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Briefing to the Security Council by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Staffan de Mistura

19 December 2017

Mr. President,
Dear colleagues and friends at the Security Council,

Let me say at the beginning how much my team and I are grateful for the support we received this year from the Security Council. Since this is my last briefing this year and the end of the Security Council membership for some of you, I would like to say: Thank you. Thank you because I felt you supported us and understood our challenges and I count on you for next year as well.

The 8th round of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva concluded last Thursday. In my last briefing, I indicated why and how I was going to try to facilitate real negotiations, real discussions, not just pre-negotiations.

? Because, first, we saw developments on the ground – de-escalation and major strides against ISIL/Daesh’s territorial control - that gave a logical impetus to the political track. ISIL is gone, almost, territorially, not everywhere. Al Nusra is still there. But now it is time to talk about the political future.  Second, because significant international diplomacy had taken place just before the talks - in Da Nang,  just to mention an important meeting and an important declaration; in Riyadh, where Riyadh 2 was established – which was considered unthinkable almost a year ago, in other words three different opposition groups who had been in fact not really talking to each other have been unified in one group and have now one voice; and in Sochi, where there has been an important meeting between President Putin and President Assad, and between Presidents Putin and Erdogan [and  Rouhani] . And because both the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission had given some public signals that they were interested and committed themselves to a real discussion in Geneva.

? By a clear and realistic work-plan. Focused on the full implementation of 2254. That’s all we have. That’s all we were able to get together, you remember. 2254: the only real resolution that is guiding us on a political process and legitimizing such a political process. But with a particular focus on principles – the so-called 12 Principles, constitutional process and UN supervised elections – which we call baskets 2 and 3. While exploring of course the issues of governance and counter-terrorism – which we call baskets 1 and 4. And pushing for confidence-building measures, such as humanitarian access – and Mark [Lowcock] will talk about that - and detainees, abductees and missing persons. With the active support of outside players.

So, how did it go? Mr. President, this agenda I just indicated – which I thought was ready to start moving forward due to what I mentioned – did not move forward. The opportunity to begin real negotiation was not seized. A golden opportunity was missed.
For many reasons. Psychological: we are at the end of the year. Political: because we are at the end, we want to believe, of a major military operation. And from a human point of view, because many ordinary Syrians have been waiting and asking for this: they want the situation to change for them.

Let me tell you why, from the perspective of each delegation. I will try to do it as objectively as possible, although I cannot refrain from showing [my disappointment] even in my body language. You know I am Swedish and Italian so I am supposed to keep my Swedish calm and refrain my Italian emotions, but I have also been a UN diplomat for 47 years, so I am trained to keep my emotions for myself – but I cannot hide my disappointment. So let me tell you why, quoting them and presenting the perspective of each delegation.

The Opposition delegation, which held 11 meetings with me, came to Geneva almost directly from the so-called Riyadh 2 conference, about which I briefed you last time. The Opposition therefore was not able to prepare itself and in spite of that they were able to keep one line and speak with one voice. They publicly affirmed their positions in the Riyadh 2 statement and called for direct negotiations, indicating they were positions, not preconditions, with the Government. It also stated its readiness for indirect negotiations, through me and my team, if direct negotiations were not possible.

The Opposition delegation received from us an updated version of the 12 Living Intra-Syrian Essential Principles – translated into English: these are the principles that we have been working on and preparing for over a year and discussing with everyone, including civil society, the Government and the Opposition, which could be the basis for what would be principles for a future constitution. The Opposition gave concrete input in response to our presentation of our updated version of the 12 Living Intra-Syrian Essential Principles. It engaged on all four baskets in in-depth discussions with the UN – frankly for the first time quite in depth discussions – showing competence, sometimes welcoming, sometimes disagreeing with, ideas that the UN developed or proposed; and other times sharing with the UN its own ideas.

