This paper sets out an account of developments and the work plan executed by the UN Special Envoy during the round of UN facilitated Intra-Syrian Talks held in Geneva between 13-27 April 2016.
The work plan for this round of Talks was based upon the agenda as set by Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), which provides for, within the target of six months, the establishment of a credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance, the setting of a schedule and process for drafting a constitution, and further expresses support for the holding of free and fair elections. Prior to the beginning of this round of Talks, the Special Envoy informed the participants that the round would focus on political transition and governance, in accordance with the exclusive mandate given to him by the Security Council. The Special Envoy can confirm that the agenda of political transition is now accepted by all participants, who indicated a readiness to engage on political transition and governance during this round of Talks.
At the start of this round, the Special Envoy further informed the participants that he intended to use the first week and a half to map out their vision of political transition in order to ascertain points of commonality with a view to establishing a clear, concrete conception of political transition for Syria, that was in accordance with resolution 2254, the Vienna Statements and the Geneva Communiqué. To this end, he offered the services of experts from his office to engage each of the participants in technical talks, which were designed to help them identify the actual steps and arrangements necessary to establish a political transition.
The participants were further informed on 15 April 2016 that the Special Envoy intended to hold four sessions on four central issues of transition, namely:
- The functions and powers of the institution, or institutions, of governance established to carry through the political transition
- The method of establishing the institution, or institutions, of governance through mutual consent and the decision-making process
- The relationship of the transitional institutions with the overall institutions of the state
- The process of moving on from political transition to a permanent, new constitution and eventually to new elections
Notwithstanding this agenda, this round also demonstrated that Talks continued to be impacted by the urgent situation on the ground inside of Syria. This includes, in particular, increasing levels of violence and challenges to the nationwide cessation of hostilities and the need to go beyond the modest but real progress on humanitarian access achieved to date.
The response of the participants
During the course of this round of Talks the participants set out their visions of political transition including in relation to governance.
In the course of seven formal proximity sessions, the Government of Syria delegation offered its vision of a political transition, including a mechanism of governance leading up to the enactment of a new constitution for Syria. The Government Representative confirmed that such a mechanism consisted of the establishment of a Broad-Based National Unity Government, which included members of the government, opposition, independents, and others, and is formed on the basis of consensus. The Government also set out its response to the Special Envoy’s Paper on Points of Commonalities, issued at the end of the Second Round, which identified some core essential governing principles. The Special Envoy took note of this contribution but indicated that the focus of this round of Talks remained political transition and that the commonalities paper was a living document and not an official negotiating text.
Prior to this round, the opposition HNC delegation had begun to elaborate upon its vision of a political transition through the submission of a significant number of substantive papers that focused on the establishment and functions of a Transitional Governing Body with full executive and legislative powers during the transition. That vision was further defined during the course of this round of Talks. This occurred in three formal proximity sessions at the UN Headquarters with the Special Envoy during the first week of the round. Following the opposition High Negotiations Committee delegation postponing its participation at the political level in formal proximity talks in response to the increasing violence and humanitarian situation on the ground, discussion continued through four technical sessions held between the Office of the Special Envoy (OSE) and the opposition HNC delegation’s experts.
The Special Envoy held consultations with members of the Moscow and Cairo Platforms. In these meetings the platforms presented their inputs regarding a political transition and governance in both oral and written form. Both platforms expressed their support for resolution 2254 and drew the Special Envoy´s attention to this resolution´s reference to the Moscow and Cairo meetings. They expressed great concern with the deteriorating situation on the ground and highlighted the need to address the issue of detainees, abductees and missing persons.
Elsewhere, the Special Envoy met the Internal Platform and held a number of plenary and expert meetings with the OSE’s Women Advisory Board (WAB) and representatives of Syrian civil society. The WAB and Syrian civil society provided the Special Envoy with information on the concrete daily challenges facing the Syrian people and the WAB also provided principles for the political transition.
