NEW YORK/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Russia said on Thursday it has quit a voluntary United Nations arrangement that aimed to protect hospitals and humanitarian aid deliveries in Syria from being hit by the warring parties.
Russia made the decision following an internal U.N. inquiry in April found it was “highly probable” the Syrian government or its allies carried out attacks on three healthcare facilities, a school and a refuge for children in northwest Syria last year.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused “various ‘opposition groups’ and terrorists through their proxies” of abusing the humanitarian deconfliction process. Russia believed the United Nations should give any relevant information to Syrian authorities, he said.
“We do not see withdrawal as a threat to the humanitarian workers on the ground if information provided is accurate and trustworthy,” Nebenzia told Reuters.
Russia has provided military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, which erupted after Assad cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in 2011.
Russia and Syria have said their forces are not targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure and have long-questioned the sources used by the United Nations to verify attacks.
Under the U.N. deconfliction arrangement, the locations of U.N. supported facilities and other humanitarian sites like hospitals and health centers had been shared with the warring parties in a bid to protect them. However, the United Nations has questioned whether it made them a target.
In a note to aid groups, seen by Reuters, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) confirmed Russia’s withdrawal.
“The United Nations is concerned about the withdrawal of the Russian Federation from the notification mechanism and is examining the implications of this decision for humanitarian personnel and operations in Syria,” the U.N. note said.
The United Nations said in the note that it would discuss the situation further with Russia. It also said all parties - whether they participated in the deconfliction arrangement or not - were still bound by international humanitarian law.
“If Russia thinks this will help them escape accountability for war crimes, they’re dead wrong,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director for Human Rights Watch. “We and other groups will continue to investigate and document the deliberate bombings of hospitals and other grave crimes in Syria.”
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool