Security Council Backsliding on Duty to Protect Syria’s Civilians, Rights Advocate Stresses, amid Calls to Protect Hospitals, Review Deconfliction Accords
Emergency Relief Coordinator Says 450 Civilians Killed during Two Weeks of Shelling in Idlib De-escalation Zone
The Security Council’s failure to respond to the conflict in Syria, now in its ninth year, is a clear weakening of its responsibility to protect, a human rights advocate stressed today as briefers presented details of the humanitarian impact of fighting in Idlib, including attacks on medical facilities.
Susannah Sirkin, Director of Policy at Physicians for Human Rights, told the Council that escalating brutality in Idlib and north-western Syria could lead to the worst humanitarian crisis of the twenty-first century. Since 26 April — when Syrian and Russian Federation military forces began targeting Idlib and northern Hama — her organization has received reports of 46 attacks on health-care facilities and confirmed 16 of them.
Moreover, there have been routine violations of the deconfliction agreements coordinated by the United Nations to notify parties of health centre locations. “The Syrian and Russian Governments know the exact location of most health facilities, and yet they continue targeting them,” she said. “Your current collective inaction is a clear derogation of your responsibility to protect.” Syria and the Russian Federation must stop attacking hospitals. She called on the Secretary-General to investigate these assaults — and the failure of the deconfliction mechanism — in Idlib, northern Hama and western Aleppo.
Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said that for more than 90 days, bombing and shelling by Syria and the Russian Federation has resulted in carnage in the so-called de-escalation zone of Idlib. On 26 July, the High Commissioner for Human Rights identified 450 civilians who had been killed in the previous two weeks alone. Over 440,000 people have been displaced, and dozens of civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of shelling by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — a Council-listed terrorist group — and the armed groups associated with it.
Providing an update on the deconfliction system, he said information provided to the Council is based on direct testimony from those closest to the source, as well as imagery, satellites and geotagged or time-stamped pictures of medical facilities. The data reveal “a level of destruction consistent with a bombing campaign aimed at a scorched-earth policy”. Interviews with displaced people have meanwhile revealed daily bombings by Syria’s Government and the Russian Federation. While there are indeed members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham living in Idlib, estimates suggest there are about 100 civilians for every one fighter.
In the debate that followed, several speakers concurred that the humanitarian situation is taking a turn for the worse. Many also agreed on the need for a United Nations-led investigation into attacks on hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.
Kuwait’s representative, speaking also for Belgium and Germany, said Syrian authorities “know what they are doing”, as they knew the coordinates of civilian infrastructure in deconflicted areas. Calling for a ceasefire in Idlib and an end to hostilities nationwide, he said the Council has a responsibility to the Syrian people, including the 3 million civilians in and around Idlib. “One cannot help to ponder whether the inaction of the Council is partly to blame for the dramatic increase in the number of displaced and what, if anything, could we have done differently,” he added.
The United Kingdom’s representative said responsibility for the Council’s inaction rests with three Member States, one of them a permanent member. “What is happening in Idlib makes a mockery of P5 responsibility,” she said, referring to the five permanent Council members.
The representative of the Russian Federation said criticism of his country and Syria is aimed at sustaining a terrorist presence in Idlib in order to combat the legitimate authorities. Countering reports of a Russian air force attack on a market in Idlib, he urged the Secretariat and United Nations specialized agencies to cross-check unverified information about deconflicted areas. The Russian Federation will do its utmost to restore peace in Syria, and its efforts with Turkey under the Sochi memorandum regarding Idlib must not be obstructed.
The representative of the United States said the 3.5 million people in Idlib province have nowhere to escape the next attack — and the Assad regime and Russian air force know that. Calling for a cessation of hostilities and unhindered humanitarian access, she said the latest offense on Idlib has gained the regime and its allies nothing.
“We are facing a veritable nightmare,” said Equatorial Guinea’s delegate. Concerns over the failure of diplomacy among the world’s most powerful countries calls into question the Council’s credibility.
China’s representative meanwhile underscored the importance of working together to counter terrorism and address humanitarian needs. China supports the Syrian Government’s reconstruction efforts in relatively stable areas, he said, stressing that sanctions do not improve humanitarian conditions.
Also speaking today were representatives of the Dominican Republic, France, Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, Poland, South Africa and Peru.
The meeting began at 10:06 a.m. and 12:04 p.m.
