In memory of my friend Jo Cox, the White Helmets must win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize

When fighter jets and helicopters drop cluster munitions, barrel bombs, phosphorus and chlorine, instead of heading for the shelters the White Helmets head towards the devastation to search for people and rescue them from the rubble

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As we survey the international catastrophe that is Syria today and reflect on the uncomfortable analogy between the UN’s failure and humiliation at the hands of Russia and the defeat of the League of Nations in the 1930s at the hands of Germany and Italy, the tiniest glimmer of light comes from the Syrian civil defence organisation the White Helmets.

These brave Syrian men and women pull their dead and injured from the rubble after Russian and Syrian air force raids have taken place. They have saved more than 62,000 lives. They are unarmed and neutral rescue workers and about 150 of them have lost their lives trying to save the lives of others. They are modern-day heroes.

That is why my friend and former colleague Jo Cox with whom I chaired the all-party parliamentary group, the Friends of Syria, was so keen so nominate the White Helmets for the Nobel Peace Prize which will be awarded tomorrow. Many people across the world have supported this nomination with enthusiasm.

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The efforts of the White Helmets may seem tiny in the overall scheme of things – though not if you are one of the innocent people who they are trying to rescue, often with their bare hands. But they represent extraordinary human bravery and resilience in the face of monstrous barbarism. When fighter jets and helicopters drop cluster munitions, barrel bombs, phosphorus and chlorine on communities and hospitals – undoubtedly a war crime and against all international humanitarian law – instead of heading for the shelters the White Helmets head towards the devastation, death and destruction to search for people and rescue them from the rubble.

Syrian White Helmets number no more than 3,000. They come from all walks of life. They are students, engineers, young and old. They are magnificent, not least because they embody a spirit of civic resistance. There is something noble, indeed inspirational, about their actions and solidarity in the face of state sponsored terror. And they are truly humanitarian. They do not take sides. They have saved the lives of soldiers fighting for the regime, Iraqi Shia militia men fighting for Assad, as well as Hezbollah fighters. They have received funding equipment and supplies from many different sources including the London Fire Brigade.

The White Helmets understand more than most how essential a no fly zone or safe havens are to protect the lives of wholly innocent Syrians so grievously let down by the international community. Meanwhile the much vaunted Responsibility to Protect (R2P) stands as a silent outraged reminder of this abject failure – the contemptible inactivity of the international community allowing, in 2016, the wholesale destruction of an ancient civilisation in Aleppo and wholesale murder of innocent women and children. For the attacks on the M10 hospital by Russian jets are not attacks on soldiers and militias but on the innocent civilian victims of war.

At this bleak juncture in international affairs let us hope that this band of inspirational, brave humanitarians receive the recognition they so richly deserve. 

Andrew Mitchell, MP for Sutton Coldfield, is former Secretary of State for International Development and is co-chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group on Syria