Syria: Humanitarian corridors will depend on international commitment to protect civilians

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Posted by Claude Bruderlein

Amidst United Nations Security Council (UNSC) gridlock over taking action on Syria, the international community has begun seeking alternate routes to address the humanitarian crisis. One set of options entails establishing either a limited truce (in which Syrian authorities and rebels would agree to stop fighting for limited periods of time to allow humanitarians to deliver aid) or a humanitarian corridor (which would provide a protected space for civilians in need of humanitarian aid). According to recent reports, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger has held talks with senior officials of the Syrian opposition about plans for a humanitarian truce,. The ICRC is playing a critical role in this regard, per its mandate under Article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Statutes of the International Red Cross. This initiative exemplifies the humanitarian community’s consistent efforts to distinguish its activities from politically or security-driven interventions, such as those discussed at the UNSC or in the recent meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Tunisia.

Paradoxically, these negotiations are taking place as the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released a special reportconcluding that Syrian authorities at the highest level, as well as opposition forces, have committed gross and systematic violations of human rights, which may amount to crimes against humanity. The UN report’s recommendations are of particular interest to humanitarians, considering that negotiations for a limited truce or a humanitarian corridor are taking place with parties that, according to the UN panel, “bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations.”

These negotiations, albeit humanitarian in essence, carry major political significance, as their outcome may affect the international community’s determination to undertake a more integrated, long-term political and security intervention in Syria. For example, a humanitarian corridor may require a peacekeeping mission for enforcement, and hence may be seen as an option that lays the groundwork for intervention. Parties to the conflict are therefore likely to react to current proposals for humanitarian corridors on political grounds, notwithstanding the needs of the population.

In light of these recent developments, mediation between humanitarians and partnering political and security actors is critical to determine the clear and distinct role of relief agendas in Syria. Humanitarian actors should be particularly wary that various parties might endeavor to use humanitarian organizations to further political aims. Additionally, while negotiating access, agencies should remain cognizant of the limitations of humanitarian truces, especially following the devastating experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the risks associated with establishing protected zones without a clear political will at the international level to ensure civilians’ protection.

Ultimately, protecting of the civilian population in Syria is the responsibility of the Syrian government, or, if required, the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in light of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. Considering the recent UN report alleging ongoing indiscriminate attacks against civilians ordered by the parties to the conflict, the parties’ consent to a humanitarian truce to provide assistance to civilians will be of limited value. Humanitarian organizations may consider entering into truce and/or corridor agreements only when the Security Council has established robust and credible mechanisms to enforce these arrangements. Despite their neutral character, the success of humanitarian truces, zones, or corridors will inevitably rely on the international community’s political will to take coercive action in protecting civilians in Syria.