Syria’s Arbitrary Denial of Consent Keeps Aid from Reaching Syrians in Need

Publication Date: 
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Deserted street in Aleppo, Syria © George Kurian/IRIN

With the Assad regime severely limiting international humanitarian access to Syria, most international relief efforts have focused on addressing the needs of the over 3.1 million Syrian refugees in the region, including over a million each in Lebanon and Turkey, and hundreds of thousands each in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees in the region are enormous, and significant gaps remain in the humanitarian response to the regional refugee crisis. Just this week, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it was suspending critical food aid to over 1.7 million Syrian refugees due to serious budget shortfalls; other agencies face similar funding constraints.

Beyond the challenge of assisting the over 3.1 million Syria refugees in the region, however, is the even greater challenge of accessing the much larger population of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria. As the Syrian war continues, an estimated 200,000 people have been killed and 7.6 million internally displaced. In total, approximately 12.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria, 4.6 million of them in besieged or hard to access areas. Yet, severe restrictions on humanitarian access to Syria limit aid from reaching those in need.

Access, Consent and Cross-Border Operations

Despite enormous humanitarian need within Syria, the Assad regime continues to refuse consent to international humanitarian aid, severely limiting humanitarian access to the country. While international humanitarian law (IHL) requires the consent of the state for relief operations to take place, states also have an obligation to allow and facilitate humanitarian aid to civilians in need. Many observers, including the UN Secretary General, deemedSyria’s refusal an “arbitrary” denial of consent in violation of its obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL).

In view of this violation and mounting humanitarian need inside Syria, a few international organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), attempted to circumvent state restrictions by engaging in cross-border operations to reach populations in opposition-controlled areas. These limited and dangerous operations – a number of MSF staff members working inside Syria have been kidnapped and killed – could hardly keep up, however, with the huge and growing needs of Syrians in difficult-to-reach areas.

In July of this year, the UN Security Council thus authorized humanitarian access to Syria for cross-border and cross-line operations. This authorization has increased aid flows into the county somewhat, facilitated by UN OCHA through the Turkish Red Crescent and local NGOs. Yet, large areas of the country under ISIS control remain inaccessible. In fact, ISIS has taken advantage of the lack of either governance or outside assistance to facilitate its territorial gains. “The group sustains the areas under its control by maintaining some basic services in a highly repressive environment,” notes a recent UN report on life under ISIS in Syria. “By preventing the supply of humanitarian aid,” the report continues, “the group reinforces the dependence of civilians on the services it controls.” 

Reliance on Local Actors

Without reliable international access to Syria, the burden to assist millions of vulnerable people inside the country has primarily fallen on the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which has worked to deliver aid in both government and opposition-controlled areas of Syria, in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Yet, the SARC has come under both literal and proverbial fire as the organization attempts to conduct principled humanitarian action under highly circumscribed conditions in Syria.

As one of the few organizations authorized by the Assad regime to deliver humanitarian assistance inside Syria, the SARC faced significant pressure from the Syrian government, and fought allegations of partiality in aid delivery and a lack of independence. The principles of partiality and independence, along with humanity and neutrality, provide the foundation for humanitarian action; adherence is not only a legal requirement and practical necessity for gaining and maintaining access to affected populations, but also involves the careful management of both actions and perceptions. Adherence to the humanitarian principles remains always under challenge, and a loss of legitimacy or consent on the ground can increase security risks for aid workers. At least 40 SARC volunteers and 7 Palestinian Red Crescent volunteers have been killed while carrying out their duties in Syria since the beginning of the conflict; in January 2012, the SARC’s leader, Dr. Abd-al-Razzaq Jbeiro, was killed while travelling on the Aleppo–Damascus highway in a marked Red Crescent vehicle.

Overcoming Obstacles to Access

With half of all Syrians displaced, and millions under siege or isolated in difficult-to-reach areas, humanitarian needs are growing as humanitarian action becomes more difficult and dangerous. The lack of humanitarian access to Syria has had dire consequences for Syrians inside Syria, compounding the already serious affects of conflict and displacement. While international aid is critical to reestablishing the healthy, prosperous and dignified lives of Syrian refugees in the region, it is important not to lose sight of the even more difficult challenge – providing humanitarian protection and assistance to millions of Syrians inside Syria – despite severe restrictions on humanitarian access. Efforts to improve humanitarian access to all affected areas, negotiation with the armed groups, and diplomatic efforts to bring the fighting to an end are all crucial in this regard. 


Hakimi bin Abdul Jabar's picture

Julia's article is very insightful.

The UNSC must re-refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court for the effective investigations & prosecutions of all perpetrators etc.  Either that or refer it to an International Criminal/Penal Tribunal.  The victims are entitled to reparations and equal access to international justice.

The failure, refusal or neglect to refer the situations in Syria & Iraq & ISIS to the ICC or an established competent International Criminal/Penal Tribunal deprive and derogate the affected populations/victims of the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law pursuant to UNGA Resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005, right of equality before the law and equal protection of the law in accordance with Art. 7 UDHR and other treaties & rights instruments [i.e. international treaties to uphold these rights, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). E.g. Syria ratified the ICCPR on March 23, 1976, and the ICESCR on January 3, 1976], the principle of primacy of International Law in a competent International Tribunal established in accordance with the proper international standards which provide all the guarantees of fairness, justice and even-handedness, in full conformity with internationally recognized human rights instruments established in accordance with the proper international standards, prolong the conflicts & impunities and aggravates the atrocity crimes, e.g. the Syrian War/Conflict began 15 March 2011 and is presently ongoing (more than 5 years, 8 months) etc.

The pronouncement in 2003 by the ICTY Trial Chamber in the case of Momir Nikolic [Case No.: IT-02-60/1-S] lucidly asserts that the ICTY is “intended to send the message to all persons that any violations of international humanitarian law — and particularly the practice of “ethnic cleansing” — would not be tolerated and must stop”.

The suffering and loss of the victims of such crimes must thereby be internationally recognized and acknowledged in a competent & established International Criminal Court or an International Penal Tribunal. The initiation of criminal proceedings sends the message to all persons - that any violations of international humanitarian law – and particularly the practice of “ethnic cleansing” – would not be tolerated and must stop.

Lastly, a commitment to end impunity in Syria would promote respect for the rule of law globally.

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