Transcript of stakeout by Jan Egeland, UN Special Adviser to the Special Envoy for Syria, 6 April 2017
I thought 2017, the seventh year of war in Syria would be better. It is not. What changed was that the battle moved from Aleppo city, from Homs city, to eastern Damascus to Idlib, to Hama, to Ar- Raqqa. What did not change is that the civilian population is in the middle of this battle, the civilian population is suffering more than anyone else in this war. So a war when more children and women die than grown armed men is a very dirty one. A war where children suffocate to death because of chemical and toxic chemicals is a very, very dirty war.
This was of course again the theme of the humanitarian task force of the International Syrian Support Group, where we as humanitarians appealed for a rebirth of effective humanitarian diplomacy in the absence of a cease-fire and cessation of hostilities that will last for this country.
We have in Syria an effective large humanitarian operation. It is probably the largest humanitarian operation in the world. It's also probably the best funded humanitarian operation in the world, with $6 billion pledged yesterday in Brussels for this year alone. And still there are nearly 5 million people that are in so-called hard to reach and besieged areas which is actually a euphemism for civilians suffering alone. There are many millions we do reach but there are 4.7 million people that largely suffer alone, and in the besieged areas we’re making very little progress. Only one area besieged by government forces has been reached, Khan al-Shieh in this last month. In addition, four areas besieged under the Four Towns agreement were reached.
In one week we were able to recently reach 250,000 people with cross-line convoys, which again is an example of this very large operation that can reach all of the 5 million in hard to reach and besieged areas if were given access. So this is not the story of an operation that is not succeeding due to tsunamis or mudslides or natural disasters or lack of global generosity. Those are other places, this is the story of armed men supported by powerful men outside that sabotage, block, deny humanitarian access while the civilian population is attacked, gassed and bombed.
More than 300 medical facilities were attacked last year. I fear this year may be equally bad. The medical facilities are particularly protected under international humanitarian law because they are there for civilians and for the wounded, and therefore particularly protected. In Syria, it seems they are particularly targeted, so we asked today for a number of things from the members of the International Syria Support Group, including the Astana guarantors, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the US, which is co-chair of the ISSG, but all of the other members as well, we asked for the following: number one, we need green light for the full April/May plan of the UN which aims to reach more than 1 million civilians in the hardest to reach and besieged areas of Syria. Only one third of these were approved in full by the government, when we got answer back a few days ago, some 40 percent where approved only conditionally, because they do not agree with our beneficiary figures. They disagree with how many civilians there are in an area. That is in violation of what the International Syria Support Group agreed on in the Vienna meeting. It is up to the UN humanitarians as neutral intermediary to decide who and how many are beneficiaries.
We need green light to go to all of the places from the government and from the armed opposition groups. Secondly, we need 72 hour ceasefire in the areas where the battle is now raging among the civilians and against the civilians. For eastern Ghouta, with 400,000 people within an hour drive from Damascus centre, these 400,000 people are now suffering alone in the sense that they have a shortage in medical supplies, their hospitals have been bombed, and they are running out of food and other supplies. We need a 72 hour pause for eastern Ghouta and we need it in the coming days We need a special arrangement for hospitals, we cannot anymore have a situation where armed actors do not, cannot or will not guarantee that medical facilities will not be attacked. We will urge now again such notification system to be established and I have hope that this year it will for the first time be established and will work.
And finally, we are urging that the local agreements happening now in many places, ensure that evacuations are voluntary, safe, protected and to places of the choosing of the civilian population. When we are not part of the agreement as we mostly are not, we cannot guarantee these things. We urge, I urged in the meeting today, the members of the task force, who are facilitators for agreements, to enable such agreements to be under humanitarian standards and according to international law. We hope that will change now because so far they have not.
Q: (interpreted from French) What do you think about the military option recognized by the United States?