The Government delegation, whom I met seven times – they were not in Geneva for the same length of time as the Opposition – considered the Riyadh 2 statement as containing a precondition in its call for President Assad to depart at the start of any transition period. In all fairness, you should know that both myself and the Saudi authorities in Riyadh - and I think there was also some active participation from the Russian Special Envoy in addition to the engagement of the Special Envoys from your countries – we did advise the Opposition not to emphasize this aspect, because it would have been potentially considered a pre-condition. They told us that it was important for them to do so because it has been a party line since the beginning and that it was not a precondition but a position, an opinion. The Government also regarded language in the Riyadh 2 statement on the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran as unacceptable. It further questioned whether the Opposition delegation, although now unified and including the Moscow and Cairo platforms together with the old or renewed Riyadh platform, was sufficiently representative. It also stated – actually using a video on YouTube – that until full Syrian sovereignty was restored and terrorism defeated in all parts of the Syrian territory, it was not possible to entertain real movement on a constitutional review process or elections. That to me was a new condition that I had never heard before and it made me worried for any other initiative, in addition to Geneva, because if we have to wait all together until the whole country is in a different geographic and political environment, with no foreign or terrorist presence at all, that may mean that any type of intention to genuinely address constitutional review or election may now be put aside for a long period, if this position of the Government is confirmed – and it was confirmed to us.

Calling for the Riyadh 2 statement to be withdrawn, the Government declined to meet the Opposition directly or to negotiate indirectly with them through me, until and unless the statement is withdrawn. The Government further declined to explore any item, any item, of the agenda with the UN other than counter-terrorism – basket 4, which is important since we are all affected by it, but is not the only one. It received an updated version from us of the 12 Living Intra-Syrian Essential Principles, but did not comment or engage on them any further.

As the mediator, I naturally tried to help both sides think creatively and overcome whatever barriers they perceived for negotiation.

I, for instance, counselled the Government that the Opposition had set out its negotiation position in Riyadh, that any opposition in the world can, and sometimes does, call for a change of government, as a maximum goal, and that a negotiating position was not the same as a precondition. I said they should also test the other side in negotiations and confront them, and talk to them. The Government found this unconvincing, arguing that the mentality of the Opposition revealed by the Riyadh 2 statement showed that the Opposition was pursuing unachievable demands.

Meanwhile, I counselled the Opposition to de-personalize and broaden their thinking on governance, and not constantly to refer to that type of personalization of the political solution, and to publicly clarify that it had no preconditions. The Opposition pointed out that the Government was setting a precondition to talk to them. Nevertheless, the Opposition responded to my appeal about its public messaging by making clear that it was calling for implementation of Security Council resolutions and “a tough negotiation with different goals” but this did not persuade the Government to engage them -- or me -- other than on terrorism. The Opposition regarded this as a sign that the Government was avoiding the negotiating table. In other words, they were ready to negotiate.

I should add that for the whole time we were in Geneva, no progress was made on the most urgent humanitarian issues, as Under-Secretary-General Lowcock will brief you. I was hoping that this would at least take place, it was a perfect moment to give some good news. I must congratulate all of you, whatever your position has been, for getting and important resolution moving forward. That gives me at this moment of the year a feeling that the Council can move forward when people are in need.

There was also no progress on the critical issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons – something raised via the Astana process but not yet delivered neither in Astana or Geneva. So, in view of the fact that we do have now a new Astana opportunity, I really urge Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkey, in their capacity as guarantor states, to address these issues during their next meeting in Astana, which will be held at the end of this week, and not miss that opportunity.

Mr. President,

Whatever the frustrations – and there are many, and they are on all sides, I recognize it – let us recall that only a UN-brokered process will be seen by the Syrians as impartial, and will attract the regional and international legitimacy required. That is why you in this Council mandated the United Nations to facilitate the political process.  I appreciate the support extended by permanent members of this Council when they assembled in Geneva at the opening and closing of the round of talks.  

Let us also remind ourselves that, despite the failure to negotiate in Round 8, the frontloading of essential living principles for a future constitution and identification of details of processes under the constitutional and electoral baskets - while working to build a safe, calm, neutral environment under the governance and security baskets (1 and 4), which are important to the constitutional and elections ones - remains the most feasible approach towards the implementation of resolution 2254.

The principles captured in the Living 12 Essential Principles published in Round 8 seek to embody end-state commonalities and offer an enduring perspective on the vision of a future that can be shared by all Syrians. They are consistent with and reflect many of the end-state principles contained in Security Council resolution 2254 and can serve to inform the parallel discussions of the four baskets which do remain the agenda of the talks. The Principles therefore constitute important assurances about the ultimate purpose of any political settlement process under resolution 2254.

Let me now be pragmatic. Since we have been talking of a constitutional process and elections, and we were not able in the intra-Syrian talks to actually engage both sides on it, well, let me engage you on it. I believe the time has come for the UN to provide specific elaborations on the constitutional and electoral baskets (2 and 3) and how they relate to governance and counter-terrorism, security governance and confidence-building measures (1 and 4) and develop agreed and clear modalities for the full implementation of UNSCR 2254, and stimulate wider consultations as well.

