Will the UN reform its working mechanisms in Syria

Dr. Ahmed al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, in a visit to a health center in Syria - 21 September 2022 (WHO Syria)

Dr. Ahmed al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, in a visit to a health center in Syria - 21 September 2022 (WHO Syria)


Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa

An investigation report published on 25 October revealed that the United Nations spent approximately 47% of its purchases in Syria in 2019 and 2020 on Syrian companies whose owners are human rights violators, war profiteers, people close to the regime on Western sanctions lists, and others associated with the Syrian regime. 

The report issued by the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (Obsalytics) and the Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP) included documents that revealed that the United Nations provided about 137 million US dollars of its spending on purchases for these companies owned by: Hashem al-Akkad, Samir Hassan, Fadi Saqr, Samer Foz, Ahmad Saber Hamsho, Ali Hamsho, Amr Hamsho, Rania al-Dabbas, and others, and they constituted 94% of the total spending on purchases.

Although this report is not the first to talk about controversial moves in the financial dealings of the United Nations with the Syrian regime, it was the first to highlight seven problems in the existing procurement processes, namely the exploitation of human rights violators of the existing system, and the contracting with individuals and entities subject to sanctions due to violations of Human rights, failure to identify fronts and middlemen, reliance on large contracts, lack of transparency, containment of corruption, and failure to protect employees.

Lots of previous criticism

The United Nations agencies operating in Syria have faced many criticisms during the past two years due to the increase in the pace of dealing with the Syrian regime, sometimes “overtly” or “hidden,” as revealed by several press investigations, outside the framework of humanitarian aid and relief work.

The most recent of these investigations was what was published by The Associated Press on 20 October, when staffers at the World Health Organization’s Syrian office have alleged that their boss mismanaged millions of dollars, plied government officials with gifts — including computers, gold coins, and cars — and acted frivolously as COVID-19 swept the country.

More than 100 confidential documents, messages, and other materials obtained by The Associated Press show WHO officials told investigators that the agency’s Syria representative, Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, engaged in abusive behavior, pressured WHO staff to sign contracts with high-ranking Syrian government politicians and consistently misspent WHO and donor funds, according to AP.

Complaints from at least a dozen personnel have triggered one of the biggest internal WHO probes in years, at times involving more than 20 investigators, according to staffers linked to the AP investigation.

Early this year, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Syrian Legal Development Programme issued a guide on the role of the lack of due diligence in the procurement process by United Nations agencies providing assistance in Syria with funding human rights violators, by documenting purchases by UN agencies from perpetrators of numerous violations in Syria.

The guide pointed out that the reliance of procurement officials of United Nations agencies on US sanctions lists was insufficient, indicating that these sanctions mainly included al-Qaeda and the Islamic State but did not cover all other violators of human rights, including persons belonging to the Syrian government and its affiliated militias.

A report was published on 25 October analyzing the UN’s top 100 suppliers in Syria in 2019 and 2020 by the non-profit Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, and the non-governmental organization Syrian Legal Development Programme concluded that almost half of the procured contracts those two years were with suppliers that were involved in human rights abuses or may have profited from them.

Almost a quarter of contracts the UN procured those two years went to companies owned or partially owned by individuals sanctioned by the United States, United Kingdom, or European Union for human rights abuses, worth a total of around 68 million US dollars, according to the Associated Press.

Advocacy groups have accused the Syrian government and affiliates of withholding or siphoning off aid from families in opposition-held areas or manipulating exchange rates to boost state coffers, the AP reported.

Enab Baladi has previously documented a set of activities between UN agencies and the Syrian regime, most notably the sponsorship of the United Nations Development Office (UNDP) in cooperation with the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS), the international Hult Prize competition, the World Health Organization’s use of a US sanctioned airline to transport Syrian “mercenaries” and weapons, and the election of the Syrian regime as a member of WHO’s executive board.

What is the explanation?

Dr. Karam Shaar, director of the Syrian program at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, told Enab Baladi that the “problematic” behavior of the United Nations can be traced back to several reasons, the first of which is related to the restrictions imposed on UN agencies by the Syrian regime.

It can be seen through several behaviors, including not granting entry visas to UN officials who do not agree ideologically with the regime or not allowing UN organizations to work except with institutions licensed by it, which are basically related to it.

