‘You Can Still Save Lives’, Emergency Relief Coordinator Stresses, Citing Thousands of Messages to His Office from Civilians under Bombardment
Despite pleas for an immediate, united call to action to stop the bloodshed and killing that was plunging parts of Syria into “hell on Earth”, the Security Council remained divided in how to effectively halt hostilities in eastern Ghouta, where thousands remained trapped amid ongoing bombardment.
“You can still save lives in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere in Syria,” said Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefing the Council, via videoconference from Geneva, on the current situation in that suburban city, 15 kilometres east of Damascus. “I urge you to do so. Millions of battered and beleaguered children, women and men depend on meaningful action by this Council.”
Citing the thousands of messages his office had received from civilians under bombardment in eastern Ghouta, Mr. Lowcock said United Nations agencies had described a picture of hell on Earth. There must now be a sustained cessation of hostilities enabling immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained deliveries of humanitarian aid, evacuation of the critically sick and wounded and an alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people.
Following the briefing, Council members expressed their horror at the unfolding situation and discussed how best to proceed. Members agreed there was only a political solution to the crisis, with many urging a genuine willingness, especially from those with influence, to move in that direction. Many requested an immediate vote for and the adoption of a draft resolution that called for a 30-day ceasefire in eastern Ghouta to allow for aid delivery and civilian evacuations.
However, some members raised concerns. The Russian Federation’s delegate said all facts must be considered, including that some actors in Syria — including the White Helmets — cloaked themselves as humanitarian actors while they were not, in fact, impartial, and that terrorist groups operating in the city were staging attacks on Damascus. Further, the draft resolution put forward by Kuwait and Sweden lacked the support of all Council members, he said, emphasizing that his delegation had repeatedly asked what measures were in place to ensure the implementation of the proposed 30-day ceasefire, but had yet to receive an answer.
Some delegates cautioned against politicizing the matter, with Bolivia’s representative saying that if the draft resolution would be put to a vote with the knowledge it would be rejected, then the aim would really be to “score a few headlines in the media”. The Russian Federation’s presentation of language with a view to continuing negotiations was indispensable, he said, stressing that the Council was now being tested on its ability to achieve unity.
Ethiopia’s delegate said the current version of the draft resolution, while not perfect, offered a good solution to pave the way for all parties to coordinate their efforts to halt hostilities and save civilian lives. Meanwhile, efforts must continue to reach a sustainable, negotiated political solution to the conflict.
Echoing a call heard from several delegates, Kuwait’s representative urged Council members to “rise above our political differences” and support the draft resolution before them. France’s representative emphasized that a resolution calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities was not a concession, but a minimum response, adding that said the Russian Federation’s concerns would be considered.
“If we fail to react, the worst is yet to come,” he said. “We owe this to the civilians who were dying by the hundreds in eastern Ghouta.” Moreover, prompt action would also “ensure that this Syrian tragedy does not become the grave of the United Nations”, he added, cautioning that everything must be done to avoid a humanitarian crisis that flouted every principle the Organization stood for.
Syria’s representative said the Council must consider an accurate report of the situation on the ground in eastern Ghouta and the rest of country, where, as he spoke, hundreds of rockets and mortars were targeting Damascus and moderate armed groups continued to use civilians as human shields. In addition, France, United Kingdom and the United States were seeking to deprive Syria of its sovereign right to defend its people. The draft resolution was deeply flawed, he said, noting that the drafters had not coordinated with Syria, which had kept the Council apprised of recent developments, including that terrorist armed groups controlled the humanitarian aid entering eastern Ghouta.
Also delivering statements were representatives of Sweden, United States, China, Peru, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, Equatorial Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Kazakhstan.
The meeting began at 12:10 p.m. and ended at 2:11 p.m.
MARK LOWCOCK, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaking via videoconference from Geneva, said thousands of civilians in eastern Ghouta, Syria, had over the last few days sent his office messages pleading for help. Reminding the Council that humanitarian law was binding, not favours to be traded in a game of death and destruction, he said they were a legal requirement. Everyone knew what had been happening in Syria, with recent reports from United Nations agencies and news organizations having painted a picture of “hell on Earth”. The stern and sobering statements in recent days from a range of other humanitarian organizations further underscored the serious collective concern regarding the sharp deterioration of conditions in eastern Ghouta.
