2015 faded into the new year with a glimmer of hope for the people of Syria. A hope propelled by renewed international engagement, as expressed within the Vienna Statements of 30 October 2015 and 14 November 2015 and underwritten by Security Council Resolution 2254. On 25 January 2016, two years since the dissolution of Geneva II, the UN Special Envoy for Syria reconvened formal negotiations between representatives of the Syrian government and opposition. In the face of continuing egregious violations of international humanitarian law, the proximity talks began a week late and were suspended just three days later.
Neither this, the time gap since Geneva II, nor the escalation of the conflict are unusual: peace trajectories recurrently stall, fracture and reconfigure, sometimes escalating and de-escalating over decades. More unusual is the form and intensity of that escalation: the ever growing number of parties to the (increasingly internationalised) non-international armed conflict and the layers of international lawlessness — the exponential rise in international crimes layer on the violations of international human rights law that sparked the protests and internal disturbances of March 2011.
Ending the egregious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, brokering a nationwide ceasefire, and escalating political objectives through deliberation are absolute imperatives. And so too is ensuring that the rights of children (who make up 43 % of the population) form a constituent part of the process. Timing is key: if the talks are resumed on the 25th of February as planned, and the longed for agreement is reached, it will likely unlock, frame and undergird more substantive future agreements including the new constitution. There is no certainty children and their rights will be part of this, certainly if past agreements are anything to go by — there was no reference to children in the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, for example.
Indeed, accommodating conflicting views about how to ‘pursue [the Communiqué’s] full implementation’ is part of the agenda for deliberation and agreement within the talks. And like other peace agreements of its type, it resonates with references to inclusion and human rights. It sets out, for instance, that ‘There is an overwhelming wish for a state that: […] complies with international standards on human rights.’ (para. 6 (I)).
Of course it may be supposed children will be ‘interpreted in’, that is, inferred to be a constituent part of this agreed framework for human rights based transformation and thereby prioritised within the decision-making space. Though possible, this provides limited certainty: the emergence of a specific international human rights treaty on children may be viewed as testament to the precarity of ‘interpreting in’ rights. In the volatile context of decision-making towards peace agreements, such precarity is multiplied. Yet for multifarious reasons — some political, others principled — participants may (to paraphrase a distinguished participant of the South African peace process) commit to transforming ‘children’s rights as part of human rights’. Minimally, some agreement therefore is possible, if not probable. However, this is countered by research findings that suggest commitments to children and their rights are often eclipsed by other priorities and subsumed by the politicking within the space.
As argued in relation to Geneva II, though, the staged and hybrid legal form that peace processes take also presents possibilities for transforming children’s invisibility. Underpinning these possibilities is the legal and political imagination that is so vital to both encouraging agreement and ensuring, in the words of Christine Bell, ‘the radical progressive potential of peace processes.’ Key, then, is seizing this legal imagination to develop and agree on creative structures to ensure the rights of 43% of the population are raised and prioritised within decision-making towards this and future agreements.
Now that the talks have paused, the glimmer of hope sparked by the Vienna Statements flickers with uncertainty. The hope that they may resume as planned on 25th February has been rekindled by the Munich Communiqué of 12th February. Of particular significance, is the decision of the International Support Group for Syria to establish task forces to ensure humanitarian access and broker a nationwide ceasefire. If successful, these task forces may both halt the escalating violations of international law and facilitate the resumption of the talks, at which stage ensuring children’s rights are a constituent part of the process is an international peace and security imperative.