What's In Blue

Posted Mon 29 Jul 2019

Humanitarian Briefing on Syria

Tomorrow (30 July), the Council is expecting a briefing by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, on the situation in Syria. The meeting is likely to focus particularly on the escalation of hostilities in north-western Syria. The UK has proposed that Susannah Sirkin, Director of Policy of Physicians for Human Rights, brief the Council as well. If there is opposition to this request, the proposal may be put to a procedural vote. Since the intensification of attacks in north-western Syria in late April, more than 400 civilians have been killed, many more have been injured, and 440,000 people have been displaced. As in previous meetings, Council members are likely to express divergent positions regarding current humanitarian challenges in Syria.

An issue that is expected to be highlighted by many Council members is the increasing attacks on health care. The UN has confirmed at least 45 incidents affecting 35 health facilities since the beginning of the year, and other facilities have partially or totally suspended activities for fear of being attacked. Several health facilities were hit on 10 July, including the Ma’arat National Hospital, one of the largest in the area, whose coordinates had been deconflicted—shared with the parties in order to avoid attacks. Briefing the Council on 25 June, Lowcock had specifically asked that this hospital be spared from harm. The Secretary-General condemned the air strikes and said that perpetrators of serious violations of international humanitarian law must be held accountable.

At the request of the humanitarian penholders on Syria (Belgium, Germany, and Kuwait), the Council was briefed on 18 July under “any other business” on ongoing air strikes affecting civilians in north-west Syria, including strikes on medical facilities and medical workers. At the meeting, Lowcock urged Council members to take action. He also called on the parties to end the killing of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure, to investigate breaches of international humanitarian law, and to ensure access to areas currently inaccessible to humanitarian assistance.

The humanitarian penholders proposed press elements echoing the statement issued by the Secretary-General but were not able to reach agreement. Divergent positions among Council members on the military operations in the north-west have prevented the emergence of a unified position. Speaking to the press after the meeting, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia questioned whether some of the attacks on health care facilities had taken place at all. In a statement on Syria released on 26 July, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet criticised “the persistent failure of [the Security Council’s] five Permanent Members to agree to use their power and influence to stop the fighting and killing once and for all”. Some Council members are likely to demand an investigation of the attacks, as well as of the potential use by the parties of information provided through UN deconfliction arrangements to locate and destroy medical facilities.

Beyond attacks on health care, Council members are expected to discuss other attacks on critical civilian infrastructure, including schools, bakeries, and water pumping stations, which are protected under international humanitarian law. Some three million civilians in Idlib remain in a situation of extreme vulnerability. Even though Idlib was considered one of the four “de-escalation” areas agreed by the Astana guarantors (Iran, Russia, and Turkey) in 2017, Syrian and Russian air strikes, as well as ground attacks, have continued. A Council-listed terrorist group that controls a large part of the territory, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, has also engaged in attacks.

Beyond the north-west region, Council members are likely to be briefed on the humanitarian situation in other parts of the country. At a press conference on 18 July in Geneva, Najat Rochdi, the Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the Special Envoy for Syria, said that the situation in the Al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria is unsustainable for the approximately 70,000 people sheltered there, the vast majority of whom are Syrian and Iraqi women and children. Furthermore, some 25,000 internally displaced people remain in need of humanitarian and protection assistance in the makeshift settlement of Rukban, near the border with Jordan.

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