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Senior UN officials fear organisation is failing Syrians most in need

Middle East

Senior UN officials fear organisation is failing Syrians most in need

As UN role in Madaya siege comes under scrutiny, some members say actions echo its systemic failings in Sri Lanka’s civil war

Concern is mounting within the UN that its response to the Syria crisis has exposed similar systemic failings to those it had vowed to eradicate after its widely condemned handling of the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Almost seven years after that conflict ended, and with the scale of human suffering in Syria eclipsing all other recent wars, the UN is struggling to end chronic starvation sieges across the country or deliver meaningful aid to areas most in need.

The UN’s role in Syria has come into sharp focus since early January after the extent of one such siege in the town of Madaya was revealed. As many as 70 people are thought to have starved to death in the town between Damascus and the Lebanese border, and thousands more were left malnourished.

Related: Starving Madaya celebrates as food convoy finally arrives

Food to sustain its remaining residents for one month was finally delivered several weeks later after an international outcry that shifted focus from the 6.5 million refugees who have fled Syria to the plight of the millions more who have stayed behind.

Correspondence has since emerged revealing the UN had known about Madaya’s desperation since the siege was imposed by the Syrian regime last July but had been hesitant to highlight the crisis because of a fraught relationship with officials in Damascus.


“In the end, although I did agree to revised language and amendments in a number of areas in the interest of reaching an agreement, I believe we managed to hold the line and preserve the credibility and integrity of the document.”

Syria Network, a group of aid organisations active in the country, wrote to the UN humanitarian relief chief, Stephen O’Brien, after the release of the revised plan, to demand assurances that aid delivery in Syria was not politicised.

“It is not acceptable to engage in political, military and humanitarian negotiations at the same time,” said one senior aid worker. “Humanitarian aid should not be politicised. Breaking the siege was hailed as an achievement. It is not. Withholding aid is a war crime. It is an obligation of warring parties to allow open access.”

A regional diplomat with extensive experience within the UN said the Syrian war had highlighted its structural shortcomings. “Whenever the UN gets involved, there is a natural fault line between the political side of the organisation and the humanitarian side,” the diplomat said. “Since the end of the cold war there has has always been an orthodoxy that the political side matters more to members and wins out in the end.”

Another senior official agreed. “A lot of this is to blame on political will,” he said. “The Americans in particular are trying to act like an NGO, not a superpower. They do not want to impose. I do think it’s a fine balancing act. But my sense is that for a while, Ocha and some other agencies have tipped too far into prioritising access to Damascus. The Syrians in Damascus are a nightmare to deal with. There are many considerations, the protection of local UN staff is one. A lot of their people have been detained.”

Related: Increasing aid for Syrian refugees is not the only option. Here are four more

O’Brien told the UN security council in January: “Why do we negotiate? Why do we request safe access from all parties but principally the Syrian government? Because although this council has agreed a resolution to allow for safe, unimpeded access, it does not always exist for the brave men and women on the ground trying to deliver assistance into these areas.

“Some simply say to me: ‘The UN should break the sieges.’ But that would be reckless. It would entail sending convoy drivers and humanitarian workers into the line of fire.

“We have asked this council repeatedly to demand that the parties to the conflict facilitate unhindered, unconditional, and sustained access across Syria, but this is simply not happening.”

The fallout from Madaya has strong parallels to the last phase of the Sri Lankan war, in which the UN was accused of aiding official abuses through inaction. A report commissioned in the aftermath highlighted a responsibility to protect, which it said was barely acknowledged at the time.

“Differing perceptions among member states and the secretariat of the concept’s meaning and use had become so contentious as to nullify its potential value,” the report said.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and Africa, Nadim Houry, said: “One is left with a strong sense that the lessons from the UN’s experience in Sri Lanka have not been learned. Maintaining one’s standing with the Syrian authorities while responding to humanitarian imperatives is very challenging. But when it takes images of starving people to finally get concerted action, you know the system has failed. Some things, like access to besieged areas, should not be up for negotiation.”


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