Opening Remarks of Pascale Baeriswyl, State Secretary, at the Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting on Syria



Orateur: Secrétaire d’État, Pascale Baeriswyl

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Swiss government, I warmly welcome you to Geneva for this humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting on Syria.

I would especially like to thank the co-organizers of this event, Mrs. Erika Ferrer and the team from the European Union. I am grateful for our excellent cooperation in preparing this SOM and I also extend my special greetings to the representatives of the host countries.

Let me also welcome the new UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Geir Pedersen. We look forward to hearing your perspective on the peace process and I wish you and your team all the best in this complex and difficult undertaking.The war in Syria is a war of superlatives. The scale of the humanitarian crisis is daunting. The numbers are staggering. We know them by heart. That makes them not less shocking:

  • 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
  • 10 million people live in areas contaminated by mines and explosive remnants of war.
  • Millions require water and sanitation services.

Behind these numbers are human tragedies: Families, who find their homes in ruins, who lost or are missing loved ones. And many women and men, many boys and girls who live with the trauma and stigma of sexual abuse.

But behind these numbers we also witness the astounding resilience of Syrians: Syrians who, against all odds, are relying on their own resources to survive and rebuild their lives. It is an admirable capacity to find meaning in life in the most abnormal and horrifying circumstances. The Syrian people deserve our respect.

Let us be clear: the armed conflict in Syria is not over. Thousands of civilians are being displaced in the East of the country. In some areas, hostilities have calmed down. In others – such as Idlib and the North-East – we remain on the brink of further military escalation. We urge all parties to the conflict and all States with influence over them to do everything in their power to prevent a further escalation.

Switzerland recalls that the fight against terrorism can never justify violations of international law – be it in Idlib, in Afrin, in Deir ez-Zor or elsewhere.

As long as there is no peace, the humanitarian crisis will continue. As long as the causes of the conflict have not been addressed, the conflict will deepen and new ones will emerge. In these conditions, the winding down of hostilities in some parts of Syria can only be temporary. We therefore cannot pause our efforts. To the contrary, we need to seize this opportunity and relaunch the political process under UN auspices.

Let me use this occasion to reiterate and underline our full support to the UN peace process and the new UN Special Envoy, Mr. Geir Pedersen. We are honored to be the host of the Geneva process.

Convening a constitutional committee would be a first important step to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254. However, our efforts should not be limited to the constitutional dimension. We have to explore additional avenues to reinvigorate the UN peace process. One area that deserves immediate and urgent attention is the fate of the tens of thousands of detainees and missing persons. All parts of the Syrian society are affected. We remain convinced that any sustainable peace agreement needs to take this key dimension into consideration.

Durable peace cannot be achieved without an inclusive political process. Also, durable peace cannot be reached without accountability. The fight against impunity is an integral part of the Swiss engagement in Syria and worldwide. Grave violations of international humanitarian law continue to be committed in Syria by all parties to the armed conflict. These violations have to stop. All perpetrators of violations must be held accountable. Justice must be done.

I would here like to highlight the important work of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM). In addition, Syrian NGOs play a key role in documenting crimes in view of criminal justice processes and future endeavors on dealing with the past. We encourage all States to politically and financially support the work of the IIIM.

Both topics – accountability and the role of civil society – will play an important role in the Ministerial Conference in Brussels in March.

For Switzerland, three elements are crucial:

First: the search for a political solution.  

Second: the efforts for the promotion of international law and accountability.

The third pillar of Switzerland’s efforts is the humanitarian support to the people in Syria and in the neighbouring countries. This is the biggest humanitarian engagement in Swiss history. My country remains committed in 2019 and beyond. It is crucial that we are guided by the humanitarian mandate: People in need have to be supported irrespective whether they live in Idlib, Hassakeh, Rural Damascus, or in Dar’aa. We are also convinced that it is key to ensure that humanitarian action does not reinforce existing conflicts or contributes to the emergence of new ones.  

