‘This Dialogue Is, First and Foremost, One between Syrians’, Permanent Representative Says, Condemning External Interference
Calling the launch of a Constitutional Committee for Syria a potentially historic moment, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria warned the Security Council today that conditions on the ground must improve to give the talks a chance for success in ending the years-long conflict.
Geir Pedersen, briefing the 15-nation Council, said: “This launch was a sign of hope for the Syrian people and a chance for the Syrian parties to begin a direct dialogue they lead and own on the future of a broken country.” It was critical that the Syrian parties, who are leading and owning this process, seize the opportunity that the launch of the Committee offers. Beginning its work on 30 October, the Committee consists of 150 participants, with 50 each from the Government, the opposition, and civil society. The Committee has so far agreed on the 45 participants who will make up the Constitution drafting group, 15 from each component.
The drafting group, in their initial discussions, held engaged talks on a range of topics, despite some expressions of anger and mistrust, he continued, adding that it is expected to reconvene on 25 November. Members of the so-called “middle third”, comprised of society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside Syria, had no formal affiliation with each other and differing experiences but were able to work together. Women made up 30 per cent of the Committee members and gender equality appeared to be a potential area for common ground.
He also said that, as confidence is necessary between all parties, the dynamics on the ground need to change, starting with full respect for international humanitarian and human rights law and protection of civilians. In that regard, he expressed deep concern over renewed violence in Idlib and other areas. In addition, he suggested confidence-building measures that include release of detainees and clarification of the plight of missing persons.
Also expressing concern over the continued engagement of international forces in varied configurations, he called for all involved to step away from any trend that could lead towards a deeper international conflagration over Syria and deeper infringement of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
What is needed, he said, is the establishment of a safe, calm and neutral environment, allowing any constitutional reform to be matched by improving conditions on the ground. That could set an environment for inclusive, free and fair elections in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) and contribute to voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees.
Sabah Alhallak, a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, stressed that, unfortunately, “Syrian women face threats to their rights from all sides, not only from existing discrimination embedded in law, but also from groups such as ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Al-Nusra”. Nonetheless, women’s rights activists from grass-roots political movements continue to organize and demand a say over the country’s future, including on issues of justice, citizenship and the constitutional process.
However, their full, equal and meaningful participation continues to be overlooked in high-level processes, she pointed out. To date, there have been only two women in the Government and opposition delegations to the Geneva negotiation process. “This cannot wait until after a political process has concluded,” she said.
She also called on the Council to press for progress on the fate of the 100,000 Syrians who remain detained or missing, often subjected to torture or other ill-treatment. The Council must also prioritize an immediate ceasefire, ensure civilian protection, humanitarian access and women’s full participation in the political process, and guarantee that provisions in the new Constitution codify human rights, including gender rights. “Our future — indeed, our present — depends on decisive action by this body,” she stressed.
Following those briefings, Council members took the floor to welcome the launch of the Constitutional Committee and commend Mr. Pedersen on his tenacity in shepherding the formation of the body. They also echoed his concerns about the need for improvements of conditions on the ground, calling them critical to relieve suffering and create a climate for the Syrian-led process to succeed, as well as facilitating the safe, voluntary return of refugees.
Kuwait’s representative said of the convening of the Committee: “It is a glimmer of hope for all Syrians.” He called on Syrian parties to focus on the interests of the Syrian people towards a solution that upholds the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. For that to occur, there must be tangible improvements on the ground that include justice and accountability for all crimes committed since 2011. He also condemned Israeli attacks on the territory of Syria.
The United States’ representative said that the developments in Geneva could lead to a resolution of the conflict if unrelenting pressure from the Council ensued on those who continue to fuel violence, condemning Iran for moving long-range missiles into Syria and continuing ground strikes through its proxies. Defending, in addition, Israel’s right to defend itself, he ruled out reconstruction assistance to areas controlled by Damascus until a credible political process is under way, in line with Council resolutions.
