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What Concessions Do Aid Groups Want from Geneva?

This week, hundreds of civilians were evacuated from besieged areas of Homs, the result of concessions made during the first round of Geneva II peace talks.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

But even as a three-day cease-fire extension was granted Monday in order for the operation to continue, international aid organizations said that many more concessions needed to be made to make a dent in Syria’s worsening humanitarian crisis, largely through cease-fires that would allow aid to travel safely to the areas hardest hit by violence.

We asked Peter Kessler, regional spokesman for the United Nations High Committee on Refugees (UNHCR), and Shaheen Chughtai, humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam, to weigh in on what their organizations and others would like to see happen next on the ground.

Peter Kessler, Middle East regional spokesman, UNHCR:

There has to be full respect for international humanitarian law on the part of all the parties on the ground. Clearly civilians in places like Homs and across the country  there are groups who are besieged in enclaves in the Aleppo area  have a right to humanitarian aid. So there has to be access for humanitarian aid, for humanitarian workers and for civilians. Civilians should have freedom of movement.

We’ve seen in the last five or six days hundreds of civilians swarming towards a half-dozen U.N. cars, which indicates that people don’t see themselves as combatants; people are desperate, hungry and wanting to get out of that old city enclave.

I don’t like the use of the term concession. There has to be full respect for international humanitarian law, and that law requires that civilians be spared, respected, that they’re not targeted, that aid workers and volunteers who are developing humanitarian aid are not targeted, and that humanitarian aid is a human right, so there has to be acknowledgment that there needs to be a greater flow of humanitarian aid across the country. To date since the conflict began, 34 Red Cross workers have been killed along with countless others who have been injured. So the Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers have suffered tremendously in the conflict trying to help their countrymen from all factions.

The ultimate objective is a just and lasting peace, so the sooner we can get to that, whatever steps are necessary, the better. The country is being slowly torn apart. We know that a complex, diverse country can only take so much, so it’s really important that before the social fabric of that country is irretrievably torn apart, we need an immediate cease-fire so that the peace process has a better chance of reaching a conclusion that is fair and equitable for everyone in Syria. That’s the best possible outcome.

Shaheen Chughtai, humanitarian policy adviser, Oxfam:

Ideally we would want to see a national cease-fire. Since that doesn’t seem to be immediately possible, local cease-fires can help. We know that these are happening in certain places, so we can build on those and work quickly towards a national cease-fire. Having the cessation of hostilities either in a particular area or across the country can allow two things. It can allow millions of civilians struggling to get enough food or water to have breathing space, and it also creates a better environment for the peace talks  for local peace talks and for the international peace talks that we’re seeing now resumed in Switzerland.

There comes a time when safe aid corridors become necessary. But if we look at the experience of partial measures for providing people with access to humanitarian aid – safe havens, corridors and similar devices – they are very high risk and sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits, and the benefits are not guaranteed.  A corridor could work, but it does raise larger questions. How would it be policed? Would it be respected? Will those policing it become a target? What happens to people trying to reach the humanitarian corridor, to aid workers trying to reach it? All of these questions need answers. So if you were trying to enforce a humanitarian corridor, that could actually worsen the conflict. We don’t rule them out – sometimes they become absolutely necessary – but they should be seen as a last resort.

What would work much better is for the warring parties to arrange, agree and then respect a prolonged reliable cease-fire. And even in the absence of a cease-fire, warring parties in this conflict have very strong moral and legal obligations to allow people to access aid. It’s not a privilege, it’s a right.

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