Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the government of Bashar al-Assad has been trying to control humanitarian relief supplies into the country. An international law study claims it has no legal backing to do so.
The roads are lined with trucks full of relief goods that are denied transit. Drivers wait hours for clearance at checkpoints or are told to provide missing documents. Mobilized medical teams of international relief organizations assist sick or wounded people until they are driven away by government and opposition forces. The teams only take small amounts of medical supplies, just in case these should fall into the hands of armed militants.
That is how representatives of international relief organizations, speaking on condition of anonymity, describe the difficulties they encounter day for day in their work in Syria. Again and again, they find themselves reaching their limits, being harassed and prevented from doing their work, and having to take alternative routes to help people. The supreme principle of humanitarian aid - protecting civilians while remaining politically neutral - is no longer fully recognized by the warring parties, they said.
For this reason, many relief organizations now operate from neighboring countries to help Syrian civilians in need. From Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, they drive across the border to Syria - often without permission from the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
All humanitarian aid helpers must have their operations approved by officials in Damascus, even those operations are in regions no longer controlled by the government. And those helpers operating without approval risk having their license for providing humanitarian aid revoked.
In an open letter, an international group of prominent lawyers points to the legal limits to the obstacles and harassment of the Assad government in its dealing with the United Nations and participating humanitarian aid organizations. The letter was initiated by the international non-governmental organization "Crisis Action" whose mission is to protect civilians in armed conflicts.
No legal recourse
The letter is largely based on a study conducted by the Frankfurt-based international law expert Michael Bothe. In his study, Bothe came to the conclusion that the Assad government has no legal recourse for its action. And especially for its claim of having the right to authorize the work of aid organizations on Syrian soil, Damascus cannot invoke international law. The party with de facto control of a questionable area has that right.
Because the Assad government has lost control over parts of Syria, Bothe argues it cannot claim the right to authorize aid for the whole of the country. "If aid deliveries doesn't go through a part controlled by a party in the conflict, then this party has nothing to do with that and its consent is also not legally required," he told DW.
People in need also have the right to receive aid, and no party in the conflict can arbitrarily deny them aid or access to an organization providing it. "But a government is being arbitrary when it has lost control over an area yet claims the right to authorize aid in that area," Bothe said. "It doesn't have that right."
With their open letter, the study's authors aim to articulate their concerns about the escalating humanitarian catastrophe in Syria; they also view it as a legal appeal. "The letter calls on the director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, Valerie Amos, to take a bolder legal position - namely to say that areas not controlled by the government should be able to receive aid from neighboring countries without approval from Damascus," said Bothe.
Increasing political pressure
No one, however, expects a legally correct argument to persuade Assad to act otherwise but it does create additional political pressure, according to Bothe. The study also contributes to the UN Security Council political-legal evaluation process Syria has been subject to for some time.
"The legal argument naturally plays a role for the Security Council," said Bothe. "But I don't want to say it's the only factor." It is a component, he added, to increase political pressure on Assad and the other Syrian parties involved in the conflict. The added pressure, he argues, could be even greater if more of those responsible in the warring parties understood that it is a war crime to use hunger as a weapon against civilians. This could have significant personal consequences for them.
"If a Syrian leader were to enter Germany, the Federal Attorney General would be obligated to prosecute this person," Bothe said.