MARK LOWCOCK, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, described his meeting with a Syrian surgeon working at Idlib Central Hospital — a facility deconflicted under the United Nations system — which had been nearly struck by bombs. “Everyone knows where it is,” he said of the hospital, yet a gynaecological facility just 200 metres nearby was struck days earlier. For more than 90 days, bombing and shelling by the Governments of Syria and the Russian Federation has resulted in carnage in the so-called de-escalation zones of Idlib, he said, noting that on 26 July the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) identified 450 civilians who had been killed in the previous two weeks alone. Meanwhile, he said, many more have been injured and over 440,000 displaced. Dozens of civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of shelling by the Council-listed terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the non-State armed groups associated with it.
Citing a 26 July statement by the High Commissioner, he quoted: “Despite repeated calls by the United Nations to respect the principle of precaution and distinction in their conduct of hostilities, this latest relentless campaign of airstrikes by the Government and its allies has continued to hit medical facilities, schools and other civilian infrastructure such as markets and bakeries.” During his last briefing to the Council on 18 July, he was asked for information on the sources used by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for an update on the deconfliction system and for details about a letter sent on 16 July by the Permanent Representative of Syria. Responding to those issues, he said the information provided to the Council is collected from direct or verified sources, triangulated, reviewed and confirmed. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs uses direct testimony from those closest to the source as well as imagery, satellites and geotagged or time-stamped pictures of medical facilities that have been analysed and assessed by the United Nations.
Describing those images in more detail, he said they reveal “a level of destruction consistent with a bombing campaign aimed at a scorched-earth policy”. Satellite imagery shows 17 villages almost completely destroyed and emptied. Noting that the United Nations humanitarian information comes the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and others, he stressed that these organizations are financed by Member States on a voluntary basis and their independence is therefore double-checked. On the testimony provided by individuals on the ground, he noted that interviews with groups of displaced people in recent days reveal daily bombings by Syria’s Government and the Russian Federation. While there are indeed members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham living in Idlib, he stressed that estimates suggest there are about 100 civilians for every one fighter.
There is no shortage of information about the situation in Idlib. “We all know exactly what has been happening for the last three months,” he stressed. One crucial question is whether the information provided through the United Nations deconfliction system is being used by the parties to protect civilians from attacks, or to target them for attacks. In that context, he recalled that he has requested the Russian Federation to clarify what it does with the information provided. “I continue to hope to receive further clarification,” he said, adding that he has sent notes verbale to the parties involved in six attacks in north-west Syria in 2019. “In spite of our efforts to work with the parties to the conflict to prevent attacks on civilian objects and humanitarian workers, I have come to the conclusion that in the current environment, deconfliction is not proving effective in helping to protect those who utilize the system,” he said.
Regarding the letter sent by the Permanent Mission of Syria to the Council — which stated that 119 hospitals in Idlib have been taken over by terrorists — he provided evidence that those facilities are still operating as medical facilities. The letter also claimed that no ambulance network is operating in Idlib. However, footage in recent days showed ambulances transporting children, and such vehicles are entitled to special protection under international humanitarian law. Recalling that more than 6 million people in Syria received humanitarian assistance between January and May, he said the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan is needs-based and 85 per cent of assistance reaches areas of high need. Rejecting recent reports claiming that aid reaches only those in areas not controlled by the Government, he said in fact more than half of the assistance provided reached people in areas under Government control. His office has delivered aid to thousands living in displaced persons camps, including in the north-east, and scaled up cross-border operations to reach some 1.2 million in July.
SUSANNAH SIRKIN, Director of Policy, Physicians for Human Rights, said the ongoing assault on health-care facilities and personnel is a defining factor of the conflict in Syria. Using a conservative statistical methodology, Physicians for Human Rights has corroborated 578 attacks on at least 350 health facilities and documented the killing of 890 medical personnel since March 2011. Of those attacks, 521 — or 91 per cent — were perpetrated by Syria’s Government or allied forces, including 297 by the Government and 224 by either Russian or Syrian Government forces. Each of those attacks is a war crime and, taken together, they constitute crimes against humanity, turning places of safety into death traps. For years, the Secretary-General has shared such data with the Council and they have been publicized worldwide, yet these crimes are still committed with utter impunity.
In Aleppo, she continued, Physicians for Human Rights has documented 161 attacks on health facilities, including 54 in 2016 alone, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee, and killing patients stripped of life-saving care. Today, three years later, the world is silently watching a similar escalation of brutality in Idlib and north-western Syria that could result in the worst humanitarian crisis of the twenty-first century. Since 26 April, when Syria’s Government and the Russian Federation started a military escalation targeting Idlib and northern Hama, Physicians for Human Rights has received reports of 46 attacks on health-care facilities and confirmed 16 of them. Many local health providers have been forced out of service, while agreements coordinated by the United Nations to notify all parties of the locations of health facilities have been violated again and again. “The Syrian and Russian Governments know the exact location of most health facilities, and yet they continue targeting them,” she said.
