International Geneva's irreplaceable role on the humanitarian front

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

Once again, and in spite of extraordinarily difficult conditions, the humanitarians are rising to the challenge of responding to the devastating earthquake that struck the border region between Türkiye and Syria.

The UN announced this morning that it had successfully sent its first aid convoy across the border from Türkiye into opposition-controlled Syria. “This first shipment is a test,” said Jens Laerke, the spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). We want to “ensure that the road conditions are such that (the trucks) can drive,” Laerke told reporters.

The roads were damaged by the quake, putting at risk the only corridor approved by the UN to transport international aid into opposition-controlled territory in Syria, with Damascus keeping tight control over the humanitarian aid entering regions controlled by the opposition. In January, the humanitarian lifeline to more than 4 million people in the region was kept open by a unanimous UN Security Council vote, which approved an extension of the mechanism created in July of last year. Brazil, actively back at the multilateral table since Lula’s election, and Switzerland, newly elected for two years on the Security Council, were penholders of the resolution.

“This resolution allows humanitarian actors, particularly the United Nations and its agencies, to continue to reach those in need in a coordinated and carefully monitored manner,” said Swiss Ambassador Pascale Baeriswyl after the vote, adding, in words that have a new resonance today, that “rapid, unimpeded and sustainable access is needed.” At the time, the vote was also widely seen as a sign that, despite the war, the UN Security Council was not entirely paralyzed.

The response of humanitarian actors to the quake comes as another reminder of the irreplaceable role of the UN and other humanitarian organizations. This is the message that the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, stressed during his 2-day visit to Geneva; a trip on which he met the ICRC’s new president and decorated her predecessor, Peter Maurer. Germany is now the UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) third largest contributor.

For years, the humanitarian sector has already been stretched to the limits, trying to respond to multiple crises of tragic magnitude, with long-lasting conflicts in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. The pandemic added further stress; then war came to Europe, possibly testing the sector’s very resilience, forcing it to operate in a changed and fraught geopolitical environment.

And now the quake. Media are reporting on the tragedy from the ground, describing the reality of what UNICEF’s spokesperson James Elder called the “unimaginable hell” that children in the region are going through. Thousands have already died. More will.

The UN, OCHA’s Laerke said, “will bring as much aid into the northwest as possible.” The humanitarians are fully mobilized. Before rushing to label the UN a failure, as sometimes happens, take time to pause and think again. The trucks crossing Bar-al-Hawa are keeping hope alive.