What is happening in Syria is “one of the most tragic crises” in the world, the UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations Barbara Woodward told Asharq Al-Awsat. In a wide-ranging interview coinciding with the World Refugee Day, the British diplomat warned against the failure of the UN Security Council to renew the authorization to send aid to 13 million Syrians across the border from Turkey, saying that would be like a "death sentence" for the Syrian people.
Dame Woodward, whose country is a permanent member of the UN Security Council sees Iran as "part of the problem," not only in Syria, but also in Yemen, where it continues to support the Houthis instead of joining the efforts by the UN, US, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UK to reach a settlement. A ceasefire would help move towards a political solution, and to deliver aid to 16 million Yemenis. She also touched on Libya, calling on Russia and Turkey to withdraw their forces and mercenaries from Libyan territories in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 2570 and what was stipulated in the agreements between the Libyans themselves.
Woodward also spoke of “great scope” of cooperation between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, both bilaterally and at the global levels, to tackle major challenges such as COVID-19, climate change, and development.
Here is the full interview with Ambassador Barbara Woodward:
Our region is battered with old and new conflicts, but Syria stands out - still - as one of the worst. The Security Council tried many times to stop this war, and failed. Now there is a new administration in Washington, and of course, the summit between Presidents Biden and Putin, do you see any hope?
- You are right, Syria is one of the world's longest-running conflicts, and as we approach World Refugee Day, one of the world's most tragic refugee crises. It's one that the Security Council discusses three times a month, whether the political situation, the humanitarian crisis, and the use of chemical weapons. But the new administration in Washington has bought, I think, a breath of fresh commitment to trying to find a resolution. I know the US Permanent Representative, Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield, has just been to the region to see for herself the situation in Syria, and it remains very disturbing that 13 million Syrians are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, which a UN operation is doing its very best to reach into help. And that's what we'll be discussing in the Security Council next month, how we can in the face of this humanitarian crisis, as a first step, get more humanitarian aid to 13 million Syrian refugees, I mean that's more than the population of Riyadh or London, there are 2 million children in that group of 13 million. So that's why we want to see more crossing points, open for humanitarian aid, why we're calling for a ceasefire, and why we want to work towards a political solution.
But now it is all hanging on whether Russia would accept, or not accept, to keep at least this border line open for the humanitarian aid. Do you have any hints from your Russian colleagues, whether they're going to allow it this time?
- I know that it was something that was raised during the summit between President Putin and President Biden, but I don't have any hints at the moment. To be very frank to close the border now would be a death sentence for the Syrian people. So, a vote to close the border or a veto on the resolution would frankly be playing politics with the lives of Syrians, with the health and security of the region. This is about food aid, humanitarian aid, it's about getting COVID vaccines in to people stuck in northwest Syria. So I very much hope that the Russians will see the importance of not just keeping open the Bab ell Hawa crossing, but actually reopening crossings at Yaroubia at Bab el Salam, because what we've seen over the last year is that one crossing is not enough. And with the conflict continuing there's at least 20% more people, now, in need of humanitarian aid than they were before...So we will be talking very closely with the Russians in the weeks in the run-up to this crucial vote.
Besides the dire humanitarian situation for the Syrians themselves, neighboring countries like Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, have been facing significant challenges with refugees, how would you propose that the international community help with this issue?
- This is a very topical question for World Refugee Day, the neighboring countries are carrying a huge burden of refugees, and that's why we in the UK are so committed to helping the UN humanitarian programs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (Filippo Grandi) who I saw only last week in order to ensure that we can bring immediate aid to refugees and then work towards ceasefires and political solutions that will find a way forward for people out of refugee camps.
Let’s be straightforward, do you see Iran as part of this solution or this problem? So where do you put Iran in this game?
- Iran has huge potential to be part of the solution, not just here, but also in other regional conflicts, but I have to be very frank and say, up until now, Iran has seemed more part of the problem with their support to the Houthis for example, with regional destabilization, with ballistic missile tests. And so we very much hope that Iran could return to playing a constructive role in the region, which would help a great deal, I think.
I’m going to move to Yemen. But before that, when it comes to refugees, what are your thoughts also about Lebanon specifically?
- The neighboring countries are shouldering a huge and enormous burden of refugees and that's of course terrible for the refugees themselves. So I think it's very important to try and work through some of these critical questions that refugees bring, not just in Lebanon, but in the neighboring countries and genuinely around the world at this stage.
As you just mentioned, Yemen is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world as well. We saw a lot of efforts recently from the United Nations, from the United States, from Saudi Arabia, from the United Kingdom, and others, but nothing bears any fruits. Do you see Iran playing a constructive role in this conflict?
- In Yemen, we see 16 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, a long-standing conflict (...) so Iran, I think, is not contributing to helping find a ceasefire to moving towards a political solution to getting aid into Yemen. And as you say we very much welcome the efforts of Saudi Arabia, the efforts of Oman, to try and find a way forward in this and as Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy said to us. He has tried multiple ways to bring the parties to dialogue to see a ceasefire, to open up the ports of Hodeidah, to open the airport at Sanaa, to find a resolution to the Safer oil tanker which is effectively rusting and could spew out over a million barrels of oil into the sea. So there's a huge number of intersecting problems I think here. And again, it would be very helpful if Iran could play a constructive role but most importantly I think if the Houthis could agree to a ceasefire, and step away from this persistent violence; like the ballistic missile attacks 10 days ago in Maarib, also, the attack on a Saudi school, none of that is helping towards a ceasefire and a solution.
