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The Syrian threat to international law

May 06,2014 - Last updated at May 06,2014

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have jeopardised global security and dominated the headlines.

But the current rules-based international system, which has been decades in the making, remains most seriously threatened by the civil war in Syria.

Not only are millions of lives in jeopardy; the global framework of human rights and humanitarian law is on trial as well.

Now these risks are in danger of being overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, with confrontation in the United Nations Security Council threatening to subordinate Syria in the pecking order of international problems. Last month, on the third anniversary of the eruption of protests in Damascus and other Syrian cities, people around the world mobilised in street vigils and online as part of the “With Syria” campaign.

They reached nearly a quarter-billion people on Twitter, and, for the first time, made a united demand of their leaders: Do not let Syria’s people lose another year to bloodshed. Even as other crises flare up, our leaders must heed that call. In February, the Security Council closed ranks on Syria for only the second time. With the full support of the United States and the hard-won assent of Russia, the council unanimously demanded that all parties to the conflict allow unhindered humanitarian access; that they lift sieges; and that they cease all attacks on civilians.

The provisions contained in Security Council Resolution 2139 provide clear political reinforcement to these basic tenets of international law, and they introduce some measure of accountability. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will give the Security Council a progress report every 30 days. His first report, presented to the council at the end of March, and his second report last week, painted a picture of glacial progress. 

Implementation of Resolution 2139 and the provisions on international humanitarian law that it underscores is a matter of life and death. Some 220,000 civilians are trapped in besieged towns in Syria, where they have been denied help and left to die.

This is a mediaeval tactic outlawed in the post-1945 international order. Yet siege warfare is being used with impunity: Amnesty International reports that more than 200 people have been killed by starvation, shelling, and a lack of medical supplies in Yarmouk, a district of Damascus, as President Bashar Assad’s government intentionally blocks life-saving aid.

Yarmouk is not an isolated case. Almost a quarter-million people are currently under siege in Syria, with groups on both sides of the conflict callously disregarding basic tenets of humanity. And deliberate obstruction, together with ongoing fighting, currently is preventing another 3.5 million Syrians from reaching desperately needed humanitarian aid.

It is a cruel irony that the US-Russia agreement on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons meant that inspectors could gain access to precisely the locations where aid workers carrying food and medical supplies have been repeatedly barred.

If we can get chemical weapons out of Syria, surely we can get aid in. If the Syrian government continues to block access to aid arbitrarily, several options could be brought to bear. For example, a coalition of lawyers argued this week in an open letter that the UN is being “overcautious” and has the authority to enter Syria without its government’s consent in order to provide aid.

Aid should get to those who need it, regardless of which warring party controls the territory. That is international law, and it is being systematically violated. The UN must speak truth to power and fulfil the Security Council’s responsibilities to the people of Syria.

The “With Syria” campaign reminded world leaders of the parents, doctors, and teachers protecting and caring for their families and communities even as bombs fall around them. More than 130 organisations in over 40 countries — from South Korea to Sudan, from Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp to Australia — demonstrated their solidarity with these Syrian heroes.

Today, the diplomatic fallout from the Ukraine crisis threatens to undermine Resolution 2139, which was adopted unanimously two months ago on the coattails of the Sochi Olympics. Now, in more treacherous times, with the West and Russia at loggerheads, the Security Council must ensure its implementation by supporting efforts to deliver the necessary aid.

We must not see another year of bloodshed before our leaders recognise that, in Syria, defending the international system and protecting civilians are one and the same task.

The writer, a member of the British House of Lords, is a former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations. ©Project Syndicate, 2014.

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