Speech by ICRC President Peter Maurer, High Level Syria Crisis Ministerial Event, United Nations General Assembly, 72nd session.
Throughout the long years of conflict in Syria, the ICRC has been present, working in close proximity to people: to understand their needs and challenges, and to adapt our response in the light of their changing needs.
We’ve worked closely with our dedicated colleagues in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, bringing food, water, shelter and medicine whenever we can.
At the moment, we’re seeing a shift in dynamics. I saw this first-hand when I visited Syria recently: in one town people were being forced to flee the fighting, but just kilometres away, the situation was relatively tranquil and people were moving back to rebuild their lives.
One group needed shelter, food, blankets; the other group needed for the taps to be turned on, for electricity and medical services to operate.
In other words there are, simultaneously, needs in the short term and needs in the medium and long terms. They are individual and systemic. They evolve as circumstances change. It is imperative that we are close to people, to understand their needs and be accountable to them, rather than impose a solution.
It’s likely that this dynamic will continue and the pace of returns will pick up in the coming weeks and months.
The ICRC believes return should be voluntary, and represent a lasting and sustainable solution. In any case, return must be in respect of the principle of non-refoulement, assessed on an individual basis.
Linked to this are the so-called “de-escalation” or “safe” zones. We must be cautious with the assumption that these zones are actually safer for civilians. The normal safeguards for safe and voluntary return of both displaced people and refugees, have to be in place.
However, the conflict in Syria is not over yet. And while it continues, three critically important issues need to be addressed.
First, we cannot turn a blind eye to how hostilities have been conducted. International humanitarian law has been flouted on countless occasions. In the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, as conflict continues, parties must respect and protect civilians trapped by the violence. Inhabitants must be spared, and allowed free and safe passage if they want to leave. And, of course, this principle applies throughout Syria.
Second, the issue of displacement: one of the central tragedies of this conflict. Millions of people forced to move, sometimes on multiple occasions.
Internally displaced people must be protected as much as possible from the effects of war. They must have adequate shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition, and everything must be done to ensure that families are not separated.
Third, the Missing. There are so many families who do not know what happened to their loved ones. The authorities must clarify the fate of those missing as soon as possible. This process must begin now. We cannot wait until the fighting has stopped.
The fighting and the suffering in Syria will continue for some time yet. Our guiding light must be the welfare and the recovery of a people devastated by conflict. Keep their interests central, and there is hope for a better future.