Syria: UN Humanitarian Head and Executive Director of the World Food Programme to brief on Humanitarian Situation
Tomorrow afternoon (27 January), Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien and the Executive Director of the World Food Programme, Ertharin Cousin, will brief the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Both briefers will participate in the informal consultations with Council members that follow the public briefing. No outcome is expected.
Tomorrow’s briefing will be the third this month on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The previous meetings on 11 and 15 January were convened to help to ensure that the Syrian government fulfilled its 7 January agreement to grant humanitarian access to Madaya, a town besieged by government forces. The situation in Madaya was a matter of particular concern this month after alarming images of starving residents appeared in the media. The UN has credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed by sniper fire or landmines while trying to flee the town. Linked to the situation in Madaya and other besieged areas are the intra-Syrian talks announced for 29 January, and the Syrian opposition delegation’s demands for the government to lift sieges, release detainees and stop indiscriminate attacks—particularly aerial bombardment. Tomorrow’s briefing is expected to reinforce many Council members’ concerns about the dire situation of the 394,000 people living in besieged areas in Syria. Council members expect that O’Brien will address the broader humanitarian situation described in the most recent report (S/2016/60), while Cousin will focus her comments on access to food, malnutrition and starvation in Syria.
In the consultations that follow, many Council members will want to hear more about the situation in Madaya after humanitarian convoys entered the town two weeks ago with one month’s provisions. They will be interested in prospects for ongoing access to Madaya, as well as to the almost 5 million people in other besieged and hard-to-reach areas. Some Council members may also want more information on what the early warning indicators might be regarding starvation in Syria, to avoid another situation like Madaya being allowed to develop.
In comments to the press following the 11 January “any other business” briefing, humanitarian leads New Zealand and Spain said that Madaya had to be a start to broader humanitarian access in Syria and not a one-off event. They underscored that humanitarian access is an obligation under international humanitarian law and that siege with the goal of starving civilians is a war crime.
France and the UK, supported by the US and the humanitarian leads, then requested a public briefing on 15 January (S/PV.7605) to follow up the Madaya briefing. Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-Wha Kang told the Security Council that the situation in Madaya was not unique, given that there are 181,200 people who are besieged by the government, 200,000 by ISIS and 12,500 by rebel groups. She added that while access to Madaya was welcome, it was just a trickle. The report that O’Brien will present tomorrow details how less than 1 percent of besieged areas in 2015 received food aid, despite food assistance being delivered to over 6 million people each month.
Council members are unanimous in their concern for the suffering of the Syrian people and support for a political solution. However the 15 January interventions revealed a tension between Russia and Venezuela, who criticised politicisation of the Syria humanitarian track, and a significant majority who identified the deliberate starvation of civilians as a war crime (Angola, France, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, UK, US and Uruguay). Many in this group have argued that addressing blatant violations of humanitarian law cannot be seen as politicising humanitarian aid. In their view, keeping the focus on the situation in besieged areas demonstrates the ability of the Council to use its collective leverage on the humanitarian track to impact the situation positively and create the necessary conditions on the ground for the launch of the political talks in Geneva.
China called for unfettered humanitarian access, but did not specifically identify siege and starvation tactics as a war crime. The position of Egypt, which has joined New Zealand and Spain as the humanitarian leads, was more nuanced. Egypt condemned starvation as a tactic of war but also appealed to all parties to refrain from politicising the suffering of the Syrian people.
Looking ahead, Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is expected to update Council members in mid-February on the Geneva talks. Later that month, Council members will have their regular monthly briefings on the chemical weapons and humanitarian tracks.