As Humanitarian Catastrophe in Syria Continues, Under-Secretary-General Urges Security Council Find Common Humanity, End ‘Unbridled Horror’

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Warning that “Syria is bleeding and its citizens are dying” in increasing numbers and with increasing ferocity, the United Nations top humanitarian official urged the Security Council today to find common humanity and restore the cessation of hostilities to protect civilians, save lives and end the “unbridled horror”.

Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaking via video link from Geneva, told the 15-member body, that it was with raw grief that he reported the “ultimate humanitarian shame” that was Syria today. The situation in the embattled country was not a distant conflict but rather a critical test of the willingness in the Chamber to make a decision and take action. Nowhere had the fighting been worse in the last days than in besieged east Aleppo. Some 320 civilians had been killed and 765 injured in just the last week alone. Over 100 children had been killed.

“These are not simply numbers to be added to a tally, these are individual family lives that we have collectively failed to save,” he continued. Attacks in the past few days had rendered a water-pumping station inoperable, stopping water to most of east Aleppo, damaged warehouses belonging to the Arab Red Crescent and killed one of the few remaining doctors in the area. Just yesterday, two of the eight remaining hospitals were attacked and rendered out of service.

“And let it be said, the evidence is being collected, the eyewitnesses accounts recorded — even if not today, one day there will be no hiding place for the individuals and institutions callously, cynically perpetrating these war crimes,” he warned. Hundreds of critical medical evacuations were urgently needed, he added, recalling the reports he received of people being turned away or treated on the floors of the few remaining health facilities. Four people, three of them children, who did not have access to ventilators died as a result and there were also reports of severe shortages of surgical items, blood bags and anaesthetics.

Food remained scarce, as well, with reports that rations were only sufficient to feed 40,000 for one month, he said. People were dying from malnutrition, disease and poisoning by those scavenging for food. Fresh water was also in short supply. There were more than 100,000 children trapped in east Aleppo, he said, noting that “rescue teams were finding children every day under piles of rubble amid the inferno and choking dust” of the city.

Indiscriminate attacks were also being launched by non-State armed groups in western Aleppo, he said. “Now is not the time for political grandstanding,” he continued, urging a common humanity and to restore the cessation of hostilities to protect civilians and save lives. “Anything less will leave this Council today on the wrong side of history,” he added.

There had been no humanitarian access through cross-border actors since early July, a result of constraints by both the Syrian authorities and non-State armed groups. Civilians simply could not travel in and out of eastern Aleppo. “We must do everything possible to bring this medieval practice to an end once and for all,” he said, adding that the number of people besieged in Syria had grown from 586,200 to 861,200.

Last week, trucks delivering life-saving assistance came under attack, leaving 18 humanitarians dead, he said. “The local population had been further traumatized by witnessing what happens to those who try to help them,” he added. That humanitarian convoy was a meticulously organized movement and advanced notification was given to all sides. If the attackers knew of the convoy and intentionally attacked it, they committed a war crime. Those delivering aid were brave, but “they are not suicidal”.

Aid continued to reach hundreds of thousands, both by land and by air drops dispatching food, nutrition and medical supplies, he said, expressing hope that security arrangements would be put in place for longer-term solutions. The United Nations remained ready to deploy, but had been met with bureaucratic tactics. Just yesterday, after waiting over eight hours at the last Syrian checkpoint, a convoy intended for Douma was turned back. The United Nations had requested to reach almost 1 million people in 29 besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

“We cannot allow another month go by where we wait three weeks before the first cross-line convoy,” he said, adding that “as insecurity increases, civilian suffering does, as well”. Syria was bleeding and its citizens were dying. Last week, as world leaders met in New York, the violence in Syria actually increased — more civilians and more humanitarians were killed.

“It is time to place blame. It is time for this Council stops tolerating the utter disregard for the most basic provisions of international humanitarian law,” he said. If the parties to the conflict were not ready to do whatever it took to end the violence then the world’s only hope was the will and measures of the Security Council.

Speaking following the briefing, the representative of Uruguay said the subject of today’s meeting was not only relevant to Council members, but also to the wider United Nations membership. In recent weeks, the world had witnessed an abhorrent attack on a humanitarian convoy in Syria and Aleppo had been pounded by one of the most intense bombings since the start of the conflict. Condemning the continued shelling of hospitals and medical facilities — which had become a repeated criminal practice — as well as the use of besiegement and hunger as weapons of war, he expressed support for the proposed weekly 48-hour humanitarian pauses, which might provide a way forward.

While the body continued to discuss Syria, he said, Aleppo and other towns continued to witness the daily horror of endless bombings — carnage to which the Council seemed unable to respond. Indeed, despite the fact that its members had said repeatedly that there could be no military solution in Syria, actions on the ground proved otherwise. “This is a defining moment,” he said, warning that Member States must shoulder their responsibility to the Syrian people or risk going down in history as those who had been unable to end one of the worst tragedies of our time.

The representative of New Zealand, Council President for September, spoke in his national capacity, saying that, while the month had been a busy and productive one, he was “deeply disappointed” that no action had been taken to address the Syrian crisis.

The meeting began at 10:08 a.m. and ended at 11:42 a.m.

For information media. Not an official record.