I have been invited to address you on the tragic situation in Aleppo. Since late November, we have seen Syrian Government forces and their allies capture large swathes of territory from Eastern Aleppo. During the last 48 hours, we have seen an almost complete collapse of armed opposition front lines, leaving them with only 5% their original territory in the city.
This came about after levels of bombardment that many witnesses describe as unprecedented. Civilian deaths and injuries continue at a brutal pace as the United Nations receive credible reports of scores of civilians being killed either by intense bombardment or summary executions by pro-Government forces. We have seen shocking videos of a body burning in the street, ostensibly after aerial bombardment. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has received reports of civilians, including women and children, in four neighbourhoods being rounded up and executed.
As front lines have shifted, civilians have fled across dangerous routes bringing almost no belongings with them. Many families have lost contact with their families inside of Eastern Aleppo, after they were displaced or after they burned their SIM cards and devices for fear of facing repercussions on being detained. There have been allegations of young men being rounded up and detained, or sent to fight for Government forces. Tens of thousands have already been recorded flooding into western Aleppo, but it is likely that many more thousands have been displaced, who are not recorded or registered - but we have no accurate data.
Neither do we have accurate data on the number that remain in the opposition-controlled pocket of Eastern Aleppo, because all of the health and governance entities capable of counting the living, or the dead, have effectively dissolved in the chaos. Moreover, the Syrian authorities have systematically denied us the presence on the ground to directly verify reports. However, this does not mean that the reports that we are receiving are not credible. We are confident that civilians number in the thousands.
Meanwhile, yesterday, the Russian Defence Ministry reported that it has helped over 100,000 civilians to leave eastern Aleppo neighbourhoods, including 40,484 children and that it has supplied 78 tons of humanitarian assistance to IDPs. It also reported 2,215 militants laid down weapons and left eastern Aleppo and that the Russian military is continuing to demine eastern Aleppo neighbourhoods and have completed demining of over 31 hectares of urban structures as well as 18 kilometres of roads.
The Russian Defense Ministry has also stated that there is no “opposition,” “humanitarian organizations” or “human rights defenders” in Aleppo and that eastern Aleppo had been under the full control of terrorists. It has also questioned estimates of “250,000 besieged civilians” as overstated and emphasised that terrorists held over 100,000 civilians as human shields in eastern Aleppo and left as soon as presented with the opportunity to do so. The Russian Federation’s Reconciliation Centre has also reportedly registered allegations of torture and execution as described by residents fleeing eastern Aleppo.
We understand that negotiations are ongoing between the parties, for an evacuation deal, facilitated by Russia and Turkey. We support these efforts and stand ready to help implement and oversee such an agreement which we understand may now be imminent. We remind all parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law, to prioritise the safe passage of civilians out of Eastern Aleppo and to ensure that those who have surrendered or been captured are treated humanely and in line with international law.
This Security Council and member states have repeatedly emphasised the importance of early warning and prevention as critical to addressing the challenges of international peace and security.
There was an abundance of early warning given to this Council regarding the situation in Aleppo. Most notably, my Special Envoy repeatedly warned over the past several months that eastern Aleppo could be destroyed by the end of the year if urgent action was not taken. He proposed concrete measures to address concerns regarding Al Nusra Front without risking the unnecessary loss of life or the destruction of parts of one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
In addition, the General Assembly has overwhelmingly voted to urge preventative action by this Council on Aleppo. But when presented with opportunities to do so over the last three months, this Council has failed to do so. Since September, the Security Council has failed to adopt three resolutions that could have enabled a humanitarian truce, evacuation of civilians and the entry of lifesaving aid.
I have said before that we have collectively failed the people of Syria. The Security Council has not exercised its preeminent responsibility with regard to the maintenance of international peace and security. History will not easily absolve us, but this failure compels us to do even more to offer the people of Aleppo our solidarity at this moment.
The immediate task is to do all we can to stop the carnage. As the battle for Aleppo concludes, I call on the Syrian authorities and their allies, Russia and Iran, to honour their obligations under international humanitarian law and do the following: urgently allow the remaining civilians to escape the area and facilitate access for all humanitarian actors and the delivery of critically important assistance. The laws of war and universal human rights must be respected.
In recent days and hours we appear to be witnessing nothing less an all-out effort by the Syrian government and its allies to end the country’s internal conflict through a total, uncompromising military victory. I do not accept recent statements by the Syrian Government and Russian Ministry of Defense that there were no opposition groups or humanitarian organisations present in eastern Aleppo.
This does not mean that I discount the importance of fighting terrorism or the need to combat the confirmed presence of the listed terrorist group Al Nusra Front in eastern Aleppo. I in fact support and agree with this. But as my Special Envoy has argued, should the presence of less than 1,000 fighters determine the fate of tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians?
Context also matters. No one disputes that Nusra fighters are indeed present in Aleppo. But they are also present in larger numbers and concentrations elsewhere in Syria. ISIL is not known to be present in Aleppo. But it has appeared to exploit the focus on Aleppo by the Syrian government and its allies to go on the offensive in Palmyra.
The Syrian conflict will not end as a result of what happens on the battlefield in the next days and weeks. Neither will military advances solve the refugee crisis. Nor will the defeat of ISIL and its poisonous ideology be complete when Mosul and Raqqa are ultimately liberated. This is wishful thinking.
Just this week Colombian President and Nobel Peace Laureate Juan Manuel Santos warned us that a final victory through force, when nonviolent alternatives exist, is nothing other than the defeat of the humanity itself.
In Syria the consequences of such a de-humanising approach could be to further accelerate radicalisation leading to the next iteration of Al Qaeda and ISIL. It would also send a frightening signal to the millions who have already fled the violence, rendering the Syrian refugee population semi-permanent and placing further pressure on the region and Europe.
This Council has repeatedly affirmed that an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people is the only way to find a sustainable solution to this wretched conflict. It is past time for you to act -- and to force others to act -- upon this prescription.
Aleppo should represent the end of the quest for military victory, not the start of a broader military campaign in a country already ravaged beyond all recognition by five years of war. The current battle needs to be followed by an immediate end to violence by all sides, unfettered humanitarian access throughout engagement and genuine engagement without preconditions around the political tools we already possess, including Security Council Resolution 2254.
Thank you, Mr. President.