The representative of the Russian Federation, expressing hope that the Constitutional Committee will proceed successfully, stressed that it is unacceptable for outside players to interfere in the Committee’s work or impose artificial deadlines. He pledged that the Astana guarantors — Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation — stand ready to provide continued support based on respect for Syria’s sovereignty. In that regard, he called for complete restoration of State control, including in delivery of comprehensive humanitarian assistance, lifting of sanctions, end of support to any terrorists and provision of reconstruction aid.
Syria’s representative, while affirming progress on a wide array of issues in the Constitutional Committee, also called for respect for his country’s sovereignty. Speaking against support for terrorists, incursions by Turkey and the United States and the occupation of the Golan by Israel, he pointed out that some parties have expressed their support for the Constitutional Committee in a “very strange way”. External interference is one of the greatest threats to that Committee’s operations, he stressed, adding: “This dialogue is, first and foremost, one between Syrians.”
Also speaking today were representatives of the Dominican Republic, Poland, Germany, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, China, Indonesia, Equatorial Guinea, France, Belgium, Peru and the United Kingdom.
The meeting started at 3:14 p.m. and ended at 5:04 p.m.
GEIR O. PEDERSEN, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, said that on 30 October, 150 men and women gathered in Geneva to launch a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, credible, balanced and inclusive Constitutional Committee facilitated by the United Nations. There were 50 members nominated by each of three sectors: the Syrian Government, the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission and the so-called “middle third” made up of society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside Syria.
Calling it a “potentially historic moment”, he said: “This launch was a sign of hope for the Syrian people and a chance for the Syrian parties to begin a direct dialogue they lead and own on the future of a broken country.” Over the next two days, an agreement was reached on the 45 members to work in the small drafting body. Thereafter, the “small body” — 15 persons from each 50 — reviewed ideas and proposals to identify potential constitutional principles. They agreed to return to Geneva this coming Monday 25 November.
Commending Committee members for their courage and patriotism, he reported that emotions, including mistrust, anger and loss, ran high and proceedings, at times, were painful. Yet, everyone stayed engaged; openness to dialogue increased over time. The Co-Chairs from the Government and the opposition maintained a business-like approach. He reported that he urged Committee members during the recess to reflect on what was discussed and return ready to build on it. As well, although the middle third group had no formal affiliation with each other, nonetheless, despite differences in opinion and experience they sat and worked together.
With 30 per cent of the members women, their voices were heard on all issues and gender equality was raised by many, making it a potential subject for common ground, he said, observing that the Women’s Advisory Board was convened in Geneva as the Constitutional Committee proceedings began. Noting consultations by the United Nations with a wide cross-section of Syrian civil-society in the Civil Society Support Room at the same time, he thanked the Security Council for its support of the Constitutional Committee. He also reported his meetings with foreign ministers of Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey and representatives of the International Small Group before the launch.
As confidence is necessary for the political process to proceed, the dynamics on the ground need to change, starting with full respect for international humanitarian and human rights law and protection of civilians, he continued. In that regard, he expressed deep concern over renewed violence in Idlib, with an escalation in aerial bombardment, as well as ground-based attacks from both sides. Two days ago, at least a dozen civilians were killed and 50 injured, when a missile reportedly launched from Government territory struck a camp for the displaced, near a maternity hospital.
Meanwhile developments in the north-east include the Turkish military intervention, Government deployment following an understanding with the Syrian Democratic Forces and a Turkish-Russian understanding leading to joint patrols along the Turkish Forces, he noted. While those understandings have reduced violence in the area, reports of clashes and shelling continue. More than 90 civilians have been killed and more than 75,000 displaced. Israeli air strikes in response to rocket fire launched towards Israel occurred as well. He called for all parties to step away from any trend that could lead toward a deeper international conflagration over Syria and deeper infringement of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The threat of resurgent terrorism also underlines the need for a cooperative approach, he stressed.
