Rojava’s Governance System
The Rojava region in Syria, under the name of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, has adopted a constitution that emphasizes direct democracy, ie public participation in decision-making, gender equality, diversity and ecology. This exemplary understanding of governance is realized through decentralisation and encouraging public participation. The Rojava constitution is a unique case of a grassroots philosophy being established as the building block of a new way of governance.
- Rojava is the northern region of Syria, which has suffered the devastating effects of the civil war like any other region in the country.
- Rojava`s constitution of 2014 exemplifies that direct democracy can be adopted as a functional system of governance.
- It is a promising way of lawmaking, showing that direct democracy, which also protects the environment and obliges gender equality can create the atmosphere of solidarity.
Rojava’s Constitution, 2014
Rojava`s constitution exemplifies that direct democracy can be adopted as a functional system of governance. It showcases a promising way of lawmaking that enables direct democracy, while also protecting the environment and encouraging gender equality. The fact that this constitution was made in a region facing war and ethnic hostility, makes the principles highlighted in it even more remarkable.
The Preamble of the constitution states the aim as establishing a new social contract which relies on environmental principles and celebration of peacefully co-existing cultures. This unique adaptation of direct democracy into an applicable governance system has gained international attention and developed a sense of solidarity within the region to allow rebuilding infrastructure through public participation.
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- Sustainability principle is highlighted in the constitution, with article 90 guaranteeing the protection of the environment and regards the protection of natural ecosystems as a moral and a sacred national duty.
- According to the article 23 of the constitution, everyone has the right to live in a healthy environment, based on ecological balance.
- Women are encouraged to participate in decision-making, which is realised through obligatory gender quotas and the co-presidency system.
- All communities have the right to use their native language. For instance, based on the demographic outlook, the official languages of the Canton of Jazira are Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac.
- According to article 42 of the constitution, the economic system of the districts are directed at providing general welfare and aiming to guarantee the daily needs of the people and to ensure they have a dignified life.
- Rojava’s constitution has a clear stance on environmental concerns and involves a protectionist approach to regulate procedures which would affect the environment.
- In accordance with the articles regulating the governance stance on ecology, building new infrastructure and factories have been subjected to environmental evaluation. For instance, in the Efrin canton, the proposal to build more than 20 oil factories was rejected due to environmental concerns. Similarly, workshops that melt lead are forbidden to protect the environment and human health.
- Allowing and encouraging public participation constitutes the basis of the constitution. Working towards achieving direct democracy, the constitution is designed in a way that assigns public participation as a compulsory process of decision-making.
- All meetings relating to any decision-making process are conducted openly. In district assembly meetings a variety of issues such as domestic violence can be raised as a topic for the agenda by individuals.
- Gender equality is taken very seriously by the constitution. The determined system of governance obliges every administrative institution to have two co-presidents, one man and one woman. Also, there is an obligatory gender quota of 40% in every official meeting both at canton and central levels to ensure gender equality.
- The principle of decentralisation allows direct democracy, while pluralism encourages diversity, creating a sense of solidarity for the public.
- According to article 32 of the constitution, freedom of association, political, economic and cultural expression of all communities is protected, in order to serve the protection of rich and diverse heritage of the region’s residents.
- According to article 34, everyone has the right to peaceful assembly, including the right to peaceful protest, demonstration and strike.
- The constitution also guarantees the rights of children, in which it forbids their economic exploitation, forced labour, torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
- The constitution aims to integrate direct democracy, environmental protection, cultural diversity, gender equality and people’s economic welfare as the legitimate way of governance.
- This system visibly improves the political climate which in turn improves security and the sense of solidarity within the region.
- The constitution takes historical inequalities such as gender and religious inequality into account and aims to include the affected groups into decision-making processes.
- The economic system defined in the constitution aims to provide general welfare and emphasizes granting funding to science and technology.
Rojava is the northeastern region of Syria, which has suffered the devastating effects of the civil war just as other regions in Syria. In 2012, when the war intensified, the central government largely pulled out of Kurdish-majority areas in the north. The power gap of the region was filled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), took control of these areas. These entities eventually established Rojava, a self-declared autonomous entity stretching across most of the northern frontier. Rojava’s constitution was introduced on 24 January 2014, based on the guiding principles of direct democracy and pluralism. No government officially recognizes Rojava as yet, although they do conduct foreign relations. Due to the ongoing war and economic scarcity, Rojava has many difficulties to overcome but nevertheless its constitution is an exemplary approach to realizing direct democracy and ecological governance.
Objectives of the constitution are declared in the Preamble, as pursuing a new system of governance and achieving pluralism and democratic participation:
In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability, the Charter proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society. It protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination.
In establishing this Charter, we declare a political system and civil administration founded upon a social contract that reconciles the rich mosaic of Syria through a transitional phase from dictatorship, civil war and destruction, to a new democratic society where civic life and social justice are preserved.
According to the Charter, governance is organized in a bottom-up understanding. The so-called communes are the building blocks of the whole structure. Each commune has 300 members and eighteen communes make up a district (canton), which is governed by the District People’s Council. The District People’s Councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. The districts then form the Legislative Assembly which decides on the central-level laws. Elections for every level of governance, including district and legislative levels, are conducted separately through direct, secret ballot.
The structure of governance is defined in article 4 of the constitution:
1- Legislative Assembly
2 – Executive Councils
3 – High Commission of Elections
4 – Supreme Constitutional Courts
5 – Municipal/Provincial Councils
The Rojava system’s impact on the region can be grouped into four main themes: decentralisation, promoting diversity, gender equality and environmental protection. Despite the ongoing civil war in Syria, Rojava’s constitution is designed to establish a sense of solidarity which has enabled a more secure daily life for the people living in the region. The general welfare principle outlined in the constitution led to reconstructing infrastructure based on public need. For instance in Efrin, there were no jobs available other than a couple craft jobs before the establishment of the constitution. Today, fifty soap factories, twenty olive oil factories, two hundred and fifty olive processing plants, seventy factories making construction material, four hundred textile workshops, eight shoe factories, five factories producing nylon, fifteen factories processing marble, two mills and two hotels have been built.
It is the first time that gender quota and public participation in decision making was introduced in the region. The results of this are remarkable; the governing bodies are now made up of a minimum 40% women, and the offices of presidency in any institution are held by women as co-presidents.
It is also the first time in the region that ethnic and religious diversity has been celebrated through legislation. For instance, the Yazidi people, who have historically been subjected to systematic oppression due to their religion, are now recognised as legitimate actors in decision-making. The Yazidi religion is recognised as an official religion and its adherents’ rights to freedom of association and expression, along with their social and cultural life are explicitly protected by the constitution.
As for the environmental impact, thanks to the precautionary approach of the constitution and assigning the protection of the environment as a sacred duty, the ecological outlook of the region is significantly positive despite the ongoing war. Regardless of the need for new infrastructure and industries, the governing bodies regulate their construction process based on the environmental principles outlined in the constitution, which will have positive effects for the environment of the region in the future.
Rojava’s system is unique in many ways however, it is already receiving attention internationally for its emphasis on gender equality and the protection of the environment. It is a promising way of lawmaking, showing that direct democracy, which also protects the environment and obliges gender equality, is applicable even in regions that have a non-democratic past.