Providing a snapshot of the shrinking access to those most in need across Syria, he said 2017 levels were 40 per cent lower than in 2016. When an entire generation was robbed of its future, the international community must take urgent and concrete action. There must now be a sustained cessation of hostilities enabling immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained deliveries of humanitarian aid, evacuation of the critically sick and wounded and an alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people. “You can still save lives in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere in Syria,” he said. “I urge you to do so. Millions of battered and beleaguered children, women and men depend on meaningful action by this Council.”
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), thanking the Council President for the prompt response to his delegation’s request to convene today’s meeting on the situation in eastern Ghouta, said it was time to address the matter frankly. The massive psychosis of the stories disseminated by media outlets was doing nothing to help the situation, he stressed, warning that some actors in Syria — including the White Helmets — cloaked themselves as humanitarian actors while they were not, in fact, impartial. In eastern Ghouta, there remained several thousand fighters, including those affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front terrorist group, which had not yet been vanquished. That group had recently staged attacks in Damascus, using shelling and launching dozens of missiles. “These statistics are for some reason not being taken into account by United Nations representatives,” he said, despite the fact that it had been repeatedly presented to the Council by the Syrian delegation. While Russian facilities had been shelled, certain Council members continued to obstruct any discussion about such acts. “How many people need to be murdered for this to rise to the ‘gold standards’ of empathy?” he asked, urging Member States not to forget the recent methodological destruction of Raqqa by coalition forces. Voicing concern that no one had demanded a ceasefire or raised humanitarian concerns during that operation, he said fighters had now made hostages — and human shields — of those civilians remaining in eastern Ghouta.
Meanwhile, he said, some international actors preferred to besmirch Syria and the Russian Federation, instead of exerting pressure on the parties to end their fighting. Work also continued behind the scenes in “closed clubs” to undermine the ongoing political processes. Emphasizing that the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — pursuant to their neutral status — must not associate themselves with any narrow interests that lacked consensus support, he said the draft resolution put forward by Kuwait and Sweden also lacked the support of all Council members. The Russian Federation had repeatedly asked what measures were in place to ensure the implementation of the proposed 30-day ceasefire, but had yet to receive an answer. “What we need is not symbolism” but measures commensurate with the realities on the ground, he stressed, calling on the Council to instead reach agreement on feasible and realistic measures. The current situation in eastern Ghouta was being used to trigger a scandal and turn public opinion against Syria and the Russian Federation, while distracting from the political process, he said. Nevertheless, his delegation would do everything possible to restore peace, and called on its partners to stop creating smokescreens and commit to doing the same.
OLOF SKOOG (Sweden), also speaking on behalf of Kuwait as the draft resolution’s co-sponsors, recalled that Mr. Lowcock had called for the immediate suspension of hostilities in eastern Ghouta and described the situation there as “hell”. In an effort to heed those calls, the two penholders had put forward a draft resolution that called for a 30-day pause in hostilities, the lifting of sieges and the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid. “We plead on all Council members to support this resolution” in order to prevent a situation that was “beyond words in its desperation”. Calling specifically on the Astana guarantors to use all their influence on the parties towards that end, he responded to questions raised by the Russian Federation’s delegate, noting that United Nations convoys were “ready to go” and that the 30-day ceasefire could be enforced by existing monitoring mechanisms. The draft presented today was not a comprehensive peace deal but only aimed to implement a much-needed humanitarian pause. “We are tested today, not just as ambassadors for our countries but as human beings,” he stressed.
SHEIKH SABAH KHALID AL HAMAD AL SABAH, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kuwait, Council President for February, speaking in his national capacity, voiced support for the statement delivered by Sweden. Noting that the number of civilians killed in eastern Ghouta since the beginning of the month had reached 1,200, he said nevertheless “the international community is silent”. Asking how many more people must die or be displaced before the world agreed, in once voice, that there had been enough carnage, he said Kuwait and Sweden had tabled a simple, straightforward and clear text demanding a cessation of hostilities across Syria for 30 days to allow the United Nations and its partners to deliver aid and provide critical medical evacuation to the sick and wounded. Kuwait’s support for those measures was based on its human, legal and ethical obligations to end the suffering of its Syrian neighbours. He therefore urged Council members to “rise above our political differences” and support the draft resolution before them.
