When the UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura first decided to form a Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) in 2016, many human rights organizations, including SJAC, were excited to have the opportunity to participate. Civil society organizations can provide valuable input to negotiations, including technical expertise, knowledge of difficult to reach areas, and the perspectives of marginalized communities whose voices are often not heard in negotiations. The CSSR in Geneva is the first time that civil society engagement with UN-sponsored peace talks has been institutionalized in this way, providing a space for civil society organizations to work with the UN Envoy on the sidelines of the negotiations. However, in the four years since the creation of the CSSR, many participating CSOs have become deeply disillusioned. Ultimately, de Mistura has treated engagement with civil society as an afterthought, and the potential of the CSSR has not been realized. As Geir Pederson prepares to step into the role of Special Envoy, SJAC wishes to explain its frustrations, in the hope that the new Special Envoy will recognize these flaws and rededicate the Envoy’s office to meaningful engagement with Syrian civil society.
While often not involved in negotiations, civil society actors have a lot to offer to negotiating parties. CSOs often have strong relationships with communities on the ground, and can provide information about their perspectives that do not otherwise reach negotiators. Conversely, they are able to effectively communicate information about the peace process back to these communities, which can be integral to the effective implementation of an agreement. These factors can not only increase the chance of arriving at an agreement, but ensure that a final agreement creates lasting peace. For example, one study found that participation by civil society organizations in the negotiation process is correlated with the creation of sustainable peace. One possible reason for this is that the presence of civil society organizations, which often focus on the underlying causes of conflict, such as human rights violations, keeps those issues on the table during peace negotiations, ensuring that a final agreement takes them into account. Civil society participation may also increase these organizations’ acceptance of the final agreement, leading them to be more enthusiastic advocates of the agreement with their constituencies.
However, from SJAC’s experience, de Mistura does not seem to understand the value of civil society participation, but rather sees the CSSR as a box to check off. As a result of this disinterest, since its creation, the CSSR has been haphazard and deeply flawed. First, the design of the CSSR reflects a misunderstanding of the conflict and the value of civil society participation. The support room has been treated as a corollary to the political negotiation process, as if participating CSOs fit into the same opposition-government binary as the parties to the conflict. While this may be true for some organizations, many others, such as SJAC, strive to be impartial and have no relationship to the parties to the conflict. Despite this fact, in SJAC’s experience, the current envoy views the CSSR as a traditional negotiation setting, with two opposing sides sitting across from each other compromising to reach a single political agreement. Compromise is an integral aspect of political negotiations, but in the CSSR, participants should not be expected to compromise their stance on human rights. Such actions weaken the ability of organizations to effectively communicate with or represent their constituencies, mainly victims, undermining the value they bring to the negotiation process.
Second, the selection process for participation in the CSSR has lacked transparency and led to distrust between Syrian CSOs. Instead of institutionalizing a framework for communication and participation among Syrian civil society and the Envoy’s office, the office has relied on one-on-one communication between organizations and Envoy office staff, leading many to conclude that inclusion is based on the willingness of individual organizations to politically support the Envoy’s goals. This perception has led to a skepticism about the CSSR’s work among CSOs and caused distrust among organizations. A transparent selection process that rotates among organizations would mitigate these concerns.
Finally, there is no clear mechanism to feed the conclusions of the CSSR into the political process. While the Envoy often references the existence of the CSSR, he rarely includes substantive information on its work or any of its recommendations in his regular briefings. Many Syrians have decided that it is not worth their organizations’ time or resources to participate in a process with no discernable effect on the larger Geneva process.
None of these criticisms is meant to undermine the potential value of civil society engagement through the CSSR. Organizations like SJAC and its partners can speak to perspectives on the conflict that are too often ignored during political negotiations. They have staff and partners on the ground, often working directly with marginalized communities, displaced people, and survivors of grave violations of international law. They can share technical expertise on a host of relevant issues, including humanitarian aid, development, transitional justice, and peacebuilding. However, the negotiations will not enjoy these benefits if changes are not implemented. SJAC calls on the new Special Envoy to prioritize CSO engagement and work with civil society to reform the CSSR so it can play a meaningful role in building sustainable peace in Syria.