By Biljana Scott, Oxford University, Senior Lecturer at DiploFoundation and Visiting Professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy.
There is a mantra in UN circles concerning Syria which says that “the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate in the absence of a political solution.” It makes eminent sense to assume that a lasting peace cannot be secured independently of the political process which can ensure that peace, but where the human need is as great as it evidently is in Syria, and where power struggles are usurping the political process, using civilians as pawns, it is unconscionable to hold humanitarian concerns hostage to political haggling.
In a recent blog (Fiddling with words while Syria burns), I showed how the wording of the Geneva 1 Communiqué was ambiguous enough to bring conflicting parties to the table, but too ambiguous to allow for an agreement. For instance, its demand for “The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place” does not indicate who will constitute that governing body, nor what counts as a “neutral environment” in a country riven by conflict and hatred, nor where the transition is headed and how long it has.
The first of these questions (which parties are to constitute the transitional governing body), proved so intractable that it caused the collapse of the February round of talks, a turning point which has brought me to the following conclusion: it is imperative that we unhitch humanitarian concerns from the political process, allowing for the adoption of a two-track approach. The slower-paced political talks with all their necessary word-worries can be assigned to one track, and the immediate and concerted intervention to save civilian victims from the war crimes and gross breaches of human rights they are currently subject to can be – must be – fast-tracked.
On 22 February, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, responding to the adoption of UNSC Resolution 2139 concerning the Humanitarian Situation in Syria, reassured us that “If this resolution is implemented quickly and in good faith, at least some of the suffering can be eased.” He went on to say:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this resolution should not have been necessary. Humanitarian assistance is not something to be negotiated; it is something to be allowed by virtue of international law. Profoundly shocking to me is that both sides are besieging civilians as a tactic of war.”
It is indeed shocking, but the reason the Resolution was necessary, and the reason it will fail, is because of the ambiguities in the Geneva I Communiqué: progress on the ground will not be achieved as long as the Communiqué allows the stumbling-blocks of wording to serve as a cynical stalling tactic, with no regard for the human cost involved.
It is imperative, therefore, that the UN Security Council stop demanding “that all parties work towards the immediate and comprehensive implementation of the Geneva Communiqué”, and that it stop “expressing its regret that its Presidential Statement of 2 October 2013 [which itself reiterates the importance of implementing the Communiqué] has not delivered as expected and has not yet translated into meaningful progress on the ground.” (UNSCR 2139)
Constructive ambiguities have a limited shelf-life. Where parties refuse to talk because they can’t agree on who is entitled to do the talking, it is time to stop “emphasizing that the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate in the absence of a political solution,” and high time to fast-track humanitarian intervention independently of political filibustering