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Transcript of Press Stakeout By Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Jan Egeland

28 June 2018

JE: Thank you. We just finished the work of the Humanitarian Task Force today, we have had now three meetings in a row where we have had themes discussed in addition to the reports from the field. The themes are urgent, difficult, important. Today was discussed the possible humanitarian consequences on the sanctions on Syria, or coercive measures, as they are called. We have had a meeting, three meetings ago, on the so-called law 10, which is on the ownership to land, and housing in Syria, and we have had a special meeting on health care and attacks on health care in Syria.
We also had reports from our field colleagues in Damascus, from Amman and from Turkey. The most urgent concerning, burning issue today is the war coming to the southwest, Dar’a and Quneitra. So, as we met, tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing for their lives, really, in the southwest. This is heart wrenching because this was a zone where people felt safe until just days ago.

In July of last year, we applauded that Russia, the United States and Jordan enabled a de-escalation zone which meant a rare area of sanity and of protection for civilians. Now, there is no protection, there is only war. We cannot have the war coming to an area with 750,000 civilians, those are now increasingly fleeing for their lives, many are already internally displaced.

The reports from our colleagues are that even the extremely effective life-line, across the border from Jordan, has been discontinued due to the fighting in recent two days. Humanitarian actors have prepositioned supplies inside Dar’a and inside Quneitra however movement is very difficult and humanitarian operations are paralyzed in too many areas.

So, our appeal, my appeal today also to the members of the Humanitarian Task Force and in particular to Russia, the United States and Jordan, is: do what you did last July, end the fighting, we cannot have fighting, in, on, and through civilian communities as we are seeing now, this must end. I hope we have learnt something from Aleppo, from Raqqa and from eastern Ghouta, where the war was fought on civilians, on humanitarians, on health care.

Now, Idlib is one of the other areas with extreme concern of the 900,000 who have fled so far, this year, 900,000 times a man, a woman or a child have fled from their homes, or the temporary shelter in Syria, so far, this year, 500,000 of those have fled to or within the small corner which is called Idlib in the north west. It has become increasingly difficult to do operations in Idlib, in part because it is overcrowded, in part because of attacks, including on two hospitals in the middle of this month, and in part because of the actions of the armed opposition groups who are not helping humanitarian actors, and who are in particular making health work difficult, even kidnapping health workers.

So, a word on health care in particular because it is a horrific catastrophe in what is the worst war of this generation. We have had more attacks on health in Syria than in any other war of our time. More than 700 attacks altogether on health facilities since the start of the war. So what is the answer to this? It is respect for humanitarian law, and one of the tools to get that is de-confliction of all hospitals and medical facilities and humanitarian work and workers.

We have had progress there, so today well over 660 hospitals, humanitarian sites, schools, IDP camps have had their coordinates delivered to the Russian Federation and to the United States and in some other cases to others who have air forces or who have participated in the fighting. Of these, more than 500 have been de-conflicted: coordinates have been given to the parties so far, this year. Vast majority has happened this year, it is too bad that it is at what seems to be the end of this horrific war that we get the system up and running.

In Dar’a, in the south, 51 humanitarian sites and premises, have been de-conflicted, 16 are public health centers, 22 are schools and the rest are humanitarian premises. I say this because the bombing is ongoing in these areas and we cannot have more bombing of hospitals, already 5 medical facilities, none of them de-conflicted, have been hit in Dar’a.

The whole point then is that if a de-conflicted site is hit the UN investigates, the UN reports its investigation to our Co-Chairs, Russia and the United States, and we ask for their investigations. Four of these 660 sites have been hit, this was in March and in April and it happened in eastern Ghouta and it happened in northern rural Homs, including hospitals in Arbin and Douma. Russia has agreed to investigate, those where the ones who were active militarily in these areas, we have had reports back from Russia, we were not satisfied with those reports, and we have engaged in an exchange that is ongoing. We will stay on this until we find out what happened to these attacks and we will also do that in the future. The only way to get preventive action is that all military actors feel that there are consequences.

