A chance for global leadership on Syria

It is unconscionable that March 15 marked two years of a bloody and remorseless conflict in Syria that until now, the international community has proved impotent to end.

The suffering of ordinary civilians should move and deeply trouble us all, with hundreds of innocent people killed daily, and thousands – many of them unaccompanied children – fleeing the fighting to seek refuge in neighbouring states.

Over 70 000 already killed, a million refugees, four million internally displaced; UN statistics do not begin to tell the full story of the human suffering. And yet, in the face of this worsening disaster, the United Nations remains gridlocked, stymied by three double vetoes at the Security Council and unable to agree on a way to end the hostilities.

Against such a backdrop it would be easy to despair. But while there are no easy answers to the Syrian crisis, we believe there are still opportunities for a positive change of direction. This year’s fifth annual BRICS summit, which will bring together the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, in Durban, South Africa, from 26 – 27 March, is one of the best.

Last year, when the BRICS leaders met in Delhi, their final declaration expressed “deep concern” at the situation in Syria and promised to “facilitate a Syrian-led inclusive political process.” With no realistic political process taking hold, this year’s summit is a chance for the world’s rising powers to demonstrate their commitment to, and solidarity with, the people of Syria at their time of greatest need.

In doing so, they may – just may – also contribute to breaking the downward spiral of violence.

What we are calling for, as members of The Elders, is not about coming out for or against the Assad regime; instead, it is about recognising the interests of our common humanity and prioritising the protection of the innocent. Unimpeded humanitarian access to all parts of Syria coordinated by the UN and authorised by the government – for aid to be delivered anytime, anywhere, and by the most effective means – is a call that no leader, indeed no human being, could in good conscience deny.

A critical problem about which there has been little public discussion is that the Syrian government has not given permission for the UN or other internationally recognised bodies to coordinate assistance coming from across its borders into those areas where it is most desperately needed.

Under international humanitarian law, the UN cannot provide humanitarian assistance without the permission of the host government.

Despite the brave work of local grassroots organisations, the UN, International Committee of the Red Cross and the handful of international NGOs still able to work in Syria, aid is still not reaching all those in desperate need trapped in both government and opposition-led areas.

Leaders at the BRICS summit should send a clear message to President Bashar al-Assad, urging him to grant full humanitarian access to UN agencies. The imperative for them to do this is all the more urgent given the stalemate at the UN Security Council. It should be in the interests of both the government in Damascus and those who oppose it to see Syrian civilians able to eat, protected against disease, and living in proper shelter.

More importantly, it is their moral and legal responsibility, for which they could be held accountable in future, if they fail to act.

Ensuring the impartiality of humanitarian aid and placing the UN in charge of its movement into and across the country is the only way to ensure a response that can effectively address the escalating crisis.

If the BRICS nations can agree on a shared approach to addressing the humanitarian dimensions of the Syrian crisis, they will have already made an important contribution to improving the wellbeing of millions affected by the civil war, enhancing the remarkable efforts of our fellow Elder, Lakhdar Brahimi, as peace envoy.

Assuming they can summon the necessary political willpower to take this essential first step, we encourage the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to go further and use their collective leverage to help achieve a political settlement in Syria. Such a demonstration of global leadership would be a major achievement, in the interest of the Syrian people.

It would also enhance the political standing of the BRICS in the eyes of the world. – Martti Ahtisaari is former president of Finland and a Nobel Peace Laureate. Fernando Henrique Cardoso is former President of Brazil. Both are members of The Elders, a group of independent leaders working for peace, justice and human rights.

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