Stephen O’Brien said the council had failed in its responsibility to end the horror for children and families: ‘the buck stops with you.’ Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
theguardian.com – UN chief calls security council’s failure on Aleppo ‘our generation’s shame’ Humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien launches blistering attack on UN security council, and Russia in particular, for failing to stop the mass killing of civilians – Julian Borger World affairs editor
In a blistering indictment, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien called the failure of the UN security council, and Russia in particular, to stop the bombing of eastern Aleppo as “our generation’s shame”.
Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin reacted by denouncing O’Brien’s vivid account of the humanitarian toll in the besieged city as “unfair and dishonest”. In one of the most pointed attacks against a top UN official by a permanent council member in recent times, he told O’Brien to leave his comments “for the novel you’re going to write some day”.
Envoys from the US, UK and France came to the UN’s defence and heaped blame for the mass killing of civilians in Aleppo on Russia and its ally, the Syrian regime, as the Syrian conflict drove ever deeper divisions in the paralysed security council, and alienated Russia, currently president of the council, further from the UN relief and human rights agencies.
O’Brien invited the envoys at the security council to imagine themselves among the 275,000 people trapped in eastern Aleppo and under bombardment by Syrian regime and Russian planes.
“Let me take you to east Aleppo this afternoon,” O’Brien said. “In a deep basement, huddled with your children and elderly parents the stench of urine and the vomit caused by unrelieved fear never leaving your nostrils, waiting for the bunker-busting bomb you know may kill you in this, the only sanctuary left to you but like the one that took your neighbor and their house out last night; or scrabbling with your bare hands in the street above to reach under concrete rubble, lethal steel reinforcing bars jutting at you as you hysterically try to reach your young child screaming unseen in the dust and dirt below your feet, you choking to catch your breath in the toxic dust and the smell of gas ever-ready to ignite and explode over you.”
“These are people just like you and me – not sitting around a table in New York but forced into desperate, pitiless suffering, their future wiped out,” O’Brien said, describing himself as “incandescent with rage” over the security council’s passivity, said. “Peoples’ lives [have been] destroyed and Syria itself destroyed. And it is under our collective watch. And it need not be like this – this is not inevitable; it is not an accident … Never has the phrase by poet Robert Burns, of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ been as apt. It can be stopped but you the security council have to choose to make it stop.”
O’Brien added: “This council has been charged with the responsibility for ending this horror. The buck stops with you.”
“There is no question today about whether you, members of this Council, know what is going on – you clearly and tragically do. The question today is what you will do?” O’Brien asked. “If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save – that will be this council’s legacy, our generation’s shame.”
O’Brien condemned shelling of government-held western Aleppo by rebels which he said had killed least 100 people, including 17 women and 22 children, and injured 533. But he singled out the Russian and regime bombardment in theeast of the city as the “most sustained and intensive aerial bombardment campaign”.
“Aleppo has essentially become a kill zone. Since my last report to this council less than a month ago – 400 more people have been killed and nearly 2,000 injured in eastern Aleppo. So many of them – too many of them – were children,” O’Brien said.
The council was due to debate O’Brien’s report in a closed session, but Churkin said he could not let the UN official’s speech pass without an open response. “If I wanted to be preached at, I’d go to church,” Churkin said, drawing a riposte from his US counterpart, Samantha Power.
“Given what’s happening it would be useful if more people went to church,” she said.
Churkin’s accusation of dishonesty against a top UN humanitarian official triggered a slew of impromptu responses from western envoys.
Power called Churkin’s remarks “an attack on the UN” and derided the Russian claim that its air strikes on eastern Aleppo were aimed at terrorists, asking whether Russia believed the estimated 100,000 children in eastern Aleppo were also included.
“Is that want happens? You come out of the womb and you’re an al-Qaida member,” she asked Churkin. She held up a copy of a leaflet that has reportedly been dropped in large numbers on eastern Aleppo by Syrian and Russian planes.
“This is your last hope. Save yourselves. If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated,” the leaflet reads, ending: “You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help.”
The UK ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, said that O’Brien had stuck to the facts in his address, but turning to Churkin, he added: “The problem is they’re not facts you like.”
Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European council for foreign relations, said the level of rhetoric directed at a top UN official reflected a new level of contempt from Russia.
“Russia has been sharpening its claws for a while. Churkin recently dismissed Prince Zeid, high commissioner for human rights, for “overstepping the limits of his responsibilities” by criticizing Moscow’s use of the veto over Syria. But the sheer vitriol he aimed at O’Brien today was at another level,” Gowan said.
“Russia’s attacks on the UN system recall the Bush administration’s brutal treatment of Kofi Annan and his staff after the Iraq dispute. John Bolton [the US envoy at the time] accused Mark Malloch Brown of “illegitimate” criticisms of the American public, for example. But even Bolton kept his nastiest remarks for his memoirs.”
Russia and the Syrian regime resumed bombing of eastern Aleppo on Sunday after a three day pause, during which none of the planned evacuations of wounded civilians took place. O’Brien blamed both rebel groups inside the city and the Damascus regime for the failure.