Once again, the position regarding the Syrian state institutions, especially the army, thwarted the sessions of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva.
A dispute had erupted between the government delegation headed by Ahmed al-Kuzbari and the opposition negotiating body headed by Hadi al-Bahra over institutional reform.
In contrast to Damascus’ warnings about replicating Iraq’s disastrous attempt to restructure the army and voicing a total rejection of making the army neutral, the opposition delegation called for reform to avoid Syria becoming a failed state.
Moreover, the opposition called for an impartial role for the army during the power transfer.
Under UN sponsorship, the Constitutional Committee’s eighth session last week recorded a “tempo” improvement in addition to participants agreeing to some common points.
However, translating those common points into consensual texts that could serve as pillars of Syria’s constitution remains an obstacle. This, as promised in the closing session on Friday, requires UN envoy Geir Pedersen to take an additional shuttle tour between Syrian actors and external players before the Committee’s next session.
Under previous UN facilitative arrangements, the program of the eighth round included presenting a constitutional principle every day starting from Monday and leaving the last day for discussions and consensus.
The civil society delegation affiliated with Damascus presented a proposal for “unilateral coercive measures from a constitutional standpoint.”
For his part, Bahra presented a proposal for “the supremacy of the constitution and the hierarchy of international agreements,” while Kuzbari proposed the principle of “preserving and strengthening state institutions.”
The civil society delegation affiliated with the opposition discussed the issue of “transitional justice.”
A Western official summarized to Asharq Al-Awsat the discussions that took place during the five days of the Committee’s eighth round of talks:
Kuzbari received the proposal presented by the civil society delegation affiliated with Damascus. Their bid emphasized that “unilateral coercive measures imposed on the Syrian people constitute economic terrorism and infringes on the basic constitutional rights of the Syrian people.”
They also warned that unilateral coercive measures could limit “the security of its basic living requirements.”
It was suggested for the constitution to include “the state’s obligation to seek the lifting of unilateral coercive measures and to demand the countries that imposed sanctions to pay appropriate compensation.”
Additionally, the proposal called for opposing and rejecting sanctions as a national duty for every Syrian.
It emphasized that the right to development and the reconstruction of what was destroyed by terrorism and external aggression is a project for the Syrian people under the constitution.
The proposal added that refugees’ right to safe and voluntary return is humanitarian and may not be linked to any external political conditions.
When discussing the proposal, the government delegation focused on the incompatibility of coercive measures with international law and chose to link these measures to the “terrorist war on Syria.”
Meanwhile, the opposition delegation considered the proposal “unconstitutional” and stressed that reconstruction and development are economic rights and should not be restricted by unilateral coercive measures.”
Some of the attendees considered “everyone who encourages sanctions a traitor.”
A Warning against “Racialization”
The following day, Kuzbari presented a proposal on “state institutions” in a session chaired by Bahri.
His proposal ensured that “institutions are entitled to specific powers by the constitution and that undermining them or threatening them internally or externally is an act punishable by law.”
“The responsibility of the army is to protect the homeland against terrorism and occupation,” the proposal acknowledged, adding that “preserving and strengthening the army is a national duty.”
During discussions, the opposition members focused on “Syrian institutions needing a lot of reforms because they have lost their credibility due to human rights violations.”
Opposition attendees suggested that “reform should not affect the restructuring of the army and the institutions that committed direct violations, but rather radically improve the institutional system.”
They stressed the “necessity of political neutrality for institutions, especially the army so that they do not interfere in the processes of power transition.”
On the other hand, the government delegation focused on “the legitimacy of institutions and their steadfastness despite being targeted by terrorism and international interventions.”
“The restructuring of institutions in other countries such as Iraq has only led to disasters... and the recommendations of international organizations for reform have failed,” said a Damascus representative.
The opposition urged the necessity of embracing reform as a basic entitlement to restore institutions to their work in all Syrian lands. Otherwise, Syria would be a failed state.
According to the opposition delegation, reform may require restructuring institutions, accountability for officials, and removing impunity for abusers, especially from the security services and the army.
The government delegation defended its proposal.
“State institutions exist, and reform does not mean restructuring. It should not be an excuse to destroy institutions or allow external interference,” a government representative said.
They stressed that “the army cannot be impartial, as there is no neutral army in the matter of protecting the people.”
More so, they argued that corruption and institutional failure are individual cases that did not undermine Syrian institutions’ steadfastness and commitment to their duties.
“Reform is ongoing and continuous and cannot reach the point of building alternative institutions. The experience of alternative institutions in Syria and other countries has failed miserably,” noted a government representative.
The Constitution, International Agreements
The proposal presented by Bahra dealt with “the supremacy of the constitution and the hierarchy of international agreements.”
It considered “the constitution as the supreme law of the country.” However, it argued that international agreements must be set higher than national laws.
Discussions took place on the proposal, with attendees asking technical questions.
One of the questions revolved around whether international agreements transcend national law directly at the time of their signing or after conforming to the national legal system and issuing appropriate legislation.
The opposition delegation proposed including human rights agreements in the constitution.
Meanwhile, the government delegation considered “international agreements in the human rights field as a door to infiltrating Syrian sovereignty.” It also refuted accusations of Damascus not being concerned with human rights.
The civil society delegation affiliated with Damascus supported the government delegation’s statements on the matter.
“This principle aims to put Syria under international trusteeship,” a civil society representative said.
Justice or Revenge
Civil society representatives affiliated with the opposition presented a proposal on “transitional justice.”
The proposal includes the state’s commitment to building societal peace by adopting a comprehensive approach to transitional justice.
It stressed the principle of non-impunity for human rights abusers.
War crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations do not fall with the passage of time or the issuance of a former amnesty with a series of measures, reforms, and accountability.
A heated discussion erupted as the Damascus delegation warned that the opposition’s proposal “opens the door to external interference and presents a back door to disrupting state institutions and social cohesion.”
The government delegation argued that the proposal accomplishes what the “international war on Syria couldn’t.”
Some suggested “justice in favor of compensating Syria for the war declared by foreign countries,” warning that the proposal’s text “incriminates the Syrian government in advance.”
However, this was denied by the opposition.
“The term is mentioned in many Arab and international constitutions, as transitional justice is a national process,” an opposition representative argued.
“It’s not a matter of revenge... there is a wide package of measures required to ensure sustainable peace,” they added.
“These measures include legal and illegal accountability measures that focus on reparations, memorialization and institutional reform programs.”
On Friday, the participants gave written amendments to the proposals submitted successively in the previous four days.
Pedersen thanked Kuzbari and Bahra for their “good conduct of the discussion.”
Pedersen noted progress in the level and method of discussion, even “if there was no progress in the agreed content.”
The UN envoy expressed concern that “continuing discussion at this pace may require years before reaching final formulations.”
Accordingly, he vowed to consult with everyone to develop better mechanisms before the ninth round, which is slated for 25-29 July.
Pedersen said that he agreed with Kuzbari and Bahra on the importance of finding ways to speed up the pace of work and achieve results.