“Your current collective inaction is a clear derogation of your responsibility to protect,” she told the Council. Governments have failed to heed all warnings of a criminal strategy that has devastated infrastructure, communities and culture. Civilians have been let down by the Council’s failure to act, by individual Governments that were in a position to stop the carnage, and by United Nations agencies hamstrung by rules that enable perpetrators to flout the most basic humanitarian agreements with zero consequence. She called on Syria and the Russian Federation to immediately stop attacks on hospitals and other vital infrastructure, and for all parties to cease violence against civilians. She also urged the Secretary-General to immediately investigate attacks on health facilities and personnel in Idlib, northern Hama and western Aleppo, and on the failure of the deconfliction mechanism. The Council’s failure to end impunity for such crimes is a blight on its credibility. Continued inaction sends a message of abandonment and the erosion of humanitarian law — not only to Syrians, but to all people subjected to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait), speaking also for Belgium and Germany, said Syrian authorities “know what they are doing”, as they knew the coordinates of civilian infrastructure in deconflicted areas. Condemning airstrikes targeting civilians and such infrastructure, he reaffirmed that all parties must take every measure to protect them in accordance with their obligations under international law. Calling on the parties to respect Council resolutions pertaining to civilian structures, he reminded them that counter-terrorism efforts cannot absolve them of their international humanitarian law obligations. He called for the sustained implementation of the ceasefire arrangements of the 2018 Russian Federation-Turkey Memorandum of Understanding of and for a nationwide cessation of hostilities, emphasizing that there is no military solution.
The Council has a responsibility to the Syrian people, he said, calling for the protection of the 3 million civilians living in and around Idlib. After holding meetings and tabling draft statements on the military escalation in Idlib, the Council has not been able to unite around such initiatives. Pointing out that since a meeting was first called in early May on the impact of the escalation, he said the number of displaced persons has tripled to 440,000, adding: “One cannot help to ponder whether the inaction of the Council is partly to blame for the dramatic increase in the number of displaced and what, if anything, could we have done differently.” Noting that he will continue to call for meetings on the grave matter, he noted the Secretary-General’s call to bring to justice perpetrators of serious crimes, and cited the continuously dire conditions in the Rukban and Al-Hol camps and the large number of detained, missing or unaccounted for Syrians. On the latter issue, he called for progress, highlighting the Council’s adoption in June of resolution 2474 (2019). In addition, all parties must ensure improved humanitarian access, he said, voicing support for the Special Envoy’s efforts to reach an inclusive and credible political solution based on resolution 2254 (2015).
CHERITH NORMAN-CHALET (United States) condemned in the strongest possible terms escalation of the conflict by the Assad regime as well as military operations by the Russian Federation in north-western Syria. There is no denying that the humanitarian situation is growing more dangerous by the day. The grim reality is that there is nowhere for the more than 3.5 million people in Idlib province to escape the next attack and the Assad regime and Russian air force know that. The United States will not waver in its support for the White Helmets and other humanitarian workers, she said, adding: “They are not terrorists and they deserve our protection.” Calling for a cessation of hostilities and unhindered humanitarian access, she said there is no military solution and that the latest offense on Idlib has gained the regime and its allies nothing. The United States fully supports a full and independent investigation into attacks on health facilities and urges United Nations agencies to report such incidents to the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011. She went on to call on the Council and regional partners to ensure cross-border humanitarian deliveries; expressed grave concern about the fate of internally displaced persons at the Rukban camp; and announced that her delegation will seek a Council briefing in the coming weeks on detainees and missing persons with a view to mobilizing urgent action on that issue. Pending a verifiable ceasefire throughout Syria, the United States will exert pressure by all available means to isolate the regime and its allies.
KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) said responsibility for the Council’s lack of action rests with three Member States, one of them a permanent Council member. “What is happening in Idlib makes a mockery of P5 responsibility,” she said, referring to the five permanent members. Emphasizing that justice may not come today, but will eventually, she asked what Syria and the Russian Federation are doing to protect civilians, notably children; how they know, or claim to know, where terrorists are; how their forces distinguish between terrorists and civilians; and which part of international humanitarian law do they believe allows terrorists to be attacked with no regard for civilians. Noting that the Council recently heard a briefing from a Russian military general, she also wondered what the Syrian and Russian military doctrines and rules of engagement say about international humanitarian law. She called for an independent and credible investigation into deconflicted sites, adding that simply because a hospital or clinic has been decommissioned does not mean it can be attacked with impunity. She went on to appeal for humanitarian convoys to be allowed to enter Rukban, emphasizing that reconstruction assistance for Syria will not be available in the absence of a credible political process.
