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Kofi Annan reflects on the shocking images of children who have suffered in the Syrian conflict and asks whether the world has done enough, both in protecting civilians within Syria and those who have fled.


The photo of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy pulled from rubble in the Syrian city of Aleppo after a devastating regime airstrike, has shocked and touched millions of people worldwide and once again emphasised the suffering of innocent civilians in that country’s civil war.

It is impossible not to look at his picture and be reminded of an even more tragic image from a year previously – that of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned just off a Turkish beach in September 2015.

These children were victims both of a pitiless conflict that shows no respect for the rights of civilians, and the failure of the international community to either broker peace or effectively manage the massive flow of refugees the war has produced.

When the photos of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body appeared on newspaper front pages worldwide, many commentators declared that this would be a pivotal moment that would galvanise the world into action to stop the suffering and killing. But one year on, can we honestly say that this has been the case?

Syrian refugee mother in Lebanon (Credit: UNHCR/Jordi Matas)

The sad fact is that Syria’s war continues unabated despite the best efforts of mediators, including the UN Special Envoy Steffan de Mistura. The situation in Aleppo in particular should horrify us all. As The Elders said in their recent statement, the attacks on civilians and the city’s infrastructure are unconscionable and constitute war crimes.

All sides to the conflict must fully respect international humanitarian law. This is why we urge the United States and Russia, who are both involved in the war, to take the lead and work with other parties to ensure that open and sustained humanitarian access is urgently enforced.

These measures may lead to fewer scenes of destruction and suffering in Aleppo as endured by little Omran. But what of the other victims of Syria’s conflict – the refugees uprooted from their homes who risk death and hardship to find their way to safety? Have we done enough as a world to protect them and ensure their human rights are respected?

As a group, The Elders have been grappling with these questions. They formed the basis of our public discussions at the Graduate Institute in Geneva in October 2015, and again this May in a debate at London’s Overseas Development Institute.

In both discussions, we explored not only how to tackle the root causes of conflict but also how to change opinions and narratives in the rest of the world, especially in the most prosperous societies, to encourage greater solidarity and compassion towards refugees and migrants.

Syrian refugee child upset following a standoff between frustrated refugees and police. (Credit: UNHCR/Mark Henley)

This month we will launch a new report that sets out key principles on how the world should respond to the waves of refugees and migrants. We will present this report at meetings in Berlin, and also when we travel to New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

For The Elders, the refugee and mass migration issue is a question of ethical leadership – that quality which lies at the very heart of our mission. We hope that we can count on your support in our work on this subject. 

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