Let’s get doctors and medicine to Syria’s suffering people
An op-ed I wrote, published in today’s Australian:
A CNN report showed a baby boy being rescued from a bombed house in a Syrian city. His family lay dead in the rubble.
He survived because his mother died on top of him. For a second the footage showed fear in his eyes as rescuers wiped concrete dust from his face. This embodied the tragedy of Syria.
More than 100 Syrians are killed each day. One million are displaced within the country and 300,000 have fled its borders.
This human tragedy is made worse by mortar attacks and rockets targeting hospitals, patients and medical staff.
More than 40 per cent of the country’s hospitals have been destroyed or disabled, according to health organisations on the ground.
Half the doctors and nurses are no longer able to work because of a shortage of equipment and medical supplies and because they aren’t safe. Volunteers with no medical training struggle to provide care.
The wounded are afraid to go to the health facilities that remain because they could be accused of fighting for the wrong side.
State hospitals have been ordered to refuse care to people suspected of opposing the Assad regime.
Dire security conditions mean that international aid organisations are not able to fill the gap.
International humanitarian law on the protection of medical personnel and facilities has been thrown out the window in Syria.
The UN Security Council is deadlocked about how to achieve a ceasefire and start political negotiations.
Hence the plan I put to senior UN officials last week: something simple and immediate, something pared back and minimalist.
Let’s get medicine and medical personnel to a suffering people.
My plan has three components.
First, all sides to the conflict must agree to stop targeting medical personnel and health facilities.
Second, a neutral third party such as a non-government organisation should monitor implementation of this agreement.
Third, more humanitarian aid. Last week I announced a further $4 million in emergency medical and food aid for Syria, bringing our total contribution to $24.5m. That makes Australia the third largest national donor.
Last Saturday in New York I discussed this plan with the Joint Special Envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos. Both expressed support.
During the next week I will approach members of the UN Security Council to gain their support for the plan. And our embassies will follow through as well. The obstacles are real. The Syrian government has little interest in expanding access to medical facilities for opposition fighters and civilians.
The situation on the ground is unstable and the Assad government continues to restrict NGO and UN access.
Monitoring will be difficult. Attacks on the unarmed UN Supervision Mission in Syria have largely disabled its work. The plan would ideally require a UN Security Council Chapter VII resolution with consequences for non-compliance.
To be blunt, this would be difficult, perhaps impossible. But we should not give up and, in fact, should seek outside formal UN structures a plan to protect hospitals, patients and health workers. Agreement between all the forces in the country would be a small sign that the sides can agree on something and might offer a larger hope of ending bloodshed and edging towards negotiations.
It would represent a confidence-building measure that could be built on by the Arab League and the UN in their efforts to resolve this conflict.
Russia should be supportive. It previously has backed humanitarian intervention while opposing political intervention.
And, in the absence of any more ambitious proposal, we should seek their support for this minimalist protection.
People hauled from the rubble deserve it.