The campaign to ensure women's equal participation at the peace talks on Syria in January has become more urgent, as certain parties recognize that women are vital in rebuilding and reconciling Syrian society. Yet only a few weeks before the talks are scheduled to start, no commitment has been made as to whether women will actually sit at the negotiating table between the Syrian government and the opposition.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations-Arab League special envoy on Syria, is responsible for preparing the so-called Geneva II peace talks and will be leading the discussions.
“The two sides will be asked to ensure that women are represented in their delegations,” Khawla Mattar, the spokeswoman for Brahimi, wrote in an e-mail Dec. 23 regarding the peace talks.
Last week, Brahimi convened a series of sessions at the Palais des Nations, the UN's headquarters in Geneva, to further prepare for the conference, which begins Jan. 22 in Switzerland and is meant to take the first steps to end Syria's nearly three-year-old civil war. He met with Russian and American representatives and four neighbors of Syria — Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — among others.
During the sessions, Brahimi spoke briefly at a forum on women's participation at the upcoming Geneva conference, but he left before the Syrian women's panelists spoke.
In reaction, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, sent a tweet: “Strong msg from #Brahimi to #Syrian women: raise ur voices but I might not hear you. He left the room b4 they speak http://on.fb.me/1erj6ZL.”
The forum was organized by the League and Human Rights Watch, with help from Britain, Canada, France and Norway. The head of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, spoke, as did Flavia Pansieri, UN deputy high commissioner for human rights. The panelists included members of the Syrian Women's League, Syrian Women's Network, Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria and DemocraShe in Northern Ireland.
“Imagine the uproar if only women were sitting on the table in peace negotiations,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said at the forum.
Although the panelists agreed that equal participation of women at Geneva and later phases are imperative, no clear paths were defined.
The groups pushing for women's participation are based on legal mandates inscribed in UN resolutions that women must be present at all levels of peace-building consultations, but in the 13 years since the original resolution was passed, this goal has not been achieved.
The League has outlined specific proposals for women and civil society groups to take part in the Geneva conference, which begins in Montreux with numerous invitees from regional and world powers, and continues in Geneva on Jan. 24 with the primary parties, the Syrians and the opposition, working through the weekend, if necessary, to reach a conclusion in what could be a long process toward peace. It is still unclear who will represent the Western-recognized opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, or if it will be another party from opposition quarters.
Besides the Security Council permanent-five members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States), Brahimi confirmed that representatives from the League of Arab States, the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will be at the Jan. 22 leg of the conference, as will representatives from 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.
Whether Iran will be invited is up in the air. Brahimi is encouraging its presence, and the Iranians have said they want to be there, but the US is saying no.
The final invitations will be sent by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by the end of December, he said at a press briefing recently in New York. Ban is chairing the Jan. 22 part of the conference.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, has been vociferous on ensuring women's place at the table in Geneva. His government has proposed appointing women to delegations on both sides of the negotiations; providing a gender expert to Brahimi's team (there are none right now) as well as gender advisers and expertise to both parties; and organizing a civil society consultation to be built into the negotiations' structure, with half of it consisting of women.
UN Women, with support from the Netherlands, is holding a meeting on Jan. 12-13 to bring together women leaders from inside and outside Syria who have “are committed to a peaceful political solution.”
The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom welcomed the UN Women meeting “as one part of a broader process of women's inclusion in ongoing peace discussions,” Dr. Abigail Ruane, a program consultant for PeaceWomen, which is part of the League, said in an e-mail. She added, however, that “separate is not equal, and any single meeting cannot replace sustained, meaningful, and ongoing engagement with women and women led civil society as part of the negotiation process.”
Codepink, an American-based peace and social justice movement, is “mobilizing a physical presence” with others in Montreux from Jan. 20-22 for a Women Lead to Peace Summit.
Brahimi, at a Dec. 20 press briefing, held after his meetings on preparations for Geneva, remarked on the issue of women at the January talks.
“We also spoke about women,” he said, “and the importance of making certain that their voice is heard about the future of their country. As you know, there was a meeting yesterday on the subject, and on the 12th and 13th January there will be a larger conference here organized by UN Women, and we will keep in very close touch with Syrian women.”
His office has been emphasizing that the talks need to be a “Syrian process, not an international process with Syrian participation,” and that “we will discuss with the Syrian parties how the voice of the women will be heard during negotiations.”
Dr. Ruane of PeaceWomen said in an e-mail that Syrian women were taking leadership roles on the issue, but the “problem is that women-led civil society groups do not have a direct role in the Geneva II talks, but instead are being asked to show support from the sidelines.”
The question of how they engage, Dr. Ruane added, is the crux of the problem. Her group and partners are endorsing women's direct participation as a third, civil society party to Geneva. “However, if this is not possible, a package alternative (e.g., consultative body, gender expertise, quotas on either side) would also create more opportunities for women's engagement than often happens in these processes.”
It is not enough, she said, to just “add women and stir,” or add a few women on either side of the militarized sides.
“Instead, it is critical to transform the conversation to include women and other peace activists who are working for peace now. It is these voices who are critical to moving the conversation beyond the warring status quo.”