A convoy of trucks from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), carrying aid to earthquake victims, drives past tents sheltering survivors, after entering Syria from Turkey via the al-Hamam border crossing in the countryside of Jindayris in northwestern Syria, on February 19, 2023.

Syria: UN must continue delivering aid to north-west through all border crossings

With millions of people impacted by the earthquake still dependent on UN cross-border aid for survival, the United Nations (UN) must continue to deliver aid through Bab al-Salam and Al-Rai border crossings after the 13 May expiry of the Syrian government’s authorisation, regardless of whether the government renews that consent, Amnesty International said today.

According to Amnesty International’s legal analysis, delivery of impartial humanitarian aid to civilians in urgent need across the Syrian border without UN Security Council authorization or the consent of the Syrian government is legal under international law. This is because no other alternatives exist and the UN cross-border relief operations are essential to prevent the suffering of the civilian population and grave human rights violations in north-west Syria.

“Amnesty International is calling on the UN to continue the cross-border delivery of aid through all available border crossings, regardless of whether or not the Syrian government gives consent. The lives of more than four million people are at stake and international law is clear that their rights must be paramount,” said Sherine Tadros, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Advocacy and Representative to the UN.

“During the first few critical days after the earthquakes, the delivery of essential humanitarian aid through additional border crossings and support to search and rescue teams was delayed due to the continued arbitrary restrictions on aid by the Syrian government and hesitancy on the part of the UN to use border crossings not authorized by the Security Council. Such calculations came at a huge cost to civilians in opposition-held Syria. The UN should take a clear stand against the cruel political machinations that have hampered its humanitarian operations in northern Syria for several years.”

Since July 2020, the UN has been delivering aid to the conflict-torn area of north-west Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the border with Türkiye. Following the earthquakes which struck northern Syria and south-eastern Türkiye on 6 February 2023, it took three days for the first shipment of UN aid to arrive. This delay, combined with the inability of the UN to scale up its aid response due to logistical and political challenges, further exacerbated humanitarian needs and impeded the work of search and rescue teams. It was only on 13 February that the Syrian government agreed to temporarily open two additional border crossings also from Türkiye to north-west Syria for three months. That agreement is set to expire on 13 May.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, the Syrian government has arbitrarily restricted access to aid in opposition-controlled areas of Syria and used the starvation of civilians as a weapon of war by depriving them of food, medicine and other necessities. As a result, the UN Security Council established the UN cross-border aid mechanism in July 2014, allowing the UN and its partners to provide aid to north-west Syria without the authorization of the Syrian government.

The lives of more than four million people are at stake and international law is clear that their rights must be paramount.

Sherine Tadros, Amnesty International

Russia, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto-wielding power, and the Syrian government have long contested the cross-border mechanism, saying it violates Syria’s sovereignty. Since 2014, they have whittled down the time frame and geographic scope of the resolution, leaving Bab al-Hawa as the only authorized border crossing for delivery of humanitarian assistance, and even that authorization is set to expire in July 2023 unless renewed by the Security Council.

In 2016, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) argued that, in exceptional situations, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a state may be temporarily impaired if it has arbitrarily rejected life-saving assistance for civilians in urgent need of aid. The two options for providing such aid include gaining authorization from the UN Security Council or delivering aid without authorization on the grounds of urgent necessity, which is clearly the case in north-west Syria.

Amnesty International is also calling on the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to affirm the necessity of providing humanitarian aid across the border of Syria and to reiterate its condemnation of Syria’s arbitrary refusal of impartial cross-border aid.

“The fate of millions must not depend on UN Security Council authorization or Syrian government approval. Toxic political games have prevented aid from reaching those whose survival relies on it. Expired or not, stopping cross-border aid flow at such a critical time would amount to abandoning people in despair and depriving them of their basic human rights,” said Sherine Tadros.