Let me share what is our thinking at this stage.

Mr. President,

On basket 3, elections: SCR 2254 expresses this Council’s support for free and fair elections pursuant to a new constitution, administered under supervision of the United Nations and held to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.

The UN has provided electoral assistance to a majority of the UN’s member states, including about a third of them in the last two years alone – so we do have experience – and often in post-conflict situations and across the full spectrum of electoral assistance. There is clearly a need to fully respect Syrian sovereignty – no question there – over its national electoral process -- while at the same time facilitating the UN supervision that this Council has stated it supports.

Bearing in mind 2254 and insights obtained from the parties – we have been able to engage a little bit each of the parties as well as civil society and with the average Syrian people - in order to hold free and fair elections to the highest international standards, there will need to be a clear timeline and sequencing agreed as per 2254 for UN supervised elections - presidential and parliamentary. Provision would need to be made to ensure equal opportunities for all to participate in public life – not to be scared to be involved in it. Principles would need to be agreed for an electoral legal framework, that meets the highest international standards and ensures independent electoral management. Parameters would be required on voter eligibility so that all Syrians irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or gender, including members of the diaspora, can vote, with special procedures to ensure the participation of refugees, internally displaced persons and other Syrians impacted by the conflict. Specific provision would have to be made to promote women’s participation. And UN supervision could include roles in support of the electoral legal framework, electoral institutions and operations (including diaspora voting) and reporting to the Security Council on the implementation of electoral processes as related to the highest international standards of inclusivity, transparency, and accountability. That’s on elections. If you want the UN to be involved, that’s what the UN comes with: ready to respect sovereignty, ready to be working hard, but this is what UN-supervised elections mean.

Mr. President,

On basket 2 - constitution: 2254 calls for UN-facilitated process to set the schedule and process for drafting a new constitution
before, before, UN supervised elections are held.

The UN therefore has sought at every turn of our meetings to try to get a little bit the feelings of the various parties on this matter. And based on these let me offer 11 observations to set some parameters and help produce further discussion if we want a constitution process as per 2254, and therefore with the UN blessing:

1.        It would appear both parties accept that Syria requires a review of its constitutional order culminating in the popular approval of a new constitution and it is for the people of Syria alone, we all agree, they all agree, to determine the future constitution of Syria. Not to be written by any of us, any countries or any of us, we can help but it should be theirs.

2.        Any constitutional review must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led and conducted in accordance with 2254 which, as I have indicated, provides that the setting of a schedule and process for the drafting of such a new constitution must take place within the context of UN-convened and facilitated intra-Syrian talks. Schedule and process for the drafting of such a constitution must take place within the context of UN-convened and facilitated intra-Syrian talks.

3.        Such schedule and process should attempt to identify and contain guiding principles, a sequenced timetable, and identify all relevant institutions that need to be established -- including their mandates, composition and the manner of establishment.

4.        To that end we believe that such Constitutional review process could be guided by the principles contained in Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva Communique and be informed by the 12 living Intra-Syrian essential principles which do offer a perspective of a vision of a future Syria that can be shared by all. As I have been indicating earlier, these principles give important assurances to the people of Syria as to the purpose of any constitutional review which must meet the legitimate aspirations of the people of Syria.

5.        Such principles, while not supra-constitutional principles unless otherwise agreed by the Syrian people, could be developed and embodied by a constitutional drafting body. However, to be credible, such constitutional drafting body and any drafting process would also likely need to address how power is to be shared, how power should be de-centralised and exercised in Syria on a national, provincial and local level.

6.        The two institutions that have so far emerged from discussions for the purposes of drafting and revising a new constitution and instituting a national dialogue process are a Constitutional Commission and a National Conference. The Constitutional Commission could prepare and refer an initial draft of a new constitution to a National Conference in Syria, which could oversee a national dialogue and review, revise and then refer any draft constitution for popular approval – in accordance with 2254.

7.        Both institutions should have their mandate, terms of reference, powers, rules of procedure, agreed in UN-facilitated intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. The United Nations would ensure that any composition agreed would be consistent with SCR 2254 and based upon any inclusive and objective selection criteria determined and agreed in Geneva.

8.        At the very least, both institutions would have to consist of representatives from the government, opposition in the intra-Syrian talks, as well as additional components of Syrian society, including religious, political, intellectual, economic and union figures, Syrians from the diaspora, legal experts, with provision made for including clearly civil society, independents, and indeed women.

