Time to Rethink Protection as Syrian Mistakes Echo Sri Lanka

Elbio Oscar Rosselli Frieri, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the UN and President of the Security Council for January, chairs the meeting on the starvation crisis in the town of Madaya in Syria. United Nations, New York, January 15, 2016. (United Nations)

Residents of the Syrian town of Madaya are again reported to be near starvation. The United Nations is said to have underestimated the number suffering under blockades enforced by Bashar al-Assad’s government, adding to earlier accusations that the UN deliberately failed to highlight the problem. The revelations show much more needs to be done to implement Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Human Rights Up Front action plan and mainstream the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.

The government’s January siege on the rebel-held Madaya caused severe malnourishment among the civilian population, with as many as 70 people starving to death. As the Secretary-General has explained, both the denial of humanitarian access and the adoption of tactics designed to harm the civilian population constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In a January briefing, Ban told the UN General Assembly that “The town has been the victim of deliberate starvation. Let me be clear: the use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime. All sides, including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians, are committing atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.”

But it has also emerged that UN officials in Damascus knew about the situation in Madaya as early as July last year and, fearing that it would jeopardize already fraught relations with the Syrian government, chose not to highlight it publicly. Four senior UN officials and two aid workers told The Guardian that “access to [Syrian] officials had been prioritized over access to areas in need, meaning aid goals had often not been met.”

These individuals suggested that showing respect for Syrian sovereignty had been prioritized over humanitarian assistance, despite the fact that UN Security Council Resolution 2165 expressly permits the delivery of aid into Syria without the government’s consent. What is more, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reportedly insisted on the deletion of the words “siege” and “besieged” from the UN’s humanitarian reports and plans. Privately, some humanitarian workers have lamented the cozy relationships established between UN officials and Syrian government officials in Damascus, reporting that the UN has at times even employed members of the Assad regime.

The parallels between this and the UN’s response to the humanitarian crisis that befell Sri Lanka in 2009 are striking. Then, the organization’s humanitarian officials refused to speak out about alleged violations of international humanitarian law, fearing that the government would respond by restricting access. They even went as far as to publicly disown civilian casualty estimates publicized by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. In the end, the government restricted access anyway.

An internal inquiry led by former United Kingdom diplomat Charles Petrie found that by not speaking up in defense of the civilian population in that case, officials had gravely failed to respond adequately to the threat to the civilians population, “in contradiction with the principles and responsibilities of the UN.”

The Secretary-General responded by establishing his Human Rights Up Front action plan. Among other things, this called for the integration of human rights into “the lifeblood of the UN so all staff understand their own and the Organization’s human rights obligations,” the provision of candid advice about populations subjected to serious violations of human rights or humanitarian law, and coherent strategies of action to leverage the whole UN system in defense of human rights on the ground.

The plan has been rolled out with varied success. At around the same time, the Secretary-General called for the mainstreaming of R2P throughout the UN system. This ought to go hand-in-hand with Human Rights Up Front.

To be fair, there have been some notable successes in implementing these. The UN played a part in helping prevent election violence in Kenya in 2013, its peacekeeping mission in South Sudan adopted an “open doors” policy of allowing imperiled civilians to seek sanctuary in UN bases, and—though it was a close run thing—it prevented genocide in the Central African Republic. More recently, UN officials quickly recognized the threat of atrocity crimes in Burundi, though whether that will translate into effective preventive action remains to be seen.

Revelations about the situation in Madaya and the UN’s broader collaboration with the Assad regime shows that much more needs to be done to change the mindsets and operating practices of humanitarian and political officials. As in Sri Lanka six years ago, UN officials have tried to secure humanitarian access by remaining silent about grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law. And, as in Sri Lanka, the result has been a catastrophic failure of protection.

What is clear is that human rights still have some way to go to being put up front in the most difficult and testing of situations. A gear change may be required. Specifically, steps will have to be taken to ensure that senior officials and UN country teams don’t fall into old habits of trading defense of human rights for what is often the mirage of humanitarian access.

There is also a need to reinforce the message that protection is everyone’s business at the UN, not just the concern of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Ultimately, though, what is most needed is for the Secretary-General and his successors to lead from the front and bring member states with them.

Over the last seven years, the General Assembly has held a series of informal dialogues on R2P at which states of all shapes, sizes, and orientations have earnestly pledged their deep commitment to the prevention of atrocity crimes. It is time to test the depth of their commitment by developing, in consultation with member states, and implementing, through the appropriate UN organs, a comprehensive system-wide strategy for preventing atrocities and protecting populations.