The second reason is the corruption within the UN institutions, as it recently emerged, for example, the corruption and the involvement of the WHO’s representative in Syria, Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, in fraud cases and her close ties with officials in the Syrian regime.

While the third reason, according to Shaar, is related to the nature of the UN as an organization of member states, meaning that it is not a civil society organization or an organization for individuals or those affected, but rather an organization whose members are states, and therefore because of the internal system and the Charter of the UN it is obliged to deal with and coordinate with the Syrian regime as it is still the representative of Syria at the United Nations.

Including media, three parties responsible for correcting the course

Several previous criticisms were directed at the United Nations agencies in Syria without any effect on correcting the behavior of the United Nations in the context of its dealings with the regime and the ways in which it spent money to actually benefit the Syrian people.

Expert Shaar considered that the recent report the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks and the Syrian Legal Development Programme proved, more than previous studies and reports that covered individual and isolated cases, that the scale of violations and dealing with human rights perpetrators by the UN in Syria is much broader than what it was believed before the report, which is the first quantitative and systematic assessment of the allocation of UN aid related to procurement.

On the mechanisms for obtaining results after proving their financing of those linked to the regime and violators of human rights, Shaar believes that dealing with this issue should be multilateral, not from a single perspective which does not contribute to changing the reality and reaching the aid recipients.

Dr. Shaar added that the first party that must be effective in this aspect is the media, as pressure must be exerted on the United Nations in the media, and these erroneous practices must be exposed “without demonization.”

He explained that it is necessary to acknowledge that the UN is working in difficult conditions and that the Syrian regime is exerting significant restrictions on it.

In addition to media coverage, it is necessary to turn to the financial funders of the United Nations, according to Shaar, noting that the authors of the report met with donor countries, explained to them what was going on, and presented them with some proposed next steps.

The UN institutions themselves must also be dealt with, Shaar explaining that a copy of this report was sent before its publication to the United Nations, and through their comment on it, some of the recommendations of the report were also used.

He also stressed the futility of accusing the United Nations arbitrarily or creating a state of hostility with it, but that the relationship must be healthy and based on cooperation, integrity, and openness.

For his part, Eyad Hamid, a senior researcher at the Syrian Legal Development Programme, told Enab Baladi that financial corruption in the UN institutions is an issue that is not confined to Syria and is not limited to recent years only.

However, the efforts of Syrian civil society organizations and experts, in addition to the efforts of investigative journalists and Syrian and non-Syrian media outlets, contributed to highlighting these abuses and gaps in the work of the United Nations in Syria, he said.

Hamid agreed with Dr. Karam Shaar that this effort is part of the equation to correct the behavior of the United Nations.

There is also a responsibility on the donor countries, which are required to hold UN organizations accountable for how they dispose of the funds granted to them, and to follow up on the mechanism of disbursing these funds, in addition to the responsibility of the United Nations to reform its working methods.

Can the UN be held legally accountable?

The report of the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks and the Syrian Legal Development Programme has divided suppliers into four levels of risk.

The rating included “very high-risk” companies, which are those with links to human rights abuses, paramilitary groups, the private security sector, destruction of civilian property, development of land in which people have been forcibly displaced, and support for the armed forces and the government of the Syrian regime since 2011.

As for the “high-risk” companies, they are those that obtained contracts from the regime’s government, monopolized certain sectors, were owned by members of the People’s Assembly or other local officials, made donations to Syrian entities, or participated in the economic blockade of opposition-controlled areas.

According to the report, about 36.3% of the United Nations funds went to “very high risk” companies, while 10.3% went to “high risk” companies, 30.5% to “medium risk” companies, and 22.9% to “low risk” companies.

Under international law, UN agencies are bound by policies and guidelines aimed at implementing human rights responsibilities.

The UN Procurement Practitioner’s Handbook (PPH) shows that “the United Nations is committed to doing business with suppliers who share its values ​​of respect for fundamental human rights, social justice, human dignity, and respect for the equal rights of men and women.”

The UN Supplier Code of Conduct also sets out the UN’s expectations for all suppliers and requires suppliers to “support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights, and ensure that they do not participate in human rights abuses.”

