"The UN doesn't have to change ... the system isn't broken, it's simply broke."
This quote comes from the head of the United Nations' humanitarian office (OCHA). It was met with outrage by anyone who has witnessed firsthand the UN relief effort in Syria. Despite the billions spent to date, the humanitarian response within Syria is beyond broken. The United Nations and other aid agencies working out of Damascus cowered under the Syrian regime and have allowed their relief efforts to be sabotaged. As a consequence, aid, largely under the control of the regime is now a vital component of its repression and control tactics.
There were a series of events in early 2011 that set the trajectory for the severely compromised aid program we have in place in Syria today. The Syrian uprising was a few weeks old and already the extreme brutality the Syrian regime deployed to suppress innocent demonstrators was becoming clearer by the day. Dara'a, the restive southern city that spawned the first demonstrations was under lockdown by security forces. At the time, as the director of the UN agency responsible for half a million Palestine refugees living in Syria, this was of enormous concern to me given the large number of staff and refugees caught up in the security closure.
Looking back, the lockdown was mild compared to the sieges now in place that affect, at times to the point of starvation, close to a million people across Syria. As the first significant challenge posed by the uprising, the heads of the various UN agencies were faced with a clear choice; to band together as one United Nations and demand access to the area or allow ourselves to be divided by the regime.
An operation was prepared to provide essential medicines to patients with chronic conditions and other critical services. Crucially, with only a couple of exceptions, the vast majority of UN agencies kept their heads down, allowing the regime to silence any critique of its outrageous behaviour.
The heads of agencies allowed the regime to block the distribution of aid and stood by while those agencies who dared challenge them were punished with the threat of expulsion or other tactics of intimidation. As the months rolled on, the silencing of the UN intensified. Another moment in August of 2011 - after failing to secure permission for a human rights delegation to Syria, a delegation of OCHA representatives was assembled along with the heads of UN agencies to tour the country. The basis of the delegation was perverse given that Syria was in the midst of a human rights crisis rather than a significant humanitarian situation which would come later. Not aware of the nuances of the UN system, the local population came out in their thousands to demand action from the delegation on a range of issues including disappearances and torture of family members and more general calls for democracy.
In Homs, some locals greeting the delegation were shot dead just after the UN vehicles drove past - this incident was one of the thousands captured on YouTube footage. While acknowledging the consequences of the deadlock in the Security Council, the UN agencies were too quick to play along with this charade. Like future delegations, nothing was achieved by this roadshow except allowing the good offices of the UN to be sidetracked and ultimately compromised by the Syrian regime. The consequence of these early moments of weakness has contributed to the systematic failure of the UN led response. Rather than basing its response on need, it has developed into a billion-dollar response program that is largely controlled by the regime and its proxies.
Why has this been able to happen? A consistent argument in defence of the silence has been that the work would be jeopardized or potentially closed down if a more robust position was enforced. Again UN agencies banding together with a clear policy of one for all and all for one would provide a compelling presence. Would the regime really be willing to see a multi-billion operation close down? Instead we now have a UN system that is at the mercy of a discredited regime, with little or no control over what aid goes where and to whom.
After leaving the UN I was involved in the development a multi-million-dollar cross border response for Save the Children out of Turkey and other surrounding countries. For years these operations were seen almost as a direct competition by the Damascus centred response, despite the Security Council Resolutions that called for the UN to provide aid across the country.
We are left with a fragmented and disjointed collection of interventions. A fair share of the chaos that we see across the humanitarian community can be traced to our early failures in 2011.
For those outside the UN system, there is a simplistic view that the UN operates as a single powerful entity during conflict and disasters. In fact, in a situation such as Syria there are often ten or more UN agencies operating with different mandates (sadly often in competition with one another) all with a different director. Under this system global leadership is absent. Security Council recommendations can be ignored or undermined by different agencies.
At the country level, leadership in the UN system has been a systematic failure for decades.
This situation is deplorable - there needs to be a United Nations that can develop and implement immediate and critical decisions that focus on saving lives not careers or the competing interests of different UN agencies.