Syria: Cultural Autonomy and the Risks of a Late Negotiation

Syrian constitutional talks, recently held in Kazakhstan, organised by Russia

By Carlos Rocabado:

The draft Constitution prepared by Russia gives new hopes to Kurds on their demand for autonomy. It is not the federal scenario some expect, and of course it has nothing to do with dubious separatist wishes, but it is a step in the right direction: the acknowledgement of a long time ignored community.
But what is cultural autonomy anyway? It has certainly something to do with language as the article 4 of the draft constitution implies. This article states three important things:

1. “Government agencies and organizations of the Kurdish cultural autonomy shall use Arabic and Kurdish equally”. In this paragraph, a cultural autonomy is implied for a specific group (Kurds) and not for any other constituent part of Syria. This autonomy allows then the use of two languages indistinctly.

2. “Syrians are guaranteed the right to be educated in their native language”. This statement can lead to the promotion of Syrian languages other than Kurdish, and shall be relevant to Assyrian communities. It also guarantees that Kurdish education is included in public schools.

3. “The use of another language in addition to Arabic has to be approved by referendum at a local level”. This paragraph is in contradiction with the previous ones. Indeed, there may not be Kurdish education, or even Kurdish autonomy, if a referendum is not previously held. Territorial configuration becomes then essential. Depending on how the “local level” is configurated, the chances of the referendum results may dramatically change. The smaller the community (for example, Assyrians), the more important is to define the boundaries of the local level to permit the use of its language.

This is where article 15 of the draft constitution comes into the game. Three fundamental things are defined in this article:

1. “The law states the number of constituent parts, their boundaries and status”. The territorial organization of Syria depends on a national law. It is then a national decision to respect the borders of Afrîn, Jazira and Kobanî cantons, and the Shahba region, which have evolved during the civil war, and are superposed to governorates and districts. On this, both the People’s Assembly and the Constituent Assembly (also called the Territories Assembly in article 46 of the draft constitution) decide. To guarantee the Kurdish autonomy then, the peace agreements would have to include the new boundaries and these agreements would have to be respected by the future assemblies.

2. An important sentence has been erased from this article, a sentence that is present in the Constitution of 2012 (Article 130: “the extent to which they [the administrative units] enjoy the status of a legal entity, financial and administrative independence”). Without it, the scope of the autonomy –in its whole sense, not only cultural– is left to an interpretation of the next paragraphs (third and fourth).

3. The third paragraph mentions that “law states the relationship between these units and the central authority”; the fourth states that “law shall state the status of the Kurdish cultural autonomy”. Once more, the peace agreements in which Kurdish representatives shall participate, have to define the content of these laws, with the risks that entails a subsequent negotiation at a legislative level.

Scholars should study for example the evolution of the Bolivian Constitution and the process of recognition of its indigenous people. In the Constitution of 1994, Bolivia defined itself as a multi-ethnic and pluri-cultural country. Education in indigenous languages was promoted. But only in 2009 were indigenous people recognized as nations, with a defined autonomy that included political, financial and administrative functions, and a list of responsibilities established in the new Constitution, so no law could ignore them but only interpret.

A negotiation on these law contents that does not depend on the bargaining power of the hopefully future peace process participants, but on the will of some future assemblies, may dwarf the meaning of this still vague “cultural autonomy”. An autonomy limited to one’s right to speak, use and learn his or her own language, would be a small recognition, a marginal gain, compared to the sacrifices of war.

Carlos Rocabado is a decentralization expert

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