The “Parameters and Principles of UN Assistance in Syria,” which were developed within the framework of the United Nations’ humanitarian work in Syria, stipulate that the United Nations must carefully consider the implications for human rights and protection, particularly with regard to where and how assistance is provided, and its assistance should not serve to assist the parties allegedly committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, among others.

Eyad Hamid, a senior researcher at the Syrian Legal Development Programme, believes that the issue here is not a matter of legal accountability, adding that the priority in this file should be pushing the UN to reform its working mechanisms in Syria.

The United Nations provides aid to millions of people in Syria, and billions of donor funds also pass through it, so it is required to direct aid to those who really need it through the best means and to fill the gaps that the Syrian regime and its aides are taking advantage of.

Hamid said that after the last report, it was noticed that the United Nations responded to its recommendations, considering that this is something that must be built on in the future.

On the issue of the United Nations dealing with punished persons, Hamid clarified that the United Nations is not bound by Western sanctions on Syria, as they are unilateral sanctions, and are not based on an international consensus in the Security Council, for example.

He also considered that one of the most prominent recommendations is for the United Nations to return to the sanctions lists in order to avoid engagement with businessmen responsible for human rights violations in Syria.

While it would be more useful for donor countries to have a position demanding the UN that their taxpayers’ money not be given to people on sanctions lists.

UN Procurement Contracts in Syria: A “few” Bad Apples?

Recommendations to the UN

■ UN agencies must conduct heightened human rights due diligence when vetting suppliers to be contracted in the future, inside and outside Syria, engage with affected communities, and consult with civil society and experts.

■ When vetting suppliers, UN agencies should consult the UK, EU and US sanctions list to determine whether the supplier is sanctioned on human rights grounds. UN agencies should ensure that they expand their vetting search beyond the UN designated lists, which in the context of Syria have failed to account for a significant number of human rights abusers, and expand their designated lists.

■ Chief Procurement Officers should include human rights considerations uniformly across procurement processes without distinctions between procurement at headquarters, regional and country level and between standard and emergency procurement procedures.

■ The UN Country Team (UNCT) and UN Resident Coordinator should lead in facilitating information sharing on human rights risks among different agencies operating in Syria. UN agencies are strongly encouraged to cooperate in conducting human rights risk assessments for sectors they are likely to procure from and share information, among each other.

■ The UN Country Team and UN agencies should take full advantage of the Regional Dialogue Mechanism (RDM) to improve human rights due diligence and transparency regarding risk assessments related to Syria procurement processes.

■ The UN should make publicly available and easily accessible all the rules and procedures regulating procurement and human rights due diligence processes across its agencies.

■ UN entities should take additional measures when dealing with a monopoly, including heightened monitoring measures to ensure human rights compliance.

■ Large contracts should be broken down to allow space for competition and minimize the risk of working with monopolies.

■ To protect relevant UN staff, conducting human rights due diligence and vetting suppliers, to take place outside of Syria where possible.

Recommendations to the Donor States

■ Donor States should take all required measures to ensure that the UN is not funding individuals and businesses identified by the donor state as human rights abusers.

■ Donor States should ensure that UN agencies, when vetting suppliers, are consulting EU, UK and US sanctions lists to determine whether the supplier was sanctioned on human rights grounds.

■ Demand more transparency from the UN on how un-earmarked funds are spent.

■ Demand that UN agencies share their human rights due diligence reports – not exclusive to proposed allocations – on local suppliers with donors to improve the donors’ oversight.

■ Donor States should make available additional funds to cover the costs of conducting human rights risks assessments.

■ When possible, endorse sharing of information between agencies about vendors and the background research as well as the visits and evaluation conducted once a contract has been awarded to reduce costs and resources dedicated to due diligence. An umbrella approach such as MOPAN (Multilateral Organizations Performance Assessment Network) should be explored.

■ Donor States should add a new reporting requirement on Human Rights Due Diligence related to procurement operations, and demand more transparency from the UN to ensure compliance with human rights standards.

■ Donor States should support UN entities in monitoring human rights compliance especially in circumstances of a monopoly in a specific sector or major ongoing abuses.


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