Life-Saving Aid Still Locked Out of Besieged, Hard-to-Reach Areas in Syria, Top United Nations Humanitarian Official Tells Security Council

27 January 2016
7612th Meeting (AM)

Life-Saving Aid Still Locked Out of Besieged, Hard-to-Reach Areas in Syria, Top United Nations Humanitarian Official Tells Security Council

Also Briefing Members, Head of World Food Programme Spells Out Obstacles, Pledges Agency Will ‘Exhaust Every Means’ to Reach Needy

Despite repeated calls to the Security Council and the parties to the conflict in Syria, the humanitarian community remained without access to the majority of the estimated 4.6 million people living in besieged or hard-to-reach areas, the senior United Nations humanitarian official said today during a briefing to the 15-member body.

Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the continued suffering of the Syrian people could not be blamed on humanitarian organizations and staff, who stood ready to scale up assistance as soon as security conditions and more sustainable access would allow it.  Rather, it was the failure of the parties and the international community, all of whom had allowed the conflict to continue for far too long.

Indeed, in the upcoming political talks slated for the coming days, key stakeholders must take the “bold, unselfish and courageous” decisions necessary to end the conflict and the “unimaginable” suffering it had wrought, he said, stressing:  “We must not let this opportunity pass.”  Noting that more than 250,000 people had been killed and over 6.5 million displaced over the course of the nearly six-year-long conflict, he said that, today, some 13.5 million people were in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Since the Council’s adoption of resolution 2139 (2014), he recalled, the Secretary-General had reported every month on the parties’ disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law, on their repeated non-compliance with the Council’s demands on protection of civilians and humanitarian access, and on the humanitarian catastrophe that had ensued.  He said the recent pictures of emaciated, starving children in the besieged town of Madaya had shocked the collective conscience of the world.

Humanitarian missions to that town and to the similarly besieged areas of Zabadani, Foah and Kefraya — undertaken by the United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent over the last two weeks — had delivered sufficient food, medical and other aid to help more than 60,000 people for one month.  However, medical supplies and teams were still urgently needed and humanitarian conditions in those areas remained severe, and the situation in Madaya was only the “tip of the iceberg”.

He went on to say that increasing numbers of people were living in areas that were besieged or hard to reach, and the continuing use of siege and starvation as weapons of war was “reprehensible”.  In addition, the indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians, residential areas, aid supply routes, as well as civilian infrastructure protected under international law continued, “outrageously”, with total impunity, he noted, recalling that he had repeatedly asked the Council to demand that the parties to the conflict facilitate unhindered, unconditional and sustained access across Syria.

“But, this is simply not happening,” he continued.  In 2015, just over 10 per cent of the 113 requests for interagency convoys had been successful.  A further 10 per cent had been approved in principle, but could not proceed due to a lack of final approval, insecurity or lack of agreement on safe passage.  Almost 75 per cent of requests had gone unanswered by the Government.  “Such inaction is unacceptable for a Member State of the United Nations and a signatory of the United Nations Charter,” he stressed.

Urging States to contribute to the upcoming London donor conference, he asked those with influence over the parties to the conflict to take further steps to ensure that they complied with their obligations under international law and with Council resolution 2139 (2014).  Specifically, that would require urgent measures to ensure that the parties stop targeting civilians, facilitate full, unhindered, unconditional and sustained access to all people in need, including in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, and allow freedom of movement for civilians.

Also briefing the Council was Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), who emphasized that the situation in Syria today was more severe than it had been 10 months ago, when she had last updated members.  More than 4.6 million people were trapped in besieged or hard-to-reach areas, with an estimated 2.5 million severely food insecure inside those areas.  Every day, there were alarming reports of a lack of food, water, acute malnutrition and death.

Food security required access to water, sanitation and medical treatment, she continued, stressing:  “Let us not allow populations in other locations to suffer the same fate as Madaya.”  WFP estimated that half a million people in 18 besieged areas had been cut off from food and other crucial assistance, she said, cautioning that in many of those areas, people might already have run out of food.  “We simply do not know.”  More than half of those locations had been besieged for three years, she said.

Affected populations could be found in rural Damascus, where WFP had not been able to provide food assistance for three years and where prices were more than double, even triple, those in the capital, she said.   A checkpoint in Moadmiyah, opened in 2014, had been closed in December 2015, leaving 44,000 people besieged.  More than 60 per cent of WFP’s appeals for access had not received any answer, while meagre positive responses had been tied up in bureaucratic procedures that had resulted in zero access during the course of 2015.  However, recent breakthroughs had allowed WFP to reach 24 per cent of besieged locations in Idleb governorate.

She said half of the besieged population, some 200,000 people, were trapped in Deir-ez-Zor, which was controlled by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).  While WFP had received permission to airlift supplies into that city, a damaged runway, lack of airspace security and the inability of staff to distribute aid had left the agency powerless to help those in need.

Resolutions 2165 (2014) and 2139 (2014) “not to impede or hinder” assistance were yet to be fully realized, she said, adding:  “We do not possess the access necessary to reach the hungry.”  The physical and logistical challenges of reaching those in need often paled in comparison to the numerous checkpoints through which WFP must pass, the presence of security forces in warehouses, administrative procedures and lengthy bilateral negotiations to have “facilitation letters” signed by Government and security officials, not to mention the presence of ISIL.

She went on to underline that access must not be arbitrary nor require unreasonable approvals, pledging that WFP would continue to exhaust every means at its disposal to reach anyone in need, alongside efforts by United Nations country teams and 40 non-governmental partners.  “We need the support and action of every Council member and every Member State,” she emphasized.  Preventing a humanitarian crisis required unimpeded and sustained access in order to facilitate immediate relief, humanitarian pauses and unconditional ceasefires, thereby allowing the delivery of food and other urgent assistance to civilians.

The meeting began at 10:08 a.m. and ended at 10:40 a.m.

For information media. Not an official record.