GENEVA (10 November 2017) – The Government of Syria must allow the urgent evacuation of more than 430 patients trapped in a besieged rural area on the outskirts of Damascus, two UN human rights experts* have said.
Humanitarian supplies including food and medical supplies must also be allowed to reach hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the Eastern Ghouta area, said the Special Rapporteurs, building on the recent statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the suffering of civilians in the region.
“We remind the Government of Syria of its obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, to care for the sick and wounded in Eastern Ghouta, and to ensure that medical resources and other vital supplies can safely reach the area,” said the experts.
“The obstruction of access to adequate health care for an estimated 350,000 civilians who have been under siege for four years is a clear and repugnant violation of the right to health.
“We call on the Government of Syria to immediately allow the medical evacuation of all the most urgent cases, and to ensure the safe and sustained humanitarian access required to allow food and medical supplies to enter the area for patient treatment.”
The experts said 435 patients had been identified as being in need of medical evacuation, including a number of children aged under five. Seven people are reported to have died since August 2017 while awaiting government authorization for evacuation. Only eight patients had been brought to safety over the same period, they noted.
“A list of the 28 most urgent cases for evacuation - all of them patients needing care not currently available in Eastern Ghouta - was shared with the Government of Syria by the UN humanitarian leadership on 27 October,” said the Special Rapporteurs.
“We understand there has been no real progress to date, even though preventing the sick and wounded from being evacuated is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law.”
Since the early days of the government-imposed siege in October 2013, civilians in Eastern Ghouta have suffered multiple violations of their human rights, including repeated deliberate targeting of health personnel and facilities and a variety of obstructions to access to health care.
Clinics and hospitals can no longer cope with the needs of the civilian population, supplies for trauma and non-trauma cases are running out, basic medicines and drugs used to treat chronic diseases are lacking, and the only hospital department performing kidney dialysis is struggling to continue treating patients.
Care for patients in need of surgery is also limited, as for some months the Government of Syria has reportedly been banning or removing surgical materials and other medical supplies from convoys.
The area’s medical units and health staff have come under attack 15 times since the beginning of 2016, according to data from the Health Cluster, killing at least six health workers and injuring 21. One third of health facilities are no longer fully functional, while others are facing shortages in health personnel and medical supplies.
Armed opposition groups controlling the area are also restricting the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate, for example by exerting pressure on medical personnel, taking over certain stocks managed by relief groups, and trying to control the distribution of aid.
The area was designated as a “de-escalation zone” in the agreement brokered in May 2017 by the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran, which was designed in part to guarantee unhindered medical evacuation and humanitarian aid delivery.
The experts said that alongside the issue of health care, the rapid depletion in food supplies was also causing serious concern.
“Delivery of goods and supplies has been severely restricted in recent months, sending food prices soaring. Drinking water, electricity and fuel are scarce, and the approach of winter will seriously impact food security, especially for households already struggling to meet their basic daily food needs,” they said.
“Siege tactics lead to the routine violation of numerous rights – health, freedom of movement, food, education, and often the right to life,” they added.
The two Special Rapporteurs urge all parties to the conflict, and not just the Government, to respect the human rights of civilians in Eastern Ghouta.
“Armed opposition groups and any de facto local authorities must abide by their obligations not to take steps which deprive civilians of items essential for their survival, and to facilitate the work of humanitarian groups and ensure that those in need can access relief aid without discrimination,” the Special Rapporteurs added.
“We further call on the Government of Syria, guarantors of the de-escalation zones and all others exercising de facto authority over territory in Eastern Ghouta to respect and protect the rights to health and food of all under their authority and to ensure that civilians have access to adequate medical care,” the UN experts concluded.
*The UN experts: Mr Dainius Pūras (Lithuania), Special Rapporteur on the right to health; and Ms Hilal Elver (Turkey), Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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