Starvation by Siege Now ‘Systematic’ in Syria, Assistant Secretary-General Tells Security Council, amid Warnings that Tactic Could Be War Crime

15 January 2016
SC/12203

Starvation by Siege Now ‘Systematic’ in Syria, Assistant Secretary-General Tells Security Council, amid Warnings that Tactic Could Be War Crime

7605th Meeting (PM)

Delegations Welcome Long-Awaited Aid Delivery to People in Hardest-to-Reach Areas

Siege and starvation had become systematic in Syria, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs told the Security Council today during a meeting that heard calls for immediate, unhindered access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to besieged and hard-to-reach areas of the country, as well as warnings that using starvation as a weapon amounted to a war crime.

Providing the Council with an update in a meeting called by France and the United Kingdom, Assistant Secretary-General Kyung-wha Kang, who is also the United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, described the “nightmarish” reality of civilian life, emphasizing that no rationale could justify the prevention of aid reaching those in need.  The fault lay with the parties maintaining siege situations, which meant all sides, including the Government of Syria, which bore the primary responsibility for protecting its people.

Some 400,000 people were trapped in besieged areas, including towns and villages controlled by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), Government or allied forces and non-State armed groups, she said.  Some 4.5 million lived in hard-to-reach areas and were subjected to various restrictions, including the deliberate obstruction of aid delivery.  In Madaya, the world had seen harrowing images of malnutrition and hunger.

Against that backdrop, she said, interagency convoys had reached Madaya and surrounding areas on 11 and 14 January, while four convoys had reached Kefraya with food, medicine and non-food items.  The third part of the series of convoys had carried humanitarian assistance to 37,000 people in Homs governorate.  “Food, water and medicine are not bargaining chips or favours that parties to conflict can grant or deny at will,” she stressed.  They were the very essence of the right to survival, which the Council had a responsibility to protect.  “You cannot let more people die under your watch,” she declared.  The Council — and those supporting the warring parties — must place Syria on a firm path to peace, end the practice of siege and starvation and adhere to international humanitarian law.

During the ensuing debate, speakers described the Syrian crisis as the “worst tragedy of the century”, with many calling the use of famine as a weapon a war crime and renewing appeals for an immediate halt to attacks against civilians.  While welcoming the arrival of aid into the besieged areas, several speakers said that such “ad hoc” deliveries were not enough, and called upon those with influence over the parties to help ensure that they allowed access.

Egypt’s representative condemned the targeting and exploitation of civilians as a tactic of war, saying that his country had established contacts with the United Nations, businessmen, opposition members and Government representatives inside Syria, in relation to attempts to reach those in besieged areas, regardless of their affiliation.  Humanitarian efforts must rise above political differences, he emphasized.

Several speakers cautioned against politicizing the crisis, with the representative of the Russian Federation pointing out that two meetings on the Syrian situation in less than a week appeared to be an attempt to derail the 25 January launch of the intra-Syrian dialogue by those who did not like the Vienna agreements and could not abandon plans for a forceful solution to the crisis.  There was no alternative intergovernmental cooperation, including through military presences, in combating terrorists, he said, adding that the Russian Federation’s proposals in that regard were on the table.

The representative of the United States said that assistance delivered to besieged towns this week was not nearly enough, and had arrived “far too late”.  At least 32 people, including infants, had died in Madaya over the last 30 days, and the only two doctors in the town of 40,000 people had limited ability to treat the sick.  She urged a re-examination of unsuccessful humanitarian strategies and called upon Member States to unite in exerting pressure on the Syrian Government — or any party over which they had influence — to allow humanitarian access.

Syria’s representative called for tackling the root cause of the conflict — terrorism — saying that the humanitarian disaster had arisen after terrorist groups had entered the country.  The Government had deployed all its resources to help all those in need, without discrimination, having coordinated with the United Nations to provide assistance to millions of people.  The idea that access to troubled areas could be achieved if the Government accepted all United Nations demands was simplistic, he said, emphasizing that some considerations, including the presence of terrorist groups, could not be ignored.

