Today, room XXII in Palais des Nations in Geneva was packed with diplomats, member states, international organizations, and journalists who came to hear firsthand experiences and support the Syrian women making peace in this critical period in the history of their country.

WILPF and Human Rights Watch have co-organized this event with the support of the permanent missions of the UK, France, Norway, and Canada. The introductory remarks were made by:

  • Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria;
  • Ms. Phumzile Mlambo‐Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women; and
  • Ms. Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The panel included:

  • Representative of the Syrian Women League;
  • Representative of Syrian Women’s Network;
  • Ms. Nariman Hamo, of Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria; and
  • Ms. Bronagh Hinds from DemocraShe in Northern Ireland.

A special tribute

This event about Syrian women, peace, and human rights cannot pass without paying a tribute to the courageous Syrian human rights defender and activist, Razan Zaitouneh, who was kidnapped along with her 3 fellow activists Samira Khalil, Wael Hmadeh, and Nazem Hammadi from their office in besieged Ghouta, of Damascus suburbs, on December 9th. Razan Zaitouneh is the co-founder of the Violations Documentation Center and Local Coordination Committees. She and her colleagues have tirelessly devoted themselves to documenting human rights violations and promoting peaceful resistance. Brahimi, Mlambo‐Ngcuka, and voices from the Syrian women in the panel demanded immediate release of Razan and her colleagues, as her work and the values she holds symbolize the peaceful struggle towards justice and dignity that Syrian women lead everyday.

Before briefing on the event, let us not forget that while we are convening such events and meetings in Geneva, there are Syrian women and men struggling everyday, in dire conditions and under constant fear, to meet their basic needs — be it in internal displacement, refugee settings, or even in main cities and towns across Syria. It is for them to live a normal life and enjoy universal human rights, dignity and  justice that we will continue to support and be in solidarity with those who are raising their voices against injustice and violence.

International Support, but how?

While all speakers agreed on the need to ensure equal and meaningful participation of women in the peace negotiations and the subsequent phases, perspectives on how to do that seem to vary. Most worryingly, clear or concrete mechanisms for implementation were lacking from key speakers’ commitments of support.

UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, during his introductory remarks. Photo credits: Rowan Farrell.

UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, during his introductory remarks. Photo credits: Rowan Farrell.

Brahimi stressed the important role women should play in the peacebuilding process of their country, having direct role in the peace negotiations as a first step. Despite the UN Security Council resolution 1325 and its subsequent resolutions, and most recently 2122, it is still rather difficult to fulfill these legal obligations according to Brahimi. Ensuring the national ownership seems to be critical to the UN where Syrian women are given support while they are the ones taking the lead to make their voices heard, as emphasized by Brahimi and echoed by Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Women must play their role. They have to take the lead and do what should be done to make their voices heard. And we have to help them.”, Brahimi told the women and the audience. Unfortunately, he was not able to hear their voices as he left the room after he made his introductory remarks.

UN Women through the executive director, Mlambo‐Ngcuka, reassured their support to building broad networks between Syrian women inside the country, and to the Syrian women-led process of including women at all phases of peace-building starting with peace negotiations next month. To see Syrian women equally and meaningfully represented on the peace table to create a sustainable peace, she concluded with quoting Mandela “It is impossible until it is done.”

Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights during her introductory remarks. Photo credits: Rowan Farrell.

Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights during her introductory remarks. Photo credits: Rowan Farrell.

Speaking of gender-based violence, Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights mentioned that the first thing that international community should do is “to issue a call to stop all violence targeting women”, which some found unfulfilling the “unique” mandate  assigned to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Pansieri pointed out to the already existing mass of professional women who need support to continue their education or access healthcare services. Yet again, no concrete measures or steps were brought into the discussion to assist these women or leverage their skills.

Voices from Syria

Arrived from Damascus, a representative of Syrian Women’s League called upon the key international stakeholders present in the room to honour their responsibilities to stop the bloodshed in Syria. On the question of representation, she said that Syrian women at the panel today represent those who did not take arms, and thus were never invited to negotiations; those who believe in justice and human rights, and want to live their normal life with dignity. Bringing life to her words, she recounts the stories of her friends and neighbours: a groom-to-be friend who lost his life while protecting his fiancee from a random mortar shell in al-Hijaz station in Damascus, and another friend who would spend hours everyday on a checkpoint to be allowed to get a loaf of bread to her family in Ghouta. “would it be fine to talk on behalf of those?”, she wondered. Only women can create peace and weave a social fabric of plurality and coexistence like Syria has always been, she added. Women can knock on every door and they will be welcomed and invited to enter, while men can never do so in a society with traditional values like Syria. The key message is to have women represented as a third independent party in negotiations as to ensure the process is inclusive and living up to the aspirations of the people, not to leave the future of the country to be decided by the very same ones who brought destruction and violence to the country.

The perspectives of Syrian women towards peace continue to unfold with a representative of Syrian Women’s Network, who called for an implementation of the 6 points of Geneva I communique that have not yet been put into place. To avoid another gender-blind agreement, women need to be on the table to ensure that the disproportionate consequences of the conflict suffered by Syrian women are adequately addressed.

Nariman Hamo from CCSDS talked about their network with civil society actors inside Syria and described the large gap between those working daily on promoting peace and non-violent values and those who are in decision-making positions. She clearly demands the existence of a third independent party that bring the voices of the civil society to the negotiations. Hamo wished Brahimi team would respond to their requests to meet with him when he visits Turkey, where their center has one of its offices. However, Brahimi was not able to respond to her as he left the room upon he made his introductory remarks.

A woman who lived one of the longest running conflicts in Europe, Bronagh Hinds, reaffirms the indispensable role a third party would bring to the negotiations. Hinds mentioned how women have organized themselves, from business, CSOs, trade unions independent from the political dimensions that were already there, and therefore they were able to play a different role and change the dynamics of the process. While male-only negotiations have failed to reach a sustainable peace, one expects that a third party organization to be inclusive and representative of different interests, religious groups, and other dimensions. “You don’t want 40 years of what we had. I wish you the best of luck , as quickly as we know that it is a process that will take some time.”, concluded Hinds.

Room XXIII during the side-event. Photo credits: Rowan Farrell

Room XXIII during the side-event. Photo credits: Rowan Farrell

And the process continues

Advocacy by member states and international key actors must continue. Today in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs reiterated his country commitment to support Syrian women’s direct involvement in the peace negotiations and proposed feasible and concrete mechanisms for that to be implemented.

Driven by an agenda of justice and human rights, backed by many young men and women who did not carry weapons but were caught in the middle of a deadly conflict, and supported by international organizations, brave Syrian women will continue to call for an active and direct role of women in the peace talks and all the phases beyond. Because, who else can make peace but women?