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Syrian children are starving to death while the world watches humanitarian laws being ignored


Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope on how failure to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law has contributed to the current crisis in Madaya, Foua and Kefraya.

Wednesday January 13, 2016

PWP
Photo: Australian Red Cross/Anna Warr

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald 13-01-15

Death by starvation is slow, painful, silent and unthinkably cruel. The images we've seen of emaciated, desperate children in besieged Syrian towns has brought on an almost visceral desire to help - since their release, weekly donations to our Syria Crisis Appeal have doubled.

We should be demanding why and how children could have been being deprived of food for months in the midst of an international conflict. The rules of war are unequivocal: starvation as a means of warfare is a recognised war crime under international humanitarian law. This body of law, grounded in the Geneva Conventions, obliges all parties to a conflict to allow neutral humanitarian aid to reach civilian populations. So why is the world watching more than 400,000 Syrians starve to death?  

Last night the first aid convoys reached the besieged towns of Madaya, Foua and Kefraya, carrying food parcels, baby food and medical supplies for 60,000 people. A Red Cross aid worker on the convoy, his voice breaking with sorrow, talked of meeting a little girl who begged, "Did you bring food? I hope you brought food. We are really hungry."  

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been negotiating for months to access these areas. Without the agreement of all parties it is simply too dangerous to try: some 53 Red Cross Red Crescent people have already been killed while delivering aid in Syria.  

How is it that the international community is so impotent? Deadlock in the UN Security Council resulted in little action or international leadership for many years.  With much urging and careful guidance by the Australian Government, resolutions were passed in 2014 demanding access for humanitarian organisations and calling for an end to the sieges. The most recent resolution noted that the Security Council was "deeply disturbed by the decline in the number of people reached with humanitarian assistance in hard to reach and besieged areas" and reiterated the call for better access to the stricken regions. A month later, people are still starving to death.  

In December, the International Conference of Red Cross and Red Crescent, which brings together States party to the Geneva Conventions, proposed a new mechanism to increase compliance with international humanitarian law. The resolution was incredibly cautious - proposing a voluntary, non-binding meeting of States with no investigative or exploratory powers. Yet even this first step towards a new compliance measure faced strong opposition from a small group of States and ultimately failed to pass. The resolution that was eventually adopted calls for the 'continuation' of a process to achieve agreement on a possible compliance mechanism in the future.    

Disappointment is not a strong enough reaction to the world's failure to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law - not in the face of the children starving to death in Syria. As the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said at the time: "International humanitarian law is flouted almost every day, in every conflict around the world. By failing to support this initiative, States missed an opportunity to help to protect millions of people."  

Compliance with international humanitarian law means that civilians would not be deliberately targeted. Humanitarian agencies would have the access to provide food and medical assistance to those who need it most, and the people in Syria's besieged towns would not be relying on soup made from grass and leaves to survive.   The aid convoys that arrived this week must be allowed to continue their work. The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent continue to call for access to these and other besieged areas of Syria, where over 400,000 people urgently need food, blankets and other survival essentials. All parties to the conflict must fulfil their obligation to allow unimpeded access to the civilian population.  

The tragedies of Madaya, Foua and Kefraya are a stark reminder of why we desperately need to uphold existing protections for the victims of armed conflict. We call upon all governments to continue to fulfil their responsibility under the Geneva Conventions to 'respect and ensure respect for' the laws of war, especially in light of the suffering to which we all bear witness.   

The application of international humanitarian law is the only way we can maintain some semblance of humanity in the midst of armed conflict.

Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope is Director of International Humanitarian Law and Movement Relations, Australian Red Cross

Your donation to the Syria Crisis Appeal can make a life-saving difference to families caught up in the Syria crisis, across the country and beyond.

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