Also speaking today were representatives of France, United Kingdom, Spain, New Zealand, Senegal, China, Venezuela, Japan, Ukraine, Angola, Malaysia and Uruguay.

The meeting began at 3:08 p.m. and ended at 5 p.m.

Briefing

KYUNG-WHA KANG, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, spoke on behalf of Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, emphasizing that for more than four years, the humanitarian community had sounded the alarm about the impact of the Syrian conflict on civilians.  Scores of reports and countless statements had described the destitution faced by civilians, who must be protected and provided with access to humanitarian assistance.  “Our requests have mostly gone unanswered,” with people living in a nightmarish reality that obeyed no laws, she said.  In Madaya, the world had seen harrowing images of malnutrition and hunger.  Siege and starvation had become routine and systematic, and their barbarity could not be overstated.  Parties to the conflict had launched a war against men, women and children with “callous indifference” to their lives.

There was no rationale or explanation for preventing the provision of aid to people in need, she said, emphasizing that such actions were in violation of international law and must stop immediately.  The fault lay with the party maintaining the siege, but as the Secretary-General had stated yesterday, all sides, including the Government of Syria, which bore the primary responsibility for protecting its people, were committing atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.  Some 400,000 people were trapped in besieged areas, including towns and villages controlled by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), Government or allied forces and non-State armed groups.  The United Nations estimated that 4.5 million people lived in hard-to-reach areas and were subjected to various restrictions that limited access to assistance.  That included the deliberate obstruction of aid delivery, including the removal or denial of medical or surgical supplies from aid convoys.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other agencies had worked tirelessly for more than four years to bring life-saving aid to those in need, including food for more than 6 million people each month and non-food items for over 4.8 million others.

She went on to note that on 11 and 14 January, interagency convoys had reached Madaya and surrounding areas, while four convoys had reached Kefraya with food, medicine and non-food items.  The third part of the convoy series had brought humanitarian assistance to 37,000 people in Homs governorate, deliveries which had helped to save thousands of lives.  However, more than 80 humanitarian workers had been killed since the beginning of the conflict.  The siege of Madaya had resulted in loss of life, as well as acute malnutrition, which could lead to death.  Teams continued to provide urgent treatment, conduct screening and negotiate for timely medical evacuations.  Almost 390 patients had been screened, 9 had been evacuated and at least 19 others were in need of urgent evacuation, requested by the United Nations, to a safe place for treatment and sustained access for aid workers.

However, those were but a trickle, she said, stressing that, throughout 2015, 80 out of 113 requests for cross-line convoys to enter besieged areas had gone unanswered.  Those and other outstanding requests must be urgently approved, while slow bureaucratic handling of humanitarian procedures must be streamlined.  “Food, water and medicine are not bargaining chips or favours that parties to conflict can grant or deny at will,” she stressed.  They were basic supplies that were the very essence of the right to survival, which the Council had a responsibility to protect.  “You cannot let more people die under your watch,” she declared, adding that there was no alternative to a negotiated political solution.  Calling upon the Council and those supporting the warring parties to place Syria on a firm path to peace, she said they must also end the practice of siege and starvation and adhere to international humanitarian law by guaranteeing unhindered and sustained access to all in need.  Additionally, they must allow freedom of movement for civilians entering and exiting besieged and hard-to-reach areas, and protect civilians against violence, including indiscriminate attacks and the use of landmines in populated areas.