Commonalities on political transition
The present round of Talks confirmed that substantial differences exist between the two negotiating parties on their visions of the transition as well as on the interpretation of resolution 2254 (2015). Notwithstanding this, a number of points of commonalities on political transition have emerged as a consequence of submissions by the two sides, public statements by the two sides, and meetings and consultations held with them in this round of Talks. Such points of commonalities include:
- That a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition is necessary in order to end the conflict in Syria
- That any political transition will be overseen by a new, credible and inclusive transitional governance which will replace the present governance arrangements
- That the transitional governance will be responsible for protecting Syria´s independence, territorial integrity and unity in accordance with the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs
- That the transitional governance will ensure an environment of stability, calm and safety during the transition so that equal opportunities are available to all, including political actors, to establish themselves, campaign in the forthcoming elections and public life
- That the transitional governance will ensure the continuity and improvement and reform of ministries, institutions and other public service entities during the transition
- That the transitional governance could include members of the present government and the opposition, independents and others
- That women shall enjoy equality of rights and representation in all institutions and decision-making structures during the transition
- That all Security Council resolutions on combatting terrorism will be implemented during the transition
- That Syria requires a new constitution and that a key responsibility of the transitional governance will be to oversee the drafting of this constitution by Syrians
- That the current preferred method for endorsement of the new constitution is by popular referendum
- That the parties foresee free and fair elections being held pursuant to the new constitution at the conclusion of the transitional period
- That human rights and fundamental freedoms must be guaranteed during the transition
- That acts of revenge or discrimination against individuals or groups shall not be tolerated, and that all Syrian citizens are equal and shall be fully protected during the transition
- That as part of the transition, reparations, redress and care should be provided for those who have suffered loss or injury
- That any governance shall be agreed upon in UN facilitated Intra-Syrian Talks on the basis of mutual consent
The Special Envoy takes the view that in time these initial commonalities can begin to form a basis for an agreement on political transition between the two parties.
Fundamental issues for a viable transition
Further detail on practical aspects of how a viable transition will be created is required from the parties. There is also a need to determine how the respective visions of the two negotiating parties conform to the requirements of resolution 2254 for a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance, the resolution´s endorsement of the Vienna Statements in pursuit of the full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué, and the resolution´s reiteration that inter alia a sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria includes the establishment of an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers, which shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent while ensuring continuity of governmental institutions. The two sides will accordingly have to go deeper into their vision of political transition concerning the structure, functions, operational rules, entities, membership, selection, roles and responsibility of any new transitional governance arrangement, as well as how it relates to other state institutions during and after transition. The two sides will also need to set out the practical priorities of any transitional governance beyond that of drafting a new constitution, as well as how to sequence and deal with the fundamental issues listed in Annex 1.
The issues selected in Annex 1 are based on the formal meetings with the parties, technical consultations and submissions received to date. It should be noted that they are neither comprehensive nor final and represent the judgment of the Special Envoy rather than the positions of the parties. Such issues include: (1) how power is to be exercised by the governance during transition, including in relation to the presidency, executive powers and the control over governmental and security institutions; (2) what strategy, joint bodies and coordination mechanisms need to be developed to combat terrorism and ensure the protection and territorial integrity of Syria’s borders; as well as (3) how to practically establish a calm, neutral environment that assures the safety of all, including through measures to protect all groups and the continuity and reform of state institutions (for a full list of the issues see Annex 1).
In the view of the Special Envoy, all the matters listed in Annex 1 will need to be addressed to help facilitate a meaningful agreement on political transition between the parties that meets the requirements of resolution 2254. Accordingly, the Special Envoy will seek the concurrence and endorsement of these fundamental issues by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) for elaboration with the participants in future rounds of the Intra-Syrian Talks. Furthermore, if the two sides are to go into these issues in further detail, each party will need to give up its insistence that it will not provide further detail on its vision of transition until the other accepts from the outset its own ascribed governance mechanism. Accordingly, nothing as a matter of principle should be excluded from the negotiations.
Process design of the Talks going forward
The ultimate aim of the UN facilitated Talks remains to bring the two sides to a position of direct negotiations. Until this point, the Talks proceed in a proximity format so as to allow the Special Envoy the flexibility to engage the participants as productively as possible on their respective visions of a political transition. This round of Talks also revealed how technical talks at the expert level can help to deepen the process of inquiry and establish points of commonality between the parties. Going forward the Special Envoy is likely to invite the parties to engage in technical sessions with OSE experts both during and between rounds of the Intra-Syrian Talks in Geneva. Such sessions may include expert presentations on some of the governance agenda items referred to in Annex 1.
