The region of Rojava, in the north of Syria, also known as Syrian Kurdistan, received international attention for its innovative system of autonomous administration, which was self-proclaimed in January 2014. Through an original Constitution, the so-called Social Contract, the de facto authorities proposed a pioneering political system based on participatory democracy, gender equality, minority rights, ecology and secularism.
After a brief introduction on the region, this post will present the main point of interest from a human rights perspective: the Constitution of Rojava, whose last version, designated as the Social Contract of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava, was presented in July 2016. This analysis will then attempt to put the legal instrument in context, presenting its cultural origins. It will, finally, reflect upon the potential impact and broader political and cultural relevance of the political experiment.
The Self-Proclaimed Autonomous Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava
Following years of hostilities with governmental forces, in the context of the Syrian conflict which broke out in 2011, Rojava proclaimed its autonomy from the Syrian Government in January 2014. The Kurdish “Democratic Union Party” (PYD, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) led the self-proclaimed autonomous region to elections and to the adoption of its first Constitution: the “Charter of the Social Contract”. The Charter promoted the democratic participation and human rights of minorities within the multicultural region of Rojava, by means of a polity system called “democratic confederalism”. This theory aims to foster coexistence in multicultural societies by transcending the notion of the nation state. The region implemented its autonomous administration without claiming independence, but by choosing to remain part of a united Syria. In May 2014, Daesh started carrying out attacks in the region. The most notable success of the local army, the People’s Protection Unit, YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), was their resistance in the siege of Kobane, one of the three Cantons of Rojava, which lasted from September 2014 to March 2015. The resistance to the siege is considered a turning point in the war against Daesh.
Beyond the military aspect, the most remarkable feature of the region is its innovative system of governance. The system, formalised as the “Charter of Social Contract of Rojava”, was approved in January 2014. The Charter was reformed in July 2016 as the “Social Contract of Rojava – Northern Syria Democratic Federal System” (hereinafter, the Social Contract). The provisions of the reformed version, which is expected to become the definitive Constitution after popular consultation, are examined below.
The Social Contract of Rojava – Northern Syria Democratic Federal System
The first notable element that emerges in the analysis of the grundgesetz of Rojava is that, since its first version in 2014, it has been designated as a “Social Contract” instead of a “Constitution”. The wording refers directly to natural law theory. The expression “Social Contract” implies the idea of an agreement among people aimed to regulate the essential aspects of their coexistence. The name itself distinguishes it from a Constitution, which generally defines the ground norm of States. The notion of the State, and of the nation-state in particular, is presented in the Preamble of the Social Contract as the root of the crises and problems of the people of Rojava. The administration accordingly does not aim to self-proclaim an independent state. At the same time, it does not enter into conflict with the Syrian State but recognizes its territorial integrity and maintains a “tacit alliance” with the government. Article 7 of the Social Contract reiterates that the region does not aim to build a new State. Other rebel groups have criticised the PYD administration for this ambiguous relationship with Assad’s Government.
The Preamble of the 2016 Social Contract lays down a non-exhaustive list of different geographical, ethnic and religious identities living in the community. This marks an improvement from the 2014 version, which listed a closed number of identities solely on an ethnic basis. The Preamble also defines the cultural and spiritual roots of the Rojava society, with a specific reference to the “culture of Mother Goddess”, in addition to apostles, prophets and other spiritual roots, as a means of underlining respect for all spiritual beliefs. Making explicit reference to specific divinities in the constitutional document might be counter-productive for the purpose of building a secular political system, in which different faiths and beliefs coexist. The 2014 Preamble was silent about religious roots and it only called for the construction of a “society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs”.
