What are the chances of holding UN employees accountable for “letting” Syrians down?

The UN’s flag is upside down over the rubble of a destroyed building in the town of Jindires in the northern countryside of Aleppo, denouncing the delay in response following the earthquake that struck Turkey and four regions of Syria - February 11, 2023 (Facebook/Malik Abu Obeida)

The UN’s flag is upside down over the rubble of a destroyed building in the town of Jindires in the northern countryside of Aleppo, denouncing the delay in response following the earthquake that struck Turkey and four regions of Syria - February 11, 2023 (Facebook/Malik Abu Obeida)

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Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad

Distress calls and appeals in northwestern Syria have turned into expressions that hold the United Nations responsible for the increasing number of victims and the exacerbation of the disaster after moving from rescue operations to recovering bodies, amid calls for those responsible to be held accountable, which raised questions about the chances of reaching the desired accountability.

Hundreds of Syrians found themselves, after the current February 6 earthquake, facing another kind of betrayal that transformed the United Nations, in their eyes, from a savior to an “accomplice in killing them” due to its delay in bringing aid to the stricken areas, after years in which the United Nations assumed responsibility for the “lifeline” in the region that has been exhausted by political tensions even in humanitarian files.

Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator admitted on his official Twitter account on the seventh day of the massive earthquake that “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived. My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can. That’s my focus now.”

In this report, Enab Baladi sheds light on the UN’s responsibilities towards the earthquake disaster and the failures it committed.

Enab Baladi also discussed with legal experts and humanitarian workers the opportunities to open an investigation into the delay in the arrival of aid by the United Nations and the chances of holding those responsible accountable.

United Nations should be held responsible

Heavy hours passed for the rescue teams and suffocating for those trapped under the rubble, followed by the United Nations justifying the day after the earthquake the delay in the arrival of life-saving aid due to “logistical” obstacles related to the earthquake and to the damage to the roads.

These repeated justifications by United Nations officials were not sufficient to convince the Syrians not to hold them responsible for the delay in the arrival of aid and the exacerbation of the disaster, considering that the politicization of the aid file succeeded once again in imposing a suffocating blockade on them, but this time with the participation of the United Nations.

A member of the board of directors of the Syrian Forum, Yasser Tabbara, told Enab Baladi that the United Nations is responsible for the death of many Syrians in the north as a result of their severe delay in delivering aid.

Tabbara, who holds a doctorate in law, explained that the failure to meet the needs of the Syria Civil Defense (SCD), the White Helmets, by the United Nations was enough to hinder search and rescue operations.

The United Nations bears the responsibility of taking the lead in civil defense and coordinating to push countries to help the “stricken” areas in the north, according to what Tabbara said.

He pointed out that the United Nations is not responsible for the delivery of heavy equipment for search and rescue operations, but it is responsible for coordinating its arrival.

The United Nations representative residing in Syria is also responsible for activating the “International Emergency Response System” (UNDAC) after the Syrian regime failed to activate it.

In the event that the United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, El-Mostafa Benlamlih, does not activate the mechanism, the responsibility for activating it rests with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in accordance with the UN laws in disaster management.

Raed al-Saleh, director of the rescue White Helmets organization, told Enab Baladi that the United Nations is upset with the criticisms and accusations leveled at it, as it believes that the Syrian organizations are unable to understand the responsibilities of the UN.

While the Syrian organizations are aware of these responsibilities and know that the UN is primarily responsible for delivering aid, according to what al-Saleh said.

Al-Saleh pointed out that there is a legal study on the role of the United Nations in delivering aid even without a mandate from the Security Council.

A report issued by the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) concluded that the exacerbation of the earthquake catastrophe falls on the dilapidated humanitarian and international aid system, which puts all major parties to the conflict, in addition to regional countries, donor countries, and UN agencies, in the accusation circle.

