Northern Ireland news

Monica McWilliams helps train women for UN talks in Syria

Professor Monica McWilliams who is helping train women bidding to end the Syrian conflict. Picture by Nigel McDowell, Ulster University, PA Wire  
Michael McHugh, Press Association

A NORTHERN Ireland peace negotiator is helping train women bidding to end the Syrian conflict.

Monica McWilliams said it was hugely important they were included in inclusive proximity talks which have been organised by the UN in Geneva in Switzerland. Three women from the strife-torn region are part of the 15-strong team.

Mrs McWilliams played a key role in clinching the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles.

She said securing the release of female detainees subjected to human rights violations after being captured during a devastating civil war was a priority for the women in Geneva.

"What they are desperate for is to get some recognition of the fact that it is really important that these women who have suffered so much are included now in these big negotiations.

"Fifteen years ago the UN said never again should there be negotiations like Bosnia that had completely excluded women.

"They are determined that there will be a proportion ... three out of 15 is a good start."

Mrs McWilliams co-founded the Women's Coalition as a new voice in Northern Ireland politics in the 1990s.

The party played a key role in the talks process leading to the 1998 Agreement which ended 30 years of violence and two of its members were subsequently elected to the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mrs McWilliams went on to lead Northern Ireland's Human Rights Commission.

She is now a professor at the University of Ulster.

She said women had an important part to play in ending the conflict in Syria.

Some 250,000 people have been killed and millions of refugees have been created in the five years of violence between the Government and a variety of rebel groups including Islamic State.

The academic added: "There is an awful lot of vulnerable women, women who are all widows with tiny children."

Mrs McWilliams has been teaching the negotiators how to lobby and talk to ambassadors in Geneva, how to get their support and how to establish back channels of communications, how to draft proposals and how to establish safe meeting places free from surveillance from President Bashar Assad's forces.

The women include lawyers, journalists and human rights experts. They are scattered all over the world, including the US, Canada, Germany, Syria but use social media to communicate.

A number of failed rounds of negotiations have already been held over Syria.

Mrs McWilliams said: "It is to be expected that they will have failed rounds of negotiations until people get serious.

"Sometimes the costs become so intense that people are driven to the table and the fact that an Iranian deal was negotiated with the US helps."

She said the geopolitics of the Syrian conflict was much more difficult and complicated than Northern Ireland's.

"It is a very complex, very difficult war, but it has got to end some time," she said.

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