‘Historic’ new Syria talks should focus on relief for war-weary civilians, says UN negotiator

© UNICEF/Rami Zayat Schoolchildren in eastern Aleppo in the Syrian Arab Republic return from the first day of school, passing the rubble of nearby houses. (21 September 2016)

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.

Work on drafting a new foundational text for war-torn Syria officially began at the UN in Geneva on Wednesday with representatives from the Syrian Government and opposition sitting face to face and preparing to discuss the country’s future for the first time in the nearly nine-year conflict.

Addressing the delegations – as well as a third group representing Syrian civil society – UN Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, urged them to seize the “historic” opportunity of working together, for the sake of the Syrian people.

Potential new beginning

“The future constitution belongs to Syrians, to the Syrian people and them alone,” he said, adding: “Today could become the beginning of something new, something meaningful for Syria and for Syrians everywhere. And this will be led by you, and you only, as both Co-Chairs have emphasized. Together, we can make this come through; tomorrow, the hard work begins.”

According to the rules of procedure in these UN-facilitated discussions, meetings of the 150-member Committee will take place in parallel with a smaller “drafting group”, made up of 15 people from each of the three delegations.

It will be tasked with writing any new constitution, depending on what is voted on by the larger Committee.

Mr. Pedersen highlighted that the existing Syrian constitution could be re-examined, in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254, adopted unanimously on 18 December 2018, in New York.

“The Constitutional Committee may review the 2012 constitution including in the context of other Syrian constitutional experiences and amend the current constitution or draft a new constitution,” he said, adding that it was “the first political agreement between the Government and the Opposition to begin to implement a key aspect of Security Council resolution 2254, which called for setting a schedule and a process for drafting a new constitution.”

In addition to endorsing a road map for a negotiated peace between belligerents, the UN Security Council resolution also called for a nationwide ceasefire and free and fair elections, as part of a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political transition.

Ahead of the official convening of the 150-member body at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva, the organization’s Secretary-General, António Guterres, welcomed the fact that both the Government of Syria and the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission “will sit together and take the first step on the political path out of the tragedy of the Syrian conflict”.

The UN chief also welcomed the fact that women’s representation on the committee was “very near 30 per cent”, a “minimum threshold” that the UN has long pushed for, in the interests of representing the widest possible number of Syrians affected by the conflict.

‘Positive change’ on the agenda

In his comments to the forum, the Government of Syria Co-Chair, Ahmad Kuzbari, expressed an openness to reviewing the country’s existing foundational text, the latest dating from 2012.

“It is a modern constitution,” he said, “but that does not prevent us Syrians from meeting for the purpose of considering any possible amendments to the current constitution or to consider a new constitution that would improve our reality and bring about a positive change that can be directly reflected in the lives of our people.”

And while Mr. Kuzbari underscored the fact that the Government was “committed to the success of this part of the political process”, he warned against “any occupying forces on our territory, the spoliation of the resources of our country and the continuing imposition of unilateral economic sanctions”.

These elements could threaten “the entire political process”, he said, insisting that they also breached the UN Charter and international legitimacy.

Looking for similarities, not differences

From the opposition, Committee Co-Chair, Hadi Albahra, underscored his delegation’s desire for progress in negotiations, noting nonetheless that “the 150 people meeting today in this room have diverging opinions on many issues”.

Be that as it may, “after eight painful years of suffering in Syria, we came here determined to look for similarities and not differences”, Mr. Albahra said, highlighting that the conflict had claimed one million lives and displaced millions more. “We are fully aware of the aspirations of a whole nation that awaits salvation from unspeakable suffering.”

He also appealed for progress on other confidence-building measures on the ground in Syria, particularly the release of prisoners – or information about them.

“We must achieve the release of all detainees at the hands of all parties and to discover the fate of the missing and the forcibly displaced, we must respect the right of families to know the fate of their loved ones,” he said.

Work through consensus

While acknowledging that “it is not easy for all of you to be here together” after nearly nine years of violent conflict, Mr. Pedersen expressed his gratitude to each delegate for agreeing to attend the negotiations, which are due to continue on Thursday.

Calling on all those present to show patience and persistence in agreeing on a new foundational text, the Special Envoy insisted that it could “help heal the wounds of a devastating conflict and indeed establish the foundations for a new co-existence”.

The Committee Co-Chairs were “equal” and “will need to work together…in consensus”, the UN negotiator continued, as would the smaller 45-member drafting body.

“Your duties of course are not only to your own side, but to all members of the Committee,” Mr. Pedersen said, without detailing any deadlines, while underscoring the need to include the third group representing Syrian civil society – known as the Middle Third – in all discussions.

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