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Highlights from the Constitutional Committee in its first round of meetings in Geneva

Head of the opposition delegation Hadi al-Bahra, UN Envoy Geir Pedersen and Head of the regime's delegation Ahmed al-Kuzbari

Head of the opposition delegation Hadi al-Bahra, UN Envoy Geir Pedersen and Head of the regime's delegation Ahmed al-Kuzbari

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Enab Baladi – Geneva

During the ten days of discussions in Geneva, statements by members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and legal experts reflected the discrepancy between the components of the Committee. On 8 November, the UN Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, announced the end of this round of meetings, stating that the talks will be resumed on 25 November.

The Constitutional Committee initiated its activities on October 30, amid international support, following a difficult journey to see the light. It was mainly endorsed by the United Nations’ efforts, which appointed envoys to realize the mission, the first was Staffan de Mistura, who stepped down in October 2018 and handed over the task to his successor, Geir Pedersen.

Opening session

The first official session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee began in Geneva, with three speeches delivered by Pedersen, and the co-chairs of the Committee, Hadi al-Bahra, on behalf of the opposition delegation, and Ahmad al-Kuzbari, on behalf of the Syrian regime delegation.

During his televised speech on 30 October, Pedersen said: “We are witnessing a historic moment and we are actually discussing the most important issues regarding the Syrian society.”

The UN envoy added that “the Committee can discuss the 2012 Constitution or draft a constitutional amendment and submit it for popular referendum.” He noted that “the Constitution belongs to the Syrian people alone, who decide the future of the country, and the role of the United Nations is limited to facilitating the work of the Constitutional Committee.”

The Head of the delegation of the Syrian regime, Ahmad al-Kuzbari, began his speech once Pedersen finished talking, and insisted: “Syrians are expecting a great deal from the Constitutional Committee.”

Al-Kuzbari avoided explicit accusations against the opposition delegation, a strategy which has been employed by the regime during the majority of political meetings discussing the Syrian file.

He affirmed the Syrian regime’s narrative by saying: “Our war against terrorism will be waged before, during and after our meeting until the liberation of the last inch of our territory.”

“Without the sacrifices of the Syrian army, we would not have been in Geneva,” al-Kuzbari added.

For his part, the joint chairman of the opposition, Hadi al-Bahra, opened his speech by saying: “We hope to accomplish what we have been unable to do previously, and we are here to look for similarities, not differences.”

Turning to the file of detainees, al-Bahra indicated that their case “remains pending without a fundamental solution, and must be resolved as soon as possible.”

He continued: “Today, we start drafting a new constitution, which will live up to the aspirations of our people. This constitution will not be based on sectarianism, and will adhere to the UN resolution 2245, according to a specific timetable, while supporting the principle of holding fair elections under the supervision of the United Nations.”

Al-Assad: The Constitutional Committee has nothing to do with the elections

One day after the start of its work, President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, came out to comment on the activities held by the Constitutional Committee, asserting that the Committee has nothing to do with the elections in Syria. He considered that the Constitutional Committee’s “role is limited only to drafting the Constitution.”

During a television interview with state-run TV channel al-Ikhbariya, on 31 October, al-Assad stated that the Committee is not the answer to the whole issue, however, “perhaps it will provide a part of the solution,” rejecting the comprehensive solution suggested by Pedersen, which overlooked the file of the terrorists.

He added that the solution in Syria starts when external interference in Syria ends. “If Pedersen believes that the UN Security Council resolution 2254 gives authority to any UN body or other party to supervise the elections, I want to remind him that the opening words of the resolution reasserted the Syrian sovereignty. Thus, the Syrian sovereignty is expressed by nobody else than the Syrian State,” Insisted al-Assad.

The Constitutional Committee was first presented at the Russian-sponsored Syria peace conference in Sochi, November 2018. Contrary to al-Assad’s view, the Sochi Agreement stated in its final statement that “it was agreed to form a Constitutional Committee composed of the delegation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and an opposition delegation, with the objective of drafting a constitutional reform that would contribute to implementing the UN-sponsored political settlement in accordance with UNSC resolution 2254.”

A government-backed delegation… a term for disavowal

The Syrian government media uses the term “government-backed delegation” to express the delegation representing the government of the Syrian regime, while covering the sessions of the Constitutional Committee, to disavow the committee’s decisions if they do not conform to the aspirations of the Syrian regime and its president.

The term has prominently emerged after al-Assad’s interview with the state-run TV channel Al Ekhbariya on October 31, in which he disavowed the government delegation and considered it “representing the Syrian government’s point of view.”

Following this interview, pro-regime media used the term “government-backed delegation.” “The mini committee coming from the extended body of the Constitution Discussion Committee continued its meetings for the second day at the United Nations Building in Geneva, with the participation of the government-backed delegation and other delegations,” said the official Syrian News Agency (SANA) in a report it published on Tuesday November 5, regarding the meetings of the mini committee coming from of Constitutional Committee.

When asked about the acceptance of the other party (in reference to the opposition), al-Assad considered that the Syrian government is not part of the agreement of the Constitutional Committee, saying that there is a party representing the “point of view of the Syrian government, but the Syrian government is not part of these negotiations nor from this debate.”

The pro-regime media’s use of the term “government-backed delegation” or “party representing the government’s point of view” is as important as this media’s use of the term “other delegations,” in reference to the opposition and civil society delegations participating in the work of the Constitutional Drafting Committee.

