New York

20 June 2014

Secretary-General's address at The Asia Society: "Crisis in Syria: Civil War, Global Threat"

I am here to highlight the worsening of the already horrifying situation and tragedy which is happening in Syria, which continues to bleed beyond its borders.

I am here to express my anger and disappointment at the cold calculation that seems to be taking hold -- that little can be done except to arm the parties and watch the conflict rage.

The international community must not abandon the people of Syria and the region to never-ending waves of cruelty and crisis.

We must act.  All the values for which we stand, and all the reasons for which the United Nations exists, are at stake, here and now, across the devastated landscape that is Syria today.

Let me start by recognizing the full scale of the catastrophe which is happening now in Syria and in the region.

The death toll may be well over 150,000.  Since June last year, when the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, announced around 100,000 deaths, then the United Nations has not been issuing any further statistics of death tolls.  It is impossible and very sad and tragic to count all these dead bodies.  At least 200, 300 or several hundred people are dying every day.  Half the country’s population of 22 million has been displaced.  Nearly 3 million people have been accommodated by the neighbouring countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey and Egypt and in North Africa.  As of yesterday, June 19th, the number of refugees registered by UNHCR stands at 2.97 million – it’s almost 3 million.

Prisons and makeshift detention facilities are swelling with men, women and even children.  Deaths by summary executions and unspeakable torture are widespread every day.  People are dying from hunger and from once-rare infectious diseases.  Whole urban centres and some of humankind’s great architectural and cultural heritage lie in ruins.  Destruction and death are everywhere. 

It did not have to be this way.  Everybody agrees.  But why [does] this situation continue this way? In 2011, when some thousands of Syrian civilians went to the streets peacefully and filled the squares of Dara and elsewhere in Syria, they were not calling for regime change.  They were calling “Hurriya” “freedom” and they were not staging any revolution.  They just wanted reforms after many decades of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes.

The response of the authorities was merciless: snipers and tanks firing indiscriminately into the crowds.  Appeals to President Assad from the people and from the region fell on deaf ears.  As popular demands escalated, the Government’s reaction turned even more ferocious. Civilians took up arms – only at that time.  Syrians turned against each other.  Regional powers became involved.  Radical groups gained a foothold.  Syria today is increasingly a failed state.

The United Nations has tried hard to address the conflict’s deep roots and devastating impact.     Despite the severe limits on access imposed by the warring sides, we have launched humanitarian operations of enormous scale.  And I thank the many Member States who have generously been providing very generous assistance.  Our human rights machinery has been scrupulously monitoring, documenting and condemning atrocities.  Our disarmament teams have worked with the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to destroy one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals.

This work is saving lives and reducing suffering.  But our fundamental objective -- an end to the conflict – remains unmet.  Divisions within Syria, the region and the international community, even within the United Nations and continued arms flows, continue to fuel the conflict.  These bleak prospects have darkened further with the flare-up of violence and sectarian tensions in Iraq.  Suddenly, the cohesion and integrity of two major countries, not just one, is in question.

The time is long past for the international community, in particular the Security Council, to uphold its responsibilities.  In that spirit, I offer the following six points that can chart a principled and integrated way forward to international action.

First, the immediate priority of the United Nations is to end the violence.  The Government's indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, SCUD missiles and artillery; and mortar attacks by the opposition forces; and terrorist tactics by extremists, highlight the urgent need to stop the killing and destruction. Governments that hope to regain legitimacy do not massacre their own people.

It is essential to stem the flow of arms pouring into the country.  It is irresponsible for foreign powers and groups to give continued military support to parties in Syria that are committing atrocities and flagrantly violating international principles of human rights and international law.

I urge the Security Council to impose an arms embargo.  If divisions in the Council continue to prevent such a step, I urge countries to do so individually whatever they can to impose this arms embargo.  Syria’s neighbours should enforce a firm prohibition on the use of their land borders and airspace for arms flows and smuggling into Syria.

I recognize that an arms embargo at this time would risk freezing an imbalance in place, given the extent and capacity of the Syrian Government’s weaponry.  But the Syrian war cannot be won by militarily means. The sides will have to sit across from each other again at the negotiating table.  The only question we can pose is how many more people must die before they get there?