The first 10 articles of the contract establish the basis of the coexistence between different identities within the autonomous region. Articles 10 to 13 concern ecology, protection of the environment and sustainable development. Articles 14 to 17 establish gender equality and the promotion of women participation in all areas of life: in the family as well as in political, social and cultural life. Article 18 specifically covers the promotion of the role of youth in the democratic life of the society. Articles 20 to 40 deal with civil and political rights, including the prohibition of the death penalty and of torture, the right to self-determination, and the principle of non-discrimination, against women and youth in particular. Articles 40 to 54 concern economic and social rights, from free education to specific care for people with special needs. The last part of the Social Contract regulates the institutional side of democratic confederalism: the organization of the democratic participation of people, from the local communities to the Northern Syria Federation.
Participation to the democratic process is guaranteed by a multi-level representation system. The structure consists of Communes, a Neighborhood People’s Council, a District People’s Council, and the Rojava People’s Council. Each level elects co-presidents (the plurality of presidents encourages gender equality and representation of cultural minorities) for decisions pertaining to the local community, and elects delegates which represent them at the higher administrative level. The entire system is grounded on the principles of popular participation and federalism.
Cultural Origins of the Rojava Social Contract
The Social Contract appears to be particularly innovative for the most advanced democratic standards, and more so when compared to its neighboring systems. Kurdish sources insist that the outcome of their political theory and constitutionalism is the result of a shared legislative process, which saw the participation of different parts of the society. It is important, however, not to neglect the role of the Kurdish charismatic leader Abdullah Ocalan as a theorist of the Rojava administration.
Ocalan is among the founders of PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) the Kurdish political force that fought for the independence of Kurdistan from Turkey. The PKK was included by many countries, including the European Union, on their lists of terrorist organizations for their armed attacks which targeted, amongst others, civilians. Ocalan has been detained since 1999 in an isolated Turkish facility. During his detention, Ocalan experienced a deep change in his political thought. Influenced by authors such as Bookchin, Foucault, Wallerstein, and Braudel, he abandoned the Marxist-Leninist ideology that characterized PKK, in order to promote democratic confederalism as the ideal political system to administer multicultural societies. Ocalan authored several books on the matter. In 2006, he rejected the use of violence and proposed the start of peaceful negotiations with Turkey on the Kurdish issue. The crucial novelty in the political struggle, besides the choice of nonviolence, consisted in abandoning the request to establish a Kurdish nation state.
As a former military and political leader, Ocalan maintained a strong charismatic authority on Kurdish people of Rojava, who accepted his nonviolent approach and his democratic confederalist proposal. Despite the participatory processes that characterises institution building in Rojava, the contribution of Ocalan as a political theorist remains decisive to the introduction of principles such as sustainable development, restorative justice, secularism and feminism.
Potential Broader Impact of the Political Experiment
In the midst of the armed conflict in Syria, it is difficult to foresee possible developments in the political system in Rojava. On the one hand, the local administration achieved a certain degree of stability in the region, first gaining autonomy from the central government, then defeating the attacks of Daesh.
On the other hand, the de facto authorities are seeking to improve their legitimacy in the eyes of other Syria rebel forces (which are skeptical of the ambiguous relation between Rojava and the central Government) and also those of the Rojava population, where elections shall take place in 2017.
The main challenge to the potential of the Rojava experience, however, is exclusion from representation at the negotiating table at the Geneva Peace talks, last held in February 2016 and currently suspended. The talks constitute the main international forum where the parties to the conflict in Syria (among which the Syrian government, Turkey, and various rebel groups, but not Daesh) can dialogue and negotiate. UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has accepted the request of Turkey, as well as of other Syrian opposition groups, to exclude the de facto Rojava authorities from the talks. An inclusion to the international forum would have strengthened the Rojava administration, in terms of both its stability in the field and its visibility as an ambitious model, for the international community, to administer a multicultural society.
The Social Contract of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava represents an innovative legal system, under an international law perspective, for the Middle East region and for the entire international community. The political success of the Rojava system highly depends on the developments on the field of the Syrian armed conflict. From a cultural and theoretical point of view, however, it already constitutes a model to be followed as an example to administer a democratic and multicultural society.
“We, the people of Rojava: Northern Syria, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, Chechens, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and various others”.
“We, the people of the Democratic Autonomous Regions of Afrin, Jazira and Kobane, a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens”.