Now final point on convoys: there have been more convoys of late to hard-to-reach areas. They have had two problems: UN staff have not been allowed on some of them and medical items have still been offloaded on some of them, which is a way mind boggling that the government is still insisting to offload medical supplies even to places that they now have taken control of of late. In the most recent convoy this week, the Humanitarian Coordinator has succeeded in having UN staff and medical supplies reinstated on the convoy. We hope that that will be the case again.

Question: I was wondering if you could tell us about a couple of things: first the situation with Jordan, you mentioned that that the lifeline across border from Jordan are extremely effective, then suspended, can you tell us why that was? You said because of the fighting but was this a decision by the Jordanian authorities to stop this life line? Second question if you could tell us a little bit about Jordan, you said that you have staff in Amman, but what is the possibility that the Jordanian government will let those people across the border? Are there any talks about that? And finally, if you could describe a little bit about the situation in the Golan border as well.
JE: The reason there has been no cross-border convoys since 26 June, so this is recent, is the fighting. We need to be able again to de-conflict, we need to be able to have the assurances of the armed actors that the convoy is safe and it has been so intense the fighting that there has not been reached sufficient agreements on safe passage for the convoys. Our appeal today was to all who have influence on the situation, and I mentioned Russia, the United States, Jordan, to do their utmost to ensure that we get that kind of assurances and then the convoys will resume.
Of course, our appeal goes to Jordan, one of the most generous recipient of refugees on earth, that they keep the border open for people fleeing south. There is no other place to go. I hesitate, in a way, to ask a small and poor county, who has more than a million Syrians on their soil, to take more, because I come from Europe, where we have a pathetic quarrel about how to receive a few hundred that are even shipwrecked people in the Mediterranean. But I have to do it, because these are women, children, civilians, who have no other place to flee if they are to escape the war zone.
The Golan border to Israel, is as far as I know, hermetically closed for people fleeing, and I think you have to ask the Israeli whether also they are going to take part in giving shelter and protection to people who flee.

Question: How many people realistically can Jordan take in? and is there active work towards making Jordan open up?
JE: We have the general appeal that all of the neighbors keep their borders open, always, it has been that many have kept closed borders over these last two years. We urge Jordan to keep borders open, they have already received very many, but you know that there are also people who have not been able to cross the borders.

Question: Do you have figures for how many people are on the move in the south west? We have heard 45,000 to 50,000 from the UN, and yesterday the Americans said maybe as many as 70,000 so what are the figures on displacement and also causality figures.
JE: Well, the initial figures that we do have, which seems to be confirmed, is that some 50,000 people had fled by yesterday, but indeed the local authorities say that it is 70,000 and counting, to me it seems credible because there is a lot of fighting. This is fighting going village by village, town by town, it is an area where people live in smaller communities which also leave them more exposed than those living in more urban areas, like they were in parts of eastern Ghouta or Aleppo and elsewhere. It shouldn’t have happened, there should have been a negotiated end to the arrangement which was a de-confliction zone, we cannot have a war there, too much is at stake, and also a humanitarian operation that has been very successful is now virtually at risk. And for the causalities, that I do not know, I know of 5 medical facilities being hit, the many reports of civilians being killed in many places. Again, it is a war, on, in, through civilian communities, how many we do not know but, by now, it is many.

Question: If you have any comment on the start today in Lebanon to return back some Syrian refugees to some areas in Syria and what do you expect as consequences if this huge number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon start to come back to the areas?
JE: All return has to be according to humanitarian principles and we will oppose and fight all returns that violate those principles. One is that, it has to be informed, people have to know what they return to, then it has to be voluntary, when they know what is there to return to, it needs to be a voluntary activity, and then of course it has to be assisted and protected, and I wonder if all of those criteria are applying to these people that are now being debated to be returned to Syria. On the other hand, of course, the primary hope for most Syrians is to return to the ancestral land, when it is safe and when it is possible to return.

