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05 January 2004

Afghan Delegates Approve Country's First Constitution Since 1964

Document provides for strong presidency and two-chamber national assembly

By Stephen Kaufman

Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Afghanistan's Constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) approved a 162-article constitution January 4 establishing a presidential system of government with a bicameral legislature and paving the way for national elections later in 2004.

The approval came after three weeks of meetings in Kabul during which 502 men and women delegates, representing Afghanistan's various ethnic groups and geographic regions, debated and made compromises on a draft document before approving it by acclamation.

U.S. President George Bush congratulated the Afghan people for taking "a historic step forward" with the adoption of the new constitution. In a statement released by the White House January 4, Bush said a democratic Afghanistan "will serve the interests and just aspirations of all of the Afghan people and help ensure that terror finds no further refuge in that proud land."

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan also praised the agreement on the new constitution, Afghanistan's first since 1964, and congratulated the loya jirga delegates for completing a "difficult and complex process."

"This historic achievement represents the determination of the Afghan people to see their country transition to a stable and democratic State," he said in a U.N. statement issued January 4.

According to an article published January 4 by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), the final version of the constitution contains approximately 40 changes from the original draft that was presented at the opening of the assembly December 14.

However, the fundamental principle of having an Islamic government accountable to its citizens was upheld. According to the final document, Afghanistan will have a civil law system, but no law "can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."

According to the IWPR article, Afghanistan will have a directly elected president, two vice-presidents, and a two-chamber national assembly, comprised of the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), and the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders).

National elections for the presidency are tentatively scheduled for June 2004, as stipulated in the 2001 Bonn Agreement, and the constitution adds that "every effort shall be made" to elect the assembly at the same time. Afghan women were specifically given equal rights with men in the final document and at least two women from each province will be elected to the Wolesi Jirga, meaning they will comprise 25 percent of the lower house of the assembly.

The Afghan president will also appoint two representatives of the physically disabled and two members of the country's Kuchi nomads to the Meshrano Jirga.

The constitution recognizes fourteen different ethnic groups in the country and enacts a last-minute compromise on the country's official languages, with Dari and Pashtu being used all over Afghanistan, while six other languages, including Uzbek and Turkman, may be used in regions where they are spoken by the majority of the population.

The document also outlaws the formation of political parties according to ethnic, religious or geographic identity in an effort to reduce factionalism.

According to a January 5 New York Times article, U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, along with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad helped negotiate last-minute compromises between the delegates.

"Is the Constitution perfect? Probably not," Mr. Brahimi reportedly told delegates. "Will it be criticized? I feel it will be, inside Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan. But you have every reason to be proud and see this as a new source of hope."

In a January 4 statement to the delegates that was read on Afghan television, Ambassador Khalilzad described the document as "one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world."

"Even though you had many problems, you took advantage of the opportunity to draft a new constitution with a strong and democratic base. Through this, you evidently showed the people of the world that you are determined to establish a moderate government and society," said Khalilzad, adding that the international community "knows that you want to have a peaceful and democratic country after over 20 years of torment and pains."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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