The United Nations humanitarian chief appealed Monday for safe passage for civilians fleeing Ukraine and for humanitarians delivering urgent assistance to the country.
“The parties must take constant care to spare civilians and civilian homes and infrastructure in their military operations,” Martin Griffiths told the U.N. Security Council. “This includes allowing safe passage for civilians to leave areas of active hostilities on a voluntary basis, in the direction they choose. All civilians, whether they stay or leave, must be respected and protected.”
Efforts by the parties to evacuate about 200,000 people from the southern city of Mariupol collapsed on Saturday and Sunday. Each side blamed the other.
Griffiths also called for safe passage for humanitarian supplies going into conflict areas.
“Civilians in places like Mariupol, Kharkiv, Melitopol and elsewhere desperately need aid, especially lifesaving medical supplies,” he said, urging parties to respect their obligations under the laws of war.
“Third, we urgently need a system of constant communication with parties to the conflict and assurances to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid,” Griffiths said. “A humanitarian notification system can support delivery of aid at the scale needed.”
A small team of U.N. officials from the humanitarian affairs department have arrived in Moscow for talks with officials at the Russian Defense Ministry civil-military cooperation and the sharing of information for the safe delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Despite immense challenges and danger, the U.N. and partner agencies are scaling up their response and delivering food, water, medical supplies, blankets and other items in several parts of Ukraine.
No Russian guarantees
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield urged a sustained pause in hostilities to allow for the safe departure of civilians and the distribution of humanitarian supplies.
“We need Russia’s firm, clear, public and unequivocal commitment to allow and facilitate immediate unhindered humanitarian access for humanitarian partners in Ukraine,” she said. “Very specifically, we call for the Russian Federation to agree to and honor in good faith Ukrainian proposals for time-bound humanitarian safe passage in specific agreed upon locations.”
The U.S. ambassador also echoed the call for establishing a notification system to facilitate the safe movement of humanitarian convoys and flights.
Russia’s envoy claimed, without evidence, that it was the Ukrainian authorities who would not let civilians leave towns and cities via humanitarian corridors.
“We want to emphasize that safety for civilians in Ukraine is not a problem for Russia, because we are not bombarding them but rather Ukrainian radicals and neo-Nazis who are holding hostage whole towns and cities and are making use of citizens as human shields,” Vassily Nebenzia said.
He also said that offers for open humanitarian corridors to Russia had been ignored and dismissed by Ukrainian officials.
“Russia is advocating humanitarian corridors towards Russia,” French Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere noted. “I don’t know of too many Ukrainians who wish to seek refuge in Russia. This is hypocrisy.”
Ukraine’s ambassador said that Moscow was blocking attempts to evacuate civilians and disregarding the rules of war.
“They denied access of international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to the most affected places,” Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said. “It is even more appalling that the Russian troops open fire on evacuees and evacuation vehicles and shell the roads allocated for humanitarian corridors.”
He said Russian forces shelled a bus depot with evacuation buses near Mariupol and blew up a railway near Irpin, a suburb of the besieged capital, Kyiv.
‘A moral outrage’
The council also heard from Catherine Russell, the new executive director of the U.N. children’s agency. She just returned from a mission to the Romania-Ukraine border.
“What is happening to children in Ukraine is a moral outrage,” Russell said.
“I met with mothers and children who had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice,” she said of her trip. “They told me how it felt to leave everything you know behind. To leave husbands, fathers and elderly loved ones, not knowing when or whether they would see each other again.”
UNICEF says that half of the more than 1.7 million people fleeing Ukraine are children. Children have also been casualties of the conflict, with at least 27 confirmed killed and 42 wounded.
“Countless more have been severely traumatized. As the fighting has now reached densely populated areas and across the country, we expect child casualties to increase,” Russell warned.
The U.N. Human Rights Office says that since the start of Moscow’s invasion on February 24, it has verified 1,207 casualties in Ukraine, including at least 406 people killed. Most of the casualties were due to shelling, missiles and airstrikes. Real figures are likely “considerably higher,” the office says.