After weeks of discord, Afghan constitution is approved

Posted in Broader Middle East | 05-Jan-04 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: The New York Times

KABUL Afghans received a new constitution Sunday when delegates of the loya jirga, or grand council, approved the document after three weeks of sometimes tense debate, bringing a new era of democracy to the country.

"There is rain coming, and flowers are growing over my body," said the chairman of the loya jirga, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, reciting a poem. "I am so happy the ending is so pious and beautiful," he said, his voice cracking as he prayed to God.

In an enormous step forward, Afghanistan will now have a democratic presidential system, with a directly elected president, a two-chamber national assembly, an independent judiciary and new elections in just six months. In carefully balanced wording designed to combine democracy and Islam, the country will be renamed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and will be ruled by civil law, although no law will be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam.

The 502 delegates from across Afghanistan, who have been ensconced in a vast white tent at Kabul Polytechnic for three weeks, approved the constitution by saying prayers and then rising from their chairs and standing together in silent respect. The document was welcomed by and large by Afghan human rights and women's advocates and praised by diplomats and foreign observers for being coherent and even forward looking for the region.

The United Nations special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, who helped in last-minute mediation, was the first to congratulate the delegates. "This was your loya jirga, and tonight's success is your success," he said.

"Is the constitution perfect? Probably not. Will it be criticized? I feel it will be inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan," he said. "But you have every reason to be proud and see this as a new source of hope."

There had been prolonged battles in the assembly and committee rooms over the last 21 days that even continued to the last moments, but delegates overall said they were happy with the document.

President Hamid Karzai arrived to congratulate the assembly, drowning out the words of the chairman of the drafting commission as his helicopter circled the site. Security was so tight that Karzai did not even drive the couple of kilometers from his presidential office.

But his mood was elated as he talked about a future of unity, prosperity, democracy and the rule of law, where a poor boy from one of the most remote areas of Bamiyan could grow up to be president and where tribal and ethnic rivalries become a thing of the past. "It is a constitution of all the country," he said. "None of you is the loser, none of you is the winner. It is a success for us all. It is for all the people of Afghanistan."

Karzai praised the forward-looking policy that names all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups as part of the nation, and allows the ethnic groups freedom to use and teach their languages in the areas where they are in the majority. "That was a great initiative," he said. "In the history of the region, for the first time, we have been able to have genuine popular work.

"World power comes from unity, not from discord, but unity, valor and courage," he said. "You have displayed it." He praised his fellow Pashtuns for dropping their demand for Pashto to be named the national language, which emerged as the last sticking point, and congratulated the Uzbeks, in their own language, on their new status.

Serious negotiations had been going on behind the scenes until the last hours. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the leader of the Uzbeks and one of the more notorious warlords present, had pushed hard for the language rights of his people. But in negotiations he also agreed to allow the thousands of Pashtuns displaced from the north in the last two years to return to their homes, and to free the hundreds of remaining Taliban prisoners from his prison in Shiberghan, Karzai said.

"If the constitution is not put into practice and not implemented, then it would not be given the respect that we have all promised," said Mojaddedi.