Statements

FRANÇOIS DELLATRE (France), describing the situation in Syria as the “worst tragedy of the century”, said today’s emergency meeting had a number of objectives:  to maximize the pressure that the Council could exert for the immediate lifting of sieges and the provision of emergency assistance to all, and the launching of an intra-Syrian dialogue within the next few days.  There would be no political progress without tangible progress on the humanitarian track, he emphasized, noting that the most vulnerable individuals, and the first victims, were women and children, dying because hunger had been used as a weapon of war.  Stressing the need for permanent, unrestricted access for humanitarian workers, he said the primary responsibility in that regard lay with the Syrian regime.  There had been 91 recent requests for interagency convoys, but only 13 had actually been sent.  Access to emergency assistance could not be seen as a favour or concession granted by the regime, but must be viewed as an obligation that stemmed from the Geneva Conventions.  The use of famine as a weapon of war was a war crime, he noted, renewing calls for an immediate end to attacks on civilian populations, including the use of barrel bombs.

PETER WILSON (United Kingdom) said that images of emaciated men, women and children starving to death “evoke some of the darkest moments of our history”.  What was happening should not take place in the twenty-first century.  Welcoming the fact that interagency partners had found a way into the besieged areas, including Madaya, he stressed that “ad hoc” deliveries were not enough.  Madaya was just the tip of the iceberg, representing a tiny percentage of Syria’s hard-to-reach areas.  “With the eyes of the world on us today, let us send a clear message to the warring parties” that the use of hunger as a weapon of war was unacceptable under international law.  Council members with influence over the parties should use it to ensure that they allowed access.  The sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis should serve as a reminder to support the Syrian emergency appeal, he said, adding that the London Conference slated for next month was about donor pledges, but it was also the moment to address longer-term needs.  Leaders from 70 counties, as well as representatives of civil society and the private sector, would rally support for mitigating the impact of the worst humanitarian abuses.  The ultimate solution to Madaya’s woes lay in reaching a political agreement.  “We also need to work now to ensure that communities are protected.”

ROMÁN OYARZUN MARCHESI (Spain), categorically condemning the use of hunger as a tactic of war, said the international community must address two questions:  what could be done to improve the humanitarian situation, and what could be done to halt the conflict.  As the Council’s penholder on the situation in Syria, Spain had been in close touch with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs as convoys had entered Syria in recent days, but something was wrong if the Office could only reach a small percentage of those in need, he said, pointing out that Madaya accounted for only 10 per cent of the Syrian population under siege.  He called upon the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to identify other high-risk areas and to deliver its analysis to the Council next week in an oral briefing.  “We are at a critical juncture” with regard to the political process in Syria, he said.  The parties must fulfil their obligations, in line with humanitarian law, in particular the use of barrel bombs.

GERARD JACOBUS VAN BOHEMEN (New Zealand) said the entry of a second convoy into Madaya, Foua and Kefraya, and the planning of a third convoy in the next few days, was “just the tip of the iceberg”.  Humanitarian workers needed safe, unimpeded and sustained access to the nearly 400,000 people trapped in besieged areas throughout Syria.  The Government was responsible for besieging some areas, while other parties, such as ISIL and various other opposition groups, were also using siege tactics.  “Tit-for-tat granting of humanitarian access is unacceptable,” he added, stressing that “civilians should not be used as pawns”.  He urged the Syrian authorities to immediately grant requests for medical evacuation of the sick, declaring:  “We simply cannot accept that administrative hurdles continue to block humanitarian assistance from reaching those in need.”  Intentionally starving civilians as a method of warfare had happened repeatedly during the Syrian conflict; that tactic constituted a violation of international humanitarian law, as well as the Council’s resolutions, and may constitute a war crime.  New Zealand and Spain intended to invite the World Food Programme (WFP) to brief the Council on access to food in besieged areas, during the next humanitarian consultations on Syria, scheduled for 27 January.  In the meantime, Spain demanded that the Government and other parties immediately lift all sieges and allow the free movement of civilians and life-saving goods.  He further expressed interest in hearing the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs view on the potential operational advantages and challenges of delivering assistance via airdrop.

FODÉ SECK (Senegal) said the fact the Council was addressing the issue twice in less than a week demonstrated the international concern over the suffering of Syrians.  “We must act promptly,” he emphasized, expressing concern over the 400,000 people in besieged or hard-to-reach places and calling for the implementation of resolution 2258 (2015), which urged all parties immediately to implement their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law.  Noting that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and others had launched an appeal on 12 January to raise $8 billion for 2016, he said that addressing the humanitarian situation of refugees and internally displaced persons could precede, or complement, the political process.

