Time to end Russian blackmail over humanitarian aid to Idlib

The moral and legal basis for continuation of delivery of aid to Idlib, Syria without the UNSC’s approval is strong and clear.

Children hold hands as they wait for aid
Syrian children hold hands as they wait for a delivery of food and toys in Sarmada district, on the outskirts of Idlib, on November 25, 2021 [AP Photo/Francisco Seco]

In a widely expected move, Russia has recently vetoed the extension of the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2585 which regulates the delivery of humanitarian aid to more than four million Syrians crammed in the northwestern enclave of Idlib. At the last moment, and after extracting a number of concessions in the negotiations with the US and other interlocutors, Russia agreed to extend the delivery mechanism one last time, but only for another six months, insisting that the aid must be delivered through Damascus and areas under the control of the Syrian leadership.

If Russia carries out the threat that this is the last extension of the mechanism, the millions of Syrians in dire need of humanitarian aid will be facing the harsh winter of north Syria without access to life-saving aid.

How did we get to the point where the lives of countless Syrians are in the hands of a country which is clearly an aggressor against those same Syrians, only last week killing an entire family with four children in one of the almost daily bombardments by its air force?

Not only is it inhumane to allow Russia to abuse its veto power in the UNSC in order to pursue its wartime goals in Syria, but it is also unnecessary. The moral and, more importantly, the legal basis for the continuation of delivery of aid to Idlib without the UNSC approval is strong and clear.

Last week, Amnesty International joined Syrian groups which have for more than a year advocated with the UN and key states to adopt one of the alternative legal paths according to which the UNSC approval for the delivery of cross-border aid is not needed.

Amnesty echoed earlier calls for the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to assume responsibility and pass a resolution to authorise the delivery of aid. But this is not the only legal path for the UN to take.

In 1986, in the case of Nicaragua vs the United States of America, the International Court of Justice has clearly held that: “There can be no doubt that the provision of strictly humanitarian aid to persons or forces in another country … cannot be regarded as unlawful intervention, or as in any other way contrary to international law.”

The UN clearly meets the first condition for such legitimate humanitarian action, which requires it to respect the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and non-discrimination in delivering aid.

In addition, it is the consensus of the leading world experts on international law that there is no legal barrier to the UN directly undertaking cross-border humanitarian operations and supporting NGOs to undertake them as well, with three primary conditions for the legality of cross-border aid that the UN clearly meets.

According to this position, the UN has been explicit that the Syrian government has over the years consistently, systematically and arbitrarily denied consent for a wide range of legitimate humanitarian relief operations and delivery of humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas.

Under international humanitarian law, parties can withhold consent only for valid legal reasons, not for arbitrary reasons. For example, parties might temporarily refuse consent for reasons of “military necessity” where imminent defence operations will take place on the proposed route for aid. They cannot, however, lawfully withhold consent to weaken the resistance of the enemy, cause starvation of civilians, or deny medical assistance. Where consent is withheld for these arbitrary reasons, the relief operation is lawful without consent.

Lastly, the areas where aid needs to be delivered are under the control of various opposition groups, not the Syrian government. In such cases, the consent of those parties in effective control of the area through which relief will pass is all that is required by international law to deliver aid.

Clearly, the solution to the Russian blackmail in the UNSC is not in trying to appeal to the humanity of Russia to abandon its veto but to offer a legal path to the key states and the UN to deliver aid without the UNSC approval.

To that effect, the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity and Syrian Network League have forwarded to the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths a detailed legal opinion which further develops these basic principles and details the basis for delivery of aid to continue by the UN, international organisations and NGOs. Griffiths office has, according to Amnesty International, commissioned a legal study of their own to explore options.

On the diplomatic level, it seems that there is a growing readiness to do away with Russian blackmail and follow the path charted by legal experts and Syrian organisations. This could be read from the statement of  United States Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Mills, given at the UNGA debate on the Russian veto, which was held on July 21: “Now, the international community, as others have said, must come together and firewall any further politicisation of what is a purely humanitarian issue. The United States will work with any and every country that prioritises delivering aid to the most vulnerable.” Unconfirmed reports indicate that an inter-agency working group has already been assembled to determine all the elements of the “Plan B”, which would be put into action before the current mechanism for cross-border aid delivery expires in six months.

These are encouraging signs that the UN and key states will finally take the necessary steps and end the deadly weaponisation of humanitarian aid by Russia and its ally in Damascus. Syrians have laid the ground for them with their lives and with their advocacy. As Ambassador Mills also stated at the UNGA debate, they “have the power to make that difference.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.