Additionally, it is likely that the Special Envoy shall hold a range of civil society and women focused consultations both during and between rounds of the Talks to ensure that the broadest possible spectrum of views of Syrian stakeholders and independents are also fed into the formal negotiations over a political transition. The Special Envoy may also seek to identify a set of practical implementing benchmarks for transition so as to ensure that any political vision agreed by mutual consent results in concrete benefits on the ground for ordinary Syrians.
Cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access
The political track will continue to be impacted by the urgent situation on the ground inside of Syria. During this round, the nationwide cessation of hostilities that came into effect on 27 February and which was endorsed by Security Council resolution 2268 (2016) came under substantial strain. The increasing violence and the need for safe and unhindered humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas necessitate urgent action by the International Syria Support Group in order to create a conducive environment for the next round of Intra-Syrian Talks.
In response to a request from all parties to address detainees, abductees and missing people, the Special Envoy also intends to assign a member of his office to work with all concerned parties to facilitate progress on these issues as it deeply affects the lives of thousands of Syrian families. The Special Envoy has repeatedly made clear that if Talks about a political transition are to be viable then they must be accompanied by tangible and visible benefits to the Syrian people on the ground. It is also for this reason that the Special Envoy has requested the co-chairs of the ISSG to call another ISSG meeting at ministerial level.
Fundamental Issues for a Viable Transition
The following is a list of fundamental issues that need to be addressed to ensure a viable political transition in Syria. The issues selected are based on the formal meetings with the parties held in Geneva, technical consultations and submissions received to date. It should be noted that this list is neither comprehensive nor final and represents the judgment of the Special Envoy rather than the positions of the parties. The list is subject to change as discussions continue.
How power is to be exercised in practice by the transitional governance, including in relation to the presidency, executive powers and the control over governmental and security institutions How to practically establish a calm, neutral environment that assures the safety of all in an atmosphere of stability, including through measures to reduce violence, protect vulnerable groups, ensure the rapid release of detainees, the restoration of public services and continuity and reform of governmental institutions and qualified staff, as well as the adherence of all governmental institutions, including the intelligence services, to human rights and professional standards, as referred to by paragraph 10 of the Geneva Communiqué
Identification and selection of specific and effective arrangements for the oversight and control by any transitional governance arrangement of security and intelligence institutions during the transition that go beyond general human rights instruments
What strategy, joint bodies and coordination mechanisms need to be developed to combat terrorism, ensure the protection and territorial integrity of Syria’s borders
Identification of standards for a unified, national, professional army as well as for the disarmament, demobilisation, and re-integration of armed groups
Identification and selection of the most appropriate constitutional devices that invest any transitional governance arrangement with legal legitimacy during the transition
Identification of the composition of the relevant transitional governance arrangement, including selection criteria and the application of the principle of mutual consent
Identification of measures to operationalise the parties’ commitment that women shall enjoy equality of rights and representation in all institutions and decision-making structures during the transition
Selection of appropriate decision making procedures for any transitional governance arrangement and other bodies to ensure inclusiveness during the transition
Whether and how the principle of the separation of powers shall apply to any transitional governance arrangement so as to ensure sufficient checks and balances on the exercise of executive power
Delineation between priorities for the reform and restructuring of state institutions and bodies during the transition and the comprehensive reform that may need to be undertaken pursuant to the new constitution
Identification of what special transitional bodies need to be established for the purpose of transition as well how they might harmonise with existing state and administrative bodies to ensure continuity and delivery of basic services
How to ensure accountability and national reconciliation as referred to by paragraph 10 of the Geneva Communiqué including identification of practical measures to promote human rights, transitional justice, reconciliation, the return of IDPs and refugees during the transition, as well as the restitution of rights and property lost for those who have suffered loss or injury in consequence of the conflict Identification of a coordinated strategy for the reconstruction of the country and the possible lifting of coercive economic measures and other unilateral actions affecting the people of Syria.
Clarification of the status and role of existing and de facto local administrative structures and court systems during the transition
Identification of the most appropriate schedule and process for drafting the new constitution
Identification and agreement about the key political, legal and operational decisions to enable free and fair elections under UN supervision and to the satisfaction of the governance, including an appropriate legal framework for the operation of political parties
Delineation of a clear and agreed timetable and set of benchmarks for the transition