It didn’t take long. Just two months after world powers celebrated the unanimous adoption of a groundbreaking resolution by the United Nations Security Council calling for the delivery of aid to millions of desperate Syrians, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos all but admitted defeat. “Far from getting better, the situation is getting worse. Violence has intensified over the last month, taking an horrific toll on ordinary civilians,” Amos told reporters after a closed-door Security Council briefing at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday. “I’ve told the Council that Resolution 2139 is not working,” she said, referring to the measure that even staunch Syria ally Russia had supported.
The resolution specifically demanded that the regime of President Bashar Assad cease its use of indiscriminate barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas, and threatened “further steps” if its calls to open the way for the delivery of essential humanitarian aid went unheeded. Yet just hours before the Council met, the government unleashed a barrage of barrel bombs on a school in the northern city of Aleppo, killing 20 and further underscoring the resolution’s failure to improve the situation. While some anti-government militias have prevented humanitarian access in the areas they control, the resolution was largely directed at the Syrian government, which the Council singled out for continuing to use siege tactics on civilian populations, preventing humanitarian assistance and denying medical aid—actions the council has described in the past as violations of international humanitarian law. In a 60-day assessment of the resolution’s implementation, released last week, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted, “People are dying needlessly every day,” and demanded that the Security Council “take action.”
Ban’s report, as well as assessments by a wide array of UN agencies, international aid organizations and human rights groups, shows that Syrians are still besieged, still starving, and still being denied medical assistance. “We have seen no significant change on the ground [since the resolution was implemented,]” says Vanessa Parra, Humanitarian Press Officer for Oxfam America, an international aid organization operating in Syria. “There have been some piecemeal instances of assistance getting through, which is welcome of course, but not with any predictability, and not in any way that fundamentally alters the dire humanitarian situation.”
In her remarks following the Security Council meeting, Amos called for a robust response to the Syrian regime’s intransigence. “I think the onus rests on the Council to not only recognize that reality, but to act on it,” she said. But the threat of “further steps” is increasingly looking meaningless. Any decisive action by the Security Council, such as sanctions or military action, would require another resolution, one that most certainly would invite a Russian veto.
For 27-year old Samer, an anti-regime activist from Homs who asked to go by only one name to protect his family, it is incomprehensible that any nation would hold back humanitarian access for political gain. Especially, he points out, when civilians caught in the middle of the warring sides are the starving victims. “I wish Russia would take part in constructive dialogue instead of preventing humanitarian organizations from doing their job,” he says.
According to the U.N., more than nine million Syrians — nearly half the population — are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Many are in hard to access areas or in territory held by the opposition. Yet in defiance of the U.N. resolution, the Syrian government has strictly limited access to areas outside government control, meaning that the U.N. and other international aid agencies cannot reach the populations most in need. Furthermore, the Syrian government, citing a legal justification of sovereignty, will not allow humanitarian aid to come across any rebel-held border. With all but one border post on the northern frontier with Turkey in rebel hands, and access to Jordan’s border crossings in the south similarly limited, the Syrian regime is essentially funneling all international aid deliveries through the few remaining corridors that lead to the capital Damascus, while depriving large swaths of the country of essential assistance.
The U.N. operates in Syria only with government permission, and has, until now, been beholden to regime dictates that it not access populations in need except via regime-sanctioned corridors. International humanitarian law experts challenged that practice in an open letter to the UN on April 28, saying that current conditions trump traditional practice. Kristyan Benedict, the Syria campaign manager for London-based Amnesty International, says that the humanitarian imperative is paramount. “The UN needs to reconsider its adherence to these rules. Topline, we want unfettered cross border humanitarian access. I don’t think anyone can justifiably say that the concept of state sovereignty is more important than saving lives, especially when the state claiming sovereignty continues to commit war crimes.”
Samer, the activist from Homs, says that it is time to focus on saving lives, even if that means breaking international law by going against regime wishes. “There should be an international committee to protect UN workers and they should deliver aid under international protection, no matter what the regime says,” he tells TIME via Skype. The risk is that the government can kick out the U.N. entirely if it defies regime directives, as officials have already threatened to do to international aid organizations registered in Damascus that have been caught conducting cross border operations elsewhere in the country. Aid agencies, as with the U.N., are forced to weigh the costs and benefits of defying the rules. It’s a complex calculation, says Benedict, one made more difficult by the U.N.’s political role in the country, and continuing hopes for a lasting political solution. Breaking the rules, says Benedict, “does not mean we are going to reach everyone, but the question is, could we be reaching more people than what is currently allowed by government permission?”
And if the regime does decide to retaliate by kicking out the U.N., he adds, it may make for more clarity on future Security Council decisions. “Sure, the regime authorities may tell the U.N. to get out. But if they do, it would further make the case that the government is using civilians as pawns in a political game. Totally denying access to humanitarian aid would be a clear sign that the leadership has lost all legitimacy.” And Russia, he says, at that point, may be forced to reconsider its unquestioning support for Syria.
With reporting by Hania Mourtada/ Beirut