Government Holding Own People Hostage, Says United States, As Russian Federation Cites Local Truces, Continuing ‘Double Standards’
Condemning the latest attacks on civilians in Syria today, the United Nations humanitarian chief told the Security Council that real progress was needed to “stymie the tide of death” in that country.
Delivering his briefing by video link from Geneva, Stephen O’Brien said military might was still being used against civilians in a way that “defies all reason”. Mr. O’Brien is the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator.
He noted that April had been another deadly month for Syrian children, many of whom had only known a country at war. A total of 67 children had been killed by a car bomb on 15 April, as they waited with their families to evacuate their besieged town, he said, adding that children had been among the dozens killed in a chemical weapons attack on 4 April. Such mindless brutality and unbridled cruelty were only compounded by the fact that leaders and commanders were often the culprits.
Urging the Government of Syria to ease administrative and bureaucratic restrictions that continued to thwart humanitarian operations, he said checkpoints still blocked the delivery of life-saving materials. And while the number of people trapped in besieged areas had dropped significantly, many of those evacuated from Idlib Governorate or northern Aleppo remained in areas where civilians came under regular aerial bombardment.
Shifting front lines warranted keeping all routes open in order to allow safe passage and the delivery of aid to civilians in need, he continued. A political agreement was the only lasting solution to the conflict, he said, emphasizing that there would be no peace as long as military tactics were prioritized over civilian lives.
In the ensuing debate, Council members expressed frustration that the global body tasked with the maintenance of international peace and security had been unable to bring any real pressure on the parties to engage in peace talks and end the carnage.
Egypt’s representative warned the Council against becoming like a media outlet that issued statements whose impact did not go beyond the headlines, asking: “What must happen before the Council takes the steps necessary to overcome narrow political interests?”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Uruguay’s representative warned against duplicity, calling upon all actors within and outside the region to stop providing support to armed groups likened to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) or Al-Nusra.
The representative of the United States said the Government of Syria was holding its people hostage, adding that President Bashar al-Assad would “tighten the noose” on their neck in order to hold on to power. She asked her Russian Federation counterpart why the most basic medical supplies were being blocked and baby formula and vaccines removed from medical kits. Cancer patients were dying from lack of chemotherapy and diabetics because their insulin was being taken off convoys, she said. “We need to put pressure on Russia,” she emphasized. “Russia continues to cover for a leader who uses chemical weapons against his people.”
However, the Russian Federation’s representative said the ceasefire reached in December was still holding, despite efforts by terrorist groups to undermine it. The reconciliation process was under way in a number of Syrian neighbourhoods where truces had been formed between local authorities and militia leaders. Local truces may not be ideal, but they were practical in terms of saving lives, a top priority. Citing continuing double standards, he pointed out that the positive results of local truces were well known around the world, including the Central African Republic.
Also speaking today were representatives of Japan, Sweden, United Kingdom, Senegal, Italy, France, Kazakhstan, China, Bolivia, Ethiopia and Ukraine.
The meeting began at 10:05 a.m. and ended at 12 noon.
STEPHEN O’BRIEN, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, spoke via video link from Geneva, recalling that 67 children had been among the 125 people killed on 15 April in a checkpoint car-bomb attack as they fled a besieged town. Humanitarians from all directions had rushed to save lives and ordinary civilians had come together to help others, he said. Out of a deplorable terrorist act “arose a testament to the Syrian spirit”.
The use of chemical weapons on 4 April had been yet another horrific incident, he continued. That mindless brutality had been deliberate, planned and predetermined — sheer unbridled cruelty, often carried out by leaders and commanders. “Military might continue to be used against civilians in a way that defies all reason,” he added, expressing grave concern over attacks against hospitals and schools. While insecurity certainly caused the humanitarian situation to deteriorate further, it was the rising use of administrative and other bureaucratic restrictions that thwarted humanitarian-response operations, he noted.
Despite such challenges, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners continued relentlessly to negotiate access, he said, stressing that real progress was needed now to stymie the tide of death. Although the number of people trapped in besieged areas now stood at just over 620,000, evacuations to get them out were not always in line with humanitarian principles. “Let us not pretend that those who evacuate move to a location of safety.” Many of those displaced to Idlib or northern Aleppo continued to live in areas where civilian structures came under regular aerial bombardment, he said, underlining the importance, given the shifting front lines, of keeping all routes open to allow for safe passage and for aid to reach those in need.