Increasing numbers of Syrians are taking matters into their own hands and negotiating agreements to stop the fighting in their own neighbourhoods.  These local agreements may be imperfect, because some are a result of coercion and deliberate starvation.  However they came about, they indicate a desire of desperate communities to end their suffering and receive international relief.

Second, the international community must do its utmost to protect people – their human rights, their human dignity, their safety and security.

The United Nations is providing food for four million people every month.  A polio vaccination campaign reached more than 3 million children in all 14 governorates.  With courage and impartiality, UN relief workers and their partners, including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other NGOs, will continue to help Syrians in need.

But 4.7 million people are in hard-to-reach areas.  The Government has actively removed medical supplies from aid convoys, and has collectively punished communities it regards as sympathetic to the opposition.  Some rebel groups have taken similar [action].  The recent drop in the volume of assistance is directly linked to complicated bureaucratic procedures imposed by the Government.

I appeal for an end to the sieges – and for immediate unfettered humanitarian access across [internal] frontlines and across borders. 

The international community has provided barely a third of the funding needed for the relief effort.  Additional Member States need to step forward.  I am appealing to many other potential additional Member States, in addition to traditional donors to come forward with their generous assistance.

I also call on the Syrian Government as well as the armed opposition and extremist groups to immediately release all individuals who have been arbitrarily detained.  President Assad, in fact, recently expressed his intention to authorize a significant release of detainees.  I call on him to follow through on that commitment.

Third, we desperately need new efforts to start a serious political process for a new Syria.

The Geneva Communique of June 30th 2012 set out a clear roadmap for a democratic political transition by establishing a transitional governing body with full executive power and it remains the basis for any peaceful settlement.

However, the warring parties systematically blocked the tireless efforts of two of the world’s most brilliant and experienced diplomats, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi.  Diplomacy seems to have stopped in its tracks.  The presidential election which was held earlier this month was a further blow to the political process.  The election did not meet even minimal standards for credible voting, and has created a fact that runs counter to the Geneva communique.

I will soon name a new Special Envoy.  That person will have a mandate to pursue a political solution – but will not be able to wave a magic wand.  Much painstaking effort and cooperation will be needed from all of you – from governments, and particularly regional powers, and Security Council members and civil society.  The Special Envoy will strive to advance the UN’s protection agenda, and will work with the parties and their regional backers in a search for new elements on which to build some hope of a political process.

Diplomacy by the United States and the Russian Federation helped bring the sides to the table in the first place.  We had two rounds of the Geneva Conference in addition to a Conference in Montreux, Switzerland. I urge them and all the members of the Security Council to re-engage in this political process.  Regional countries have a special responsibility to help end this war.  I welcome recent contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia and hope that they will build confidence and reverse a destructive competition in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Let me also underline -- and salute -- the important efforts being made by Syrian civil society to maintain the fabric of society and keep open channels of solidarity and communication.  These courageous women and men have much to contribute.  Their voices must not be drowned out by the incessant sounds of violence.

Fourth, any peace process will have to ensure accountability for serious crimes.

The Syrian people have a fundamental right to justice. The United Nations and its Member States have a duty to defend that right. 

Earlier this year, the Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council concluded that the International Criminal Court is the appropriate venue to pursue the fight against impunity in Syria. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has repeatedly called on the Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.  However, last month the Security Council did not vote to authorize such a step.

I ask those Member States standing in the way of such a referral to consider the message this sends about their commitment to accountability.  I ask those who say “no” to the ICC, but who say they support accountability in Syria, to come forward with credible alternatives.

If not today, then someday the perpetrators will surely be called to account.   No side is innocent in this conflict – government or opposition - and there is no statute of limitations for the heinous crimes we have seen.

The Syrian conflict has also been the arena for the first use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century.  Our fifth imperative is to finish the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. 

Despite great challenges and security difficulties, 92 per cent of chemical weapons registered by the Syrian Government have been removed and destroyed completely.  We have about 8 per cent of chemical weapons which have been identified and which have been packed and ready to be moved out, but simply because of the current ongoing security situation, we are not able to bring them out.  But, even though we may not be able to meet the target of June 30th, just ten days from now, we will continue to do that.  This work will continue beyond the original deadline, ten days from now. 

