Humanitarian Liaison Group
14 September 2017
To all armed groups and civilian administration entities, including humanitarian coordination offices and courts in Idleb governorate and surrounding area:
Reports are being received of impediments to humanitarian access in areas of north-western Syria under the control of armed groups. The humanitarian community serving the cross-border operation to Syria from Turkey, which includes UN agencies, international NGOs and local NGOs, is concerned that vulnerable people are not receiving life-saving humanitarian assistance or are at grave risk of reduced assistance as a consequence of these impediments or the threat of them being imposed.
Humanitarian operations in northern Syria started in early 2012 to cover emergency needs and to provide sustainable longer-term services that benefit IDPs and local communities. These are carried out by the UN and local and international organizations and benefit hundreds of thousands of people on a monthly basis. For example, from January to May 2017 in areas of Idleb, Aleppo, Hama, and Lattakia governorates under the control of armed groups, on average each month more than one million people received some form of humanitarian aid1, whether it was food assistance, emergency health support, clean water, protection services, children receiving nutritional assistance or schooling, shelter, and/ or household materials.
Globally, all humanitarian and relief activities are based on fundamental humanitarian principles. These principles are in support of civilian populations only and are central to ensuring the most vulnerable receive the assistance they need, and include:
- Humanity: Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found, with particular attention to the most vulnerable people, such as children, women and the elderly.
- Neutrality: Humanitarian assistance will be provided without participating in hostilities or taking sides in controversies of a political, religious or ideological nature.
- Impartiality: When humanitarian assistance is provided, it will be without discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin, political opinion, gender, nationality, race or religion. Provision of assistance is guided solely by needs, and priority is given to the most vulnerable cases.
- Operational Independence: Humanitarian activities must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may have with regard to areas where humanitarian activities are being implemented.
Humanitarian organizations are accountable to uphold these principles. If they fail to do so, there are enforcement and accountability mechanisms within the UN, internally in NGOs, and with the donor that supports the organization. These mechanisms are the appropriate channels to address such issues.
In December 2014, the humanitarian community operating from Turkey adopted the Protocol for Engagement with Parties to the Conflict to Deliver Humanitarian Assistance in Northern Syria2. This document outlines how humanitarian organizations engage with parties to the conflict in northern Syria. It reiterates the above humanitarian principles and gives examples of what the humanitarian community will and will not do in relation to parties to the
conflict. The Protocol provides the framework for this document as well. The related Declaration of Commitment3 complements the Protocol and outlines an armed group’s commitment to comply with international humanitarian law and to facilitate humanitarian assistance according to the humanitarian principles. It was signed by many armed groups in 2014, and remains valid. Key commitments include:
- To respect and protect relief workers, allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of relief including medical and surgical equipment, and grant authorized relief personnel freedom of movement to reach people in need on the basis of need alone;
- To respect and uphold the fundamental humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence;
- To adopt simple and expedited procedures for all logistical and administrative arrangements necessary for humanitarian relief operations; and
- To work immediately and in good faith with representatives of humanitarian agencies to agree on practical arrangements for the provision of assistance to meet the needs of all civilians.
The first half of 2017 saw an increase of incidents contrary to the above humanitarian principles, Protocol, and Declaration. Such incidents included, but were not limited to:
- 1) Interference in the implementation of humanitarian activities, including reports of: • Interventions in human resource issues, such as in staff recruitment, or requesting information on salary scales or personal information from staff files.
- Interventions in procurement, asking for tender documents and contracts, and trying to influence NGOs to contract with specific suppliers or traders.
- Requesting NGOs to provide beneficiary lists or other confidential details of program plans.
- Attempting to influence humanitarian programming and to divert aid to unplanned areas, groups or individuals.
- Requesting a percentage of relief items or requesting money.
- Requesting NGOs to register with “NGO affairs offices” related to armed groups.
- Trying to impose specific local organizations as a partner for the implementation of humanitarian programs, some of whom may not be fully humanitarian in nature.
- Limiting or prohibiting certain humanitarian activities especially in certain sectors.
- 2) Physical interference, violence or the threat of violence against humanitarian personnel, assets and facilities, including reports of: • Detention or arrest of humanitarian aid workers for not complying to demands contrary to the above principles, Protocol, and Declaration.
- The seizure of humanitarian property or materials by force.
- Threatening to close NGO offices or to stop their activities if they do not comply with the demands of armed groups.
- Forceful closure of programs.
- 3) Restriction of movement of agencies, personnel, or goods, including reports of: • Unjustified stopping of humanitarian shipments at checkpoints or the seizure of relief items.
The humanitarian community notes recent changes in areas of control in northwest Syria and its potential impact on humanitarian programming. The humanitarian community notes the importance of the Bab Al Hawa border crossing to the delivery of humanitarian aid and urges all parties to ensure that it remains operational for humanitarian shipments, including maintaining the longstanding policy of no taxation on humanitarian goods. As recent experience has demonstrated, humanitarian needs can worsen quickly if the border closes or if the provision of aid is otherwise inhibited. If the humanitarian community is not able to provide
the assistance and services according to the above humanitarian principles and commitments, the humanitarian operation may be at risk and those in authority will need to ensure that civilians receive food, medical treatment, non-food items, water services, shelter, education and protection services, as this is an obligation under international humanitarian and human rights law.
The humanitarian community’s only goal is to serve civilians in need of humanitarian assistance, and urges all armed groups and civilian administration entities, including humanitarian coordination offices and courts, to enable humanitarian workers to do their work. In this regard, the recent statements by some armed groups and their affiliated offices of their willingness to facilitate humanitarian work, including in meetings and official written communication with the humanitarian community, are welcomed. The humanitarian community looks forward to further dialogue on continuing humanitarian assistance in line with the humanitarian principles, Protocol, and Declaration to ensure that people in need receive the aid they require. As a basis for such dialogue we request the recognition and implementation of the following criteria for continued provision of humanitarian services to civilian communities in northwestern Syria:
- Guarantees of protection of the staff, assets and projects of humanitarian agencies in this area. Staff shall not be targeted, assets confiscated or demands placed on projects that are contrary to the humanitarian principles above.
- Acceptance that internal procedures of humanitarian actors such as staff hiring policy, salary scales, procurement processes, decision of geographic location of projects or beneficiary lists are internal to each agency and all requests to include parties external to the NGO in these processes or to share such information must be stopped.
- While recognizing the independence of humanitarian action in northwest Syria, ensuring there is an avenue to deal with the legitimate feedback and complaints against any humanitarian agency that may be in contravention of the above humanitarian principles. Avenues for such complaints and feedback must be determined in the context of dialogue.
- Agreement that reducing the humanitarian needs of affected civilians in northwest Syria is the primary aim of all concerned and confirmation that humanitarian assistance does not serve the aims of any military entity in northwest Syria.