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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Remarks at a Security Council Session on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria

U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations

Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
New York, NY
February 26, 2015


Thank you. Thank you, Assistant Secretary-General Kang, High Commissioner Guterres for your powerful presentations.

One year ago, the Security Council adopted resolution 2139, aimed at addressing the humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in Syria. As today's briefings made clear, the humanitarian crises have only deepened – there are multiple crises.

It is estimated that 12.2 million people need humanitarian assistance in Syria. At this time last year, 9.3 million people were said to need humanitarian assistance. That's nearly three million more people who need aid to survive, in just a year. Think about that.

That is why it is absolutely crucial that all donors make generous commitments at the Humanitarian Pledging Conference in Kuwait in March, commitments that are commensurate with the magnitude of Syria's crisis – this is what the United States plans to do.

While the international community absolutely must meet the immediate and dire needs of the Syrian people, we must also face the fact that humanitarian assistance is a band aid, it must be accompanied by more intense political pressure to stop the violence and widespread abuses that are fueling the crisis. Although more people in Syria need humanitarian aid than ever before, the Assad regime also seems more intent on denying aid and causing civilian harm than ever before.

Security Council resolution 2139 called on the Syrian parties to immediately cease the indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas, including through aerial bombardment using barrel bombs. Yet in the year since the resolution was adopted, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Assad regime has dropped at least 1,950 barrel bombs, which have killed at least 6,480 people, 95 percent of whom were civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, the report released earlier this week, satellite imagery identified at least 450 distinct major damage sites in ten opposition-held towns and villages in the Daraa governorate, and more than 1,000 major damage sites in the Aleppo governorate, between February 2014 and January of this year.

The Human Rights Watch report shows that many impact sites have damage signatures consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions, including improvised barrel and conventional bombs dropped by helicopters. Yet in spite of this clear evidence, Assad cheerfully denied that his forces used barrel bombs and called any such claims, "a childish story"– a particularly grotesque choice of words, given that well over 10,000 children have been killed in the conflict so far.

The recently released UN Commission of Inquiry report on Syria documents many attacks on civilians. One of them occurred on Aleppo's al-Shaar neighbourhood on November 6th. The first barrel bomb reportedly killed civilians in its area of impact, and buried more in rubble. When others rushed to the area to dig out the people buried and assist the wounded, the government dropped a second barrel bomb. At least 15 people were killed in all, most of them women and children. Some of the wounded later died in field hospitals, according to the report, due to the lack of necessary medical supplies.

The lack of medical supplies is no accident – it is the result of the Assad regime's routine confiscation of medical and surgical supplies transported by UN convoys. The UN and its implementing partners have tried to be maximally transparent with the Syrian regime by allowing the government to inspect cross-line shipments, going beyond the provisions in Security Council resolutions 2165 and 2191. Yet, even when these "regime approvals" for cross-line operations are granted, the regime seizes medical supplies such as surgical items, midwifery kits and rehydration kits, which could save the lives of mothers, small children, and babies. The Council was clear in its demand that all parties allow delivery of medical assistance and cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable for their survival in resolution 2139.

The Physicians for Human Rights report that Assistant Secretary-General Kang mentioned documented 228 attacks on 179 separate medical facilities. Of these, PHR found, 90 percent were carried out by regime forces. To date, according to Physicians for Human Rights, 145 medical personnel have been executed or tortured to death in Syria. One hundred and thirty-nine of those 145 individuals, those deaths were carried out by Syrian government forces or by ISIL.

In Yarmouk, 18,000 civilians – most of them Palestinians refugees – are virtually cut off from assistance and surrounded by fighting. In 2014, the UN was only able to provide the equivalent of 400 calories a day for each inhabitant of Yarmouk – the equivalent of two cups of rice – due to the extremely limited access provided by the Syrian regime. If you haven't seen the photos of the kids inside Yarmouk, you should force yourself to stare at their sunken, hollow faces and glossed eyes. This is what Assad's regime has done to children, and he is under insufficient pressure from his backers to do something as simple as let food through. And Yarmouk is not an outlier. Of the 212,000 Syrians living in besieged areas, 185,000 of them, or 87 percent, live in areas being besieged by Syrian government forces.

Now, terrorist groups like ISIL have committed horrific abuses against Syrians, and we must be absolutely adamant and united in our condemnation of those horrors, which are on the rise. We condemn in the strongest possible terms ISIL's attacks on February 23 on Assyrian Christian villages in the northeast Syrian province of Hasakeh, where they kidnapped hundreds of civilians, including women, children, and older persons, and we join others in demanding the immediate and unconditional release of these civilians, together with all of ISIL's hostages.

In December, four mass graves were discovered in Deir ez-Zor, containing the bodies of some of the hundreds of people abducted by ISIL months before. ISIL has also established what they call "cub camps," where they indoctrinate kids, teaching them how to use weapons and to carry out suicide attacks. At the same time we condemn ISIL and unite to confront them, we must remember that the rise of these violent extremist groups in Syria would not have happened without the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime. And the regime's ongoing atrocities continue to be the extremists' best recruiting tool. So any plan that would ally the international community with Assad to confront these violent extremist groups would be completely counterproductive, as it would further fuel ISIL's rise.

There is only one way out of this horrific crisis, and that is through a comprehensive political solution. To that end, the United States again joins others in commending the efforts of UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura to halt – even for a limited time – the use of all aerial bombs and heavy artillery in Aleppo, whose civilians have suffered immensely amidst fierce fighting. While it would be a welcome step if the Assad regime were to fulfill the commitments it made to de Mistura to stop unilaterally its aerial bombardment in Aleppo and allow the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians for six weeks, the regime has an abysmal track record on honoring its commitments. Indeed, these very commitments are supposed to have been implemented under resolutions adopted by this very Council. So what matters, and what we must look to, are the regime's actions.

In addition to being a year since the adoption of Resolution 2139, we also mark other terrible benchmarks today. On March 15th, we will enter the fifth year of the Syrian conflict. And it has been three years since plain-clothes security officers raided the office of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression – a Damascus-based group dedicated to promoting freedom of expression – detaining 14 staff members. Many of those detained were tortured, according to staff members who were later released. Among those detained was the group's director, Mazen Darwish, who was charged with so-called crimes, such as publishing human rights reports and documenting the names of people tortured, disappeared, or killed during the conflict.

Mazen is still behind bars today, despite a UN General Assembly resolution last May that included a demand for his immediate release. Writing from jail last year, Mazen said, "There is not a single prison in Syria today without one of my friends inside it, nor is there a cemetery in Syria today that doesn't contain the remains of one of them."

There is a risk, in our regular meetings on Syria, to get used to the fact that the numbers of individuals detained and killed and disappeared and displaced and denied food – and so many other measures of human suffering – those numbers continue to rise. Indeed, there is a perverse dynamic whereby, as those numbers continue to rise, our sensitivity falls. Our nerve endings harden, and a sense of inevitability takes hold.

We must not let that happen. We must remember each of those rising numbers, each one of those millions, stands for just another person. We must return to the commitments this Council has made, such as those in past resolutions to take further measures in the case of non-compliance and to hold accountable those responsible for violations and abuses.

This Council's impact will increase only if member-states' positions change. And that will happen only if we recognize that there are children just like our own starving in Yarmouk, and mothers just like our own who die in childbirth in Aleppo, because medical supplies have been stolen off UN trucks; or mothers who feel helpless in the face of their children's pleas for food. If this doesn't motivate us, literally nothing will. Thank you.


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