Question: Could you just update us a little bit on the situation in Idlib, I mean you mentioned that you were not happy with some of the investigations when it was done, as you requested, what was wrong with them? And do you really expect that there is sufficient political will to do the job properly?
JE: Well the latter first. What we did was to work very systematically with the members of the Humanitarian Task Force and in particular with the Russian Federation and the United States on what is de-confliction, what does it mean, what is their responsibilities? And indeed, they have pledged to investigate any and all possible or confirmed attacks of de-conflicted sites. What is our ongoing communication with Russia regarding these four sites, I wouldn’t go into details,, but no, we are not satisfied with the information we got in return on these attacks. Several of them were on buildings, there were also casualties, but in these cases, was mostly that these buildings, hospitals, clinics were rendered partially or fully inoperable. And therefore, a very serious matter, deliberate attacks at medical facilities count as a war crime according to humanitarian law. But it has to be established who did the attack, when, how and that they were indeed humanitarian and not contaminated militarily or politically as such.

Now, in Idlib the situation is very serious, increasingly so. For example, on 7 and 10 June alone, there were airstrikes with 60 people killed, the massive displacement, half a million people displaced to and within Idlib within six months, have also been caused by Idlib being the place where people came from eastern Ghouta, from northern rural Homs, even from Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp near Damascus, and from other part of Idlib itself. There is a growing concern around military escalation on and within Idlib, more air raids and we had in the vicinity of the two remaining besieged areas, which are in Idlib governorate, Foua and Kafraya are the only two left. When we started the work of the humanitarian task force there were 900,000 people roughly in multiple besieged areas, now there are only two left, Foua and Kafraya were the 8,000 people there are in Idlib and there is fighting around there.

Abduction for ransom of medical and health professionals have been reported in June, which led local authorities to suspend non-emergency activities for several days. So, all of these armed groups that have come there and who are in opposition to each other and who also have posed difficulties for humanitarian actors, are exacerbating the problems of this being the largest collection of internal displacement camps on earth, as far as I know, at the same time as it hammered regularly by air-strikes and also by military action..

Question: Are there still cross-line convoys to Idleb? Are these convoys running into opposition armed groups, are they attacking the convoys?
JE: No, the cross-border life line is going well. There was just a report by the Secretary-General to the Security Council that reported that more than 3 million people who have been given regular services cross-border, has been going very well, and of course on those ones no one has lifted off medical or other supplies—they have gone through. The neighboring countries have never made problems in terms of cross-border assistance; the war will, may end them, it’s not other reasons, and armed opposition groups who have at times threatened to interfere and threatened to want to take over distributions have held back of late, so distributions have gone according to humanitarian criteria by humanitarian actors as far as I know.

Question: You mentioned the de-escalation zones, what is being done to try to make these de-escalation zones again, and how involved is the UN in that?
JE: The UN through the good offices of the Special Envoy de Mistura is certainly very much involved. What we are involved in is that, we constantly try to push those nations who have influence to get the military actors to agree again on an end to the fighting. What we want in Idlib, in the South now, is an end to the fighting; it’s even would take too long of time to negotiate a ceasefire, we need an immediate cessation of hostilities to enable civilians to be spared from the fighting, to enable humanitarian actors to move freely to the wounded and the most vulnerable, and for cross-border convoys and in turn distribution of relief to continue. We need an end to the fighting.

Question: I just want to make sure, are there talks going on now about reviving these de-escalation zones that you are aware of? I mean I know that there are the Special Envoy’s efforts but are there actual talks about that?
JE: Well I hope and I don’t know. I really hope that they listened also today. We urged. The Russians, the Americans and the Jordanians were able to do it last July, they can do it again today. They have all influence in this area, there is nothing inevitable about this escalation of fighting that there are some groups on terrorism lists in Der’a as they were in all other areas is no excuse for this kind of warfare, there are many more babies than there are so-called terrorist fighters in the zone and the children have a right of protection against attacks.