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Two top diplomats on why peace lasts longer when it is not made by men only.

Jamila Ali Rajaa, is a Yemeni diplomat and peace negotiator. In 2012, after the overthrow of Yemen’s long-term ruler, she was a delegate to the National Dialogue Conference seeking to negotiate a democratic transition in the country. Since the outbreak of war in 2014, she has been a mediator in peace talks and advising the UN special envoy for Yemen. Rajaa chairs the advisory board of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies think tank and lives in Cairo.

Helga Schmid, is one of the highest-ranking German diplomats. Schmid has been Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) since December 2020. She previously headed the EU’s External Action Service and was Europe’s main negotiator in the nuclear deal with Iran signed in 2015. Schmid was the office manager of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. She comes from Bavaria.


When questions of war and peace are at stake, women are usually surprisingly absent from the negotiating table. Those few women who do participate rarely  speak about it publicly, as discretion is crucial for diplomacy. Moreover, talking about their experiences as women in international diplomacy can easily be interpreted as weakness and a lack of professionality. Despite all this, two veteran diplomats, Jamila Ali Rajaa and Helga Schmidt, did speak about their experiences, connecting via video call from Cairo and Vienna. Now is an apt time to discuss diplomacy – in Vienna, talks between world powers, the United States and Iran are ongoing related to a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement Schmid played an important role in negotiating in 2015. 

DIE ZEIT: During the past few years, world politics sometimes seemed to get out of control. Many new wars, a pandemic, leaders like Donald Trump: Which impression do you have for 2021? What is important about this year? 

Jamila Ali Rajaa: Helga, you are more experienced in global politics. Please share your answer first. 

Helga Schmid: We diplomats have been a little traumatized over the past few years (laughs).  Seriously, multilateralism has been under severe attack.  The inhibition threshold for violence was lower than it has been in a long time.  Now we have a new US administration that wants to rebuild multilateralism.  That is the good news.  In the meantime, however, it has become clear how severe the consequences of the pandemic are, also economically.  At the beginning of the pandemic, I believed it could make us think we could resolve some of the military conflicts around the world.  But the world has become more insecure.  Violence against women has increased everywhere, including in the EU.  Likewise, human trafficking, one of the main issues for us in the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe).  Not only is it a drastic human rights violation, it is also a real threat to international security.  Behind this are cross-border criminal networks.  

Rajaa: The current year 2021 marks a return to diplomacy. This makes me very glad. Lately, it had been aspiring rulers who set the tone, making a name for themselves by demonstrating strength. They instigated wars in the Near East and though Donald Trump did not stir up a classical war, he attacked democracy, nearly provoking a civil war. Now the pieces of the broken must be glued back together. And we will see how well this will work. Concerning the Near East, we are mostly looking toward the new negotiations with Iran. 

ZEIT: You mentioned the negotiations concerning the nuclear agreement with Iran, which for many was a huge success of Obama’s foreign policy in 2015. President Trump led the United States to withdraw from the deal. Now negotiations in Vienna are focused on reviving it. How optimistic are you about this intention?

Rajaa: Without an agreement, current wars in the Near East will surely continue. Iran must be re-integrated into international politics, otherwise it will go on with using militias to exercise its power. That would be the worst-case scenario for the region. Incidentally, besides the negotiations about the nuclear agreement, there have recently been unofficial talks again between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That is good, but instead of discussing military questions, talking about political solutions will make a true difference. Helga, you took part in negotiating the agreement with Iran back then. Do you think it can be revived?

Schmid: I was the main author at the time.  I am convinced that the new US administration will want to get back on the road.  But time is running out.  There will soon be voting in Iran.  (Editor’s note: there are presidential elections on June 18).  Jamila, I have to add that we knew at the time that the nuclear deal would not solve the problems in the Middle East.  The regional powers distrust one another.  Our approach was: we solve the burning problem, the nuclear issue, first, and thus create trust to address other conflicts.  But President Trump left the deal.  And then Iran stopped honoring some of its commitments.  

ZEIT: Did you underestimate the power of egos? 

Schmid: Diplomacy thrives on personalities who build relationships with one another.  Madeleine Albright, whom I admire very much, once said that this is one of the reasons why women are excellent diplomats: We are good at forging relationships.  Women were also pioneers in the so-called Arab Spring!  Then they were frozen.  That’s what frustrates me: women are so active, even in diplomacy, in the background.  But when it really comes down to it, they should make way.  

Rajaa: These are defensive reflexes. It was Trump who succeeded Obama, the first black president, as well as the stronger oppression that followed the Arab uprisings. I participated in the negotiations for a democratic transition after the uprising in Yemen. We, the women, made up 30 percent of the delegates at the National Dialogue Conference in Yemen. Women were determined! This fact scared the politicians of the conservative religious parties very much. They realized that Yemen could actually appear differently in the future. So, they ousted the women. The time has not yet come, it was said, we are at war! And at war, only those who are fighting have a say.