There have since been additional allegations about the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine. 

We are all keenly aware that almost all of the killing in Syria is being done with [conventional] weapons.  Still, it is essential to reinforce the global norm banishing the production and use of chemical weapons.

Sixth and finally, we must address the regional dimensions of the conflict, including the extremist threat.

Syria’s neighbours are showing remarkable resilience and generosity in hosting the huge number of refugees.  But even as Syrian displacement continues to increase, the Iraq crisis threatens to lead to new displacements.  The already heightened economic, social and political strains in recipient countries could intensify.

The conflict has created fertile ground for radical armed groups from within and outside Syria, including Hezbollah and those affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaeda or other extremist groups.  Foreign fighters are in action on both sides.  This has increased the level of the violence and exacerbated sectarian violence.

The Syrian Government has demonized the opposition as terrorists.  But many of the armed opposition groups want to be a part of a political solution. Some have endorsed the Geneva Communique.  At the same time, no one should be blind to the serious threat posed by terror groups in Syria.  Whatever the differences on the country’s political future, the world must come together to eliminate funding and other support for organizations designated as terrorist groups by the Security Council, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

The Syrian conflict has now spread visibly and devastatingly to Iraq, with flows of arms and fighters across a porous border.  Here, too, while responding to a very real danger, one must also guard against a narrative that fails to see the legitimate grievances of all the country’s people, and pursues a sectarian agenda. 

Developments in the past few days make it all too easy to imagine a spiral of attack and reprisal not seen in Iraq since 2006 and 2007.

The Sunni extremists of ISIS are trying to show that the Government in Baghdad, Iran and the United States are working together to support atrocities against Sunnis. This perception would help them mobilize support from the Sunni majority that does not share the extremists’ agenda.  It is essential that the Government of Iraq and its supporters do everything possible to avoid falling into this trap.  Military strikes against ISIS might have little lasting effect or even be counter-productive if there is no movement towards inclusive government in Iraq.

It is imperative for the Government and its backers to ensure that no reprisals are carried out against Sunni communities in revenge for the barbaric acts by ISIS.  The ISIS is a threat to all communities in Iraq; all should now work together. Moderate Sunnis should make it clear that they are against terrorism.  Kurds should not be seen as disengaging or benefitting from the ongoing chaos.  And Shias - they should agree that the army is a national institution.

Sectarian warfare is a disaster for all.  It generates a vicious circle of polarization and terrorism. It is crucial for the region’s leaders -- political and religious -- to call for restraint and avoid further contagion.  I hope other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as other regional governments, can find ways to build bridges that promote calm and reconciliation.

The United Nations and I personally stand ready to take any initiative that those leaders would find helpful.  The region is already wrestling with dramatic transition and the fallout of unrealized aspirations.  The risk of massive sectarian violence beyond national borders compels us all to go the extra mile for peace.

These six elements can point the way forward – provided there is strong backing by the warring parties and all those with influence over them.

For the moment, the greatest obstacle to ending the Syria war is the notion that it can be won militarily.  I reject the current narrative that the Government of Syria is “winning”. Conquering territory through aerial bombardments into densely populated civilian neighbourhoods is not a victory.  Starving besieged communities into surrender is not a victory.

No one is winning; no one can win.  Even if one side were to prevail in the short term, the devastating toll will have sown the seeds of future conflict. 

I say to the Syrian people: the United Nations will not give up in trying to help you restore peace in your country.

To the Member States of the United Nations, my appeal is this: you must put your differences aside, uphold your responsibilities and work with the United Nations to end to this tragedy.

Not long ago, I had an opportunity of visiting the opening ceremony of the renovated Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – just across from here.  A great many of the treasures were from either Syria [or] Iraq.  I was inspired by their long and very proud civilizations.  At the same time, I was deeply saddened to think of the suffering those countries and peoples are experiencing today, and of the destruction of thousands of years of cultural heritage in just a few years of fighting.

Let us recognize the unimaginable suffering that abounds today; and let us work together now to build a better future for the people of Syria and people in the region.  This is our moral and political responsibility for all of us and I count on your leadership and vision for a better future for all of us

I thank you very much for your attention.