KELLEY A. ECKELS-CURRIE (United States), wanting to add vignettes from victims to the visions of “hell on Earth” that the Special Envoy had presented today, read several messages from people living in that “hell”, in bombarded homes and hospitals in eastern Ghouta. “These are not terrorists showing up in makeshift emergency rooms,” she said. They were people. The Assad regime wanted to bomb or starve its people into submission, counting on the Russian Federation for support. The Russian Federation now seemed to be blocking a solution to the situation. The draft resolution under discussion, which had been negotiated by all members over the past three weeks, provided a way forward, she said, underscoring that the United States was ready to vote on the text immediately and urging the Council to move forward with calling for a ceasefire.
MA ZHAOXU (China) expressed sympathy for the Syrian people living amid the escalating violence. There was no military solution to the Syrian issue and a political settlement was the only way out. Negotiations must be supported towards a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political process, which would stop the suffering. Raising another concern, he said terrorist attacks had caused many casualties and had stopped aid deliveries. Pointing out that the humanitarian issue’s close links with the political process, he said Council action on those issues must also support that process.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) said the reign of fire falling on eastern Ghouta was a display of human horror, with the regime targeting civilians and hospitals to ensure in a macabre manner that the injured could not survive their wounds. Perpetrators of those war crimes must be held accountable. The President of France had called for a ceasefire, he said, adding that the Council now had the means to take action through the draft resolution at hand. The Russian Federation’s concerns would be considered, he said, emphasizing that a resolution calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities was not a concession, but a minimum response. France believed that only an inclusive political process, and not a military solution, would restore peace in Syria. “If we fail to react, the worst is yet to come,” he warned, cautioning that everything must be done to avoid a humanitarian crisis that flouted every principle the United Nations stood for. “We owe this to the civilians who were dying by the hundreds in eastern Ghouta,” he said. Prompt action would also “ensure that this Syrian tragedy does not become the grave of the United Nations.”
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) said international humanitarian law and human rights were already being flouted in eastern Ghouta, with bombings increasing over the past weeks. The heinous acts that were feeding “hell on Earth” demanded prompt action. Highlighting a range of response plans, he said hostilities must end immediately and a genuine political willingness must be supported to turn the situation around. Council members, and those with influence on the ground, must show unity and a willingness to compromise. The Council must fulfil its responsibilities, he said, adding that Peru would play its part to that end.
KAREL J.G. VAN OOSTEROM (Netherlands), emphasizing that “the carnage in Syria needs to stop,” said all parties to the Syrian conflict — in particular the Syrian regime and its allies — must stop targeting civilians and attacking hospitals, and facilitate immediate humanitarian access. The Netherlands supported an immediate cessation of hostilities. Some Council members had said the resolution could not be implemented, but with sufficient political will, a cessation of hostilities could become a reality. Recalling the adoption of resolution 2393 (2017), through which the Council renewed authorization for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access to Syria, he said the Council must show forceful action again. “We need a cessation of hostilities now,” he said, calling on the Russian Federation in particular to use its influence and do its utmost to achieve that objective while allowing the Council to act effectively.
