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UN expert urges action to protect millions living in besieged and hard to reach areas in Syria

GENEVA (4 August  2016) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius  Pūras, today urged all parties to the conflict in Syria to take all necessary steps to protect the rights of people in besieged and hard to reach areas and to allow rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. He also called for the safe and unhindered evacuation of civilians who wish to leave.

“While this is subject to the parties’ right of control, they may not arbitrarily withhold their consent to the provision of such assistance under international humanitarian law,” Mr.  Pūras stressed. “They are absolutely prohibited from depriving civilians of basic goods such as food or medical assistance needed for survival. All people in Syria must have their fundamental human rights guaranteed.”

According to official UN figures, more than five million people live in areas of Syria that the UN has classified as ‘hard to reach’. Of these, almost 600,000 people live in 18 besieged areas in Syria, 15 by the Government of Syria or its allies, and three by armed opposition groups or the so called ISIL.

Opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo approximately 250,000 civilians are completely encircled and at risk. On 28 July, the Aleppo governor was reported to have announced the opening of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave eastern Aleppo if they wish, although developments since that time remain unclear.

“Actions by the Government of Syria in recent months to approve an increased number of humanitarian convoys to besieged and hard to reach areas must be sustained and expanded to address the appalling situation there,” the independent expert said.

The UN Special Rapporteur expressed particular concern for people not involved in the fighting who are nonetheless trapped inside, emphasising that they must be able to access adequate goods and services needed to realize their rights, and not be subject to unreasonable restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Sieges impositions prevent residents from leaving besieged areas, with only very limited exceptions such as civil servants or students sitting examinations. The entry of commercial goods is heavily restricted and, in many areas, there are no functioning markets.

In areas besieged by the Government of Syria or its allies, humanitarian agencies cannot deliver assistance without its approval, a cumbersome procedure subject to rejections and delays. The town of Darayya in rural Damascus was subject to airstrikes and ground strikes following the last delivery of humanitarian assistance in June. Armed groups also deny convoys’ access to areas they put under siege, and the UN has received reports of ISIL executing those caught smuggling food into such areas.

“Residents are unable to access adequate food for their daily needs in many besieged areas, where UN agencies have estimated hundreds of cases of malnutrition,” the expert said. “They also struggle to access safe, clean water, and in some areas residents are drinking highly polluted water with harmful chemicals that have significant health risks.”

Access to healthcare is also limited. Medical facilities in besieged areas routinely lack qualified personnel, equipment and basic medical supplies, and reportedly the Government of Syria frequently prohibits the inclusion of surgical and other medical supplies on convoys or removes them while in transit.

This situation is further exacerbated by the strikes that have left many health facilities non-functional. Authorization for medical evacuation is exceptional. The UN has received credible reports of patients who died in besieged areas due to the lack of available medical treatment, including those waiting for evacuation.

“The physical and mental health implications of remaining trapped in besieged locations are severe,” Mr. Pūras highlighted. “UN teams entering Darayya town in June were informed that many children had stopped talking due to shock, and that others suffered from hearing or visual impairment due to the explosions and to spending prolonged periods underground during regular bombardments.”

“All human rights, - including the rights to life, to health, to food, to water, to education and to freedom of movement must be protected in Syria” the Special Rapporteur concluded.

The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to help States, and others, promote and protect the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Mr. Dainius Pūras (Lithuania) is a medical doctor with notable expertise on mental health, child health, and public health policies. He is a Professor and the Head of the Centre for Child psychiatry social paediatrics at Vilnius University, and teaches at the Faculty of Medicine, Institute of International relations and political science and Faculty of Philosophy of Vilnius University, Lithuania. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/SRRightHealthIndex.aspx

The UN 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, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council 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.

UN Human Rights, country page – Syria: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/MENARegion/Pages/SYIndex.aspx

For further information and media requests, please contact Ms. Lucía de la Sierra (+41 22 917 9741 / ldelasierra@ohchr.org)

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