The thirty-second president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, championed the idea that "the test of our progress is not whether we join the abundance of those who have more. It is whether we give enough to those who have little." More than 80 years later, the crisis resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has limited the action of certain NGOs and international agencies and has forced the international community to redefine the concept of solidarity. In this context, Russia and China have exercised their right to veto to prevent the UN Security Council from extending cross-border humanitarian aid for the Syrian population, in force since 2014, while the rest of the members voted in favour of the resolution drafted by Belgium and Germany
Article 27 of the UN Charter states that each member of the Security Council shall have one vote and that decisions of the Council on procedural matters "shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members". Last January, this institution renewed after several hours of negotiation the system for delivering humanitarian aid to the Syrian civilian population across the country's borders, which expires next Friday. However, in that vote the Council eliminated the crossing points of Iraq and Jordan, although it maintained the Turkish crossings.
Given the circumstances and the situation of instability caused by the war and the coronavirus crisis, last month, Germany and Belgium proposed to reopen the Iraq crossing; a proposal that was excluded from the draft resolution that was put to the vote on Tuesday. If a new text is not approved, next Friday the current authorization would expire, so these humanitarian operations - on which hundreds of people in the region depend - would be forced to stop their activity.
In view of this situation, Russia, the main ally of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, proposes to use a single crossing point across the border between Turkey and Syria to extend this aid for at least six months. In recent weeks, the Security Council has been operating virtually, so each member has a maximum of 24 hours to vote.
For his part, China's ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, has blamed unilateral sanctions against Syria, imposed by the United States and the European Union, for aggravating the country's humanitarian situation. During his speech he also rejected the accusations made by the United States, saying that "it is once again demonstrating the hypocritical approach taken, while continuing to impose unilateral sanctions", according to statements collected by the Washington Times.
In response to the Russian and Chinese veto, Sherine Tadros, head of Amnesty International's UN office, said that "it is impossible to overstate the importance of ensuring that the crossings remain open. For millions of Syrians, it is the difference between having food and being hungry. For hospitals, it's about having enough supplies to save lives. That is why Russia and China's abuse of the veto power is despicable and dangerous".
"What is also regrettable is the fact that the Al-Yarubiya crossing point in northeast Syria seems to have been sacrificed on the way to a compromise with Russia and China. The members of the Security Council must stand firm. There are more than a million Syrian civilians in those areas who depend on that crossing point for the delivery of aid. With the increase in cases of COVID-19 in Syria, this assistance is more vital than ever. Will the Security Council act to help them or will they be abandoned," he added.
Leaders of some of the world's leading NGOs have written a joint letter to the Security Council urging it to renew the resolution for a period of 12 months and to reauthorize UN access to northeast Syria "to ensure that vulnerable populations can receive the help they need. "Few decisions are as serious as this one, particularly in the midst of the worst pandemic the world has seen in over 100 years," they said.
In the same letter they said that "the cross-border mechanism is a vital lifeline providing food, shelter, hygiene and essential medical services. Without it, people will go hungry and be denied access to health care services, including those needed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. In short, lives will be lost". In addition, they have warned that the rapid deterioration of the economy, particularly in northwest Syria, means that certain populations are dependent on international aid alone for survival.
"In north-eastern Syria, the decision taken by the Council in January to restrict UN access by removing the Al Yarubiyah crossing point has had fatal consequences [...] This is a potentially deadly cocktail of a very vulnerable and densely populated population, who is facing a global pandemic and has none of the tools necessary to stop or respond to a massive outbreak of the virus," they have denounced through this letter, in which they have also called for solidarity so as not to condemn the most vulnerable to oblivion. "This is not the time to reduce humanitarian access," they concluded.