Aid groups cross fingers at Syria peace talks

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Syrian Arab Republic Walid Al-Moualem speak at the high-level segment of the Geneva II Conference on Syria held in Montreaux, Switzerland and attended by the representatives of the Syrian government and opposition and various government officials. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

For the first time since the Syrian conflict erupted over three years ago, the international community seem to have achieved a breakthrough, with representatives from the government and opposition party expected to meet on Friday at the so-called “Geneva II” peace conference in Switzerland.

The focus of the talks is expected to be that, understandable given the huge diplomatic effort this required, Oxfam UK humanitarian policy adviser Shaheen Chughtai told Devex.

However, he pointed out that discussions on the political and humanitarian side of the conflict should not be an “either-or situation.”

Diplomats are saying there have been “indications” that representatives from both parties could discuss the issue of unfettered humanitarian access in their meeting behind closed doors — this possibility has aid groups crossing their fingers and hoping for the best after three years of constant frustration on this aspect.

For example, the closest the U.N. Security Council was able to get on this matter was to release a presidential statement in October, leading GOAL CEO Barry Andrews to call for the system to be reformed and get rid of permanent members with veto power.

“It’s obviously back on the agenda when it has displayed such complete inertia in the face of such a serious humanitarian catastrophe,” he told Devex.

Andrews said the U.N. General Assembly can also pass a resolution, facing no obstacles of vetoes. And while it may not be binding, “the effect of having assessed an issue on its merits and obtaining the majority of member states already send a very strong message in my view.” But this so far has not yet happened.

Revisit international humanitarian law?

The Syrian crisis is about to enter its fourth year, and it’s no secret the scope and duration of the tragedy has affected donor aid allocations, strained humanitarians and inflicted real suffering to neighboring countries hosting refugees.

But more than that, the crisis has led to thousands of lives lost, including many aid workers, and deprived millions of access to essential goods and services, leading many to question whether it’s time to revisit international humanitarian law — which aid officials expressed caution on.

Chughtai said that the problem really is not in the law itself, but with the parties who do not respect it.

“There’s a difference between encouraging [people to adhere to it] and imposing it,” he argued, explaining that the latter could raise serious risks for humanitarian intervention.

According to the Oxfam specialist, “militarized humanitarian interventions may sometimes be necessary, but should be a last resort [as they could] physically and potentially damage the concept of humanitarian interventions.”

Jules Frost, humanitarian adviser at World Vision UK, meanwhile, raised concerns over the possibility that opening the law for review “may actually weaken it in the current political environment,” adding that the “mechanisms for holding states and individuals accountable to international humanitarian law are as important as the law itself.”

Other aid officials took a harder line.

“It’s either the law or it’s not,” Andrews said. “Sometimes guidelines are not the law; the bylaws that tell you you must have your dog on a leash in the park is not the law. They are just guidelines and bylaws. But if IHL is to mean anything, then the full consequences of the responsibility to protect must be acted on. [However] I don’t have any confidence that the current set up of the UN has the political will to do that.”

He added: “Unfortunately, the victims of that inertia are the women and children and the innocent victims in Syria whose humanitarian needs are just almost beyond imagination.”

‘Manage expectations’

While everybody agrees that ending the conflict is the ultimate solution to the current human tragedy, the chances of reaching a political solution at Switzerland are slim.

“The expectations are so low at this stage, but any agreement on almost any subject would be a straw in the wind and it might give some encouragement to the desperate people of Syria who are just at their wit’s end,” Andrews said.

So could a stronger civil society improve its chances? Chughtai thinks so.

“Civil society has legitimacy … [they can] bridge the differences between the two sides and help find solutions,” he argued. “They should have a place at the table.”

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

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