Members of UN female advisory body ‘still fighting’ for direct influence in Syrian peace talks

Syrian civil society activist Rajaa Altalli has been fighting alongside other Syrian women to make their voices heard in the United Nations-led peace process since 2013.

In 2014, not a single woman was represented at the negotiating table in Geneva. Calls for greater inclusion were partially answered in 2016 when the office of the Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, established a female advisory body to participate as third-party observers at the United Nations-led peace negotiations in Geneva.

Altalli, originally from the Damascus area town of Sednaya, is now one of the 12 female civil society actors who make up the Women’s Advisory Board (WAB). For every round of negotiations, the WAB consults with de Mistura to make recommendations and offer a gendered perspective on matters discussed at the negotiations.

“For a comprehensive process, you need the perspectives of all the different segments of society,” Altalli tells Syria Direct’s Alice Al Maleh. “Syrian women constitute more than 50 percent of society.”

WAB members come from various political, religious and ethnic backgrounds, with some supporting the Syrian government and others the opposition.

The establishment of a formal mechanism to include women was considered historical at the time. Now, two years and nine rounds of Geneva talks later, Altalli reflects on the role and impact of the Women’s Advisory Board.

“When we started advocating for women's participation in the peace process, our aim was to have direct participation of women in the peace process. We didn't achieve our goal completely,” Altalli says.

Members of WAB at a press briefing during the Geneva peace talks on March 22, 2016. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

Despite the existence of the WAB, women are still largely excluded from the formal peace process, making up only 15 percent of negotiators at Geneva peace talks December 2017.

This week, Syria Direct is exploring the different roles Syria’s women take on in working for peace at an international and community level. In the second interview of our series, we direct attention to the highest diplomatic levels of the UN-led peace process.

Q: The Women’s Advisory Board was established by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in 2016 to participate as third-party observers in the Geneva negotiations. Can you elaborate on what your work entails?

The Women's Advisory Board advises the office of the Special Envoy on different issues related to the political process.

Our goal is to push for the engagement of the Syrian people and Syrian actors in the political negotiations, and for a political solution based on the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 2254. [Ed.: Adopted in 2015, Resolution 2254 calls for the establishment of “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” in Syria. The resolution also called for a schedule to be be set for drafting a new constitution and for free and fair elections to be held within 18 months.]

We are pushing for this political solution to be gender-sensitive and for the needs, interests and perspectives of women to be reflected in any documents coming out of the Geneva negotiations. We review and analyze documents released by the Office of the Special Envoy or any negotiating party from a gendered perspective.

The WAB communicates as much as possible with different actors in Syria and other actors influencing the political process in Geneva. We make sure that we meet with both the regime and the opposition, if we are able to.

I would also like to stress that the Women's Advisory Board does not only focus on women. We focus on all civilians’ interests, but it is important to include women’s interests and engage Syrian women in the process.

Q: Why do you believe it is important to include women in the peace process?

For a comprehensive process, you need the perspectives of all the different segments of society. Syrian women constitute more than 50 percent of society. So, when you bring the voices and the perspectives of Syrian women into the process and make sure that any agreement reflects those interests, you ensure that the demands of more than 50 percent of society are responded to.

Let me give you an example: [The laws on] property ownership in Syria will be an important part of the transitional justice and reconstruction process, and it is very important to have input on the effect of those laws on women.

[Ed.: Refugees and internally displaced persons often face difficulties proving property ownership upon return. Syrian laws around inheritance and ownership tend to favor men, leaving women more vulnerable to a lack of documentation.]

When you bring [together] a diverse group of people, each perspective enriches the process. This is why we are calling for a comprehensive and more diverse process, which will make [an agreement] much more successful.

Q: What can be done to give women more influence in the peace process?

There are two main things [we are currently pushing for]: First, to advocate for the negotiating parties to increase women’s participation in their delegations to 30 percent, and to have a gender expert in their party. Second, to advocate for the office of the Special Envoy and negotiating bodies to establish a [third-party independent] women’s delegation to [actively] participate in the negotiations.

