The Syrian government is once again trying to manipulate the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) to fit its own narrative of the conflict within the country.
In comments that seem removed from the reality of the years-long war in the country, the government has requested the word “conflict” be removed from the document, and replaced with “crisis.” It has also requested the removal of the word “besieged.”
The U.N. itself reports that 974,080 people are besieged in 16 locations across Syria, with 4.5 million classed as hard-to-reach, a number that is considered low by other NGOs and advocacy organizations working in the country. With the evacuation of east Aleppo, that number will fall to around 700,000 in 15 areas. The majority are besieged by government forces and their allies.
The HRP plan is the overarching planning document that ties together the aid response across the country, including the billions of dollars per year in funding, including in areas outside the government’s control.
Last year the U.N. faced extensive criticism for failing to adequately consult U.N. hubs and NGOs operating outside Damascus, and for allowing the government of Syria to edit the document before its release. In editing, it included comments similar to those of this year—removing any mention of “besieged areas” and watering down references to violence against civilians. The U.N. allowed the changes.
Internal U.N. documents, viewed by The Daily Beast, suggest the U.N. is being less forgiving this year. OCHA did not agree to the requests to remove “besieged” and “conflict,” instead listing them as points requiring more discussion. The government of Syria took issue with references to de-mining work taking place in the country without its approval, and the idea that humanitarian workers bear responsibility for the affected populations in Syria, doubling down on its view that it is the role of the government to protect its people, a point that is undermined by the extent of government and allies’ attacks on civilians throughout the conflict.
As a result, the 2017 drafting process allowed for increased input from U.N. hubs outside Damascus, with the Turkish, Lebanese, and Jordanian hubs contributing information. The final say was once again offered to the Syrian government, which recently reviewed the document.
“The humanitarian coordinator for Syria and his team are currently working to finalize the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for Syria, which of course involves a considerable amount of discussion with the government,” Russell Geekie, a spokesperson for OCHA in New York, told The Daily Beast. “The HC for Syria and the HC for the region also engaged in consultations with the humanitarian partners, providing several opportunities for them to provide feedback. They are keeping the Whole of Syria Strategic Steering Group updated on the consultations.”
The U.N. said in the internal emails that discussions were still ongoing with the government of Syria and that the issues would be escalated to OCHA’s humanitarian coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, if a compromise could not be reached at a regional level. “It is premature to talk about any impasse. The discussions with government in Syria are very much ongoing, and we would not want to jeopardize the outcome,” Geekie told The Daily Beast.
However, NGOs working in other areas of the country report feeling bullied into agreeing with the U.N.’s planning and coordination process, after a new requirement was implemented in the Turkish U.N. hub stipulating that NGOs must sign up to the HRP and the “Whole of Syria” (WoS) information sharing mechanism or risk losing their funding.
Seventy-three Syrian NGOs pulled out of the WoS information-sharing scheme over the summer, concerned about the degree of control the Syrian government exerts over the humanitarian aid response in the county.
An internal U.N. review of WoS began in July, but Syrian NGOs said their views were not reflected. Dozens of NGOs also raised concerns, which were deflected to a late November meeting, during which they were not addressed either. A staff member of a Syrian NGO who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Daily Beast: “Every time we raised issues with the U.N., we were deflected… We haven’t achieved what we wanted. We have no faith.”
Despite this, the NGOs have had little choice but to discuss agreeing to cooperate with the U.N.’s WoS approach, and the HRP, fearing the impact a cut in funding would have on those most in need within Syria. “We are accused of putting ‘sticks in the wheels.’ We are to be blamed for duplication, not the regime,” said an NGO member working in Syria from Turkey.
The Syrian government does not recognize the WoS and the NGOs operating “cross border” from Turkey and Jordan, according to the government’s comments on the HRP. Despite a U.N. Security Council resolution allowing humanitarian aid access from Turkey and Jordan without the government’s permission, its position remains that only those operating with its consent are legitimate actors.
The government’s other comments included a desire to remove a reference to “Do No Harm,” a widely recognized humanitarian principle based on medical ethics. Instead the revised text, a compromise with the U.N., will state: “Minimize any negative effects of humanitarian action on the affected population or on the environment.” This is one of the definitions of “Do No Harm.”
Not reflected in the compromise is another meaning of the “Do No Harm” principle: the consideration to which a humanitarian response is being used as an instrument of war or if aid is an indirect part of the dynamics of the conflict. Within the context of the Syrian conflict, aid has been routinely weaponized, with the government controlling access to assistance and forcing the U.N.’s Damascus operation to comply.
The U.N. sparked further outrage this week, when the World Health Organization’s Elizabeth Hoff visited Russian-run field hospitals in Aleppo and praised the work of the Russian government in providing medical assistance. Many of those receiving treatment had fled bombing and a military campaign dominated by the Russian military.
“When we saw that picture of Elizabeth Hoff yesterday, well…” sighed a member of a Syrian NGO. “We believe the government is taking full control. They have the backup of the UNGA and the UNSC because of the veto [of Russia and China]. They have the upper hand nowadays. They can do it. Whatever the government wants to do, [the U.N. is] going to pass it.”