Transcript of Press Stakeout by UN Senior Humanitarian Adviser to Special Envoy for Syria, 16 May 2019
NR: Thank you very much and thank you all for being here, it is always good to see you I am happy, it is a nicer setting, and I hope that would be the case all the time.
As you know we have just finished a Humanitarian Task Force meeting, which was very much focused on the very worrying situation in north-western Syria and the humanitarian consequences of the military escalation in Idleb. We also discussed obviously the complex situation for people in the Al Hol camp in northeast and in Rukban camp in the southeast.
Let me start with Idleb, I think you have all seen very worrisome reports coming from this region. The last two weeks have seen an alarming escalation of hostilities. The recent uptick in violence has caused death and destruction with reports of at least 100 civilians losing their lives or being injured. More than 180,000 people are reported to have fled their homes towards areas they consider safer, away from the violence. Most have moved towards northern and eastern Idleb and some to northern and western Aleppo. Many of them are sheltering and sleeping under trees and remember, that most of the IDPs who are in this region fled already from other areas because for them after the MOU was agreed that was a safe place they could stay in.
Medical facilities and health services have been hard hit in the recent increase in airstrikes and shelling. Since 28 April, we have reports of 18 facilities that have been hit; in Hama, in Idleb and in Aleppo governorates. At least four health workers have been killed. Hitting the health facilities is having direct consequences on the capacity to provide health services and consultations to more than 170,000 people. In line with international humanitarian law, medical units must always be respected and protected and should not be the object of attacks. And as you already know most of those health infrastructures are stand alone facilities outside of the town build as a consequence of previous attacks which was a way to provide them with more protection.
We also have reports of at least 16 schools and three sites, IDP sites, where displaced people live having been affected. Civilians and civilian infrastructures, including schools and hospitals, cannot be a target and parties must abide by international humanitarian law. Their destruction is deeply disturbing, and this has to bein the DNA of every single humanitarian and during the HTF everybody was remined that the raison d’etre of the Humanitarian Taskforce is precisely protection of civilians.
There are nearly 3 million people in Idleb, 2.1 million already need humanitarian support and 1.4 million people have been displaced at least once. With this bombing and air strikes the same people are displaced a second time, a third time, a fourth time, so can you imagine the level of vulnerability and the layers of suffering they are going through? This is really cruel, this is really cruel to them.
About 1 million are children. Ongoing hostilities by all parties to the conflict put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk, forcing people to flee their homes, and undermine efforts of humanitarian partners to respond. This must stop, and all the parties must uphold international humanitarian law and protect civilians, that’s part of their obligation and they signed, and they adhered to the Geneva Convention. Among those we have 80,000 children who cannot go anymore to schools, meaning 80,000 of those children are not yet in the process of building a future, meaning that 80,000 of those children are not yet in the process of hoping to live in a better and a safer environment.
Aerial bombardment, including the reported use of barrel bombs causing severe damage to civilian infrastructures and civilian casualties is a war practice which goes against every single humanitarian principle. Also, alarming is the reported shelling from the de-escalation zone into areas under the Government’s control. Once again, my appeal is to all parties to stop violence and protect civilians.
The Humanitarian Task Force called for an urgent de-escalation of the situation and for the parties to recommit fully to the ceasefire arrangements of the memorandum signed on 17 September 2018 especially by the Astana guarantors – Russian Federation and Turkey in particular - to uphold the de-escalation agreement, to stop all violence and to continue their cooperation to prevent further escalation. The HTF members called on all parties to the conflict to protect civilians at all cost and to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
The recent loss of life and suffering of civilians in Idlib is unacceptable. People fleeing because of fear and because of bombing is their cruel daily reality. But now if the bombing is continuing where do you want them to flee? They already fled there as their last resort for them to find a safe place. Where is it that they would be able to go as of now, if this was not stopping?
On Al Hol camp in north-east Syria in Al Hassakeh Governorate, we continue to be concerned for the more than 73,500 people living there. The camp is overcrowded and although humanitarian partners have rushed to scale up, critical needs remain in key sectors including health, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene.
About 90 per cent of those in the camp are women and children. About two-thirds are under 18 and there are over 470 unaccompanied or separated children.
The United Nations and humanitarian partners called on the HTF co-chairs, as well as all other HTF members to continue supporting the humanitarian response and to facilitate the provision of assistance to all those in need, without discrimination.
There was also a call to provide permit to the UN for surge capacity in the camp and to be able also to conduct needs assessments and provide and scale up humanitarian assistance.
My last point is on Rukban. The UN is concerned with increased reports of conditions in Rukban deteriorating due to limited availability of basic goods and services.
In recent weeks, about 12,100 people have left the settlement in south-eastern Syria. These people have moved to temporary shelters in Homs, to which the UN has been finally granted access. And UN plans to visit the shelters on weekly basis. Most of these people have then continued onwards. Given the movement of people out of Rukban will be gradual with many possibly choosing to stay; and the humanitarian principles are clear whoever is leaving has to do it based on his choice but also to choose where to go as well. The UN continues to advocate for a third humanitarian convoy, and for food and fuel to continue to arrive to Rukban through commercial routes.
29,000 people remain in Rukban, and it will take time and it is simple math, for those people if they want to leave, the camp. Those people did not have any humanitarian assistance, any convoys, since February already and starvation is already starting. So the UN has sent again another request for approval, but the clock is ticking and the situation of the people in the camp is really really dramatic..
