NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The war in Syria has undone 30 years of progress in humanitarian work and has sent a dangerous message that mass murder can be carried out with impunity, said former humanitarian chief Jan Egeland.
Egeland was the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator from 2003 to 2006 and now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council.
In an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation in Nairobi, he criticised the "systematic" denial of protection for civilians and aid workers in Syria and the lack of access to besieged communities.
"What we have seen in Syria is that the clock has been turned back 30 years. All of the advances we had, it’s like it’s erased in these two, soon to be three, years of horrific violence," Egeland said.
"We have created a totally horrific kind of precedent: that you can get away with murder at an unprecedented scale…. It’s worse than we have seen in 30 years."
The conflict has killed 130,000 people, driven more than a quarter of Syrians from their homes and devastated whole districts of cities.
Government restrictions, fighting and roadblocks have prevented aid reaching 2.5 million people in the north, while another 250,000 are trapped in besieged areas.
The World Food Programme has received reports of malnutrition-related deaths in regions under siege but it could not verify them without access.
On Saturday, an aid convoy came under fire in Homs during a fragile three-day ceasefire. The brief window of access to the rebel-held city was the first concrete result of peace talks launched two weeks ago in Switzerland.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said it was the first time they had reached the centre of Homs since it came under siege in mid-2012.
"This shouldn’t be a political negotiation. We have a right and an obligation to provide relief and provide protection to civilians," said Egeland.
"It is something that we have gotten through a century of case law, of precedents being created."
Egeland said paralysis within the U.N. Security Council and the international community has unleashed a "freefall" in Syria.
"It’s like impunity on an astronomic scale was created when the Security Council couldn’t agree on anything except the one positive agreement on chemical weapons," he said.
"There are enormous forces at play and there is nothing holding them back."
Syria's 2011 uprising turned into an armed insurgency after demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad were put down with force. The rebellion has descended into a sectarian conflict pitting regional Sunni and Shi'ite powers against each other and destabilising the wider Middle East.
At the Geneva peace talks, which resume on Monday, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has been pushing for agreement on aid deliveries and prisoner releases, hoping that progress on those issues could build momentum to address the far more contentious question of political transition.
Despite these challenges, Egeland said the situation can be reversed.
"We, as humanitarians, paint this bleak picture by putting out the truth as it is, without also saying that we have an enormous operation there in place; we can give relief to any area if we get access. It can be changed," he said.
"When I ask refugee children in our schools what they want to be, they want to be teachers and doctors and engineers. They don’t want to be militia members to seek revenge. They want to rebuild. There is hope."