21 August 2020
Mr. Geir O. Pedersen: Thank you, as Jenifer said, for joining us this morning and for those of you online, thank you for also joining.
As you know, it has taken us a little bit of time before we could actually tell you that the meeting will take place, so we appreciate your patience, when it comes to receiving information from us and, indeed, for your understanding, I think you all realise what a challenging time it is because of the COVID-19. But let me also say that we very much appreciate your continued interest for Syria and obviously for the work that the UN is doing on Syria. There are many competing stories out there, but there is a lot still to report when it comes to Syria.
You would have seen that I briefed the Security Council on Wednesday, I will not repeat all the things I said to the Council, I will just remind you of a few of the highlights that I told the Council. Obviously, we all recall the deep suffering of the Syrian people after nearly a decade of war and conflict. As I said to the Security Council there has been untold tragedies during this period and of course now with what is happening in Lebanon, with the tragic explosion, we also know that this has had a deep impact on Syrians, many being killed and wounded and, of course, it also has impact on their livelihood, and many have been left homeless and even hungry.
So, within this context we are then convening the Small Body. It is nearly nine months since the last time we met here in Geneva, it has been too long, but you will understand that part of the reason for this delay is, of course, that it has been impossible to meet during the COVID-19 period. We had an agreement as you would remember early March on the agenda, so it could have been possible then to meet immediately, but obviously we had to postpone due to the challenges related to pandemic COVID-19.
I have said all along that the Constitutional Committee in itself and the discussions in the Committee, of course, cannot solve the Syrian conflict. But I have said that if it is handled correctly, it can be a door-opener to a broader political process, and it can help to build trust and confidence, and it will send a message to the Syrian people, first and foremost, and to the international community, that something new has started.
And let me remind you that the agreement to start the work of the Constitutional Committee was after nine years of conflict, the first agreement between the parties, and this is important to remember that there actually is an agreement between the parties, and this was the first agreement, to start to implement what is a key aspect of Security Council resolution 2254.
And as you all know when it comes to the constitution the language is that it has called for setting a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. And this of course, as you all understand, is a momentous task to establish a foundational act and social contract for Syrians after a decade of conflict, and as I repeated many times, amid deep division and mistrust.
I am very pleased that I was able to do this work in close cooperation with the two Co-Chairs, the one nominated by the government and the one nominated by the SNC. And I now look very much forward to seeing them here in Geneva again, together with all the nominated members.
As you will recall the Small Body consists of 15 nominated by the government, 15 nominated by the SNC and 15 from Civil Society or as we call them the Middle Third. And I am pleased to say that as we are talking together here today it seems that they will all be able to arrive newly tested here in Geneva during the weekend. And I will start meetings during the weekend with the delegations, with the two Co-Chairs and also with the representatives of the Middle Third. And of course then preparing for what I hope will be then the beginning of meetings on Monday the 24th, and then we will be meeting for the whole week and hopefully we will be able to have substantial discussions, moving the process forward, and then by the end of the week, hopefully we will also be able to agree on the process for meeting forward and for an agenda for next meetings.
I told the Security Council, and I said that many times, that when I meet with Syrians, from across the board, they all express to me a deep, deep frustration about the lack of progress on the political front, and as I said the meeting here in Geneva of the Small Body of the Constitutional Committee will of course not change that. But if it is handled correctly, it can start to build confidence and it can be the beginning of something that can send hope also to the Syrian people, and this is indeed my hope.
Let me also say that I was very pleased when I listened to the members of the Security Council on Wednesday, to hear that they were unanimous in their support for the work that we are doing and for the meeting of the Small Body of the Constitutional Committee, that will start here on Monday. And as I said many times, if we are to be successful, we also need the support of the international community. So, we need the Syrian parties, of course, who will be doing the job of hopefully drafting their own constitution, and then we also need the support of the international community.
Question: I was just wondering you said it has been about nine months since the last round what substantially has changed, is there anything that gives you hope that you can make true progress this time, and could you say something more about how COVID-19 has impacted the organization of the meeting?
Question: Do you have on your agenda any immediate prospect for initial confidence-building measure that you think has a realistic proposition that can be implemented in the foreseeable future?
Mr. Pedersen: Let me start by the measures that we are enforcing because of the COVID-19. Obviously, they will all be tested before they arrive in Geneva and they will be tested on arrival in Geneva. Then they will all be wearing masks, the meeting this time will be in the meeting room where we had the 150, during the October session, so it will be a huge meeting room, social distancing, masks and we have taken all measures also when it comes to supplies of food and drinks and everything. And also, when it comes to moving them from the hotel to the Palais, everything has been gone through in quite some detail. And I also discussed this, of course, with the Co-Chairs and with the Middle Third, and I think we are all very well prepared and we understand the seriousness of the situation and I am confident that we will be able to move forward with all these things in place to hinder the spread of the virus.
As you rightly said there has been nine months since the last time we met, we knew when we started the process that there was going to be ups and downs. I think what we have learnt now is that it is extremely important to respect the agreement that has already been negotiated, it was quite a process before we managed to agree on the Terms of Reference and Rules of Procedure, and that that serves as the basis for the meetings that they are going to have. And my impression is that this is a lesson learnt and hopefully we can build on that and be able to move forward as I said in the process of meetings, the pandemic situation allowing, during the next few months. So, you know, I will take nothing for granted but as I said, I am confident that we all have learned the lesson.
When it comes to confidence building measures, obviously the fact that we will be meeting here in Geneva after nine months is an important step in the right direction, but as I said many times, it is not enough, so I have been appealing, I think in all my briefings to the Security Council, that we need to see progress when it comes to abductees, to detainees and we need information on missing persons, this I think could perhaps be the one key important development that could help to build trust and confidence and I repeat my strong appeal on this to the parties again.
