On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that demands access for humanitarian aid organisations in Syria. This is an important step forward. It follows a Presidential Statement last October, which had made similar requests.
But why is access for humanitarian organisations such an important issue in this crisis?
Part of the issue is the sheer number of civilians who have been affected by the Syrian civil war. Some 2.3 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries; 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. A further three million civilians within Syria are in need of assistance, including an estimated 240,000 civilians who are under siege by government and opposition forces.
Combined, these figures represent half of Syria’s population. This has led to a massive assistance operation on the part of the international community. The UN has requested US$2.3 billion for assistance operations within the country and a further US$4.2 billion for operations in the region.
To give an idea of the scope of these requests, the worldwide contributions to humanitarian assistance in 2012 totalled only US$17.9 billion.
Despite the crisis enveloping the country, the Syrian government has blocked significant assistance efforts within Syria. Most aid organisations are guided by four key principles derived from the Geneva Conventions:
- humanity: a general commitment to prevent and alleviate suffering;
- impartiality: that assistance should be based solely on need;
- neutrality: that organisations providing such assistance have a duty to not take part in hostilities;
- independence: that these organisations should be free from political, religious or other extraneous influences.
In a critical 1991 Resolution, the UN General Assembly accepted the importance of these principles, but added a significant limitation. It stated that assistance should:
… be provided with the consent of the affected country … the affected State has the primary role in the initiation, organisation, coordination and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory.
This means that the Syrian government can exercise a great deal of control over aid operations. Before the Presidential Statement last October, the government was allowing only so-called “cross-line” assistance to rebel-held areas – assistance that first had to be transported to government-held Damascus, then sent outwards – rather than cross-border assistance.
Following the statement, the government did increase the number of cross-line convoys approved and allowed cross-border assistance from Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, but continued to block any assistance from Turkey. In December, this led aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to argue:
… if the Syrian government remains the main channel for the overwhelming majority of international humanitarian aid, millions of people will continue to be deprived of adequate assistance.
Internally displaced persons camps in Syria along the Turkish border, for example, are in dire conditions, “with no running water, electricity or sewage systems, sanitary and nutritional conditions are extremely poor”.
The government’s position leaves aid organisations with a set of unpalatable choices. UN agencies are not allowed to operate without the Syrian government’s consent. Other organisations, such as MSF, admit they are operating illegally to provide aid to rebel-held areas:
We feel that by crossing the border even illegally we are legitimate since the needs are huge and almost no one is present to assist the population.
The Security Council resolution, which was pushed by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, adopts relatively strong language, including the demand that:
… all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners including across conflict lines and across borders.
Unfortunately, even stronger language – including the possibility of sanctions – was removed during the negotiations process.
The resolution does request that the Secretary-General report back to the Security Council on the implementation of the resolution within 30 days and “expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance”. That leaves the door open for sanctions or other actions in a subsequent resolution.
As Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, noted in a statement following the passage of the resolution:
It has a clear demand for specific and concrete actions and it is a commitment to act in the event of non-compliance.
Already there are concerns that even if the Syrian government is found to not be complying with the resolution, the Russian government – a staunch ally of the Assad regime – may veto any further action.
Even if assistance can be improved, it will mean only that the internally displaced and civilians in Syria will have more access to help. It will do nothing to provide these people with a long-term solution. For that, a political settlement has to be negotiated.