Syria peace talks in Geneva must open the doors for humanitarian assistance | ActionAid UK

Deepayan Basu Ray

Resilience and Emergencies Policy Adviser

The long-awaited talks aimed at bringing peace to Syria have been anything but peaceful, but if they can lay the ground work for humanitarian access to civilians in need of life-saving aid, then a modicum of humanity will have been restored.

Nessrine (not her real name) and her son are two of the 2.3 million refugees who have fled Syria since the fighting began
Nessrine (not her real name) and her son are two of the 2.3 million refugees who have fled Syria since the fighting began

A rocky start

The Geneva peace talks have been anything but peaceful. Tensions have run high, from the opening statements through to the more substantive face-to-face talks. One could not blame casual observers for thinking peace is but a pipe dream at this moment.

Why are the talks an important step?

The most important aspect of the talks is not the photo opportunities, the grandiose statements, or indeed the fact that in itself, the conference may not yieldpeace.The most important thing is that the talks have brought all parties to the negotiation table for the first time.  That is important because it is the very start of the process for peace and reconciliation.  And it is important because all that is wrong with the dynamics of this conflict have been bared for all to see – including those with high stakes. The global visibility of these dynamics will make it difficult for hardliners on all sides to continue justifying their positions and activities in perpetuity.

If nothing else, the Syria peace talks can usher in some changes to the mechanics of this conflict.

Syrian women

The complete lack of participation of Syrian women during the substantive conversations is plain for all to see – and is increasingly indefensible.  Syrian women stood shoulder to shoulder with Syrian men during the early days of the protests in 2011. Syrian women’s participation in brokering peace cannot be up for negotiation. Moreover, the international community is bound by the tenets of Security Council Resolution 1325 which necessitates the participation of women in forums precisely such as these.

Meaningful compromises

Tough and uncompromising statements were delivered by all sides. However, if these positions are seen as the outlying markers for the start of the conversation, then concession on all sides can only result in positives. Let me be clear — this is in no way an endorsement of any of the positions of any one party, nor is it an endorsement of the ongoing abhorrent violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by all aggressors in the conflict. It is however a means to establish meaningful compromises for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the more than six million Syrians who are in need of life-saving assistance inside the country.

Letting the aid in

The negative consequences of the intervention of external actors have been at the forefront of the Syrian crisis. But it has not all been negative.  Some US$3.5 billion was pledged to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at the recent donor conference in Kuwait.

There are already well over two million refugees living in appalling conditions in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey – and the UN estimates that these numbers will double by the end of 2014.  That’s four million children, women, and men – the equivalent of the population of Ireland or New Zealand. The international community must turn aid pledges into reality, and demand that humanitarian organizations can deliver life-saving assistance without any barriers to their access.

The Syria peace talks may not deliver on their explicit mandate to agree a transitional governing body for Syria. But to see the conference as a means to an eventual peace is by far the most positive narrative to leave with.

At the very least, if the conference can lay the foundation for secure humanitarian access to civilians in need of life-saving assistance, then a modicum of humanity will have been restored in a crisis that has spiraled out of control on a daily basis for the last three years.

ActionAid is delivering an emergency response programme in Jordan and Lebanon and has to date, helped a total of 48,635 of the most vulnerable people in need.

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Dalia Khamissy/ActionAid