By Diana Semaan Syria Researcher, Amnesty International.
The already catastrophic humanitarian conditions for millions of civilians in Idlib are set to further deteriorate as Russia and China blocked the renewal of the mechanism established through UN Security Council resolution 2165 in 2014 that allowed the UN and its implementing partners to deliver aid from Syria’s neighbouring countries into areas under the control of the opposition.
Once again, the UN Security Council is utterly failing the people in Syria. Russia and China’s successive vetoes have effectively blocked over the years any attempts to move towards a path of accountability and justice for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria. But this time, the consequences will have an immediate and direct impact on the lives of millions of civilians already struggling for survival, and in particular in Idlib, where the civilian population is reeling under the Syrian government’s fiercest yet round of military escalation.
With the expiry, the UN will no longer be authorised to cross from Turkey to Idlib to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance to 2.7 million people, including internally displaced people who have fled hostilities in Aleppo, Homs, Daraa, and elsewhere in the country since the start of the crisis in 2011.
It is only because of the adoption of resolution 2165 in 2014 and its subsequent renewals that UN agencies and their implementing partners were able to send 30,338 trucks of humanitarian assistance across Jordan, Iraq and Turkey to assist millions of people living in opposition-controlled areas in Syria.
“Once again, the UN Security Council is utterly failing the people in Syria. Russia and China’s successive vetoes have effectively blocked attempts to move towards a path of accountability and justice.” – Diana Semaan Syria Researcher, Amnesty International
Russia, supported by China, blocked the renewal of the resolution on 20 December – coinciding with one of the most violent months for people in Idlib as the Syrian government intensified its attacks forcing around 300,000 people to flee their homes in search for safety.
The military offensive on Idlib which began at the end of April 2019, compounded by the suspension of aid by many local and international organisations due to ongoing attacks, exponentially increased the need for humanitarian aid and access to essential services such as health care.
Between May and November 2019, the UN recorded the displacement of at least 630,000 people, who were forced to flee the Syrian and Russian government attacks and live in formal and informal camps where access to adequate shelter, food, winter clothes, blankets and heating is extremely limited.
Medical facilities in Idlib for example, rely on the cross-border delivery of medical and surgical supplies and on the support of the UN in the implementation of health programmes. In November 2019, 1.3 million people benefited from health services across northern Syria.
Syria and Russia already restricted access to health care by destroying and damaging medical facilities. Amnesty International documented indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilian homes, schools, bakeries, rescue operations, hospitals and medical facilities, including by artillery shelling and air strikes, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, including rescue and medical workers. It is crucial that medical facilities have access to the needed medical supplies and are protected from attacks.
It is the Syrian government’s policies and practices that created the need for this cross-border aid. In 2014, it became clear to the UN that civilians in opposition-controlled areas would be unable to access aid from government-controlled areas. The Syrian government had been repeatedly blocking UN agencies and their implementing partners from delivering aid to people in need in opposition-controlled areas. Humanitarian aid convoys were returned at checkpoints, medical equipment and supplies were confiscated by security forces, and months of delays in obtaining prior approvals are only some of the obstacles that humanitarian aid agencies faced in Syria. In areas formerly besieged by the government, humanitarian aid was used as a bargaining chip to achieve strategic interests with armed opposition groups. In many instances during the crisis, humanitarian aid was blocked as a way to punish civilians for the actions of armed opposition groups. These “surrender or starve” tactics, which Amnesty International documented, were in flagrant violated international human rights and humanitarian law.
If to this day, the UN and its implementing partners do not have unfettered access to people in need in government-controlled areas, how does Russia expect that aid will be allowed to Idlib or other opposition-held areas?
Since July 2019, the UN has repeatedly warned about the unfolding of the “worst humanitarian disaster” in Idlib if the violence does not stop. The humanitarian disaster is now unfolding. Ending unlawful attacks and ensuring unfettered access to humanitarian aid are two measures that would reverse that disaster and protect civilians. The UN Security Council must establish a mechanism or renew the existing one if it is to fulfil its own mandate and ensure unfettered access to humanitarian aid for the millions of people who are more in need than ever before.