As Enab Baladi monitored, the Syrian regime uses the term “other party” for the Syrian opposition delegation from the Committee members, and the official media avoids showing the president’s photos during coverage of the meetings of the Constitutional Committee, which started on October 30.

The correspondents of these media outlets call the delegation of the Syrian regime with its name, the “delegation of the Syrian government” and civil society with the “delegation of civil society,” when mentioned separately, before the meeting with al-Assad.

A tense atmosphere… Differences in goals and agendas

One of the sessions of the Constitutional Committee witnessed verbal altercations and a state of tension between the “civil society” and the “opposition” delegations on the one hand, and the regime delegation on the other, which caused the suspension of the session for an hour, and then it resumed after the lunch break.

Enab Baladi had held a number of interviews with members of the Constitutional Committee from the opposition group, seeking their views and evaluations of the progress of the meetings and the priorities to be discussed.

The joint chairman of the opposition, Hadi al-Bahra, described the first day’s meetings as “positive” in general, especially as it was the first time that the three groups met with each other. He considered that the main achievement was the fact that all the members listened to the interventions of each other on their vision of the future Constitution of Syria, the priorities, and the intentions of all members to advance the work of the Constitutional Committee.

Al-Bahra said that this is the right time to work to take advantage of the existing international consensus, in order to reach an understanding on a constitution that achieves our aspirations, and to achieve a political settlement and a political solution that leads to the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254, which also stipulates the activation of the negotiating process on the subjects of “Governance,” “Election Basket ”and “Counter Terrorism.”

For his part, Qasim al-Khatib, a member of the Constitutional Committee, pointed out that the demands of the “opposition” group in the meetings of the Constitutional Committee are clear, namely the drafting of a new constitution for the future of Syria, in which all Syrians participate, and which is not imposed on them like with previous constitutions.

Al-Khatib expressed his reservations about the 2012 Constitution. He clarified that the opposition group is working to ensure that many items be changed in the new constitution, the most important of which are those related to the powers of the President of the Republic, the form of government, as well as the women and children’s rights and other rights.

Al-Khatib also talked about the preparation of the upcoming elections, through a committee affiliated to the High Negotiations Commission (HNC), composed of about 23 specialized technical analysts, working on observing the experiences of other countries. He indicated that the committee has already studied the Sarajevo experience, and is currently preparing for studying the Egyptian and French experiments in this context.

Al-Khatib went to say that the committee is also working with the United Nations on “lost records” or records that are seized by the regime, so that Syrian refugees and displaced persons in camps and neighboring countries can cast their ballots, stressing that the upcoming elections should be held under UN supervision.

The rule of law… The four baskets

Members of the smaller drafting group stressed on the necessity of linking the rule of law with the detainees. Sources from the Committee members stated to Enab Baladi that the mini-constitutional committee discussed issues related to “the rule of law and its relation to citizens’ freedom, the lawfulness of arrest and justice of the courts, and the neutrality of the state, as well as the comparison and review of all Syrian constitutional experiences.”

In a remarkable development, the Syrian HNC asked the international envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, to resume negotiations on the four baskets agreed upon in UN resolution 2254, especially the formation of the transitional governing body, in parallel with the work of the Constitutional Committee.

In a letter to Pedersen, shared with Enab Baladi, HNC Chairman Nasr al-Hariri demanded the resumption of negotiations on governance, elections, the basket of terrorism and security in parallel with the work of the Constitutional Commission.

Resolution 2254 is an essential reference for the political process in Syria. It provides for the formation of a comprehensive and non-sectarian transitional rule, then the development of a new constitution for the country and the organization of legislative and presidential elections under the new constitution within 18 months.

The drafting group started its first meeting on 4 November, and collected constitutional suggestions from the words of the 150 members of the expanded Constitutional Committee, on 30 and 31 October.

Three non-papers

The group concluded its work on 8 November, by submitting papers to the three groups, the opposition, the regime and civil society, to be examined in the upcoming days.

Well-informed sources from the Committee stated to Enab Baladi that with the conclusion of the first round of sessions of the drafting group, each of the three groups in the Committee submitted a “non-paper” which will be examined before the start of the second round scheduled for November 25.

The sources explained that the three papers will form the discussion points from which the second round of sessions of the Constitutional Committee will start.

The “non-paper” of the opposition group included constitutional principles compiled from the interventions of members of the extended Constitutional Committee during its meetings last week.

Some of these principles included: “Ensuring the freedom and dignity of Syrians, achieving social justice among them, the independence of the judiciary, the separation of authorities, the integrity of the elections, ensuring political pluralism and equal citizenship, ensuring that the national army and security institutions are competent and committed to human rights, ensuring women’s participation in institutions by at least 30 percent, and considering the Kurdish issue as a national matter.”

As for the regime’s “non-paper,” it focused on the priority of “combating terrorism” and called for “the implementation of the relevant Security Council resolutions against terrorism, the Syrian people’s cooperation to fight all terrorist groups in Syria, in order to try to reach common ground among the members of the Committee, and to create the necessary ground for achieving a real progress in the work of the Committee.”

The civil society’s “non-paper” was divided into two parts. Those close to the regime focused on “condemning the attacks of terrorist groups in Aleppo and denouncing the economic sanctions against Syria.”

In contrast, members of the civil society group from the opposition side stressed the need to “work for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience by all parties in Syria, disclose the fate of the forcibly disappeared persons, and form a national committee to periodically monitor the release of detainees by all parties, according to a specific timetable.”

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