On Saturday, the UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution which demands access for humanitarian aid organizations in Syria. This is an important step forward, and follows a Presidential Statement in October which had made similar requests. But why is access for humanitarian organizations such an important issue in this crisis?
Part of the issue is the sheer number of civilians who have been affected by the Syrian civil war. 2.3 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. A further 3 million civilians within Syria are in need of assistance. This includes almost a quarter of a million civilians who are under siege by government and opposition forces. In this respect, the welcome agreement between the Syrian government and rebel forces which allowed for the evacuation of over a thousand civilians from the city of Homs is just a drop in the bucket. Combined, these figures represent half the population of the country. And this has led to a massive assistance operation on the part of the international community, with the UN requesting $2.3 million for assistance operations within the country, and a further $4.2 billion for operations in the region. To give an idea of the scope of these requests, the total worldwide contributions to humanitarian assistance in 2012 was only US$17.9 billion.
But the Syrian government has blocked significant assistance efforts within Syria. Most aid organizations are guided by four key principles derived from the Geneva Conventions: humanity, a general commitment to prevent and alleviate suffering; impartiality, that assistance should be based solely on need; neutrality, that organizations providing such assistance have a duty to not take part in hostilities; and independence, that these organizations should be free from political, religious, or other extraneous influences. In a critical 1991 Resolution, the UN General Assembly accepted the importance of these principles, but added a significant limitation: that assistance should: “be provided with the consent of the affected country… the affected State has the primary role in the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory…”
This means that the Syrian government can exercise a great deal of control over aid operations. Prior to the October Presidential Statement, they were only allowing so-called ‘cross-line’ assistance to rebel held areas – assistance that first needed to be transported to government-held Damascus, then sent outwards – rather than cross-border assistance. Following the statement, they did increase the number of cross-line convoys approved and allowed cross-border assistance from Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, but continued to block any assistance from Turkey. In December, this led the aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to argue “if the Syrian government remains the main channel for the overwhelming majority of international humanitarian aid, millions of people will continue to be deprived of adequate assistance.” Internally displaced persons camps in Syria along the Turkish border, for example, are in dire conditions “with no running water, electricity or sewage systems, sanitary and nutritional conditions are extremely poor.”
The government’s position leaves aid organizations with a set of unpalatable choices. UN agencies are not allowed to operate without the Syrian government’s consent. Other organizations, like MSF, admit they are operating illegally to provide aid to rebel-held areas: “we feel they by crossing the border even illegally we are legitimate since the needs are huge and almost no one is present to assist the population.”
The resolution, which was pushed by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, adopts relatively strong language, including by demanding “that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for U.N. humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners including across conflict lines and across borders.” Unfortunately, even stronger language including the possibility of sanctions was removed during the negotiations process.
But the resolution does request that the Secretary-General report back to the Council on the implementation of the resolution within 30 days, and “expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance,” which leaves the door open for sanctions or other actions in a subsequent resolution. As Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, noted in a statement following the passage of the resolution, “it has a clear demand for specific and concrete actions and it is a commitment to act in the event of non-compliance.” But already there are concerns that even if the government is found to not be complying with the resolution, the Russian government may veto any further steps. And, even if assistance can be improved, it will mean only that the internally displaced and civilians in Syria will have more access to help; it will do nothing to provide these people with a long term solution. For that, a political solution needs to be negotiated.
A modified version of this first appeared on The Conversation at: https://theconversation.com/syrian-aid-resolution-a-step-forward-by-the-un-23567
Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland, and a Research Associate with the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He is the author of A Right to Flee: Refugees, States, and the Construction of International Cooperation and the co-editor of Implementation in World Politics: How Norms Change Practice. His work has been published in Global Governance, International Affairs, and the Review of International Studies, among other journals. He tweets at: @p_orchard.