MESOP Syria Feature: Is the UN’s Aid Agency Guilty of “Complicity” with the Assad Regime?
January 22 – by Scott Lucas – eaworldview – UN officials have altered the language of a humanitarian aid plan to avoid offense to Damascus, following consultations with the Assad regime.
The proposal for the $3.1 billion global appeal, prepared by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,removed all references to “besieged” areas and “sieges” after the regime’s response to the original text. The document was scrubbed of any mention of violations of international humanitarian law, such as aerial attacks on medical facilities and the targeting of civilian areas, and of a program to remove landmines, unexploded bombs, and missiles.
Last Friday, OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said, “The humanitarian response plan in Syria, like in any other country, is done in consultation with the authorities. This is normal practice.”
However, one UN official claimed that the editing had upset personnel: “Besieged and extremely hard-to-reach areas contain millions of people living under starvation and disease. If this is not prioritised within the humanitarian response, then what are humanitarian agencies really doing?”
And a senior NGO member involved the report criticized:
It completely downscales the suffering and scale of the need in those areas. That’s what’s worrying about a lot of the changes – they were politically motivated changes that were just accepted.
Last week, a letter to OCHA head Stephen O’Brien from 112 Syrians inside the country — teachers, medical and rescue workers, councillors, and civil society activists — offered perspective while condemning the UN’s “complicity” with the regime:
Your colleagues in Damascus are either too close to the regime or too scared of having their visas revoked by the same powers that are besieging us. Those whose loved ones die from malnutrition related illnesses or a lack of basic medical care will never forgive the UN staff who sit minutes away in luxury hotels, within earshot of the bombings.
And this is not just about aid delivery. Without a regular UN presence, it is much easier for the regime and its allies to bomb civilians under siege. There are no international witnesses to its crimes.
GROWING CONCERNS OVER UN
Concern over the actions of the UN’s top humanitarian officials has been growing, with complaints of their reticence to challenge the regime’s killings and sieges.
Last August, as OCHA head O’Brien was meeting Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Damascus, the Syrian military’s attacks killed almost 200 people in a single day, including more than 120 in the capital’s suburb of Douma. O’Brien finally responded the next day, “Attacks on civilians are unlawful, unacceptable and must stop,” although his remarks were censored by Syrian State TV.
The UN has said that there are almost 400,000 Syrian civilians in siege conditions, with 181,000 cut off by the Syrian military and 200,000 by the Islamic State. However, activists say the number blockaded by the regime is far higher, estimating that more than 1 million are affected.
At the end of December, in a letter to O’Brien, five Syrian NGOs expressed concern that the UN’s 2016 aid plan was being negotiated with the regime as “an unacceptable precedent”. They “objected strongly” to the deletions of references to sieges and human rights violations.
However, even as concern grew over the 40,000 people threatened by starvation in the besieged town of Madaya, the UN maintained silence over the situation. An OCHA “Flash Update” on January 6 about “desperate conditions” and “severe malnutrition” was classified as “Internal, Not for Quotation”.
On January 12, a day after the first aid convoy reached Madaya — but as residents were still dying and the UN pulled back from medical evacuation — the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Yacoub El-Hillo, said, “I am quite comfortable in saying that [it] is the same in any of these settings where siege is being used as a tactic of war,”
Last week’s letter from the 112 Syrians challenged O’Brien:
For many of us in Syria, the UN has turned from a symbol of hope into a symbol of complicity. Two decades ago, in Srebrenica [in Bosnia], we saw what happens when UN peacekeepers get dictated to by war criminals. Today in Syria, it seems to be the turn of UN humanitarians.Mr O’Brien, as head of the UN body negotiating, coordinating and deciding access to these areas, you have the power to deliver life-saving food and medicine to those children who are starving to death. The UN Security Council has given you authorisation and the world has paid for the aid. It is time to have the courage of your convictions and break the siege.