International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Hauser Lecture 2014: What can be done in Syria?

10 Mar 2014 - Remarks delivered by IRC President and CEO David Miliband at the New York University School of Law.

I am honored to have been invited to deliver this year’s Hauser lecture.  The determination of the NYU Law School to ensure all students have the opportunity to be exposed to global legal issues is to my non-legal mind admirable.  The commitment of Rita and Gus Hauser to make that possible, through the support for Scholars, Fellows and Faculty is truly visionary. The combination of the two has over twenty years provided a distinctive and much needed contribution to legal scholarship and practice.    

The lives and commitments of Rita and Gus Hauser have exemplified an internationalist spirit as well as substance.  So it is fitting that I have been asked to address one of the most pressing topics in international politics today: the war in Syria, its impact on the Middle East, and the role of humanitarian organizations like IRC.  UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has called the war “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history”.  It deserves more attention than it is getting, so I welcome your interest tonight.

There is a lot of commentary that this seems to be a war without end.  Also that it is a war without limit.  My theme tonight is that what is happening in Syria is an example of a war without law, and the question I address is what if anything can be done.

A bit of history first.  The IRC worked in Syria from 2007 to 2009.  Our work focused on helping the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who had fled the internecine strife in their home country. We were ordered to leave abruptly by the Syrian government, for reasons that remain unclear.  

Since 2011, we have pivoted the organization’s attention towards cross-border work into Syria from its neighbors, and work on behalf of refugees and host communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.   Through brave work with Syrian partners, we think half a million Syrians inside the country have received medical aid from us, and another half a million benefited from non medical help, from winterization kits to help families get through the winter to education for displaced children.  In the neighboring countries, we are working to provide post trauma support to women who have suffered sexual and domestic violence; health care to refugees and host communities; and cash support and cash for work programs, again for refugees and host communities.  This fiscal year, help for the victims of the Syrian war will become our biggest program, exceeding the $70m we spent in DRC in 2013.

I am immensely proud of the work IRC has done over the last three years.  We are expanding, innovating, delivering every week.  Lives have been saved and improved.  But equally I am in no doubt about the growing gap that exists between need and help.   

In the same way that failure to prevent slaughter in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s defined the humanitarian agenda for a generation which came of age in the 1990s, so the failure to meet humanitarian need with appropriate humanitarian action is the collective failure of this decade.  The parallels are quite striking: the failure to address the drivers of the crisis, to halt the crisis, and to mount a humanitarian effort proportionate to the scale of the crisis are common elements. 

Here are the numbers.  Out of a population of 22 million, 9 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes.  130 000 are dead; 180 000 have been carted off to government prisons; 2.2 million children inside the country, according to the UN, are not in school, and Unicef says more than half the total number of children in the country are out of school; over 4 million people have been designated by the UN as “hard to reach”, which means that they are making do with barely any help; great tracts of famous and historic cities have been turned to rubble.  And going on for three million Syrians are now in neighboring countries.  Just to get a sense of what that means, the flow of 850 000 refugees into Lebanon, with its population of 4.5 million, is the equivalent of the whole of Britain coming to the US.  In Jordan, there are some 600 000 refugees registered by UNHCR; yet officials talks of a further 700 000 unregistered refugees.

It is not just the big numbers.  It is the stories.  The people eating grass; the fatwas allowing the eating of cats and dogs; the orphaned children; the Syrian-American I met in San Diego last month who has lost five school friends in the conflict; the doctor I met in Jordan last year who has lost colleagues for the “crime’ of treating civilians in rebel areas.  

And not just stories but pictures.  I don’t know how many of you saw the picture of Palestinians lining up for food in Yarmouk.  There were about 20 000 hungry people in the queue. The main street was packed with people.  There was no hope in their eyes.

The starting point of my argument tonight, however, is not just that there is a lot of harrowing, degrading, de-humanising need.  It is that this need is the product of a particular set of actions and not just circumstances, decisions and not just accidents.  The need is the product of strategy not just the by-product of tactics.  

Language matters in this.  You can see the difference it makes in the debate about humanitarian “access”.  

Access problems sound like they are not just unfortunate but accidental.  However that is like saying that someone being strangled is having a problem accessing air.  It misses the point.  And in Syria the problem of access is the deliberate result of the way the war is being conducted.  It is the acute problem of strangulation not the chronic and long term problem of furred arteries.