Among concrete actions to improve the lives of Syrians, he reiterated his call for the unilateral release of detainees and for steps to clarify the fate of missing persons, along for broader set of reciprocal confidence-building measures. All such efforts should lead towards the establishment of a safe, calm and neutral environment, allowing any constitutional reform to be matched by improving conditions on the ground. That could set an environment for inclusive, free and fair elections in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), and contribute to voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees. For all this to occur along with political process, he stated: “The Syrian parties, who are leading and owning this process, must seize the opportunity that the launch of the Committee offers. They, and all of us, must build around it a mutually reinforcing dynamic for the sake of the Syrian people.”
SABAH AL HALLAK, a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, briefed the Council in her capacity as a civil society leader and lifelong feminist. Highlighting the gendered impact of Syria’s long conflict, she recalled that just days ago missiles struck a maternity hospital in a displaced persons’ camp in Idlib Governorate, killing at least 16 people and injuring many more — including patients, children and medical staff. That was the fifty-sixth attack on a health facility in north-west Syria since April, she said, pointing out that tens of thousands of people have been displaced in both the north-west and north-east of the country as a result of recent military operations. The current political and humanitarian crises continue to exacerbate discrimination against women, resulting in an increase in gender-based violence, early and forced marriage and trafficking. “Syrian women have faced threats to their rights from all sides, not only from existing discrimination embedded in law, but also from groups such as ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Al-Nusra,” she said.
Parties to the conflict continue to operate with impunity, she noted, calling on the Council to apply pressure in accordance with international law in order to ensure accountability of those who have committed crimes. Transitional justice must include women’s rights at its core, she said, stressing that “this cannot wait until after a political process has concluded”. Despite limited space for Syrian civil society to influence the political process, women’s rights activists from grassroots political movements continue to organize and demand a say over the country’s future, including on issues of justice, citizenship and the constitutional process. Noting that women’s full, equal and meaningful participation continues to be overlooked in formal, high-level processes, she said that, to date, there have been only two women in the Government and opposition delegations to the Geneva negotiation process.
She went on to express regret over little progress made on the issue of detainees and missing persons — despite the Council’s expression of desire for immediate action on that front. Some 100,000 Syrians remain detained or missing, often subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, she said, calling for all arbitrarily detained civilians to be released in accordance with international human rights law and the provisions of resolution 2254 (2015). The Council must also prioritize calls for an immediate ceasefire to end the conflict and ensure that all civilians are protected from attacks; ensure women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in the political process, with a minimum 30 per cent representation in decision-making processes; include provisions in the new Constitutions which codify international human rights, including those related to gender; ensure the release of all arbitrarily detained persons; and allow international humanitarian and medical personnel unconditional access to places of detention. “Our future — indeed, our present — depends on decisive action by this body,” she stressed.
JAMES F. JEFFREY (United States) said the ongoing negotiations in Geneva can lead the way to a resolution of the conflict in Syria, if supported by the Council. “Just think of what we have seen since this Council last met to talk about Syria,” he said, citing a major new Turkish combat operation in the north-east and fresh airstrikes in the north-west, where several State military forces are present. “Blame needs to be placed on the Iranian Government” for moving long-range missiles into Syria and continuing ground strikes through its proxies, he said. Expressing support for Israel’s right to self-defence, he went on to call for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria and for unrelenting pressure from the international community. In addition, there can be no reconstruction assistance to areas controlled by Damascus until a credible political process is underway, in line with resolution 2254 (2015), he said, noting that such reconstruction assistance would be premature at this time.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), expressing hope that the Constitutional Committee will proceed successfully in its work, said: “This is just the start of a long and difficult process.” However, it is unacceptable for outside players to interfere in the Committee’s work or impose artificial deadlines. The Astana guarantors — Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation — stand ready to provide continued support to the parties based on the principle of unswerving respect for Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Noting that improvements on the political track will now allow for the delivery of comprehensive humanitarian assistance, he called for the complete restoration of State control, which is needed to correct the harm done to Syria by forces seeking to “play off” differences between Kurds and Arabs. He also warned that terrorists continue to threaten peace and security in Idlib and elsewhere, cautioning against putting forward jihadist groups as “moderate opposition” or “local authorities”. Among other things, he went on to call for the lifting of sanctions, the provision of reconstruction aid and for Council members to avoid relying on dubious information sources or risk “becoming part of the information war” themselves.