Pointing out that the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate, he urged the Council to act with urgency, emphasizing the need for a nationwide ceasefire, for the protection of civilians and for the lifting, by all parties, of arbitrary and bureaucratic impediments. It remained imperative that no country or group prevent people from moving in safety, and humanitarian organizations from gaining access to people in need. He also called for an end to the removal of medical items from humanitarian convoys. Stressing that there must be a political solution to the conflict in Syria, he said there could be no lasting peace as long as military tactics were prioritized, pointing out that military action exposed civilians to further suffering.
KORO BESSHO (Japan) recalled that the Council had heard many times that the situation in Syria could not get any worse, yet the tragic crisis continued. The many victims of that tragedy were not only ordinary civilians, but also the people trying to help them, he pointed out, adding that Eastern Ghouta was one of the most urgent concerns. Japan supported the request of the United Nations for a cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian access, he said. Although the recent Geneva talks had not yielded a breakthrough, there had been no breakdown, which implicitly affirmed that there was no military solution to the conflict. He stressed the need for truth and accountability, saying that although justice may not come immediately, it was of great importance that the United Nations and other humanitarian actors ascertain the facts on the ground because they would form the basis for accountability.
CARL SKAU (Sweden) recalled that the Council was briefed on the humanitarian situation in Syria each month, and each month the situation became more acute. More than 6 million people had been brutalized, displaced, trapped and in need of humanitarian assistance, he said, noting also that 5 million people had been driven from their homes and loved ones, forced to seek refuge in the region and beyond, waiting for the moment when they could begin to rebuild their lives. However, there seemed to be a complete disregard for the laws of war and the obligation to protect civilians, while cynical military tactics were used to gain advantage, particularly by Government forces. The deplorable situation for those relocated to Idlib was of grave concern, he said, calling for an end to regime air strikes on hospitals and schools there. The deteriorating situation in Eastern Ghouta was also of concern and access constraints to areas besieged by the Government were cause for increasing worry, he said.
AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA (Egypt) expressed regret that Council meetings and outcomes had brought no real pressure to bear on the parties to engage in serious political negotiations. Also, the Council’s efforts had not prevented the two horrific attacks on civilians earlier this month that had resulted in the deaths of more innocent children, women and men. The Council should not become a media outlet issuing statements whose impact did not go beyond the headlines, he emphasized, cautioning that its efforts were steadily moving towards that fate. What must happen before the Council took the steps necessary to overcome narrow political interests? While Egypt deeply regretted the ongoing human suffering, the briefing just delivered was “no different than previous briefings”. Calling on all parties to combat terrorist activities and confront armed groups and militia not governed by reason or law, he emphasized that outside funding and sponsorship of terrorism in Syria was not an illusion, but a fact.
MATTHEW RYCROFT (United Kingdom) condemned the terrorist attack carried out against desperate civilians as they were being evacuated earlier this month. It was utterly tragic that more than 120 people, including women and children, had been killed in the incident. Describing the regime’s continuing attacks against hospitals and schools as utterly deplorable, he said they brought into “laser focus” the urgent and desperate humanitarian needs of millions of Syrians needing food, water and medicine. Some 5 million Syrians lived in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, yet only a tiny proportion of assistance was reaching those who most needed it, he said, adding that the Syrian regime was using abhorrent “starve-or-surrender tactics”. Voicing his delegation’s full support for a pause in the fighting to allow the United Nations and its partners to reach Eastern Ghouta, he called on the Security Council to ensure the Organization’s ability to deliver urgently needed supplies to Douma.
GORGUI CISS (Senegal) said combating Da’esh and the Al-Nusra Front must be done with a strategy that upheld international law and relevant Security Council resolutions. Voicing support for an independent investigation of all crimes committed against Syrian children, he also stressed that fact-finding missions would shed full light on the chemical attack and bring to justice the perpetrators. While welcoming efforts made by the Russian Federation and Turkey in securing a ceasefire agreement, he said it had been brought into question with the renewed fighting. Over 400,000 people were besieged in Eastern Ghouta, where many hospitals had been damaged; people were in dire need of aid. Nonetheless, despite the many security challenges and bureaucratic impediments the United Nations and its partners continued to push forth with humanitarian supplies and deliveries. He called on all parties to the Syrian conflict to uphold their obligations to international humanitarian and human rights law. The only political solution to the crisis was a negotiated political one implemented under the auspices of the United Nations.
