Obstructing Humanitarian Assistance in Syria: A Weapon of Warfare
By Eirini Favgi for PGW Global
The Syrian conflict continues to shake the world. The massive influx of refugees into neighbouring countries, the untold suffering of the Syrian people, and the razing of whole cities are some of the destructive characteristics of this war. The participation of other countries, such as the U.S., Turkey, Iran and Russia, has triggered a debate around whether this armed conflict is of an international or of an internal character. This controversy has complicated the issue regarding the application of the rules of armed conflict as far as obstructing humanitarian assistance is concerned.
The following analysis will be around two major issues: first, whether these unspeakable conditions constitute a weapon of warfare for the Parties or are they just a consequence of the conflict; secondly, whether the UN has the power to intervene and protect the civilians. This discussion is based on the legal framework regarding the obstruction of humanitarian assistance during armed conflicts and the UN’s position.
Humanitarian assistance by the United Nations and other organisations has consistently been blocked by the parties to the conflict. The ICRC and the UN attempt to search for a solution to this crisis through the publication of reports and independent inquiries, highlighting the belligerent groups and their actions.
Aid agencies and international organisations have also compiled multiple reports depicting the difficulties that civilians suffer under, the lack of meaningful intervention, as well as, the Syrian state’s continued involvement in obstructing humanitarian assistance.
Medieval-style sieges have been a common method in the Syrian civil war. In 2016, the UNOCHA reported an estimated 13.5 million people, including 6 million children, were in need of humanitarian assistance. 4.6 million of them are in hard-to-reach areas, including close to 643,780 people in 13 besieged areas. According to open sources and the United Nations, the most affected of those areas are Madaya, Eastern Aleppo, Ghouta, Duma and the outskirts of Damascus. There, the civilians literally strive to live by eating dogs, cats of the streets, grass and garbage. To aggregate the picture, owing to lack of food, nursing mothers are unable to feed their newborns. These appalling living conditions have unavoidably led to starvation, disease and death.
As for the diseases’ outbreaks, the WHO has confirmed 20,071 notifiable cases of Influenza, Acute Diarrhoea, Bloody Diarrhoea, AJS, Severe Acute Respiratory Infection, Suspected Measles, Suspected Meningitis and Acute Flaccid Paralysis. The huge human displacement that was brought about during this war has resulted in the re-emergence of a cutaneous leishmaniasis epidemic – an insect-borne disease that seems to appear in regions where refugees and displaced persons are settled. The malnutrition, poor housing, absence of clean water, inadequate sanitation, health services and facilities are the factors that contributed to this disease’s re-emergence and of the other ones as well.
Even during the brief periods of ceasefire, the parties did not comply with their obligations under international law, as these diseases have not been contained effectively; instead, they continue to spread, with starvation being the most virulent and persistent issue.
As far as the non-armed groups are concerned, they have also made the access to humanitarian aid very difficult. The encirclement of Nubul and Zahra besieged 45,000 people by checkpoints erected around the area and by cutting off their electricity and water supply lines. In 2013, there was an attack against a helicopter carrying aid supplies, while in 2014, ISIS was preventing humanitarian access to Afrin. Finally, repeated killings and abductions have made it impossible for the residents of Midrash and Shatha to cultivate their land, depriving them of their main source of income and food.
These incidents are only a few of the many that took place these years of the Syrian conflict, as there are daily reports of new attacks against aid workers and vehicles of NGOs and the United Nations in the war area.
Before we proceed to how the United Nations should deal with this situation, it is essential that we refer to the legal framework that applies in order to define whether these blockages of humanitarian relief constitute a method of warfare in use by the parties to the conflict. The prohibition of starvation and of denial of access to humanitarian aid is regulated both in conventional international humanitarian law and in customary international humanitarian law. Furthermore, the debate regarding the internal or international character of the conflict in Syria has played a key role as far as the application of these rules are concerned.
If the Syrian war is regarded as one of an internal character, the 1977 Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions protects expressis verbis the objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population and it prohibits starvation as a method of combat (Article 14). On the other hand, if this conflict is to be considered as international, then the 1977 Additional Protocol I applies, providing for the same prohibitions (Article 54).
