The United Nations-led peace talks in Switzerland to begin the laborious discussions to end the war in Syria have officially started, but Syrian women activists who have been demanding to sit at the crucial peace-talks table on Jan. 24 in Geneva did not know until the last minute whether any women would be involved.
Rima Fleihan, a longstanding activist with the opposition in Syria, is reportedly representing women at the Jan. 24 forum, where the regime of Assad al-Bashar and the National Syrian Coalition are supposed to lay the groundwork to settle the three-year civil war, based on a communiqué issued from the first Geneva conference in 2012. The Syrian government also just named Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser, and Luna al-Shebl, a former journalist, to its team. It is unclear whether the women representatives will actually be invited to sit at the negotiations and speak.
The communiqué basis — to frame a transitional government that does not feature Assad in a leadership role — remains in deep flux as the stances of the regime and the opposition radically diverge.
The UN conference, which started on Jan. 22 in Montreux, with 3o to 40 foreign ministers and others speaking about the war as a prelude to the Geneva discussions two days later, is provoking strong regional and international passions. Ghada Mukdad, a Syrian activist who lives in the United States, described the speeches in Montreux of the opposition and the regime as a “disappointment to the issues of peace” and their way of showing “power,” adding, ” I hope that the coming days will bring a real peaceful dialogue.”
The UN has virtually stopped counting the death toll in Syria, given its lack of access to some parts of the country, but reports range from 100,000 to 130,000 dead and almost nine million people having fled their homes. Up to 80 percent of the refugees are women.
For now, the designation of women to participate in Geneva is a triumph, say some people who have been working behind the scenes to make such involvement happen. The other positive note for women activists is that Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League special envoy for Syria, has apparently appointed a gender adviser to his mediation team for the Geneva session. The adviser’s name, however, has not been released by the UN.
As for Flihan, a lot of diplomats, Americans, external players, nongovernmental organizations and Syrians “pushed for her very hard,” Jetteke van der Schatte Olivier, the manager for Women on the Frontline at Hivos, a foundation in The Hague that has been assisting representation of women’s groups at Geneva, said by Skype. “She’s seen as one of the stronger voices” for Syrian women’s organizations and “can articulate women’s issues.”
Van der Schatte Olivier said that the talks in Montreux, however, did not include a women’s civil society presence or a chance for them to read their statement. This statement is based on one released earlier this month at a UN Women-sponsored meeting in Geneva and adheres to the Geneva communiqué but also demands the release of political prisoners in Syria.
Among other requirements, the statement demands that a new Syrian constitution guarantee “the equality of women and men and penalizes all forms of discrimination and violence against women.”
“We tried to get a statement from the women read — as an independent entity statement — but interactions are very formal,” van der Schatte Olivier said of Montreux. Nevertheless, she added, bilateral meetings are going on behind closed doors, enabling women to gain access to high-level officials, such as Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, and possibly John Kerry, US secretary of state.
In light of Brahimi’s lack of assurance in the last several months that women would be part of the Swiss talks — not surprising, given his trouble convening the two warring parties in one place — a global alliance of six networks held a Women Lead to Peace summit in Montreux from Jan. 20 to 22. The alliance has called for an immediate cease-fire in Syria, an embargo on arms sales, greater humanitarian aid for the refugees and displaced people and the full participation of women at the peace negotiations.
Some demands by various sectors in the alliance called for women to participate as an independent third party at Geneva, but that goal was softened to ask for consultative status instead, a concession that women could still play a bigger role in “Geneva III” or other future meetings, presuming that it will take years to achieve peace.
The appointment of a gender adviser to the Brahimi team may be deemed a success by many involved in the campaign, but it is far from what the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy — a coalition of other Syrian feminist groups — aimed for during the January meeting in Geneva led by UN Women. Yet the appointment suggested that their demands had become more difficult to ignore.
The coalition’s ultimate goal is to have the peace process avoid mistakes of past negotiations, when women have typically been excluded from participating, leaving wide opportunity, they say, for peace plans to fail. Those legacies of discrimination have carried costly consequences for the female populations of countries such as Iraq and Bosnia, said Sabah Al Hallak, a member of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), who met with the media at the UN in New York on Jan. 16.
The group points to a study published in 2012 by Daniel Nielson, an academic at Brigham Young University in Utah, that involvement of civil society in peace agreements between 1989 and 2004 reduced the risk of failure of the accords by 64 percent.
Hallak said that as in Iraq, “women in Bosnia are still waiting to amend the Constitution, in which draft they did not participate,” unlike in Northern Ireland, where gender issues were considered since the beginning of the peace process there. “We are learning from the experiences in many countries.”
Hallak also criticized the women appointees on the government side — who had not been officially announced when she spoke. “The regime has now named two women which has nothing to do with women’s issues, and I am fearful equally that the opposition names two women who are not there to defend women’s rights,” she said.
Both the US and Russia seem to agree on the importance of including civil society groups in Syria’s peace talks. In that spirit, Luxembourg and Britain, members of the Security Council, organized a meeting on Jan. 17 to discuss the issue, and all members appeared receptive to the proposals, said a Luxembourg diplomat after the session, which was closed to the media. Yet the US has not made its remarks public.
The shared interest is that women at the peace talks could act like a buffer against the Syrian government and Islamic extremists, who have been gaining strength in the conflict in Syria in recent months.
Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the UN, said after the Security Council session: “We heard some very powerful testimony of the impact of the Syrian crisis on women. We heard a clear rejection from them of both political and authoritarian oppression and also a rejection of religious oppression.”
[This article was updated on Jan. 23, 2014, and Feb. 10, 2014]