Thank you Mr. President,
My colleagues and I have given you a lot of updates on the situation in eastern Ghouta over the last three months. I want to start today by bringing you some voices directly from eastern Ghouta.
The Office of the Special Envoy in Geneva has, just in the past three days, received thousands of messages on instant messaging applications from civilians there. They are pleading for our help.
Here is one of them – from a humanitarian worker in the area, a person well versed in international humanitarian law:
“During the last two months, military operations turned into a process of systematic targeting of civilians. Most air raids have intentionally targeted civilian residential buildings. Whole families have died under the rubble. Today, and as battles intensify, I call on you: as a father now expecting my first child to be born, and as a humanitarian worker trying to maintain what’s left of life, to act to stop the systematic operations against civilians and open the roads for humanitarian assistance.”
Here is another voice:
“There are entire families being targeted. A mother and her three children. Four pregnant women; one died, another is in a critical condition, the third lost her baby, and the fourth is under observation. A young girl lost both eyes, and it’s continuing.”
“We don’t want war, we don’t want war, we don’t want war”
“Can you hear our messages, voices and fear?”
“Our situation is so tragic. Our basements are not safe and lack basic needs. Help us, be with us.”
“Instead of saying no more, the world is saying one more”
You are all as Member States aware that your obligations under international humanitarian law are just that; they are binding obligations. They are not favours to be traded in a game of death and destruction. Humanitarian access is not a “nice-to-have”. It is a legal requirement. Counter-terrorism efforts cannot supersede the obligation to respect and protect civilians. They do not justify the killing of civilians and the destruction of entire cities and neighborhoods.
This Council has been briefed in minute detail - month after month - on the scale of the suffering of the Syrian people. Our reports have indeed been endless: dead and injured children, women and men. Airstrikes, mortars, rockets, barrel bombs, cluster munitions, chemical weapons, thermite bombs, suicide bombs, snipers, double-tap attacks on civilians and the essential infrastructure they depend on, including hospitals and schools, rape, illegal detention, torture, child recruitment and sieges of entire cities reminiscent of medieval times.
Over the past 24 hours, heavy shelling and aerial bombardment on multiple communities in East Ghouta reportedly continued, resulting, it is reported, in the death of at least 50 people and wounding at least 200. According to some sources, the total death toll since 19 February is close to 300 people. Twenty-three attacks on vital civilian infrastructures were reported since 19 February. At least seven health facilities were reportedly hit on 21 February. The only primary health care centre in Modira town was reportedly rendered out of service by airstrikes. A hospital in Duma city sustained significant damage from nearby barrel bombs. Also in Duma city, an obstetrics centre was damaged. A hospital in Jisrein town was reportedly attacked, resulting in the death of a nurse. The two SARC centres in Duma city and Harasta town were reportedly damaged by the bombardment.
Meanwhile, ground-based strikes and mortar shelling from eastern Ghouta are killing and injuring scores of civilians in Damascus city, too.
You all know the statistics of this conflict. You know that half the Syrian population has either fled the country or faced repeated internal displacement. These people have lost everything. They have seen their homes destroyed, their neighbours killed, their loved ones disappear. Everyone knows that the repeated confirmed or alleged chemical attacks in Syria have killed and terrorized Syrian civilians.
Eastern Ghouta is a living example of an entirely known, predictable, and preventable humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes. Everyone knows that nearly 400,000 people are besieged. And that they have been besieged for more than four years.
Everyone knows that in eastern Ghouta thousands upon thousands of children are facing acute malnutrition – the likes of which we have not seen elsewhere in Syria since the onset of the conflict. Everyone knows that more than 700 people are in need of urgent medical evacuation to hospitals just miles away in Damascus city.
We have all seen - in recent days - the images of bombs and mortars raining down on bakeries and medical facilities. According to reports documented by United Nations Human Rights colleagues, at least 346 civilians have been killed since the beginning of this month, and close to 900 people have been injured.
You all heard the Secretary-General yesterday, in your Chamber, describing eastern Ghouta as “hell on earth” and saying that we cannot, and I quote, “let things go on happening in this horrendous way”. You also heard him pleading for, and I quote “the immediate suspension of all war activities in eastern Ghouta”.
Earlier this week, UNICEF issued a blank statement; a blank statement - as they could no longer find the words to describe the brutality of this war. UNICEF’s only message was that, and I quote: “No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones.”
This appalling violence is happening as we face significantly increased constraints on our ability to reach people trapped behind conflict lines. In recent months we have faced greater difficulties in accessing people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas, particularly through cross-line convoys, than during any period since 2015. Since 1 December, for nearly three months, we have deployed only three cross-line convoys reaching 67,200 people. Only 7,200 of those people were in besieged areas, less than 2 per cent of the overall besieged population. In 2017, through November, some 53 cross-line convoys reached people in need, an average of nearly five convoys per month. A cumulative total of nearly 2 million people were reached in the first 11 months of 2017, or around 175,000 people on average per month. So 2017, 175,000 a month; in the last 3 months, 22,000 a month. Not reports, or allegations, we have complete, factual information on this, because they are our convoys.
Moreover, the 2017 access levels were themselves nearly 40 per cent below our access levels in 2016. Access is not only limited on aid deliveries, but we are also seeing growing challenges to our ability to independently assess needs on the ground and to monitor aid delivery.
When an entire generation is robbed of its future, when hospital attacks have become the new normal, when sieges of entire cities and neighbourhoods have become a lasting reality for hundreds of thousands of people, the international community must take urgent and concrete action. I have said this before. I will say it again: What we need is a sustained cessation of hostilities, and we need it desperately; a cessation of violence that will enable the immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services, the evacuation of the critically sick and wounded and an alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people.
You can still save lives in eastern Ghouta – and elsewhere in Syria. I urge you to do so.
Millions of battered and beleaguered children, women and men depend on meaningful action by this Council.
Thank you, Mr. President.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.