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
    Blackstone Chambers
  • 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.