Report from the sideshow in Montreux and Geneva January 20-24th 2014 from Irene Eckert

Nobel prize winners and peace activists from Syria and around the world.  Oxfam activity Photo: Maria Christina Travaglio/Les Studios Casagrande
Nobel prize winners and peace activists from Syria and around the world. Oxfam activity Photo: Maria Christina Travaglio/Les Studios Casagrande

Women with white roses at an installation of tombstones marked with ‚100,000 lives lost in Syria‘ against the backdrop of snow-topped Swiss Alps rising starkly over Lake Geneva
Nobel prize winners and peace activists from Syria and around the world. Oxfam activity Photo: Maria Christina Travaglio/Les Studios Casagrande

It goes without saying: Women are good mediators, women have played major roles in peacemaking. Since the Austrian Baroness Bertha von Suttner had demanded „ Lay Down your Arms “ and since she had won the first Nobel Price for Peace, a considerable number of women have followed her on that road.

After three years of barbaric bloodshed in Syria the possibility for stopping this inhuman madness is on the horizon. Under UN auspices 40 countries were called to assist the peace process in the proxy war fuelled in the aftermath of the ‚Arab Spring‘. 10 were called to come on a last minute notice. Civil society has been confused about what was going in the Levante due to a massive propagandafire that accompanied the fighting on the ground. In consequence solidarity with the Syrian people has been unfortunatelly restrained.

The date for Geneva II peace talks was postponed many times and when mentioned at all in world media it was about inviting or disinviting Iran or about the alleged condition layed down in the Geneva I protocol, demanding that President Assad had to step down first if peace was to be and the country saved from disintegration.

Apart from some governments, ‚UN WOMEN’* seemed to be the only prominent voice encouraging the Geneva II conference by saying „We share the hopes of the Syrian people that Geneva II will be a serious step towards ending the violence and bloodshed.“ In their statement from January 13th ‚UN WOMEN‘ called for a ceasefire, the participation of neighboring states and the lifting of economic sanctions on Syria.

For a pre-conference gathering 60 women from all corners of the world had come to Switzerland. Among them two Nobel Peace Price laureates, Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland 1976) and Shirin Ebadi (Iran 2003). Together with other prominent and less prominent women, they have been invited by „Codepink“(USA), „Madre“(USA) and „WILPF“ (international). These women’s associations want to make a contribution to promoting peace in Syria by calling for a ceasefire and for a stronger representation of women at the conference table.

What might have been underestimated during an intense week of seminars, discussions and spectacular outdoor activities to catch media attention was the fact that women are participating in the diplomatic procedures and some even play a very prominent role in it, but in conflicting parties.

On the side of the Syrian government there is Dr. Bouthaina Shabaan, senior political and media adviser of Dr. Assad. Shabaan gave CNN News a remarkable interview on Saturday night, January 25th. ** On the opposite side the „Syrian National Council“ just appointed 26 year old Noura Al Amir as vicepresident, whose mandate is, to force the Syrian government to step down. She attracted media attention by vociferously calling Bashar Al Assad „a criminal of war“ while protesting against the talks on UN Plaza on Friday, January 24th.

This is to show how antagonistic women’s positionings can be. And this fact was reflected in the non-governmental meetings, too.

Law professor Shirin Ebadi, a strong advocate of human rights in Iran, argues on the same line with her Syrian „sister“ Al Amir, when accusing the present head of the Syrian goverment as „main obstacle to peace“. While living in the US she accuses the Iranians as „the only foreign government that militarily interferes in Syria.“ Her poem, dedicated to the soldier, fallen on Syrian ground, was unanimously applauded. As Women we react spontaneously and emotionally when it comes to human rights violations and when we commemorate sons and partners who are losing their lives as soldiers on the battleground.

So while insisting that „Women lead to Peace“, we tend to forget that emotions can be misled if not adequately accompagnied by a sound analyes of the root causes of a given conflict. As women alone, even if representing more than half of the world’s population, we can not overcome the antagonisms expressed above. These antagonisms that lie at the bottom of conflict must be addressed, must be dealt with.

The women’s assembly in Geneva and their spectacular presentations in the streets of Montreux, designed by ‚Codepink‘ had brought together women from various conflict zones in the world, such as Bosnia-Herzegowina, Sri Lanka, Sahara, Columbia, Northern Ireland and more. They all wanted to set an example for the Syrian women, to offer their experience in conflict solving.

Mairead Maguire and her collegue insisted that women had played an important role in the peace process in Northern Ireland, putting aside their more specific needs. „Peace is a human right“ said Maguire and „the Syrian people must decide for themselves who should govern them“ and she added, „without foreign interference“.

Syrian women were present, too. They had come from inside Syria and from abroad, voicing oppositional views on the deplorable situation on the ground. Among them were those, who had come to attack the Assad government for the present situation, entertaining even a propaganda radio program abroad to that purpose.

There were other oppositional representatives who were supporting Mouna Ghanem, an ex-Syrian UN-worker. Her group presented a „Syrian Women’s Charter for Peace“ emphasising the unity of the country, rejecting foreign intervention, calling for an end to the economic strangeling of their country and insisting that women from inside Syria should play a more important role. Their proposals for rebuilding the country are concrete and constructive.

There were other Syrian women, among them Swiss residents, professionals, insisting on the great role Syrian women used to play throughout history up to the breakout of the violence in 2011. They demanded „Foreigners out – Syrians in“. Iman Lauraux from Geneva said „Syrian women were queens and goddesses“ before the conflict was instigated from abroad three years ago. Proud women like herself do not want to be suppressed in Saudi Arabian style. It was also pointed out that foreign funding of hundreds of extremist islamist groups was a fact well documented, and that it must be denounced.„Food of Peace“ was one of the ideas they foster in order to contribute to establish a dialogue among opponents.

Their were prominent women like Ex-EU-Parliament President Luisa Morgantini, also engaged in the Palestinan Cause, Heike Haensel, a peace activist and a Parliamentarian from Germany who had worked hard with her government to try and get women like Mouna Ghanem inlcuded in the oppositional Syrian delegation. There was Marie Dennis from Pax Christi headquarters in Belgium or US-veteran and ex-diplomat Ann Wright, who all voiced their strong sentiments to see the conflict in Syria ended on peaceful terms. There were Wilpfers young and old. The youngers more into Gender-Equality and problemsolving through UNSCR 1325 and the older pointing out to the need of awareness raising through studying the root causes of war and conflict as their ancestors had proposed when they founded the organisation almost one hundred years ago in the midst of World War I.

Most of us agreed that a deep breath and a lot of patience is needed if peace is to be established in Syria and in the Middle East, as all these countries and conflict zones are interrelated. And now with media attention gone, real negotiations seem to be under way and they seem to include Iran in one way or the other.

As peaceworkers we must carry Geneva back home and continue our support for a diplomatic solution.
* UN-WOMEN is a newly created UN agency for the advancement of women. It brings together the earlier existing programms and wants to further capacity building among women