After nearly three years, last month’s peace talks on Syria (“Geneva II,” the long awaited follow-up to an unsuccessful first round of discussions in June 2012) showed the world a grim outlook at best. As one of the most massive man-made disasters in decades, Syria has distinguished itself from other such crises not only by its magnitude, but for its unprecedented politicization of humanitarian principles and a murderous lack of accountability on behalf of UN member nations. Of particular concern are the catastrophic impediments imposed by both the Syrian government and opposition forces on aid agencies attempting to provide life-saving assistance.
Politicization of the Humanitarian Imperative
Without drastic changes, adequate provision of humanitarian aid to highly vulnerable populations within Syria will remain simply impossible, even for the largest and most influential United Nations agencies (World Food Program, UNICEF, World Health Organization, etc.). Yet, sadly enough, due to the political sensitivity of such topics, no one is willing to heed their responsibility to publically speak to the reality of the matter. Instead, powerful governments and key UN personnel are left dancing around implicit topics of concern while regurgitating the same repetitive half-realities that do nothing but undermine the truth of how outrageous circumstances have become. Transparent human rights violations (notably the prevention of aid access) are perpetually taking place in the wide open and international governments will not call this ongoing and escalating abomination what it is. They’ve implied that preventable humanitarian “travesties” are taking place every day, and they’ve implicitly condemned these “alleged” International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law “atrocities.” But they won’t explicitly acknowledge the unspeakable side-effects of their inaction.
For example, the provision of life-saving aid from neighboring countries into Syria by land represents the vast majority of humanitarian activities taking place in Syria on behalf of international agencies, due, in part, to the restrictions imposed on those few agencies granted legal status to operate out of Damascus. Yet the US and UK governments as well as United Nations entities themselves are not formally acknowledging that these activities are taking place and thus denying the possibility of functioning well and securely. As a result, sufficient coordination systems are lacking, information related to needs is unavailable, security threats to aid workers are extreme, and funding is provided to meet a minuscule percentage of the true needs. And countless innocent civilians have died as a result of international power brokers’ political antics and unwillingness to “disrupt” their profitable relationships with particular governments in the region.
In addition to issues related to providing cross-border assistance to opposition-held areas, aid organizations involved in the humanitarian response have paddled tirelessly up the rest of the stream of arbitrary bureaucratic impediments for far too long. In government-controlled areas there are an extremely limited number of organizations with the resources and patience to navigate the lengthy, costly and complicated obstacle course that prefaces the ability to provide any aid whatsoever. The process of registration and becoming operational may take months, if not years.
The denial of aid as a war tactic
In government-controlled areas, the few organizations allowed to operate are limited to providing care for those perceived to be in support of the Assad Regime. This criterion is most often based on the pre-conflict affiliations of neighborhoods and districts. Predominately Sunni neighborhoods and those areas where protests broke out in early 2011 have often faced complete blackouts from aid coverage. Aid workers attempting to practice the principle of impartiality by providing the most minor assistance (as little as a blanket or a meal) within these areas against the dictations of the regime are being arrested. In light of the recent report from a forensics analyst who defected from the Syrian Government revealing 11,000 dead bodies (the majority of which showed signs of torture) coming from government prisons, arrests are often equated with death. Thus, humanitarians hoping to save lives are facing threats to their own. And operational agencies working on the ground and seeing these limitations to access first-hand face the risk of direct security threats to staff, and being kicked out of the country entirely, if they publically acknowledge one criticism of the regime.
Such denial of life-saving assistance seems to make for an efficient means of killing without drawing the attention that comes with the use of costly explosive weapons and bullets. The international community must choose to see this as simply another means of murder, whether or not it is in the political interest of governments (US, UK, France, etc.) to state this so explicitly lest they be forced to take action. Much the same, the UN Security Council (UNSC) must take a definitive stance by issuing a binding UNSC Resolution calling on all parties to the conflict to assure unhindered humanitarian access throughout the whole of Syria.
Our only means of minimizing suffering is to encourage our governments to take drastic, impartial, humanity-focused action, right now. There’s no more time for games.
Logan Sullivan works for an international non-governmental organization as the Regional Advocacy Advisor for the Syria Crisis. He has worked on a number of international projects in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Southeast Asia, and has recently finished a book about his observations in those regions.
Written by Logan Sullivan and published on 16-February-2014