look at the social welfare policies of the governing bodies shows how women were discriminated against. Veterans payments still take priority and are paid at levels higher than the average wage. They have escaped conditionality whilst the rest of the welfare budget, including payments to survivors of sexual violence are subject to cuts at every new IMF re-negotiation.

So not good. Not good at all and there is no plan, no vision nor even political interest in addressing these issues. BiH will take many years to turn around, absent some “Spring” from the people. The “Baby revolution “ gave some hope that there was still life and passion but it petered out in the face of condescension and threats.

The process from war to this moment in BiH history needs to be documented, objectively, and accurately so that the lessons can be learnt by all those who are engaged in conflict and post conflict mediation, negotiation and State building. The importance of ensuring women’s rights and participation in peace and security efforts is recognized by the UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960,  and now 2106. It has been explicitly set out by the CEDAW committee in its soon to be adopted General Recommendation on Women and Armed Conflict. There is an obligation on States, on negotiators, on international actors including the United Nations and its agencies, and yet little changes in practice.

So far there is not a great deal to indicate that the approach being taken towards the Syrian crisis is any different from the one in BiH. Whilst the international community takes sides and reduces the narrative yet again to reflect only the warring factions, the voices of those who are advocating peaceful poltical settlement are ignored. It is all too familiar. Regardless of the outcome of the conflict, the crisis in Syria will leave the State in a long reconstruction period. It is critical that the tragic mistakes of the BiH   post conflict reconstruction process  are not repeated.

The process of building a new State and its institutions is unsustainable without consolidating and ensuring the participation of women in all processes. The first step is to make sure women are ready and able to meaningfully participate in any peace negotiation process, and that they have a framework for a transitional model for justice and development which will help the State to move from conflict to sustainable peace.

There is no substitute for experience and Bosnian women have that in truck loads: how to organise in the context of displacement, how to address sexual violence, the obstacles to accessing justice and how to overcome them, the type of health care needed, sexual exploitation and its consequences, the trauma of dealing with missing persons….there is no element of conflict that they have not had to address. But this knowledge is not seriously documented, nor reported on and if you ask the women themselves if they are experts in transitional justice they look askance. Self perception is also gendered. 

Other women can learn from what happened and so can those who are responsible for creating peace and transition. Women’s international organisations, with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) the driver, are combining to try to take these lessons to Syria…by bringing Syrians to Bosnia.

Not that there has been much coverage of it but there is a lot of activity amongst Syrian women. There are many, many organisations working in numerous fields: humanitarian assistance, documentation, peace building, international advocacy, and so on They are organizing. WILPF and others have been working on bringing expertise to them to assist and support their preparation to be included in the peace talks and beyond. They have yet to be invited but they will be there! As part of that preparation women from Bosnia have met with them in both Geneva and in Lebanon, and in early 2014 there will be a retreat in which some twenty Syrian women representing different organisations, will come to Bosnia to meet with their counterparts to share, compare and learn from each other.

The issues identified so far: access to justice and transitional justice -wWhat is justice from women’s perspective? How have the formal justice mechanisms in Bosnia Herzegovina (ICTY and national justice system) contributed to the fulfilling of human rights and women’s rights as distinct parts of the human rights system in the aftermath of the BiH war? Peace negotiations and women in public life in a post-conflict society; the return process; economic and social rights – what should the provision of appropriate health care, employment, education and other services look like? How do NGOs support these services?; violence against women - how has the violence women experienced during the conflict aggravated the discrimination of women and girls in the post-conflict setting?

It's planned that the coming together of women from Syrian and Bosnian  will be the start of a long-term cooperation and exchange of experiences, knowledge, and provision of support, guidance and empowerment of each other. This is the start. More is needed. The expertise and experience of women from Northern Ireland will be brought into the mix, we hope to include women from Liberia. We need women who have actually been negotiators and mediators to mentor and guide Syrian women through the peace process when it happens. We need to make sure that the States which engage in brokering the peace ensure that they too comply with their obligations and include senior women in their team with the right knowledge of law, democracy and transition to help ensure that the discussions are not replicative of Dayton and it deference to masculinities.

The international feminist movement has been working hard at getting the legal basis right, vis the Security Council Resolutions, working at getting plans to implement, working with women as best we all can in conflict areas. Now we know enough to make it work because we recognise the lessons from Bosnia and elsewhere ..now  we must make sure that the UN, the negotiators and parties to the conflict catch up.

About the author

Madeleine Rees is Secretary General of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom ( WILPF). She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to human rights, particularly women's rights, and international peace and security.  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.


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