Special Envoy Stresses Importance of Convening Constitutional Committee in Syria, Saying United Nations Open to Any Suggestions on Composition
Permanent Representative Accuses Some States Of Flouting Charter Principles in Order to Pursue Their Own Political Agendas
Reiterating the importance of convening a constitutional committee as a first step towards a political solution to the crisis in Syria, the Secretary‑General’s Special Envoy for that country told the Security Council today that the United Nations is open to any suggestions on the list of disputed attendees that allows inclusive participation by civil society.
“Civil society in Syria deserves a voice,” Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said by teleconference from Geneva, in a briefing during which he emphasized that the priority of his remaining time in his position, which he is leaving at the end of November, will be to confirm whether or not the Sochi plan to begin a political process can be implemented and to determine whether a credible constitutional committee can be convened. “This work is absolutely urgent,” he stressed.
Today’s meeting followed the Special Envoy’s 26 October briefing (see Press Release SC/13556) in which he told the Council that officials in Damascus rejected the United Nations formulation of a list of proposed participants in the constitutional committee – the so-called “middle third” group comprising civil society. Today, he reported some positive momentum in recent meetings among and between representatives of the Astana guarantors group on Syria – Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation – as well as members of the so-called Small Group – Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom and the United States.
Common ground has emerged on reinforcing the Idlib ceasefire, on creating conditions for the voluntary return of displaced persons and on convening the constitutional committee, he said. Offering support to the upcoming meeting of the Astana guarantors to pursue agreement on the composition of the constitutional committee, he stressed that the United Nations is open to any suggestions by Syria and the guarantors relating to the middle third group as long as it meets the criteria of inclusiveness, credibility and diversity.
As per previous agreements, he continued, the group must include Syrian experts as well as members of civil society, tribal leaders and women’s representatives. It must also include people who side neither with the Government nor the opposition, and a minimum 30 per cent participation by women. He noted that the rejected United Nations list encompasses all those conditions.
He emphasized once again that Syria’s sovereignty has never been questioned, reaffirming that the political process must be owned and led by Syrians. However, it is important to bear in mind that the United Nations has a mandate to convene the political process in the context of the ongoing conflict and suffering, he said.
Council members took the floor to pay tribute to the Special Envoy as he ends his tenure and to express support for convening the constitutional committee, and for full implementation of Council resolutions on a political resolution of the Syrian crisis. Speakers also called for continuing and reinforcing the Idlib ceasefire, underlining that the momentum from that agreement must not be lost in moving towards a comprehensive peace in Syria.
Representatives of the United States and the United Kingdom – both members of the Small Group on Syria – expressed impatience with the delays in convening the constitutional committee, noting that 11 months have passed since the Sochi agreement between the guarantors and the Syrian Government was signed. The United Kingdom’s representative asked for an end to “shenanigans” that cast doubt on the sincerity of Syria and the Astana group, emphasizing that it is imperative to work with the Special Envoy in determining credible representation for civil society.
The representative of the Russian Federation, however, stressed that Syrians themselves must decide the criteria for the constitutional committee’s composition. Citing constructive dialogue between experts of the Russian Federation and the United States, he said that in order for their efforts to bear fruit, actors must end violations of Syrian sovereignty and derisive talk of the Syrian “regime”. For the first time in the history of the Syrian crisis, he said, members of the international community agree that conditions in the country are stabilizing since the Russian Federation’s counter-terrorism operations began in 2015.
Syria’s representative expressed support for efforts to convene the constitutional committee as soon possible, in accordance with the Sochi outcome. “The Syrian people have the exclusive right to decide on their future without any external interference,” he said, emphasizing that the constitution emerging from the committee will define his country’s future for generations. Asking all delegates to refer to his country by its official name, he said Charter principles have too often been flouted as some States attempt to turn United Nations organs into instruments for the pursuit of their own political agendas.
Also speaking today were representatives of Kuwait, France, Côte d’Ivoire, Peru, Kazakhstan, Equatorial Guinea, Netherlands, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Sweden, Poland and China.
