What's In Blue

Posted Wed 2 Oct 2013

Syria: Addressing the Humanitarian Crisis

Last night (1 October), a draft presidential statement addressing the humanitarian situation in Syria was put under silence until this morning, potentially setting the stage for the Security Council to adopt the statement as early as today. Council members met informally on Monday (30 September) at Deputy Permanent Representative-level to discuss the draft text introduced by Australia and Luxembourg. The negotiations went smoothly with no Council member raising any significant concerns, although Russia and the US both submitted further amendments yesterday.

It seems the issues that these amendments addressed included whether and how to refer to disproportionate attacks, the impact of the humanitarian crisis on the neighboring states, the provision of humanitarian aid by the international community in the event that the Syrian authorities are unable to facilitate such aid and whether areas in Syria in particular need of humanitarian assistance should be identified solely by the UN or together with the Syrian authorities. While this is the first time a Security Council outcome on the Syrian situation has specifically cited the UN estimates of 100,000 killed in the conflict, there remained some concern over how to refer to the issue of how many children are in need of assistance, with Russia indicating “millions” was excessive. It was unclear at press time whether these amendments might impact the apparent consensus reached on Monday.

The genesis of the draft presidential statement stems from the “elements to the press” on the humanitarian situation in Syria agreed by Council members on 18 April and a 5 August Secretariat “non paper” on actions which could be taken to address the humanitarian challenges in Syria and neighbouring countries. The draft urges Syria to take immediate steps to allow for expanded relief operations and lift bureaucratic obstacles. It also encourages cooperation between the UN and all parties concerned to facilitate access and the delivery of assistance in the entirety of Syrian territory. The main focus of the draft is to improve humanitarian access throughout Syria, in particular, across conflict-lines and to allow, where appropriate, cross-border access.

The issue of cross-border access has been one of the more contentious topics of discussion among Council members over the past several months regarding the Syrian humanitarian track. Such discussions have been on-going since 18 April when Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos called for cross-border humanitarian access into Syria during a briefing to the Council (a request that was reiterated in subsequent briefings by Amos to Council members on 20 June and 16 July). On 18 April, the Council was able to agree, after long and difficult negotiations, on “elements to the press” regarding cross-border access following Amos’s request. In these “elements to the press”, 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”, i.e., with the cooperation of the Syrian authorities. This issue of cross-border access is apparently addressed in the draft presidential statement by using this agreed language.

While Monday was the first time all 15 members had met to discuss the draft, the statement had been largely agreed among the co-authors and the P5 earlier this summer. In July, Australia and Luxembourg were initially working towards a Council resolution focused on the humanitarian dimensions of the Syrian conflict and had conducted bilateral negotiations with the P5 and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on their proposed draft resolution. In August, however, the P3 seemed wary of pressing forward with the initiative due to their concerns that Russia might veto a resolution focused on Syria, possibly jeopardising the Geneva II political track. At that time, it seemed that only a presidential statement would be able to garner the support of all P5 members.

Following the 21 August chemical weapons attacks on rebel-held areas near Damascus, however, the attention of the Council was diverted for five weeks in order to respond to the chemical weapons issue. Last Friday (27 September), the Council unanimously adopted resolution 2118 requiring the verification and destruction of the chemical weapons stock piles in Syria. The resolution also called for the convening of the Geneva II peace talks and endorsed the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers. (The Geneva II talks have been tentatively scheduled for 15 November.)

While resolution 2118 addressed the chemical weapons issue and the political track, it largely ignored the devastating humanitarian situation and the tens of thousands of civilians who have been killed by conventional weapons. With a growing refugee population in excess of 2.1 million and over 4 million internally displaced persons, coupled with alarming predictions of starvation in towns under siege and a collapsing health infrastructure as a result of deliberate and systematic attacks on medical facilities, some Council members, in particular Australia and Luxembourg, were of the view that the Council should turn its attention back to the humanitarian situation as soon as possible.

It seems most Council members believe that the draft statement is a balanced text, largely because of the negotiations conducted by Australia and Luxembourg with the P5 in July and August. On a working methods note, many Council members are also encouraged that two E10 Council members drafted the text and led the process and that the text was not shepherded by the P3, whose members draft the majority of Council outcomes.

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