Humanitarian Aid in Syria – and Its Limits

 

See an updated version of this post here.

 

Today, the UN Security Council made a little bit of history when it passed Resolution 2165 which allowed the delivery of humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas of Syria without government approval. This is a long time in coming. Many parts of Syria have been no go areas for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, either because the government would not allow access to areas it controlled, or it would not allow access to areas under rebel control. There are 10.8 million people in need in Syria, including 6.5 million internally displaced persons (on top of the 2.9 million refugees in neighboring countries and more than 170,000 dead), two-thirds of which are in hard to reach areas. The UN, ever mindful of questions of sovereignty, was reluctant to deliver aid in rebel-controlled areas without government consent. According to UN Humanitarian chief Valeria Amos, this resolution will make it possible to reach 2.9 million people who were previously out of reach because of concerns over Syrian sovereignty.

The food will be delivered via four border crossings, and the UN will be responsible for checking the aid shipments to ensure that they do not include weapons. This has been a concern (not particularly well-founded) of western governments – including the UK who have tried to prevent individuals and aid convoys from traveling to Syria because of fears that they will, instead, join or support radical movements in Syria. But the bigger concern will be the fact that some of the areas are held by organizations such as ISIS – which even Al Qaeda at times has considered too extremist, and which is currently waging war against the Iraqi government (and people). How does one weigh the need to get food to people with the virtual certainty that some of will be siphoned off by such groups. This is not a new concern, but will require careful consideration as the UN engages with new types of actors in its attempts to deliver humanitarian assistance.

This is hardly the first time that a government has attempted to use denial of humanitarian assistance against its enemies. What is different here is that the UN – a state-based organization committed to upholding state sovereignty – will be going against the direct wishes of the Syria government (even as the resolution reaffirms Syrian sovereignty). While there are expectations that states will allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to all on its territory – even to rebel-held areas – it has not been at all clear that under international law the UN had the right to go against state wishes – and it certainly has been reluctant to do so.

In April, 35 legal experts issued a letter asserting such a right. They pointed out that: 1) the UN would clearly meet criteria for legitimate humanitarian action; 2) that what is required is the consent of the parties who control territory; and 3) that it is illegal to withhold consent for the delivery of assistance except for valid legal reasons – which are not present in Syria. This was a somewhat unorthodox – but not completely novel – interpretation of international law. But it does indicate a fairly radical shift at the UN and elsewhere – which has been developing over the last 20 years – in understandings about the relationship between governments and their people. This Security Council action is a continuation of this, and as such could be interpreted as an implementation of the responsibility to protect which the World Summit recognized in 2005. This asserts that states have the primary responsibility to protect their people, but when they violate this responsibility the international community – through the UN Security Council – can step in to protect people. Ignoring Syria’s wishes is a recognition of Syria’s failure to protect its people and respect international law, as well as the international community’s responsibility to protect people in the absence of adequate state action.

On the other hand, this resolution can also be considered a failure of the responsibility to protect, given that 170,000 people have been killed and more than 9 million have been displaced – all without the UN lifting a finger to stop the atrocities committed by the government, as well as anti-government groups. It has stood by, blocked not only by Russian and Chinese vetoes, but also lack of interest by Western governments in taking the action necessary to protect civilians. It is good that more people may now be able to receive humanitarian assistance. What is not good is that fact that they need it in the first place. Food and medical care will not solve the situation and will not, in the end, protect people from government or rebel atrocities. The Security Council should not be allowed to rest on its laurels, but rather should be held to account for its failure over the last three years to adequately address the continuing conflict.

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