Syria Political Briefing and Arria-formula Meeting with the Commission of Inquiry
Tomorrow morning (19 February) Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen is expected to brief the Security Council on the political track on Syria via video-teleconference from Geneva. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock may brief as well. In the afternoon, an open Arria-formula meeting will be held at 3pm in the Trusteeship Council on children’s rights in Syria. Hosted by Estonia, Germany, and the UK, the Arria-formula meeting will feature a briefing by Paulo Pinheiro, the chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
Pedersen may share his recent efforts to mediate a way forward with regard to the Constitutional Committee. In his briefings to the Council in late 2019, Pedersen had noted that the launch of the Constitutional Committee could help to build trust and confidence among Syrians; however, the Committee has not made progress in recent months. When it convened in Geneva from 25-29 November 2019, the co-chairs from the government side and the opposition side were unable to agree on an agenda for the meeting. The government side wanted to discuss “national constants” such as terrorism and sanctions relief prior to discussing constitutional matters. The opposition side maintained that these issues could be addressed, but not outside the context of the constitution. Pedersen may express his hope that this impasse can be broken in the near future.
Pedersen has consistently reiterated the importance of confidence-building measures between the government and the opposition as part of a broad political process. In particular, he has referred to the release of detainees and abductees and information on the fate of missing persons as potentially useful measures, a point on which a number of Council members agree. In this regard, he may update members on the activities of the Working Group on Detainees, Abductees, the Handover of Bodies and Identification of Missing Persons, which met earlier this week in Geneva.
While noting that much needs to be done on the political track, the Special Envoy may emphasise that an immediate priority is ending the violence and protecting civilians in northwest Syria. The security and humanitarian situation in this part of the country has further deteriorated in recent weeks, as the Syrian government and its allies have carried out a military offensive to take control of parts of Aleppo and Idlib. Syrian and Turkish forces have clashed, and Council-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham remains a major challenge in Idlib. Yesterday UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed “horror at the scale of the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria” in a statement, referring to UN estimates that over 900,000 people (mostly women and children) have been displaced since 1 December 2019 while 298 civilians has died in the conflict in Idlib and Aleppo so far in 2020. Pedersen may reiterate the need for a nationwide ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need. Such measures were elements of resolution 2254 of 18 December 2015, which acknowledged “the close linkage between a ceasefire and a parallel political process” in Syria and envisioned that this process would be UN-facilitated and Syrian-owned, and establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” in the country. Pedersen may also call on Russia and Turkey—who had agreed on a ceasefire in northwestern Syria on 12 January that did not hold—as well as other international actors to do their best to end the violence.
While most members continue to call for a ceasefire in northwest Syria and express concern at the humanitarian situation there, sharp differences continue to define Council engagement on this issue. On the one hand, the P3 (France, the UK and the US) tend to condemn attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria by the Syrian government and its allies. They called for the Council meeting on 6 February to discuss the situation in Idlib, during which Pedersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock briefed. In contrast, China and Russia tend to underscore the importance of eliminating the threat of terrorism in Idlib. In this regard, at the 6 February meeting, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) maintained that “Syrian citizens…have been taken hostage by the terrorists running rampant” in Idlib and noted that resolution 2254 “directly states that there is a need to combat terrorism”.
Pinheiro is expected to brief on the Commission of Inquiry’s January 2020 report on children’s rights in Syria entitled: “They have erased the dreams of my children” (A/HRC/43/CRP.6). After Pinheiro’s briefing, Council members will have the opportunity to make statements, followed by other member states.
Pinheiro is likely to describe the killing and maiming of children in the conflict and attacks on civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. He may talk about the conditions that children have faced in detention, including sexual violence, torture and beatings. While noting abuses committed by government forces, he may also refer to sexual violence, the recruitment of child soldiers, and public executions, among other crimes, perpetrated against children by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Pinheiro may further note that the conflict in Syria has displaced some 2.6 million children.
Over the years, the Syria Commission of Inquiry has periodically briefed Council members on its work in Arria-formula meetings. The last Arria-formula meeting with the Commission, held on 28 November 2018, was organised by the UK; it included a discussion on the deaths of detainees and/or missing persons in Syria. One of the benefits of Arria-formula meetings is that they are informal meetings that can be convened without requiring the support of the majority of the Council. Discussing the human rights situation in Syria in the Security Council is controversial. In this regard, an effort to have then-High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein brief the Council on the human rights situation in Syria in March 2018 was unsuccessful, as a procedural motion to convene the meeting failed to garner the nine votes required for adoption. In lieu of a formal meeting, Hussein briefed members in an Arria-formula format.