What's In Blue

Posted Fri 13 Nov 2015

Syria: Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation

On Monday (16 November), Justine Greening, UK Secretary of State for International Development, will preside over the regular monthly Security Council meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui and Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura will brief. The public meeting will not be followed by closed consultations, in order to encourage Council members to make statements publicly.

It is likely that Council members’ statements on Monday will express concern about the continuous security and bureaucratic obstacles to humanitarian access, as well as reflect on the protection crisis in Syria. Statements will also likely be heavily influenced by initial signals coming out of the Vienna II talks over the weekend on any progress towards an international consensus for a political solution to the war in Syria. The US has cautioned against assuming that a breakthrough is imminent. (For more on the Syria political track, see the What’s in Blue post on the Special Envoy for Syria’s 10 November briefing .)

Every month, OCHA reports that indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial bombardment and ground attacks in heavily populated areas continue to be the hallmark of the Syrian conflict. Council members expect that O’Brien will reiterate this reality and highlight that the government, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups carry out armed hostilities with widespread disregard for international humanitarian law, and are failing in their obligation to protect civilians.

Council members expect that O’Brien’s briefing will feature information that focuses on the number of persons internally displaced (some for the second or third time) that increased significantly in October. When O’Brien last briefed the Council on 27 October, he reported that an estimated 120,000 additional people had been displaced that month as a result of the recent surge in fighting. The report that he will present to the Council on Monday (S/2015/862) estimates that the additional number of displaced persons for the same time period is actually much higher at 190,000—the vast majority of whom have been displaced in the northwestern provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama. The report does not specify the cause of this increase. However, Council members have observed that the time period correlates to Russia’s provision of close air support to a new government offensive that was launched on 15 October, and counter-offensives launched by armed opposition groups around Aleppo, as well as an intensified pace of airstrikes by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

Many Council members will also be listening carefully to O’Brien’s statement on the prevalence of the government’s use of barrel bombs in recent months. On 12 November, Council members heard from the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry that indiscriminate attacks by the government, including by barrel bombs and targeting medical facilities, have increased in 2015. While OCHA has conveyed to Council members that the UN is not in a position to verify definitively the government’s use of barrel bombs, the report does cite figures from the Syrian Network of Human Rights that reported that 1,438 barrel bombs were dropped across Syria in October. Apparently Russia has informed its fellow Council members that Moscow is in the process of urging Assad to stop the use of barrel bombs. Meanwhile, the draft resolution on indiscriminate attacks in Syria with a particular focus on barrel bombs—drafted by France, Spain and the UK—is unlikely to be circulated to Council members until the drafters reassess the climate in the Council after the Vienna II talks. Russia has characterised the draft as a distraction.

Special Representative Zerrougui is likely to focus her comments on how the proliferation of armed actors across Syria in 2015 has affected ongoing violations against children. Council members anticipate that she will pay particular attention to abduction, child recruitment, killing and maiming, and attacks on schools and hospitals. Denial of humanitarian access and sexual violence are other grave violations in the Special Representative’s mandate, but her fellow briefers will cover those aspects in Monday’s briefing. (Six groups, including the government, ISIS and armed opposition forces, are listed in the Secretary-General’s 2015 annual report on children and armed conflict for grave violations against children.) Zerrougui is likely to underscore that the international community is risking the future of an entire generation of Syrian children by not committing to a common vision for peace.

Special Representative Bangura is expected to reiterate to Council members how sexual violence is perpetrated by both state and non-state actors in Syria. (Seven groups, including the government, ISIS and armed opposition forces, are listed in the Secretary-General’s 2015 annual report on sexual violence.) Sexual violence by security forces or pro-government militias occurs during house searches, in detention and at checkpoints. Regarding non-state actors, Council members expect Bangura will detail how ISIS has institutionalised sexual violence to increase recruitment by promising male fighters access to women and girls. She will also describe how ISIS terrorises communities into compliance, displaces populations from strategic areas and generates revenue through trafficking, slave trade and ransoms. She is also likely to reiterate to the Council that fear of rape has been one of the factors driving displacement from Syria. There is an increased vulnerability of displaced women and girls to sexual exploitation, such as human trafficking and forced marriage. The fear of rape has also led to communities of refugees and internally displaced persons adopting negative coping mechanisms that affect women and girls, such as early marriage and removal from school.