LIU JIEYI (China) urged the parties to implement relevant Council resolutions and work with the United Nations and humanitarian agencies to provide relief for all besieged areas.  Expressing hope that the upcoming pledging conference on Syria would show positive results, he said China, through various channels on nine occasions, had provided humanitarian assistance totalling ¥685 million.  China was ready to play its part in easing the humanitarian crisis, but a political solution was the only way to resolve all questions about Syria, including the humanitarian dimension, and the international community must continue to seek one.  Council resolution 2254 (2015) was the first such text on the Syrian political process, consolidating an understanding of a political solution.  Describing its adoption as “a hard-won result”, he said the priority was to keep positive momentum alive.

AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA (Egypt) condemned the targeting and exploitation of civilians as a war tactic, saying it was characterized by starvation, siege and the use of people as human shields.  In Syria, Egypt had established extensive contacts with the United Nations, businessmen, opposition members and Government representatives in relation to attempts to reach those in besieged areas, regardless of their affiliation, he said, adding that “humanitarian work should rise above political differences”.  The Council must remain united on that issue, especially as certain countries attempted to take advantage of political situations.  He called upon the parties concerned to refrain from politicizing the crisis or using it as a means to exert pressure because that would only cause further civilian suffering.  Ending the suffering required a political solution that would halt the conflict and lay the basis for a democratic State.  In that context, Egypt appealed to the Council and the International Support Group for Syria to do their utmost to preserve the political path and the plan of action agreed in the Vienna process, he said.  All parties should work towards that goal, he added, cautioning that any attempts to derail such efforts would only perpetuate the crisis.

RAFAEL DARÍO RAMÍREZ CARREÑO (Venezuela) rejected the siege tactics adopted by a number of armed groups against Syrian civilians, saying they constituted war crimes.  The conflict was highly complex and “we must refrain from politicizing human rights”, he emphasized, expressing hope that cooperation between the Government and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs would continue.  He voiced regret about the politicization of the overall situation in Syria, saying it had been taking place since the beginning of the conflict.  Humanitarian assistance must be provided to all those in need and to those who had fled the country, he said.  Welcoming the Syrian Government’s positive response to facilitate access to joint humanitarian convoys, he said that access should be extended to the entire conflict area.  Non-State actors must provide guarantees of safety to ensure that aid reached those in need, and that humanitarian staff would not be at risk.  Syria and its population had been struck by the “barbarity” of terrorist groups over the past five years, yet some countries still portrayed the leaders of such groups as “moderates”, with the goal of promoting certain political aims.  The solution to the humanitarian crisis was closely tied to the ceasefire called for by resolution 2254 (2015), and the Council must fulfil its responsibility to restore peace to Syria.  Efforts must be coordinated and the momentum built last December maintained, he said, stressing that the Council must remain united in its support for a political solution to the crisis.

MOTOHIDE YOSHIKAWA (Japan) said the dire humanitarian situation in Syria must be addressed, regardless of the political process, the success of which depended on the support of the Syrian people.  The Council’s goal was to end their suffering.  Indiscriminate attacks against civilians and impediments to humanitarian access undermined the mutual confidence necessary for a political solution.  Noting that the Syrian Government bore the main responsibility of protecting its citizens, he called upon all parties to provide rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access.  Calling especially upon States that were member of the International Support Group for Syria to use their influence to that end, he said Japan had disbursed more than $1.1 billion in humanitarian assistance, including food, sanitation and education aid to Syrians and neighbouring countries hosting Syrian refugees.  Expressing concern that only 43 per cent of funding needs for the Syria Response Plan had been met, he said his country would announce a substantial new package at the upcoming London Conference, pending approval from the Diet.

