What's In Blue

Posted Tue 11 Feb 2014

Draft Humanitarian Resolution on Syria and Briefing by Humanitarian Chief

A draft resolution on humanitarian access in Syria was circulated to Council members this morning (11 February) by Australia and Luxembourg — the leads on the Syria humanitarian track — and Jordan, as the voice of the Arab Group on the Security Council. It seems the permanent representatives of Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg will present the text at an expert-level meeting this afternoon to facilitate an initial read-through.

On Thursday (13 February), Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, will brief Council members in consultations. Most Council members will be keenly interested in her assessment of how the humanitarian situation in Syria has changed since the adoption of the 2 October 2013 presidential statement on humanitarian access led by Australia and Luxembourg (S/PRST/2013/15). Her briefing will likely inform many Council members’ approach to any negotiation of the draft resolution.

The Humanitarian Situation

The option of a humanitarian resolution has been gaining momentum since November 2013 when Amos first expressed disappointment the Syrian government had not lifted bureaucratic obstacles to humanitarian access and delivery since the adoption of the October presidential statement. In almost monthly updates, Amos continued to report on the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and lack of cooperation in gaining access. There have been a few areas of extremely limited progress, such as visas for humanitarian personnel, additional humanitarian hubs, polio vaccinations and most recently the evacuation of civilians from the besieged old city of Homs—none of which materially improved the overall situation.

Since the adoption of the presidential statement, the death toll has increased by 36 percent (from 100,000 to a conservative estimate of 136,000, including 11,000 children). According to UN sources, refugee numbers have also risen by almost 14 percent (from 2.2 million to nearly 2.5 million), while internally displaced persons have dramatically increased by almost 55 percent (from 4.2 million to 6.5 million). Inside Syria, there are almost 9.3 million in need of humanitarian assistance with almost 250,000 living in besieged areas and a further 2.5 million in areas rarely accessed by humanitarian workers.

Adding to the dire situation are the challenges of winter, alarming reports of intentional government policies of depopulating and razing or starving areas under siege by the government and a health infrastructure collapsing under deliberate attack. The regime has increased its use of incendiary weapons, cluster bombs and barrel bombs and the proliferation of extremist armed groups has contributed to the escalating violence.

Development of the Draft Resolution

Despite continuously worsening conditions, there has been reluctance over the course of the last four months to table a draft resolution on humanitarian access since Russia and the US placed a great deal of importance on avoiding contentious negotiations in the run-up to UN mediated peace talks, known as Geneva II. However, with no political solution in sight after the first round of talks in late January and with similarly low expectations from the second round that commenced yesterday (10 February), it seems the decision has been made by the penholders to move forward in the Council on the humanitarian track.

In January, Australia and Luxembourg, along with Jordan, worked closely with the P3 on a draft text. Initially it seemed this group was looking to circulate the draft following Amos’s 13 February briefing. However, the UK felt it was particularly important to distribute the text earlier rather than later, perhaps by taking the lead if partners were not ready to proceed immediately. While there were differences over timing and tactics, the partners are in agreement on the substance of the draft resolution and it seems the decision to circulate it to the wider Council was solidified once the US signalled its support of tabling the draft resolution. The US coming on board allowed the process to speed up. However its resolve to bring the draft to a vote may be tested when Russia and the US meet on the side lines of Geneva II on Friday (14 February) in a trilateral meeting with Arab League-UN Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi. (Brahimi announced this morning that he will report back to the Secretary-General perhaps as early as next week and may also brief the Security Council.)

The draft resolution, shared with China and Russia on 6 February by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, was set to be discussed at permanent representative level on 7 February, but this was postponed to Monday morning (10 February). China and Russia chose not to attend. However China agreed to meet with Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg later that afternoon. At press time, Russia had described the draft as a “non-starter” and had so far refused to engage on the text. Russia also argued that the text would have no positive or practical impact and the Council should instead focus on a resolution addressing terrorism in Syria. China has expressed concern that taking action in the Council would disrupt the delicate negotiations in Geneva.