The threat from this war without law is not just to the well-being of millions of Syrians, but also to the progress that has been made since the second world war in establishing laws and norms for the conduct of war.  As this audience knows well, the laws of war represent  the hard-headed learning from some of the most brutal and deadly conflicts of the past two centuries. War will always be bloody and destructive – but there are laws and norms that act to minimize its impact on civilians.  And there is a further dimension.  Despite the inevitable hatred engendered by bloodshed, the laws and norms of war increase the potential for durable peace-making by trying to reduce the emotional, social, human and physical costs on a country and its people. 

In Syria, we see grave and systematic breaches of the laws of war. Civilians are not just caught in the crossfire – they are targeted by barrel bombs, artillery bombardments, snipers, massacres, chemical weapons attacks.  All have rained down on previously quiet residential neighborhoods. And all except chemical weapon attacks continue to rain down after the passage of the recent UN resolution.  

Critical civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, clinics, schools and water supplies are bombed without warning. Access to the most basic, life-saving food and medical aid is being denied. Aid workers themselves are in the cross-hairs: 50 have died thus far and others have been kidnapped.

In a war without law, where the international community seems paralyzed, the road we are currently on leads not to a Dayton or Geneva but to a Vanni, where, in 2009, 350,000 people were bottled up in the few square kilometers of a sandy peninsular, caught between the Tamil Tigers and a Sri Lankan army bent on their eradication.  UN and other independent inquiries have revealed gross abuse of humanitarian law.  The parallels between the end game in Sri Lanka and that in Syria, where major cities such as Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Deir ez-Zor are likewise encircled, seems clear.

It is also worth noting the struggle of the UN to break the confinement and curtailment of its aid effort by the Assad government.  The presence in Damascus of the UN has helped them reach civilians in government areas.  But for most civilians in rebel-held area, UN help is a dream not a reality.  The plain fact is that political division at the UN among member states has spilled over into division over humanitarian action.  It has taken three years to get a UN resolution demanding that all sides to the conflict live up to international law – and there is as yet no sign that the resolution passed three weeks ago is being implemented.     

There is one other point that is relevant.  This war has been noteworthy for the strong sense among the western public that the best western nations can do is to keep well away.  This has been most evidently the case in respect of the debate about military intervention.  But it has also infected the humanitarian effort.  IRC raised more money from the public in a matter of weeks for the victims of the Philippines disaster than we have raised for the Syrian effort in three years.   

These factors have left humanitarian organizations like IRC with challenging dilemmas.  About the safety of our staff; about our interaction with rebel groups as well as the government; about our engagement with the UN on cross-border questions; about where to make our effort amidst the plethora of competing priorities. 

We have been guided by the humanitarian values established in 1864: humanity, independence, neutrality, impartiality and universality.  But in truth we have also found tension – even clash – between those values.  

The most urgent and compelling imperative is to save lives, as impartially as we can, but the Damascus government would deny us access to government held areas if we keep up vital aid in rebel held areas.  So the trade offs come to the surface.  We are rightly impartial about who we treat and help; but it has never been a breach of neutrality to bear witness to the fact that the Government in Damascus bears primary responsibility for the military attacks on civilians.   We have remained silent about the political discussions on the future of Syria and outside intervention there, in honor of the principle of neutrality; but where does that leave the civilians asking for relief from barrel bomb attack, and our commitment to the principle of humanity?  We know that real hope for civilians depends on decisive shift in the military balance; but it is not our place to call for victory for one side.

What we can do is agitate for action that relieves the suffering and staunches the dying.  Some of the requirements for that are present in UNSC Resolution 2139.  They are access to besieged areas; respect of humanitarian law in the conduct of war; safe passage for civilians from conflict zones, and passage for aid workers into those zones.  The Security Council has spoken and offered clear requirements and expectations.  It is absolutely vital to keep up the pressure for a change in behavior on the ground, and to use the monthly reporting requirement in the resolution to expose what is being done (or not). 

But to achieve that we need a step change in the level of engagement. It is urgent that we start the debate about what that means.

The first priority is to replace what has overall been the tardy and episodic attention given to the humanitarian aspects of the Syria crisis over the last three years with ongoing, activist, high level engagement on the humanitarian questions of access, protection and help.  With the best will in the world, this cannot be done at Foreign Minister level; there is just too much else going on.  Nor can it be confined to UN Ambassadors in New York, who also have multiple responsibilities.  

When it comes to working through the detail of the implementation of the resolution; supporting the UN Humanitarian Coordinator Valerie Amos; engaging third parties, notably supporters of the belligerents; pooling information about transgressions of the UN resolution; reaching out to NGOs; there is need for what have in the past been called Humanitarian Envoys.  There is some experience of the US working with the UN in this way since the 1990s.  In the case of Somalia the US utilized the talents of Ambassador Robert Oakley as Special Envoy working in close coordination with USAID.  In the cases of the 2004 tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, former Presidents Clinton and George HW Bush and George W Bush were appointed Special Envoys to oversee recovery.  If there was ever a case of a man-made disaster on the scale of the tsunami Syria is it.

