October 15, 2013

The massive political mobilization displayed around Syria's chemical weapons, underscored by the awarding last Friday of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), must also be applied immediately to humanitarian access in the country



Syria 2013 © Robin Meldrum/MSF

The entrance area of an MSF hospital in Syria

NEW YORK, OCTOBER 14, 2013—The massive political mobilization displayed around Syria's chemical weapons, underscored by the awarding last Friday of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), must also be applied immediately to humanitarian access in the country, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

Many areas of Syria remain entirely under siege, sealed off from lifesaving assistance, either because access is blocked by the authorities in Damascus or because of intense fighting. In the East and West Ghouta suburbs of Damascus—areas visited by chemical weapons inspectors—medics are reporting desperate shortages of drugs and cases of malnutrition due to lack of food, yet aid has been unable to reach them.

“Syrian people are now presented with the absurd situation of chemical weapons inspectors driving freely through areas in desperate need, while ambulances, and food and drug supplies organized by humanitarian organizations, are blocked,” said MSF General Director Christopher Stokes. “Influential countries gathered around a table, thrashed out an agreement on chemical weapons, and put it into practice. They have shown that such mobilization can be achieved. So where are the efforts to repeat this success with the burning issue of access for humanitarian aid?”

The paralysis of humanitarian assistance is not limited to areas under siege. In Aleppo Governorate, several days of intense bombing in As Safirah and Abu Djirin, as well as attacks on displaced persons' camps in the area, have forced 18,000 families to flee for their lives. While MSF teams have treated 20 severely wounded people, including many children, accessing displaced families was impossible because of the continued bombing.

Political will around the issue of chemical weapons swiftly led to a unanimous United Nations Security Council Resolution, and has led to inspectors being allowed to visit areas that have been under siege for months. In stark contrast, the lack of political mobilization around humanitarian access has left areas in Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus cut off from aid, and essential medical supplies systematically blocked from crossing front lines.

The deployment of international staff, a problematic issue for humanitarian organizations since the start of the conflict, has been relatively straightforward for the UN/OPCW team; 50 to 100 chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Syria in just a few weeks. By comparison, after two-and-a-half years of war, the UN humanitarian office in Syria had to reduce its staff of 100 by half last March, and has not yet been able to increase its numbers.

“MSF recognizes the gravity of the use of chemical weapons and the utmost importance of the work of the OPCW inspectors," said Stokes. "However, the rapid deployment of chemical weapons inspectors has set a precedent, and now the October 2 UN Security Council presidential statement on humanitarian assistance must be implemented with immediate effect. The Damascus authorities, opposition groups, and those countries with any influence in the conflict, are called upon to ensure that humanitarians can work safely and unimpeded, and that humanitarian assistance is immediately able to reach those parts of Syria with the greatest needs."

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