TEKEDA ALEMU (Ethiopia), voicing concern over the military escalation in eastern Ghouta — as well as in other parts of Syria — said continued reports of attacks against medical facilities were particularly worrying. It was imperative to protect civilians in all those areas, he said, calling for the immediate delivery of life-saving aid. The United Nations and its humanitarian partners should be allowed safe, unimpeded and unhindered access, and he said there should be no problem with reaching a consensus on that matter. The situation on the ground was getting more complex and implementing a pause would not be easy; he therefore understood concerns about it and that some terrorist actors would seek to manipulate those measures. “What is expected of this Council is to take meaningful collective action that could save lives on the ground,” he stressed, calling on it to work together to send a strong and unified message and alleviate the suffering of civilians. While not perfect, the current version of the draft resolution offered a good solution to pave the way for all parties to coordinate their efforts to halt hostilities and save civilian lives. Meanwhile, efforts must continue to reach a sustainable, negotiated political solution to the conflict.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland), emphasizing that there could be no justification for attacks against civilians anywhere, urged all those with influence on the parties to immediately exert it. Also calling for an immediate halt to all hostilities across Syria, she urged the parties to grant urgent, free and safe access for humanitarian actors trying to reach civilians. Those same parties must fully respect the ceasefire agreements related to the already-existing de-escalation zones, she said, stressing that the Council must retain its unity on the question of humanitarian access. Expressing support for the work of Kuwait and Sweden and penholders, she urged the Council to adopt their draft resolution as soon as possible, adding that “we cannot fail” to take action aimed at improving the situation in eastern Ghouta.
STEPHEN HICKEY (United Kingdom) said the suffering of the civilians — while primarily resulting from the Syrian regime’s escalation of its aerial bombardment and its use of chemical weapons and cluster bombs, which constituted war crimes and breaches of international law — brought shame on all Council members. They owed it to the people of eastern Ghouta to take action. Expressing gratitude to the White Helmets for their humanitarian work on the ground, he said the Assad regime continued to pedal the myth that all those opposing it were terrorists. “The people of eastern Ghouta are not terrorists,” he stressed, emphasizing that only a small percentage of the people in that area were affiliated with Al-Nusra Front. Nothing could justify attacks against civilians. Also condemning attacks against the Russian Federation’s embassy in Damascus, he said there was an urgent need for an immediate cession of all hostilities. If all those present at today’s meeting committed to that goal, it could save the lives of countless civilians. He therefore voiced support for the draft resolution to be voted on later today, calling on Council members to reverse their past failures by adopting that text.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea) said the international community must take urgent action to adopt measures to ease civilian suffering. A ceasefire was imperative to open access to assistance and evacuation teams. Calling on all parties to the conflict to take action to reduce hostilities, he said a frank dialogue was the only way to end the conflict. Council resolution 2254 (2015) held continued relevance, he added, emphasizing that the languishing hostilities were affecting the region. Now, medical and humanitarian assistance must be delivered immediately, he said, reminding the Council that as he spoke, civilians were suffering.
SACHA SERGIO LLORENTTY SOLÍZ (Bolivia) called for a range of actions, including demining projects and the provision of humanitarian assistance in areas such as Raqqa so residents could safely return. The Geneva political process and Astana and Sochi discussions must be carried forward, he said, calling on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian and human rights law. However, double standards must not be applied in humanitarian-related areas and the Council must not be dragged down or become a mere sounding board for the war. Expressing surprise at such double standards, he pointed out that the Council had not responded to multiple terrorist attacks against the Russian Federation’s embassy in Damascus.
Bolivia also rejected the politicization of the current situation, he said. If the draft resolution at hand would be put to a vote with the knowledge it would be rejected, then the aim would really be to “score a few headlines in the media”, he said. The Russian Federation’s presentation of language with a view to continuing negotiations was indispensable. The Council was now being tested on its ability to achieve unity. If that was impossible, then the test of the current draft resolution would do absolutely nothing to help the humanitarian situation in Syria and would mean that the Council would fail to meet its responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations.
BERNARD TANOH-BOUTCHOUE (Côte d’Ivoire), gravely troubled by the current situation in Syria, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities so humanitarian aid could be delivered. Only a political process with inclusive dialogue could end the conflict, as outlined in resolution 2254 (2015). His delegation approved of the draft resolution, which called for a 30-day-long ceasefire to allow humanitarian access. The Council must cast aside political calculations and undertake the commendable work of extricating human beings from the fires of hell.