The customary rules prohibit starvation in both cases as well (Rule 53). Moreover, the prohibition of attacks to objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (Rule 54), the prohibition of denial of access to humanitarian aid intended for civilians (Rule 55) and the prohibition of restrictions on the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel (Rule 56) are undeniably applicable to this conflict.
Lastly, the international human rights law also provides for the prohibition of starvation, inhumane treatment and basically the right to life. The International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is the prevalent convention providing for the above rights and it applies regardless the character or the very existence of the conflict.
Despite the continuing denial of the President Bashar al-Assad, who claimed that he does not use starvation as a weapon of warfare, multiple representatives in the UN Security Council have accused the Syrian regime of using siege and starvation as a weapon of warfare, as the Government bore the primary responsibility for protecting its people. It should be noted that Egypt’s representative condemned the targeting and exploitation of civilians as a tactic of war, while the French delegation stressed the need for permanent, unrestricted access for humanitarian workers. Stating that the primary responsibility in that regard lay with the Syrian regime and access to emergency assistance could not be seen as a favour or concession granted by the regime, but must be viewed as an obligation that stemmed from the Geneva Conventions.
Although the international community condemns the treatment of the civilian population in Syria, it has been argued that these incidents are a consequence of the conflict and not a direct weapon. Undoubtedly the belligerent parties are aware of this fact and they continue to commit such crimes impeding the access to humanitarian relief in the besieged areas.
Even though the Security Council has officially condemned the acts of the parties and has passed some resolutions regarding this matter, it has not yet succeeded in minimising the suffering of innocent civilians. As the Syrian state and ‘supporting’ states have been allowed to continue with their rhetoric that there is no intention of using sieges and their consequences (diseases and starvation) as a weapon of warfare. It should be mandatory for the Security Council to dismantle this claim and confront it head-on.
There is nothing new about this weapon of warfare. On the contrary, it is common to armed conflicts and to totalitarian regimes. The Taliban appeared to pose an obstacle to the agencies that delivered humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan during the war. They imposed in some circumstances, payment of taxes, thorough examination to confirm neutrality etc. The hurdles imposed by the Taliban intentionally impeded the relief of the civilian population.
Since the customary law provides for humanitarian relief operations in situations of armed conflict, no one can derogate from its implementation. This fact, along with the above evidence that proves the intentional deprivation of the food and health services to the civilian population leads to the conclusion that the United Nations has the law on its side. Thus, as the Oxford Guidance affirms, it can adopt binding decisions requiring the parties to the conflict to consent to offers to conduct humanitarian relief operations or it can impose such operations, thereby dispensing with the requirement of consent. However, the fact that Russia is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council has stifled the adoption of such decisions.
Backroom deals and decisions made amongst the members of the Security Council have existed since the Cold War. Package deals and diplomatic blackmails are used in order to serve various political interests. Maybe, it is time for the members used the same methods to serve the interests and needs of this suffering civilian population in Syria. This would allow the Security Council to pass favourable decisions by offering bargaining chips to the objecting members. There is always something that they will desire more than anything else.
It is clear to see that the parties to the Syrian conflict intentionally hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Using the starvation and the suffering of the civilian population as a weapon of warfare. This conduct is expressly prohibited by both the conventional and customary international humanitarian law along with the international human rights law. The UN Security Council must look to this legal framework in order to force the parties to stop this conduct and offer a lifeline to the Syrian people.
Although there is the allegation that the UN has not been effective enough in its attempts to help those in need, it is undeniable that both the UN and other international organisations have tried relief interventions, but the parties to the conflict have usually made this effort difficult.
From the part of the government forces and pro-government militia, in 2014, a UNRWA convoy was authorised to enter Yarmouk only from the northern gate, but it could not proceed because of insecurity, due to ongoing hostilities. Moreover, in 2012, during the siege of the Old City of Homs, there were checkpoints and barricades alongside a 1 km concrete wall erected next to the Political Security Branch contour the Old City. Consequently, the government blocked every access to those areas in need. More recently, on the 18th of June 2017, the ICRC condemned an attack on a humanitarian convoy. This convoy was sent by the ICRC, Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations; it was supposed to deliver food and medicine to 11,000 people in the town of East Harasta, which has not received humanitarian assistance for nearly eight months.
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