UN is making history with its new Syria humanitarian policy, but it’s not nearly enough

UN operating in the Syrian city of Homs. EPA

The UN Security Council made a little bit of history this week when it passed Resolution 2165. It allows the humanitarian aid to be delivered to rebel-held areas of Syria without government approval. Instead of needing the consent of the Syrian government to deliver the aid, the UN has taken the view that it need only notify the Syrian government that such activities will take place.

This represents a major change to the general principle of state sovereignty, which says that countries can’t interfere in matters within another country’s borders without express permission from the host. Both the UN and individual countries have moved armed troops into countries in the past without the host government’s consent in the name of humanitarian intervention – examples include Libya, Sierra Leone and Somalia.

Non-governmental organisations have moved unarmed aid workers into countries in the past such as Ethiopia to offer humanitarian assistance (more of which shortly). But Syria will go down as the first time that such action has been sanctioned by the major nations acting in unison, particularly through an organisation which is committed to upholding state sovereignty. Nonetheless, the Security Council’s decision to pass the resolution was unanimous.

Syria’s humanitarian assistance weapon

This is a long time in coming. Many parts of Syria have been no-go areas for delivering humanitarian assistance, either because the government would not allow access to areas it controlled, or it would not allow access to areas under rebel control. There are 10.8m people in need in Syria, including 6.5m who are internally displaced persons, two-thirds of whom are in hard-to-reach areas (on top of the 2.9m refugees in neighbouring countries and more than 170,000 dead).

The UN was reluctant to deliver aid in rebel-controlled areas without government consent. According to UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, this resolution will make it possible to reach 2.9m people who were previously out of reach because of concerns over Syrian sovereignty.

The food will be delivered via four border crossings, and the UN will be responsible for checking the aid shipments to ensure they don’t include weapons or volunteers. This has been a concern (not particularly well-founded) of Western governments, including the UK, who have tried to prevent individuals and aid convoys from travelling to Syria because of fears that they will, instead, join or support radical movements in Syria.

But the bigger concern will be the fact that some of the areas are held by organisations such as ISIS -– which even al-Qaida at times has considered too extremist, and which is currently waging war against the Iraqi government (and people).

How does one weigh the need to get food to people with the virtual certainty that some of will be siphoned off by such groups? This is not a new concern, but will require careful consideration as the UN engages with new types of actors in its attempts to deliver humanitarian assistance.

States are expected to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to all on their territory –- even to rebel-held areas –- but this is hardly the first time that a government has attempted to deny humanitarian assistance to hurt its enemies. It was a key strategy of the Ethiopian government during the 1980s, for example.

During that period, aid was delivered in a cross-border operation from Sudan. Much of the aid was donated by the US government, but the non-governmental organisations delivered it in conjunction with the relief arms of the rebels groups such as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Tibgrean People’s Liberation Front. The Ethiopian government attempted to stop these shipments by bombing them.

SInce the 1990s, the UN Security Council has repeatedly made a link between humanitarian crises and threats to international peace and security. The General Assembly has passed resolutions on humanitarian aid, calling on all parties to a conflict to allow such aid, but this resolution is qualitatively different. Until now, the UN had been reluctant to go against a state’s wishes, and it has not been clear under international law that it had the right to do so.

The legal argument

In April, 35 legal experts issued a letter asserting the right of the UN to disregard state wishes in order to deliver assistance. They pointed out that the UN would clearly meet criteria for what is considered legitimate humanitarian action; that what is required is the consent of the parties who control the territory; and that it is illegal to withhold consent for the delivery of assistance except for valid legal reasons –- which are not present in Syria.

The international law consensus on humanitarian assistance has changed. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

This was a somewhat unorthodox, albeit not completely novel, interpretation of international law. It indicates a fairly radical shift in understandings about the relationship between governments and their people, which has been developing over the past 20 years. This Security Council action is a continuation of this. It could be interpreted as implementing the responsibility to protect which the UN World Summit recognised for the first time in 2005.

This asserts that states have the primary responsibility to protect their people but when they violate this, the international community -– through the UN Security Council –- can step in to protect people. In the case of Syria, the argument is that it has failed to protect its people and respect international law, while recognising that the international community has a responsibility to protect people in the absence of adequate state action.

The policy failure

On the other hand, Resolution 2165 also represents a failure of the responsibility to protect. As many as 170,000 people have been killed and more than 9m have been displaced, all without the UN lifting a finger to stop the atrocities committed by the government and anti-government groups. It has stood by, blocked not only by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council, but also lack of interest by Western governments in taking the action necessary to protect civilians.

It is good that more people may now be able to receive humanitarian assistance. What is not good is the fact that they need it in the first place. Food and medical care will not solve the situation and will not, in the end, protect people from government or rebel atrocities. But unfortunately, all too often a focus on the humanitarian crisis and the delivery of food and medical aid obscures the broader context of the threats to human rights in mass atrocity situations.

The Security Council should not be allowed to rest on its laurels just because it has finally taken this historic step. Rather it should be held to account for its failure over the past three years to adequately address the continuing conflict and the deaths of so many people. It should take the robust action necessary to forthrightly address the ongoing violence and international crimes committed. This includes referring Syria to the International Criminal Court and considering a military response to protect people, as it did in Libya.