UN Syria envoy says constitutional committee a 'sign of hope'

Geir Pedersen says actions to de-escalate violence and move toward a nationwide cease-fire "are absolutely essential"

UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen meets with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on September 23, 2019. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE.
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The United Nations special envoy for Syria said on Monday that the convening of a committee to draft a new constitution for Syria on October 30 "should be a sign of hope for the long-suffering Syrian people" – but it will matter only if it becomes a step out of the conflict that has lasted more than eight years.

Geir Pedersen told a Security Council meeting on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly that the committee alone could not resolve the conflict.

He said that actions to de-escalate violence and move toward a nationwide cease-fire "are absolutely essential."

Still, the long-delayed agreement between Syria's government and opposition on the 150-member committee is significant because it marks "the first concrete political agreement" by the warring sides to enforce the road map to peace adopted by key nations on June 30, 2012, he said.

"This can be a door opener to a wider political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," he said.

Mr Pedersen said seizing the opportunity won't be easy, however.

"Syria remains in the gravest crisis, with violence and terrorism continuing, five international armies operating on its territory, appalling suffering and abuses, a deeply divided society and a sense of despair among its people inside and outside the country," he said.

The UN envoy said "trust and confidence is almost non-existent" and the constitutional committee needs to be accompanied by other steps to build trust and confidence not only among Syrians but between the country and the international community.

As one measure, he appealed for action on the tens of thousands of people who remain detained, abducted and missing.

Mr Pedersen cited the many difficulties to overcome: a humanitarian crisis in the country's last rebel-held region of Idlib, terrorist groups that "continue to metastasise touching all Syrian communities", frequent violent confrontations between international players and the millions that are not only displaced but also living in poverty.

The envoy urged the Security Council to unite behind "the revitalised effort" to enforce the 2012 peace deal with calls for UN-supervised elections once Syria has a new constitution.

Mr Pedersen will facilitate the committee's meetings in Geneva, but he stressed that "the United Nations will jealously guard the Syrian-owned and Syrian-led nature of the process."

"Syrians, not outsiders, will draft the constitution, and the Syrian people must popularly approve it," he said.

How the popular approval will take place still needs to be worked out, he said.

Under the agreement, the committee will amend Syria's current constitution or draft a new one.

The government and opposition will each contribute 50 members to the committee, with the rest being independent civil society members.

From the committee, 45 members will be appointed to a smaller group with the government, opposition and civil society each contributing 15 delegates.

The smaller group will prepare and draft proposals, with the decisions requiring the support of at least three-quarters of the larger body.

Mr Pedersen disclosed details of the 50-member civil society group, which was the hardest to agree on, saying the members come from different religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds and "hold a range of political leanings."

Some live in Syria and others live outside the country, he said.

About half of those in the civil society group are women, and about 30 per cent of the entire committee's 150 members are women, Mr Pedersen said.