This is a difficult time for peace advocates. How can we talk about women participating at the peace table when talk has not translated into action? How can we discuss the implementation of the women, peace and security agenda, first mandated by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, when despite rhetoric, goodwill, ministerial support, UN mediation, advocacy and campaigns, Syrian women peacemakers were not even present at the opening session of the so-called Geneva II talks on Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland? They were also not present at the infamous negotiating “table” two days later in Geneva between the Syrian regime and the opposition.
Syrian women civil society leaders were never given a chance to speak on that opening day — a missed opportunity, since they have actually mapped out key steps to peace. In the last few weeks, as we at PeaceWomen strove to have women participate at the high-level negotiations in Switzerland, diplomats told me, with a tone of arrogance, “This is not a round table; it has two sides only.” I also heard ambassadors agree and agree, and agree again, with one another that women must be part of the Geneva II process to end the three-year-old civil war in Syria, but all their commitments fell flat. I heard colleagues try to convince themselves that negotiation “observers” were actually “at the table.”
Next thing I’ll be told is that holding a conference two weeks ahead of the peace talks will count as “participating”!
All in all, as an international community of states, nongovernmental organizations and UN bodies, we have failed to implement the women, peace and security agenda and failed to find mechanisms to effectively include women in the Geneva talks so far. Despite this collective failure, we will not give up. On the contrary, we at PeaceWomen and at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, of which PeaceWomen is a project, will redouble our work, rethink our efforts and recommit our support to push forward women’s full, equal and meaningful participation and rights in the Syrian peace process and others in the future.
Indeed, Jan. 17, 2014, was an historic day for Syrian women, despite their being relegated to the shadows of Geneva II just days later. Three Syrian women civil society leaders briefed the UN Security Council in a special closed meeting, demanding women’s meaningful inclusion in the peace talks and transitional processes.
“We want peace and we want to be part of it — this is the bottom line,” said a representative of the Syrian Women’s League to the Security Council’s 15 members. PeaceWomen planned and organized the peace advocates’ trip to New York to speak to the Security Council, at a meeting co-sponsored by the British and Luxembourg governments. (The United States played a part by ensuring that the Syrian women got visas and arrived in and out of New York smoothly.)
A powerful moment came when one of the Syrian women looked up at the ambassadors seated around the council’s horseshoe-shaped table and pleaded, “Do not leave your resolutions in a drawer, they do not deserve only lip service.”
The three Syrian women, who risked their lives to speak truth to power, demanded passionately that an independent civil society contingent of women be present at the Geneva II talks; that 30 percent of women participate on all negotiating bodies; and that strong and effective gender expertise be mainstreamed throughout all outcome documents and processes.
Other efforts to promote Syrian women as equal members of the peace talks included a meeting in Geneva convened by UN Women on Jan.12-13, where participants issued an outcome document specifying concrete demands for peace, the road map — key steps to peace — referred to above. Our organization and several others also supported a Women Lead to Peace campaign and a women’s peace summit in Geneva and Montreux from Jan. 20-22; these were held in parallel to the first part of the official UN peace talks led by Lakhdar Brahimi, the special envoy of the UN and the Arab League, in Montreux on Jan. 22.
Although the Syrian opposition party was much stronger in engaging women over all, neither side of the negotiating team reached the 30 percent target of women taking part at the peace table. The Syrian National Coalition, representing the opposition, had two women, Suhair Atassi and Noura al-Amir, on the negotiating delegation, as well as three women — Rima Fleihan, Nagham Ghadri and Yisser Bittar — on its supporting technical team. The regime had only two women on the delegation, Bouthaina Shaaban and Luna Shabal.
But the presence of these women did not ensure strengthened voices for women’s rights and peace. The women involved were there to represent the competing sides, not to represent the voices of the majority of Syrians working nonviolently for peace. Without these voices, designing and implementing effective peace agreements are predisposed to fail.
There is a chance that these critical voices may be heard. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and its partners have been pushing for a separate voice of women civil society at the peace talks. Yet this effort has not moved forward.
What has moved forward are ad hoc, incomplete steps.
A committee of 10 women, selected through the UN Women conference in Geneva in January, held bilateral meetings with various governments. Yet the women were not provided space to meet and discuss how they would engage in the peace talks or the modalities of such participation.
As far as a gender adviser being assigned to the Brahimi team, a recommendation we have made, we are still unsure if one has been appointed, as we have received no confirmation from the UN despite repeated requests from various members of the international community and the media. It is critical that a gender adviser be assigned, so that Brahimi will have no choice but to listen to such an expert.
Participants at all recent meetings and conferences centered on the Geneva talks recognized that neither side in the war represents the majority of Syrian people who are working for peace. Yet recognition is not enough: it is time to move from words to action.
This week, Feb. 10, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom is holding a meeting with Syrian and Bosnian women in Bosnia to continue our work building on lessons learned in Bosnia on strengthening women’s participation in achieving peace in Syria. We will continue to support our Syrian colleagues in their efforts to be part of the peace process, as the UN convenes the next meeting, also this week, but it is not just about fixing women’s lives. What we really need now is to open the door.
This is an opinion essay.
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Maria Butler is director of the PeaceWomen project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), where she manages the project’s monitoring, advocacy and outreach work at the United Nations in New York. She was the lead author of the “Women, Peace and Security Handbook,” a 10-year analysis of the Security Council’s resolutions, published in 2010. Butler is a lawyer and a member of the New York State Bar and holds an undergraduate degree in business and law from University College Dublin and a master’s in human rights from the London School of Economics.