The meeting began at 3:03 p.m. and ended at 4:38 p.m.
STAFFAN DE MISTURA, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, confirmed that Geir O. Pedersen of Norway will be his replacement following his imminent resignation, adding that the priority for his remaining days on the job is to confirm whether or not the Sochi plan to begin a political process can be implemented and to determine whether a balanced and inclusive constitutional committee can be convened. “This work is absolutely urgent,” he emphasized. He reported on the recent summit in Istanbul involving representatives of the Astana guarantors group on Syria ‑ Iran, Turkey and the Russian Federation as well as members of the so-called Small Group that includes Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom and the United States.
The resulting declaration urges full implementation of the Idlib memorandum that created a ceasefire in that province, he continued, adding: “It is still holding and it is holding better than we ever dreamt.” Echoing that declaration’s emphasis on the need for a lasting ceasefire, he seconded the declaration’s call for creating the conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons to their places of origin, as well as access to social services and security from arbitrary arrest. The declaration outlines very concrete steps in that context, he said, calling for convening the constitutional committee by the end of 2018 in order to drive constitutional reform, paving the way for elections.
At the same time, he reported some violations in Idlib, including recent fighting involving Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and clashes near the border with Turkey between that country’s forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). He also reported that a convoy reached Rukban, saying that colleagues returned in shock at the misery, reports of sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers they witnessed. He said that a meeting of the guarantors, announced for 28 to 29 of November, is an opportunity for them to keep the Idlib momentum going, recalling that the same three countries announced agreement on convening a constitutional committee nearly a year ago. Offering support for that meeting in order to make the constitutional committee a reality, he said that he also looks to the results of the upcoming G-20 meeting to address the Syrian process.
He went on to reiterate his willingness to accept proposals on the composition of the so-called “middle third” during the meeting, as long as it meets the criteria of credibility, balance and inclusiveness. It must also accommodate, as per previous documents, Syrian experts, civil society members, tribal leaders and women representatives. The middle third list cannot be limited only to eminent leaders of political parties, he said, emphasizing: “Civil society in Syria deserves a voice.” Experts should be known for their skills in bridge-building and there must also be people who side neither with the Government nor the opposition, as well as a minimum 30 per cent participation of women.
The United Nations proposal encompasses all those dimensions, he continued, explaining that the rules of procedure mean that no one party dictates what happens while ensuring the meeting is well managed. He said that he is open to any suggestion within those parameters, adding that if the parties cannot meet the necessary criteria, conditions are not ready for a credible committee to convene, and efforts will have to continue. Underlining that Syria’s sovereignty has never been questioned, he said resolution 2254 (2015) makes that clear while emphasizing that the process must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led. However, the context of the conflict and the ongoing suffering must be remembered, he stressed. The United Nations has a mandate to convene the political process, he added. “We are in the last days of being able to implement the constitutional committee,” he said. “The weeks ahead are crucial in that regard. I will spare no effort until my final days to achieve this aim.”
JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) welcoming the diminution of violence on the ground “for now”, said the pause has offered a window of opportunity to move forward decisively on the political process. However, the longer the Syrian regime is allowed to stall, the greater the risk of a return to violence, he warned. Reiterating the need to convene the constitutional committee by the end of December, he said the Special Envoy “has been more than patient” in receiving input on that process from all relevant parties. Any additional stalling should be seen for what it is ‑ an artificial delay. Neither the Russian Federation nor Iran nor any other partner should be permitted to wield veto power over convening the constitutional committee, he said, emphasizing in particular that the very Government that started the conflict by oppressing its people “should not be given a veto over the mess it made”. Urging the Russian Federation to use its leverage over Damascus to bring the Assad regime to the table, he stressed that the international community will not consider any reconstruction assistance without prior efforts to address the conflict’s root cause – oppression by the Assad regime. Syrians deserve a constitution and elections that protect them, he said, adding: “Only then will all the people of Syria be able to look forward to the future.”
