Trevor Keck is the Deputy Deputy Head of Communications and Public Affairs in Washington DC.
People in eastern Aleppo are living through “hell on earth,” the ICRC`s spokesperson in Syria told CNN last week. Hostilities have only intensified on both sides of Aleppo since then. Nowhere and no one is safe in Aleppo. Hundreds of people have been killed, and many more wounded by mortars, rockets and bombs pounding the city over the last month. Hospitals and doctors have come under fire, leaving many wounded people without access to medical care, and food stocks are running low.
Aleppo is also experiencing severe water and power cuts. The Aleppo power supply has been severely damaged in recent days, and consequently all water pumping stations stopped functioning. Most of the population is now relying on boreholes or wells, which present certain health risks and is not sustainable for a population of well over a million. Colleagues on the ground tell us that people are terrified and traumatized by the fighting, and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.
Given the intensity of the fighting and the use of siege tactics in Aleppo, there have been discussions around the establishment of evacuation routes or corridors that could provide safe passage to civilians that wish to escape hostilities. This is not the first time that such an idea has been proposed in Syria or other hotspots, and the ICRC has some experience in facilitating safe passage of civilians at-risk. As such, there are clear “best practices” when it comes to humanitarian evacuations.
The ICRC has welcomed any initiative that can give civilians respite from hostilities in Aleppo and allows them to leave for safer areas. But, corridors need to be well-planned and implemented with the consent of all parties to the conflict. This point is critical. For a humanitarian evacuation or corridor to be successful, all warring factions on the ground in Aleppo need to agree to allow civilians safe passage.
Further, all civilians, including those that choose to stay, must be protected from any attacks, and humanitarian agencies must be allowed to reach and assist them. For this to happen, the ICRC has proposed the establishment of daily humanitarian pauses, or temporary cease fires, that allow humanitarian agencies to reach civilians in need and enable evacuations of civilians and the wounded that wish to leave.
At the same time, the ICRC has called upon those fighting in Aleppo to deescalate the fighting, stop indiscriminate attacks and comply with international humanitarian law (IHL). Typically, humanitarian corridors, evacuations and other “last resort” measures are called for when fighters are not adhering to the rules of war. IHL lays down clear rules on humanitarian access and that protect all civilians in Aleppo. The most important rules are those of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack. Respect for IHL by those involved in the fighting would prevent many civilian casualties and may reduce the need for civilians to seek safety elsewhere.
As we said last week, this has to stop. For the sake of people suffering immensely in Aleppo, let’s hope that we soon see a de-escalation of hostilities, daily humanitarian pauses that can offer relief, and a commitment by all sides to allow all those that wish to leave Aleppo to do so safely.