Situation in Syria Still ‘Catastrophic’ as Efforts to Evacuate Aleppo’s Eastern Districts End, United Nations Humanitarian Official Tells Security Council

New Zealand Blames ‘War-fighting Aims’, Vetoes for Indifference to Human Suffering

Despite the conclusion of efforts to evacuate the eastern districts of Aleppo, the situation in Syria remained catastrophic, a senior United Nations humanitarian official told the Security Council this morning.

“We end 2016 at a place where humanitarian and protection needs are as acute and severe as they ever have been amidst continued fighting across the country,” said John Ging, Operations Director at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  He was presenting the monthly briefing on implementation of Council resolutions on humanitarian access in Syria, on behalf of Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Despite great challenges, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners, through heroic staff on the ground, continued their attempts to reach every Syrian in need, but the effort was still falling short, Mr. Ging said.  Some 13.5 million people in Syria were in dire need of assistance, including 9 million whose food supply was not secure.  He called on all Council members, all parties to the conflict and their allies to end the fighting and, in the meantime, provide more effective support to humanitarian action on behalf of innocent victims.

He said that the United Nations role in Aleppo and in support of the evacuation had four main elements:  observing the operation, supporting evacuees once they had left, obtaining access to re-taken areas so as to provide aid to those remaining, and ensuring ongoing support for those in need across western Aleppo.  Noting that evacuation from the city’s eastern districts had drawn to a close late last night, he said more than 35,000 people had been evacuated, including some 20,000 since the adoption of resolution 2328 (2016).  They included civilians as well as fighters and their families, he said, adding that some 435 people had been medically evacuated, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had led the operation, he continued.  Overall, 308 buses, 61 ambulances and 1,231 private vehicles had been used in the evacuation, crossing numerous checkpoints on the way to Idlib Governerate.  In parallel, an estimated 1,300 people had been evacuated from the besieged villages of Foah and Kefrayeh in Idlib, he said, describing the undertaking as being extremely complex and punctuated by frustrating stops and starts.

He said the overwhelming majority of evacuees had gone to areas controlled by non-State armed groups, and humanitarian organizations had recorded the arrival of 23,615 people in reception centres and in more than 60 villages.  Many had subsequently moved on to be hosted by family and friends, and approximately 1,000 people were reported to have arrived in camps along the border with Turkey.  In addition to food and shelter needs, medical and psychosocial services were also available at reception centres, he noted.

While supporting the evacuation process was the immediate priority of the United Nations, he said, the Organization had also submitted a formal written request to the Government seeking a blanket travel authorization to Aleppo for all senior United Nations staff in the country, as well as humanitarian access to parts of Aleppo retaken by the Government yesterday.   The Organization currently had 105 staff members in the city and was requesting a surge of up to 100 additional staffers, including internationals.

He said a humanitarian plan for all districts of eastern Aleppo was ready under the auspices of resolution 2328 (2016) and awaiting agreement from the Government.  To date, all formerly besieged neighbourhoods were accessible, aside from those retaken by Government forces yesterday.  A team equipped with armoured vehicles were on standby for deployment to those areas as soon as permission was granted, he said, adding that they were ready to conduct assessments of the number of civilians there, of their needs and of the status of the service infrastructure.  Emergency assistance would then be provided, alongside monitors to examine the well-being of those who remained, all pending the consent and coordination of the Government of Syria.

Turning to other areas of humanitarian concern, he said the continued siege of the towns of Fou’a and Kefraya by non-State armed groups were due to continue although protection concerns remained high.  There were also concerns that those now in Idlib — among whom some 700,000 were receiving food aid while hundreds of thousands also received medical and other assistance — could experience the same suffering as they had done in Aleppo if the city became the focus of an intense offensive.

The situation of some 50,000 besieged civilians in the Al Wa’er neighbourhood on the outskirts of Homs city also remained of critical concern, he said.  Advances by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in eastern Homs and anti-ISIL operations around Al-Bab and Raqqa presented additional worries.  However, humanitarian partners continued to provide aid to the displaced and others in need, while planning for intensified fighting.

Finally, he reported improvement in the distribution of assistance at the Berm along the Syria-Jordan border through a newly constructed distribution point negotiated in September 2016.  Some 31,000 individuals were being reached, and assistance to adjacent areas had also been augmented, including health and water services.

On the other hand, the approval process for humanitarian convoys to difficult-to-reach areas had grown so complex that only one delivery had taken place this month, he said.  Timely and simplified approval procedures were needed, he said, adding that if those were in place and if all parties granted access, there would be immediate capacity to deliver assistance to 300,000 people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas every week.  Above all, a new political commitment to peace was needed “if 2017 is to offer any different prospect than the death and destruction of the past five years”, he said in conclusion.

Following that briefing, New Zealand’s representative said that today might be the last time in his delegation’s term on the Council that he would be able to address the issue.  The need to address Syria’s humanitarian crisis should be something on which all Council members could agree, he emphasized, noting that, for the most part, that had been the case.  However, when humanitarian objectives did not “square” with the war-fighting aims of Council members holding decision-making powers, those objectives had been pushed aside.

The November vetoes of a simple resolution submitted by New Zealand, Egypt and Spain provided the latest example of an apparent indifference to human suffering, he recalled.  It had been equally apparent in the Council’s actions, or inability to take action, on crises in Yemen, South Sudan and Sudan.  Emphasizing that the Council’s priority must be to address persistent efforts by the Government of Syria to prevent implementation of its resolutions, he said it must ensure the protection of civilians fleeing eastern Aleppo, Fouaa and Kafraya, and that civilian protection was prioritized throughout the country.

The Russian Federation’s representative said he did not agree with the remark by his counterpart from New Zealand that a certain country was pursuing military rather than humanitarian action if he meant the Russian Federation.  He stressed that humanitarian consequences were of great concern to his country, but the real problem was the terrorist organizations, which the Council should address.

The meeting began at 11:25 a.m. and ended at 11:54 a.m.

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