[Ed.: Since 2013, organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Oxfam have called for the establishment of an all-women, independent delegation to participate as third-party negotiators with equal rights and responsibilities.]

[Another example is] the process of drafting a constitution. This is mainly how we can make sure that at least half of society is not neglected in the process.

The final document of the Sochi conference [this past January] called for the office of the Special Envoy in Geneva to continue the process of establishing a constitutional committee. So the time is right to push for women to participate on the constitutional committee, to have them comprise 50 percent of the committee.

Rajaa Altalli (bottom right) and the WAB at 2016 Geneva talks. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Advisory Board.

[Ed.: Russian-led peace negotiations in Sochi in January ended with an agreement to form a constitutional committee comprising the government, opposition representatives, Syrian experts, civil society members, independents, tribal leaders and women. The final agreement of the composition of the committee is to be reached through the UN-led Geneva process.]

Q: The Women’s Advisory Board has received criticism from a number of Syrian women and civil society actors who say that the board is not representative of all women in the country. What measures have you taken to ensure that the voices and demands of people on the ground are being heard?

The Women’s Advisory Board holds different meetings outside of Geneva to try to bring different voices from the ground, especially refugees, and bring [those perspectives] to the negotiations.

Some members of the board live in Syria, and they try to consult, engage and reach out to different actors inside the country. Each member of the WAB represents a civil society organization, and each member not only reaches out to her own organization, but also to as many networks and organizations as she can. There have been four or five outreach meetings [in Syria and neighboring countries] where a wide range of people attended.

[Ed.: From her base in Turkey, Altalli works to support organizational development, women’s empowerment and human rights within Syria through the organization that she co-founded, the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSD).]

I don't call the board a representative body. Rather, it tries to reflect the perspectives and views of the different women and civil society [groups]. It is a space to bring different voices together. [The goal] is not necessarily to have a unified voice of all the different segments of society, but rather to converse and to discuss different perspectives.

[Ed.: Other members of the WAB previously responded to this critique, saying the board does not claim to be representative of Syrian women: “We are not representative,” WAB member Nawal Yazeji said in a 2015 interview with PassBlue, an independent web-based medium covering UN-related news. “The members of the WAB have their own opinions. And they might be in the opposition or in the regime, but that does not mean they represent the opposition or they would follow any decision that is taken by either of the delegations. They have come together as an independent group, regardless of their political affiliation or opinions.”]

Q: What are some of the challenges or points of frustration in the peace process?

We cannot hide that the timeline for the political process that was outlined in [Security Council Resolution] 2254 was not met. This makes it much harder to push for the political process.  

The violence inside Syria [is another challenge]. Even though there have been different agreements for de-escalation zones, many of them weren't upheld. It is harder to push for the political process while there is violence arising in different places on the ground.

Q: Given the continuing violence in the country and criticism of the Geneva talks as being ineffective, what motivates you to stay involved?

A political agreement is a critical step forward in order to achieve political transition in Syria and to have a solution to the conflict. Having a political process in place and different international fora is essential for the Syrian people in order to make sure that we are meeting some of the standards of the international resolution.

Many other Security Council resolutions have come up during the past two years, but [resolution] 2254 is still valid, and is the way forward as a roadmap for the Syrian people and actors to move towards a political transition.

Even though the situation [in Syria] is very critical right now, we are still pushing to have another round of negotiations in order to move a step forward with the political process.

Q: Do you feel that the establishment of the Women's Advisory Board has made a difference?

Definitely. When we started advocating for women's participation in the peace process, our aim was to have direct participation of women. We didn't achieve our goal completely. [Rather,] we established—for the first time in history—a body [giving] women an advisory role for the office of the Special Envoy. This is essential.

We have tried as much as we can to make it successful [in order to set a good example] for other conflicts around the world. We have been approached by different women in different conflicts [who wanted] to learn more from the experience of the Syrian Women's Advisory Board.

But we have still not forgotten our first call, which is to have more direct participation of women in the peace process. We have not achieved this yet, but we are still fighting for it.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.