UN chief calls for immediate ceasefire in Syria’s war-battered north-west

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UNITED NATIONS, Feb 19 (APP):United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has sounded alarm over the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in north-west Syria, and called for an immediate ceasefire in the ongoing fight that has displaced more than 900.000 civilians since early December.

Guterres was joined in his call for an end to the hostilities by a host of other senior United Nations (UN) officials who on Tuesday expressed deep concern at the situation, particularly women and young children, many who have been displaced multiple times, are now dying in the freezing temperatures.

“Hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas. People are on the move in freezing temperatures in search of safety which has become ever more difficult,” the Secretary-General said in a statement issued by his Spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.

Amid clashes between opposition groups and Syrian regime forces backed by Russia and Iran, the UN chief called for an immediate ceasefire, and upholding of the international humanitarian law.

“There is no military solution. The only path to stability is a credible and inclusive UN-facilitated political solution pursuant to Security Council resolution 2254 (2015),” the statement concluded, referring to the Council measure that endorsed a road map for a peace process in Syria.

Since 1 January, the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has confirmed 299 civilian deaths in Idlib, as the Syrian Government continues its major military offensive to retake the last opposition-held area of the country.

In a statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed her “horror” at the scale of the crisis.

It was “cruel beyond belief” that mostly women and children sheltering under plastic sheeting were being hit, she said, noting that those fleeing the fighting have been “squeezed” into areas that were shrinking by the hour.

“They simply no longer have anywhere to go,” she added.
Asked whether the attacks on civilians and medical facilities contravened international norms, Bachelet’s spokesperson, Rupert Colville, highlighted their “sheer quantity” in the near nine-year conflict.

Other UN-appointed institutions had the means to investigate these attacks and ensure justice for victims, he noted, such as the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria – which was set up by and reports regularly to the Human Rights Council – and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, established by the UN General Assembly in December 2016.

“The sheer quantity of attacks on these hospitals, medical facilities, schools, would suggest they can’t all be accidental,” Colville said. “At a minimum, even if they were accidental, it shows lack of proportionality, necessity, precaution and so on, all of which can contribute to something being attributed as a war crime.”

Amid the Syrian Government’s offensive in north-west Syria – the last bastion of opposition non-state armed groups – UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that of the four million people living in the north-west, just over two million of them are children.

“Virtually every child, up to 1.8 million of them, require humanitarian assistance,” UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado said.

She added that of the more than 900,000 people forced to flee the escalating violence, “over half a million children – 525,000 and climbing – have been forcibly displaced in north-west Syria since 1 December.

At least 77 children were killed or injured in January alone. The breakdown is 28 children killed, and 49 children injured.”

In line with UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore’s assessment that the situation in north-west Syria has become “untenable”, Mercado reiterated the agency’s call for an end to the violence.

“We ask for an immediate cessation of hostilities and an end to the war in Syria for once and for all, and we ask for all humanitarian workers to be able to respond to the massive needs in compliance with international humanitarian law,” she said.