Hannes Richter

Women Leaders Networking for Peace and Security In the Middle East

Hannes Richter

Cooperation for Peace and Security in the Middle East is the Focus of a High-Level Women’s Conference in Vienna

Vienna was again the center of international diplomacy after having organized a well-conceived, high-level Middle East Peace Conference. By invitation of Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, some eighty women in leading positions from the world of politics, economics, the media and non-governmental organizations came together on May 30-31 at Vienna’s Hofburg for a conference entitled Women Leaders - Networking for Peace and Security in the Middle East.

The objective was to provide a new momentum to the waning Middle East peace process by focusing on the  peace efforts of women in the region. Workshops dealt with the special aspects of using female networking as a counter strategy in the areas of media and war, economic development, conflict resolution, politics and civil society and were followed by a roundtable discussion.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik
U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik. Hopi Media

Participants included U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Palestinian Member of Parliament Hanan Ashrawi, President of the UN General Assembly Sheikha Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa and other committed women from the region such as Hero Talabani, wife of the Iraqi President. Other prominent participants at the roundtable were EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Hungarian Foreign Minister Kinga Göncz, Croatia’s Foreign Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, ministers from Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Burundi and prominent representatives from the Maghreb countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunesia, as well as Jordan.

Conference Women Leaders - Networking for Peace and Security in the Middle East at Vienna's Hofburg. Hopi Media

At the invitation of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Women’s Empowerment Network Steering Group convened for the first time in September of last year in New York. In its recommendations, the Steering Group, co-chaired by Minister Plassnik and State Secretary Rice, called for the inclusion of women in the peace processes and all aspects of the UN’s Peacebuilding Commissions’ work. Since there are currently no women among the 54 UN envoys to regions of conflict, the steering group recommended that the contributions of women leaders be effectively heard by increasing the number of women heading UN peace operations.

In expressing her expectations from the conference in Vienna, Plassnik emphasized the “transition from crisis management to conflict resolution.” The importance of maintaining a network among women was one of the major goals of the conference. “I am personally encouraged by the positive response to the initiative of holding this conference. It is not an easy matter to get so many committed women from the Middle East together with decision makers from Europe and the USA and to sit together at the same table to discuss the issue of women in the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Austrian Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer at the Chancellor's Office

It is a sign of the women’s willingness to make themselves heard and to listen to each other, transcending political and religious boundaries,” Minister Plassnik stated at the opening of the international conference. Using the Arab Human Development Report of 2005 as the starting point of the conference, Foreign Minister Plassnik referred to the conclusions of the report and the deficits revealed: “Women need better education and health care. Moreover, it is necessary to clarify their status within their respective systems.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about having a stronger involvement of women in solving the Middle East conflict: “Unless women are full participants in their society in terms of political participation and economic participation, these societies cannot really be fully democratic. Democracy will not flourish in the Middle East until its women gain greater rights and expanded roles.” During her  visit she had bilateral meetings with Austrian Federal Chancellor Gusenbauer, colleague and host, Plassnik, and EU Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner. The U.S. Minister also held a speech at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna.

The conference ended with a clear commitment to the need for dialogue when attempting to solve the Middle East conflict and was for many encouraging in the continuing search for peace. Israel’s Foreign Minister Livni spoke about the importance of being able to meet friends from countries within the Arab world with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. By hosting the conference Ursula Plassnik wished to forge such bridges.

It was to be a forum for dialogue among people who otherwise find it extremely difficult to come together. The conference showed, said Plassnik, how great the hunger is for dialogue. EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner announced that plans are being made for another conference to be held in the future. It is important, above all, that the networking of women from the Middle East be maintained.