THE UN stands accused of giving the Syrian government “an effective veto over aid deliveries”, contributing to the deaths of thousands of civilians, in a new report informed by interviews with humanitarians, including UN staff.
Among the stories documented is a description of how, after gaining approval to deliver aid to Daraya last month — where agencies have not been able to deliver food since 2012 — a UN convoy was held up by government forces demanding that baby milk and medical supplies be removed. Negotiations failed and, after going home empty-handed, civilians were subjected to government shelling, the report says. It describes how civilians have died “a few minutes drive away from the five-star hotel where many international UN aid workers are based in Damascus” and how UN trucks have driven through besieged towns without stopping and offloading, due not to security concerns but a lack of permission.
Taking sides: The United Nation’s loss of impartiality, independence and neutrality in Syria was published by the Syria campaign this month. A total of 56 Syrian organisations are co-signatories to the summary and recommendations.
It argues that, “by choosing to prioritise cooperation with the Syrian government at all costs, the UN has enabled the distribution of billions of dollars of international aid to be directed by one side of the conflict. This has contributed to the deaths of thousands of civilians, either through starvation, malnutrition-related illness, or a lack of access to medical aid.”
This “culture of compliance” is traced back to the failure to deliver aid to the government-besieged town of Daraa in 2011. It says that the government used the threat of removing the UN’s permission to operate within Syria to stop the delivery of aid: a tactic it has continued to use with success. The government’s reliance on the UN to support its citizens means that the UN has “more leverage than it has exercised”, the authors argue.
Around 4.6 million people in Syria live in what the UN classifies as hard-to-reach areas, and the authors estimate that the government is involved in besieging 99 per cent of one million people under siege. The UN has given the Syrian government an “effective veto over aid deliveries to areas outside of government control, enabling its use of sieges as a weapon of war. . . To date the UN has not undertaken a single aid delivery from Damascus without government consent, despite multiple Security Council resolutions sanctioning this.”
It calls on the UN to define a set of conditions under which its agencies could continue to cooperate with the Syrian government “and still maintain impartiality, independence and neutrality”. If these conditions are not met, cooperation should be suspended. A similar recommendation is put to international NGOs.
The report states that, from the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian government has said that aid distributed from Damascus must go through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). While acknowledging the “hundreds of brave volunteers” working for the organisation, the report cites concerns about its links to the government and subsequent restrictions on aid delivery.
This week, a SARC spokeswoman said that it was “a neutral and impartial humanitarian actor providing crucial lifesaving assistance based entirely on assessed humanitarian needs”. She reported that, in 2015, 61 per cent of SARC food items funded by the International Federation of the Red Cross were distributed in hard to reach or besieged areas.
“Providing relief in complex and dynamic environments is an ongoing challenge. This is why the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement continues to call for secure and sustained access to people who need assistance.”
The report quotes several interviews with former or serving UN staff. The UN’s own evaluation of its humanitarian response to the Syria crisis, published in March, concluded that there were “strong arguments to say that the humanitarian system has . . . failed Syria, at least for periods of the last five years. For almost two years, there was an unbalanced concentration on providing aid to one part of the country. Medical supplies have been routinely removed from humanitarian shipments, medical facilities and other exclusively civilian centres targeted by combatants, especially the Government of Syria.”
It warns that there is still “no systematic and scientific gathering on . . . where the majority of the assistance has gone”.
While stressing the difficulties faced by humanitarians, including the “the toxic nature of Security Council politics”, and praising the Emergency Relief Coordinator’s “bold advocacy on behalf of people trapped by the fighting”, it says that the humanitarian system has been “slow and overly cautious”. It highlights concerns about violating Syria’s sovereignty, and about losing what access remained available, but notes that many NGOs feel that the UN did not do enough to challenge the Government of Syria. UN agencies were “simply not willing to jeopardise their operations in Syria by taking a tougher stance with the Government.
“The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this evaluation, but they will surely be scrutinised unfavourably at a later point.”