Then of course there is the issue of ceasefire holding in Idlib, in the northwest, I have asked that this could be strengthened by what I call a nationwide ceasefire, in line with Security Council resolution 2254. This is something I still believe is extremely relevant, and then of course, it goes without saying, that at this critical time for Syrian people, with the economic collapse, with the pandemic, that everything is done that is possible from the international community to support the Syrian people. And all of this, I think, could help to build some confidence.
Question: I have two questions, first, will there be any bilateral or trilateral meetings without you as a go between, and secondly, have the three factions outlined their views on the role of the future president of Syria?
Question: The last time in November the talks did not even get going due to agenda problems, they couldn’t have a single complete meeting here, the opposition blamed the regime’s delegation for raising issues other than the issue of the Constitutional Committee, do you think it is set up for a repetition of this during this meeting, or if you encounter the same situation this time, what will you do?
Mr. Pedersen: Let me start with the last question. I am confident that in my dialogue with the two Co-Chairs, that the two Co-Chairs will be able to handle the challenges of the meetings. Obviously, in the meeting we had late October with the 150, it went very well, but there were obviously very different narratives, very different perspectives and we saw shouting and some screaming, but overall the session went very well. So, I think the two Co-Chairs know how to run this and I am confident that they will be able to do it again. Of course, with the close cooperation with all the 45 members. But I am hopeful that we will be able to see that take place.
On whether there will be any bilateral meetings, it is not planned any bilateral meetings, the way we do it is that I facilitate usually meet between them, but of course if the two sides want to meet bilaterally, no problem, that will take place, that goes without saying. But I think the important thing here is to recognise of course that we will be sitting in the same room, and we will be having discussions about working on the constitution of Syria.
If I understood you correctly, the future of the president of Syria, obviously I am sure there are very different opinions on that within the body of the 150 and 45, but this is something for the Syrians to discuss, and to come to a conclusion to, obviously.
Question: If you could clarify what you just said about the organisation of the meeting, you say they will be in the same room, but you will be moving from one to the other? Is that correct or not?
Mr. Pedersen: No
Question: And my first question was, what will be your objective of the meeting of this week, what do you want them to do, to achieve?
Question: You have spoken about being hopeful about these talks and there is a question about is it that makes you hopeful this time? You must have the hope based upon something to launch this new round of talks, can you say what this hope is based on?
Mr. Pedersen: Yes, fair question. Obviously through these nine months I have been in regular contacts with the Co-Chairs and also from time to time with the 15 members of the Middle Third Small Body. The messages I have been receiving from the two Co-Chairs have been very positive so that is what I built my hopefulness on, and also the fact that we have repeated the respect for the agreement that we have already negotiated.
But when I say that it doesn’t mean that we will not face challenges, there will still be ups and downs, there will be still very serious differences, there are very different narratives as what needs to be done, that will continue to be there. But then, and that goes to the question on what we sort of hope we can achieve during this session.
Well, first and foremost I hope that we can start the very difficult process of building trust and confidence and we all know that this will take time. And I hope that one expression of that will be that we will be able to have what I call substantive discussions and building on these substantive discussions we will be able to identify how will be move forward and agree on when we will meet again and what we will be discussing next time. So let me just repeat what I said before, no one expects that this meeting here next week will produce a miracle or breakthrough, that’s not what this is about, this is about the beginning, about a long and cumbersome process, where we hopefully can start to see progress and that this progress can also lead to progress in other areas that we need to implement when it comes to Security Council resolution 2254.
(Follow up question on how the meeting will be organised)
Mr. Pedersen: It is a big meeting room, it can seat more than 200 people, so the 45 then will be placed with social distancing, two metres between each participant, the government delegation will be sitting on one side, the Middle Third in the middle of the room and the opposition SNC on the other side. Then I will be sitting in the room as well, but the chairing will be done by the two Co-Chairs.
Question: Could you elaborate on your talks, or the role of the representatives of the outside, of the international forces that are present in Syria, namely the US, Russia, Turkey and the Iranians, who will be here and how are you going to engage with them?
Question: In these nine months, COVID happened, but on the ground many things also happened, and we can’t support that the climate is not the same, you mentioned a lot of frustration from all the parties, I would like to have your reflection on what has changed in mindset of the people that will meet next week in Geneva, and as you said frustration is from all sides, what is the frustration from the government who have not done very much maybe to facilitate this process?
Mr. Pedersen: Because of the COVID, the planning is a bit difficult, but I have been informed that there will be in Geneva during this time most probably representatives from Russia, Iran and Turkey, the so-called Astana 3 and I believe also from the United States. There may also be others that will be here but let me emphasise that the work of the Constitutional Committee is of course, completely independent of these international meeting. The important thing is that they express support for the work that we are doing but the work will be done by the Syrians themselves, and it is important for me to emphasise also that this will be done strictly in line with the Terms of Reference and the Rules of Procedure and without any foreign interference.
Question: But are you meeting with representatives of these?
Mr. Pedersen: Yes, I hope so. We are trying to schedule it in such a manner that I can do both things, meeting with the Constitutional Committee and then seeing the representatives.
I will not go into speculations about sort of the difference between the different factions and about how they feel and not feel, but I think what is important for me to convey is that I think there is a sense of deep frustration that the process has not been moving forward, as I said, after nearly a decade of conflict, and that there is as I said also very different narratives on why this conflict started and how it is to be sorted out but that’s part of my facilitation role to bring the parties together and focus on where I see that we have a common denominator that can help to move the process forward, and the focus now and next week will of course be on trying to make sure that we can do the facilitation of the work of the Constitutional Committee in such a manner that we can move that process forward, and that is where my focus is now.
Geneva, 21 August 2020