As Plight of Syrians Worsens, Hunger Reaches Record High, International Community Must Fully Commit to Ending Decade-Old War, Secretary-General Tells General Assembly
Following is UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ briefing to the General Assembly on the situation in Syria, today:
Throughout March, the world has marked a decade since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, which started with the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations demanding justice, freedom and dignity. We honour the victims of the war and all those who persevere in the search for peace.
I welcome this opportunity to brief the Member States on the situation in Syria, in particular the political, humanitarian and human rights situation and the efforts of the United Nations to give the Syrian people hope for the future.
Let me reiterate at the outset that there can be no military solution to the conflict in Syria, and yet the situation continues to drift toward one of “no war, no peace”. We must pursue a negotiated political settlement in line with Security Council resolution 2254, adopted in 2015.
A first step must include credible progress within the Constitutional Committee in order to implement resolution 2254’s call for the drafting of a new constitution, allowing for the conduct of free and fair elections, administered under United Nations supervision with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.
My Special Envoy has convened five sessions of the Constitutional Committee. The results of the Committee’s work so far have fallen short of my expectations. More importantly, they have fallen short of the Syrian people’s expectations.
That is why I fully support my Special Envoy’s call that a sixth session needs to be different from what has gone before — with clear goals, credible working methods, enhanced Co-Chair cooperation and a future workplan. Meaningful work within the Constitutional Committee could at last begin to build trust and move away from the present level of distrust. It could begin to open the door toward a broader political process and much-needed compromise.
However, the United Nations cannot move forward alone. Nor can the Syrians; the issues are not solely in their hands. After all, several foreign armed forces, even if with different status, conduct military operations in Syria. I am convinced that mutual and reciprocal steps by the Syrian parties and among key international stakeholders on the comprehensive set of issues outlined in Security Council resolution 2254 can unlock the path.
For almost a year, Syria has experienced relative calm. Since the ceasefire arrangements agreed between the Astana guarantors, Turkey and the Russian Federation, on 5 March 2020, the main frontlines in the north-east and north-west have remained static. However, by any other measure, it was still a treacherous year. Air strikes, exchanges of artillery and small arms fire continued.
The trend towards relative calm was seriously challenged on 21 March, when dozens of civilian casualties were reported in north-west Syria as a result of attacks on a United Nations-supported hospital in Atarib; by an aerial strike near Bab al Hawa, where life-saving United Nations humanitarian deliveries cross into Syria from Turkey, and by shelling of residential neighbourhoods in Aleppo.
Elsewhere, attacks with improvised explosive devices continued in crowded civilian locations in northern Syria. There has been a military build-up in north-west Syria. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, continues to consolidate its military hold in Idlib. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has scaled-up its attacks in central Syria. In the south, we continue to witness significant tensions between local communities, pro-Government forces and former opposition fighters. This is a snapshot of just one year in the lives of Syrians.
Over the last 10 unrelenting years, the people of Syria have endured some of the gravest crimes the world has witnessed this century. They have suffered violations of human rights and international humanitarian law on a massive and systematic scale.
Bombs and mortars have rained down on homes, schools, hospitals and markets. Chemical weapons have caused horrific suffering. Cities have been placed under siege, starving civilians. Large portions of the country’s territory were taken over by Security Council-designated terrorist groups, which have subjected many Syrians to unimaginable horrors.
The massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Syria over the last decade shock the conscience. To this day, those responsible for these crimes, which may in some instances amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, have enjoyed near total impunity. Perpetrators must be held to account. The Independent Impartial Investigative Mechanism created by the General Assembly is making some headway to reduce that gap.
Today, millions inside the country — and millions of refugees outside — grapple with deep trauma, grinding poverty, personal insecurity and lack of hope for the future. A decade of conflict, corruption, mismanagement, regional financial crises, sanctions, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to Syria’s economic meltdown and soaring poverty levels.
Nine in 10 Syrians now live in poverty, with 60 per cent of the population at risk of going hungry this year — the highest number ever in the history of the Syrian conflict. Parents are eating less so they can feed their children, and they are sending them to work instead of school.
A generation of Syria’s children have never lived a day without war. Nearly 2.5 million children are out of school across Syria, with 1.6 million more at risk of dropping out. Half a million children are chronically malnourished. In some areas of north-west Syria, acute malnutrition is approaching the emergency threshold of 15 per cent among displaced children in hard-to-reach areas and camps. We fear this number will increase. The impact on girls and women has been particularly devastating, with early or forced marriage, rape and sexual abuse prevalent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it all even worse. Tens of thousands of cases have been identified so far, and more than 2,000 people have reportedly died from the virus. Thousands more cases are going unconfirmed due to dangerously low testing rates. Only 58 per cent of the country’s hospitals are fully functional, with hundreds of health facilities having been attacked and destroyed over the course of the conflict. The pandemic has put further strains on the health sector.
And another COVID-19 wave lies in wait. The most vulnerable will suffer the most, particularly those living in densely populated camps for internally displaced persons and informal settlements across Syria, where basic service provision is weak.
Two requests have been submitted for Syria’s use of the COVAX facility: one covering north-west Syria, and a second covering the rest of the country. Plans are under way to deliver a first tranche in the coming weeks, covering around 3 per cent of the population. An initial 1 million doses are allocated to the Syrian Ministry of Health, including 100,000 for north-east Syria. And an initial 224,000 doses are allocated for north-west Syria.
Although COVAX vaccinations are planned to begin across Syria in the coming weeks, distribution of these initial vaccines will continue through 2021. As a result, community transmission of COVID-19 is anticipated to continue in the present year.
The United Nations and our partners are fully committed to assisting all people in need across Syria and in the region, without discrimination and wherever they are located. As we speak, the international community is gathering at the donor conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region”.
We have built up the world’s largest humanitarian operation, and we will need your generous support to meet the $10 billion required in funding for the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan and the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan in 2021.
Last year, thanks to your financial contributions, United Nations entities and partner organizations delivered assistance to some 7.7 million people on average per month in Syria. That is an increase of around 28 per cent compared to 2019. With additional donor support, the United Nations and its partners aim to target some 12.3 million people in need this year across all parts of Syria, in addition to 5.6 million Syrian refugees in the region.
Syria is the world’s largest refugee crisis. And allow me a personal testimony as High Commissioner for Refugees during 10 years. I lived intensely the plight of the Syrian refugees. I witnessed their dramatic suffering, but I also witnessed and was inspired by their courage and their resilience.
And I can also not forget that during several years before the Syrian crisis, I worked with the Syrian people and the Syrian Government to support the protection and assistance to Iraqi refugees, much more than 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. And Syria opened its borders and the Syrians opened their arms with enormous generosity and solidarity. There were no Iraqi refugee camps in Syria. Iraqi refugees were living with Syrian communities and Syrian families all over the country.
And it’s also important to recognize that Palestinian refugees enjoyed in Syria the highest level of rights in the region. So, indeed, it breaks my heart to see such a generous people suffering so much. And I believe the international community has a moral obligation. The obligation to offer to the Syrians, refugees and others suffering inside the country, the same generosity and the same solidarity that the Syrians themselves have offered to refugees that have found refuge inside their territory.
And indeed, we are living in an emergency particularly affecting children and youth; 45 per cent of Syrian refugees in the region are under 18 years old. We now have a generation of Syrian children born and raised in exile. If they are expected to build back their country, we must invest in them now and equip them for that role. We must deliver for them and for the communities that host them.
Let me also reiterate my call for the waiving of sanctions that may impede access to essential health supplies, COVID-19 medical support or food in Syria.
Despite the United Nations massive response in Syria and across the region, more humanitarian access is required to reach those most in need. This includes both cross-line and cross-border access. People are worse off today than nine months ago, when the issue was last reviewed by the Security Council. 3.4 million people in need — 21 per cent more than last year — are pressed up against the border in an active war zone in north-west Syria.
The United Nations dispatched an average of 1,000 trucks of aid per month in 2020, crossing the border from Turkey to Idlib, and reaching 2.4 million people each month throughout the year.
Cross-line convoys, even if deployed regularly, could not replicate the size and scope of this operation. And despite significant and continuing efforts by the United Nations, we have not yet managed to create the conditions to deploy the first convoy from Damascus to north-west Syria. A large-scale cross-border response for an additional 12 months remains essential to save lives.
A failure to extend the United Nations mandate would end the United Nations COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans for millions of people in north-west Syria, and greatly diminish essential humanitarian operations. Food and other humanitarian aid deliveries by the United Nations would halt immediately. Less food will mean more suffering and more conflict.
The situation in the north-east has also worsened following the removal of Al-Yarubiyah as an authorized United Nations crossing last year. An estimated 1.8 million people require assistance in areas of north-east Syria outside of the control of the Government. More than 70 per cent of them are considered to be in extreme need — well above the national average.
From Damascus, most agencies have regular access to north-east Syria for non-health items, in cross-line operations via the Tabqa crossing, to warehouses in Qamishli for onward distribution to people in need. Trucks depart with aid every few days from areas controlled by the Government of Syria.
On health items, in 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) completed six road shipments to north-east Syria, in addition to 13 airlifts. Medical supplies provided by WHO were delivered to 15 hospitals and 106 primary health-care centres cross-line. This represents a modest proportion of total needs, and many facilities remain short of staff, supplies and equipment. Overall, though, there is not enough aid of all sorts reaching north-east Syria.
The plight of detainees, abductees and the missing — and the pain and suffering of their families — require our urgent attention. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty. Many are held in dire conditions, lacking access to basic necessities, and are often subject to torture and ill-treatment. Men and women detainees, including boys as young as 11, have been subjected to a range of sexual violence, including rape and sexual torture, including genital mutilation.
The families of those detained, abducted or disappeared should be informed of their fate and whereabouts and be allowed to visit or communicate with them. Human rights and humanitarian agencies should be granted access to all places where detainees and abductees are held.
My Special Envoy has continued to stress the importance for progress on all of these issues, and regularly engages the Syrian parties directly on them. The parties must move beyond one-for-one prisoner exchanges to releasing those arbitrarily detained and providing information as an important confidence-building measure. The United Nations has also worked diligently with the Astana guarantors to advance this file.
In the absence of a mechanism with an international mandate to address the issue of detained, missing and disappeared persons in Syria, so far, we have not seen the kind of progress that is commensurate with the gravity of the matter.
We are also seeing a collective failure to protect women and children at Al Hol and other camps and places of detention in north-east Syria, where tens of thousands of children are growing up in desperate and frankly scandalous conditions. I urge you to rapidly and safely allow for the voluntary repatriation of their nationals, with particular urgency for children and their families, in line with international law and standards.
After a decade of war, many Syrians have lost confidence that the international community can help them forge an agreed path out of the conflict. I am convinced that we still can. We will be relentless in our pursuit of a negotiated political settlement in line with Security Council resolution 2254. A solution that creates the conditions necessary for refugees to return voluntarily in safety and dignity and respects Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. A solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of all Syrians.
The war in Syria is not only Syria’s war. Ending it, and the tremendous suffering it continues to cause, is a collective responsibility. Today, we must all commit fully to achieving that goal.