Thank you, Mr President, and good to be with all of you
Since my last time I briefed you, the Secretary-General had announced that Mr Geir Pedersen of Norway, a good friend of mine - and an excellent choice if I may say - will be the new UN Special Envoy for Syria, following my own announcement that I will be moving on in the near future. The precise date will be determined by the Secretary-General in light of all relevant circumstances. I therefore anticipate briefing the Security Council once again in December.
The Secretary-General has asked me to complete one final task: to verify whether the Sochi Final Statement can be implemented or not, and either to convene – which I hope to do – or leave clarity exactly why we have not convened -- a UN-facilitated, Syrian-owned, Syrian-led constitutional committee that is credible, balanced and inclusive, and contributes in the context of the Geneva process to the implementation of Security Council resolution 2254.
This work is therefore, as far as I am concerned - and I am sure you will share with me - absolutely urgent. It is vital to make progress in the political process, particularly on the constitutional committee. It is also central to the Secretary-General’s considerations on the upcoming sequence of events. And I am not the only one to emphasise the urgency of advancing this work: on 27th of October, we saw a quadrilateral summit taking place in Istanbul, between the Presidents of the Republic of Turkey, the French Republic, the Russian Federation and the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. I did attend the meeting and briefed the four leaders.
That summit was important, because it was composed of two groups of countries with influence – some of the guarantors of the Astana Group, and who also had been convening the Sochi meeting in January, and the members of the so-called Small Group. I saw how much importance the four leaders and their own teams gave to the issue of the constitutional committee – hours of tough negotiations, including at the highest level.
The four leaders were able to find common ground. They took many of my own messages on board. And they produced a final declaration that I saw as positive and helpful. Other governments have also thereafter welcomed it. Let me highlight three aspects in particular.
First, the declaration “commended the progress” made on implementing the Idlib memorandum. We all know how concerned we were just a month ago - more than a month ago now luckily - about the developments in Idlib. We too also assess therefore that there is and continues be progress on the implementation of this memorandum. We acknowledge that there have been occasional setbacks, including reports of violations from both sides. But, it is still holding and it is holding much better than we ever dreamt, so we should be keeping our fingers crossed. But any civilian in fact, from either side of the front-lines will definitely tell you that the overall situation is improved to that of few months back. This should be preserved and built upon. Therefore, we echo the emphasis of the Istanbul Summit final declaration on the “lasting ceasefire” in Idlib.
Second: the declaration called for “creating conditions for safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their original places of residence in Syria.” The guarantors underlined that “returnees need security from armed conflict, political persecution or arbitrary arrests, as well as humanitarian infrastructure, including water, electricity, health and social services”. Let me translate that for the Council, if you allow me to: it is clear that we need to establish basic conditions, basic conditions of a safe, calm and neutral environment which will help the realisation of the conditions conducive for safe and voluntary return of both millions of IDPs and refugees, and this in any case, is a fundamental element of a political package to implement in fact resolution 2254.
Thirdly, and frankly perhaps most importantly, the declaration outlined very concrete steps towards that political package, calling for the “establishing and early convening, considering the circumstances, by the end of the year - this year, 2018 - of the constitutional committee in Geneva that would achieve the constitutional reform, paving the way for free and fair elections under UN supervision and in compliance with the highest international standards of transparency, accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate”.
Since Istanbul, Mr. President, I have been proactively in touch with relevant players. I have been as you know in various places, and in London I hosted a consultation within the context of the Geneva process, with senior officials of the Small Group comprising Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the United States. I also had a bilateral meeting with the SNC head Hariri, who briefed me on the SNC in-depth discussions on constitutional issues in Riyadh – in fact they indicated they are ready to move, and to be participating to any meeting called by the UN in that context. I have been in contact with officials from Russia, Turkey the US and other countries. An Iranian delegation saw me just a few hours ago here in my office in Geneva on that subject after they have been themselves in Damascus. Senior Russian, Iranian and US officials have also been travelling the region recently. Presidents Erdogan and Putin are meeting—as far as I understand it—today and tomorrow in Istanbul.
Regarding the broader atmospherics - since this is, this briefing is predominantly a political brief - so let me briefly, if you allow me refer to some bullet points:
We have noted some violations in Idlib, but as we said they have been limited so far, as well as some fight or infighting there inside;
There have been signs of ISIL activities in eastern Syria, with reports of many civilians deaths from fighting with ISIL;
There have been tensions or reports about tensions between Turkish Armed Forces and SDF along the Turkey-Syria border;
Reports of detainees facing “new death penalties” inside Syria;
A breakthrough convoy to Rukban which has been facilitated - and we are very pleased to see this type of cooperation - by the Russian Federation, the United States and Jordan, and from which my own colleagues returned expressing shock at the terrible human misery in that stretch of the desert, including reports of severe protection issues, such as sexual and gender-based violence and the recruitment of child soldiers in that camp. And then we had just recently got some good news of the liberation in the south of children and women which had been held by ISIS for too long time.
