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What Next for the UN Security Council and Humanitarian Access in Syria?

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Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo

Let us quickly recap where we are at in terms of human suffering in Syria. The latest conservative figures tell us that 146,000 people have died and 680,000 have been injured since the conflict began around three years ago. The United Nations estimates that there are 2.6 million refugees, 6.5 million internally displaced persons and 9.3 million people needing humanitarian assistance. Of those, 220,000 are still living in besieged areas and are unable to escape, find alternative food sources or communicate with those outside the conflict zones. No wonder, then, that Syria repeatedly has been called the "world's worst humanitarian crisis in modern times" (and by that, I suspect they mean the worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda in 1994).

A few weeks ago I sat in a meeting with humanitarian law experts from a range of institutions, including the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and watched as my colleagues frantically checked their phones and tablets for any news on the UN Security Council's then-impending resolution on humanitarian access in Syria. That resolution went into blue (the final stage of negotiation where the text of the draft resolution is printed in, as you may have guessed, blue ink) on the evening of 20th February 2014 (UK time). The draft was emailed around immediately, and the reaction of the table was mixed. In the end, we concluded that the resolution was to be viewed positively, if only for its direct engagement with the humanitarian access crisis that was preventing millions of people from receiving vital food and medical supplies. When that slightly modified draft became Resolution 2139 on 22 February, it included a request that the Secretary-General report back to the Security Council on its implementation by all parties in Syria thirty days after adoption and every thirty days thereafter. The first thirty day deadline has now passed and the first report regarding the implementation of Resolution 2139 has been published. Unfortunately, the report tells us little more than we knew already and gives us little indication of 'what next?' for the humanitarian access crisis in Syria.

The report, released a couple of days ago (S/2014/208), focuses on key elements of Resolution 2139, including: humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas, the expansion of humanitarian relief operations and the free passage of medical assistance. The report covers the period 22 February to 21 March 2014.

Access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas remains a matter of pressing concern. Disappointingly, no new ceasefires were arranged (despite several being attempted) which might have allowed for some assistance to get through to the particularly isolated areas of the old city of Homs, Nubul and Zahra, Madamiyet Elsham, eastern Ghouta and Darayya, to name but a few. The 150-200 men evacuated during the last ceasefire in Homs are still being held by government 'screening' facilities. Assistance consignments are regularly confiscated, subjected to major delays, or have been stripped of essential supplies.

The expansion of relief operations is prevented by increasingly complex administrative procedures. The Syrian government has formed a working group on the implementation of Resolution 2139 but, unsurprisingly, little progress has been made in respect of the arduous and time-consuming formalities required. As the report explains: "The process for approval remains extremely complex and time-consuming. Each United Nations field mission or convoy continues to require a request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 72 hours in advance, a facilitation letter from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent following the approval of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the issuance of a facilitation letter by the Ministry of Social Affairs. In the case of medical assistance, an additional letter issued by the Ministry of Health is required." The combination of prohibitive administrative procedures and widespread infrastructural weaknesses renders even the most efficient and experienced humanitarian organisation unable to gain entry to the country, let alone besieged areas.

Security Council demands for free passage of medical assistance have largely been ignored. Resolution 2139 called for a general neutrality to be granted to medical assistance, meaning that medical consignments were to be treated as 'privileged' supplies and not have been subjected to extraneous or burdensome inspections or administrative formalities. Despite this, the Syrian government maintains its insistence on a case-by-case negotiation for consignments. This has resulted in medical supplies capable of treating around 201,000 people being removed from convoys to Houla (Homs) and Adra and Madamiyet Elsham (Rural Damascus) alone.

So, is there any good news? Despite the continuation of indiscriminate attacks and other national and regional security threats, the United Nations and its partners claim to have been reaching "millions of people with lifesaving assistance". The UN World Food Programme and its partners claimed to have delivered the most assistance; in February, 3.7 million people were accessed, including 180,000 people in previously inaccessible areas of Rural Damascus, Deir-ez-Zor, Dar'a and Ar-Raqqa. Other organisations and their partners claim to have reached significant populations with various types of aid and services: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (1 million); World Health Organization (441,000); and UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (140,000). On the face of it, these are encouraging numbers but in reality, more and more people are "slipping out of the reach of humanitarian organizations" as time goes by. In real terms, the UN estimates that since the start of 2014, around 1 million people have become classified as "hard-to-reach" given the increased violence and security threats.

Overall, this first report evidences minimal progress in implementing Resolution 2139 and gives little hope for remedying the humanitarian access crisis in Syria. Undoubtedly, the unwillingness of the Syrian government to comply with the resolution has had a major role to play in this. Expectations at the UN, however, do not include the imposition of measures under Chapter VII (powers that allow the Security Council to use military and non-military action to restore international peace and security) for non-compliance. Let us hope that the rumoured Council suspicions are true, and that it will be the second implementation report in thirty days time that is more determinative of the Council's next steps.