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic), thanking the Special Envoy for his tenacity in shepherding the Constitutional Committee, expressed hope that, with the facilitation of the United Nations and dedication on the part of the stakeholders, progress towards peace is achievable. He said that shared interests must drive that progress, adding that women’s participation is vital. It is also critical to build trust in the process through the effective work of the Committee. For that to happen, a unified national vision must be developed. The release of women, children and persons with disabilities that have been detained would help in that process, as would information on missing persons. Syrians themselves should determine what other measures must be taken as priority. It is clear that a ceasefire is necessary in that regard, as is respect for civilian lives and infrastructure in the course of any counter-terrorism operation. The shared tragedy should be a driving force for peace in the country, he added.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland), calling on all parties to the conflict in Syria to engage in confidence-building measures, highlighted the importance of safeguarding the humane treatment of detainees, including abductees and missing persons in that country. The thousands of people arbitrarily detained must be released, particularly children, women and the elderly. She also pointed to the escalation of the conflict in Idlib, stating that the most vulnerable groups sheltering in camps for internally displaced persons must be under special protection. Condemning the attacks against medical facilities and personnel conducted across Syria in 2019, she stressed the need to ensure safe and unhindered access to humanitarian aid and the free movement of civilians fleeing violence. International humanitarian law is clear — all parties to conflict must distinguish between civilians and combatants and take constant care to spare civilians in the conduct of military operations, she observed.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) said that the launch of the Constitutional Committee is merely a first stop into the direction of a political situation to the Syrian conflict. However, the establishment of the Constitutional Committee itself is not a political transition. A genuine political process under United Nations auspices, based on resolution 2254 (2015) and the Geneva Communique of 2012, is needed. Germany and other member States of the European Union can only help reconstruct Syria when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is firmly under way. He strongly condemned the brutal and completely unacceptable attack on the internally displaced persons camp in Qah last night. Air strikes against civilian infrastructure must be part of the investigation of the United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry, he emphasized. National reconciliation and sustainable peace in Syria will not be possible without justice and accountability. He also urged that the work of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 be supported. Noting that the Russian Federation had not mentioned compliance with international humanitarian law in his intervention on Syria and recalling the recent attacks on civilians, he said there was no excuse for indiscriminate attacks. It was crucial to ensure that none of the crimes and atrocities committed during the Syrian conflict go unpunished, that all perpetrators are held accountable and victims receive real justice, he said.
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait), calling the launch of the Constitutional Committee a major achievement, commended Mr. Pedersen and the Syrian parties on their work. “It is a glimmer of hope for all Syrians,” he added. He expressed hope that constructive discussions will follow and called on Syrian parties to focus on the interests of the brotherly Syrian people toward a solution that upholds the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. For that to occur, there must be tangible improvements on the ground that include justice and accountability for all crimes committed since 2011. In that effort, he said he supported the International Investigative Mechanism that has been created. He also expressed concern over the toll on children in the country, as well as attacks on civilians in Idlib, condemning those attacks by any party committing them; counter-terrorist operations do not absolve obligation to abide by humanitarian and human rights law. Also condemning Israeli attacks on the territory of Syria, he emphasized that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria, which must be resolved by an inclusive Syrian political process under United Nations agreements.
GBOLIÉ DÉSIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) welcomed the efforts to the Special Envoy leading to the launch of the Constitutional Committee. He warned, however, that this development is just one step towards solution of the conflict. A suitable environment, including a complete cessation of hostilities, is needed for the talks to succeed. In that regard, he welcomed the agreements in the north-east for ceasefires. Calling for dialogue to resolve differences between Israel and Syria, he also reiterated support for a comprehensive political solution in Syria in line with the relevant provisions of resolution 2254 (2015).
HARSHANA BHASKAR GOOLAB (South Africa) expressed grave concern over recent reports of shelling and missile strikes in Idlib, north-west Syria, which resulted in the injury and death of civilians, including children. As Syrian Government forces gain further control of their territory, the threat of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and other armed groups will hopefully be eliminated. However, while counter-terrorism activities are vital to achieving this goal, they must be undertaken in full compliance with international humanitarian and human rights laws. On political and constitutional processes, he said the only sustainable solution is through an inclusive Syrian-led dialogue aimed at achieving a transition that reflects the Syrian people’s will. Regarding the humanitarian situation and upcoming renewal of the cross-border humanitarian assistance mandate, South Africa will work with all interested parties to find consensus on the matter, he said.
WU HAITAO (China), welcoming the launch of the Constitutional Committee, said its creation was a good start for the country’s broader political process. “Syria should not be divided or torn apart,” he said, calling for full respect for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He urged the parties to use the Constitutional Committee process to narrow divisions and build mutual trust. Warning of the risks posed by rampant terrorism, he said the situation in north-east Syria remains fragile. All parties should guard against the return of ISIL/Da’esh and the Council should propose recommendations to bring terror group members to justice. Meanwhile, the international community should continue to harmonize its counterterrorism standards and fight terrorism in all its forms, including by focusing on the issue of foreign terrorist fighters. Efforts are needed to improve Syria’s economic situation, he said, calling for a comprehensive, objective and balanced perspective and emphasizing that humanitarian assistance should never come with political preconditions.
MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia) voiced concern about the escalating violence in north-western Syria, including the recent attack that affected a camp of internally displaced persons in Idlib. It is crucial to create a conducive environment for the work of the Constitutional Committee, he said, commending the role of the Special Envoy in bringing the parties together, especially his strong efforts in building trust between relevant parties. “The trust has to be nurtured carefully,” he stressed, calling on all sides to support the initial pathway to peace in Syria, including by fully respecting the ceasefire agreements.
JOB OBIANG ESONO MBENGONO (Equatorial Guinea) joined other speakers in welcoming the first convening of Syria’s Constitutional Committee. Describing the current moment as pivotal and long-awaited, he said the results of the process must meet the aspirations of all Syrians and respect the principles of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. Warning against external interference and the imposition of artificial deadlines, he said the Committee is only a first step towards the resolution of the Syrian conflict. Rejecting attempts to frame the resolution of Syria’s conflict as solely dependent on the results of the Constitutional Committee, he stressed that only ending the fighting and the eradication of terrorism will truly bring peace back to the country. “There can be no solutions imposed from the outside,” he said.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) underlined the urgent need to silence weapons across Syria, and especially to ward off the recurrence of fighting in the north-east — which would only benefit ISIL/Da’esh. Welcoming the determination of the international military coalition to maintain a presence there, he pledged that France will continue to shoulder its responsibility to combat terrorist groups. Condemning ongoing attacks by Syria’s regime and its allies in Idlib, which run counter to international law, he said combating terrorism cannot be achieved at the expense of human rights. In that vein, he condemned the clampdown by the group known as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham on peaceful civilian protests and reiterated his delegation’s support for the Constitutional Committee. The Council must remain vigilant against any maneuverers aimed at hampering that process, he said, adding that the Committee’s work is only one step forward. More progress is needed on other elements of resolution 2254 (2016). Noting that the conditions for sanctions relief and the provision of reconstruction assistance remain unchanged, he asked all Member States to continue to pressure Syria’s regime to engage in the Constitutional Committee process.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium) said that the Constitutional Committee’s work can and must stand as the first step in the political process aimed at achieving the legitimate aspirations of Syria’s people. He called on all stakeholders to honour their commitments to allow their representatives to perform their duties and seize the historic opportunity offered by the Committee. Turning to the situation on the ground, he expressed concern regarding recent reports of attacks perpetrated on the Qah camp for internally displaced persons and called on all parties to establish a nationwide ceasefire. The Government is obligated to ensure a safe, stable and calm environment across the country to allow the peace talks in Geneva to continue. Noting that the Council will soon discuss renewing resolution 2165 (2014) regarding cross-border aid, he stated that this mandate’s importance cannot be denied as it looks to meet the basic needs of 4 million people.
