With United Nations-backed political talks on Syria set to begin later this week, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, today urged the entire international community to get behind the process, which seeks to ease the suffering for millions of desperate people and end “one of the most savage and brutal conflicts of the 21st century.”
“This political process offers a genuine window of opportunity for the international community to come together and find solutions. I cannot stress enough that we must not let this opportunity pass,” Mr. O’Brien told the Security Council in a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria, which comes just two days before UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is to facilitate intra-Syrian talks in Geneva.
Mr. O’Brien, who briefed the Council alongside World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, said that after five long years of conflict, the facts speak for themselves: over 250,000 people killed, well over a million injured, 6.5 million displaced within Syria, almost 4.6 million refugees, and much of the remaining population – some 13.5 million people – are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
“We must never forget that behind each of these figures are the individual and personal stories of girls, boys, women and men whose lives have been uprooted; whose dreams for the future have been shattered; and who have witnessed and been subjected to unspeakable fear and suffering,” he said, and the vicious cycle of death and destruction carries the grave risk that it is seen as the “new normal” in Syria as the search for a political solution continues.
"[But] this tragedy is man-made. It is hideous but it is avoidable. And we – you – must come together to stop it,” emphasized Mr. O’Brien, who is also the UN Under-Secretary-General for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Indeed, he continued, “every time we think we have reached the nadir of human suffering in this crisis, it continues to sink deeper and deeper before our eyes.” The recent pictures of emaciated, starving children in the besieged town of Madaya seemingly shocked the collective conscience of the world. Humanitarian missions to Madaya and similarly besieged Zabadani, Foah and Kefraya, undertaken by the UN, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), have delivered desperately needed food, medical and other aid sufficient for one month for over 60,000 people.
Negotiations continue to allow the free safe passage in both locations whose lives are at serious risk. These negotiations – with all parties – must conclude urgently to avoid more senseless death and suffering. In the meantime, health supplies in Madaya are dwindling fast, and recent UN and SARC requests to Syrian authorities for medical teams to enter Madaya must be approved without delay or hindrance.
“And why do we negotiate? Why do we request safe access from all parties, but principally the Syrian Government? Because although this Council has agreed a resolution to allow for safe, unimpeded access, it does not always exist for the brave men and women on the ground trying to deliver assistance into these areas,” Mr. O’Brien stressed, adding: “Some simply say to me: ‘the UN should break the sieges’ – but that would be reckless. It would entail sending convoy drivers and humanitarian workers into the line of fire.”
“We have asked this Council repeatedly to demand that the parties to the conflict facilitate unhindered, unconditional, and sustained access across Syria, but this is simply not happening,” he said, noting that active conflict and insecurity are limiting factors, but all parties to the conflict continue to deliberately delay or obstruct the delivery of aid. Yet: We are in a race against time. More and more people are slipping out of our reach every day as the conflict intensifies and battle lines tighten.”
Urging an end to the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure and calling for more action to facilitate unhindered, unconditional and sustained access to all people in need, including in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, for all types of assistance, Mr. O’Brien underscored that the continued suffering of the Syrian people cannot be blamed on relief organizations and staff; “rather, it is the failure of both the parties and the international community that have allowed this conflict to continue for far too long.”
“And try as we may, humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action. The only solution is through political dialogue that reduces and ultimately ends the violence. The key stakeholders in the Syria crisis must do what has never been done up to this point and put people before politics,” he said, underscoring that on the eve of further political talks, “it is my hope, and the hope of all humanitarians, that the key stakeholders finally take the bold, unselfish and courageous decisions necessary to bring an end to this ruinous war and the unimaginable suffering of the Syrian people.”
In her remarks, WFP chief Ms. Cousin toldthe UN Security Council on Wednesday (27 Jan) the agency’s work in Syria was being disrupted because UN resolutions were not being met. “To prevent people from imminent starvation, we need the support and action of every Council Member and every Member State,” she said.
“Preventing mass starvation requires more than a four-town agreement. “Preventing a humanitarian crisis requires unimpeded and sustained access for humanitarian organizations to bring immediate relief – including food – to all those in need inside Syria,” she said, also calling for humanitarian pauses and unconditional, monitored ceasefires to allow food and other urgent assistance to be delivered to civilians, to support the necessary vaccinations and other health campaigns.
Ms. Cousin said the time for fully and collectively realizing the resolutions is long overdue. “Access must not be arbitrary. Access must not be ad hoc. Access must not be one-time.
Effective access must not require unreasonable approvals. Access must be reasonably safe, regular, transparent and accountable,” she emphasized.
Spotlighting the difficulties facing humanitarian agencies and workers due to sporadic and ad hoc access, she said that as the Council was meeting, people in as many as 18 besieged areas could be completely out of water and food, but “we simply do not know. It is just a matter of time before the brutal images we have witnessed these past few weeks hit our screens again.”