The Geneva II peace conference faces tough challenges, as Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the opposition group Free Syrian Army stated recently, “We will not stop fighting at all, either during the Geneva conference or after the Geneva conference.” He noted that it had not yet been made clear to the opposition whether the conference would result in President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power. This and ongoing debates concerning conditions and preconditions for peace talks have dominated the news media in recent weeks. Significant ink has been spilt debating the significance of the presence or absence of different opposition factions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much less has been said about the importance of including women in the state and non-state delegations. Syria is a test case for the functionality and enforcement capacity of international law along multiple dimensions. It is also a test case for the robustness of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and the meaningful inclusion of women in peacemaking processes. Harold Koh has underscored here the importance of effectively managing the Syrian conflict to advance US national security interests. Other commentators have identified that Syria has been a long-standing US national security concern primarily, though not exclusively, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this juncture, it should also be evident that a durable and “secure” peace in Syria is in the national security interests of the United States. A secure peace remains elusive in many conflict contexts, but this post reflects on one, often under-appreciated, dimension of enabling a comprehensive and security enhancing peace process.
The landmark UNSC Resolution 1325 resolution affirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, and post-conflict reconstruction. It asserts the centrality of equal participation for women and the importance of the full involvement of women in all efforts for the maintenance of international peace and security. Resolution 1325 marks the first time that the Security Council has addressed the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women; and acknowledged the under-utilized contributions of women to conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding. Despite a series of successor resolutions 1820,1888, 1889, 1960, and 2122— enforcement has been patchy. Benchmarking success in mainstreaming women’s participation in peacemaking and peace enforcement has been a long-drawn out process, finally culminating in National Actions Plans as well as internal benchmarking by UN Agencies. Enforcement remains a work in progress.
Why does it matter that peace negotiations are gender inclusive? The arguments are well-rehearsed but they include obvious claims from representative equality and participation; the value of “different voices” in the negotiation space; the broadening of negotiation content and process that follows from including a wider range of participants and not merely those who fall along predictable sectarian lines; as well as the substantive assertion that the range of issues and concerns that women bring to the negotiation table are often wider, deeper and more inclusive than those of their male counterparts. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has affirmed the value of women’s agency and leadership in the peace and security arena, and multiple states have adopted NAP(s).
Civil society calls for an inclusive Geneva II process that includes Syrian women are emerging, spurred by the practically complete absence of women in any official political dialogues. The means for including women are manifold such as: providing for direct participation of women as a third party, relying on the precedent of including a women’s peace party in the successful US supported peace talks in Northern Ireland; requiring that all delegations include senior women mediators and gender experts; and providing appropriate support to Syrian women’s groups to participate effectively.
Given the struggle to get to spur negotiations in the Syrian and other conflicts, cynical observers may argue that attention to ensuring women are “at the table” misses the point of getting talks started, particularly in contexts where there may be cultural and social barriers to including women. Similar exclusionary tropes emerged in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nepal (to name but a few parallel conflict sites) when the inclusivity requirement was forced upon predominantly male negotiation processes. The view that “getting to inclusion” remains too fraught is myopic. It misses a fundamental point about the long-term value of inclusive peace talks where inclusivity is not solely measured by the variety of male combatants sitting down to reluctantly talk with one another. Rather, long-lasting peace agreements with the capacity to sustain themselves, and thereby avoid the problem of cyclical violence, are those that are intimately connected to civil society and reach out beyond the combatant fraternity. Moreover, peace processes set the stage for the kind of liberal (or illiberal) peace and governance that follows. The exclusion of women from the negotiations table is indisputably connected with the retrograde challenges to women’s rights that an illiberal peace between male combatants can often bring. An end to violence alone is never the benchmark of a successful peace agreement. Rather, its capacity to be transformative and enduring should be our measure of success. To exclude Syrian women entirely from a stake in their future is to doom any notion of an inclusive or liberal peace. It also undermines the possibility of a secure peace for all, whether in Syria or further away.