DIDAR TEMENOV (Kazakhstan), joining others in voicing concern about the continued severity of the devastating humanitarian situation in Syria — including in eastern Ghouta, the Idlib and Northern Hama Governorates, Rukhban and Raqqa — urged all parties to prevent further violence and enable access to humanitarian organizations. The delivery of aid and services to those in need, as well as medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded, were vital and required by international law. Calling on all parties to unite to provide an immediate suspension of all war activities in eastern Ghouta and other parts of Syria, and to allow humanitarian aid to reach all those in need, he voiced support for the five requests identified by the Emergency Relief Coordinator on 11 January during his mission to that country. He looked forward to a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the guarantor countries of the Astana process — namely, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran — who would gather in Kazakhstan in March to discuss recent developments. Welcoming the adoption of a Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in Syria, he nevertheless expressed concern that they were presently being violated, and urged the parties to comply with all relevant ceasefire agreements.
Prior to inviting the representative of Syria to take the floor, the Council President urged him to adhere to a five-minute time limit.
BASHAR JA'AFARI (Syria) rejected this request, saying he was not aware of any such time limit, and reserved his right to express his delegation’s view in full.
The representative of the Russian Federation, on a point of order, echoed those concerns, asking the President why he sought to limit the Syrian delegate’s speaking time limit on such a critical issue directly impacting his country.
The Council President, responding, said he had only encouraged the Syrian delegate to adhere to the time limits set forth in document S/201/507.
Mr. JAFA’ARI, taking the floor again and emphasizing that he would speak for as long as was necessary, said hundreds of rockets and mortars were at this very moment targeting his country’s capital, Damascus. Countless massacres had taken place all over Syria during the past seven years, and were well documented in the hundreds of letters his delegation had sent to the United Nations. Expressing concern that such information continued to fly “under the radar” of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, he said some Council members were neither neutral nor impartial on the issue of Syria. So-called moderate armed groups continued to use civilians as human shields, indiscriminately attacking residential areas, he said, rejecting the description by France’s delegate of such actions as a form of resistance. Some actors, especially the United States and members of its so-called coalition, had now moved from the stage of proxy aggression — in in which it merely supported terrorists — to one of actual aggression, recruiting terrorist fighters from all over the world and sending them to Syria. Meanwhile, the United States, the United Kingdom and France sought to deprive the Syrian Government of its sovereign right to defend its people, as laid out in the United Nations Charter.
The draft resolution presented by Kuwait and Sweden was deeply flawed, he said, noting that they had not coordinated with Syria — the very country impacted by that text — in any way. If such a situation, where terrorists continuously targeted civilians, were occurring in Paris, New York or London, no one would refer to them as moderates or non-State armed opposition groups, as they did with those committing crimes in Syria. His Government faced the bitter reality of those double standards, he said, adding that the United Nations was undergoing an unfathomable moral and professional crisis in which countries were persuaded by the Organization’s power dynamics to join in the extortion of the Syrian Government. Terrorist groups had invented a false story that the Government had used toxic substances against people in eastern Ghouta, he said, adding that the true situation was laid out in his delegation’s numerous letters to the Council in recent weeks. In fact, some 1,200 missiles had been used in Damascus, resulting in many civilian deaths. The United Nations would rather sacrifice 8 million civilians in that city to protect a few thousand in eastern Ghouta, he said, stressing that “there is no siege in eastern Ghouta” and that his Government had facilitated humanitarian assistance and medical evacuations there as conditions allowed.
Meanwhile, he said, the Secretariat ignored the fact that terrorist armed groups controlled the aid entering eastern Ghouta. Such groups there were terrorists supporting the Wahabi ideology, regardless of which names they went under, he stressed. Vowing that nothing would stop the Syrian Government from defending its citizens in line with is obligations under the Council’s own resolutions, he recalled that the United States-led coalition had destroyed Raqqa — killing hundreds of civilians — under the pretext of fighting Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). It had used the same weapons as in the Vietnam war, he said, noting that the coalition had even reached a deal to allow terrorists, their families and their weapons to leave Raqqa safely. The Council also continued to disregard Turkish violations of Syria’s sovereignty. Responding to those speakers who had voiced concern that eastern Ghouta would become a “second Aleppo”, he invited them to visit Aleppo today, where millions of civilians had safely returned home following the city’s liberation. Syria would not be held hostage to the demands of the five countries that had met in Washington, D.C., in January “to divide up Syria”, he stressed, pledging that the world would soon understand how hard Syria had fought against the forces of terrorism.