Right of access for aid to Syria's innocent

A group of experts on humanitarian law says Syria's denial of aid and its use of starvation as a weapon provide a legal right for UN aid workers to enter the country without permission. Will Obama and other leaders pick up this idea?

Red Cross vehicles drive towards Tfail village in Lebanon near the Syrian border April 22. The village has been cut off for months as Lebanon's border areas are increasingly dragged into Syria's three-year-long conflict. Tfail is surrounded on three sides by Syria, and the primary route to the rest of Lebanon goes through its neighbor.

On Tuesday, President Obama challenged those who say he should act more boldly to help the Syrian people in that country’s civil war. Sending troops is not an option, as even his critics agree. So what more can I do, asked Mr. Obama, than to keep arming certain rebels and assist in the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons?

One answer came shortly that day.

A group of 35 experts in international law published a letter in numerous publications that said United Nations humanitarian agencies could legally defy the Syrian government’s “arbitrary” refusal to allow aid workers into areas under rebel control. 

In other words, Syria’s actions against international law have provided an automatic right of access for aid convoys to enter Syria across its borders with Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.

More than 700,000 Syrians are in desperate need of assistance, according to aid workers. Many are purposely being held under siege by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in order to starve them. Millions more are in hard-to-reach areas. The UN is being “overly cautious,” the legal experts say, in interpreting international law about a right to access in a war zone.

Syria cannot “lawfully withhold consent to weaken the resistance of the enemy, cause starvation of civilians, or deny medical assistance,” the letter stated. “Where consent is withheld for these arbitrary reasons, the relief operation is lawful without consent.”

The 35 experts include such prominent figures as Hans Corell, the former chief legal counsel of the UN; Sir Nicolas Bratza, the former president of the European Court of Human Rights; and Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor for The Hague war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia.

One basis for their proposal is a UN Security Council resolution passed Feb. 22 that demands all parties to the conflict allow aid to get through to civilians. Last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused both the Syrian regime and some rebel groups of “flagrant violations” in meeting the resolution’s obligations.

The mass killing in Syria has now reached more than 150,000 civilians over the past three years. What began as a peaceful protest for democracy has morphed into violence that has displaced an estimated 40 percent of the population.

An end to the war may not yet be in sight through negotiations. But certainly the UN and others can do more to ensure “humanitarian space” for aid to the innocent trapped inside Syria. Even Russia, whose troops took over Ukraine’s Crimea in March, voted for the UN resolution. And if the UN is able to negotiate removal of Syrian chemical weapons, why should it not also push harder for aid access?

The moral basis for this international right of access goes back to the creation of the Red Cross in the 19th century. The concept was born back then that those injured in a war zone, either combatants or bystanders, could be tended by neutral aid workers. Over time, more countries began to recognize this right to basic health, shelter, and food despite political differences in a conflict.

As one official of the International Committee of the Red Cross put it: “The task is first and foremost to recognize the humanity in each one of us, as remote and different as we may be, and most importantly to refuse to remain a spectator when this humanity is denied or violated.”

With that conviction, the Red Cross laid down precepts that were eventually put into international law. And now legal scholars say it must be enforced in what has been one of the worst conflicts in the 21st century.

Their letter asserts that “there is no legal barrier to the UN directly undertaking cross-border humanitarian operations and supporting NGOs to undertake them as well.”

Instead of throwing up their hands over Syria, Obama and other leaders now have at least one step they can take.

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