Syrian talks resume despite virus cases: UN

GENEVA: UN-backed talks on a new constitution for Syria resumed in Geneva on Thursday after Swiss health authorities gave the green light despite four delegates testing positive for COVID-19.
The discussions, aimed at rewriting the war-torn country’s constitution, were put on hold almost as soon as they started on Monday when the test results came through.
UN envoy Geir Pedersen, who is moderating the tentative talks between representatives of President Bashar al Assad’s government, the opposition and civil society, has voiced hope they could pave the way towards a broader political process.
His office said in a statement that “following additional testing and further medical and expert advice regarding four earlier positive tests for COVID-19”, Swiss authorities had determined the meeting could go ahead at the UN Palais des Nations. They resumed at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT).
The committee members — 15 each from the government, the opposition and from civil society — were tested for the new coronavirus before they travelled to Geneva, and were tested again on arrival in the Swiss city.
The positive second tests were found among delegates who arrived from Damascus, opposition negotiations leader Hadi al Bahra told a virtual press briefing on Tuesday. One opposition delegate, one from civil society and two representing the government, tested positive, he said.
Pedersen said further testing in recent days “indicates that the earlier positive cases do not pose any risk,” adding though that “out of an abundance of caution”, the talks would proceed at the UN “only with those who have tested negative.”
He stressed strict precautions would be followed during the talks. The discussions had been scheduled to wrap up on Friday, but Pedersen said the plan now was to extend the talks into Saturday.
He said committee delegates seemed eager to resume dialogue as “a signal of the importance of this process.”
He hailed a “constructive” first meeting on Monday, and said delegates appeared keen to have “substantive discussions” for the remainder of the week.
The Constitutional Committee was created in September last year and first convened a month later.
Disagreement on the agenda prevented a second round of planned talks from taking place in late November. The pandemic has delayed them ever since.
The United Nations has been striving for more than nine years to nurture a political resolution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than 11 million.