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Syria: Could the UN Break the Siege of Douma?

by Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK - @KreaseChan

Douma, like many besieged and bombed parts of Syria, has slipped out of the mainstream news again. The humanitarian catastrophe there is still very much a reality though and Bashar al-Assad’s air force is still relentlessly bombing anybody and anything they feel they can get away with. In the lawless environment of Syria, that’s pretty much everything - from schools and hospitals to rescue workers picking up body parts from those same recently bombed schools and hospitals.

Immediate humanitarian aid access is vital in places like Douma, but is still being blocked by the Syrian authorities. But could the UN be taking a much more proactive approach to delivering aid to civilians in need? Specifically, could they abandon the failed approach of seeking Syrian government consent and instead, prioritise civilian protection over the diplomatic niceties of ‘respecting sovereignty’? In other words, couldn’t they get in their trucks and drive the few kilometres from Damascus to break the siege of Douma?

It is of course not as easy as this given the enormous security risks humanitarian aid workers face in Syria - 79 aid workers have been killed inside Syria since March 2011. It can’t be stressed enough how brave a person has to be to work on the front lines of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. However, the current approach of seeking the Syrian government’s permission to deliver aid is clearly not working. A more effective and proactive approach is needed.

We’ve been here before. In July 2014 the UN did eventually take a more robust approach to aid access through two crossing points in the north and one in the south. This was mandated in UN Security Council resolution 2165. Couldn’t that same logic apply to besieged areas in Syria as it does to aid access via Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa and Al-Ramtha? Many Syrians trapped in Douma and currently living in fear of the next bombing raid need a UN decision on this urgently.

SCR 2165 does say United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to use routes across conflict lines and the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha, in addition to those already in use, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes, with notification to the Syrian authorities, and to this end stresses the need for all border crossings to be used efficiently for United Nations humanitarian operations”

That resolution, along with UN Security Council resolution 2139, was adopted in recognition of and as a response to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the Syrian government’s failure to allow unhindered aid access. However, those resolutions have proved ineffective in helping civilians in hard-to-reach and besieged areas like Douma in the face of intransigence by the Syrian government and also many of the armed groups opposing it. The UN itself reported that in July this year, no humanitarian aid reached any besieged area where 422,000 ‘live'.

The counter arguments about security risks to aid workers or the UN being kicked out of Damascus must be taken very seriously and are key to why the UN isn’t currently being more proactive. The current operational realities really do make aid access in besieged areas incredibly difficult. However, concrete ways of managing those risks are not beyond the capacity of UN agencies. The sovereignty risk is less defensible and all these counter arguments were anyway made before SCR 2165 was passed in July 2014 – the Security Council responded positively for once and since it passed, over 3,600 truckloads of humanitarian supplies have entered Syria without needing the Syrian governments consent. It’s right that besieged Syrians and civil society groups seeking to help them will ask why this same carefully managed and bold approach isn’t being applied to all besieged areas of Syria.

SCR 2139 and 2165 should provide enough basis for unfettered and unrestricted aid access. What would need to happen though is for the UN to increase its ability to manage risk and for them as well as key states, to make clear to the Syrian government that it is determined to deliver aid, with prior notification of times and coordinates, to start reaching civilians in desperate need of life saving aid.

Syria’s civilians, especially those besieged in places like Douma, can’t be made to wait for a political solution – something which could still be years away. The time for ‘further steps’ to be taken given non-compliance with SCRs 2139 and 2165 was months ago.

So in the narrative battle between civilian protection and state sovereignty, surely civilian protection must always win out, especially when the state in question is committing crimes against humanity on a daily basis.

On one level all of this is quite simple: given that the Syrian government is unwilling and unable to protect civilians, others, who are willing and able, must.



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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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