LUIS BERMÚDEZ (Uruguay), warning against duplicity, called on all actors, within and outside the region, to cease providing support to armed groups likened to Da’esh or Al-Nusra. He also commended the efforts of the Russian Federation, Turkey and Kazakhstan in working towards a political transition in Syria. Political process and cessation of hostilities were needed to turn the page in Syrian history. Addressing the humanitarian situation required sustained and unfettered access to those in need. Over the past seven years, the world had witnessed the most serious violations of humanitarian law committed by all sides of the conflict. Civilians continued to be prone to indiscriminate bombings, he said, condemning the chemical attack of 4 April. Those responsible for that war crime must be held to account. Forced displacements could also be deemed a war crime and evacuations must be carried out safely. Syrian authorities must minimize bureaucratic impediments.
SEBASTIANO CARDI (Italy) said that the conflict in Syria had resulted in unspeakable levels of human suffering and death. The carnage, which had reached new levels following the chemical attack carried out earlier this month, offended all of humanity and undermined efforts to reach a solution. It was important to focus on besieged areas, including Eastern Ghouta, where the situation was clearly worsening. Convoys were ready to deliver much-needed assistance to Douma and elsewhere but could not proceed. There must be a cessation of hostilities so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to Eastern Ghouta, which could not become the next Aleppo. Evacuations that followed agreements not involving the United Nations must still respect humanitarian principles. The instability in Syria radiated far beyond that country, be it in the form of terrorism or uncontrolled flows of refugees. Legal and safe ways that ensured people could flee conflict were paramount. The Italian Government had launched a programme called Humanitarian Corridors that allowed for safe and legal entry into Italy as an act of solidarity and a means to counter trafficking. Improving the humanitarian situation would be key to creating a constructive environment in Geneva, where talks would resume.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) noted that the French Minister for Foreign Affairs had revealed information yesterday regarding the 4 April chemical attack and the use of sarin gas by the regime, which needed to be held accountable for those crimes. The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons must remain a universal condition for the international community. He also recalled the attack on a civilian convoy earlier in the month that resulted in the deaths of at least 130 people. The price being paid by the population was intolerable. More than 11,000 people had been evacuated from the Four Towns. Such evacuations must be carried out in a voluntary manner. Forced displacement of populations could constitute war crimes. Furthermore, the use of hunger as a weapon of war, as well as hampering access to those in need could also constitute war crimes. Stressing that he was particularly troubled by the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta, he pointed out that the Government continued to refuse the authorization of medication and medical kits in humanitarian convoys. That was unacceptable. Tangible and lasting improvement of the situation in Syria would only be possible with a political solution to the crisis, based on a political transition in the country.
BARLYBAY SADYKOV (Kazakhstan) expressed concern about the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, saying it required serious action, including urgent progress on the ceasefire and guarantees of safety for humanitarians. Expressing concern over continuing indiscriminate attacks on civilians, he called upon all parties to protect civilians, including members of different ethnic groups and communities, in compliance with their obligation under international law. There could be no military solution to the Syrian conflict, he emphasized, adding that the only solution would be a political one, based on the Geneva talks and carried out under the auspices of the United Nations.
ZHANG DIANBIN (China) urged all parties to find a political solution through dialogue and consultations, adding that they must coordinate actively with United Nations humanitarian agencies to allow unimpeded access to civilians. Meanwhile, the international community must remain committed to the political solution, he said, calling on all relevant parties to remain firm in their diplomatic efforts and continue to support the United Nations role. The next round of talks in Geneva must be based on “Syria-led, Syria-owned” solutions, he stressed. He condemned the recent terrorist attack against evacuating civilians and pledged China’s support in helping to find a just solution to the conflict.
PEDRO LUIS INCHAUSTE JORDÁN (Bolivia) urged all parties to respect the ceasefire agreement, describing it as vital to the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Recognizing the work carried out by international aid organizations, he commended their efforts to alleviate the Syrian people’s suffering, while condemning both the 15 April attack on evacuating civilians and the chemical attack on 4 April. The use of chemical weapons was a clear violation of international law, he emphasized, calling for an independent and impartial investigation.
MAHLET GUADEY (Ethiopia) said the ongoing fighting and increased militarization on the ground was deeply troubling, having resulted in untold civilian deaths and destruction. In that context, the protection of civilians was still a matter of paramount importance, she said, emphasizing that reaching those in need remained a critical challenge due to insecurity and bureaucratic impediments. Although the United Nations must continue its engagement with the Syrian Government to facilitate the delivery of assistance, only a lasting solution forged through political dialogue would end the daily suffering of the Syrian people, she said. While the Syrians themselves had primary responsibility for ending the conflict, the international community had an essential role to play in helping the country find a lasting solution.
