With hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in a “nightmarish reality dictated by a conflict that respects few rules and obeys no laws,” the United Nations deputy humanitarian chief told the members of the UN Security Council today that they cannot let more people “die on their watch.”
“Food, water and medicine are not bargaining chips or favours that the parties to a conflict can grant or deny at will; they are basic necessities that lie at the very essence of survival and the right to life, which this Council and its members have a responsibility to protect,” Ms. Kyung-Wha Kang, the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the 15-member body during a briefing.
She recalled that for more than four years, the humanitarian community has sounded the alarm about the impact of Syria's conflict on ordinary men, women and children.
“We have requested, called for, insisted and demanded that the conflict be brought to an end, that civilians be protected from the relentless violence and access be granted for life-saving humanitarian assistance,” Ms. Kang declared, highlighting that requests have mostly gone unanswered.
In recent days, the world’s conscience has been shocked by harrowing images of malnutrition and hunger in the Syrian town of Madaya, where siege and starvation, which top UN officials say is being used as a “weapon of war,” is having devastating consequences for civilians.
Raising the alarm, Ms. Kang said the situation there is not unique. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 400,000 people throughout Syria are trapped in areas besieged by the various parties to the conflict. This includes towns and villages besieged by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or Da’esh), by Government and allied forces, and by non-state armed groups and the Al Nusra Front.
“The United Nations and its partners have worked tirelessly for over four years to bring life-saving assistance to people in need across Syria,” she stressed to the Council.
This week, on 11 and 14 January, inter-agency convoys comprised of 130 trucks reached the towns of Madaya, Foah and Kafraya with urgent assistance for over 60,000 people, including food and nutritional support, medicines and medical equipment, and non-food items. Separately, the third part of a series of convoys brought assistance to over 3 7,000 people in Al Waer in Homs Governorate. Further assistance is scheduled to reach the areas later this week.
While these developments are positive and welcome, Ms. Kang said they are a trickle. In 2015, the UN was able to reach less than three per cent of besieged areas; in 2014, the figure was less than five per cent.
Meanwhile, throughout the years of the conflict, 80 requests for inter-agency cross line convoys to besieged and hard-to reach areas, out of a total of 113, went unanswered. This week, the UN submitted requests for further inter-agency convoys to bring life-saving assistance across the country.
“These requests and other outstanding requests must be approved as a matter of urgency and without delay,” she stated. “Similarly, the slow and bureaucratic procedures that have been imposed on humanitarian operations in Syria must be simplified and streamlined.”
She recalled that there is no alternative to a political, negotiated solution to this desperate conflict, and urged the Security Council and all relevant stakeholders, in particular those that support the warring parties, to put their differences aside and place Syria on a firm path to peace.
Ms. Kang’s call on the Council comes as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today confirmed cases of severe malnutrition among children in Madaya, where “emotionally distressed and mentally drained” doctors are working around the clock to save lives with very limited resources and local relief workers have reported 32 people have starved to death in the past month.
“UNICEF is particularly saddened and shocked to have witnessed the death of Ali, a severely malnourished 16-year-old boy who passed away in the town’s clinic in front of our eyes,” said Hanaa Singer, the agency’s Representative in Syria, in a statement, which also noted that at the make-shift hospital UNICEF visited, there were only two doctors and two health professionals working under overwhelming conditions.
The UNICEF team and staff of the World Health Organization (WHO) were able to screen 25 children under five for malnutrition using the Mid-Upper Arm Circumference measurement. Twenty-two of the children showed signs of moderate to severe malnutrition. All of these children are now receiving treatment at the health facility using specialized medical and nutrition supplies that the UN and ICRC delivered on Monday.
Acknowledging that the mission’s findings are by no means a representative sample and the UN cannot yet draw conclusions from it about the overall nutrition situation, Ms Singer said it nevertheless provides a “real time reflection” of the situation on the ground in Madaya. The UN teams together with SARC plan to continue the assessment on Sunday for further follow up.
“While we express our shock over the situation in Madaya, let us not forget that across Syria, there are 14 other ‘Madayas,’” said Ms. Singer, stressing that these are locations where different parties to the conflict have been using siege as a tactic of war, depriving children and innocent civilians from accessing lifesaving supplies and services.