Syria's Ceasefire Is A Sign Of Hope, But We Must Not Look Away

Either we act, or we stop acting like we care.

15/09/2016 5:39 AM AEST | Updated 15/09/2016 5:34 AM AEST
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For every picture of Aylan or Omar that goes viral, shocking the world to attention, there are countless others that don't.

The announcement of a ceasefire in Syria, starting at sunset on September 12, to coincide with the holy day of Eid al-Adha, is a glimmer of hope, no matter how wrought with trepidation or deep the mistrust runs among all sides to the conflict.

For the United Nations and humanitarian groups engaged in the crisis, urgent lifesaving aid must be delivered for up to 1 million people who continue to live under siege throughout the country. There remains a need for sustained international pressure to ensure the ceasefire holds, with the hope of peace talks resuming. There also needs to be accountability mechanisms to address war crimes and human rights violations that have occurred since the uprising began in March 2011.

As a leading member of the US-led military coalition, the Australian Government must be a prominent voice in ensuring that the issue of impunity for war crimes is addressed.

For much of the world, the cost of the war in Syria has been demonstrated to the world by the image of a child. A year ago, it was the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as his family fled for safety in Europe. Again just recently, it was Omar Daqneesh, five, sitting stunned in the back of an ambulance, barefoot, covered in blood and dust.

For those who face deadly attacks on their homes every day, and for those rummaging through the wreckage for signs of life, the momentary outrage and sympathy has done little to stem the violence and bring about a resolution.

The crisis in Syria is not new. The world does not need more pictures of dead or dazed children -- either we act, or we stop acting like we care.

There are actions we can take, starting with holding our own leaders to account.

Earlier this year, a Turkish court sentenced two Syrian men, implicated in the drowning deaths of Aylan and four others, to four years in jail for people smuggling. The more serious charge of causing death by neglect did not stick.

Who will be charged for what has happened to Omar Daqneesh?

For every picture of Aylan or Omar that goes viral, shocking the world to attention, there are countless others that don't.

Meanwhile, Syrians continue to suffer amidst a war that has lasted more than five years. With the UN officially ceasing to count the death toll in Syria, other groups estimate as many as 400,000 deaths since 2011. Nearly 5 million refugees have fled to other countries in search of safety and survival. Another 6.5 million people have been displaced inside the country. UN agencies calculate 13.5 million people within Syria require humanitarian aid.

It's clear that the tangled matrix of warring parties in Syria will not be undone by wringing our hands in desperation. Inaction from political leaders on all sides is what has drawn out the crisis.

In the resulting chaos, competing parties, along with their allies, seem to lose any sense of the human cost of their political agendas, and the global public lose sight of the tragedy taking place every day -- until a child like Omar Daqneesh comes along to remind us.

What else is clear is that there is a humanitarian imperative and the need for accountability. After years of humanitarian crisis in Syria, aid agencies continue to face a major challenge: how to reach people living under siege, where heavy fighting puts aid workers in serious danger and relief supplies risk becoming a political tool.

The failure to hold those responsible to account has fueled atrocities from all sides. Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the UN Security Council to ensure effective implementation of key resolutions allowing urgently needed humanitarian aid and stopping the deliberate targeting of civilians. Just last month, a report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism confirmed the use of chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian regime in 2014 and 2015, and the use of sulphur-mustard gas by Islamic State forces. Yet the Security Council has again failed to agree on whether Syria merited sanctions.

By now it is also clear there will be no winner in this war, but many losers -- most of all the people of Syria, who have been killed by the thousands and scattered across the region by the millions.

So yes, this week's ceasefire is a sign of hope, but it's just a beginning. It's a long way to go to peace.

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