Russia has announced its decision to quit a voluntary UN agreement that aims to protect hospitals, medical facilities and humanitarian aid deliveries in Syria. Under the agreement, the locations of such facilities are shared with the conflicting parties in a bid to prevent them from being hit by air strikes and artillery fire.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution and the ongoing civil war since 2011, Russia has supported the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad militarily and has been accused of a variety of war crimes and human rights violations.
Earlier this year, while the regime's offensive to capture the opposition-held Idlib province was still ongoing, it was reported that Russian air strikes hit and shut down two hospitals in Aleppo. Last month, Amnesty International revealed Russia's role in the destruction of numerous medical facilities and other civilian infrastructure over the past year.
These war crimes were also acknowledged by the UN itself in September last year, when it detailed in a report how Russia – among other warring parties – had targeted health facilities. In a UN inquiry in April this year, however, it did not directly accuse Russia of hitting hospitals but only said it was "highly probable", leading to criticism of its reluctance to hold Russia to account.
Russia's Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia addressed his country's withdrawal from the agreement, saying that, "We do not see withdrawal as a threat to the humanitarian workers on the ground if information provided is accurate and trustworthy." This information will now apparently be forwarded to the Syrian authorities rather than Russia. The blame, Nebenzia claimed, lies with the "various 'opposition groups' and terrorists through their proxies" who "abused" the humanitarian and peace process.
According to a note by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Russia's withdrawal from the agreement would not allow it to stop abiding by the agreement's principles. It is still bound by international humanitarian law.
The UN Director for Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, warned: "If Russia thinks this will help them escape accountability for war crimes, they're dead wrong. We and other groups will continue to investigate and document the deliberate bombings of hospitals and other grave crimes in Syria."