Syrian Activist, ‘on behalf of Silent Majority’, Encourages Joint Efforts to End Hostilities, Ensure Respect for Human Rights
The Special Envoy for Syria told the Security Council today that he is forging ahead with efforts to unify Government and opposition representatives around an agreed agenda for the newly launched Constitutional Committee, aiming to bring the protracted political process back on track.
Geir Pedersen said that after nine years of violence in Syria, the process laid out in Council resolution 2254 (2015) is more urgent than ever, despite last month’s failure by representatives of President Bashar al‑Assad’s Government and the Syrian Negotiations Commission to agree on what the Committee should discuss.
Speaking via video teleconference from Geneva, he said he is facilitating an agenda through talks with the two sides, and with international stakeholders. Absent an agenda, there is no reason to convene a third session, he cautioned.
Reviewing the situation on the ground, he said the north‑west has seen a deeply troubling escalation of violence and that the human cost of a full‑scale military offensive “is a price that we simply cannot afford to pay”. He called for ceasefire arrangements in the north‑east to be respected and warned that the security situation in the south remains turbulent.
Looking ahead to 2020, he said Constitutional reform alone will not meet the concerns of the Syrian people. A nationwide ceasefire is needed, as are efforts to fight terrorist groups while respecting international humanitarian and human rights law, and the release of detainees. Deeper discussion among international stakeholders will also help, he added.
Rajaa Altalli, of the Centre for Civil Society and Democracy, told the Council about the kidnapping, torture and nine‑year detention of her father, who had joined an opposition political party. “This story is the story of thousands of Syrians from before and during the conflict,” she said, emphasizing that tens of thousands have been detained and tortured.
“I call upon you, on behalf of the silent majority of Syrians, to work together and, with Syrians, to find a sustainable solution,” she said, adding that the road to peace must include an end to all hostilities, improved conditions for displaced persons, provisions for supervised, voluntary refugee returns, human rights guarantees and safeguards, and the inclusion of women and youth.
In the ensuing debate, speakers decried the deadlock in the Constitutional Committee and expressed support to the Special Envoy’s efforts to break it. They also renewed calls for an immediate Syria‑wide ceasefire and emphasized the gravity of the humanitarian situation, the topic of a Council briefing on 19 December (see Press Release SC/14061).
Kuwait’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs said the launch of the Constitutional Committee was both a glimmer of hope and a first step on a path that would ultimately lead to free and fair elections. He voiced concern, however, over ongoing military operations and condemned the targeting of innocent civilians.
The Russian Federation’s delegate said no one expected that the Committee’s work would be easy and that it would be counterproductive to dramatize the situation. Syrians must be given the opportunity to understand how they can reach agreement between themselves, he said, warning against pressuring the parties or burdening them with time frames.
The representative of the United States, Council President for December, speaking in her national capacity, said that President Assad’s regime was responsible for stalling the Committee’s work by presenting a set of preconditions. Calling for a nationwide ceasefire in 2020, she warned that there must be no Christmas offensive in Idlib and that attacks on civilians must stop.
Germany’s delegate, in the same vein, said that by creating artificial discussions over agenda items, the Syrian regime wants to avoid substantive debate. Calling on the Russian Federation and Iran to use their influence over Damascus, he also stated his concern about the risk of further destabilizing the region and resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).
Equatorial Guinea’s delegate meanwhile cautioned against attempts to undermine either reconciliation or the constitutional drafting process. The threat of external interference is a clear contradiction of resolution 2254 (2015), he said.
On that point, Syria’s representative said the Government has tried to advance the work of the Constitutional Committee through a set of national pillars focused on the rejection of terrorism, the presence of foreign parties and embargoes. Rejecting the interventionist policies of the United States, United Kingdom and France, he wondered aloud how these Governments, having declared a love for Syrian oil, could advance a Syrian‑led political process. He urged all Council members to allow the Committee to work in an independent manner.
Also speaking today were representatives of France, United Kingdom, Dominican Republic, South Africa, China, Poland, Indonesia, Belgium, Côte d’Ivoire and Peru.
The meeting started at 10:11 a.m. and ended at 12:12 p.m.
GEIR O. PEDERSEN, Special Envoy of the Secretary‑General for Syria, spoke via video teleconference from Geneva, recalling that a year ago, many believed that the conflict in Syria was winding down. However, the past year has witnessed a steady stream of violence, while prescribed terrorist groups remain a security threat. In such a context, a political process as envisioned by Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) is more pressing than ever. Reporting on the latest developments in the Constitutional Committee, he said that the two sides failed to agree on an agenda. On 21 November, the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission proposed an agenda that would focus, among other things, on the preamble of a new Constitution. Four days later, the Government side proposed an agenda to discuss national pillars of concern.
From 25 to 29 November, he continued, he sought to facilitate consensus through serious discussions, with different formulas put forward, between the Committee’s Co‑Chairs. However, by the end of the week, it was clear that consensus would not be reached and that a meeting would not be possible. At this time, he said he remains focused on facilitating an agenda, including through talks with the two sides and international stakeholders. Hopefully, agreement can be reached promptly, but absent an agenda, there is no reason to convene another session of the “small body” made up of 15 representatives from each 50‑member delegation tasked with reviewing ideas and proposals to identify potential constitutional principles.
He recalled that when he last briefed the Council on 22 November (see Press Release SC/14032), the Constitutional Committee had just concluded a successful opening session. The second session was very different in substance and tone, he remarked, observing that disagreements over agendas are typical of any political process. Nonetheless, several lessons can be drawn. First, the Constitutional Committee is and will remain fragile. It is the responsibility of the two sides to nurture and genuinely support its work, with international partners playing a supporting role. Second, any proposed agenda must comply with the terms of reference set out in resolution 2254 (2015), with all issues open for discussion without preconditions as it drafts constitutional reform as part of a wider political settlement. Third, there must be a broad and comprehensive political process, he said, emphasizing that the Constitutional Committee cannot solve the crisis in Syria, but it can foster trust and confidence.
He went on to say that a meaningful political process would be one that delivers tangible progress on the release of detainees and clarification of the fate of missing persons. In his meetings with senior officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran, he stressed the need to move beyond one‑for‑one releases and undertake the release of children, women and the sick on a meaningful scale. Reviewing the situation around the country, he said north‑west Syria has seen a deeply troubling escalation of violence in recent days, adding that the human cost of a full‑scale military offensive on its 3 million people “is a price that we simply cannot afford to pay”. In the north‑east, the various ceasefire understandings must be respected, while in the south, the security situation remains turbulent and should be addressed. He also underscored the need to combat Council‑designated terrorist groups, adding that a broader political process must address increasing economic hardship.
Elaborating on the political process, he said Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial independence must be respected and restored. The process must ensure genuine reconciliation and it must be inclusive, with the participation of women and civil society and the creation of a neutral environment for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees. A new constitution, adopted by referendum, would be followed by elections under United Nations supervision and would include the Syrian diaspora, he added, as stated in resolution 2254 (2015).
The constitutional process alone will not meet the concerns of the Syrian people, he continued, emphasizing the need for steps to be taken to build trust and confidence; he is pressing that point in all his meetings with the Syrian parties and international stakeholders. Going forward, he said the Constitutional Committee must work expeditiously and demonstrate progress. To go to the next level, other issues must be addressed, including a nationwide ceasefire, lawfully combating designated terrorist groups and action on detainees. Deeper discussion among international stakeholders would underpin the process, he said, adding that he is counting on the support of the Syrian parties and the Security Council.
RAJAA ALTALLI, Co‑Founder and Co‑Director of the Centre for Civil Society and Democracy, recounted the kidnapping, torture and nine‑year detention of her father, who had joined an opposition political party in Syria. “This story is the story of thousands of Syrians from before and during the conflict,” she said. In the last nine years, Syrian women, men, girls and boys have endured bombing, chemical weapons, starvation under siege, forced demographic change and indiscriminate shelling of houses, schools and hospitals. Tens of thousands have been detained and tortured. The Syrian Government is a principal party — along with many others — and is responsible for the situation. “Now is the time to end the suffering,” she declared. “I call upon you, on behalf of the silent majority of Syrians, to work together and, with Syrians, to find a sustainable solution.” She added that Syrian non‑governmental organizations such as hers believe that a political solution is not only urgent and necessary, but also possible.
Her organization’s road map to that solution includes an end to all hostilities, improved conditions for displaced persons and provisions for supervised, voluntary returns, she continued. It also includes the formation of a gender‑sensitive committee under the Security Council to deal with all matters concerning detainees, to support their release and provide all necessary support for them and their families. In addition, she called for the establishment of an international working group of permanent members of the Council to support the efforts of the Special Envoy in order to pave the way for free and fair elections under the United Nations supervision in 2020 to 2021.
She went on to say that the Council should support reaching a political agreement between the different parties in Syria that includes the direct participation of Syrian women and civil society, accountability mechanisms, separation of powers and guarantees of human rights and safeguards all freedoms. It will then be necessary to plan and prepare for sustainable development and reconstruction of Syria, addressing the needs of women and youth and providing for inclusive diversity. “I implore you to work together as a united Security Council to achieve these measures and to take action to end the suffering of millions,” she said.
KHALED SULAIMAN AL‑JARALLAH, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kuwait, described the glimmer of hope resulting from the launch of the Constitutional Committee; it is the first step towards the implementation of Council resolutions, including free and fair elections. Such efforts could, with the support of the Special Envoy, allow for agreement to be found in all areas, leading to a political solution that will retain Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity. He expressed concern, however, over continued military operations. Confidence‑building measures are necessary for political progress, including addressing the plight of those who have been detained, in accordance with Council resolution 2254 (2015). Accountability must also be ensured for serious crimes. He again condemned the targeting of innocent civilians by all parties, stressing that counter‑terrorist activities cannot permit dodging obligations under international law. There must be a ceasefire across all of Syria. He also condemned Israeli violations of Syrian territory, stating that the Golan is Syrian Arab territory and its annexation illegal. He pledged his country’s continued full support to the Special Envoy’s efforts in restoring peace in Syria, a country that is dear to Kuwait.
JUERGEN SCHULZ (Germany), expressing disappointment that the Syrian regime has yet again deployed its strategy of obstruction and delay in the last meeting of the Constitutional Committee, said that by creating artificial discussions over agenda items, the regime wants to avoid substantive debate. The establishment of the Constitutional Committee is not the political transition that resolution 2254 (2015) and the Geneva Communique of 2012 call for, he said, adding that his country, as well as other member States of the European Union will only assist in reconstruction when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is firmly under way. He also stressed that it was the Syrian regime’s policy of brutal violence and persecution that caused this conflict and that is still keeping Syrian internally displaced persons and refugees from returning home. Calling upon the Russian Federation and Iran to use their influence over Damascus, he also stated his concern about the risk of further destabilization of the whole region and the resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).
ANNE GUEGUEN (France), affirming that the voices of women such as Ms. Altalli must be heard, expressed deep concern over recent military offensives in Syria, echoing the call for a cessation of hostilities. Condemning attacks on civilian facilities, she stressed the need to fight terrorism while abiding by all humanitarian and human rights law. She also expressed concern that Syria’s regime continues to obstruct humanitarian assistance. Calling Syria’s obstruction of the Constitutional Committee unacceptable, she requested that the Special Envoy and the Astana guarantors break the deadlock. All provisions of resolution 2254 (2015) must be implemented, including a secure, neutral environment so Syrians will be able to take control of their future. “Heed the voices of the people to demand release of their fellow citizens,” she stated. A comprehensive agreement is needed for safe, voluntary returns — and for that purpose, unity is needed in the Security Council. The renewal of cross‑border aid authorization is also critical, she added.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said the breakdown of discussions is of great concern. She called on Syria’s authorities to respect the rules of the Committee and return to negotiations, and asked the Syrian representative to affirm the status of Syria’s delegation to the Committee. She stressed that a successful settlement requires conditions for refugee returns, elections and the release of detainees. The arrest of people returning from Rukban refugee camp is particularly troubling in that regard. In addition, she called the use of torture horrific and completely unacceptable. Expressing concern over attacks in Idlib that have killed civilians and destroyed infrastructure, she called it unbelievable that Syria would conduct more such attacks while an inquiry on previous ones is proceeding. Ceasefires and humanitarian access must be universally respected, she affirmed, underscoring the United Kingdom’s determination to completely eliminate the threat posed by ISIL/Da’esh.
JOSÉ MANUEL TRULLOLS YABRA (Dominican Republic) noted with regret that an agreement on an agenda for the Constitutional Committee has not been reached and called for progress to be made. The Security Council must continue its engagement with the parties to ensure that they attend the meetings with all necessary powers to discharge their functions. The only way to solve the conflict is through dialogue leading to a political resolution; there is no military solution. For that purpose, intra‑Syrian confidence must be built. Release of detainees, conditions for the voluntary return of displaced persons and other measures are important for such confidence and for ending the suffering of the Syrian people, he stressed.
MARTHINUS VAN SHALKWYK (South Africa) stressed the need to build trust and confidence among parties and communities at all levels of Syria’s Government and society, which will foster healing and reconciliation. The only long‑term solution to the crisis is an inclusive Syrian‑led dialogue reflecting the voice of the Syrian people in safeguarding the universal rights and fundamental interests of all society. Adding that the humanitarian situation cannot be addressed independently, he said persistent violence and deteriorating conditions negatively affect political progress. Advances in the political sphere will support efforts to ensure that all Syrians are able to live in a safe, secure and prosperous environment.
ZHANG JUN (China) said he hoped the strong sunlight in the Council Chamber this morning is the sign of a brighter future for the Syrian peace process. While differences in the Constitutional Committee are inevitable, there is hope dialogue will continue. He encouraged the Special Envoy to build on the results already achieved, in accordance with the Syrian‑owned, Syrian‑led principle and resolution 2254 (2015), but insisted there should be no outside interference nor arbitrary time limits. “Syria cannot be divided or fragmented,” he said, adding that the members of the Constitutional Committee should put the interests of the Syrian people first and to work in a spirit of compromise. He described Idlib as a breeding ground for terrorists and warned of the possibility of a resurgence of ISIL/Da’esh. Humanitarian operations should be undertaken in greater cooperation with the Government and with respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He added that human rights issues should not be discussed in the Security Council nor used to pressure the Government.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said the work of the Constitutional Committee could mark the start of a genuine political transition negotiated by Syrian parties within the United Nations‑led Geneva process. She urged all parties, including authorities in Damascus, to engage in good faith in this respect, adding that civil society plays an important role in achieving sustainable peace and justice in any country. While Poland fully supports the right of Syrian refugees to safely return, the conditions of their voluntary repatriation — as defined by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — are not in place. Poland will be ready to assist in reconstruction efforts “only when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition…is firmly under way,” she said.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia), noting the launch of Syria’s Constitutional Committee, adoption of a code of conduct and set of initial procedural practices, and agreement on the Small Drafting Body, emphasized the importance of dialogue and consultations among relevant parties. Calling on the Council to support the Constitutional Committee and the Special Envoy, he said all parties must reaffirm their commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria. The only sustainable solution to the crisis is through an inclusive, Syrian‑led political process that meets the aspirations of the people, he said.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), expressing full support for the Special Envoy’s efforts, said he regretted the lack of agreement on the Constitutional Committee’s agenda. Good faith on the Syrian authorities will be assessed on the basis of the outcomes; all parties must be seriously engaged in the process. Further, all those with influence on Syria should bring that influence to bear in that regard. Trust needs to be established at what is just the beginning of a long process of reconciliation. In that regard, detainees must be released and conditions on the ground must improve. He called on all parties to urgently establish a ceasefire at the national level. Protection of legal rights and the end to forced recruitment into the army must also be ensured.
GBOLIÉ DÉSIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Cote d’Ivoire) welcomed the launch of the Constitutional Committee in Syria as well as the outcome of the latest forum of the Astana Process. However, noting with regret the difficulties in agreeing on the agenda in the Committee, he called on all parties to work constructively to overcome their differences and pursue confidence‑building measures. He also urged that dialogue be used to advance the political process towards free and fair elections. The Security Council must continue to provide all support to the Special Envoy in his work towards that end.
NÉSTOR POPOLIZIO (Peru) reaffirmed the urgent need to make advances in the political process guided by the United Nations. He expressed concern over the lack of progress in the Constitutional Committee, which defied the high expectations for the Committee among the international community. Encouraging the Syrian authorities to show proof of their commitment and flexibility, he also underscored the broad support afforded the Special Envoy in his efforts to facilitate progress. He called for progress on matters of disappearance, detention and conditions for voluntary return. In addition, he underlined that further humanitarian tragedy must be avoided in Idlib. Expressing full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, he stressed that all deployment of foreign forces should be temporary.
JOB OBIANG ESONO MBENGONO (Equatorial Guinea), warning against outside interference, said there must be no attempts to undermine either reconciliation or the constitutional drafting process. The threat of external interference is a clear contradiction of resolution 2254 (2015), he said, commending the United Nations for its good offices, leadership and efforts to counter attempts to block the Constitutional Committee’s work. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria must be fully respected, he said, stressing the need for confidence‑building measures, including the large‑scale release of detainees.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), describing the Constitutional Committee as an incontrovertible achievement, said no one expected its work would be easy. Thus, it is counterproductive to dramatize the situation. Syrians must be given the opportunity to understand how they can reach agreement between themselves, he said, warning against putting pressure on the parties or to burden them with time frames. Underscoring the Russian Federation’s readiness to support the Special Envoy, he updated the Council on the latest meeting of the Astana guarantors. Their work remains rooted in the principle of Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. Further, humanitarian assistance must reach all Syrians, without politicization or preconditions. Also noting ongoing efforts to secure the release of forcibly detained persons, he pointed out that many speakers today overlooked the release on 21 November of 120 detainees by the Syrian authorities, with the Russian Federation playing a mediating role. Outright thugs and terrorists are still threatening the Syrian people and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is entrenched in Idlib. Syria is a key State in the Middle East and an integral part of the Arab world that cannot be wrenched away from the regional context. Its return to the Arab family will help to restore harmony in the Middle East, he said, inviting others to join his country’s efforts.
KELLY CRAFT (United States), Council President for December, spoke in her national capacity, saying that the establishment of the Constitutional Committee after two years of negotiations was a notable political breakthrough. Many, including the United States, believed it would create momentum for a Constitutional reform package as envisioned in resolution 2254 (2015). However, the Assad regime entered the second round with preconditions, stalling the process and violating the rules of procedure. In the coming year, the Council must support the Special Envoy’s work. Towards that end, his Office should circulate informal summaries of the Constitutional Committee’s meetings so that the Council can hold its participants accountable and bring an end to obstructions and delays. If the Council is serious about the Constitutional Committee, it should consider if such an entity is the best way to achieve reforms if there is no meaningful progress. Going into 2020, the United States expects a nationwide ceasefire and the immediate release of civilian detainees, women, children and the elderly, she added. The Russian Federation and Iran should commit to such a ceasefire. Further, there must be no Christmas offensive in Idlib, and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure must cease. Spotlighting the exhibition of Syria‑related photographs in the lobby of the United States Mission to the United Nations, she said there will be lasting peace until the regime’s behaviour is reversed and accountability measures established. The United States is eager to work with every Council member towards those goals and all aspects of resolution 2254 (2015), she added.
LOUAY FALOUH (Syria), describing the last Astana conference, underlined the need for all parties to abide by its outcome, specifically the end of all illegal military presences and the end of terrorist activities in his country. Unfortunately, delegations attending the Constitutional Committee were intent on contributing only obstinacy and disinformation while eluding the rules of the Committee. That was accompanied by a hostile media campaign, which showed that the goal was to distort reality by accusing others of misdeeds. The national Government attempted to make progress in a positive way, proposing that each side present its own positions. That was rejected by the other side, which insisted on presenting preconditions. Ideas, he insisted, must be presented based on national pillars: rejection of terrorism; presence of foreign parties; and embargoes. Constructive dialogue must be carried out to resolve all issues. He called on the Council to support the Special Envoy’s impartial facilitation of the Committee.
In addition, the interventionist policy of Council members such as the United States, United Kingdom and France must be rejected, he continued. Such Governments have declared that they love Syrian oil and will do with it what they wish, he noted, posing the question of how they could, in that light, advance a Syrian‑led process. His Government would defend a national independence policy that protects Syria’s sovereignty. In that regard, he called for all Council members to allow the Constitutional Committee to work in an independent manner.