Now, I understand there are three contenders to replace Martin Griffiths, among which there is one British. Are you pushing for a British replacement for Martin Griffiths?
- So we very much welcome the unstinting efforts that Martin Griffiths has played along with so many actors in the region, including the recently appointed US Special Envoy Tim Linderking. I think the most important thing is that the person who succeeds Martin has his patience, his determination, his resilience, and his creative ability to try and find solutions to this. So the most important thing is for the Secretary-General (António Guterres), whose decision this is to appoint someone who has those skills and those qualities.
Should the replacement follow the same approach?
- We’ve seen the arrival of Tim Linderking for example, bringing new ideas (...) we've seen a number of creative advances from both Saudi Arabia, and from Oman. So I think there's, there's always scope for new approaches for the situation that is both evolving and deteriorating. At the same time.
I will move to Libya. This is a country also that the UK is the Penholder for in the Security Council, and are you hopeful now about Berlin 2 conference? And what are the next necessary steps in the political roadmap and the role that the UN has been playing to try to ease the remaining problems?
- We're looking forward to the Berlin Conference on the 23rd of June, I think it will be an important opportunity to take stock. There has been, I think progress in many areas, and we very much welcome the appointment of the new Special Envoy Jan Kubis and the arrival of the UN monitors, all to prepare for the elections in December, but the really critical thing in line with the Security Council resolution 2570, the really critical thing now is to see the foreign forces who remained in Libya, leave Libya. That's in line with what the Libyans have asked for. These foreign forces are destabilizing the situation, so they're not helping move towards peace and stability and move through to the electoral process. So we very much hope that Berlin will be able to discuss this and perhaps find a way forward to see the foreign forces out of Libya.
Again, there is always the Russian role, besides the Turkish role and that of others in providing new mercenaries, arms, and other stuff in this conflict. So do you see any hopes that Russia might cooperate to solve this problem?
- It’s clear that the people of Libya and the Provisional Government of Libya, want the foreign fighters to leave in line with Security Council resolution 2570 (...) so Russian forces must leave, and it's equally important that Turkish forces leave too, so I think that's the critical thing we need.
In Tigray, you said recently that the situation is worsening and probably there's going to be a man-made famine if the international community doesn't do anything. So, what do you think should be done to prevent famine and worsening the crisis there?
- I think you're completely right, the tragedy here is that this is a man-made famine. This is not about drought or locusts. This is a man-made famine, it's created by decisions taken by people in power, and it can be averted by the decisions of people in power. So the critical thing is for the Eritrean forces to withdraw. We agreed that that should happen back in March and we've now got to June, and there's no sign that it has happened so that is the most important thing that we need to see. And then of course, with 350,000 people at high risk of famine, and millions more at risk of food insecurity. The critical thing is to get food aid into the Tigray area (...) And then, what becomes critical is that we can somehow, reverse the lack of planting this year, which means that without it next year there will be famine too. So, the withdrawal of the Eritrean forces, and then the decisions by people in power to allow humanitarian aid I think are the two critical things.
In all the conflicts that you mentioned, we saw grave violations of human rights. Do you think that we can do anything without accountability in these countries?
- I think your point about human rights is very important for my foreign secretary (Dominic Raab). So one of the things that the UK has been doing has been imposing what we call Magnitsky sanctions on individuals who are responsible as we understand it for some of these violations, so we've done that in Myanmar, we've done that with respect to the situation in (Muslim-majority) Xinjiang. So, this accountability question I think is very important. And it's not just bilateral. We've seen this week Karim Khan start as a judge at the International Criminal Court, so we have international bodies to enforce accountability.
How do you see the future of the UK-Saudi relationship?
I think that's probably the area of expertise for our respective ambassadors, but I think we've had some very successful visits recently, as well as very successful high-level dialogues between our two capitals. Also, we've got strong bilateral cooperation, as well as strong multilateral cooperation, so we'll see the G20 foreign ministers meeting shortly next month, as part of our multilateral cooperation. I very much hope that we can continue to work together on tackling COVID, making contributions to Covax, working together on climate change, eliminating fossil fuels, and finding technical solutions to support some developing countries in mitigation and adaptation to climate change, as well as working together in many other areas, including development and financial assistance. I think there's a lot of scope for us to work together.
And last but not least, can you say something about the meetings that happened in the UK, like the G7, NATO and EU in Brussels, and the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva? Do you see a new atmosphere in the international community to take collective action to improve the situation in the world?
Yes, I think there are two very strong positive elements here. The UK was delighted to host the G7 Summit, which was, of course, the first in-person summit that the world has seen for more than a year. To bring together the leaders of countries that represent two-thirds of the global economy, I think, was a very significant achievement, and to see those leaders, to commit, both to aid for COVID to expand the vaccine program, to commit to further developments towards climate change, and commit to open societies and democracy, I think is a very strong statement indeed about the power of the G7 and the role that the UK is playing. Now that we've left the European Union, we remain as permanent five members of the United Nations, as members of NATO leaders of Commonwealth, we remain as we say, global Britain, a force for good in the world. And I think that global Britain force for good comes alongside the new approach of the administration of President Biden, we've heard them say very clearly that the United States is back, and that the United States is back as a multilateral player...
All this, I think, shows the important dynamic that the US is bringing to global affairs.
So I think there are some positive trends, but we need those positive trends because we do have some very big problems to solve. COVID and climate change being the most obvious ones, but there are also underlying ones like economic inequality, development, and lack of progress with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, so we do need to work together, multilaterally in the G7, in the G20 with Saudi Arabia, and in other international fora such as the UN, to try and solve these problems.