Three-point failures in a row

While every second and minute of the rapid response was capable of changing the future of those trapped under the rubble and giving them a chance to survive, it took five days to send the first UN aid convoy loaded with relief materials, following a pre-scheduled limited convoy (unrelated to the response to the aftermath of the earthquake).

The delayed response was considered by Syrians working in humanitarian affairs as a UN failure to prevent the politicization of humanitarian aid and save millions of affected people in northern Syria.

Roger Lu Phillips, Legal Director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), told Enab Baladi that the United Nations has committed successive failures in three main points:

– The failure of the Office of the Legal Adviser at the United Nations to provide a legal opinion regarding the legality of cross-border aid delivery at the time of a natural disaster without the need for a UN Security Council resolution.

– Not considering the Syrian file a priority for the Security Council and delaying the meeting of its members for days contributed to the loss of many hopes of salvation.

– The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was not authorized or did not consider itself authorized to conduct cross-border aid.

On the other hand, Phillips believes that part of the responsibility for the delayed humanitarian assistance to the earthquake was shared, as the Syrian regime, the Turkish government, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) bear the responsibility of creating obstacles to aid reaching victims in a timely manner.

While the United Nations bears the responsibility to prevent obstruction of the arrival of aid by the parties to the conflict, especially in light of the existence of legal studies and recommendations that confirmed the ability of the United Nations to deliver aid without a mandate from the Security Council.

The director of the White Helmets believes that the United Nations has evaded its responsibilities regarding its ability to deliver aid without returning to the Security Council.

The United Nations also failed to issue an earthquake warning through the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), as the United Nations did not issue the warning until many days had passed.

Al-Saleh added that the aim of issuing the late warning was limited to collecting more funds.

The United Nations dealt with a “deadly” and incomprehensible bureaucracy towards the humanitarian response to northwestern Syria, according to Tabbara, a member of the Board of Directors of the Syrian Forum.

Tabbara added that the justifications provided by the United Nations for its failures were nothing but “pretexts” for not looking for other mechanisms to deliver aid.

Although the United Nations succeeded in opening two additional crossings between Turkey and Syria on February 13, its response came late and for an initial period of three months, which is not considered sufficient to respond to a region suffering since before the earthquake disaster, the exacerbation of humanitarian needs.

Pro forma investigations

The White Helmets organization is pressing the Secretary-General of the United Nations to open an investigation into the reasons for the delay in the arrival of aid to northwestern Syria, according to what the organization’s director, Raed al-Saleh, said.

Phillips, the legal director of SJAC, believes that the United Nations should establish an internal board of inquiry to investigate its repeated failures, pointing out that what happened after the earthquake was not the first UN failure in the Syrian file.

In the event that the Secretary-General of the United Nations orders the opening of investigations, there is no mechanism to hold the United Nations staff and representatives accountable for these failures, according to the SJAC’s legal director.

Phillips added that the results of those investigations could contribute, at best, to the loss of some employees of their duties and responsibilities in the United Nations and its agencies.

He said the likelihood of that happening was slim given that there was an “accepted” legal view that Security Council approval was required to allow cross-border aid.

Phillips does not believe that admissions about “failing Syrians” will have legal significance.

Tabbara of the Syrian Forum said that the available investigations into the failures of the United Nations are limited to internal investigations within the UN agencies.

The investigation that can be conducted regarding the failure of the United Nations to respond to the earthquake disaster in northwestern Syria is restricted to procedural and formal steps that cannot reach integrated legal accountability.

Dr. Yasser Tabbara, Member of the Board of Directors of the Syrian Forum  

Accounting within UN agencies can be management and executive accounting within the bylaws.

Under Article 19 of the agreements on the privileges and immunities of United Nations agencies, employees of United Nations agencies enjoy legal immunity for all acts, statements, or written statements issued by them in an official capacity.

Numerous studies and expert opinions concluded that this immunity has many risks to the protection of human rights, as the absolute immunity of the United Nations and its employees constitutes a wide controversy among legal experts and human rights defenders.

 

 

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