WU HAITAO (China) underscored the importance of working together towards a comprehensive and lasting solution to counter-terrorism and humanitarian issues in Syria. China supports the Russian Federation and Turkey in the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding to realize deconfliction in Idlib. With Idlib in the grip of rampant terrorist activities, the international community should adopt a common standard with regard to combating terrorist groups. He emphasized that humanitarian issues throughout Syria must be tackled properly. Most of the internally displaced persons in Rukban want to return home and the international community should help end their displacement. China supports the Syrian Government’s reconstruction efforts in relatively stable areas. Sanctions, however, do not improve the humanitarian situation. Enabling more Syrians to emerge from the shadow of war should be the common objective of the international community, he said, emphasizing that humanitarian relief operations must respect Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. On the political front, he said China supports the role of the United Nations as the primary mediator in encouraging the parties towards a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political process.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) voiced concern about hindered access to humanitarian aid for 11 million people, half of whom are children. Some 40 attacks on health centres have been recorded in recent months, he said, noting that immediate action is required. “This Council must mobilize to bring about the immediate cessation of attacks against civilians in Idlib and in the rest of Syria,” he stressed, adding that a shared vision and a new future of sustainable peace must replace the widespread hopelessness in Syria. Pressing the Council to take more responsibility to ensure the protection of civilians, he called on all parties to alleviate their suffering. “Hostilities must stop, and they must stop now,” he stressed.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France) said a humanitarian disaster is unfolding in north-west Syria, with millions of civilian lives at stake. Calling on the Russian Federation to urgently revive the Idlib ceasefire agreement as an absolute imperative, he condemned the strikes that continue to target civilians and civilian infrastructure. While the fight against Council-listed terrorist groups is important, it cannot be used as a pretext for attacks against civilians. Noting that France stands ready to respond to any new verified use of chemical weapons, he said the parties must shoulder their responsibility to protect civilians, especially the most vulnerable. In that regard, the deliberate targeting of schools and hospitals — including those identified under the deconfliction mechanism — is unacceptable and may constitute war crimes. Calling on those with the means to do so to pressure the Syrian regime to facilitate humanitarian access in all parts of the country, he condemned reports of deliberate obstruction by the regime. Another priority is the launch of a lasting political process, under the auspices on the United Nations, and preparations for free, fair and transparent elections. Absent progress on those critical points, he said, France will not change its approach to sanctions or provide Syria with any reconstruction funding.
TIEMOKO MORIKO (Côte d’Ivoire), expressing support for the September 2018 Idlib de-escalation zone agreement, voiced concern that it has only been partially implemented. Condemning the recent military escalation, he called on the parties to immediately end hostilities and respect their international law obligations — including to protect civilians. Meanwhile, donors and partners should urgently fulfil commitments made during the recent Brussels funding conference. Humanitarian responses to the conflict in Syria must be carried out hand-in-hand with a political process, he stressed, calling for a prompt ceasefire.
MUHSIN SYIHAB (Indonesia), appealing to all parties to refrain from provocative actions and to cease violence, underscored the impact of the fighting on the women and children who make up 76 per cent of the population in north-west Syria. Stating that it was “beyond frustrating” that hospitals have been targeted despite their locations being shared through the deconfliction mechanism, he said medical infrastructure must be protected from direct military attack. He also highlighted the humanitarian situation in the Al-Hol and Rukban camps. Given the escalation in north-west Syria, unity within the Council is needed more than ever. Council members might have different views on some issues, but it is vital for them to be united in protecting people’s lives.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) said that when the Under-Secretary-General discusses Syria, he appears to do so with a different tone than when he speaks about the humanitarian situation in Libya or Yemen. Today, the Council is hearing more invective against the Russian Federation, as well as emotionally charged testimony, with the United Kingdom also accusing the Russian Federation of mockery. However, the purpose of such talk is clear: to sustain a terrorist presence in Idlib in order to combat the legitimate authorities in Syria. He said the real humanitarian situation was the subject of a 29 July briefing by his country’s Ministry of Defence which several countries failed to attend, and where images from unmanned aerial vehicles were presented which indicated no sign of an air attack on a market in Idlib on 22 July. He called on the Secretariat and United Nations specialized agencies to be careful and to cross-check unverified information about deconflicted areas. He described Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya as a terrorist organization that uses civilians as human shields.