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait) said that while the Sochi outcome agreement provides a “beacon of hope”, no progress has been seen 11 months later and the Syrian people are losing hope. Expressing support for the outcome of the Istanbul Summit ‑ especially provisions on convening a credible and balanced constitutional committee by the end of 2018 ‑ he emphasized that such an event will mark a major milestone in Syria’s political process. Emphasizing that there can be no military solution to the crisis, he said Council resolutions, especially 2254 (2015), must not remain mere dead letters. “We are at a crossroads,” he stressed, expressing hope that progress will be made in advancing Syria’s political process before the end of 2018. Otherwise the conflict will enter its eighth year with no hope of a political solution in sight, he warned.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) urged the Syrian parties and the international community to seize the current window of opportunity, echoing calls to support the Special Envoy’s efforts to convene a constitutional committee before the end of December. While Council members have many differences of opinion, they all ‑ including those who are part of the Small Group and those who helped to draft the Sochi outcome ‑ seek a peaceful political solution to the conflict. Calling upon all States to make that shared goal a reality, he said the rules of composition have been clearly set out, with the Special Envoy enjoying the exclusive prerogative to draft the civil society list free of external interference. “There is no ambiguity on this point,” he said, pointing out that neither the Astana guarantor States nor the Russian Federation has veto power over the creation of that list. Warning that the fault for a collapse of the process will be attributed to those seeking to distort the role of the United Nations, he said that in case of such an eventuality the Special Envoy must clearly and publicly attribute responsibility for the failure. After seven years of war, there is no trust among the parties and little among international partners, he noted, emphasizing that they must all adhere strictly to the parameters emerging from the Istanbul outcome agreement, which aims to provide a safe, neutral environment to render Syria’s political transition credible.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) emphasizing that the Council’s many resolutions on Syria must be fully respected, said it is clear that the country’s people cannot rely on their own Government to protect them. After all the “shenanigans” over the constitutional committee, it is also evident that they cannot rely on the Russian Federation or on Iran for help. Expressing full support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to convene an inclusive, balanced constitutional committee by the end of 2018, she said “rapid and palpable progress on the political track” is the key to moving forward. Regarding the Russian Federation’s commitment to the Istanbul communiqué, she said it is mystifying that the document has not yet been put into practice. To be effective, the constitutional committee process must be credible ‑ and acceptable ‑ to all sides, she said, emphasizing that for that reason, no one side can have a veto. The argument over Syria’s sovereignty is both a red herring and a distraction, she added.
GBOLIÉ DESIRÉ WULFRAN IPO (Côte d’Ivoire) urged stakeholders to stringently uphold the Idlib memorandum and prevent any further outbreak of hostilities. Welcoming the results of the recent Istanbul summit, he called for convening the constitutional committee in compliance with resolution 2254 (2015). Underlining the need to speedily begin the political process for a lasting peace in Syria, he paid tribute to efforts by the Special Envoy to resolve the crisis.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) welcomed the ceasefire in Idlib but warned that it remains fragile. Urging rapid progress on the political front, in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015) and the Geneva framework, he expressed support for convening a constitutional committee by the end of 2018. Affirming his delegation’s strong respect for Syria’s sovereignty, he emphasized, however, that sovereignty must be exercised in a manner consistent with international efforts to uphold international peace and security and the security of the country’s people. All parties must, therefore, participate constructively in dialogue aimed at ensuring long-term stability, he said. It is also crucial to adopt confidence-building measures in respect of missing persons, he added, noting that the situation of refugees and displaced persons must be encouraged under internationally acceptable parameters.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan), recalling the Istanbul Summit’s outline for creating a constitutional committee by the end of 2018, underlined that this was a “starting point” to revitalize the political settlement process. He offered support for all initiatives aimed at resolving the violent conflict as soon as possible, prioritizing the protection of Syrian civilians. Also welcoming the creation of a “demilitarized buffer zone” in Idlib, he affirmed that the Sochi Agreement must be promptly implemented. Condemning provocations by terrorist groups, he emphasized that the international community cannot allow them to undermine the Agreement. The Council has a special responsibility to end this tragic period in Syria, he stressed, urging it to voice support for the Geneva and Astana Processes.
