Geneva, Switzerland

20 April 2017

Note to Correspondents: Transcript of press encounter by Staffan de Mistura and Jan Egeland on Syria

Staffan de Mistura:  Good afternoon, 
 
We will do it like this, I will first do a briefing and then take some questions and then my friend Jan Egeland will do his own about the humanitarian side, so that we don’t confuse questions between political and humanitarian. 
 
But let me say anyway one thing about the humanitarian side: We had the HTF (the Humanitarian Task Force) a moment ago and frankly one of the main issues which was raised was this horrific attack on the 15th of April. That explosion, which now as the latest figures [show], came up to more than 130 people killed among which 67 children perhaps more than 200 wounded.  All this was quite shocking for everyone because as you know that convoy was made of people who had been besieged for more than three years and finally they were able to get out through a very complicated process as you know between four towns. Once they came out someone pretending even to distribute aid and attracting children produced that horrific explosion. So, we will go more into that aspect but just to say that was the main moment of total unity among all the members of the HTF. There was one aspect which also was noted that due to that horrific attack there was a moment of unity: Armed groups representatives who were present, government representatives, and of course the NGOs, all of them affected by the explosion, all helped whoever was wounded in order to make sure that they could get to the first hospital. So in a way the divisions were blurred by the horrific attack which was meant to do the opposite. 
 
Now regarding political developments, you are aware of course of my own briefing at the Security Council, it was public and it took place a few days ago and you are also aware of the fact that there was an announcement to have a meeting in Tehran which just ended. We do have a team there, discussing with the three, all three core chairs or guarantors. Iran was hosting the meeting in Tehran and the Turkish side and the Russian side [were present] at the expert level. So, it was not a political meeting it was quite at the expert level. We had a UN team there. The reports we are getting, and I'm going to get a more detailed report tomorrow, is that they have been constructively and actively working in engaging way and with the UN in order to strengthen certainly the ceasefire, but prepare in particular for the Astana meeting which is going to be at a higher level and would be mainly focusing on the ceasefire and on CBMs. Where we think in Teheran there's been some progress, in fact at least what I got from this report, is some type of movement regarding the issue of detainees. I want to hear more about that of course, the devil is always in the detail, and on the possible issues related to demining as well. So I am going to be able to express more comments on the Tehran meeting later on but that is the first impression we are having. 
 
Now on Monday I'm going to meet the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Gennady Gatilov who is specifically coming here for a meeting with us in order to discuss what would be the next options regarding Astana but also the Geneva talks.  The trilateral meeting - as you know that was a possibility - is being postponed, it is not taking place. On Monday, it would be a bilateral meeting between Deputy Minister Gatilov and myself. But the trilateral is not off the table, it is just simply being postponed.  Regarding Astana, it is still on as forecasted. We would be involved again at the senior technical level in order to support what at the moment doesn't seem to be working, which is a cessation of hostilities. Regarding the Geneva talks, our target date is still in May but we are certainly watching very carefully the developments on the ground in order to make sure to give it the best possible chances. Now I would stop and the give you the floor for some questions.
 
Q: Mr. de Mistura you referred to the trilateral meeting, can you confirm that it wouldn’t involve the U.S. and what has the U.S. told you are the reasons for not being available for this meeting at this juncture, and do you expect perhaps a higher level meeting here shortly?
 
SdM: Thank you, well what I know is that the trilateral meeting is not taking place now but simply is being postponed. The reasons for the U.S. not being able to be there on Monday you should ask them frankly, I think it's only fair. What I can tell you is that the trilateral meeting is not taking place but is still on the table. Instead, there will be a very intense bilateral meeting between the Russian Federation Deputy Foreign Minister and ourselves because we definitely have many things to discuss with them.
 
Q: Just a follow up on that, so they haven't taken the trilateral meeting off the table, but in postponing it, was there some clear commitment to meeting within a specific timeframe? 
 
SdM: Yes I would say that the indications I got from Washington are exactly that. There is clearly an intention to maintain and resume this trilateral meetings and the date and the circumstances were not conducive for this to happen on Monday but that is certainly their intention.
 
 
Jan Egeland: Thank you very much Staffan.
 
We took stock at this Humanitarian Task Force (HTF) meeting. As you will see from this sheet of paper we will distribute, we have up until now (mid-April) reached 564,000 people across front lines to besieged and hard-to-reach areas. Comparing that with last year, we have reached even fewer people in the besieged areas this year compared to last year. Total of 160,000 people reached, but we have reached more people in the hard-to-reach areas, that are not necessarily fully militarily encircled for a long period of time and therefore not besieged. Of course in these areas situation is often as bad as it would be in many of the besieged areas, and we reached two of them the last week, al-Houla and Harbanifsa. Harbanifsa is in Hama, it has never before been reached by the United Nations, it was reached last week. Altogether, we reached nearly 90,000 people in need, in the two places.
 
So 30% less access to besieged areas, 35% more to hard- to- reach areas. I think it basically shows us the following, there are resources for relief in Syria, there are courageous humanitarian workers, there are trucks, we have warehouses, but the military logic is ruling on and for, and in and around the besieged areas these days. We are not able to go there, in too many of the areas. 
Of course, this is part of the larger picture that 2017 is a year where the painful stalemate of the three previous years ended, the battle scene shifted, the frontlines changed, but the only thing that remained the same was a civilian suffering, in some areas it got worse. And imagine the families who came out of Fouaa and Kefraya after years of suffocating besiegement only to see them being destroyed, children and mothers, by the terror bomb five days ago. The large humanitarian operation that came for the victims afterwards is also a sign that we have the resources, we have the will in Syria, we do not yet have the access.
 
Syrians on both sides often come together to help us, civilians come together to help us, civilians inside the besieged areas on opposing sides appeal for help to the other side, it's the men with guns and power who hold us back. 
 