Regarding the briefing from Physicians for Human Rights, he said that according to its methodology, two thirds of reported attacks on hospitals in Idlib were fake. Prior to the conflict, there were only 12 hospital in Idlib. The situation elsewhere in Syria must not be overlooked. Efforts to ensure the return of internally displaced persons from the Rukban camp will continue. He also noted the illegal occupation of the eastern bank of the Euphrates by the United States and emphasized that country’s responsibilities as an occupying Power. The Russian Federation will do its utmost to restore peace in Syria, and its efforts with Turkey under the Sochi memorandum regarding Idlib must not be obstructed.
JOANNA WRONECKA (Poland) said any military operation should be in line with international humanitarian and human rights law. Protecting civilians and ensuring unhindered access for assistance are not choices, but legal obligations, and those who fail to comply must be held accountable. Pointing out that the presence of United Nations-listed terrorist groups is worsening conditions for civilians, she said fighting such groups cannot justify violations of international humanitarian law, and attacks on densely populated areas must stop. While civilians fleeing to Idlib expected a minimum level of protection, “unfortunately, there is none”, she said, underlining that preventing a humanitarian catastrophe there hinges on fully respecting the Idlib de-escalation zone. Turning to the dramatic state of health-care facilities, she said the international community — and especially the Security Council — must vigorously advocate for the health and protection of civilians. Regarding grave conditions at the Al-Hol and Rukban camps, she emphasized the importance of ensuring humanitarian access.
ANATOLIO NDONG MBA (Equatorial Guinea), voicing concern over the alarming situation in north-west Syria, declared: “We are facing a veritable nightmare.” The bleak trend towards violence is escalating, in particular, in the Idlib area. Noting that many people around the world are dismayed at the failure of diplomacy among the world’s most powerful countries to address those challenges, he said such concerns call into question the Council’s credibility. Expressing hope that yet another call to action may finally overcome international indifference and bring the parties to the negotiating table, he urged the latter to protect civilians and preserve civilian infrastructure. Health centres, in particular, are critically important, and it is unacceptable that they should be targeted by any party to the conflict. Condemning airstrikes and shelling in the Idlib area, as well as the use of civilians there as pawns, he stressed that “we cannot allow all the internarial humanitarian action deployed in this zone to come to naught”. Allies of the parties should use their influence to ensure that tensions to do not boil over any further.
KGAUGELO THERMINA MOGASHOA (South Africa) expressed concern about the particularly acute impact of attacks in north-west Syria on women and children — who make up 76 per cent of the population — as well as on civilian infrastructure. Condemning continued attacks on humanitarian workers, she urged all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian and international human rights law for the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure. Calling on the signatories of the September 2018 ceasefire to fully respect the terms of that agreement, she went on to stress that — despite the presence and threat posed by terrorist groups — no actions taken to counter terrorism should be carried out at the expense of civilian lives. Turning to the situation in the Rukban and Al-Hol camps, she welcomed reports that over 17,000 people have left Rukban but voiced concern about those who lack the resources needed to leave. It is essential that all those who remain in the camp be provided with assistance, she stressed, calling on the parties to grant the approvals required for the delivery of aid to the camp.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru), Council President for July, spoke in his national capacity, echoing expressions of concern over fighting in Syria’s north-west and the resulting deterioration of humanitarian conditions. Emphasizing that the principles of civilian protection and proportionality are being violated, he also deplored the targeting of civilian facilities and health centres, including ones identified under the deconfliction mechanism. Such reprehensible acts constitute war crimes and merit an investigation to hold their perpetrators accountable, he stressed, adding that preserving the de-escalation agreement reached in 2018 between the Russian Federation and Turkey is critical. Meanwhile, meeting the needs of the thousands of displaced persons living in camps in Syria remains crucial. He requested Iraq, with United Nations support, to finalize plans for the repatriation of some 30,000 Iraqi nationals, and urged all Member States to continue to assist in humanitarian efforts across Syria.
Ms. SIRKIN, taking the floor again, said the representative of the Russian Federation incorrectly stated that two thirds of the reports cited by Physicians for Human Rights in the last month were fake. Describing that as a misquotation, she said in fact 16 reports have been confirmed to date. Others are being verified in line with the organization’s rigorous methodology.