What's In Blue

Posted Mon 15 Jul 2013

Humanitarian Briefing on Syria

Tomorrow morning (16 July) the Council will hold a public briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria, to be followed by consultations. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos and High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres will brief via video-conference. Assistant Secretary-General Ivan Šimonović will brief on behalf of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is on mission in Colombia. Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui was also invited to participate but she is currently on mission in Syria.) Participation by other member states had not been confirmed but it seemed that Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, as host states to Syrian refugees, had requested to make statements at the open meeting. At press time, it was unclear whether Syria would also speak.

The idea for this humanitarian briefing was raised by Luxembourg last Monday (8 July) and there was no significant resistance from Council members. A few Council members are hoping that this briefing could help to create momentum towards a discussion of ways the Council could more actively respond to the dire humanitarian situation in Syria and the wider regional impact resulting from significant refugee flows.

The Council has already had four humanitarian briefings on Syria in 2013. Three of the briefings were in consultations (18 January 27 February, and 20 June), while one, on 18 April, was in public. In elements to the press, read out following the 18 April briefing, Council members underlined the need to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance including, where appropriate, across borders in accordance with guiding principles of humanitarian assistance. However, access has not improved in the interim.

Council members have heard increasingly strong messages from Amos in previous briefings and are likely to hear similar reiterations tomorrow about the need for the international community to use its influence to save the Syrian people and the region from disaster. During her most recent briefing on 20 June, Amos said that unless there is a genuine political solution to the crisis the humanitarian situation would continue to deteriorate, increasing regional instability. She also reported that access had been denied or delayed for months and called on the Council to consider alternative forms of aid delivery, including cross-border operations.

Tomorrow, Council members will likely be interested in getting more clarity from Amos on both her recent visit to the region (she was in Lebanon in early July but did not visit Syria) and exactly how the Council could play a more helpful role vis-á-vis humanitarian access. While humanitarian access has been included in most Council pronouncements on Syria, there has only been one outcome from the Council dedicated solely to humanitarian access—a 1 March 2012 press statement calling on Damascus to grant Amos immediate and unhindered access (SC/10564). She later visited Syria from 7 to 9 March 2012.

This will be the first public briefing on Syria by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with past briefings all being delivered in consultations. Šimonović is likely to brief on updated estimates of those killed in Syria since March 2011. On 13 June, the High Commissioner’s office released a figure of 93,000 killed. Šimonović is also likely to explain to Council members the rigorous methodology employed to reach these figures which means that the true numbers are potentially higher. He is also likely to re-emphasise that the only answer to the Syrian crisis is a negotiated political solution requiring serious ongoing diplomacy at all levels.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees currently lists more than 1.77 million Syrian refugees. Guterres is expected to provide an update on the figures and reiterate warnings of the political, economic and security impact, particularly on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Guterres is also likely to address recent reports that Syrian refugees are encountering entry restrictions on the borders of Iraq, Jordan and Turkey and that new restrictions have been placed on Syrians trying to enter Egypt. In this regard, he is likely to call for host countries to keep their borders open. Lebanon, which hosts the largest Syrian refugee population, seems to be the only host country currently keeping its borders open without any restrictions. In this context, Council members may also be interested to hear more from Gutterres about how his office operates in Lebanon and how the international community can provide support given the government’s policy of not allowing official UN-administered refugee camps to be established. (The High Commissioner’s current estimate is slightly over 600,000 Syrian refugees while the Lebanese government estimates that the actual figure exceeds 1 million. The disparity is largely due to considerable numbers of refugees not registering with UNHCR.)

It is unlikely that there will be any new Council decision on the humanitarian situation following tomorrow’s briefing, as the dynamic in the Council regarding Syria remains unchanged. The issue of cross-border humanitarian access has been a particular sticking point for Council members, as Russia has previously rejected its inclusion in formal Council statements. While the 18 April press elements contained such a reference, it required arduous negotiations which resulted in inclusion of the phrase “in accordance with guiding principles of humanitarian assistance”, indicating the need for the consent of the Syrian government, which to date has not been forthcoming in any significant manner.

Council members are broadly supportive of the idea of playing a constructive role in enhancing humanitarian access. However, the issue of cross-border operations will remain contentious as required government consent and sovereignty issues are sensitive issues for some Council members who are wary of taking any action that might set a precedent which impedes a state’s sovereignty.

Council members are cognisant of the fact that, humanitarian access aside, all three briefers have in the past strongly argued that there is no humanitarian solution to the Syrian crisis without a political solution to halt the increasing militarisation of the conflict. (A similar point was also made by the head of the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, to Council members during a 21 June Arria Formula meeting.) However, with Geneva II postponed to September such a political track is not on the immediate horizon. While some Council members are concerned that the continued arming of the government and the opposition by some P5 members only increases the level of violence on the ground, endangering humanitarian actors and severely hampering aid delivery, it is unclear if any of them are ready for a more open discussion of these issues tomorrow.

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