JOB OBIANG ESONO MBENGONO (Equatorial Guinea) said that more inaction on convening the constitutional committee will only encourage terrorists and other destabilizing factions. All stakeholders must therefore fulfil their obligations in a process led by the United Nations, working transparently to formulate the third list. All parties must also be ready to give ground if necessary, he said. Affirming that Syria’s sovereignty must be respected in the course of that process, he expressed hope that the upcoming meeting in Astana will help to encourage progress towards the fulfilment of resolution 2254 (2015) and the Geneva framework. While emphasizing that his country has no national interest in Syria, he said his delegation is nevertheless deeply concerned about the plight of its people, the result of the long conflict.
LISE GREGOIRE VAN HAAREN (Netherlands), welcoming the Istanbul Summit Communiqué, called for the constitutional committee to convene as soon as possible. The Special Envoy has been given a clear mandate by the Council and now is the time to deliver, she said. All parties ‑ particularly the Syrian authorities ‑ must cooperate constructively with the United Nations to prevent further delays in the political process. Meanwhile, the constitutional committee must remain part of the broader, United Nations-led political process based on Council resolution 2254 (2015). A credible political process can only occur when the constitutional committee itself is credible, she pointed out, underlining the importance of inclusiveness and representation. Expressing concern about the increased shelling in Idlib, she took issue with the Syrian delegate’s statement in the Council that Syrian authorities will retake the city whenever it deems appropriate to do so. Addressing the threat of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), she stressed the importance of stability in north-east Syria and the continued progress in the joint fight against the group. She also called for the guarantee of security and property rights for refugees and internally displaced persons seeking to return.
MAHLET HAILU GUADEY (Ethiopia), describing the current relative calm in Syria as encouraging, said the implementation of the demilitarization agreement between the Russian Federation and Turkey has averted a possible humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib Governorate. The parties must continue to fully implement that agreement. She welcomed recent diplomatic initiatives – including the Quadrilateral summit held in Istanbul in October, noting that its outcome called for establishing and convening a constitutional committee by the end of the year. Emphasizing the importance of supporting the Special Envoy to those ends, she said such a process would mark a significant step towards revitalizing the Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political process under the auspices of the United Nations. “The Syrian people have endured unspeakable tragedy over the last eight years,” she said, urging all parties to seize the current window of opportunity to reinvigorate a comprehensive political dialogue able to respond to their legitimate demands and aspirations.
PEDRO LUIS INCHAUSTE JORDÁN (Bolivia) welcomed the easing of tensions in Syria as a result of recent diplomatic efforts by the Astana Guarantors and international partners. Expressing hope that such talks will bear fruit ‑ including through the convening of a credible, fair and balanced constitutional committee in line with the Sochi Agreement outcome ‑ he said Syria’s conflict must be brought to an end through a peaceful, negotiated and Syrian-led political process. Rejecting efforts to impose fragmentation or sectarianism in that country, as well as the presence of any foreign forces without the consent of the Government of Syria, he demanded that any such forces withdraw immediately and fully respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
CARL ORRENIUS SKAU (Sweden) conveyed his deep disappointment with the Syrian regime’s lack of cooperation with the United Nations, in contravention of the Sochi Agreement. Those who initiated the constitutional committee ‑ the Russian Federation in particular ‑ must intensify their efforts to ensure full collaboration. While expressing support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to ensure that the Committee is credible, balanced and representative of the Syrian people, he also emphasized that the Envoy has the mandate to decide on the Committee’s final composition. Turning to the ceasefire in Idlib, he said the best way to prevent a humanitarian disaster from unfolding is to make progress towards a political solution and ensure respect for international law. Sweden, like the rest of the European Union, will not assist in the reconstruction of Syria until a political transition in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) is firmly under way, he said.