So that is basically the points I wanted to share with you about the meeting we had in the HTF, but I would like also to say two things: we had the press stakeout, it was two weeks ago? Three weeks ago? And a lot of what I had said today and a lot of the issues I had addressed today which were discussed at the HTF last time, are very similar. It does not mean that nothing is done, it does not mean that it is useless, it does not mean that we should stop using it. The HTF is not about having a result immediately, the HTF is really about advocating for the protection of civilians and sometime it is only some baby steps that we are gaining, but those baby steps are still very much needed for every single child and every single woman and every single man who are really suffering a lot. What I can assure you is that as a Senior Humanitarian Adviser I am not going to give up, and if I have to repeat a thousand times the same request, I will repeat it because we all owe that to the people of Syria and I can assure you also that there was a very clear and strong call to all the members of the Humanitarian Task Force for three things: first of all protection and the duty to protect is a collective responsibility, it is not only the responsibility of the humanitarians by the way, because we always refer of course to our principles and that is our DNA but it is a collective responsibility and it is important that all the members and not only the co-chairs, and guarantors, everybody has to take a clear stance when it comes to duty to protect. The second thing is really very important, that everything is done to alleviate the suffering of the population, do I have to remind everybody that it is the ninth year? And how can we talk about providing people with a future if Idleb is happening for example? And the third thing is definitely about our collective mobilization and I am calling on you and that’s a plea, to you, media, to really make sure that you are also going to convey and re-convey the message when it comes to humanitarian principles, because in Syria, more than in anywhere else, really, I have been to other countries, but in Syria more than in anywhere else the humanitarian assistance that is provided is really a lifeline. It is really about saving lives, but I can tell you that more than in anywhere else, it is about saving the future of the people of Syria.
Thank you very much.
Question: On the prisoners’ issue in Syria, why is there weak progress on this issue?
NR: In terms of prisoners, you will be very disappointed by my answer, I mean this stakeout is about what was going on in the HTF, and frankly speaking so far in all the bilateral meetings and the trilateral meetings, the ad-hoc, and actually the plenary with the members of the humanitarian task force the issues that have been addressed were about Rukban, Al Hol and whatever is going on in Idleb and somehow also about the different access issues we might have elsewhere. So far the HTF did not discuss as yet the detainee issue.
Question: Regarding Rukban, you said that you are looking to send a third convoy, did you receive an answer from the government? And a second question, who is attacking schools and hospitals?
NR: Well, we have a dialogue, we have some interaction with the Government of Syria regarding Rukban and actually they have expressed some concerns, and you know the same one, to make sure that the assistance is really targeting those in need and not going and diverted for other use as well, so we had to come up, the colleagues in Damascus, really needed to come up with the request that is specifying very clearly the whole process, how we are going to identify the needs, how we are going to identify the beneficiaries as a way to address the concerns of the government of Syria. We did not get a no like before, so let’s say now the dialogue is open and we really hope that with this new approach and with this very fine-tuned way of delivering assistance we would have the approval for the third convoy, and it is a lifeline.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any information regarding who is attacking schools and hospitals I don’t have an exact answer, all I know is that a lot of it has been done through air strikes. And as humanitarian, no matter who is doing that, whether shelling that is coming or air strikes, for us, when it hits a school, when it hits a hospital, this is absolutely not acceptable. Who is doing it, is not really the most important part for humanitarians, it is really that it is done, and there is an impact on civilians and that is very serious violation of the international humanitarian law.
Question: You mentioned that starvation has started in Rukban, do you have numbers? Deaths? And also, on Idleb, what concerns do you have that this might turn into a full blown on slaughter basically and what preparations are you making for that worst-case scenario?
NR: Well in Rukban there is unfortunately a combination of reasons, so it is not only starvation, it is a very serious health conditions, very poor health conditions, and many other things that are leading to a dire situation. I don’t have the figures, but my colleagues would be happy to share with you the figures we have in terms of malnutrition or whatever other needs in Rukban.
Are we expecting a full blown, or a bloody war in Idleb? I hope no, I mean what I can tell you is what we are doing, the colleagues are reassessing the preparedness and to be very clear, we are preparing for the worst-case scenario, hoping of course for the best-case scenario, but it is not only that, but also having in parallel meetings with the Russian Federation, with Turkey, and with the US to again call on their commitment to the implementation of the memorandum of understanding. From what we heard from them, I mean, they are taking the de-escalation and the respect of the humanitarian law very seriously that’s what we have been told and will keep monitoring very closely the situation. It will be a real disaster, and I mean a real tragedy if this is scaling up more than it is now, not only in terms of impact on the civilians, which is already dramatic in itself, but really in terms of the whole dynamics in the sub-region.
Question: You said that you engage with Russia and Turkey to recommit, so the question is what is the answer to that? And you said that people are sleeping under the trees so what are the plans to try to bring some help to them?
NR: Thank you, the help would definitely be through shelters through health services because as you know there are a lot of causalities and therefore it is important that the treatment provided is up to the needs, it is happening, but not up to the scale, I mean the insecurity there and the continuing air strikes is not something that is conducive to deliver humanitarian assistance and as you know, some NGOs, about 12, have suspended temporarily their assistance, so that is something that we need to work on, and the colleagues actually in Syria are also putting some reserve to provide emergency response to Idleb. Yes, we are discussing, it is not only at our level as humanitarians but on different components of UN, addressing the Astana guarantors on the recommitment to the implementation of the MOU. Very frankly my feeling is that they are taking that very seriously, I did not feel that they are just completely ignoring that, that is the best I can tell you. Those meetings are happening on regular basis, I mean we are not waiting for the Humanitarian Task Force to address that, as you know we also have a number of ad-hoc meetings to address really very urgent issues.
Geneva, 16 May 2019