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Afghans Approve a New Constitution

After 22 days of sometimes heated debate, the final document establishes a government that is both Islamic and accountable.
By IWPR staff

Standing as one, delegates from across Afghanistan silently approved a new constitution on Sunday night. The final document includes elements designed to please all the political and ethnic factions that up to the last minute had threatened the success of the assembly.


The final version was compiled after several days of behind-the-scenes negotiations, led by international diplomats, among quarrelling groups. It contains more than 40 changes from the original draft which the assembly began considering more then 22 days ago.


But it leaves intact the most fundamental principles: A government that is both Islamic and accountable to its citizens.


At the request of Loya Jirga chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddidi and Constitutional Commission chairman Nematullah Shahrani, the delegates stood in silence for some 30 seconds to show that they approved and respected the final document.


Shahrani said the document was written for all Afghans. “Afghanistan is like a garden that has many kinds of trees, flowers and thorns”, he said. And, he added to applause, “the flowers are women”.


President Hamed Karzai, speaking in Dari and Pashtu, as well as a few words in Uzbek, said the aspirations of all Afghans had found a place in the new constitution.


"I want Afghanistan to be cleared of prejudice and hate," he said. "I want an Afghanistan in which everyone respects each other."


The president added, “The constitution cannot exist just on paper. The constitution will be law when it is practiced. And I will implement this law. And if I don't, remove me.”


Karzai noted that the approved document can be amended later on. "Bring changes to the constitution if you see anything bad in the presidential system," he said.


After much debate over the strong presidential system proposed by the original draft, little was changed in the final version to weaken the role of the head of state. The president still has wide-ranging authority and is directly elected by national vote.


But the final document does required parliamentary approval for some actions by the president, such as setting national policy and administrative reforms.


The approved constitution also includes stronger support for Islam. The most significant change is to Article 3, which in the original draft stated, "no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam and the values of this Constitution." It now reads, "No law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."


Some analysts have interpreted this as opening the door for implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law.


In its final days, the Loya Jirga was in danger of breaking down completely as various groups pressed their demands. A vote on some articles Thursday was boycotted by nearly half the delegates.


Zalmai Khalilzad, the United States ambassador to Afghanistan, and United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, apparently played key roles in finding compromises that would make the constitution acceptable to all groups.


Brahimi told the delegates at the closing ceremony that the UN was proud of the new constitution. While acknowledging that the final document may contain some flaws, he told the delegates that "all Afghans will admire your hard work".


It is now the responsibility of the president and the entire nation to put the constitution into practice, Brahimi said.


Here are some of the highlights of the final document:


* Six additional languages, besides Dari and Pashtu, will enjoy official status in the regions where they are spoken by the majority of the population. They are Uzbek, Turkmen, Baluchi, Pashai, Nuristani and Pamiri;


* The lower house of the parliament, Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) will have the right to reject the appointment of ministers who have dual citizenship;


* Fourteen different ethnic groups are named as comprising the nation of Afghanistan. As approved last week, the national anthem will be in Pashtu, but will include the phrase "Allahu akbar" – the jihadi rallying cry – and mention all the names of Afghanistan's ethnic groups.


* An independent commission will be appointed by the president to oversee the implementation of the constitution;


* At t least two women will be elected from each province to the Wolesi Jirga. The original draft had said one woman from each province;


* Men and women are specifically given equal rights as citizens;


* Two vice presidents will be elected, instead of one, to allow greater ethnic representation in the executive branch. It also increases the possibility of a woman serving as vice president;


* Two national holidays were specified: August 19, the anniversary of liberation from Britain, and April 28, the anniversary of the mujahedin victory over the Soviet Union;


* A reference in the preamble acknowledging the "resistance", along with jihad, was slightly tempered to make it sound more generic, rather than a reference to the "resistance" taken as a badge of the Northern Alliance in their fight against the Taleban;


* The final document states that "every effort shall be made" to elect the first president and parliament at the same time, but no date is specified. Under the Bonn Agreement, national elections are to be held in June 2004.


* Two representatives of the disabled and two Kuchis, or nomads, will be included among the president's appointments to the upper house, Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders);


* Higher education will be paid for by the state through undergraduate level. Health care is also to be free;


* All references to Afghanistan's compliance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights were retained;


* An addition to the document states that non-Muslims are "free to exercise their faith", as well as perform their religious rites, "within the limits of law".


* Parties cannot be formed on the basis of an "Islamic school of thought" - an addition aimed at Shia or Wahhabi Muslims - or on the basis of ethnicity, language or region.


The closing ceremony began with a prayer led by Mujaddidi in which he said, "God, do not bring civil war again. Give us the power of unity."


At the end of the prayer, he wept.


IWPR reporters/editors Danish Karokhel and Hafizullah Gardesh, along with independent journalists Bashir Gwakh, Wahidullah Amani and Rahim Gul Sarwan, contributed to this report. They are all participating in IWPR's Loya Jirga reporting project.


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