Resolution, not rhetoric: Syria's humanitarian access dilemma

The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2118 (2013), which endorses the expeditious destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program with inspections to begin on Oct. 1. The Council also agreed to impost "Chapter VII" measures in the event of non-compliance. Photo by: Paulo Filgueiras / U.N.

The international community may have averted a war by unanimously adopting a binding resolution aimed at eradicating chemical weapons use in Syria.

But the aid community is still struggling to make ends meet as the crisis continues to escalate and access guarantees remain in limbo.

The decision on Friday at the U.N. Security Council was the first breakthrough on a long diplomatic gridlock on Syria. Russia, which has been exercising its vetoing powers, agreed to the resolution that requires the Syrian regime to allow experts to destroy its chemical weapons.

The resolution has raised renewed hopes that long called-for unfettered humanitarian access inside the country would come next, with several members of the Security Council circulating a draft text on the matter, which includes wording that would “agree on the modalities to implement humanitarian pauses, as well as key routes to enable promptly — upon notification from relief agencies — the safe and unhindered passage of humanitarian convoys along these routes,” according to reports.

Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth argued in a statement on Monday: “If something as sensitive and complex as allowing access for chemical weapons inspectors can be achieved, then surely the basic need for humanitarian aid access can be unanimously supported … The children of Syria can’t wait another two and a half years for an agreement on the kind of assistance that can save their lives.”

Gary Quinlan, Australia’s ambassador to the 15-member body and among the ones taking the lead in the aid access discussions, seems optimistic the statement would be considered by his colleagues this week. “The signs are good,” he said following an informal meeting with members of the Security Council.

But it goes without saying that such a statement would fall short of what is really needed inside Syria: A binding resolution that would help address the dire humanitarian situation, and allow all aid groups to do their job everywhere in the country, including in rebel-held areas.

A presidential statement on humanitarian issues “is a step forward, but a resolution would be much stronger,” Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow on foreign policy and co-director of the LSE Project on Internal Displacement at U.S.-based think tank The Brookings Institution, told Devex.

Long-standing demand

The aid community has long been calling for unfettered humanitarian access inside the country, practically since the start of the crisis in 2011.

Two and a half years after, with humanitarian needs on a swell, the 15-member Security Council has yet to come up with a resolution that provides more teeth on the humanitarian dilemma, forcing some to operate there even without government permission.

In April all the Security Council was able to come up with was an informal statement condemning the violence taking place inside Syria and calling all parties to allow humanitarian aid access “including where appropriate across borders in accordance with guiding principles of humanitarian assistance.”

“I think there is a perception that a resolution on humanitarian access or cross-border operations threatens Syrian sovereignty,” explained Ferris. “But the reality is that there are over 7 million Syrians in need of humanitarian aid inside Syria — for example, there are widespread shortages of medicine in the country — and expediting delivery of humanitarian aid should not be seen as a political act but a response to basic human need.”

Save the Children UK’s head of conflict and humanitarian policy and advocacy shared the same view.

“We’re calling for the [Security] Council to forget the politics, for now, and to come up with an agreement on behalf of all Syria’s people, whatever side they are on and wherever they are living … For as long as humanitarian access is perceived as being a political issue, it is not surprising that … members take different positions,” George Graham told Devex.

He added: “The use of chemical weapons clearly seized the world’s attention in a way that the ongoing but less sensational suffering of the Syrian people has not. It seems that the global consensus against the use of chemical weapons is stronger than the global consensus against other forms of harm to civilians, even when the impacts are just as deadly.”

The concept of separating humanitarian relief from politics is not a novel idea, and has been raised in many different settings such as Sudan, but to this day, getting past the rhetoric has been a huge challenge.

Ferris argued that “if the Syrian government were doing everything possible to allow for the delivery of relief items, including eliminating ‘bureaucratic obstacles’ (such as long waiting periods and procedures for permission to import medical supplies), then there wouldn’t be a need for such resolutions.”

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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.