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The New Arab Staff & Agencies

UN suspends Syria constitution talks over coronavirus cases

Talks came to a halt after three delegates tested positive for Covid-19 [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 August, 2020

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Three delegates attending Syria constitutional talks at the United Nations tested positive for Covid-19.
Syrian constitutional talks at the UN were put on hold almost as soon as they started on Monday after three delegates tested positive for Covid-19.

It was hoped that the planned week of tentative discussions in Geneva - between representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's government, the opposition and civil society - could help pave the way towards a broader political process.

But after a nine-month hiatus - in part due to the coronavirus crisis - the talks on amending the war-torn country's constitution were put on ice.

The discussions, between 15 delegates from each of the three groups, were being moderated by Geir Pedersen, the UN special envoy for Syria.

Pedersen's office received confirmation that three members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee "tested positive for Covid-19", it said in a statement.

"Having informed the Swiss authorities and the United Nations Office in Geneva, immediate measures have been taken consistent with protocols to mitigate any risks, and tracing of anyone who may have been in close contact with affected persons is under way," it said.

The committee members were tested for the new coronavirus before they travelled to Geneva, and were tested again on arrival, it said.

The delegates arrived at the UN in Geneva Monday morning wearing face masks and physical distancing measures were in place in the meeting room.

"Following a constructive first meeting, the third session of the Constitutional Committee is currently on hold," Pedersen's office said.

It did not specify at which point the trio had tested positive, or which delegations they belonged to.

'Door-opener'

Pedersen told reporters last week that he saw the meeting as "an important step in the right direction". The Norwegian diplomat said he hoped it could serve as "a door-opener to a broader political process."

The full constitutional review committee is made up of 150 delegates divided equally into government, opposition and civil society groups.

But only 15 members from each of those groups were taking part in this week's small-scale meeting.

The Constitutional Committee was created in September last year and first convened a month later.

A second round of talks, planned for late November, never got going after disagreement on the agenda.

Since then they have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

'Encouraged' 

The UN has been striving for more than nine years to nurture a political resolution to Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than 11 million.

Constitutional review is a central part of the UN's peace plan for Syria, which was defined by Security Council resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015.

Only Syrians are involved in the process, but representatives from a range of countries involved in the increasingly complex conflict, including Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States, were expected in Geneva this week.

James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria, told journalists at a Geneva hotel on Monday that the meeting had "encouraged" Washington.

He suggested that a range of pressures on the Assad regime over the past nine months, including fresh US sanctions, military setbacks and deep economic crises, could push it to shift strategies.

Read also: Syria constitution talks in Geneva an 'important step': UN envoy

Washington, he said, was eager "to maintain pressure until the Syrian government and its partners realise that they are not going to achieve a military victory".

"The only solution is... political process leading to a political transition."

Pedersen meanwhile acknowledged on Friday that nobody expected "a miracle or a breakthrough" from the talks.

"This is about the beginning, about a long and cumbersome process where we hopefully can start to see progress."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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