9.        Such constitutional review would have to be inclusive, containing a national dialogue that is well-structured, conducted transparently and is broadly-based; that ensures opportunities for dissemination of drafts, debate, revision; and that has full contact and consultation with civil society, political parties, universities, academia and the public on the draft constitution.

10.        The United Nations stands ready if authorized by you to provide good offices support to any Constitutional Commission as described and National Conference as described agreed by the parties in the intra-Syrian talks, as well as the provision of international expertise.

11.        However, for a meaningful and inclusive constitution-making process to take place in Syria, a secure, calm, neutral environment would need to be established to enable Syrians from all segments of society to safely and freely participate. This in turn requires the sides in Geneva to identify relevant and appropriate counter-terrorism, security governance and confidence-building measures as well as credible all-inclusive, non-sectarian governance arrangements that need to be agreed and put in place via negotiations. A tasked-based approach to governance also help identify milestones and performance indicators. The process of establishing a favourable environment would be greatly enhanced, we don’t need to repeat it, by tangible progress on unhindered humanitarian access and on confidence-building measures -- in particular, action on detainees, abductees and missing people -- and a nation-wide sustainable ceasefire.

Mr. President,

Forgive me for being long but this is an important moment for actually setting some clear parameters in front of us when we talk about important next steps.

These propositions are advanced in good faith by the UN in order to promote fresh thinking in all quarters, in particular here, in relation to constitution and elections and their relation also to governance and counter-terrorism. They come from intense engagement with the parties and Syrians across the board, far beyond the people we have been meeting in official meetings. What I have presented is designed to show how resolution 2254, your resolution, could be implemented credibly and in full in a way that is genuinely responsive to the needs of the Syrians and the realities and the realities of 2018.  We intend to present some of the ideas contained in here as well as the approaches in a non-paper or a mediator’s statement early next year.

Mr. President,

I am not at present - I am seeing the Secretary-General this afternoon - in a position to update the Security Council on further developments regarding proposals to hold an early congress of national dialogue in a location outside Syria. The Secretary-General will continue to view, that is the instruction I have so far, to view this and all other initiatives by a simple test: do they support the mandated political process under the UN and the full implementation of SCR 2254?

Bottom line, if any entity relevant to constitutional review was to be established outside Syria, that is the line I have from the Secretary-General, and there was a desire for it to work under the aegis of the United Nations, it would either have to emerge directly from the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva or the UN would need to retain the prerogative to review such body, in consultation with yourselves. I would be guided by 2254 in this regard and obviously the Secretary-General’s guidance.

Mr. President,

Let me conclude by reminding you of something else, something I’ve always been stressing, but at the end of the year we should do it again. These past three weeks while the negotiations did not proceed, Syrians made their voices heard and their views known to us.

The Syrian Women’s Advisory Board provided valuable insights and ideas on the 12 Principles and baskets 2 and 3. We hosted 130 civil society representatives. This included experts on constitutional and legal matters, human rights, grass-roots dialogue and social cohesion. I had discussions through VTC with Syrian refugees, because sometimes we forget there are 5 million, and they are there, and they want to be part of the future, but they want to be also reassured that if they decide to come, there is a future, in Jordan, Lebanon as well as civil society representatives in hard-to-reach areas across Syria, and of those who have presence also in Turkey.

They had inputs and thoughts on every issue on the agenda. And my team and I have learned a lot from them. But most of all, they called, without any doubt, for a political solution, for dignity, for the protection of civilians, for maintaining Syrian’s territorial integrity, and for unconditional access to healthcare, support and education (which they reminded us is a pillar of counter-terrorism). They demanded the release of detainees and abductees, and not to be punished for those who actually left and became a refugee when they return because they are afraid of that, for information on the missing and for the UN and the international community to create conditions for the voluntary return of refugees

And they desperately wanted to see the UN Geneva process to move forward.

I think nobody in this Chamber finds those requests, pleas unreasonable. But trust, confidence, and political will – these are the hardest commodities to find when I have my intra-Syrian talks. I hope that by elaborating ideas the parties and all Syrians can see that resolution 2254 can actually be implemented even in the context of the realpolitik of 2018 in the interests of all Syrians.

The question is how much we all will do to help achieve this vision. I can assure Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and myself will spare no effort. We look forward to an active, hopefully proactive, early 2018 in that regard.

Thank you, Mr President, and thank you for your patience. It was longer than average but we are at the end of the year.

19 December 2017