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Transcript of press stakeout by Mr. Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy on Syria, after Humanitarian Access Task Force Meeting

16 February 2017

The Humanitarian Access Task Force (HTF) of the International Syria Support Group was born exactly one year ago this week and it was initiated because people were at that time starving to death in the besieged areas in Syria. The mandate of the Task Force was to ensure that those countries, members of the Task Force, who have influence on the parties on the ground, help us gain access to these besieged and hard to reach areas with our humanitarian relief and our humanitarian workers.

So how did it go? When we took stock today, and it’s a mixed picture, but there are certainly some achievements.

In all of 2015, only 488,000 people in besieged and hard to reach areas were reached. In 2016, we reached nearly 1.3 million, so two and a half times more people reached.

People were also reached several times mostly in 2016, where as they were mostly reached only once in the whole of 2015. All together from 620,000 individual rations in 2015, to more than 3.3 million rations crossed front-lines to vulnerable civilians in besieged and hard to reach areas.

Some parts of the year were better than others. The two cease-fires, cessation of hostilities that were announced, one in February and another one in the mid of the year helped us. We then got more access, the cessation of hostilities, however, at the end of the year has not helped, because the worst month of last year was December and the two first months of this year have, so far, been an enormous disappointment. We have, so far, this year, not reached a single besieged area with land convoys, in spite of infinite number of attempts to reach the remaining 13 besieged areas with more than 600,000 civilians.

The one place that we do reach continuously is Deir Ez-Zor in the desert in the east, besieged by the Islamic state. It is a unique operation, never done before in the history of humanitarian work, this kind of high altitude airdrops, and it is an achievement of the humanitarian task force through the good people of the World Food Program. It is a pity that it is the only of these areas that can be reached with that kind of airdrops.

We also saw in the course of 2016, that we, for the first time, had real responses from the government on all of the requests to go to places where civilians are in great need. 2014 and 2015, much of the requests were never answered. 70 percent of our requests were approved in the course of the year, however, only 27 percent of the people were, on average, reached each month, and of course, the real test is, delivery of relief, it is not that you get approval on paper.

Why were  they not reached? Because of a whole set of reasons, but the most important one is lack of administrative green lights on the Government of Syria side, either on local level, governorate level, on ministerial level, or by security forces there, but when they could, armed opposition groups were also denying access to Foua and Kefraya, besieged by armed opposition groups. We were still hindered to go and our drivers, courageous drivers, who were to evacuate people in December are still held by the armed opposition groups in Foua and Kefraya

However, all in all, there are assessments that the HTF could provide access through, especially the initiatives of Russia and the United States when they were active and working together, but also other member states helped us real time in a number of convoys that were stopped and in the end were helped through check points because of diplomatic initiatives.

So the lesson is, it can be done, it can be done even in Syria and it is too bad that is hasn’t been done in the first part of this year. If we look at protection, well protection is, as much bigger of a crisis than access to assistance. Let me give an example, the medical relief and medical facilities, hospitals and clinics were attacked 338 times, according to reports received. Nurses, medical workers were killed or wounded 67 of the 99 interagency convoys had medical relief off loaded, 67, more than two thirds, and it is beyond belief that men with guns and power can really want to spend their time off-loading diarrhea kits for children, midwifery kits for pregnant woman or family hygiene kits and all of the other things that were offloaded as late as in recent days in the convoy to the hard to reach place al-Rastan. Finally also it was a terrible year in terms of safety for humanitarian workers, hundreds of humanitarian workers have, do far, been killed, wounded or kidnapped and detained since the start of the war, and we had, on our watch in September, the direst attack on one of our convoys to Big Urem, close to Aleppo, when on 19 September 10 people died, many more injured and a convoy was attacked.

Now, this must change and can change. We have had intense of diplomatic activities by the UN or UN Envoys and with the help of the members of the Task Force, with the government of Syria, that say that a new and a better system will now come whereby we are extracted from the administrative quagmire, where we have too many green lights from so many instances that in the end no convoy moves to any besieged area.

So we have lined up convoys to al-Waer, could go tomorrow, besieged location, and to a number of other besieged and hard to reach areas in the coming days which would be very important as a sign of goodwill, as political negotiations are scheduled in Geneva.

We hope and we believe that it will change now, it must change now because, if we are not reaching the Four Towns, Foua, Kefraya, Madaya and Zabadani very soon, we will see again the scenes that we saw when the whole thing started a year ago, people starving.

Five people have died, just in recent days in Madaya and Kefraya, on each of the two sides that are holding these towns because they were not medically evacuated in time. Another 80 cases need to be urgently evacuated if their lives are to be saved. I know that there is, as we heard from members of the Task Force, intensive work at the moment to unlock this horrific grid lock on the four towns and it’s a question of life and death for so many, as it is of course in the places where there is great fear for the future, including the besieged areas of eastern Ghouta who fear for their lives if we are not having protection and assistance coming to those remaining besieged areas.

Q: You talked about the medical supplies off loaded from the trucks, since when those numbers you gave and the same for the attacks on medical facilities, since when are you counting this data, about the drivers as well, is anything going on, do you know they are safe or not? Can you elaborate on their safety situation?