VLADIMIR K. SAFRONKOV (Russian Federation) said that for the first time in the history of the crisis, members of the international community agree that conditions in Syria are stabilizing following the counter-terrorism operations that his country began in 2015. Unfortunately, terrorist attacks continue and must be ended through efforts that respect Syrian sovereignty. Noting that there is now constructive dialogue between experts of both the Russian Federation and the United States, as well as Istanbul summit, he said that for their efforts to bear fruit, actors must cease violations of Syrian sovereignty and talk of the Syrian “regime”. He also pointed out the toll on civilians of operations by coalition forces. Emphasizing that convening the constitutional committee will be an initiative of the Syrian people, he said the criteria for selecting committee members must also be decided by Syrians themselves. Instead of accusing each other and arguing, he suggested, all Council members should cooperate with each other to encourage further progress, he stressed.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said the Syrian conflict is at a critical juncture, with the Idlib ceasefire agreement presenting a unique opportunity. However, along with a growing escalation of violence in some parts of Syria, especially in the north-west, the political process has failed to gain traction. She urged parties to the conflict to respect the accord and maintain the de-escalation zone. As there is no military solution to the conflict that can bring sustainable peace, the international community must aim to reach an intra-Syrian framework political agreement. A cessation of hostilities could provide the opportunity, under the auspices of the United Nations, for peace talks to gain momentum. In brokering a political solution, the Special Envoy has a special role to play, she said, expressing support for the Envoy’s efforts to establish a constitutional committee without delay. At the same time, he called for the Syrian authorities to participate in negotiations in good faith and without preconditions.
MA ZHAOXU (China), Council President for November, spoke in his national capacity, welcoming the positive recent momentum in Syria’s political arena. Various diplomatic agreements have been reached and the memorandum on stabilizing the Idlib de-escalation zones has largely been implemented, he noted. However, many challenges remain and political negotiations “are the only way out”. The international community should promote an inclusive, Syrian-owned and Syrian-led process in accordance with resolution 2254 (2015), including a balanced, representative constitutional committee acceptable to all parties, he emphasized. Also calling for continued efforts to preserve stability on the ground – including support for the fight against terrorism and preventing terrorist groups from staging a comeback – he stressed that Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must remain central. All parties should shelve their differences and agree to a political solution in the interests of the Syrian people, he said, urging Council members to enhance their unity and “speak with one voice”.
BASHAR JA’AFARI (Syria) asked all delegates to refer to his country by its official name. He said that the noble principles enshrined in the Charter have regrettably been flouted over recent decades as some States attempt to turn United Nations organs into instruments for pursuing their own political agendas. Citing such actions in Palestine, Iraq, Libya and Yemen ‑ as well as across Asia, Africa and Latin America ‑ he said that now, in Syria, those same countries are providing weapons and funding terrorists. Recalling that more than 100 civilians were killed in just one week by coalition forces in Deir ez-Zor, he said the Government of Syria nevertheless continues to believe in the United Nations Charter, international law, the sovereignty of States and the rules seeking to prohibit blackmail by some countries against others.
Expressing support for efforts to convene the constitutional committee as soon possible, in accordance with the Sochi summit outcome, he recalled that his country’s Government was among the first parties to present its list of candidates. Also expressing support for the Special Envoy’s role as facilitator ‑ in accordance with the principles of neutrality and non-interference in domestic State affairs ‑ he said the process must be based on a real commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and include a full rejection of support for terrorism. “The Syrian people have the exclusive right to decide on their future without any external interference,” he emphasized, warning against efforts to prejudge the outcome of the process. He went on to stress that the constitution emerging from it will define Syria’s future for generations and warned against any hasty decisions. All steps forward must be based on intra-Syrian dialogue, without foreign interference, and should encompass the fight against terrorism, reconstruction and the return of Syrian refugees.