LUIS UGARELLI (Peru) encouraged efforts ensuring that the Constitutional Committee’s meetings are undertaken within a context of transparency, which will allow the international community and the Council to monitor and support the implementation of agreements reached and foster greater trust in the peace process. It is vital to work expeditiously to achieve tangible commitments in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015) in light of the grave humanitarian situation and latent terrorist threat. Parties must also work to foster greater trust by releasing detainees, identifying the missing and handing over mortal remains, as this “act of great humanity” will not only heal wounds and ease tensions, but also facilitate political dialogue and national reconciliation. He called for an effective ceasefire in Idlib to avoid the escalation of conflict, which would undermine any political solution.
Mr. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), taking the floor a second time to respond to Germany’s intervention, said that representative was perhaps not listening to the statement by the Russian Federation, because such a statement did mention international humanitarian law. Germany’s intervention, however, did not appropriately address the topic, which is focused on the political — rather than the humanitarian — situation. He suggested that the representative read the bulletins of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defence regarding Moscow’s frequent provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need. Despite prior warnings stressing caution regarding sources of information about Syria, he said that Germany’s delegate seems to be volunteering in the army of those disseminating false information about the Russia Federation and the legitimate Government of Syria, which helps legitimize the hatred Berlin is purportedly against.
Mr. HEUSGEN (Germany), taking the floor a second time to respond to the representative of the Russian Federation, stressed that the political and humanitarian aspects of the Syrian conflict cannot be separated, as international humanitarian law and assistance is inherently political. Regarding sources of information, he left it to the public to decide whether it is Germany or the Russian Federation wielding the knife.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom), Council President for November, spoke in her national capacity, urging the parties to make good use of the Constitutional Committee process. All elements of resolution 2254 (2015) must progress in tandem, including support for refugee returns and preparations for free, fair and transparent elections. Emphasizing that there will be no reconstruction assistance provided to Syria without a credible political process that goes beyond the Constitutional Committee, she said the United Nations should deal swiftly with any reports of intimidation of the Committee’s members. Meanwhile, she addressed the interaction between the delegates of Germany and the Russian Federation, stressing that international humanitarian law is not solely about assistance, but also about prohibiting attacks on civilians and refraining from using chemical weapons. In that light, it is not the track record of the West that is lacking, but that of the Assad regime and its ally, the Russian Federation. Attempts to paint Western countries as allies of terrorist groups must cease, she stressed, insisting: “We do not deserve [those accusations], nor are attacks in the Chamber warranted.”
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) said the first cycle of negotiations of the Constitutional Committee allowed the parties to make progress on a wide array of issues. All United Nations Member States must fully respect Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, as well as the impartial role played by the Special Envoy, and refrain from imposing any artificial deadlines or external conditions on the process.
“This dialogue is, first and foremost, one between Syrians,” he stressed, noting that the external interference is the greatest threat being faced by members of the Committee. Recalling that Turkey invaded Syria and occupied its territory, he said some parties have expressed their support for the Constitutional Committee in a “very strange way”. In other examples, the United States grabbed the country’s oil resources and installed forces on Syrian land, while Israel grabbed the occupied Syrian Golan in violation of the 1973 Agreement on Disengagement of Forces between Israel and Syria. The Syrian people categorically refuse occupation by any terrorist groups, he said, rejecting all unilateral coercive measures and other forms of economic terrorism.