The United Nations is under pressure to set up an independent probe into its Syria aid programme after media investigations found multi-milion dollar contracts have been given to people closely associated with President Bashar al-Assad.
Former officials, diplomats, lawyers, and the head of Human Rights Watch have raised serious concerns about the way the regime leaders in Damascus appear to be directing the aid effort and benefiting from some of these deals.
The UN says its work has saved millions of lives. But it admits it can only stay in Syria with Assad’s say-so. He has restricted who the UN agencies can work with.
The British-based Guardian news organisation has revealed UN agencies have been awarding substantial contracts to Syrian government departments and businessmen whose companies are under US and EU sanctions.
Documents show the World Health Organisation has spent more than $US5m to support the blood bank, which is controlled by Assad’s defence department. That raises questions about whether blood supplies are reaching those in need or are being directed to the military first.
UN documents show its agencies have done business with at least another 258 Syrian companies, paying sums as high as $54m. Many would have links to Assad or those close to him.
“In the name of delivering aid to some needy people in opposition-held areas, the UN is subsidising the Syrian government’s war-crimes strategy of targeting those same people,” said HRW director Kenneth Roth. “That’s hardly the tough-minded pragmatism that the UN claims is informing its aid efforts.”
Antonia Mulvey, founder and director of Legal Action Worldwide, said the UN’s conduct was an example of “pragmatism versus principles playing out in a conflict. Upholding fundamental human rights loses nearly every time.”
The Syrian American Medical Society, which runs more than 100 clinics in Syria, mostly in areas outside government control, told the Guardian the defence ministry had tight control of kits at the country’s blood banks.
Dr Zaher Sahloul said: “It is shocking to find out the UN, through funding from the US and UK, have supported the regime’s blood banks while the same regime targeted, tortured and killed medics and activists who were trying to smuggle supplies to save the lives of the victims of regime atrocities.”
The UN aid operation in Syria is the most expensive and complex it has ever undertaken. It argues it has already saved millions of lives during the brutal five-year conflict. Officials fear if they over-challenge Assad the UN will be thrown out of the country.
Unicef, the UN’s Children’s Emergency Fund, said it had little choice but to work with the Syrian regime. “The alternative is stark: many more children dying or suffering. This is the dilemma that Unicef and humanitarian agencies face on a daily basis.
“Children in Syria are hurting because of the failure of politicians to reach a peaceful solution to the war. We cannot let them down. We must do everything to alleviate the suffering of children.”