Thank you all for coming. I hope you all had a chance to have a good lunch and make some friends. I’ve enjoyed meeting many of you, and I hope you are all exchanging business cards. We need to be working together to promote the inclusion of women in an effort to build peace and security.
I know from my 17 years of human rights work, including in the Middle East, that the women of this region – from Tunis to Tehran – are more than capable of speaking for themselves. All us are here today to make the case that they must be given the opportunity to do so. The intelligence and passion displayed during the panels this morning make the case far more eloquently than I can.
We are gathered here today and tomorrow precisely because the men and women of the Middle East must face the many crises in the region together. Beyond the heart-rending, humanitarian crises caused by massive displacement, the region has long been home to some of the lowest levels of political and civic participation by women; some of the lowest levels of women’s labor force participation; and devastatingly high rates of gender-based violence.
We are here to argue that women will play the decisive role in the future stability of the Middle East. As the White House Strategy on Women, Peace and Security, notes: “Social and political marginalization of women strongly correlates with the likelihood that a country will experience conflict.” We are here to invest in you. As President Trump has said, “By investing in women around the world we are investing in peace.”
By investing in you, we are investing in the long-term peace building process.
I need not tell you that the seeds of conflict are being sown as we speak. You live this experience every day. Journalists and activists are being jailed; women running for office suffer death threats; and torture has become a routine way for governments to express their displeasure about criticism from political and religious dissidents. Personal status laws discriminate against women, who are unable to transmit their citizenship status to their children. Even women believers, who are often the backbones of their communities, are excluded from visible leadership roles in government, business and communal organizations How is it possible to solve any of these daunting problems if at least 50 percent of the available talent, intellect and energy of the community is excluded from civic participation? The short answer is that we cannot.
Injustice – however defined and against whomever practiced – breeds both extremism and instability. Governments throughout the Middle East will become secure and stable if, and to the extent that, they are willing to acknowledge the God-given dignity and unalienable rights each of their citizens – men and women.
In the course of my work as a human rights lawyer, I have had the honor and privilege to work with civil society leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Some of these brave individuals have been harassed, threatened, imprisoned or worse. They are committed to peace despite the risks. We must be equally committed to them.
In Iran, women are at the forefront of efforts to demand justice from the Iranian government, but they face increasingly severe punishments for doing so. How is it possible that women in Iran cannot attend something as simple as a football game? How is it possible that a government that claims to be built on Islamic moral principle neglects the demands of justice and, actively supports the use of indiscriminate violence for unjust ends? We are here for the women of Iran who refuse to be silent, and applaud those who support them.
I recently had the honor of meeting former detainees who escaped from Assad’s dungeons and who will forever carry the scars of sexual violence and torture. We agree with the panelists you heard from this morning. We cannot separate the violence suffered from the efforts to rebuild and recover. It make no difference whether the crimes were committed in the field in the name of a so called “caliphate” or committed by the police in a windowless prison cell in Syria. We cannot unlink the government torture cell in Syria from the mass graves of ISIS victims, in Iraq or from the efforts in those countries to reconcile and move past conflict.
Justice requires accountability. This afternoon, you will get to engage with some of the experts who focus on the inter-connections among these issues.
To this end, the State Department and the Bureau I lead (DRL) have long supported efforts by the groups and individuals like yourselves. You are “civil society” and we support your efforts to obtain justice and accountability for crimes committed in times of war. We watched with great interest as Iraq developed and ratified the region’s first National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. And we supported the implementation of that action plan and the women leaders who pushed for its passage.
We are also proud to support the Voices Against Violence Initiative, which is a public-private partnership focused on urgent response to gender-based violence among its other achievements, Voices has helped hundreds of women, including survivors of violence at the hands of ISIS criminals, receive critical support and care to rebuild their lives. We are here to advance initiatives like Voices.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the quiet, but critical, diplomatic engagement by the State Department. The dedicated professionals at State have, for years, facilitated consultations with women leaders around peace processes in the region and beyond.
We face many crises in the Middle East. We acknowledge the many obstacles to peace and security. We are here because you and others like you will play an essential role in creating and establishing the long term stability. We are with you.
Thank you again for your commitment to participating in this working group. The work continues as we strive to implement our shared values and to build respect for human rights.
It is now my honor to turn the podium over to Undersecretary Przydacz to say a few words.