YURIY VITRENKO (Ukraine) recalled that the Council had said time and again that the sieges in Syria must be lifted, and that humanitarian access must be granted and upheld in a sustainable manner. “Yet, here we are,” he said, emphasizing his delegation’s dismay over recent reports of Syrian or Russian air strikes on a hospital in rebel-held Idlib Governorate that had killed more than a dozen people, including patients. Strongly condemning the continuing violence against civilians, he said they had suffered immensely throughout the brutal war. Attacking medical facilities and schools was a deliberate tactic of the Assad regime and its allies that carried fundamental risks not only for Syria’s long-term stability, but also that of the entire region, he warned.
PETR V. ILIICHEV (Russian Federation) said that the 30 December cessation of hostilities was holding, although there had been instances of terrorist groups attempting to undermine it. That escalation had had a negative impact on the humanitarian situation, and emotional calls against Syria and its guarantors did not help. The Russian Federation was carrying out its obligations in good faith, although it seemed other actors were unwilling to meet it halfway. Progress had been made on humanitarian access over the past month, he said, cautioning that hoping for instant results was unrealistic, given the delicate nature of the situation. “Brash PR campaigns are not going to help here,” he emphasized, pointing out that the provocative actions of opposition fighters were complicating the situation. Conducting humanitarian convoys in a conflict zone clearly came with risk, and did not always play out as planned on paper.
He went on to state that the reconciliation process was under way in a number of Syrian neighbourhoods. Truces had been formed between local authorities and militia leaders, and many former fighters had returned to a peaceful way of life, thanks to the Government’s offer of amnesty. Although local truces may not be ideal, they were practical in terms of saving lives, he said, noting that local agreements between the Government and opposition groups were aimed at avoiding further causalities. “Double standards continue to be striking here,” he said, adding that the positive results of local truces were well known in places around the world, including the Central African Republic.
Expressing serious concern about the situation in northern Syria, where several military operations were under way, including by the so-called Coalition and without the Government’s consent, he said that peaceful civilians had been killed during the bombing and vital infrastructure destroyed. It must not be forgotten that there was no way to know what was going on in territories still controlled by terrorists, or how people were living due to lack of access by the United Nations and others. Facts were sometimes falsified facts in humanitarian reports, he said, expressing disappointment about the lack of data on what had been discovered in East Aleppo following its liberation, including stockpiles of medication for the exclusive use of terrorist groups. The United Nations and other humanitarian organizations were working cooperatively to restore normal life to the Syrian people, he said, while noting that certain non-governmental organizations continued to violate Syria’s sovereignty by carrying out political activities in areas not controlled by the Government.
NIKKI HALEY (United States), Council President for April, spoke in her national capacity, saying that images of children suffering and dying from chemical weapons would never be forgotten. However, a quieter death was sweeping across Syria, he said, adding that the country’s Government was holding people hostage in order to attain President Assad’s political goals. He would “tighten the noose on the neck of his own people” to hold on to power, she added. In a reoccurring trend, Government forces first surrounded towns and villages, and the United Nations asked to bring in relief, which met with increasing bureaucratic challenges, she said. The United Nations mission was a humanitarian one, but the regime continued to hinder its work while hiding behind checkpoints.
She went on to state that Government forces continued to remove baby formula and vaccines from medical kits, asking the Russian Federation’s representative to explain why the most basic medical supplies were being blocked. People were profiting from the suffering and dying of the Syrian people and none of it was being prevented or condemned by the Russian Federation. Cancer patients were dying from lack of chemotherapy and diabetics because their insulin was being taken off convoys, she said.
Such atrocities occurred every day in Syria, but did not make headlines, she continued. The Russian Federation must deliver on its promises, and Syrians in desperate need of humanitarian assistance must gain access to aid. “We talk about this so much, and every time we talk about it, more people die,” she said, asking “where has less criticism of Assad gotten us?” She added: “We need to put pressure on Russia because Russia continues to cover for a leader who uses chemical weapons against his people.”
The representative of the Russian Federation took the floor a second time, pointing out that his country, as well as Turkey and Iran, were bearing their weight of work to ensure compliance with the ceasefire. However, neither the United States nor any other Western Security Council colleague had proposed any solutions today, he emphasized, pointing out that they had also failed to share how they were weighing their influence on moderate and non-moderate fighters that they had supported and continued to support.