The Controversy over the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board


UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura meets with the Syrian Women Advisory board, March 22, 2016. Source: UN Geneva.
UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura meets with the Syrian Women Advisory board, March 22, 2016.
Source: UN Geneva.

In February, the United Nations made history when the U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura convened the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board — the first time such a board has been created to advise a special envoy during peace negotiations. Advisory Board members participated in a press conference following a recent meeting with de Mistura to articulate their key demands which included the release of peaceful activists, the distribution of information on the fate of missing persons, and the lifting of Western-imposed sanctions so that humanitarian aid can reach Syrians. Despite the historic nature of the meeting, many Syrian activists criticized the Advisory Board as unrepresentative and a failed attempt at inclusivity. Some went so far as to suspend their contributions to the Advisory Board, such as the Syrian Women Network which discontinued its membership in the Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy due to the Initiative’s involvement with the Advisory Board. (Corrected)*

The Geneva negotiations, in all its iterations, have long been criticized for their failure to substantively include women in the talks. Although women have been involved with peacebuilding and human rights efforts at the grassroots level, almost every photo taken of high-level meetings in Geneva features a roundtable full of men. Since women have consistently been victims of detention, home raids, and massive displacement, in addition to socio-economic burdens when their husbands, fathers, and brothers disappear or die, they have a large stake in the outcome of the talks. Moreover, certain crimes of sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery, have specifically targeted women. To ensure that these grievances are addressed and the voices of all Syrians are heard, Syrian women, specifically survivors of violations, should participate in any negotiated settlement.

The inclusion of women is not only a theoretical moral principle. Research has shown that peace processes that include women lead to longer-term peace and stability. In a study of 40 peace processes, the Graduate Institute of Geneva found that when women participate, peace agreements are 35 percent more likely to last for at least 15 years. Since conflict affects women and men differently, the inclusion of women in peace talks helps address the concerns of half the population; and, when half the population feels more secure, the chances of successful peace is more likely. Also, while men generally focus more on issues of power and security, women tend to expand the list of priorities to include victims’ rights, transitional justice, and other important social issues that contribute to reconciliation and the sustainability of an agreement.

The Syrian Women’s Advisory Board is the United Nation’s attempt to be more inclusive. So why did the Advisory Board fail to satisfy the demands of civil society? First, many human rights activists criticized the selection process due to its lack of transparency and clarity. While many notable Syrian women were left off the Board, the United Nations chose to include a few women who were members of political groups that allegedly defended government-sponsored violence, who allegedly have links to extremism, who participated in corrupt practices, and who worked for organizations that assisted with government-led human rights violations. While SJAC is not in a position to confirm or deny these allegations, the accusations suggest that de Mistura’s team did not properly vet members, which angered many Syrians, including long-time women’s rights activists.

“I am a Syrian feminist and this advisory board does not represent me in the slightest.” Source: Facebook post by Syrian Women’s Rights activist Oula Ramadan.
“I am a Syrian feminist and this advisory board does not represent me in the slightest.”
Source: Facebook post by Syrian Women’s Rights activist Oula Ramadan.


Second, the Advisory Board’s final demands indicate that the women negotiated for political aims, rather than for principles of women’s rights. The most striking example of this is the Board’s demand to lift sanctions so food and medical aid can reach Syrians. While sanctions affect many Syrians by preventing those in the Diaspora from sending money to loved ones and creating difficulties in securing goods from abroad, sanctions cannot be scapegoated for the lack of food and aid in many parts of Syria. The inability of humanitarian aid to reach Madaya and other besieged towns, for example, is not the fault of sanctions, but of the Syrian military’s deliberate policy to starve out and repress opposition-controlled towns. A statement that blames sanctions is clearly politicized, reflecting the makeup of the Board itself.

Third, Syrian civil society is concerned with whether the Advisory Board will be allowed to make meaningful contributions to the negotiation process. Civil society has rarely been consulted in the Geneva talks so far. In fact, Syrian negotiators appear to be sidelined altogether as many deals only take place during high-level talks between the United States and Russia. Exactly how the Special Envoy will feed the demands of the Advisory Board into discussions between the opposition and the government or between Secretary John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is unclear. It is not enough to create an Advisory Board or to hold one meeting with civil society — engagement must meaningfully contribute to the process and the final deal.

