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IHL and humanitarian principles are non-negotiable – Syria is no exception

15-02-2014 Editorial, by Peter Maurer, ICRC president

Without respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) and humanitarian principles in Syria, meaningful assistance and protection are impossible.

Peter Maurer, ICRC president 

Peter Maurer, ICRC president

I have been following with interest and concern recent efforts to deliver assistance and evacuate civilians from the Old City of Homs. While I am of course happy for each person whose destiny changes for the better, for each person who is able to leave a situation as difficult as that in Homs, I am concerned about the conditions in which the evacuations took place and about the number of people who remain trapped and unaided between front lines throughout Syria. Over the past year, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have repeatedly attempted to gain access to Homs and other besieged areas in order to bring much-needed relief to residents, but negotiations with the Syrian authorities and opposition groups have not resulted in meaningful access or a firm commitment to respect the basic principles of international humanitarian law. This pattern has again played out in Homs over the last week.

While the Old City of Homs has become emblematic of the plight of Syrian civilians, there are now a number of other so-called besieged areas in Syria, with over a million residents living in extremely difficult conditions. As violence continues to escalate and the security conditions for civilians worsen, it is imperative that our teams be allowed to work neutrally, impartially and independently and in accordance with the principles of international humanitarian law, which apply in Syria.

The situation in Homs and other besieged areas is highly complex but the basic tenets of the law are simple.

The situation in Homs and other besieged areas is highly complex but the basic tenets of the law are simple. The parties have the primary responsibility to provide for the basic needs of the population under their control, irrespective of their age or gender. Where parties cannot meet those needs, impartial humanitarian action must be authorised and, when the humanitarian situation requires it, evacuations of people wishing to leave an area to seek safety elsewhere must be allowed. If humanitarian work is to be meaningful and effective, it must be supported by the parties. They must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief for civilians in need, and ensure that all the wounded and sick receive the medical attention they need. This means more than one-off distributions and operations: it requires repeated access to the areas affected by the fighting.

Humanitarians working in Homs over the last week were operating in an extremely challenging security environment. The ICRC, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other humanitarian actors can only carry out such essential, life-saving activities if all parties agree to our presence and guarantee that they will respect and protect humanitarian relief workers, medical personnel and those bearing the red cross or red crescent emblem, as required under international humanitarian law.

The ICRC, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other humanitarian actors can only carry out such essential, life-saving activities if all parties agree to our presence and guarantee that they will respect and protect humanitarian relief workers, medical personnel and those bearing the red cross or red crescent emblem, as required under international humanitarian law.

Understanding the environment and having access to the victims are essential for meaningful humanitarian action. In Homs, Moaddamiya, Yarmouk and Barzeh, we, not the parties, must assess the security situation and decide whether or not we can proceed with relief efforts. ICRC and SARC teams must be able to enter these areas and have direct contact with people affected by the fighting in order to assess their needs. Making a thorough assessment takes time. We must be allowed to make repeated field visits to besieged areas – as we do to places of detention when we are allowed to – if we are to be able truly to address needs and monitor the situation as it evolves. In short, we must be granted the freedom of movement required to do our job properly, even if in cases of imperative military necessity, our movements may sometimes be temporarily restricted.

Traditionally, our teams do not operate with armed escorts. This means a pause in the fighting must remain in force for as long as it takes for an agreement to be implemented. As in other situations, we must be allowed direct contact with representatives of each party if we are to avoid misunderstandings about the conditions we require in order to operate safely and meaningfully. Direct negotiations with local military commanders are therefore essential if relief operations that have been agreed upon are actually to take place.

Providing aid strictly on the basis of need remains a cornerstone of the ICRC's operational philosophy and it is essential that our Damascus, Tartous and Aleppo-based teams be allowed to deliver aid impartially. In places like Homs, it is also imperative that all the wounded and sick, civilians and combatants alike, receive the medical care they need when they need it.

In places like Homs, it is also imperative that all the wounded and sick, civilians and combatants alike, receive the medical care they need when they need it.

Evacuations are not the solution to every humanitarian problem, although the Syrian authorities and opposition groups must allow civilians to leave for safer areas. Those who, for whatever reason, choose to stay in their homes remain protected by international humanitarian law and must not be attacked. If civilians are displaced, then every possible measure must be taken to ensure that they are provided with shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition and that families are not split up.

Anyone detained after an evacuation must be treated humanely at all times and be allowed to contact their families. In addition, our delegates should be allowed to register detainees so that we can follow up on their fate and whereabouts and restore and maintain family contact whenever necessary. We continue to negotiate with the Syrian authorities and other parties to have access to places of detention across the country.

During a recent visit to Damascus, I welcomed statements by the Syrian government acknowledging the need for more humanitarian assistance for all victims of the conflict. I also reiterated our commitment to expanding our operational presence and doing much more in the face of a worsening humanitarian situation, including for people detained in connection with the conflict. We are ready to take part in further evacuations of Syrian civilians, but our conditions remain what they have always been: the parties must agree to guarantee safe passage to ICRC and SARC teams at all times; and we will not offer our services unless evacuation is voluntary.


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