BEIRUT: The U.N. should deliver urgently needed cross-border aid into Syria and ignore the lack of government consent, an international group of lawyers said Tuesday.
In an open letter published in several European and Arab newspapers, the 36 lawyers condemn the U.N.’s “overly cautious” interpretation of international law and urge its various agencies “to apply international humanitarian law so that it enables, rather than prevents, life-saving assistance reaching those in need.”
According to the U.N., over 9 million Syrians – almost half the population – are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
“The Syrian government is refusing consent for U.N. cross-border operations for reasons that are arbitrary under international law,” said Richard Goldstone, former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and former chief prosecutor of the U.N. International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and one of the signatories of the letter.
“Where consent is withheld for arbitrary reasons, relief operations are lawful even without consent. We judge that under international law, U.N. agencies already have the legal authority to deliver cross-border assistance,” he added.
In February, the U.N. Security Council, which has seen past resolutions on Syria vetoed by Russia, unanimously endorsed Resolution 2139. It demands that all parties, in particular Syrian authorities, allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access across conflict lines and, most crucially, across borders.
“Because the Syrian government has refused to consent to cross-border aid, the U.N. has not undertaken these vital operations for fear that some member states will 1find them unlawful,” the letter said.
The letter says it is only lawful to withhold consent for valid legal reasons and not arbitrary ones, which it says the Syrian government is relying on. For example, if a military exercise were due to take place on a route concerned, the failure to approve an aid mission would be legitimate.
“They cannot, however, lawfully withhold consent to weaken the resistance of the enemy, cause starvation of civilians or deny medical assistance. Where consent is withheld for these arbitrary reasons, the relief operation is lawful without consent,” the letter said.
Cross-border U.N. operations, it added, meet the other two primary conditions for legality: firstly that the U.N. would “respect the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and nondiscrimination in delivering aid,” and secondly that the consent of opposition groups, in control of many of the border areas concerned, is sufficient.
The U.N. itself has admitted that the Syrian government has arbitrarily denied consent for a range of humanitarian missions.
In March, the top U.N. official for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, said that the “continued withholding of consent to cross-border and cross-line relief operations ... is arbitrary and unjustified.”
The cost of failing to act, the letter warns, is high: “Hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance.”
Since the conflict erupted in early 2011, only 74 aid trucks have crossed into Syria from Turkey, in March of this year. The trucks crossed at Qamishli, the only one of eight formal border crossings between Syria and Turkey held by the Damascus government.
Hakeem Yusuf, senior lecturer and director of LLM programs in human rights at the School of Law, University of Strathclyde, and a signatory of the letter, said that apart from the humanitarian disaster on the ground, the U.N.’s reluctance to act threatened to undermine the entire organization and its standing in the world.
“The interference of politics has allowed the U.N. to be unduly controlled by the superpowers,” he said, which is a “detriment to its founding principles. It was established after WWII to ensure that such things didn’t happen again.”
“The U.N. has to act decisively and not hide, otherwise it will no longer have any relevance. And that will be dire for all of us.”
“We have a moral and legal duty to the victims of this war, old and young, who are being killed right before our very eyes,” he added.
It was unconceivable that the U.N. would ever receive consent for such operations from the Syrian government, he said, but precedents showed this wasn’t necessary.
“They didn’t go into Bosnia or Rwanda, eventually, with the consent of the government. It’s unimaginable that we can continue to pander to political rather than humanitarian or international dictates. We have to uphold the integrity of the international system.”
Aid groups working in Syria are growing increasingly frustrated at how the U.N. is handling the crisis, according to a report Monday by Reuters. It cited a letter sent by aid organizations to the U.N. complaining about a lack of coordination and access and demanding more leadership from the world body.
The letter, sent to several Security Council members, said the situation meant that assistance often did not reach those who needed it most,
Nearly 3,500 people have signed a petition also urging the U.N. to deliver cross-border aid, launched last week by the Syria Campaign activist group.
“U.N trucks full of food and medicine are just across the border from millions of Syrians that need them. The U.N is divided over a legal technicality on whether to let the trucks in or not – but we can tip the balance,” the petition at www.thesyriacampaign.org says.