The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) favors the United Nations’ attempt to broaden the inclusiveness of the negotiation process. Women must be part of the negotiations in order for their specific grievances to be addressed and for the final deal to have a lasting impact on the ground. The creation of an Advisory Board, however, must have a clear vetting and selection process, should aim to articulate principles as opposed to political statements, and will only be effective if the Board can meaningfully participate in the creation of a final framework agreement. The current Advisory Board has fallen short, and, as a result, it has not been embraced by Syrians.

For more information and to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].


* This paragraph has been corrected, it appeared originally as follows:

Some went so far as to suspend their own participation in the Advisory Board, such as the Syrian Women Network which has been engaged in women’s rights in Syria since its formation in 2013.


  • Omar

    Dear Sir/Madam

    It would be worthwhile to check your facts before rushing to judgements. Also basic courtesy and journalistic protocol require an attempt to interview people on all sides of the issue and attempting to clarify positions before publishing. Your esteemed organization working on justice and accountability should make particular efforts not to be lead by one sided opinions. As someone who has been engaged in supporting the WAB and facilitating their discussions, allow me to clarify a few points that people criticizing the process may have missed.

    The Women’s Advisory Board is not a representative body and was never meant to be. It’s main mission is two fold. To help Mr. Di Mistura in assessing the political sensetivities of different women’s needs and to find mechanisms to support the largest women platforms to bring women’s voices to Geneva. As such it is a pilot initiative rather than an end in itself. The WAB said this very clearly in their statement that no one seems to have read before they jumped to accusing them of lack of representation.

    The women are politically diverse and represent different political experiences. They do include women who were arrested and detained in the past, women who lost sons and brothers, women who had their husbands tortured, as well as women who have been denied the right of return to their country. They do include women from different persuasions including a card carrying member of the Baath party who had her son assasinated by his best friend in college very early on in the conflict on the grounds of being Alawi. She immediately asked that her son not be avenged and forgave the young assassin to prevent further bloodshed. She has political views of her own which is her prerogative. But this woman is able to sit at the same table with women from opposition backgrounds to find common grounds to end the war. It would be naive to assume that a political process would not involve women from all backgrounds. If one is talking to themselves one does not have a political process.

    The issue of sanctions was taken entirely out of context. The text may have been slightly ambigious but that can be clarified by asking the WAB to define their position rather than attacking them blindly. The statement was meant to advocate for lifting impediments only on the delivery of food and medicine. These basic humanitarian sanctions are banned under international law and affect citizens on all sides, though international experience and research has repeatedly demonstrated that women tend to suffer more as a result. Technically these sanctions are non-existant, so the WAB was not demanding any immedite change in the sanctions regime. The problem is that often banks are blocking their transactions to avoid any hassel from a compliance point of view. Many in the opposition have suffered from banks not allowing them to transfer funds to support humanitarian aid, and a great deal of NGO’s were not even allowed to register if they had the word “Syria” in any of their literature; this is not a government demand per se.

    The process in Geneva is not a perfect one. No democratic process was developed to choose any of the men at the formal negotiating table. Political actors chose their reprentarives and not Mr. Di Mistura. He chose to start consultations with women and civil society, something that has hitherto not been done. We could all work to make the process more inclusive, come up with creative means to widen the scope of particiaption, but we should not undermine the only semi reasonable idea that has emerged on Syria for the last 5 years.

    Many in the civil society were consulted three months back on how to engage the wider civil society in the political process in a transparrent way; they refused to be engaged and declared that they were either too busy to be involved or that civil society has no place in a political process. Today they are attacking the process for not having included them. No negotiation process is ever perfect, but we all have a moral responsibility to find a way out of this nightmare. Military intervention proved futile and the international balance of power will not deliver a conclusive solution. It is up to us Syrians to think positively on how we move forward. If the process is not perfect let us improve it. If more inclusive women voices must be heard, let us work positively and constructively to support them to reach out. I am sure the WAB will be an ally on this. But let us not undermine the women who are in the process and hold them to standards we do not apply to the men. This is not about the imperfection of the WAB as much as an age old practice of undermining women’s roles as leaders. Let us help more women play leadership roles rather than kill the only experiment that has established an independent platform to facilitate women’s voices to reach the political parties.

    At some point, the process of writing a constitution and defining the nature of the transtional governing body will have to include far more Syrians than the ones able to make it to Geneva. Let us put forward creative ideas for making this happen rather than objecting but providing no alternatives. Has not this been the problem with the political process all along, have we not had enough?

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