VOLODYMYR YELCHENKO (Ukraine) compared the “savagery” of the siege of Madaya to Nazi atrocities committed during the Second World War, saying there were voices among Council members that still tried to justify the Syrian regime’s actions.  Air strikes were “as far from ISIL strongholds as possible”, he said, adding that if the regime wanted to fight Islamic State, its planes should fly to Raqqa.  “If not, then they should stop pretending.”  Welcoming the delivery of a second batch of humanitarian assistance to Madaya, he called upon the regime to demonstrate consistency in ensuring the United Nations with unhindered access to the town.  In addition, those responsible for the siege must be prosecuted, he emphasized, reminding everyone in Syria, and especially the regime, that deliberate use of starvation as a weapon was a war crime with no statute of limitations.  It was an obligation of the Council to come up quickly with a document establishing stronger responsibility and accountability against those who used that tactic as a method of warfare in Syria.

VLADIMIR SAFRONKOV (Russian Federation) urged all parties to the conflict, as well as States influencing them, to make all efforts to provide basic necessities to besieged areas, noting that his Government was prompting the Syrian authorities to work with United Nations humanitarian structures.  Noting that Al-Nusrah, ISIL, Ahar al-Sham and Jisr al-Islam were using city inhabitants as human shields and looting humanitarian convoys, he said that even groups acting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army were guilty of such behaviour.  He called for a comprehensive approach that would take the region’s realities into account.  Madaya had been discussed today, but there had been no mention of Al Hosn al Zahra in Aleppo Province, where tens of thousands of people were suffering.  Humanitarian shipments to problem areas had occurred with the help of the Syrian authorities, a fact confirmed by United Nations humanitarian staff, he said, noting that a second convoy had been sent and a third was being prepared for 17 January.

He went on to state that Russian armed forces had launched humanitarian operations, sending aid to an area besieged by terrorists, yet not a word had been said about that today.  Some 22 tons of cargo had been delivered, he added.  Noting that it was unusual for the Council to meet twice in one week on the situation, especially since it would discuss the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian crisis on 27 January, he said it appeared that attempts were being made to derail the launch of the intra-Syrian dialogue planned for 25 January, in contravention of resolution 2254 (2015), by using the “dishonest” tactic of politicizing humanitarian issues.  Behind such actions were those who did not like the Vienna agreements and could not abandon plans for a forcible solution to the Syrian conflict.  He called for a list of Syrian delegations to attend talks and a consolidated list of terrorist organizations active in Syria.  Stressing that there was no alternative to broad intergovernmental cooperation, including through military presences, in fighting terrorists, he said the Russian Federation’s proposals for such purposes were on the table.

ISMAEL ABARAÃO GASPAR MARTINS (Angola) said it was “absolutely unacceptable by any standards” to allow hundreds of thousands to continue living in besieged and hard-to-reach areas across Syria without access to humanitarian assistance.  Member States must apply the appropriate political pressure to decisively end that tragic state of affairs.  Commending the outstanding efforts of the humanitarian community, which continued to work “against all odds”, he expressed hope that increased pressure would force Government and opposition forces to allow humanitarian aid to reach besieged areas.  In an eloquent statement yesterday, the Secretary-General had described the situation in such areas as a “shocking depth of inhumanity”, he recalled, stressing that the warring parties must demonstrate genuine commitment to the basic tenets of international humanitarian and human rights law.  Angola hoped that the Special Envoy’s preparations for the forthcoming talks in Geneva would continue unhindered, and that a political solution to the catastrophe could be reached as quickly as possible.  With the adoption of Council resolution 2254 (2015) a commitment had been made to move the political process ahead expeditiously, he said, reiterating that the necessary pressure must be applied to all parties in order to ensure the lifting of all sieges and agreement on a political settlement.

