The top United Nations relief official today outlined how the humanitarian work of the world body in war-torn Syria is guided by impartiality and the key imperative of saving lives.
“Impartiality in humanitarian terms means that we provide life-saving and life-sustaining assistance to civilians based on their humanitarian needs without consideration of where they are, which side in the conflict they may sympathise with, their nationality, social status, gender, age, religious belief or any other consideration,” the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, wrote today in a letter to the editor published in the UK newspaper The Guardian.
“This fundamental notion of impartiality guides our work and is non-negotiable, in Syria or anywhere else,” he added.
The UN official was responding to a recent series of articles published in The Guardian which asserted that the Syrian government ‘controls UN aid’ and that the UN has channelled funding intended for life-saving humanitarian response to the ‘Assad regime.’
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – which Mr. O’Brien heads – Syria is one of the most complex and dynamic humanitarian crises in the world today. Since March 2011, more than a quarter of a million Syrians have been killed and more than one million have been injured. Another 4.8 million Syrians have been forced to leave the country, and 6.5 million are internally displaced, making Syria the largest displacement crisis globally.
Humanitarian access to people in need in Syria remains constrained by the ongoing conflict in contravention of international law, international humanitarian law and human rights law, according to OCHA. In 2016, an estimated 13.5 million people, including six million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance – of these, 5.47 million people are in hard-to-reach areas, including close to 600,000 people in 18 besieged areas.
Inside Syria, as in other countries, UN agencies must work with key government departments to support the delivery of public services and humanitarian relief, according to OCHA. Some governments, including that of Syria, insist that UN agencies work with a list of authorised implementing partners.
“However, we choose our partners from that list based on our own assessments of their capacity to deliver and following due diligence processes – not because we are forced to work with any particular organisation in order to stay and deliver in the country,” Mr. O’Brien wrote in his letter. “In areas not controlled by the government, we work with local partners that may not be authorised by the government.”
According to OCHA’s current figures:
- 11.5 million Syrians require health care
- 13.5 million Syrians need protection support
- 12.1 million Syrians require water and sanitation
- 9.4 million Syrians are food insecure
- 1.5 million Syrians need shelter and household goods
- 5.7 million Syrian children need education support
The Emergency Relief Coordinator noted that the United Nations welcomes public scrutiny of its humanitarian operations in Syria, with details of its programmes, partners, contracting and financial details available online to the media and public alike.
“However,” he wrote, “your articles mischaracterise the UN-led humanitarian operation in Syria, fail to offer a balanced perspective on the challenges of operating in Syria and discredit the courageous work of national and international humanitarian aid workers who risk their lives on a daily basis to help millions of people in need in one of the world’s most vicious conflicts.”
“We cannot deprive people of aid because there is pressure to disengage from a party to the conflict,” he added. “The impartiality of the UN’s humanitarian operations is fundamental to saving lives and our focus is squarely on reaching people in need. To achieve this, we must work with all to reach all.”