New York, June 23, 2021
Thank you, Mr President.
Following the Secretary-General’s remarks and his latest report, I will focus my briefing today on five points: first, the continued spread of COVID-19; second, the effects of the economic crisis; third, the water crisis; fourth, the protection of civilians; and fifth, humanitarian access, particularly in relation to the United Nations cross-border operation.
Let me start with COVID-19. Transfer rates are high, with actual spread likely exceeding official records. An already weak health system is overwhelmed. Bottlenecks in material and trained personnel are still reported.
Vaccinations are running all over Syria. In May, vaccines from the COVAX facility were shipped through all available modalities: cross-border to north-east Syria, cross-border to north-west Syria and within state-controlled areas. As of June 20, more than 97,000 people in government areas and the Northeast had received their first dose. About 26,000 people in the northwest have received at least one dose.
Current vaccinations prioritize frontline medical personnel and help protect a key group that has been at the highest risk. The pandemic is grave for healthcare workers. Any illness exhausts the already critically low number of doctors and nurses at a moment when all support is needed to fight the pandemic.
However, it is important not to underestimate the burden of disease in Syria. The first COVAX delivery is only enough for around 0.5 percent of the Syrian population. Total delivery from the COVAX facility is expected to cover only 20 percent of the total population.
As the Secretary-General noted last month, equal access to vaccines, tests, medicines and supplies, including oxygen, is needed to curb transmission rates, especially among the most vulnerable populations, along with permanent access and additional funding.
Mr President, my second point concerns the effects of the economic crisis.
Everyday life in Syria is becoming less and less affordable. The economic crisis is having profound consequences for people across the country. Across Syria, they are facing eroded job opportunities. Prices remain at record levels, goods and services are becoming scarcer.
In his report, the Secretary-General noted his call more than a year ago to waive sanctions that could hinder access to essential health care, COVID-19 medical assistance or food in Syria.
The United Nations Population Fund has observed an increase in children and early marriages in northwest Syria in recent months. Desperate living conditions have led many families to marry off their daughters at a very young age. The vulnerability of children, especially girls, increases exponentially in such difficult conditions.
In May, a nationwide survey found that a growing percentage of the population are experiencing difficulty accessing basic health services. Access to health care remains the most difficult in northeastern Syria.
37 percent of the households surveyed stated that they could not buy necessary medication. A lack of financial resources was the predominant reason: 82 percent of the participants said that drugs were unaffordable. Second was a lack of drugs on the shelves. Essential treatments are out of reach for many, especially in northeastern Syria.
Mr President, my third point concerns the water crisis in Syria.
As the Secretary General has just warned, Syria is facing critical water shortages, especially in the northeast. The water deficit in the Euphrates Basin is the worst remembered. The Tishreen and Tabqa dams will stop working when the water level drops, with far-reaching effects.
Almost 5.5 million people have limited access to drinking water. Three million people, as well as hospitals and other vital infrastructure, could lose access to electricity. The possible long-term consequences are serious.
I urge all parties concerned to find a solution that meets the needs of everyone in the region who are dependent on the waters of the Euphrates and its tributaries.
In terms of protecting civilians, the devastating effects of a decade of armed conflict are inevitable. In April and May, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that at least 150 civilians were killed and another 154 injured in 186 incidents during the hostilities. Women and children made up a significant proportion of these victims.
There has been an alarming rise in hostilities in northwest Syria over the past month. This has resulted in many civilian casualties and the displacement of over 11,000 civilians.
Civilians live under constant threat in many parts of Syria, even if the front lines are relatively static. Remnants of armed conflict are scattered across the country, and explosive remnants of war, land mines and improvised explosive devices pose a constant threat.
With growing hardship and distress, the June 12 attack that severely damaged the United Nations-backed Al Shifa’a Hospital in Afrin was all the more shocking. At least 19 civilians were killed, including 3 children, and 40 were injured, including one disabled child. Four humanitarian workers were among the dead. A total of 11 hospital employees were also injured.
Al Shifa’a Hospital is one of the largest medical facilities in Northern Syria. Before the attack, it was providing an average of 15,000 medical services a month, including 250 specialized practices.
The attack rendered the hospital inoperable. A missile is said to have hit the emergency room. Another ended up in the delivery room, where around 350 babies were born each month. Both units were destroyed, as well as the ambulance and the radiology rooms.
This is not the first time al-Shifa’a have been attacked. But it is the latest in a long pattern that puts patients and healthcare workers at risk, and long-term health care risks. There are also serious concerns about compliance with international humanitarian law, which prohibits attacks against medical facilities and requires parties to take all possible precautions to avoid and minimize civil harm.
Like many other healthcare facilities, including the Al Atareb Surgical Hospital that hit March 21, the hospital’s location was well known to everyone involved.
As the Secretary-General has emphasized, and as required by international humanitarian law, all allegations of serious violations must be investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted if necessary. There must be accountability for war crimes in Syria.
My fifth point concerns humanitarian access. The Security Council’s approval for the United Nations cross-border operation in Syria expires on July 10, in just 17 days.
While the Security Council deliberates, the United Nations and its partners will continue their work, as they have done since 2014, when the Security Council first approved the humanitarian operation across borders and lines of conflict.
Hundreds of trucks will continue to serve people who are otherwise unable to meet their basic needs. Life saving services like vaccinations are still offered. Humanitarian personnel will continue to help manage camps for women and children who have nowhere else to go.
The United Nations and its partners will continue to monitor their programs to ensure that aid reaches people in need. The United Nations cross-border operation remains one of the most heavily vetted and monitored relief operations in the world.
Failure to extend the license has serious consequences. It would disrupt life-saving aid to 3.4 million needy people in the northwest, millions of whom are among the most vulnerable in Syria.
A group of 42 NGOs warned of such a scenario last week. NGOs estimate that they only have the capacity to meet the needs of 300,000 people and that more than 1 million people are left without food aid.
Since 90 percent of people in need need help to survive, they would face a truly disastrous situation. There is simply no substitute for cross-border operations.
The United Nations and its partners go out of their way to use all possible means to gain access to all people in need across north-west Syria. The need is simply too great not to exhaust all possibilities.
This also includes trying to reach people in need across the front lines within Syria. Consultations with relevant parties will continue in order to take such action as soon as possible. Despite all efforts, no such mission could be carried out.
A cross-border operation would be an important addition to the cross-border lifeline, but it could in no way replace it. Even with regular use, cross-line convoys could not replicate the scope and scope of cross-border operations.
Cross-line operations can complement, not replace, a well-funded cross-border operation to north-west Syria.
When it comes to providing life-saving aid to people in need across Syria, all channels should be made available and kept available. Otherwise the stakes are simply too high.
Despite the massive United Nations response in Syria, more humanitarian access is needed to reach the people who need it most.
As the Secretary-General noted in his report, with more crossings and more resources, the United Nations can do more to help the increasing numbers of people in need in Syria. This potential remains for both the Northwest and the Northeast.
I join the Secretary-General in calling on the Security Council to ensure that the United Nations and its humanitarian partners have every means to provide assistance to people in need by extending the cross-border permit for 12 months.
Thank you, Mr President.