World News

Syria Cease-Fire Must Take Effect Immediately, U.N. Chief Warns

Posted February 26, 2018 10:39 a.m. EST

GENEVA — As bombs continued to rain down on the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres demanded that the Syria cease-fire resolution that the Security Council adopted unanimously over the weekend take effect immediately.

The secretary-general’s anger was matched by that of his colleague, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N.'s top human rights official, who pinned responsibility for the prolonged misery in Syria and other conflict zones on the five permanent members of the Security Council.

“Security Council resolutions are only meaningful if they are effective,” Guterres said at the opening of a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. “Eastern Ghouta cannot wait. It’s high time to stop this hell on earth.”

The resolution approved Saturday by the Security Council after days of haggling by permanent members called for a 30-day cease-fire in Syria, but it contained loopholes that allowed intensive bombing and shelling of the beleaguered enclave to continue.

More than 500 people have died in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta in the past week, including 24 in the 24 hours since the cease-fire resolution was passed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, and hospitals remain a target. The sound of jets and helicopters could be heard flying over the capital in the direction of eastern Ghouta on Monday.

President Bashar Assad of Syria and his Russian and Iranian allies appear to be exploiting the wording of the resolution, which did not set a firm date for the cease-fire to take effect and excluded attacks on opposition forces identified as terrorists, who make up some of the estimated 580 opposition fighters entrenched in eastern Ghouta.

Efforts to combat terrorism do not supersede obligations under international law to protect civilians, Guterres pointedly reminded his audience, taking aim at Syrian, Russian and Iranian representatives who have stated their determination to keep up military action against terrorist groups.

Guterres demanded that aid agencies be granted access to deliver humanitarian assistance to the nearly 400,000 people in eastern Ghouta who have been besieged for years, and to evacuate hundreds of critically ill patients whose transfer to hospitals less than an hour’s drive away has been resolutely blocked by the government.

Speaking immediately after the secretary-general, al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, spread responsibility beyond the powers fighting there. With six months remaining in his term and no intention of extending it, he apparently felt free to be blunt.

“Second to the criminally responsible — those who kill and maim — the responsibility for the continuation of so much pain lies with the five permanent members of the Security Council,” he told an audience that included several heads of state and dozens of foreign ministers.

Alongside eastern Ghouta, he said Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Yemen had become “some of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times” because governments had failed to heed warnings and to prevent the rising horrors.

The Security Council’s five permanent members should surrender their “pernicious use of the veto,” he said, and accept an initiative from France, one of the five, that would prevent its use where a mass atrocity has occurred.

On Monday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia ordered a daily humanitarian truce in eastern Ghouta that would start Tuesday, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. It was not clear, however, what effect that might have given the numerous players in the conflict — most notably those supporting the Syrian government, and Iranian-backed forces.

The timing of the humanitarian pause, about 72 hours after the resolution passed, coincides with the time Russia had originally proposed for the start of the cease-fire. It would run for five hours a day, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and allow for a “humanitarian corridor” so that civilians could leave, although its location was not announced.

Britain, a permanent member, and 115 countries have expressed support for that proposal. “It is time, for the love of mercy, that China, Russia and the United States join them,” al-Hussein said. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which is based in Paris, said that within 24 hours of the resolution’s approval, two more hospitals in eastern Ghouta had been hit by airstrikes. It added that there were 31 attacks on 26 medical facilities in the week that ended Sunday. At least 541 people were killed and thousands wounded in that time, it said.

“I am ashamed of the U.N. Security Council,” Ziad Alissa, the organization’s president, said in a statement. “The most powerful nations in the world are unable to enforce the most basic standards of human rights. Failure to enforce these resolutions calls into question the very reason for this process. They are disconnected from reality.”

Syria’s director of forensic medicine, Dr. Zaher Hajo, told Syrian news outlets that 36 people had been killed by rebel mortar shelling in Damascus and government-held suburbs “in the past few days,” among them women and children, and that 200 had been wounded.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported that mortar shells fired by the rebels had fallen on facilities belonging to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent near Harasta, a government-held suburb north of Damascus.