Schmid: Negotiations and peace agreements are more effective when women have a say.  Women often have better connections with ordinary people and use their knowledge about them in politics.  A peace that cannot be felt in everyday life does not last.  A UN study has shown that the likelihood that a peace agreement will last is 35 percent higher if women helped negotiate it.

Rajaa: That is true. But if we want more female negotiators, we will also need more female politicians. Meanwhile, we do have many women in civil society and science. They surely can give advice to the negotiators. Nevertheless, it is still those in power who make the agreements. As long as women do not enter politics, they will not enter power, too. This is my advice to women in the Near East: Go and become politicians. Go, join parties, make a career, write political programs. Women stand in for the political courses of a party as men do, but they set different agendas. Their focuses include education, for example, and health.

ZEIT: How many women do you usually meet at the negotiating table? 

Schmid: I was often the only woman.  And I am always asked: What was it like for men to talk to a woman?  Better ask me what it is like for a woman to only talk to men!  

ZEIT: How does she experience it? 

Schmid: I’ve got used to it.  In my first years as a diplomat, I was often annoyed that as a woman you would say something that nobody answered until 15 minutes later a man would say the same thing.  This was then taken up by the chairman – usually a man – and other men.  Today, I run meetings myself. Some think I’m bossy.  Now that makes me proud.  It’s just a different way of expressing that I lead confidently and with conviction. 

Rajaa: Actually, it is less about getting more women to the table and more about them exerting influence. If they can make a difference. Sure, we have enough skilled women who should be sitting at the table. International politics, though, still remains an old boys club, a cigar club, in Yemen maybe a khat club (Editor’s note: Khat is an everyday drug in Yemen and has a stimulating effect like coffee). I think as a woman it makes sense to fit yourself in those structures of power as much as necessary, but to use all ways available to reach information, exert influence, and build majorities at the same time. This may include more creative ways from time to time, like talking to the wives or about tribal affiliation. Although women usually are absent from the table, we have achieved a lot in the case of Yemen. In the 2018 peace negotiations in Stockholm only few women were taking part. The negotiations resulted in an agreement that was never truly implemented, not least because the parties which were at war with each other almost never met at one table. The one time we got them together in one place was because I had maintained personal relationships with the leading negotiators from both sides for years. You cannot imagine how they yelled at each other! But if UN had not insisted on women participating in the negotiations, they might not have exchanged a single word. 

Schmid: That is exactly why institutions such as the EU, the UN and the OSCE promote women in diplomacy.  By putting the topic on the agenda, training women and building networks for women.  I am a firm believer in women’s networks.  I founded one myself in the EU.  When I recently switched to the OSCE, there was already a network of “men for equality” there – great!  The OSCE also offers negotiation training for women and advanced training in male domains such as arms control and nuclear disarmament.  

Rajaa: I am a part of women’s networks as well. But I still think we must maintain relationships with men, too. It is not only about participation, but about exerting influence. Relying only on educating women will not make a big change. Men as well need to be trained and educated, for example in UN resolution 1325. This resolution says why peace lasts longer when everyone is involved – which includes the oppressed and women.  

Schmid: I see it that way too.  And no matter how much you can stand up for women in peace negotiations – as long as women do not participate in the economy they have no real power.  Incidentally, the whole of society benefits from women in business.  When more women entered the labor market in the OSCE – there are 57 countries after all – the gross domestic product rose by up to 15 percent.  

ZEIT: Where do you sit down when you walk into a negotiating room full of men?

Rajaa: At first, you will not just walk into the room. You will come prepared. You have already had a conversation with someone influential in the lobby. You have already found out who would be in the room and who would want or refuse what. Firstly, you understand the constellations of power, then you forge alliances. In politics, fighting is not always the end, but the potential beginning of a relationship. 

Schmid: Usually there is a fixed seating arrangement and name tags.  At the beginning of my career, I always made sure that I knew where I was sitting and that I would be on time.  So nobody could accidentally take my place.  As a woman, you cannot afford to be unprepared.  

ZEIT: Have you heard about mansplaining, the phenomenon of men explaining something to women snootily?

Schmid: Definitely.

Rajaa: Of course. 

Schmid: In fact, men hardly ever try to explain something to me in this way.  But I have seen men interrupt others more often.  

Rajaa: In Yemen, it is different. Here, it is the women who will interrupt!

ZEIT: How can one bring such situations to an end diplomatically? 

Rajaa: You make a joke of it. 

Schmid: You joke – and if you know better, you say that too! 

Rajaa: At the negotiation table: yes. Open your mouth! And in all other situations, do whatever you feel fine and strong with.

The questions were asked by Die Zeit correspondent Lea Frehse.


This interview first appeared in German in Die Zeit newspaper on May 12, 2021. You can read the original interview here.   

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