Syria and Yemen: “Any Other Business” Briefings on Humanitarian Situations
On Monday (11 January), following consultations on Mali, OCHA head Stephen O’Brien will brief Council members on the humanitarian situations in Syria and Yemen under “any other business”.
Yesterday the leads on the Syrian humanitarian track, New Zealand and Spain, requested a briefing under “any other business” on the dire humanitarian situation in besieged areas in Syria, in particular developments in Madaya. Shortly after this request, Russia suggested Council members should take advantage of the presence of O’Brien to also hear about the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
Council members receive monthly updates on the humanitarian situation in Syria that include information on the almost 394,000 people living under siege—181,200 by the government, 200,000 by ISIS, and 12,500 by rebel groups in two Shi’a villages—Foah and Kafraya. During its last briefing to the Council on 21 December 2015, OCHA reported that in late 2015 only 1 percent of the besieged population in Syria had received food or health assistance.
The situation in Madaya—besieged by government forces and Hezbollah, a Tehran-backed Lebanese Shi’a militia allied with the Syrian regime—has become a matter of particular concern for the international community after alarming images of starved residents appeared in the media. The UN has received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave. Media reports indicate that those who try to flee Madaya are shot or killed by land mines laid to enforce the siege. OCHA said 42,000 people in Madaya are at risk of hunger and starvation.
Madaya has been under siege for about six months as part of the government’s campaign, along with Hezbollah, to re-establish control near the Lebanese border. The siege became particularly acute after rebel groups took control of a government airbase in September 2015, which hampered the regime’s ability to air-drop supplies to Foah and Kefraya. Despite repeated UN requests to Damascus, the last time Madaya received aid was in October 2015, and there were limited medical evacuations in December 2015.
On 7 January, the government approved access to Madaya, Foah and Kefrayah. Council members note, however, that the obstacle to access to Foah and Kefrayah is the siege by rebel groups and not the lack of government approval. These members are of the view that the government’s approval to access these three areas is intentionally linked as it wants to ensure the two villages besieged by rebel groups receive aid. If the aid operation gets underway on Monday as anticipated, Council members will be interested in how the UN and its partners will ensure that sufficient aid reaches Madaya. They will also be interested in O’Brien’s assessment of the plight of the besieged population in these three towns. Additionally, Council members will be interested in whether the government has indicated any further willingness to grant access to other besieged areas in eastern Ghouta, Darayya or Rif Damashq following its approval related to Madaya.
New Zealand and Spain, as the humanitarian leads, will have a specific interest in following-up the request made in resolution 2258 for the Syrian authorities to quickly and positively respond to requests for cross-line deliveries. Even though resolutions 2165, 2191, and 2258 grant the UN authority to deliver cross-border and cross-line humanitarian aid in Syria without state consent, Council members expect O’Brien to reiterate that the challenging security and operational environment continues to impede cross-line deliveries in Syria.
Finally, Council members expect that Monday’s briefing may start to feed into thinking about the anticipated options for confidence-building measures that the Council requested from the Secretary-General in advance of the Syrian political talks in Geneva, announced for 25 January. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is expected to brief Council members on the political track on 21 January and will likely convey that one of the demands put to him by the opposition is that government sieges be lifted.
Members have been following the humanitarian situation in Yemen closely, with the most recent briefing taking place on 22 December, by OCHA’s Assistant Secretary-General Kyung-wha Kang (S/PV.7595). In addition to hearing about the general humanitarian situation, members will be interested in an update on access for commercial supplies and humanitarian aid into and within the country, as well as the situation in Taiz. At the December meeting, Kang noted improvements in commercial imports into Yemen, which have long been hindered by the Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on shipping. She informed Council members that food imports had returned to pre-crisis levels, and while fuel imports had also improved, they stood at only around half pre-crisis levels. While the December talks in Switzerland produced an agreement to allow humanitarian aid to reach Taiz, which has been under siege for months by the Houthis, Kang said that only a small amount of supplies had reached those affected by the siege.
Members may also ask O’Brien about the status of the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UN VIM), intended to facilitate commercial good imports. Kang said at the Council’s December meeting, that the UN VIM was expected to finally be operational by mid-January.
Although O’Brien will likely focus on the humanitarian aspects of the situation, some members may voice their concerns over the decision of the Yemen government to declare the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Yemen, George Abu al-Zulof persona non grata.
Having been briefed earlier this week by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman on the political situation in Yemen, members will also be conscious of the impact of the lack of progress on the political track on the humanitarian situation. The 5 January meeting followed the coalition’s decision on 2 January to officially end the failed cessation of hostilities that had been announced in December. In press elements issued after the meeting, members urged the parties to resume a “meaningful, sustainable” ceasefire, and to participate in the next round of talks. In the press elements Council members also urged parties to fulfil their commitments to facilitate the delivery of commercial goods and humanitarian assistance, including food, medicine and fuel throughout the country without delay. It seems that at least one member was interested in including language highlighting the Taiz seige, but other members were more comfortable with a general reference to the issue of access to aid and assistance.