Egeland: On the issues of Foua and Kefraya, there is a lot of diplomatic activity, there is however a great challenge now that there are many armed opposition groups involved around these towns, there are splinter groups involved, there are both groups that are listed as terrorist groups and many who are not, so we need a concerted effort by many of our member states if we are to convince these armed men to allow the evacuation both of the drivers and to allow a UN personnel to enter for the first time, as UN, Foua and Kefraya as we want to and for relief to go to both Foua and Kefraya, Madaya and Zabadani, we are working on that.  

The offloading of these items have been happening throughout last year, it actually got worse with the last three convoys that went to hard to reach places. A very important big convoy reaching about a hundred thousand people in al-Rastan saw a lot of items removed that were not on the list before, often small things but important things including, milk powder, dates, mattresses and lamps, why?

The 338 attacks reported in 2016, 130 of those verified through this UN verification kind of system, but that is a very “conservative” number, all together 338 attacks reported on medical facilities in 2016.

Q: Among the things you previously talked about being offloaded from trucks were treatment for possible chemical gas attacks, chemical weapons attacks. Now that there is better access to Aleppo, to eastern Aleppo in particular, has the Task Force at all engaged with the issue of those who may have been victimized by such attacks? I’m asking in the context of human rights report issued last week, is that something that you are looking at, who was attacked, did they get treatment, was the treatment available. Do you have anything on that subject?

 Egeland: No, we have not gone into those investigations that would be for other fora. What we have discussed are details of relief going to east Aleppo and west Aleppo during the battle but also afterwards. And there is now a big relief operation, always was to non-besieged areas, there is a big relief operation to all the cities of Aleppo, as there is to the rural Aleppo area, we have now access to all areas that are not in cross fire.

Q: You mentioned that you want to have a push by the countries involved to try to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles but I am not clear where that got to specifically in the meeting today .Was the US there and active there as in the past? Do you get impressions from the Russians and the Iranians that they are willing to push the Syrian government? How can sieges be compatible with the ceasefire? Also, do you have any information on the water cut-off of Damascus? Do you know now who is responsible?

JE: I am not aware of any conclusions on the reasons why the water was cut-off for 5 million people. It is now back, the water supply, and indeed there have been conflicting reports. Was it sabotage from troops there or was it bombings? It could be a combination, I don’t know on that, we need to investigate.

The sieges are not compatible with cessation of hostilities, no, they are not compatible with any of the Security Council resolutions or with the statements of the ministers of the ISSG. A siege is not just only unlawful military encirclement of military opponents, that’s legal. It is 2 elements that are illegal. One is strangulation of the civilian population by denying humanitarian aid, and the other one is a lack of freedom of movement of the civilians, including evacuation of wounded. Those two are crimes according to international law, war crimes if you like. So no they are not compatible and it is a shame that the members of the task force were not able to lift a single siege by negotiations in 2016. There is commitment to try to do that in 2017, it could happen through talks in Astana and Geneva and elsewhere. Lift the sieges is our appeal, sieges belong to the middle-ages, they don’t belong to 2017 and there are thirteen areas still besieged, and the people of Four towns and in eastern Ghouta are very afraid of what is happening to them. There was very good signals today, I mean I think they all agreed with my assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly that we saw in 2016 and that we need to perform better. We need to come back to the most effective days of the Humanitarian Task Force. Co-chairs Russia and the United States signal that it is their ambition, so does the Astana Nations, Russia, Turkey and Iran, and so do the other members of the task force.

Q: Who is doing the pushing to get these convoys on the diplomatic side of the Task Force? Has the United States, because of its political transition not been able to press as hard as they may have before to get the ceasefires?  Does the absence of the United States has an impact on the fact that there is nobody aside of the UN who is leading the push against the Damascus government to give the authorizations for the deliveries.

lso, how often have you got an approval this year or in the last three months that have not actually been followed by deliveries?

JE: We had a very good approval rate for January and February. I think at least 75% of what we asked for we got on paper. So the reason why the recent convoys are not moving is that there is a governor or there is a ministry or there is a security force, or there is someone that doesn’t allow us to move even though we have it on paper from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and even from the High Relief Committee to go. That is what is being negotiated. We will hopefully see now changes. The convoy is loaded when waiting for the much needed green light to load the medical equipment to go. Much needed medical equipment to go. And that is the Ministry of Health that is supposed to give the green light and if it comes in this hour I think we can go tomorrow. So let’s hope it will happen. We were great when there was co-leadership by the United States and Russia last year. We had not seen that of late, we have not had as much progress as of late. I think that can come back. I am convinced that it will come back but we also need it from the Astana trio that includes Iran, Russia and Turkey, they also say they will help us as the other countries who have sponsored armed opposition groups, the gulf countries, some European agencies and so on. They all need to do an extra effort, these are very crucial days now, next week is very crucial. I am not only hopeful, I am convinced that it will get better in the days ahead.

Q: Is it just coincidence that there hasn’t been deliveries in the last 3 months at the same time that the United States is coming out of a political transition?

JE: I don’t know really, we had a dwindling effect even before the elections because there was less of a co-leadership. We need co-leadership on driving forces on both sides. We need, among those countries who can push on the government side and we need among those who can push the armed opposition side. That can come back, it has been there of late. Thank you.

Geneva, 16 February 2017