Syria: ICRC committed to making a difference

15-01-2014 Statement

Statement by ICRC president Peter Maurer to the Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria. Kuwait, 15 January 2014.

The Conference aims to raise international funding to provide basic humanitarian assistance to millions of Syrians within Syria and in neighbouring countries. 

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

One year ago, when Kuwait hosted the first international pledging conference for Syria, the armed conflict was already having a catastrophic impact on people in and beyond the country. Today, the humanitarian situation is even worse and is continuing to deteriorate.

After just having visited Syria for the second time, in a little bit more than one year and meeting displaced families in Sehnaya in rural Damascus, it is still hard to find words that adequately convey the scale and depth of the suffering. Most of the population has been directly or indirectly affected by the raging violence, and every family has a heartbreaking story to tell. The human tragedy that has unfolded as a result of the violence is beyond dispute. 

As long as a political solution to the conflict remains elusive, there is little prospect of an end to the suffering; without genuine commitment by the parties to the conflict and those who back them to end the fighting, the future of an entire population hangs in the balance. In the meantime it is the role of humanitarian organizations like the ICRC to help alleviate the consequences of the armed conflict rather than to question its causes, yet this role is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfill in Syria.

The Syrian conflict in all its complexity has become emblematic of some of the key challenges facing humanitarian actors today. The flagrant politicization of aid is just one, reinforcing the need to clearly distinguish and separate principled humanitarian action from pure relief assistance. The widening gap between humanitarian needs and the ability to deliver an effective response is another, as is the gap between promises and concrete action on the ground. The decreasing proximity of many humanitarian actors to the people they claim to help is a corollary of this.

Security constraints are partly responsible. The ICRC, together with its key partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), are certainly not immune from these. Just last week, Hekmat Mohamad Kerbaj became the 34th SARC volunteer to be killed in the course of their work since the beginning of the conflict.

Adding to the complexity of the environment is the sheer number of armed groups, some that do not necessarily respect or accept impartial humanitarian action. In some cases this is true of parties on all sides of the conflict, especially in besieged areas. Administrative hurdles, restrictions and delays are another problem.

All of these challenges are subsumed in the single most pressing issue for the ICRC in Syria: to gain greater humanitarian access to people directly affected by the conflict. Without diminishing the tangible progress made in some areas, much more needs to be done.

On one hand, over the past year the ICRC has managed to expand the scope of its operations in the country, opening a logistics base in Tartous and establishing a permanent presence in Aleppo. The development of our water and sanitation programme has been particularly successful, now serving millions of people in all areas the country. On the other hand, with infrastructure steadily deteriorating, we need to scale up these activities and would ideally like to double our budget.

While the ICRC, in cooperation with the SARC, provided over 3.5 million people with food in 2013, and at least one million with various non-food items, this was still far from sufficient. Access to more areas is required, including besieged areas and areas under control of the opposition.

One of our main concerns now is to ensure that the sick and wounded receive urgently needed, impartial medical care wherever they are. The unimpeded delivery of medical supplies must be facilitated in an impartial manner to all areas. The denial of this until now represents a major obstacle to any meaningful improvement in the humanitarian situation.

Another priority for the ICRC is to gain access to all places of detention in Syria run by parties to the conflict, and to carry out visits in accordance with its standard working procedures. Tens of thousands of people are currently detained in connection with the conflict, unable to communicate with their families and with no independent monitoring of the conditions of their detention or their treatment.

As with other issues of concern, my recent discussions on this matter with the authorities in Damascus were reassuring. However, it is now high time that words and promises are translated into a meaningful reality on the ground.

For the ICRC, working closely with the SARC, the challenges we face in Syria, if anything, reaffirm the importance and value of a neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian approach. In other words, an approach that is needs-based, has proximity to the beneficiaries, and entails engagement with all stakeholders, including non-state armed groups – thereby gaining the widest possible acceptance and respect, and through this the widest possible humanitarian access.

We are committed to staying in Syria and doing significantly more to make a real difference to the people suffering there, exploring different ways and means to overcome the obstacles to our approach, and ready to assume the risks this entails. It is also our sincere wish that our efforts complement those of the UN agencies and other humanitarian actors in and near Syria, and that we be considered a partner by all those working to genuinely make a real difference to the people suffering the effects of this intractable war.

I would like to end by thanking our host, His Highness the Emir of Kuwait, for once again leading this pledging initiative and for the State of Kuwait's generous support to the ICRC's activities in Syria.  I would also like to thank all the other Member States who have given the ICRC valuable diplomatic and financial support for our particular activities in Syria and in neighbouring countries. We very much hope we can count on your continued generosity for as long as this deplorable humanitarian situation demands it.

Thank you.