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Homs evacuation is ‘crumb of comfort’ for Syrian civilians still trapped

February 7, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
In light of a three-day ceasefire in the war-torn city of Homs, Hari Sreenivasan talks to David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary and current president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, about what needs to be done to better protect Syrian civilians as the civil war rips the country apart.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And Hari Sreenivasan has more on this from New York.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Joining me now to discuss the humanitarian cease-fire is former British Foreign Secretary and current president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband.

So, do you think this sort of an agreement will hold?

DAVID MILIBAND, Former British Foreign Secretary: I think that it will hold for three days, because it’s in everyone’s interest that it does.

People talk already about the propaganda value, and it is a crumb of comfort for the poor 2,500 people trapped in the middle of Homs. The rest of Syria, four million in Aleppo, are asking, what about us?  When is the world going to show that it cares about our situation?

HARI SREENIVASAN: But how do possibly ensure that this many people can get out safely?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, the report I saw talked about two dozen. And they’re coming out in buses.

I mean, we have got a long history of this, of course. You remember the scenes even from Srebrenica in the ’90s of a trickle of people coming out while the war goes on. And the terrible thing about the Syria conflict — or the terrible things — is that we’re going back to the Dark Ages in the conduct of war, barrel bombs being dropped in the suburbs of great cities, 60 percent of hospitals destroyed.

It’s the dissolution of a country before our very eyes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, an agreement like this would be one of the only positive implications of the talks that happened in Geneva. They’re supposed to start up on Monday again. What are your expectations?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think that you don’t have to take my word for it.

You can take the word of the diplomats. The French foreign minister says he expects very little. None of the people going there are expecting them to end the war any time soon. But there is a parallel track. And that is, while they’re fighting the war, what about the civilians?

Because the very notion of a noncombatant, a civilian, is being lost in this war. We have got nine million displaced from their homes, three million refugees in neighboring countries. And it’s terrifying to say it, snipers targeting pregnant women in bread queues at conflict lines.

That is an indictment, not just of those who are doing it, but I would say also of an international community that has talked about international humanitarian law, but never backed it up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, you’re running an international humanitarian organization. How much of your agenda gets into this conversation that happens in Geneva and elsewhere about delivering polio vaccines or getting food to people or getting shelter?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, a little.

I mean, in the end, humanitarian organizations, we can stanch the dying, but we can’t stop the killing. And the primary aim of the conference, obviously, is to stop the killing, which is absolutely essential, evidently.

However, even over the last three years, an organization like the IRC, we have managed to get into Syria to help about between half a million — around half a million people access medical care. So even while the battle is raging, we try and get in, we try and get access.

But the truth is, this language of humanitarian access mistakes the point, really. It’s not — that’s a bit like saying that someone who is being strangled is suffering from lack of air, when the real problem is that they’re being strangled.

And what we have in Syria, across Syria, is a series of blockades that are being used as weapons of war. And that is a deadly serious situation, obviously, for the Syrians involved, but I would say for the U.N. Security Council, too. They passed a presidential statement in October which called for unimpeded medical aid and food aid.

No one has paid any attention to. So, there’s a mockery of the U.N. Security Council as well, as well a terrible immiseration of the people involved.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, you’re asking for a more binding resolution from the U.N. Security Council. So if the other previous statements have been made a mockery of, what’s the value in the U.N. making another proclamation? Or what’s the role of the U.N. here?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, there’s more than a proclamation. A U.N. Security Council resolution carries the value of international law, and that is an essential stepping up of the pressure, because the Syrians who we are helping inside Syria, the refugees who we’re — who I have met in the neighboring countries, they’re saying, does the world care enough about our country?

And, at the moment, the answer they’re giving to me is, you don’t care enough, because you’re allowing unspeakable horror to be practiced upon us. Yes, there’s a trickle of humanitarian aid, but we need a massive increase and that’s the big agenda that I think the U.N. Security Council has to address, because to get on the U.N. Security Council agenda, you have to be a threat to regional peace and security.

What is — what else could there be as a more drastic threat to regional peace and security than a country like Syria imploding in front of our very eyes?

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how difficult has it been to get aid in, considering that there are these sort of regional forces at work and global powers that are involved?

DAVID MILIBAND: It’s been very difficult indeed.

The biggest worry I have when I wake up in the morning is about the position of our aid workers, who are risking their lives in the work that they are doing cross-border. Very brave Syrian doctors will tell you that every time they come to a checkpoint, they fear for their own safety, never mind the situation of the civilians involved.

That’s an ongoing concern. But the humanitarian imperative is that whatever side of the lines civilians are on, we’re there trying to help them. That’s what organizations like the IRC and other aid organizations are trying to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, have all the parties been equally cooperative or uncooperative in letting you pass or letting that aid get through?

DAVID MILIBAND: No, I think it’s pretty evident that the greatest burden in terms of the humanitarian danger has been — has to be placed on the side of the government. It’s not just that governments are held to higher standards than nongovernmental organizations.

It’s that the overwhelming military power is in the hands of the Syrian authorities. There have clearly been abuses on the rebel side as well, or the multiple rebel sides. And it’s important to recognize that. But we have been able to work in rebel areas. We have been tolerated, if you like, by the different rebel groups.

And I think it’s very, very important that we recognize both sides have to be part of this bargain. However, in answer to the simple question, the greatest burden now lies on the Syrian government for their conduct of the war, because, as the U.S. representative at the U.N. said and as John Kerry has said, starvation is being used as a weapon of war. And that really does take us back to the Dark Ages.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Miliband, thanks so much.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you.