The Global Protection Cluster alert on Aleppo: Too little and too late

PHAP member articles are written by members of the association in their personal capacity. The views expressed belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PHAP or any other organizations with which the author is associated.
18 February 2016

The Global Protection Cluster (GPC), a body chaired by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – the global lead agency for protection – issued an alert on Aleppo on 9 February 2016. This appears to be the first such alert issued by the GPC during the crisis in Syria.1

While bringing attention to the dire situation in Aleppo is of the utmost importance, the GPC alert is problematic on a number of levels. It does not adequately convey either the urgency of the current situation in Aleppo, or its far-reaching consequences. It is strikingly generic; lacking important details; and appears to have been hastily put together. There is no evidence of consultation with NGO members of the GPC Steering Committee or other organizations. The alert provides no real new information and no substantive guidance. Even the intended audience is unclear.

In sum, through the alert, the GPC seems to be minimizing the devastation caused by the actions of those committing atrocities in Aleppo, while focusing too much on encouraging humanitarian actors to be neutral. As regards Aleppo, the GPC seems to be failing to live up to its protection mandate.

Minimizing the severity of the situation on the ground

The siege and assault on civilians in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, clearly represents a major turning point in this war. Indeed, the events of the coming days and weeks may collapse the already hobbled international humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis.

However, the description of the situation as stated in the GPC alert is disturbingly misleading. To say that people are fleeing Aleppo due to "shelling and other fighting" obfuscates the fact that the overwhelming cause of destruction and death in Aleppo involves the indiscriminate use of aerial bombardment by barrel bombs and conventional weapons. The language of equivalency – language that appears to equate the actions by all parties as equally harmful – is so cautious that it distorts reality.

The alert also states that “life-saving assistance and relief” must be provided to civilians fleeing Aleppo, but fails to draw attention to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the city. This is a shocking omission.

A misplaced focus on neutrality

A key focus of the alert is to remind the reader that humanitarian principles must be respected. The intent appears to encourage humanitarian actors to observe neutrality and impartiality. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, “In order to be neutral, assistance must be aimed at relieving the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.”2

But neutrality does not require silence. Nor does it require that humanitarian actors acquiesce to the astonishing, protracted interference into the provision of humanitarian assistance that is being carried out by numerous factions within Syria, but particularly by the government of Syria, a U.N. member state. Neutrality does not require avoidance of facts. One is not violating neutrality by painting a clear picture of how civilians are suffering. In fact, failing to draw attention to the nature and severity of the violations seriously dilutes the assumed purpose of an alert: a call to action

If the alert is meant to sound the alarm to the general public, it presents a weak case for meaningful action. If meant to provide guidance to the protection community, it would be much more effective if it offered specifics regarding protection activities that include efforts to mitigate the effects of the massive displacement from Aleppo; highlighted the need to address the protection of civilians from aerial bombardment and other abuses; and provided advocacy ideas or guidelines.

Ongoing failures to protect

It must be clearly stated that the terrible dilemma faced by humanitarians in Syria has been caused by the actions of the combatants and the failure of the international community to stop violations or to exert significant pressure to end the conflict. U.N. humanitarian agencies have so far decided to stay the course in the hope of saving as many lives as possible.

But the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, has acknowledged that the Syrian government has ignored the majority of requests to deliver aid to besieged areas, with a success rate of 10%. The situation has only worsened, with 2.9 million reached in 2013 but only 620,00 in 2015. The estimated number of people in besieged or “hard-to-reach” areas is 4.6 million.3

Negotiations for access with the Syrian government have overwhelmingly failed. It is evident there is no intent to comply with binding resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Direct interference with aid is clearly intended to directly cause the deaths of civilians. Given these facts, continued engagement in negotiations indicates the serious co-opting of the humanitarian effort. There must be an effort to resist that which Antonio Donini and others describe as “instrumentalization.”4

Further, the failure to describe the massive violations taking place, focusing instead on the outflow of refugees, may well have contributed to a misdirection of effort to address the crisis. Instead of alleviating suffering on the ground, assistance has focused on stopping would-be refugees from reaching a place of safety. The UNHCR’s tendency to tout its rare successes in accessing starving populations, rather than highlighting its failures, is deeply troubling. Humanitarians should be shouting to the rooftops about these failures rather than attracting media attention to one-off – or on-again off-again – aid deliveries to places such as Homs, Madaya and elsewhere, where access and evacuations have served to facilitate political aims.

The role of the Global Protection Cluster

The GPC, curiously, has not issued previous alerts related to the steadily decreasing humanitarian access witnessed since the passage of U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring unimpeded access in Syria. Nor has it drawn attention to the ongoing, long term use of starvation tactics and the extraordinary level of mass detention, torture, summary execution, rape and other atrocities visited on the Syrian population.

