Writing in The Guardian: The Syria peace talks would have a better chance with one key addition: women

Writing in The Guardian…

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As the Syrian regime, backed by Russian airstrikes, ramped up the siege on Aleppo early this week, UN-led peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition leaders ground to a halt in Geneva on Wednesday.

While the US secretary of state, John Kerry, has described the meetings as the best chance to “chart a course out of hell”, the peace process unraveling surprised few– least of all, the women of Syria who have been largely excluded from each andevery stage of peace negotiations.

The parties that are welcomed at the negotiating table, meanwhile, represent – or bankroll – the very same forces enacting savage blockades which sparked dire humanitarian conditions in Syria, cut off paths to food or medical aid and brutalized women in besieged cities and towns.

After nearly six years of conflict and three cycles of men posturing for peace across Vienna, Paris and Geneva, a disastrous pattern emerges: women are the first affected by war and the last included at crafting peace. This betrays logic – and reveals a profound failure to learn lessons from past conflicts, from theBalkans to Rwanda to Afghanistan, from Colombia to Liberia to Northern Ireland: when women are included in the peace process, it’s more successful.

There is a dissonance to what the Syrian peace talks, known as the Vienna process, have prioritized: the talks are celebrated for their inclusion of all the foreign countries that have backed armed groups and fueled the conflict. Yet inclusion of women whose lives are endangered and derailed by the war remainsan afterthought. While UNSCR 2254 – the security council resolution which set the framework for the talks – calls for the full participation of Syrian women in the newest roadmap for peace, the mechanisms to achieve this remain undeveloped.

The latest attempt to remedy this by the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, came Monday with the announcement of a Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, a designation that directs women’s contributions to the UN-facilitated talks through the scope of civil society. It’s a channel endorsed by UN Women’s executive director but potentially isolated from direct stakeholder negotiations on political transition timelines or ceasefire arrangements with military factions.

With the most recent breakdown in peace talks and Bashar al-Assad’s strengthened position – thanks to Russian support – prospects for a negotiated solution seem bleak in the near term. But without a Plan B, it’s time to explore all tools and options, including a radically inclusive approach to the next round of talks, which the UN expects to resume on 25 February.

UN officials estimate there are more than 486,000 people living under siege in Syria, and nearly 4.6 million refugees struggling in neighboring countries. InLondon this week, donors are pledging new support for what is now the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation. While ramping up humanitarian relief – including more gender sensitive programs that meet the needs of women and girls and are designed by and for them – is critical, we all know that humanitarian crises ultimately require political solutions.

To design a peace process where both men and women’s lives are valued equally, we must stop siloing the contributions of Syrian women and learn from those engaged on the ground. From the women who worked to negotiate a ceasefire inZabadani to female journalists and human rights activists mobilizing their communities, we can draw on countless examples of leadership.

According to the UN, this should be happening already. UN security council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security was drafted 16 years ago. It and subsequent resolutions called for full inclusion of women in conflict resolution and peacekeeping, as well as relief and recovery efforts that would address the needs of women and girls. The Women, Peace and Security agenda is based on the simple premise that peace is more likely to prevail and hold if women are fully involved in building it.

By the UN’s own metrics, we have not succeeded in moving from rhetorical commitment to transformative practice on the ground.

Syria offers a vivid reminder of how we are falling short of our commitment. Gender-sensitive humanitarian response and peacebuilding will only result from deliberate planning and dedicated personnel holding us all to account. We cannot just hope for the best and expect anything more than haphazard results.

Women activists in Aleppo, while not at the stakeholder table in Geneva, are not waiting for an invitation to advance peace and security at home: they volunteer at field hospitals under bombardments, continue to run schools and advocate for the rights of girls. “Perhaps this is a silver lining,” Maimona, a Syrian activist told the PRI’s The World. “When we started the Syrian revolution, it was also a revolution for women. And when the war is over, women’s accomplishments will remain.”

Will respect for Syrian women’s humanity have room at the table when the peace process restarts yet again next month?

Writing in The Guardian: To end the refugee crisis, we need more than grief. We need to see we’re broken

Writing in The Guardian here

syria pieceWe are increasingly reliant on searing images as our collective wake-up calls to problems we’ve long known existed but about which we’ve done little – and, on the other side of those images, is brokenness and personal grief. The loud calls to action and demands of accountability are music to the ears of everyone who has ever wondered how we can get the world to care.

But why must we wait for grief to make us brave?

Many in America and Europe are now publicly mourning for the Kurdi family, one example of lives senselessly lost amid an extreme tragedy and our moral failing to prevent it. The searing pictures of Aylan Kurdi dead on a beach set off a belated call to action for the humanitarian crises impacting millions displaced by wars across the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, long after the first people died trying to reach Europe’s shores.

Human rights group estimate more than 12,000 children have died in the Syrian civil war and millions have been displaced. It has been more than three years since human rights groups confirmed the Syrian government’s use of cluster bombs in an attack which killed children. But it was the image of one dead child on what his parents had hoped would be the shores to offer them safety that reminded even migration-averse politicians and their constituents of a forgotten war and the longstanding refugee crisis they’d all but quietly ignored.

For Abdullah Kurdi, life will never be the same. “I don’t want anything else from this world,” he told reporters. “Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”

Those closest to the center of tragedies like these are never again the same; when their losses become ours, when we finally find ourselves feeling empathy for a few iconic, tragic figures instead of apathy toward a broken system or intractable problem, we want to not be the same. Even as our former apathy implicates us in the tragedy, we hope that our grief will allow us to be a part of the solution.

But our broken world is messy, solutions are complicated and we have to build the resolve to demand responses beyond empathy and sustain people’s focus on hard solutions to drive meaningful, lasting change. Usually, however, the calls to action fade to numbness until we are shocked by the next tragedy. To truly break this cycle, our desire to push for the world we want must outlive news cycles; it must outlive our empathy for individual moments of pain.

Those at the center of private tragedy turned public call-to-conscience never forget. Years after Virginia state Senator Creigh Deeds survived an attack by his son, who suffered from mental illness and later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Deeds is working to reshape our broken mental healthcare system but has told supporters, “I’m not complete.” Andy Parker, the father of slain television journalist Alison Parker, recently wrote in the Washington Post he will dedicate his life’s work to ending gun violence. “We have to ask ourselves: What do we need to do to stop this insanity?”

Suddenly it seems as if the entire world is asking in chorus, What do we need to do to stop this insanity? But the answers are hardly as simply as the questions.

We must drastically reform how governments and institutions treat those brave enough to flee from from war and conflict – whether Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Tunisia, Somalia or anywhere else. To continue tounder-fund, undermine and ignore humanitarian fallout from our military actions and foreign policy failings is moral malpractice. To do so because ofxenophobia and Islamophobia is an even greater sin. The stakes have always been clear, but this time grief broke open the truth for all to finally see: this is what UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres calls, “The biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation.”

Public grief can be an opportunity for growth, to both become the type of people we want to be and to demand the policy changes we know that everyone deserves. But ultimately, public grief is just emotional voyeurism when we fail to care beyond being sad for the victims of the tragedies that our governments helped create and which we continually ignored. I believe in my heart this time will be different. I believe Aylan Kurdi broke us open in a way , and that we will never feel whole again. There is no need to wait for more pain to understand there is hope for all of us still living to help one another get free.

But we won’t know until we see who shows up for the work that will carry us through other side of the grief.