With the conflict in Syria now well into its fifth year, and the country dealing with a grinding crisis that has brought death, displacement and regional instability, the international community must not lose momentum in attaining a comprehensive and concrete political solution, senior United Nations officials emphasized today.
At an informal meeting at UN Headquarters in New York today, the General Assembly was briefed by Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who spoke via video conference; and the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović.
Opening the meeting, the President of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, recalled that in December 2015, the global community was encouraged to hear that a new diplomatic effort launched in Vienna was providing a “glimmer of hope” for a solution to the crisis in Syria, but that since then, there has been “progress alongside setbacks.”
“The momentum to achieve these goals and others, including those on humanitarian access, must not be lost,” he said. “We must not fail the people of Syria any longer.”
Noting that the international community had marked World Refugee Day, Mr. Lykketoft said it is worth bearing in mind that the crisis in Syria accounts for almost 17 per cent of those displaced across the globe today.
“In this context and given the role which the General Assembly has played on this crisis as far back as 2012, I believe it is critical that this Assembly remains fully abreast of the most recent developments in Syria,” he stressed.
‘We must show the people of Syria the world has not forgotten them’
In that vein, Mr. O’Brien underscored that while the UN remains committed and ready to deliver humanitarian aid for civilians in need, such action cannot be a substitute for political action.
“We must show the people of Syria that the world has not forgotten them or their plight and indeed of their country. Not through more words of solidarity, but through immediate and concrete political action that brings an end to this futile cycle of violence and misery. And hard cash for meeting immediate needs – humanitarian needs – is now needed,” he said.
“The future of this and coming generations is on the line. The credibility of the international community is at stake,” he added.
As such, Mr. O’Brien highlighted that the international community must demonstrate its collective leadership in ensuring the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and in bringing an end to the sieges and ensuring freedom of movement for civilians.
He said that the international community must also ensure that the parties to the conflict abide by their international legal obligations and Security Council resolutions to facilitate humanitarian access to all people in need without discrimination, as well as consider all possible avenues to ensure accountability to show perpetrators of violence that such action in Syria or elsewhere will not be tolerated.
In addition, the global community must step up financial support to the humanitarian response, and respect the non-political nature of humanitarian aid, Mr. O’Brien said.
“We remain committed and ready to deliver humanitarian aid – through any possible modality – for civilians in desperate need. However, let me be clear that humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action: only a negotiated political settlement will and can resolve this crisis,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien said that the civil unrest that began in Syria in March 2011 has since transformed into an “ugly and brutal war” characterized by extreme levels of violence committed against civilians in a climate devoid of protection in many parts of the country.
“In the Syria crisis, the facts speak for themselves: hundreds of thousands killed; and well over a million injured. Life expectancy in Syria has dropped by wait for it – imagine this – 20 years,” he said.
Noting that about half of the population has been forcibly displaced, 6.5 million of them inside the country, in addition to the half-million Palestinian refugees, Mr. O’Brien said that, overall, 13.5 million people are left in urgent need of humanitarian and protection assistance.
“The conflict in Syria has destroyed the country’s social and economic fabric, eroding development gains made over several generations: 80 per cent of Syrians now live in poverty, nearly nine million Syrians are food insecure amidst rising prices and food shortages, and two million children have been forced out of school altogether,” he said.
“We should never lose sight of the immeasurable human impact of this crisis; the trauma and emotional toll on civilians, particularly young people, too long exposed to living in a climate of violence and fear. A generation lost to the normalcy of violence and hatred, and no access to education which is the only route out and to hope,” he added.
Highlighting that aid agencies are doing all they can to assist millions of Syrians affected by the conflict, Mr. O’Brien said that up to 5.8 million people had been reached with food assistance per month during this year alone. However, he urged donors and others to step up their financial support to the humanitarian response.
“Pledges are one thing – but frankly it’s your cash that matters,” he said. “It’s that which buys the programmes and services that actually save and protect innocent lives; and following London we’re heavy on pledges and promised words, but frankly light on cash, hard real cash i.e. we need your pledges to convert to cash now,” he stressed.
A crisis ‘rooted in human rights violations’
For his part, Mr. Šimonović underscored that the crisis in Syria is rooted in human rights violations, with parties to the conflict blatantly disregarding such rights by launching indiscriminate attacks, using disproportionate force, and destroying protected sites and medical units.
“This is the sixth year of horror for Syrians. So many have suffered torture, destruction and death, their story is no longer ‘news’. It may be difficult to grasp the effect of millions of rights violations in the Syrian conflict – but it is plain to see they must be stopped,” he said.
Mr. Šimonović said that across Syria, many people are being subjected to arbitrary detention and the deprivation of liberty in the “most appalling conditions.” Many are tortured and many die while in detention, while the fate of several thousand missing persons must be clarified.
“These descriptions are the living nightmare of Syria’s people today,” he said. “The only way to instil hope for tomorrow is to insist on full respect for human rights as we press for a political solution.”
The release of hostages and unlawfully detained persons, including women and children, would open new avenues of trust, as would the exchange of information on missing persons, Mr. Šimonović said.
Indeed, such processes could provide a sound framework for an incremental approach to concession-making.
“To be sustainable, peace in Syria must deliver tangible benefits for all communities. It must provide a democratic, dignified and peaceful framework for managing Syria’s multicultural and multi-religious diversity,” Mr. Šimonović said.
“Human rights should never, ever be seen as an obstacle to a successful negotiation. The opposite is true: human rights are a key enabler of a successful negotiation. And they are a safeguard for sustainable peace,” he added.