Our proposal is not for this to be a further UN Envoy: Mr Brahimi is understandably focused on the political track.  Instead what is needed is for each permanent member of the Security Council, and others concerned with the crisis, each to appoint a full-time Humanitarian Envoy.  They would need to be people of genuine stature with seasoned global diplomatic credibility – former Ministers and UN or other Ambassadors.  And they would need the personal mandate of the head of government.  But it needs that kind of focused attention to achieve some kind of breakthrough. 

Given the limited access by the UN from Damascus into rebel-held areas, the second priority is to legitimize, enhance and support cross border activity to provide relief supplies to civilians in rebel-held areas.  The October UNSC Presidential Statement covered this point in its reference to “humanitarian operations” but only urged this.  UNSCR 2139 specified a sub-set of this activity in its reference to cross border action by “the UN and its implementing partners’, but demanded instead of urged. But this is not actually a matter of UNSCRs.  Cross-border action to meet the needs of victims is a right not a privilege under the Fourth Geneva Convention and related protocols.  The duties of states are clear – including to authorize entry and passage of humanitarian aid.  Cross-border work is the fastest most effective route to relieving suffering.  It needs to be promoted and delivered quickly and safely.

The third priority is to make real the goal of access to besieged areas.  Without this the talk of humanitarian goals of impartiality and universality are hollow.  There is experience from Sudan (Operation lifeline Sudan) and Afghanistan (Operation Salaam) for how to negotiate access across conflict lines during a civil war.   It requires political leadership, credible interlocutors, willingness to work with all sides, and clear pressure on all sides.

Both for cross border and cross conflict line activity, Syrian civil society is key to the delivery of effective aid.  We have an innovative proposal to create Humanitarian Learning Centres in Jordan and Turkey to help train up Syrian aid workers.  Given the length of the crisis, never mind the rebuilding phase in the future, this is essential investment in the human capital of the country.

The fourth priority is to engage all relevant powers in the humanitarian dialogue.    Whatever the reasons for Iran’s absence from the talks in Geneva, it is essential that the Government in Tehran is engaged in the effort to douse the humanitarian fire.  It is clearly an active party in the conflict, and needs to be as accountable as others for the humanitarian consequences of the actions of its chosen side in the conflict.

The fifth priority is for the UN and its agencies to maximize the potential of humanitarian organizations to fulfil the mandate of the UNSCR.  This will only done if funding guidelines are flexible enough to include sub grants to NGOs working inside opposition held areas of Syria; if the cost of NGO work in neighboring countries is included in the UN appeals; ; if there is logistical and supply chain support, including capacity mapping of transport providers and vetted partners.

The sixth priority is for support for the neighboring countries.  The funding flows may sound large – the US has given $1.7 billion for use inside and outside Syria.  But compared to the scale of the need - $6bn a year in Lebanon as a result of the refugee influx, $4bn a year in Jordan – it is insufficient.  This is not just a matter for the west.  Gulf donors are obviously key too (and Kuwait has so far led the way).  But since no one believes that refugees are going home soon, the call from Jordan and others for long term, structured help surely needs to meet a more systematic response.

The seventh priority is for an effective system of resettlement into third countries of the neediest cases arising from the conflict.  The UNHCR has called for 30 000 places by the end of this year around the world – for orphans, victims of torture, and others with the greatest needs.  This is a symbolic show of solidarity with the neighboring countries, as well as a substantive contribution to the individuals concerned.  Only 18 000 places have so far been offered, and IRC is calling on the US to fill the gap by creating 12 000 emergency places in the US.


It is easy to understand why a conflict as complicated as that in Syria should produce ennui, caution and despair in the west.   But the conflict has only become more complicated the longer it has gone on, and the reverberations only more serious.  I don’t only mean for the humanitarian sector.

It is evident that humanitarian action is necessitated by political failure.  The first responsibility of governments is to look after their own people.  It is when they cannot do so that the humanitarian system comes into effect.  But there is also a line of causality in the other direction: humanitarian need is the cause of political instability as well as its product.

In the Middle East the Syria conflict is not only causing distress; it is causing political damage.  Countries like Jordan are put under pressure; communal and sectarian tensions are exacerbated; an intra-regional power struggle has been given a jolt.

So there are reasons of geopolitics as well as humanity for urgent action.  That is what IRC is pressing for, alongside many other NGOs.  I hope you will join us, in any way you can.