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Without Syria’s Permission: The Argument for Accelerating Aid

The U.N. and lawyers are making a case for aid deliveries that don’t require the go-ahead from Assad’s government.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

An assessment by the U.N. that looks at how the Syrian government and opposition have complied with a Security Council resolution ordering them to allow aid access to Syria has found that “none of the parties to the conflict have adhered to the demands of the Council.” The resolution would help provide desperately needed relief for an estimated 3.5 million Syrians living under siege or unable to be reached with humanitarian assistance.

In the new report, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said: “The time for extended access negotiations and waiting for permits and clearances should be over. People are dying needlessly every day.” With the Security Council scheduled to discuss the assessment this week, calls are increasing for the U.N. to send its humanitarian agencies to enter Syria without the government’s permission.

Amnesty International’s U.K. Campaigns Manager Kristyan Benedict argues that unimpeded humanitarian access would have a dramatic effect on civilian lives.

Syria Deeply: What did the U.N. find in its 60th day report on the implementation of Resolution 2139?

Kristyan Benedict: The U.N. has been very clear in saying that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, are deliberately and arbitrarily denying aid to Syrian civilians.

At the end of the U.N. secretary-general’s second report on the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2139, Ban-ki Moon says: “The U.N. is ready to take any steps possible to facilitate the impartial delivery of urgently needed humanitarian relief to those most deprived in line with international humanitarian law and the humanitarian imperative to care for the wounded and sick.”

With Ban-ki Moon very clearly saying the regime is arbitrarily denying access to aid, he is making the case that Syrian authorities are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians.

He is saying that the time for negotiating over access and getting through bureaucratic hurdles is gone, and sending a signal that waiting for permission should have time limits on it.

SD: What do you expect to happen at the Security Council meeting this week?

Benedict: We will hear a very depressing read out at the Security Council. We will hear condemnations from various countries, and the Russians will point to the limited progress in the number of people reached where the U.N. has managed to send in some trucks into largely government controlled areas through the Qamishli crossing.

I don’t expect anything serious to be proposed at the 60th day of Ban ki-Moon’s report, but I think that countries that are willing and able to push for U.N. access without regime permission will be making that case between the 60th and 90th day report at the end of May.

Various countries, civil society groups, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition will say they tried everything through the Security Council, but that exceptional circumstances are needed to get aid to Syria.

The U.K. could also potentially propose a chapter seven resolution, which Russia will most likely block.

Regardless of what is said and decided at the Security Council, a lot of organizations and individuals are calling on the U.N. to send its humanitarian agencies without permission across the borders to deliver aid where it is safe to do so.

SD: What are the implications of such a proposal?

Benedict: There is a question over the legality of the U.N. entering Syria without Syria’s permission, but from discussions I’ve had, particularly with U.K. government officials, they are very clear that the legal case is there.

In terms of the ethical and moral principle of whether U.N. humanitarian agencies should enter Syria, it is a no brainer: they should absolutely be pushing for access.

In Syria, we are dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Tens of thousands of people just over the border could be reached through limitless crossing points. Only the most callous of individuals would say, No, you need to respect this concept of state sovereignty over protecting vulnerable people.

Protecting civilians is more important than the government’s idea of sovereignty, but that is easier said than done. There are significant security concerns to consider. Nowhere in Syria is safe: the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossing points on the Turkish border have been targets for car bombs; the regime has struck these areas from the air.

From the perspective of Amnesty International, security of aid workers is more of an issue than the sovereignty issue.

SD: What are the potential consequences of entering Syria to deliver aid, without the Syrian government’s permission?

Benedict: The U.N. has identified two potential crossing points that are controlled by armed opposition groups, Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam, where they could immediately reach 10,000 people.

Let’s say the U.N. agencies went in through those crossing points, and hypothetically got some form of protection by an agreement with either the regime or a local agreement from opposition groups. The risk to entering without permission is twofold: The Syrian government orders the U.N. to leave Syria, including the places where it is already present like Damascus. The U.N. operations in other parts of the world are endangered, because other regimes will think the U.N. is violating a country’s sovereignty.

SD: What is the ideal outcome?

Benedict: To really be effective, humanitarian workers need secure, durable and lasting access to key border crossings such as Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam, where there are no excessively bureaucratic hurdles to negotiate and no risk of arbitrary denial by the regime.

There are lots of aid operations that are informal or large outside U.N. operation. The Turkish Humanitarian organizations have organized huge convoy trucks to go into Syria, but it is a small drop in the ocean in terms of what’s needed.

I would go as far as to say that the U.N. would ideally be able to set up a hub in the northern parts of Syria, which would give them a level of permanence that is less ad hoc and would ensure the delivery of regular assistance.

But again, we are in unchartered territories here. The call for U.N. permanence inside the country would have to be done outside the regime’s permission.

A lot of people lost patience with the regime a long time ago, and are arguing that if you can go in in a secure and safe way, it’s better to go in. Hopefully the legal and ethical arguments will be made publicly, not in the backrooms of Geneva.

It’s ludicrous to be calling upon a regime that is committing crimes against humanity to suddenly show any kind of humanity. We are long past the time when the state’s claim to sovereignty is more important than protecting civilians in need.

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