Thursday 1 May 2014
Syria: open letter to the UN on humanitarian aid
28 April 2014
Open letter to the UN Secretary General, Emergency Relief Coordinator, the heads of UNICEF, WFP, UNRWA, WHO, and UNHCR, and UN Member States
'More than three years into the Syrian conflict, 9.3 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Three point five million are in so called ‘hard to reach’ areas, many of which are concentrated in the opposition-controlled north of the country.
While the United Nations and humanitarian agencies based in Damascus are able to deliver some aid to these people by undertaking 'cross-line' operations, both the UN and other humanitarian agencies have long argued that many hundreds of thousands can only be reached effectively from neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan. But the Syrian Government continues to refuse consent for complementary cross-border operations of this kind despite a clear UN Security Council demand that it do so.
Blatant disregard for the most basic rules of international humanitarian law by the Syrian Government and elements of the opposition is causing millions to suffer. But this appalling situation has been compounded by an overly cautious interpretation of international humanitarian law, which has held UN agencies back from delivering humanitarian aid across borders.
International humanitarian law is unequivocal that where a civilian population is in need of life-saving aid, impartial humanitarian action 'shall be undertaken'. In order to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, international law requires impartial humanitarian actors to seek the consent of the parties concerned. In February 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2139 demanding that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access across conflict lines and across borders. Yet such consent continues to be withheld. Because the Syrian Government has refused to consent to cross-border aid, the UN has not undertaken these vital operations for fear that some member states will find them unlawful.
As a coalition of leading international lawyers and legal experts, we judge that there is no legal barrier to the UN directly undertaking cross-border humanitarian operations and supporting NGOs to undertake them as well. We argue that cross-border operations by the UN would meet three primary conditions for legality:
First, the United Nations clearly meets the first condition for legitimate humanitarian action, which requires it to respect the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and non-discrimination in delivering aid.
Second, in many of these areas various opposition groups, not the Syrian Government, are in control of the territory. In such cases, the consent of those parties in effective control of the area through which relief will pass is all that is required by law to deliver aid.
Third, under international humanitarian law parties can withhold consent only for valid legal reasons, not for arbitrary reasons. For example, parties might temporarily refuse consent for reasons of 'military necessity' where imminent military operations will take place on the proposed route for aid. 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 UN has been explicit that the Syrian Government has arbitrarily denied consent for a wide range of legitimate humanitarian relief operations since the unanimous adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2139. According to the top UN official for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, the 'continued withholding of consent to cross-border and cross-line relief operations…is arbitrary and unjustified.'
The stakes for correcting this overly cautious legal interpretation are high – hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance. Humanitarian organisations will surely face enormous risk in carrying out cross-border relief operations and may decline to do so. These are not easy calculations to make. But in the case of Syria, UN agencies and other impartial aid agencies that are willing and able to undertake cross-border actions can lawfully deliver life-saving food, water, and medical assistance to desperate women, children, and men inside Syria. We urge the UN to apply international humanitarian law so that it enables, rather than prevents, life-saving assistance reaching those in need.
Professor Payam Akhavan - Iran
Professor of International Law, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
Professor Mashood A. Baderin, LLB (Hons), BL, LLM, PhD. - Nigeria
Professor of Law, Director, Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law (CIMEL), SOAS
Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC – United Kingdom
Founder, Bindmans LLP
Professor Laurence Boisson de Chazournes - France
Professor of International Law, University of Geneva, Switzerland
Professor Michael Bothe – Germany
Professor emeritus of Public Law, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Sir Nicolas Bratza – United Kingdom
Former President of the European Court of Human Rights
Toby Cadman – United Kingdom
Barrister, 9 Bedford Row International
Professor Stephen Chan – United Kingdom
Professor of World Politics, SOAS, University of London
Dr Hans Corell - Sweden
Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and the Legal Counsel of the United Nations 1994-2004
CSCE War Crimes Rapporteur in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia
Former Judge of Appeal and Chief Legal Adviser of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Professor Irwin Cotler – Canada
Emeritus Professor of Law, McGill University
Member of the Canadian Parliament
Former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada
Dr Emily Crawford - Australia
Lecturer, Sydney Law School, The University of Sydney
The Hon John Dowd AO QC – Australia
Former New South Wales Attorney General
Professor John Dugard – South Africa
Professor Emeritus Universities of Leiden and Witwatersrand, Former member of UN International Law Commission
Professor Pierre-Marie Dupuy – France
Professor Emeritus University of Paris (Panthéon-Assas)
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies- Genèva
Professor Max du Plessis – South Africa
Professor of Law, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Mark Ellis - United Kingdom
Executive Director of the International Bar Association
Elizabeth Evatt - Australia
Former member UN Human Rights Committee
Professor Jared Genser – United States
Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University and Co-Editor, UN Security Council in the Age of Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Justice Richard Goldstone – South Africa
Former Chief Prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda
Former Justice, Constitutional Court of South Africa
Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry regarding Public Violence and Intimidation (Goldstone Commission)
Honorary President of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI)
Asma Jahangir – Pakistan
Former Chair, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, former President, Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan
Professor Jan Klabbers – Finland
Academy Professor (Martti Ahtisaari Chair), University of Helsinki
Professor Pierre Klein
Professor of International Law, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC – United Kingdom
Tawanda Mutasah – Zimbabwe
International Law Scholar, New York University
Aryeh Neier – United States
Distinguished Visiting Professor at Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po
President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations
Professor Alain Pellet – France
Professor, Université Paris-Ouest, Nanterre-La Défense
Former Chairperson,International Law Commission, United Nations; Member, Institut de Droit international
Professor Javaid Rehman - Pakistan
Professor of Islamic and International Law, Brunel University, London
Professor Sir Nigel Rodley – United Kingdom
University of Essex Human Rights Centre, Chairperson*
Professor Leila Nadya Sadat – United States
Professor of Law and Director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute, Washington University School of Law
Special Advisor on Crimes Against Humanity to the ICC Prosecutor
Professor Philippe Sands QC – United Kingdom
Professor of Laws, University College London
Phillip Tahmindjis - United Kingdom
Director of the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI)
Frances Webber – United Kingdom
Former member, Garden Court Chambers
Professor William A. Schabas OC MRIA - Canada
Professor of International law, Middlesex University
Professor Nico Schrijver – The Netherlands
Chair of International Law, Leiden University, and member of the Senate, Dutch house of parliament
Phil Shiner – United Kingdom
Principal, Public Interest Lawyers
Professor Willem van Genugten - The Netherlands
Professor of International Law, Tilburg University, The Netherlands
Professor Guglielmo Verdirame – United Kingdom
King’s College London
Professor Mark V Vlasic – United States
Senior Fellow & Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University
Former Legal Officer, Office of the Prosecutor, UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
Dr. Hakeem Yusuf – Nigeria
Senior Lecturer & Director of LLM Programmes in Human Rights, School of Law, University of Strathclyde
*Title and organisational affiliations are for identification purposes only and does not commit organisation to the views expressed in the letter.
Related ArticlesSyria: Military intervention is illegal – but may be legitimate
Military intervention in Syria following the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons would be illegal but potentially ‘legitimate’ under global humanitarian law, one of the world’s leading international lawyers has told IBA Global Insight.
Published: Friday, 6 September 2013
Last Modified: Friday, 6 September 2013‘Historic’ UN Arms Trade Treaty may have limited impact, say experts
The UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) setting legally binding rules to regulate the global weapons trade opened for signature last week and has been heralded as an historic milestone for international human rights.
Published: Monday, 17 June 2013
Last Modified: Monday, 10 February 2014Hear civil society reactions to the review of Venezuela by the UN Human Rights Committee
Prominent Venezuelan human rights defenders are to share their perspectives and reactions following the UN Human Rights Committee review of Venezuela's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) is co-hosting this event, which will take place in Geneva after the UN Human Rights Committee review.
Published: Thursday, 25 June 2015
Last Modified: Thursday, 25 June 2015Lima climate talks: call for action agreed despite old divisions resurfacing
It’s not surprising that the two-week UN climate negotiations in Lima overran by more than 30 hours, given the importance of their outcomes. Decisions made in Lima will frame the future of the international response to climate change for years to come through the agreement that is set to be finalised in Paris in December 2015.
Published: Tuesday, 13 January 2015
Last Modified: Tuesday, 13 January 2015Drone strikes: US must explain legal interpretations and respond to allegations of civilian harm, says UN Inquiry advisor
Controversy continues to surround the ongoing use of drone strikes. Serious concerns focus on the lack of clarity on rules of engagement that ought to govern this proliferating form of warfare. What accountability attaches to the architects of drone warfare in international law and which laws apply to ‘targeted’ killings by drones? This is the focus of the inquiry led by UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC into the use of remote killing in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency initiatives.
Published: Wednesday, 17 July 2013
Last Modified: Friday, 19 July 2013