Nearly three years after protests erupted in Syria and the country descended into civil war, representatives for Bashar al-Assad’s government met with the Syrian opposition coalition on January 24, 2014, in Geneva for the first day of face-to-face peace negotiations.
Although the first few days of negotiations focused on humanitarian issues, the Syrian government’s blockade continues to prevent envoys of humanitarian aid from reaching civilians. Responding to opposition forces request for access to aid in Homs, “the government has said it needs to be sure the food and medicine will not go to armed groups or terrorists.” Day three of peace talks ended in what appears to be a step forward with the Syrian government, which agreed to allow women and children to exit the ancient city of Homs.
The government, however, conditioned the rest of the civilian population’s exit upon receipt of a list of the city’s male civilians. UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the government requested the list to “make sure they are civilians and not armed people.” This request raises serious concerns that the Assad regime would detain men as they left the city. Responding to these fears, an unidentified UN official stated that the situation “has the potential to be a sanctioned massacre.” Opposition forces raised further concerns, reminding the government that permitting women and children to leave the city was not a substitute for allowing humanitarian aid envoys to enter the city.
The city of Homs, known as the capital of the Syrian Revolution, was among the first to participate in the uprising against Assad’s government regime and, coupled with its strategic location in the middle of the country, has been a key battleground. Over eighteen months ago, the Syrian government sieged the city of Homs, cutting off access to food and medical supplies for roughly 2,500 people. After a week of negotiations, government forces continue to block humanitarian aid convoys from entering the city, raising concerns within the international community over civilian protection in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights laws.
The government’s blockade is inconsistent with Syria’s obligations under international human rights law as well as international humanitarian law, or the law of war. In ratifying the U.N. Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Syria is legally obligated to ensure the progressive realization of the rights enshrined in the Covenant, including Article 12, which provides the “right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” In addition, the Covenant further specifies that everyone shall be free from hunger under Article 12(2). Moreover, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clarified in its General Comment No. 15 that every individual has a human right to water which “entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”
Syria signaled its recognition of, and willingness to act in accordance with, the standards of international humanitarian law by ratifying the Geneva Convention (IV) on Protection of Civilian Persons In Time of War. Article 55 of the Convention establishes the government’s obligations, as the occupying power in the non-international armed conflict, to ensure the population has access to food and medical supplies. Hunger and starvation is widespread in the city, with reports of civilians scavenging for food in abandoned houses and, as residents told a BBC reporter, even eating grass to survive. Civilians taking no active part in hostilities are further protected under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which establishes the right to medical access for the sick.
Under Syria’s accession to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Assad’s regime may not set preconditions for male civilians to enjoy their right to leave the city. This conditional release is inconsistent with Article 12 of the ICCPR which establishes the right to unrestricted freedom of movement within a country. However, to fulfill its obligations in accordance with international human rights law and international humanitarian law, the government must still allow those who chose to remain in the city access to humanitarian aid.
The first round of negotiations came to a close January 31, 2014, without the government lifting its blockade, leaving Homs’ residents without the possibility of gaining access to food, water, and medical supplies until the next round of talks begin on February 10, 2014.