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Syria: Security Council Should Demand Humanitarian Access
Human Rights Watch
15 July 2013
The United Nations Security Council, during its debate on July 16, 2013, should call for the Syrian government and armed opposition groups to grant humanitarian organizations access to civilians and wounded trapped by fighting in Syria. The government and opposition groups should ensure safe passage for civilians and medical treatment for all those wounded.
Denial of humanitarian access and safe passage to civilians trapped in fighting in violation of the laws of war has been a recurring issue during the Syrian armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said. A recent Human Rights Watch investigation into the government and Hezbollah attack on al-Qusayr, near Homs, found that the government’s refusal to allow humanitarian organizations access to the town appears to have contributed to several dozen deaths because no safe evacuation routes were available to civilians, and wounded people were denied adequate medical care.
“Many lives in al-Qusayr might have been saved if the Syrian government had allowed aid organizations to do their job,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “When people are dying every day, Security Council members should be calling for humanitarian access, not hiding behind political negotiations.”
Several governments and high-level UN officials called on the Syrian government to grant humanitarian access to al-Qusayr during the fighting in May and June. But the Security Council did not issue a statement on access until the fighting was over due to obstruction by Russia. Russia also blocked a subsequent Security Council statement on Homs where the government is imposing a siege on opposition-controlled areas. The Security Council is due to hold a briefing on the humanitarian and human rights situation in Syria on July 16. (…)
Both the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have called on the parties to allow civilians to leave the besieged areas safely, and to allow immediate humanitarian access to the areas. On July 12, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a statement saying it is “alarmed” by the situation in the old city of Homs and that it would like to bring in humanitarian assistance and enable the evacuation of civilians, but that it did not yet have consent from all sides. (…)

“Both government and opposition forces have besieged towns with little regard for the lives of civilians and wounded trapped inside,” Solvang said. “Both sides need to stop punishing civilians immediately.”International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits attacking or destroying objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. It also requires parties to a conflict to allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartially distributed humanitarian aid to the population. Starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is prohibited.

Parties must allow the free passage of food relief to civilians at risk. They must consent to allowing relief operations to take place, but may not refuse such consent on arbitrary grounds. They can take steps to control the content and delivery of humanitarian aid, such as to ensure that consignments do not include weapons. A deliberate refusal to permit access to aid in response to military action can constitute collective punishment or an illegal reprisal against the civilian population. (…)

The laws of war prohibit deliberate attacks on civilians or wounded fighters no longer participating in the hostilities. Attacks on fighters trying to evacuate may be lawful, so long as the attacks are not indiscriminate or likely to cause disproportionate harm to civilians present. At the same time, it is unlawful for fighters to place civilians at unnecessary risk or to deliberately use civilians to protect themselves from enemy attack. (…)

The Syrian government rejected many international calls for the evacuation of civilians and refused to grant access to independent observers who could have facilitated an evacuation. On June 2, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, said that Syria would grant the ICRC access only after the fighting ended. On June 3, the ICRC said publicly that it had requested access, but that it was still waiting for permission. (…)

Syrian government forces frequently attacked fleeing civilians, wounded civilians, and fighters, including by planting landmines along secondary routes to the town. However, it is difficult to determine to what extent these attacks were violations of the laws of war because the convoys were frequently accompanied by opposition fighters, who are lawful military targets. 

As such, opposition fighters might have placed civilians and wounded at greater risk of attack by accompanying or evacuating with them. Civilians, wounded, and fighters interviewed by Human Rights Watch believed, however, that government forces would have killed many more civilians and wounded people had opposition fighters not been there to protect them.
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