Briefing in Consultations by Humanitarian Chief: Access Not Improving, Security Council Must Act
Tomorrow morning (30 April), Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Valerie Amos will brief Council members in consultations on the second report since the adoption of resolution 2139 on humanitarian access in Syria (S/2014/295). Her briefing will likely influence the approach of many Council members to any possible next steps in assessing compliance with the resolution.
The situation in Syria continues to be devastating, with a death toll that is conservatively estimated at 150,000, with over 680,000 injured since the conflict began. According to UN sources, there are almost 2.73 million refugees, 6.5 million internally displaced persons, 9.3 million needing humanitarian assistance, and almost 242,000 living in besieged areas. There are a further 3.5 million in areas rarely accessed by humanitarian workers—an increase of 1 million since the beginning of 2014.
Council members expect Amos’s briefing tomorrow to expand upon the main elements of the most recent report. It describes the arbitrary denial of humanitarian access as a violation of international humanitarian law, and calls on the Security Council to take action. The report does not indicate significant progress in Syria’s implementation of resolution 2139, such as authorising cross-border aid operations, allowing access in besieged or hard-to-reach areas, observing medical neutrality, ceasing aerial bombardments or easing administrative hurdles. While both the government and opposition groups have blocked humanitarian access, the report demonstrates that the overwhelming responsibility for non-compliance with resolution 2139 lies with the government.
Amos last briefed Council members in consultations on 17 April on the situation in Homs, where the local government and local opposition had almost reached agreement on the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the besieged old city. However, the government abruptly stopped negotiations, and on 15 April, it renewed its assault on Homs. It seems the briefing and discussions in consultations focused on how the government coercively uses bombardment and starvation tactics to bring communities to their knees in besieged areas.
Tomorrow, Council members may be interested in Amos’s views of an open letter published yesterday in The Guardian that there is no legal barrier to cross-border operations. Thirty-five international legal scholars argue that because the government has arbitrarily denied aid, UN humanitarian agencies do not require Syria’s consent for cross-border operations into opposition-held territory, i.e. border crossings with Jordan and Turkey. Cross-border access is a key demand of resolution 2139 that remains largely unmet (only one of eight identified priority crossings has been approved by Syria). It is also one of the most contentious issues on the humanitarian track among the P5 due to China and Russia’s strong adherence to the principle of national sovereignty.
There is frustration that resolution 2139 has not led to an appreciably improved humanitarian situation. A significant majority of Council members are not satisfied with the incremental progress. However, the leads on the humanitarian track—Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg—along with the P3, will likely continue to defer to Amos’s views on the matter, at least in the near term, before pressing ahead with any action for non-compliance. These members are sensitive to the concerns that the consensus achieved in adopting resolution 2139 should be maintained rather than risking another veto by acting too quickly. On the other hand, this concern is being balanced against a backdrop of abysmal implementation and increased human suffering. By waiting too long, the Security Council’s credibility to follow through on its own decisions is at risk. Some Council members are now speculating that if OCHA’s May briefing again reports limited progress, this could prompt a move toward a vote on a draft resolution imposing measures for non-compliance on the humanitarian track.
The next key moment for Council members on Syria will be 8 May, when Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag will brief on the chemical weapons track. On 13 May, UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi will brief on the failed Geneva process to forge a political solution to the conflict.
France has initiated what appears to be a strategy to bring accountability to the fore of Council action, possibly in May. France—along with Argentina, Australia, Chile, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Nigeria, South Korea and the UK—has voiced support for an ICC referral. It seems that France is drafting a resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, and the US might be ready to vote for such a referral if language can be agreed that addresses some of its concerns regarding jurisdiction.