JE: I am a humanitarian, I do not believe in military solutions in this war. I also see no military solutions, I only see negotiated political solutions to this war. What I do welcome is a renewed interest from the United States to focus on the carnage in Syria. We need our co-chairs who are Russia and the United States still, to be equally seized on the situation of the Syrian civilians. When they were focusing as such last year, we had progress. We also need however all the other actors on the ground and there are many in the Task Force to also contribute. There are too many who are bringing fuel to this fire and too few who are pulling the parties to the negotiating table.
Q: (interpreted from French) Do you think the diplomatic way and the Geneva talks still have a chance [to succeed]?
JE: Absolutely, I am a firm believer that in both Geneva and Astana we can and we will make progress. 2017 I still think will be the year of diplomacy after a six- year war.
Q: Could you shed some light on today’s proceedings and what the co-chairs were able to offer. Has anything happened today that leads you to suppose that there will be movements on humanitarian deliveries? Was there any explanation given by either co-chairs for the current obstructions?
JE: Well, what happens in each meeting is that members refer to violations or bad actions on the other side than the other one that they are supporting. However, I do take some comfort in us agreeing now to sit down with both co-chairs and with others to look specifically at the Eastern Ghouta situation. Everybody agrees, including the Russians, that the situation there is very dire and that a special arrangement, a special agreement is needed for Eastern Ghouta. Nobody wants another Eastern Aleppo to be happening on our watch. We should learn from the horrific inability to help civilians there and I am still hopeful yes that we will have arrangements for 400,000 people in the Eastern Ghouta besieged areas. So there are more people besieged in east of Damascus city than there were in the east Aleppo besieged enclave.
Q: What was said in a meeting today about the Khan Shaykhun gas attack?
JE: It came up of course by most if not all of the speakers and all expressed outrage over children suffocating to death because of chemical substances. It will however be discussed I think in terms of who is behind what happened, what triggered, what weapons were used, that would be a matter for the Security Council for an investigation by the special body on chemical weapons . It will also be discussed by the task force on the cessation of hostilities that is also under ISSG. We focused, I focused, on the courageous humanitarian work that happened. Turkey was very much involved in that, humanitarians had pre-positioned some relief in the area because of the fear of chemical attacks and that came to good use but it couldn't save the more than 20 children dead, many women dead, many civilians dead.
Q: You mentioned that there was outrage expressed about the chemical attack but what signs do you have that there will be a concrete impact on humanitarian operations in Syria after this attack? In other words, what kind of commitments or expressions of not just outrage but of action that can happen to help facilitate a better humanitarian situation in Syria after this attack?
JE: Number one, many countries and the Secretary-General of the UN has said that we need to come to the bottom of this. We need to measure out accountability for what happened but there are conflicting reports emerging about what caused, which effects in this area. So we need to know the facts.
Number two, we need to come back to protection of civilians. I also think that is something that is slow sinking in. We are now in the seventh year of war. It lasted much longer than WWII. $6 billion were raised for humanitarian relief in Brussels [ this year]. We need to prevent a humanitarian suffering, I hope that this is a watershed moment and with all of these world leaders saying that they have again woken up to the suffering of the civilians that we see every single day. I hope it's a rebirth really for the diplomacy, both humanitarian and political. I will continue working, we don't have the luxury to look away.
Q: President Assad has apparently given an interview today saying that he sees now that the only option is victory, no progress has been made talking to the opposition basically here. How would you respond if he said that to you?
JE: My answer back to him and to the armed opposition groups who also believe in a military solution is that, after six years, one should have learnt really that this will not have a military solution, it will not have a military end, it will have a negotiated end. The violence will continue and continue. The battle is moving around but it is unabated. So the answer back is let's settle it and at the negotiating table with humanitarian agreements. We need an agreement for Eastern Ghouta. We need an agreement for the Four Towns, we need an agreement for that matter for Hama and Raqqa and all of the other places where the civilians are suffering. Thank you.