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today’s and tomorrow’s Senior Officials Meeting is dedicated to the humanitarian pillar of the international commitment to Syria. Let me raise a few points that are particularly important for Switzerland in this field:

Access is a basis and condition for humanitarian action. Over 1 Million people in Syria still live in hard-to-reach areas. These areas are not reachable due to different reasons: for instance, contamination by unexploded devices or ongoing hostilities. That said, in most cases, parties to the conflict deliberately deny access: Rapid, unimpeded and sustainable access to all areas in Syria must be granted immediately.

Aid needs to be delivered through all channels across the country where it is most needed. There are still millions of people in need, who can only be reached thanks to the renewed UN Security Council crossborder resolution. I take this opportunity to underline our support to the Whole of Syria approach and OCHA’s key coordination role.

Another challenge in Syria is the protection of civilians. Access and protection are most visibly linked in the makeshift settlement of Rubkan: Around 42’000 people are trapped in a desert area at the border to Jordan. Living conditions are worsening day by day. Access to food and medical care is limited. Recently, 8 children died due to extreme cold and lack of medical care. This calls for immediate action. Switzerland welcomes the last humanitarian convoy to Rukban. But this is not enough. We need a dignified solution for the displaced people stranded in this desperate settlement.  

The list of the protection concerns in Syria is long. Too long. The protection from and prevention of Gender-based Violence is a priority in the global engagement of Switzerland. Gender-based violence is used to instill fear, humiliate and punish. Women and girls are disproportionately affected; they face domestic violence, kidnappings, sexual harassment, early and forced marriages. But boys and men are also impacted. They are particularly at risk of sexual violence in places of detention.

This form of violence destroys a person from within. It also destabilizes families and destroys the social fabric of communities. Despite these grave consequences, the issue remains largely hidden from view. I am convinced that it is time we give GBV the attention and urgency it deserves. I am glad that we have the opportunity to do so in the session on “Protection of Civilians”.

Switzerland is not only concerned about the people in Syria, but also those that left for Istanbul, the Bekaa Valley, Azraq, Erbil, or Damietta. I recently visited Lebanon and saw with my own eyes how the country is affected by the conflict in Syria. Understandably, host countries and populations feel strained. Switzerland reiterates its appreciation for the tremendous efforts of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. These countries share the burden of the conflict in Syria.  

The number of Syrian refugees returning to their home country remains on a very low level, since the conditions for voluntary return are not in place. Surveys show that the majority of refugees do not intend to return to Syria in the near future. It is therefore imperative that the international community continues to support host countries and communities. Moreover, the international community needs to remain committed to UNHCR’s resettlement program.

Let me come back to the resilience of the Syrians: I mentioned earlier that they deserve our respect. My country strongly believes that all vulnerable people – refugees, returnees, IDPs or those that have never left their homes – need to be supported. In addition to life-saving assistance and protection, resilience and early recovery are an integral part of the humanitarian response. In such a protracted crisis, we have a responsibility to reduce aid dependency and assist men and women to earn their livelihoods. We have a responsibility to create prospects for their future.

Dear colleagues,

Humanitarians – Syrians and internationals – are tirelessly working on the ground in Syria under the most difficult security conditions. Against all odds of access constraints, bureaucratic hurdles and pressures from all sides. According to a study by Care, Syria is at the top of the list of deadliest places for humanitarian workers in 2017 and 2018. The protection of humanitarian workers, including medical personnel, must be upheld by all parties to the conflict.

Today, we are gathered in the city where the Geneva Conventions were developed and adopted. After 150 years, this body of law has not lost its relevance. These basic rules of international law are a reflection of the most basic human values and human dignity. They are not negotiable.

It is in this same spirit – the spirit of human values and dignity – that we wish the SOM to take place. In the end, the most important thing in humanitarian work is the difference we make in the lives of the Syrian people.  So this is your goal and your duty for this preparatory meeting. I wish you courage, energy and frank discussions for new solutions.

I thank you.