In Eastern Ghouta, forced evacuations of populations [fr]
Syria - Statement by Mr François Delattre, Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations - Security Council – 27 March 2018
At the outset, I would like to thank Mark Lowcock for his briefing and to commend him on his tireless efforts and those of his team in their response to the urgent and severe humanitarian situation in Syria.
To address that urgency and severity, a month ago almost to the day the Security Council adopted resolution 2401 (2018). We thus collectively and unanimously demanded that all the parties to the conflict cease hostilities throughout the country to allow for sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to civilians in need and for medical evacuations.
1. A month later, what is the situation? Not only has resolution 2401 (2018) not been implemented, but the humanitarian situation in Syria has worsened. The
civilian population is living in despair, trapped between bargaining and fighting, particularly in eastern Ghouta.
Over the past few weeks, not only has the fighting has not subsided; it has doubled in intensity, with a land offensive launched by the regime, supported by its allies Russia and Iran. The carefully planned offensive was unremitting, using the double strategy of terror and parallel negotiations that was used in Aleppo to obtain the surrender of combatants and the displacement of civilians. For a month there has not been a single day when eastern Ghouta, which has been besieged and starved for years, has not suffered indiscriminate shelling by the regime and its supporters. They have systematically bombed schools and hospitals and killed more than 1,700 civilians, including more than 300 children. Those deaths are the result of a deliberate strategy of the Syrian regime to forcibly bend an entire population, annihilate any form of opposition and remain in power.
Nothing should justify breaches of international humanitarian law. Not one humanitarian convoy has been authorized to enter eastern Ghouta since 15 March, and almost no humanitarian assistance has been delivered in recent weeks. Meanwhile, there are immense needs among those still in eastern Ghouta, the majority of whom are women and children.
For several days we have been witnessing forced evacuations of populations from eastern Ghouta, which could constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes. We have demanded humanitarian access to eastern Ghouta in order to provide assistance to people in their own homes, where they wish to stay as long as the ceasefire allows. That was the reason for the adoption of resolution 2401 (2018). Instead, we have witnessed just the opposite — an escalation of violence to force a massive displacement of civilians. Bombing has forced civilians, approximately 80,000 people, to flee. The displacement of people from eastern Ghouta is an integral part of the military strategy of the Syrian regime to force the opposition to capitulate. Once again, civilians are the primary victims.
As I said, those forced displacements could constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes. Evidence of such crimes will be collected, preserved and used. We were clear on that point during the Arria-formula Council meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights a few days ago. Some 55,000 civilians are now in eight collective camps managed by the Syrian regime around eastern Ghouta, without water or electricity and in disastrous sanitary conditions. Their lot has not improved; their hell has simply moved a few kilometers away. We are extremely concerned about the fate of those civilians who now live in overcrowded conditions, with no assurances of protection or security, with no guarantee that they will return home.
2. How do we protect civilians in the situation I have just described? It is absolutely urgent to protect those who can still be protected. Although the 30-day cessation of hostilities demanded by resolution 2401 (2018) has still not been implemented, that demand remains, more urgent and relevant than ever. The resolution is still the framework for our collective action.
In that regard, and in line with the briefing just given by Mark Lowcock, I would like to underscore three vital demands.
- First, it is indispensable and urgent that humanitarian convoys be allowed to enter eastern Ghouta daily and with adequate security. Although humanitarian needs are great, the regime continues to deliberately block aid. United Nations convoys must be able to enter and make deliveries. Fighting must cease long enough to allow for delivery, unloading and distribution of supplies, including of medical assistance.
- The second demand concerns civilians who remain in Ghouta, who have the right to emergency humanitarian assistance and to protection. Aid must reach them where they are. To that end, the United Nations and its international and local humanitarian partners must be able to work safely on site to assess the needs of those populations. It is an obligation under international humanitarian law, but it is the minimum required to provide tangible assistance to those concerned. The protection that is due them under international humanitarian law must be unconditionally guaranteed. In that regard I call again on the responsibility of all actors with influence on the Syrian regime.
- The third demand, which has taken on new importance in recent days, is for assistance to be provided to the displaced civilians in camps outside Ghouta. Very concretely, that means that those populations, who have been forced to leave everything behind in order to survive, must be assured of their safety, access to basic necessities and a chance to return home when they so desire. Care must be taken that they are not threatened with retaliation, threats or persecution of any kind.
In order to ensure that they are protected, the United Nations and its partners must be able to escort civilians who have been evacuated from their point of departure to their destination in the collective shelters. The United Nations and its partners must be granted continuous access to civilians living in those camps. We hope that the United Nations can strengthen its support to displaced persons who have fled eastern Ghouta. That would call for an increase in the number of international staff on site. We hope that approval will be granted to that end as soon as possible. It would also call for security guarantees for humanitarian workers.
The situation in Afrin is also extremely worrisome. A great many civilians are in a critical situation. More that 180,000 people have been displaced. A single convoy was authorized, yesterday, which is insufficient given the tremendous needs of the population. Ongoing fighting in Afrin has forced the Syrian Democratic Forces to halt operations against Da’esh, whose threat, as we all know, has not disappeared. Our position on the issue is the same. The legitimate concerns of Turkey with regard to the security of its borders cannot in any way justify a lasting military presence deep inside Syria.
More than ever, we need the fighting to end. We call on all parties on the ground to conclude the negotiations under way and respect a cessation of hostilities. We support the efforts of the Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Staffan de Mistura, and his commitment to resuming the Geneva process and to reaching a lasting political solution in line with resolution 2254 (2015) that starts with the establishment of an inclusive constitutional committee, under the auspices of Mr. De Mistura. It is the only way to end the Syrian crisis.
It is absolutely essential to work on both the humanitarian and political fronts. I appeal on behalf of France, first, to those who can make a difference on the ground, starting with Russia. It is never to late to save lives. Let us be well aware that without urgent, decisive action, the worst is undoubtedly yet to come in the form of a worsening and enlargement of the conflict.
The time has come for us to learn seriously the lessons of the Syrian tragedy. This tragedy is the illustration of a new global disorder where the rappelling ropes have disappeared due to a lack of strong international governance, a lack of a power of last resort and a lack of convergence among key actors — to which we add the well-known attitude of Russia.
In other words, if we want to avoid other tragedies of this type in future, it is essential to structure the multipolar world in which we now find ourselves around a robust multilateralism embodied by a reformed United Nations. It is the only alternative to the fragmentation of the world and the return to the zones of influence — and our history teaches us all the dangers of that — and it is with the settlement of the Syrian crisis, which is our priority today and which is the emergency before us, one of the other challenges of our generation.