GENEVA - Syrian government and opposition delegates have begun meeting to draft a new constitution as a prelude to U.N.-supervised elections for their war-torn country.
After nearly nine years of war, U.N. mediator Geir Pedersen calls the meeting of Syria’s arch-enemies an historic moment. At the official launch of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, he welcomed members with words of encouragement and urged them to strive for a durable solution to years of division and suffering.
He said the first gathering of the committee of 150 government, opposition and civil society members brings together diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, as well as a wide spectrum of political leanings.
Pedersen added the varied composition of views and beliefs presents difficulties as well as opportunities for meaningful change.
“I know that it is not easy for all of you to be here together in this room, and I respect that… But the fact that you are here today sitting together face-to-face ready to start a dialogue and negotiations, is, I believe, a powerful sign of hope for Syrians everywhere, both inside and outside the country,” Pedersen said.
WATCH: UN Chief Hails 'Landmark' Syria Constitutional Committee Meeting
The United Nations reports hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in Syria’s long-running civil war. It says 6.7 million people have fled as refugees to other countries and 6.2 million are displaced within Syria.
Pedersen said it will be difficult to reconcile so many divergent views, especially when the risks and dangers of military escalation in Syria remain a daily threat. He advised patience and steadfastness, and promised U.N. help to facilitate the process every step along a difficult path.
His words were greeted with professions of good will from the warring parties. Syrian government co-chair of the committee Ahmad Kuzbari noted that a constitution is the cornerstone and solid building block on which states are built.
He said his delegation is prepared to consider possible amendments to Syria's existing constitution. But he added that the process must safeguard the country's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, with no outside interference in internal affairs.
Opposition co-chair Hadi Albahra said Syrians seek a nation that respects all people, without discrimination. He said the only victory that is worth having is one based on justice and peace, not on one side winning the war. Such a victory, he warned, is not sustainable.