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Syria’s Government Exploits UN Aid System, Starving Civilians

New PHR report shows Syrian government has created illusion of cooperation while ensuring the suffering of civilians

For Immediate Release

Over the past year, Syria’s government has consistently exploited the United Nations aid delivery system, deliberately and illegally depriving millions of Syrians of critically needed humanitarian aid. In a new report, “Access Denied,” Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said that Syrian authorities, by continuing to exert unilateral control over aid deliveries throughout 2016, effectively guaranteed the sustained suffering of civilians in besieged and hard-to-reach areas across the country. Last December alone, just 6,000 Syrians received aid under the United Nations system – less than one percent of the population the UN requested to serve.

According to PHR, Syrian authorities arbitrarily denied the UN access to vast populations in need, imposed bureaucratic hurdles to block approved deliveries, and ensured that completed deliveries did not include sufficient aid. The continued sieges and the intentional blockade of aid meant for civilians are war crimes, and today PHR demanded the United Nations scrap the failed aid delivery process and assert control over the system as the conflict enters its seventh year.

“The UN aid delivery process allows the Syrian government, one of the warring parties, to have the final word in getting supplies to starving, bleeding, and sick populations,” said Elise Baker, lead Syria researcher for PHR. “The result is profound suffering and death. Our findings show a clear pattern of obstruction and manipulation by Syrian authorities, who ensure that approved aid rarely reaches its intended targets, and when it does, it is wholly inadequate. This entirely backward process enables Syrian authorities to appear cooperative while they are actually deepening the suffering caused by illegal sieges.”

Last year, as PHR and the Syrian American Medical Society reported, denial of aid deliveries to the besieged city of Madaya resulted in dozens of preventable deaths from malnutrition, starvation, and lack of medical care. Responding to international pressure, Syria’s government agreed to a two-step aid delivery process. PHR’s new research shows that while the new process likely contributed to the increase in deliveries in 2016, it still left the Syrian government – a party to the conflict – in control of the aid approval process, thereby enabling government authorities to continue denying and limiting aid.

“Deprivation and starvation are despicable weapons of war in the Syrian government’s arsenal. No amount of bureaucratic red tape can cover up the fact that the country’s leaders are slowly murdering people trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas,” said PHR’s executive director, Donna McKay. “As our report demonstrates, the two-step UN aid delivery system allows the Syrian government to create the illusion of cooperation, when in fact it is exploiting the aid delivery system to withhold vital medical and food aid from civilians in need.”

According to PHR’s research, Syrian authorities approved access to an increasingly larger proportion of the UN-requested population during the second half of 2016 – probably in order to satisfy international pressure – but the number of aid recipients actually shrank over the same period. From May until December of 2016, convoys provided aid to just 24 percent of the people in besieged or hard-to-reach areas whom UN agencies requested to assist.

In addition, the majority of approved deliveries never reached their destinations, largely because Syrian authorities imposed insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles. Even if they did reach their destinations, many convoys were restricted in the amount and type of aid they could deliver: UN convoys to besieged areas between April and December provided aid sufficient for only two-thirds of the populations living in those areas reached. In addition, Syrian authorities prevented the delivery of more than 300,000 medical treatments throughout 2016.

“The UN must stop asking for permission to carry out its humanitarian duties from a government responsible for the war crime of withholding aid from its own civilians,” said PHR’s Baker. “The UN has the authority to deliver aid to all those in need without explicit approval from Syrian authorities under both Security Council resolutions and international law. It’s time for the United Nations to reform the two-step process and stop negotiating with a government that has so much blood on its hands.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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