Protection actors and other stakeholders look to the GPC for guidance that conveys the centrality of protection, and encourages meaningful, practical action as well as vigorous, appropriate, advocacy.

Protection activities as reflected in U.N./interagency strategic plans and other documents have largely been reduced to encouraging resilience and strengthening coping strategies for human beings who are being bombed and starved into oblivion. An increasingly technocratic approach to protection has, in the field-level observations of this author, resulted in a disturbing sense that U.N. and international nongovernmental organization staff are far removed from the immense suffering of Syrian civilians. This results in responses that largely focused on traditional humanitarian assistance. Such assistance is completely inadequate to meet current needs in Syria; does not accord with minimum standards for humanitarian response; and reduces planning to discussions about how to get stuff in as opposed to analyzing the methods and repercussions of aid. Widely touted efforts by the GPC to mainstream protection have only served to dilute the need to explicitly focus on what many agree is an obvious and overwhelming protection crisis, as opposed to a humanitarian assistance crisis.

Lessons for the future

Criticism of the U.N. humanitarian response in Syria is increasing, due to the perception that some U.N. agencies, the UNHCR in particular, have largely remained silent despite ongoing, deliberate obstruction of aid by parties with the clear intent to cause the death of civilians perceived to be the enemy. There is growing concern that some U.N. agencies have repeatedly compromised humanitarian principles in the face of demands by the government of Syria, and have permitted the government to edit their reports, thereby obscuring the facts.

While the documentation of specific atrocities, and the determination of responsibility for the commission of such acts, falls under the mandates of human rights bodies, the humanitarian community must offer information on the effects of abuses on the civilian populations, and carefully consider the form humanitarian intervention should take and the consequences of continuing failed approaches.

The low profile, exceedingly cautious approach to protection exhibited by the GPC and the UNHCR had led to a loss of trust in U.N. agencies with protection mandates. Credibility is rapidly evaporating. The effect on the reputation of the GPC and the UNHCR could undermine not only work in Syria, but elsewhere. This leads to serious questions about the approach that will be taken in other conflicts.


1 The alert appears as an addendum to this article and is also available at
2 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), The Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 1996
3UN says Syria ignored most of its request to deliver aid,” Reuters, 27 January 2016.
4 See Antonio Donini (ed), The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action, Kumarian Press, September 2012.


About the author

Diane Paul has been a researcher in the field of protection for the past twenty years and has conducted field work in some 20 countries. She has served as a consultant on the protection of civilians in armed conflict to several UN agencies and NGOs and was a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Bosnia. She was the principal author of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee publication Growing the Sheltering Tree: Protecting and Promoting Rights through Humanitarian Action and co-author (with Simon Bagshaw) of a joint Brookings-UN publication, Protect or Neglect: Toward a More Effective United Nations Approach to the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons



9 February 2016 GPC | Alert: People fleeing the fighting in Aleppo, Syria

Thousands of people are fleeing Syria towards the Syrian-Turkish border and inside Syria in order to escape shelling of Aleppo and further fighting. The situation is volatile and the numbers of people fleeing are changing. As Turkey is more strictly managing its border with Syria the number of people who can cross in search of refuge is reducing considerably and agencies are being asked to provide assistance within Syria, close to the border area.

The Global Protection Cluster’s key concerns are:

  • The humanitarian imperative requires life-saving assistance and relief
  • to be given to those fleeing Aleppo.
  • Nonetheless, in such circumstances, the GPC emphasises that humanitarian principles are paramount to safeguarding the integrity of the humanitarian response.
  • The GPC’s concerns about civilians fleeing Aleppo are heightened by the conspicuous and consistent lack of respect for IHL shown by the parties to the conflict in Syria.
  • Civilians need to access protection and humanitarian assistance where their safety and well-being can be assured. The GPC urges the Turkish Government to maintain open borders to those fleeing the conflict in Syria.
  • Turkey's long standing open door policy for Syrians was reiterated two days ago in London by the Prime Minister who said that his country's door is always open for Syrians.
  • The GPC encourages Turkey to continue to implement its open door policy
  • in such a way that Syrians fleeing the conflict find protection and assistance, with particular attention paid to vulnerable people.
  • Recognising the enormous responsibility that Turkey has shouldered in receiving millions of refugees, the GPC urges the EU and others to assist Turkey in delivering on its obligations to protect refugees from Syria.
  • The GPC and its partners on the ground stand ready to provide whatever assistance is needed.