A Step Forward by the Security Council on Syria

Phil Orchard

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.

Gender identity and disaster response in Nepal

We kindly thank Forced Migration Review for allowing us to cross post this piece from their Special Issue on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and the Protection of Forced Migrants (April 2013).  The full issue may be found at: www.fmreview.org/sogi

Agencies need to be mindful of the special needs of LGBTI victims of disasters in order to enhance protection and minimise unintended harmful consequences of relief efforts.

Although there is a need for more research in this area, there is evidence to suggest that LGBTI persons may be discriminated against during disasters in various ways: being perceived as lower priority for rescue efforts; families with same-sex partners being excluded from distribution of food and other basic supplies; and difficulty visiting injured partners and claiming the bodies of deceased loved ones. A recent study of relocation efforts following floods in southern Nepal in 2008 found that the needs of some LGBTI communities were indeed overlooked and, for some, relief efforts resulted in unintended harmful effects.

Central to the emergence of Nepal’s LGBTI rights movement in the early 2000s was the widespread state violence perpetrated against metis, male-bodied feminine-presenting people who have been alternatively characterised as gay men or transgender women. In the flood-prone Sunsari district, metis are usually referred as natuwas, meaning ‘dancers’. Natuwas typically migrate to Bihar during the wedding season to dance at the ceremonies and engage in sex work. Elements of cultural and religious pluralism – and even reverence – combined with substantial legal progress in recent years mean that many natuwas (and other LGBTI-identified people) live openly in their families and local communities, some with partners.

The 2008 flood in Sunsari and Saptari districts affected an estimated 70,000 people and displaced 7,000 families. In the aftermath of the flood, many natuwas were relocated to areas far away from the border, thus making the migration to Bihar prohibitively dangerous (longer distance, more exposure) and expensive. In addition, no longer living in communities in which they were known meant that some experienced increased discrimination and heightened safety concerns. Lack of informal support networks and fear of organising or attending LGBTI-friendly groups in unfamiliar places left many feeling very isolated.

Some natuwas reported discrimination in the relief process. “When the district leaders came to hand out food supplies, my family got half of what other families got,” explained Manosh.[i] “They told my parents that … the family didn’t deserve the full portion because they had a child like me.”[ii]

Another natuwa was distressed when she was relocated to a plot of land far away from her previous home. “We are safe when we are in the communities who know us and have seen us as we are,” she said. “But when we have to start in a new place, it doesn’t matter if the government gives us money or a house – we are not safe and we have to hide again.”

For people whose gender might be questioned in administrative processes, daily transactions can be difficult and stressful. In situations where insecurity is heightened – such as in humanitarian emergencies – discrepancies between gender presentation and documentation can make people like natuwas targets of increased scrutiny and humiliation, abuse or neglect. One of the central challenges for displaced LGBTI people is the multiple document checks one encounters along the way. Passing through check points, registering in relief camps, seeking medical attention, and enrolling in school are some of the points at which documentation can become an issue, especially for transgender people or people who do not identify or present as the gender marked on their documents.

In addition, many administrative and material relief systems are disaggregated by two genders – male and female – and there is a dearth of attention paid to transgender or gender-variance issues. 

Disaster-prone Nepal, with its new protected legal status for a ‘third gender’ category[iii]  presents a compelling case of how legal recognition can enhance protection for LGBTI people in emergencies. In addition, agencies working in such situations should consider the following measures:

  • requiring staff involved in relief efforts to participate in appropriate sensitivity training
  • ensuring displaced LGBTI disaster victims have access to social support and safe places to lodge complaints and raise safety concerns
  • providing documents that allow gender-variant people to be acknowledged as such
  • taking into account informal economic activities, including sex work, when designing relocation programmes in order to protect the livelihoods of people like natuwas.

Kyle Knight kylegknight@gmail.com is a journalist in Kathmandu, Nepal. Courtney Welton-Mitchell Courtney.Mitchell@du.edu is an Assistant Professor in the International Disaster Psychology programme in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver.


[i] Not her real name

[iii] Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the government should issue ‘third gender’ citizenship certificates for people who do not wish to be identified as male or female; implementation of this policy started in January 2013. The third gender category is labelled ‘other’ on official documents.