Now agreements also come more frequently, local and military agreements, come more frequently this year than the previous years. There is now agreement for the four towns; there is a tit-for-tat agreement as you all know for Fouaa and Kefraya, Madaya and Zabadani. UN was not part of those negotiations, I know of no humanitarian organisations that were part of those talks. They seem to follow a military logic, they do not seem to put the civilians at the heart of the agreement. Even though these civilians are affected because the civilians are the greatest number of people evacuated in the end. What should an agreement of that kind consist of, well always consultation with the civilians, voluntary evacuation and evacuation to places of their free choosing, then protection standards, safety standards. When we were not part of the agreement, we do not know whether these guarantees are there. We don't even know whether civilians were consulted and we do not know whether they are voluntary. So our appeal is to those countries who facilitate agreements, who host agreements, who spur agreements: Bring in experts on protection of civilians because they do not seem to be there now.
 
Besiegement should end by being lifted, not by places being emptied from people.
Daraya was emptied last year, and went off our list, Zabadani seems now to be emptied for people, it's the twin place to Madaya, so of course it's not going to be besieged anymore because there is no people there, and its going off the list, in the end for the wrong reasons. Besiegements should be lifted not places emptied from people. 
 
Eastern Ghouta was again discussed in detail; it’s the greatest concentration of the besieged people where we do not have access to.
 
I hope we have a breakthrough now, we have declarations from all sides that they want us to send convoys to Douma, and later to the other places in eastern Ghouta, and we will work to implement that. It is long overdue we haven't been to Douma since last autumn of last year, half a year ago, and then only with insignificant quantities.
 
The besiegement has become much worse of late, the prices are going through the roof in these places, or we get report that there was no bread or wheat even on the market at all, so it's very very urgent that we get to eastern Ghouta. 
 
Q: Two days ago, we were told following the bombing, civilians, injured civilians had been missing, and taken allegedly to locations held by rebel groups. What kind of information do you have regarding these civilians, have you been able to locate them to know who is holding them and are there any kind of negotiations or discussions or mediations ongoing to do something for them? 
 
Egeland: The situation for those being evacuated on the 19th of April, which is yesterday, is still unclear. Many of them have not reached the places of destination yet, and again we are only observing this from a far. For the people in the big evacuation that was hit, partially hit by the terror bomb on the 15th of April, also there are question marks and I do not know that all people have been accounted for, but the vast majority have, and then been treated, attended, supported and helped by dozens of humanitarian organisations that rushed to the place. We were there in the first place, colleagues from SARC, risked their lives to help those who were victims of the attack.  Some of the injured ended up in Turkey and many others in other places, hospitals in Idlib and elsewhere. I think that piecing this together now, but it would have been much better if this was an ordinary evacuation according to humanitarian law, where people had been consulted, helped, protected in an orderly and voluntary manner.
 
Q: Why in the first place UN was out of this process, why you were not there, what is the reason?
 
Egeland: We were never invited by the parties to that agreement to be part of that agreement. The parties, to start with is Iran and Ahrar al-Sham and associated armed groups. There has been talks later on facilitate by member states and the UN was not invited to those talks we were not contributing to those talks. It is also controversial that this cannot be considered voluntary evacuations, these people evacuated after years of besiegement, so these are also controversial agreements. Would the UN have participated, yes I think we would have participated if it was to secure the situation for the civilians, but we were not. 
 
Q: Are these evacuations going to continue, do you know anything? 
 
Egeland: The other evacuation yesterday, I think there will be more phases, yes, and there are elements regarding fighters and their families, general civilian population, wounded, detainees, it seems to be a complex agreement all together, and it's done mostly by military men on both sites. Similar evacuations have taken place from al-Waer, I know of five evacuations taking place, the last one was on the 18th, two days ago, and it is a similar kind of an evacuation spurred by military logic not by humanitarian principles. 
 
Q: Now with this four towns agreement didn't really work out so well and ended in such a tragedy, how do you think that will affect future evacuations, will they even dare to leave now seeing what happened, and you also seem to imply that people were actually forced to leave, it was not voluntary, do I interpret you right?
And the last question I have on eastern Ghouta, how many people are there in Douma that have not been reached for, I think you said, half a year?
 
Egeland: Well in Douma, I believe there are about 70,000 people may be more. In eastern Ghouta, there are nearly 400,000 people that are now besieged. They are in crossfire and they are without supplies. They are in a desperate situation, the whole battle moved from Aleppo to Damascus really. It is a good question, what is a voluntary evacuation, is it voluntary if people in the end have only one option, starve and be bombed or go on a bus to an uncertain future. I think that most people wanted to go on those buses, I think those families who left Fouaa and Kefraya wanted to leave Fouaa and Kefraya. They went into the buses and ended up being killed in the terror bomb, but of course it is the premise is that they were and suffocated by besiegement, and we do not know to which extent they were consulted at all. 
I would have wanted to be there and consult with them, that is the golden principal in humanitarian work, you consult with people and you ask what do you and how can we help you.
 
If they follow a military logic, I think they will continue, if they follow a humanitarian logic I think a breather could be wise to ensure that there are sufficient protection guarantees. I want to lift sieges tomorrow, they belong in the Middle Ages, they do not belong in 2017, they could be lifted, you can still choose to fight a war, but without suffocation of civilians.
 
Q: What analysis and conclusions that the meeting here about who was responsible for 15th of April attack? 
 
Egeland: No one could say who was responsible. We only know that they were terrorists. I think many are trying to find out, and many would like to see that these horrible murderers are brought to justice but I we don't know, I don’t know who did it. What we know that they disguised as a charity, it couldn't have been worse.  
 

Office of the Special Envoy for Syria
 
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