The backers of the current draft are sensitive to these concerns but argue that the Council’s silence should be predicated on significant progress and not on Syria’s non-implementation of the presidential statement, lagging implementation on the chemical weapons track and no significant breakthroughs on the political track. They also point out that the current draft already addresses several of Russia’s concerns by condemning violence by all parties as well as demanding all parties comply with international human rights and international humanitarian law. It also supports the Geneva II process and addresses terrorism in operational paragraphs of the text.

All Council members see value in any agreement which can alleviate suffering, such as the Homs evacuation agreed to by parties on the ground. However, most reject the premise that the Homs evacuation of some 1,100 civilians so far represents a major breakthrough when over 250,000 remain trapped in besieged areas. Furthermore, there have been several serious problems such as sniper and mortar fire during evacuation, and the seizure of some 300 boys and men as they left the besieged area of Homs. In addition, there are conflicting reports about whether the men have been released.

The Draft Resolution
The draft resolution emphasises that the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate in the absence of a political solution. It demands:

  • full implementation of the 30 June 2012 Geneva communiqué leading to a genuine political transition;
  • that all parties cease all forms of violence and for the government to end its aerial bombardments in populated areas;
  • full implementation of the 2 October presidential statement;
  • that all parties, particularly Syrian authorities, end sieges and facilitate access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas and allow for unhindered evacuation of civilians;
  • the end to the use of starvation as a method of combat;
  • humanitarian access across conflict lines and across borders;
  • all parties respect the principle of medical neutrality; and
  • demilitarisation of medical facilities, schools and other civilian facilities.

The draft condemns terrorism and foreign fighters, urging the opposition to maintain its rejection of terrorism and for Hezbollah and the Quds Force to immediately withdraw from Syria. It also condemns arbitrary detention and torture, notably in Syrian prisons and detention facilities and stresses accountability, recalling the relevance of the International Criminal Court in this regard. Finally, the draft expresses intent to impose measures under Article 41 (i.e. sanctions) if demands are not met within 15 days and requests the Secretary-General to report monthly on implementation of the resolution.

Council Dynamics
Many Council members are firmly of the view that, more than four months after the presidential statement on humanitarian access was adopted, the lack of substantial cooperation demonstrates a deliberate political decision by Syria to deny aid as a war tactic and that the small, incremental allowances it does agree to are mere tools to buy time or gain leverage at Geneva II peace talks. Council members are also aware of ongoing efforts by Russia to compel the regime to improve access. However, given the astonishingly low level of cooperation some Council members are questioning whether Russia has the desire or leverage to get major concessions from the regime on this particular issue, especially without any corresponding pressure from Iran. Furthermore, many Council members are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the “wait and see option” when violence has only escalated since the chemical weapons agreement was endorsed in resolution 2118 on 27 September 2013 followed by the presidential statement less than a week later on 2 October.

Council members are aware of the prevailing realpolitik that requires both Russia and the US to buy-in to ensure a successful Council outcome. On the one hand, some elected Council members might be wary of being caught up in a P5 battle over Syria but on the other, very few are keen to continue to sit idly by in the face of such escalating violence. There is now a sense that Russia should not be allowed to use its “hidden veto” to block even the discussion of a draft resolution. Council members who have been working on the draft seem to be placing a high premium on the Council attempting to positively affect the situation and hope Russia can be persuaded to negotiate a meaningful text but seem to be willing to risk a fourth veto. There is also hope that the automaticity of China casting a veto in tandem with Russia on the Syria file can be interrupted and that China will consider the draft text on its own merits.

Separately, on 7 February, Saudi Arabia requested an urgent meeting of the General Assembly on Syria on behalf of Australia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Qatar, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US. The letter cited increasing frustration by UN officials at the lack of progress in addressing the humanitarian situation and implementing the 2 October presidential statement, as well as a growing body of evidence pointing to war crimes and crimes against humanity. It requested that Amos, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and WHO head Margaret Chan brief at the meeting. The timing of any such General Assembly meeting was unclear at press time and would probably be impacted by the Security Council’s activity on Syria in the coming days and weeks.

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