Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Against the Odds, National Unity Prevails

By Danish Karokhel in Kabul (ARR No. 100, 06-Jan-04)
By IWPR

But some have raised questions about the swift way that discussions on the constitution were tied up, without a formal vote.


As discussions on the new constitution continued last week, simmering tensions between the different interests represented at the assembly came to a head. On Thursday, 231 delegates boycotted a vote on clauses they felt were against their interests. Since the boycotters accounted for nearly half the delegates, the voting process - and the constitutional debate itself - threatened to fall apart.


As deputies in the conference tent exchanged acrimonious remarks with opponents and refused to concede crucial points, negotiations moved behind the scenes – and senior United States and United Nations diplomats stepped in to help mould a workable solution.


The outcome – a document that all delegates were able to approve on Sunday – required concessions all round. Observers say this showed that faced with a real threat to national cohesion, delegates were ultimately prepared to give up partisan demands for the greater good of Afghanistan.


Pashtun delegates – who had a slim voting majority – say that for the sake of Afghan unity, they accepted compromises they would not otherwise have made.


"Pashtuns accepted the sacrifice, and gave up having Pashtu as the national language," said Sharifa Safi, a delegate from Kunar province. But, she added, “this sacrifice should be recorded in history”.


The constitution avoids naming any language as the "national language", which is primarily of symbolic significance. It does, however, say the national anthem will be sung in Pashtu, one of the country's two main languages, the other being Dari.


The question of language was further complicated when Uzbeks from the north started demanding that their language should be included as an official language. The compromise reached in the final version of the constitution is that Uzbek and some other minority languages will enjoy official status in the regions where they are spoken, in addition to Dari and Pashtu.


Siddiqullah Patman, a member of the commission which drafted the constitution, believes the success of the constitution is due to the concessions made by Pashtun delegates. "The Pashtuns proved that they want a government for the people. They gave up their right over language, and made a sacrifice," he said.


Patman says this showed that the Pashtuns, whom “the world has described as al-Qaeda and terrorists”, demonstrated a commitment to voting and compromise.


As a result, he believes Afghanistan has got a constitution that is more advanced than neighbouring Iran’s, and will improve the lives of ordinary people by laying down their basic rights.


For some delegates, questions remain about the way the document was rushed through. Habibullah Rafi, who has written numerous books about Afghanistan’s past constitutions and Loya Jirgas, is happy with the document itself but critical of the procedure adopted for passing it.


Instead of delegates showing their approval by standing, he believes there should have been a proper vote. “The constitution was not passed by a vote, so it does not have the complete confirmation of the delegates," he said.


Hafiz Mansoor, the chief editor of the Payam-e-Mujahed newspaper and a delegate from Kabul, may be less than fully satisfied with the end document, but asserts that the Loya Jirga forum gave delegates every opportunity to debate it.


"A prominent feature of this Constitutional Loya Jirga was that the people’s delegates had the right to talk and argue about the government. It was not like the previous [June 2002] Loya Jirga, which concluded with a 'yes' to accepting the government."


The fact that the event lasted much longer than the government expected – 22 days when many had thought it would take one week – made the assembly that much better, he said. "The nation is not ready to accept each article without discussing it," he explained.


Mansoor – voicing views heard from Tajik and other northern delegates at the Loya Jirga – remains unhappy that the national anthem will be sung in Pashtu only and that there is no provision for an interim parliament.


Yet in the end, he says, "This Loya Jirga will mark a divide between our past and our future."


This sentiment will be shared by delegates who believe the overriding achievement of the last three weeks is a basic foundation of law that will help enshrine democratic values and human rights for the future.


"We haven't had such a constitution for the last 25 years, during which we lived in a state of lawlessness,” said Abul Ahrar Ramizpur, a professor of Islamic law at Kabul University who is also deputy head of a human rights group. “And now, they have named human rights in the constitution, which gives hope to the people."


“Changing a war-torn society takes time,” said Ramizpur. “The new constitution is the first step towards healing society.”


Engineer Osman Tariq, a delegate from Logar province, thinks that the new constitution has the potential to bring great change.


"People are sick of lawlessness. The law of the jungle has ruled," he said. “But if the constitution is followed, everyone will be satisfied.”


Danish Karokhel is a local editor and staff reporter with IWPR in Kabul.


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