New conflict ignited by United Nations dealings with the Syrian regime

The head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (edited by Enab Baladi)

The head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri

United Nations agencies have been under heavy criticism for increased dealings with the Syrian regime and its officials over the past few months outside the framework of humanitarian assistance and relief work. Meanwhile, the agencies continue to document violations and crimes committed by the regime against civilians in Syria.

Months after the World Health Organization (WHO), the directing and coordinating authority on international health within the United Nations system used the US-sanctioned Syrian Cham Wings Airline to transport medical aids from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Libya, the Syrian regime was elected for a three-year term to WHO’s Executive Board.

This election, which took place on 28 May has caused widespread domestic and international resentment and anger towards WHO for granting the regime a seat in its Executive Board despite documenting violations by the regime in the health sector, including the targeting of medical professionals and destruction of hospitals and health centers.

Criticism was renewed against the United Nations (UN) agency after the official Twitter account of the organization’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (WHO EMRO) condemned the bombing of al-Shifaa Hospital in Afrin city in northwestern Syria by the Syrian regime without actually naming the regime as responsible for the bombing. It is worth mentioning that the targeting of the hospital came days after the regime kicked its works as a Member State in WHO’s Executive Board’s 149th session held through video conference on 2 June.

The shelling of al-Shifaa Hospital led to the killing and injury of dozens of civilians, including a physician and three hospital staff members, and caused the hospital to be taken out of service.

In a previous report, Enab Baladi contacted WHO Communications Officer for Emergencies Inas Hamam via email to comment on the appointment of the regime’s government as a Member State at the WHO’s Executive Board for a three-year term, despite the regime’s direct targeting of health personnel and destruction of health facilities. Hamam’s response was as follows: “WHO’s mandate is to achieve better health outcomes for all people, including populations in all countries. WHO is neither equipped nor mandated to find political solutions.”

Hamam added, “WHO continuously calls on all parties in conflict-affected countries to respect the right to health, to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to health care, and to protect health care.”

United Nations legal way out in dealing with the regime

UN agencies differentiate in their cooperations with Member States between a regime accused of war crimes and the State run by the same regime, Director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice Organization, Bassam al-Ahmed told Enab Baladi.

Al-Ahmed said that the Syrian regime had been accused of war crimes based on reports by the International Independent Investigation Commission on Syria. The UN continues to engage with the Syrian State as a legal and political body independent from the persons managing the country politically and militarily.

Al-Ahmed added that sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime and its close associates were unilateral by specific countries and not under the supervision of the United Nations. Therefore, the UN does not base its dealings with the regime’s government in view of US or European sanctions.

In the same context, the WHO used the US-sanctioned Cham Wings airline company to freight 16 tons of medicine, supplies, and medical equipment from WHO warehouses in Dubai, the UAE, to Benghazi in Libya. 

Under Chapter VII of the United Nations Security Council Charter, the Council may undertake enforcement measures to protect civilians and restore peace and security in any State actor. Article 41 of the Charter stipulates a wide range of sanctions to be taken by the Council.

Russia’s use of the veto right against any UN sanctions against the regime has prevented the ability to resort to Chapter VII of the UN Charter; hence countries have started to undertake unilateral economic sanctions against the regime.

Moreover, the term “human rights” was mentioned seven times in the founding Charter of the United Nations, making the promotion and protection of human rights a primary goal and a fundamental principle of the UN.

Nevertheless, the UN agencies’ tendency to cooperate with companies and individuals accused of supporting the regime can also be seen as a move towards “reintegrating” the regime within the international scene, according to al-Ahmed. 

He added, even if these cooperations were carried out within the organization’s legal framework, they are an ethical breach and a barrier to justice and human rights protection, safeguarded in the UN Charter. 

Accordingly, all international conventions calling for protecting civilians’ rights in times of peace and war are useless if the Member States did not feel obliged to abide by the listed principles of the conventions.

The rehabilitation and reintegration of the regime within the international scene and UN agencies

Syrian journalist and human rights defender Mansour al-Omari said to Enab Baladi that the UN and all its agencies are committed to working with Member States irrespective of the existence of human rights violations in any of them.

The UN’s cooperation with the Member States is in conformity with the UN Charter. Any Member State can be elected to WHO’s Executive Board even if the political system of that Member State has committed war crimes, al-Omari added.

Al-Omari gave the example of Saudi Arabia, which was elected in 2016 to be a Human Rights Council (HRC) member despite violations committed against detainees by Saudi security apparatus that human rights organizations have confirmed.

“Legally speaking, the UN is entitled to work with the regime,” but ethically, Member States must object to cooperations with political systems such as the Syrian regime that has committed massive violations against civilians.

As for the regime, any cooperation between UN agencies and the regime is in the latter’s favor as an additional step to rehabilitate and integrate it internationally and within the UN Member States,” according to al-Omari. The regime seems to be getting what it aspired to, particularly after being elected as a Member State in WHO’s Executive Board. 

Al-Omari added, there are legal mechanisms to prevent the rehabilitation or integration of the Syrian regime in the international scene and UN agencies, including the political and media advocacy of the Syrian human rights file and conducting legal research to find legal loopholes in the UN’s legislative system to prevent the regime from reaching its aims. Legal research is “more conclusive and useful than any other mechanism.”

The UN’s acknowledgment of the regime through its election as a representative in UN agencies is creating a “new area of conflict” between the regime and the Syrian people that must be given sufficient interest, al-Omari said.

Still, “One cannot detect seriousness in the manner of confronting al-Assad,” whether by Syrian human rights organizations that are “framed by financing and trending policies” or the Syrian media that has been handling such issues in a weak and unserious way.

The UN official website mentions that Egypt and Syria have been original United Nations members since 24 October 1945.

On 21 February 1958, the United Arab Republic was established following a plebiscite that unified Egypt and Syria, which continued their membership at the UN as one State.

Having resumed its status as an independent State on 13 October 1961, Syria regained its separate membership in the United Nations. 

“A morally repulsive election”

On 14 June, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) thanked the Syrian regime’s ally Russia for “helping Syrians to have a warm and healthy meal on their tables” on Twitter. Soon, the WFP deleted the tweet after a campaign of criticism.

On the same day, the United Nations Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, also known as the Special Committee on Decolonization, elected by acclamation the Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations, Bassam Sabbagh, as Rapporteur of the Committee for 2021.

The UN’s February announcement that Sabbagh was to be elected to a top post in the Decolonization Committee was condemned by the independent, Geneva-based organization the Un Watch, whose mission is to monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter.”

A report issued by the Un Watch said at the time that the UN declaration of its intention to appoint Sabbagh to its Decolonization Committee coincided with accusations of “crimes against humanity,” “war crimes,” and “international crimes including genocide” against the Syrian regime by a UN commission of inquiry.

The Executive Director of the UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, considered the UN announcement “morally repulsive and logically absurd,” noting that the election of the Syrian regime to a senior UN post only helps the al-Assad regime portray itself as a UN arbiter of human rights. “This is an insult to Syria’s millions of victims,” said Neuer.

The post of Rapporteur of the UN Decolonization Committee was filled by three current officials of the regime, the first of whom was Faisal Mekdad, who held the post for eight years, followed by Bashar al-Jaafari, the former regime’s delegate to the UN, who stayed in office for 14 years from 2007 until 2020.  Currently, the post is filled by Bassam Sabbagh after being elected last February.

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