Mr. Per Örnéus

Ambassador, Special Envoy to the Syria Crisis at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden

Opening remarks at the side event “Combating Violence against Women and Girls: From Words to Action” organised by EuroMed Feminist Initiative and Syria Gender Advocacy Group on 5 May 2022 in Brussels, back to back Brussels VI Conference 2022 “Supporting the Future of Syria and the region” (9-10 May 2022)

Dear friends,

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak here today, and to listen to you.

We, the Swedish Government, are eager to learn from your experiences, and I will listen carefully to your concrete ideas of how we can further support your efforts to combat violence against women and girls. This discussion here today is important, for many reasons.

I want to begin with a few general words regarding the Syria crisis, and where we, the world, find ourselves for the moment.

In the Syria crisis, for more than 11 years now, things have not moved in the direction we had wanted them to. Political developments have been a disappointment. Diplomatic endeavours have not resulted in any tangible resolution or opened any meaningful ways forward.

Even though the situation in Syria today shows relatively low levels of armed violence, it is still a highly complicated conflict. Almost 7 million Syrians live as refugees outside of Syria. And almost as many are displaced within their own country. The humanitarian situation is devastating, the suffering is enormous, and the situation keeps getting worse.

The social fabric of the Syrian society has been torn apart. There are extreme low levels of trust. Violence is omnipresent. We are looking at an indescribable disaster.

And women and children are the hardest hit.

However, even if many voices would agree with the above, it is unfortunately fair to say that the Syria crisis has slipped down on the international agenda. There is indeed a level of “Syria fatigue”. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to disregard, play down, or abandon the Syria crisis.

It would be immoral to let the Syrian people down. The Syria crisis is in many ways an important and painful part of a power game much larger than Syria itself. What is at stake is the respect for a rules-based world order: International Law, Geneva Conventions and the United Nations, as a highly functioning provider of stability and conflict resolution.

But it is my hope and my belief that the international community can see the pattern and understand the importance of engaging in the long game of Syria’s future.

-        We must continue to keep the Syrian crisis on the international agenda.

-        We must continue to support the Syrian people and engaging with the Syrian civil society in most of its forms.

We must relentlessly continue to explore ways to open up new pathways in a stalled and cramping process, doing so with a high degree of strategic patience.  Patience, not to be mistaken for inaction, rather patience as endurance.

There is no easy and quick solution to the Syria crisis. We must realize that we are in this for a long time to come. And we must always be accountable to the Syrian people.

Now, let me turn to the specific topic of this meeting: “Combatting Violence against Women and Girls: “From Words to Action.”

Reading your Concept Note, I was impressed with your description of how the development in Syria has impacted the work and needs of Syrian women, and of those who work to support you brave, innovative and committed women’s rights activists. 

The security and safety of Syrian women is not only an issue for women; it is also necessary for a peaceful future for Syria. 

One point in the Concept Note stood out to me, the conclusion that local community women activists have limited access to national and international decision-making centres. 

This is a key problem. 

We all agree that there cannot be a solid and sustainable outcome of any peace process, or reconstruction and development of a future democratic Syria, if women cannot participate on all levels, if their voices are not heard and respected.

Serious inclusion of women is simply a prerequisite for any successful way forward.

But I would like to add one more aspect, or perspective, to our discussion, which I was searching for when reading the Concept Note.

When translating the Common Agenda into concrete action we must speak openly about root causes and recognise it for what it is. 

Even the topic “Violence against Women and Girls” that we talk about here today is formulated without an active subject. The ones exercising the violence. The ones who bear the responsibility for the violence against women and girls. 

Men. I am talking about men.

Unless we can openly talk about men’s responsibility, we can never make progress. 

Unless men are made aware, change will be minimal and successes short-lived. And constantly challenged.

Until the root causes are properly understood, and dealt with, we will only be able to address the symptoms.

We must recognise that there is a need to address societal norms, even in conflict affected situations, and, in particular, what can be labelled “toxic masculinity norms”.

To change traditional harmful masculinity norms is certainly not easy. It will meet resistance. But it must be done.

It requires courage, patience, and leadership, and it requires cooperation on all levels and with all parts of society, including schools, workplaces and the judiciary.

And let me underline that work to redefine masculinity norms, and with preventative measures for sexual and gender-based violence, must be done in tandem and collaboration with the feminist movements and activists. 

The work to address the root causes is not to compete with women’s rights organisations or “steal the show”. It is to support and work towards the same goal, just tackling the problem from a different angle. 

Let me pause here just to state the obvious, this is a problem for all societies in the world. Not just for you in the Syrian context.

In Sweden we have seen that our strategic work to address harmful masculinity norms have had an effect, though progress is slow. But we see positive trends on how it for instance decreases domestic violence and violent crimes. Although we too have much more to do.

Part of the work lies in changing the legislation. For this to happen women’s voices and perspectives are needed.

Men who use violence against women and children need to be held accountable. To recognise violence against women and girls as a punishable crime is a step towards changing the norm. Then a society could start working with preventive measures.

This is would not only serve to prevent violence against women and girls and emancipate women, but also increase the wellbeing of men and boys.

So, looking back at what I have just said and what I mean with these words: 

-        To you, brave and committed women’s rights activists in Syria, this is not only on your shoulders. 

-        The responsibility to change harmful norms and practices lies on the men. 

-        Men must be made aware of the damage, that some men cause women and children, and of the damage they cause society as a whole. And men must be held accountable.

-        Concrete incentives for men to change harmful behaviour must be found for each specific cultural context. Each society has its own challenges here, but some basics are true for all.

My point is that in order to get to the bottom with the problem of women and girls suffering violence by the hands of men, the scope in which we address the problem needs to be broadened. 

The work of the women’s rights organisations in Syria is and has been vital. And you must be further supported. However, this is not only for individuals and organizations to solve. 

Violence against women and girls should be a priority for governments as well as the international community, to support local initiatives and activists to continue their work.

And we, in the Swedish Government, stand firmly behind you.

So, in closing, perhaps here today we can agree to start calling Violence Against Women and Girls for what it is? “Men’s violence against women and girls”, deeply rooted in harmful practices and toxic masculinity norms. 

Thank you for your time and for your highly important work.


About Mr. Per Örnéus:

Prior to that, he served as the Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP). He was Sweden’s first Ambassador for Humanitarian Affairs, the Foreign Minister’s Sherpa at the United Nation’s Secretary General High-Level Panel for Humanitarian Financing, and Coordinator for the World Humanitarian Summit. During his diplomatic career with the Swedish Foreign Service, he served as Director-General/Head of the Department for Multilateral Development Cooperation as Deputy Permanent Representative at the Permanent Mission to the United Nations. He was a Deputy at the Embassy of Sweden to Latvia, and a Deputy Head of Mission and a Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem, responsible for covering MEPP, among other issues.  He led the MFA’s Section for Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Issues.