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PHR Briefing to the United Nations Security Council on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria

Delivered by PHR Director of Policy and Senior Advisor Susannah Sirkin to the United Nations Security Council on June 29, 2020.


Thank you, Mr. President.  And thank you for the opportunity to provide this briefing to the Council on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. 

It is a historic moment for the Council’s work, as you face a global pandemic and hear the growing calls for a future of international peace and security built on respect for human rights, equality, and justice for all. It is this spirit that created the United Nations and this body after World War II. The biggest pandemic since the UN’s founding presents an urgent call to conscience for the Security Council.

My name is Susannah Sirkin and I am Director of Policy at Physicians for Human Rights – an international non-governmental organization that brings the expertise of science and medicine to the defense of human rights. We have been rigorously documenting and reporting on violations of international humanitarian law in Syria for the past nine years.

It has been just under one year since I last briefed this Council about attacks on health workers and facilities in Syria, and the devastating impacts of these crimes on the health and lives of people there.  

Today’s humanitarian crisis in Syria is inextricably linked to the Syrian government’s behavior over the course of the conflict: while all parties to the conflict have committed violations, the government’s deliberate destruction of health facilities, its criminalization of health care, its targeting of health professionals, and its forced displacement of millions of women, men, and children have no parallel.

No health system in the world has suffered more violent and systematic targeting than Syria’s. And when you kill a doctor, you attack her patients. When you bomb a health clinic, you terrorize a community. In our analysis, this has been part of the strategy of the Syrian government –to break the spirit of Syrians who oppose the brutal regime by crushing their health care.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the Syrian government and its allies, including the Russian Federation in the later years, have done just that, again and again.

Physicians for Human Rights has verified 595 individual attacks on more than 350 facilities over the span of these nine terrible years. Taken together, these attacks constitute crimes against humanity. It is a bleak, distressing tally that challenges the duties of this Council. With widespread impunity, we fear this number will continue to rise, given the fragility of the current ceasefire and the recent spike in hostilities in northern Hama and southern Idlib.

Physicians for Human Rights has verified 595 individual attacks on more than 350 facilities over the span of these nine terrible years. Taken together, these attacks constitute crimes against humanity.

Much has changed in our world in the past year. But the core behavior of the parties to the conflict has not. The governments of Syria and Russia, represented here today at this Council meeting, have cynically continued to flout international laws and norms for military advantage.

Impunity has thrived where diplomacy has failed. Meaningful accountability for the long list of crimes committed has been practically nonexistent. It will continue to be a blight on this Council’s standing that it failed repeatedly to refer the crimes of the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court, the essential institution of last resort when accountability for the gravest crimes known to humanity is glaringly absent. But while the road to justice may be long, we know that more avenues to criminal accountability will arise. As we speak, documentation of grave violations is being used in national courts under universal jurisdiction to build more legal cases and to give hope to survivors.

During the past four months, we have seen our world upended by COVID-19. The pandemic has put even the most well-equipped health systems to the test and has exacted an unprecedented toll, sparing no country. But after years of conflict – the Syrian population is more exposed than most to the impacts of COVID-19. In northwest and northeast Syria, where meeting the most basic health needs is a daunting task, the spread of COVID-19 would be catastrophic. While reported cases remain low, it is only a matter of time before coronavirus finds its way into the internally displaced persons camps and dense population centers of this region.

Despite record-level cross-border aid deliveries into northwest Syria, the humanitarian needs remain overwhelming, and the health system is nowhere near strong enough nor supported enough to effectively respond to a serious outbreak of COVID-19. Overcrowding, malnutrition, and persistent gaps in water, sanitation, qualified medical personnel, and essential medical resources – from oxygen to personal protective equipment – all make it very likely that the virus will spread like wildfire through the northwest of the country. According to MedGlobal, and as a result of attacks on healthcare and displacement in northwest Syria, there is an average of only .14 doctors per 1,000 people, compared to 1.3 per 1000 in the rest of the country.

The situation in the northeast is also critical. The shortages in medical equipment and supplies in an area hosting two million people are truly shocking. The gaps have grown more severe since the Council removed the Al-Yarubiyah crossing point, funneling critical health aid from Iraq into the northeast.

According to NGOs in the northeast, 11 health facilities are at imminent risk of closure or severe disruption to their services, while another 86 facilities are facing shortages of essential health kits that were usually supplied by the UN via the Al-Yarubiyah crossing. Cross-line aid has clearly not compensated for that loss of the channel, despite recent improvements. For the Council to expect a government responsible for igniting and perpetuating one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time to turn around and facilitate access to aid in good faith is an exercise in self-delusion.

For the Council to expect a government responsible for igniting and perpetuating one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time to turn around and facilitate access to aid in good faith is an exercise in self-delusion.

Our partners in Syria have warned us about the lack of resources they face, about the impossibility of effectively enacting mitigation measures in overflowing border camps and overpopulated towns. They have warned us – as they have warned you – of the impending collapse of their frail health care system and of the hundreds of thousands of lives hanging in the balance. These doctors, and nurses, and paramedics have sacrificed years of their lives under the threat of bombs and bullets, enduring unconscionable persecution and unfathomable loss in order to save as many lives as they can. As one Syrian doctor told us, “We’ve died a thousand times over. From chemical attacks, and barrel bombs, and rockets, and hunger, and torture, and freezing weather.”

Now, nine years into a brutally executed conflict, they are faced with one of their biggest challenges yet, physically and psychologically exhausted and lacking the most basic of resources to protect themselves and tend to their patients.  “All we can do is pray for our patients,” a doctor from a town in western Aleppo recently told us. The Council knows it can and should do more. More to support these health workers, more to put critical resources into their hands, and a lot more to prepare them to confront one of the biggest threats to public health the world has seen in a hundred years.

We call on this Council to enable humanitarian assistance through all available channels and to renew the cross-border aid resolution to secure access to lifesaving aid for the four million Syrians in need.

In this context, we call on this Council to enable humanitarian assistance through all available channels and to renew the cross-border aid resolution to secure access to lifesaving aid for the four million Syrians in need. We and our many colleague NGOs are calling on you to renew the mechanism for a minimum of 12 months, and to re-authorize the Al-Yarubiyah crossing point that was removed by this Council in January.

The need for effective and principled humanitarian aid cannot be overstated. But more than anything else, Syrian civilians and health workers need a sustained reprieve from violence. This Council must not spare any effort to sustain and expand the existing ceasefire.

At this historic juncture, when we are all assessing our own countries’ vulnerabilities and glaring inequities, it is critical for the Council to place humanity before political wrangling and posturing. The Council must not to bargain with the lives and the health of Syrians.  We and our colleagues working to protect health across the globe implore you to do what is right: to support a nation-wide ceasefire so urgent during the Covid pandemic; to unite in your resolve to ensure that aid reaches civilians in need, wherever they may be.  And to unite toward achieving a sustainable peace through meaningful accountability in Syria. Anything less will only further stain the record of this Council.