We in Sweden are not alone in our frustration at violations in the Middle East
Opinion piece in SvD 16 October 2016 by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs. The images of human suffering in Syria are heart-rending. Hospitals are bombed, and small children are dug out of the ruins. Humanitarian assistance is not getting through. It is unbearable to behold. The UN Secretary-General has likened Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, to a slaughterhouse and the bombs continue to fall.
In recent weeks, an aid convoy was attacked in an act of barbarity targeting the most vulnerable. It is an outrage that this is being permitted to continue. But without a political solution to the conflict, we cannot begin to work for peace. Together with the other European prime ministers and foreign ministers, we need to put pressure on the Syrian regime and on Russia.
Firstly, what is needed is an immediate ceasefire. Since the ceasefire was broken, the bombs have continued to fall and the chasm between the parties is considerable. Last weekend, Russian once again blocked the UN Security Council from approving a resolution to bring an immediate end to the fighting. A clear signal needs to be sent to the Syrian regime and to Russia. Russia is not only responsible for its actions on the ground in Syria, it is also the country with the greatest influence over the Syrian regime.
Secondly, the suffering of the Syrian people must be alleviated. In their efforts to defeat the opposition, the Syrian regime and Russia are exposing tens of thousands of civilians in Aleppo to indiscriminate violence, motivated by the fight against terrorism. As long as the bombs keep falling, people cannot access the humanitarian assistance – food, supplies and medical care – that the UN stands ready to provide. Since the crisis erupted, Sweden has been a staunch contributor to the UN-led humanitarian operations in Syria and its neighbouring countries. Over the last five years we have contributed a total of SEK 2.2 billion in addition to our substantial core support to the UN.
Last week, the EU launched an initiative for humanitarian access to Aleppo to ensure that aid convoys can reach those in need. The regime in Damascus must allow aid to reach all of the areas they have besieged and desist from removing medical equipment and medicines from the few aid conveys that are allowed in.
Thirdly, the issue must be raised of responsibility for the violations of international humanitarian law – the laws of war – and human rights. Both the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have stated that it is likely that war crimes, and possibly also crimes against humanity, have been committed. Chemical weapons and other prohibited, indiscriminate weapons have been used, entire cities have been besieged and starved into surrender, a UN aid convoy has been bombed, tens of thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained, and the systematic and extensive use of torture and sexual violence has reached almost industrial proportions. Responsibility for these disgusting acts must be investigated and international justice must be done.
Next week, two important meetings will be held in Brussels: first a foreign ministers meeting, then a summit of EU leaders. It is crucial that the EU agrees on a way forward. We also made this point when the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, visited Stockholm last Monday. We in Sweden are not alone in our frustration at the violations currently taking place in the Middle East. But our long-term aim must be for the UN Security Council once again to be able to do its job, and our support for the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura remains firm.
Since 1 October, Sweden has held an observer seat on the UN Security Council, and we are therefore following the discussions on Syria closely. On 1 January 2017 we will take a seat as a member of the Security Council for two years. The Security Council's scope for action on the war in Syria is restricted by the fact that one of the combatants – Russia – is a permanent member that therefore has the right of veto. This limits what can be achieved through the Security Council. Sweden will nonetheless try to exert an influence. In the long term, it is in the interests of every member of the international community to uphold the humanitarian law standards that have formed a part of the international security order since the Second World War. Ending the war in Syria and other conflicts will thus be the most important – and the most difficult – task of our term on the Security Council.
We will therefore seek alliances with countries both in the EU and on the Security Council to find ways of bringing about meaningful peace negotiations – with both women and men at the negotiating table – and, in the longer term, the reconstruction of a ravaged Syria. We have a frighteningly long way to go. But the images that are emerging from eastern Aleppo demand immediate and unwavering efforts from us, and from the rest of the world.