30 March 2017
7909th Meeting (AM)

Peace in Syria ‘a Moral and Political Imperative’ that Cannot Wait, Emergency Relief Coordinator Tells Security Council

Delegations Decry Failure to Deliver, Stressing Humanitarian Disaster’s Severity

Amid hope that 2017 would bring noticeable improvements in the level of humanitarian access in Syria, the ability of the United Nations to reach millions in need was no better than this time in 2016, the Emergency Relief Coordinator told the Security Council today.

Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that, through the March inter-agency convoy plan, the United Nations had sought to reach 787,500 people through road convoys.  However, approvals had been received only for 44 per cent, or 348,200 people, the lowest approval rate since March 2016, when the monthly plan process had begun.

Presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2017/244), he said that with the month nearly over, the United Nations had reached 200,000 people against the plan, including 133,500 in Bludan and Wadi Barada in rural Damascus, and Talbisch in Homs, which he called “limited, incremental progress”, thanks to extraordinary efforts by the United Nations team.  Madaya and Zabadani in rural Damascus and Foah and Kefraya in Idleb, otherwise known as the Four Towns, as well as Khan el Shih in rural Damascus, were the only besieged areas reached through the convoy plan, which he said had been completed today.

While another convoy was to deploy today to Rastan in Homs, providing relief for more than 110,000 people, he said that, for every convoy that reached its destination, several more had been unable to deploy during the month, due to administrative delays by the Government and a refusal by non-State armed groups to cooperate with humanitarian workers.  It was essential that the Government take steps to simplify the process.  “The current bureaucratic architecture is at its best excessive and at its worst, deliberately intended to prevent convoys from proceeding,” he said.

For its part, the United Nations continued to engage authorities to find ways to improve the inter-agency convoy process, he said.  It had submitted a two-month plan for April and May, aiming to reach 1 million people in 28 besieged and hard-to-reach areas.  Aside from insecurity, there should be no compelling reason why those convoys would not be able to proceed over a two-month period.

“We will do our part to make this happen,” he said, pressing Syrian authorities to remove the requirement for multiple facilitation letters to be received for health, agricultural or water, sanitation and hygiene supplies.  He urged them to sign such letters within two days of the United Nations request, allow delivery on the basis of United Nations needs assessments and permit the loading of requested surgical and medical items.

He urged the Council to exert influence over the parties, stressing that some 13.5 million Syrians were in dire need of aid, the scale and severity of which showed no sign of dissipating.  Thanking donors for supporting the $3.4 billion Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan, he asked them to “go above and beyond” in 2017 so the United Nations could maintain critical support.

More broadly, he appealed to all parties to make the most of the 30 December 2016 ceasefire, ensuring protection for both civilians and aid delivery for all in need.  The parties must work to overcome their differences and end the conflict.  “This is the only way to stop the suffering,” he said, expressing hope that 2017 would be the year when parties regained a sense of humanity.  Peace in Syria was a moral and political imperative which could not wait.

Indeed, he said, with the conflict now in its seventh year, almost 5 million people were living as refugees, while crimes against humanity and war crimes had been committed by all parties.  “In Syria, there is not a man, woman or child from any walk of life who hasn’t been impacted by the particular wretchedness of this particularly gruesome and protracted conflict.”

Stressing that the parties currently gathered in Geneva bore a huge responsibility to bring that nightmare to an end, he declared:  “I cannot emphasize enough how high the stakes are.”  Among major concerns were the continued use of explosive weapons and ongoing military operations in populated towns and villages, as well as attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Expressing concern for the safety and protection of more than 400,000 civilians due to the military operations in Raqqa Governorate, he described a number of air strikes against schools, bakeries and markets.  He urged all parties to do their utmost to protect and spare civilians from the effects of hostilities as required — not just requested — under international humanitarian law.

He went on to draw attention to the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in besieged areas, who continued to face severe and horrific threats.  He expressed extreme concern about the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in parts of eastern Ghouta in rural Damascus, where 400,000 people were trapped by Government forces.  “The tightening of this siege has started a time bomb” for civilians there, he stressed, recalling that the last United Nations humanitarian delivery had been in October 2016.

Describing a number of other ongoing sieges, including in the Al Wa’er neighbourhood of Homs, he said a local agreement had been signed between the Government and non-State armed groups there, allowing for the evacuation of civilians and the reopening of roads.  There had been reports of similar agreements to evacuate people from the Four Towns.

Emphasizing that the United Nations had not been involved in the negotiations for those agreements, he expressed concern over any type of “surrender” agreement which could result in the decimation of an area and the forced displacement of its population.  “Any evacuation of civilians must be safe, must be voluntary and must be to a place of their choosing,” he said.

Olof Skoog (Sweden), speaking also for Egypt and Japan, said the Council had failed to deliver on its obligations to Syrians.  The scale of the humanitarian disaster was hard to imagine, with 7 million people unsure of where to find their next meal.  Despite that United Nations-led talks were in their fifth round, there had been no sustained progress on humanitarian access.  It was unacceptable that only one besieged area had been reached this month.  The Council must foster sustained access, he said, adding that he looked forward to discussing the more technical aspects for achieving that goal in consultations.

Elbio Rosselli (Uruguay) called on Syrian authorities to do their utmost to ensure unimpeded, full humanitarian access to all areas where the United Nations was prepared to deliver aid.  A lack of access to those places, owing to bureaucratic delays, was unacceptable, he said, noting that the conflict was nowhere near coming to an end.  While people in some besieged areas had been given “breathing room”, terrorist activities persisted.  He expressed concern over the conditions in which civilians had been evacuated from the Four Towns, stressing that people should be free to return to those areas when conditions permitted.

Luis Mauricio Arancibia Fernández (Bolivia) urged all parties in Syria to respect relevant Council resolutions, expressing concern over reports that parties had extracted elements of medical kits intended for civilians.  Calling for absolute, unconditional humanitarian access and an end to administrative and bureaucratic delays, he said “all actions to fight terrorism must be done in a coordinated manner with the Government in order to avoid the deaths of innocent civilians”.  While the Government was waging a valid fight against Da’esh, attacks on civilians were always unjustified.  The only way to end the conflict was through an orderly and inclusive, Syrian-led political process.

The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and ended at 10:40 a.m.

For information media. Not an official record.