RAMLAN BIN IBRAHIM (Malaysia) joined other speakers in deploring the unacceptable humanitarian costs of the long-standing Syrian conflict.  It was unimaginable that in the twenty-first century, parties to conflict would resort to such tactics as besieging whole cities and starving populations, including women and children.  Welcoming the successful humanitarian missions to Madaya and other towns, he called upon the parties to ensure that they continued unimpeded.  All the parties had an unequivocal responsibility to protect civilians at all times, he stressed, adding that, in addition to their daily struggle for survival, the situation of ordinary Syrians was becoming more precarious with the onset of winter.  Malaysia supported the initiative led by the International Support Group for Syria to resolve the conflict, as stipulated in Council resolution 2254 (2015), and called upon all parties to take part in the upcoming talks.  However, the dire humanitarian situation required urgent action by the international community, and in that regard, Malaysia called upon States with influence over the parties to do their utmost to ensure that the sieges ended and that humanitarian assistance was accessible to all.

MICHELE SISON (United States) said the world had been profoundly shaken by the “sheer brutality” of the Assad regime in Syria.  Most disturbing was that it was not just one single instance of horror and cruelty, but part of a “deliberate and systematic” strategy.  Over the last year, the suffering of Syrians had deepened to outrageous levels, she said.  The assistance that had entered besieged towns this week was not nearly enough, and had arrived far too late.  At least 32 people, including infants, had died over the last 30 days in Madaya, and the only two doctors in the town of 40,000 people had limited ability to treat the sick and weakened population because the local health centre had been destroyed.

The stories of horror had become “chillingly commonplace”, but “they cannot make us become numb”, she continued.  The Council must demand, as a moral imperative, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all Syrians in need.  “One-off deliveries are not a solution,” she stressed, calling for a re-examination of the humanitarian strategies that had not worked in 2015.  The only way to stop the violence and end the conflict was a negotiated political transition, as outlined in resolution 2254 (2015), but in the meantime, Syrians could not wait for humanitarian assistance, she emphasized.  Member States must unite in exerting pressure on the Syrian Government — or any party over which they had influence — to allow humanitarian access.

ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay), Council President, spoke in his national capacity, noting that the humanitarian situation was being exacerbated by the actions of the Government, rebel groups and terrorist organizations.  Demanding that all parties cease impeding humanitarian access to those under siege, regardless of who was besieging them, he described the situation in Madaya and other areas as “totally unacceptable”, emphasizing that there must be no further delays in granting requests for access.  Noting that the delays constituted a war crime and a breach of international humanitarian law, he stressed that, sooner or later, the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

MOUNZER MOUNZER (Syria) said the avoidance of politicization and double standards was integral to United Nations guidelines on the delivery of humanitarian assistance, yet some used humanitarian issues to further their political agendas.  Such actions were immoral because they used suffering to score political goals.  Those wishing to help Syrians must tackle the root cause of the conflict — terrorism, he emphasized.  Syria’s humanitarian disaster had arisen after terrorist groups had entered the country, he recalled, adding that, prior to that, Syrians had enjoyed a safe, secure and dignified life.

He went on to state that the Government had deployed all its resources to provide assistance to all those in need, without discrimination.  It had coordinated with the six United Nations humanitarian assistance plans for providing assistance to millions of people.  The Government had financed most of the emergency aid, because the response to the humanitarian appeal had been insufficient.  Some tried to say that access to troubled areas could be gained if the Government accepted all United Nations demands, but that was a simplistic view because some considerations could not be ignored, including delivery to areas where terrorist groups were active.

Military actions were being undertaken to combat those groups, he continued.  Terrorists had also seized assistance destined for Madaya, having looted houses for food and sold it at exorbitant prices.  “No one can claim to care about our people more than we do,” he said, noting that the Government, in cooperation with the United Nations and others, had facilitated the provision of three aid shipments starting on 18 October, the last of which had arrived on 14 January.  Syria had sent a letter to the United Nations to ensure that the aid was delivered to Madaya, he said, adding that food had been delivered to other cities three days later.  Yet, Syria had not received a response, he noted.

For information media. Not an official record.