Let me note, apart from all what I said, the announcement, going back to the political context, that the three guarantors– the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey – will meet again in Astana at the senior level, on 28th and 29th of November. We believe this should be an opportunity for them to consolidate the efforts on the implementation of the Idlib Memorandum of Understanding. And on the issue of detainees, abductees and missing people, we strongly urge that we will see in that context the kind of progress that we have so far not seen and which has been forecasted - which so many thousands of families in Syria are asking for.
And it is also clear that this meeting in Astana will be taking place against the backdrop of the efforts underway by the same three countries, in their own capacity as the conveners of the Sochi meeting almost a year ago – yes, it was in January this year that the Sochi declaration made clear that they wanted and we all wanted a constitutional committee - to begin the implementation of their own Final Statement. Well, I will be closely monitoring if the progress in these efforts will help usefully to inform the preparation for the meeting in Astana in the connection also with the constitutional committee.
There are many strands of work underway, and we will only draw final conclusions in December. By that time, the President of the Russian Federation and the United States of America will also have met in the margins of the G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires, where presumably they will also be discussing Syria. And many other important consultations will have taken place by that time. As I told the Council from Beirut, on the issue of the constitutional committee the UN welcomes - and indeed encourages - constructive and moderate suggestions, as long, as long as they maintain the same spirit of credibility, balance and international legitimacy of the Middle Third list.
Let me unpack what I mean by this. I mean that the Middle Third list must fulfil the Sochi declaration criteria of I quote, “Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women”, with “adequate representation of Syria’s ethnic and religious components”.
I mean that the Middle Third list cannot just become a vehicle for political representatives – particularly eminent political leaders - of the political sides, either side—the government or the opposition. Civil society, the Syrian people, deserve a voice in a process that will determine their future. And the first and the second list do include the political representatives, so here we should have other, the other Syrians. To be credible and productive, the constitutional committee should contain experts who are known, not only for their own relevant technical prowess, but who are broadly acceptable and known for their skills at bridge-building between the sides.
I also mean that there must be a balance of political orientations – including space for people who do not identify with either the government or the opposition.
Finally, a key part of legitimacy, which I consider to be very important to me and I know to the Secretary-General, is for the committee to contain a minimum 30% of women. The government and opposition lists fell short of that standard - in fact the government did better than the opposition. We need this Middle Third list to make up for that. The UN facilitated Middle List as it stands is on the table and encompasses all these dimensions.
Of course, credibility, balance and international legitimacy also relate to the overall package: voting, mandate, chairmanship, and the role of the UN. For instance, for us, credible rules of procedure mean that they do not make it possible for any single party to dictate, but also not encourage paralysis.
Mr President, these are some of the criteria I had in mind when I constructed the elements that are currently on the table. And they will remain the litmus test for how I would be assessing any suggestions regarding a credible, balanced and legitimate constitutional committee. If that was not going to happen - well we may have to conclude that it may not be possible to form a constitutional committee credible and inclusive at this stage. In such an unfortunate case, I will certainly be ready to explain to the Council why. However, let me be clear: our aim is and remains for the UN to issue invitations - latest we believe mid of December - and convene a first meeting of the constitutional committee within December, before the 31st of December which is the date indicated in the Istanbul very constructive declaration.
Mr President, respecting Syria’s sovereignty has never been called into question, and I would like remind Ambassador Jaafari - who is there and reminding us always about it - it has never been put in question by the UN. Resolution 2254 is explicitly prefaced by the strong commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity, and it makes clear that the process must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led. But, let us also remember this is a constitutional discussion in a context of one of the most tragic, brutal, cruel and merciless armed conflicts of this century. The Syrian people therefore must be enabled independently and democratically to determine their own future—that is called sovereignty of the people. For this reason, this Council – in that same resolution - gave the UN a mandate to convene the political process and that political process must, inter alia, identify a process and schedule for drafting a constitution. And Sochi itself, as I have repeatedly stated, appealed to the UN to convene the constitutional committee in Geneva – and was accompanied by a firm understanding in that regard.
At my last briefing in December, Mr President, it would be my duty to explain where we are on the constitutional committee and leave a clear and clean ground to my successor regarding it.
In other words, Mr President, we are in the last days of the attempts to implement the constitutional committee in line with resolution 2254 and the Sochi Final Statement. The weeks to come will be of crucial importance in this regard. The UN remains and is ready for the establishment of the constitutional committee. It is prepared to do its part, and I personally, Mr President, will spare no efforts until the final day of my tenure to work towards this aim. Thank you.
19 November 2018