The UN is impartial in Syria as it is elsewhere

UN humanitarian convoy traveling to besieged areas in Syria. Credit: WFP/Basel Hassan

The Guardian has this week published articles asserting that the Syrian Government “controls UN aid” and that the UN has channeled funding intended for life-saving humanitarian response to the “Assad regime” (Reports, 30 and 31 August).

The UN welcomes public scrutiny of its humanitarian operations in Syria. Our programmes, partners, contracting and financial details are published online, available to the media and public alike.

However, the 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.

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. This fundamental notion of impartiality guides our work and is non-negotiable, in Syria or anywhere else.

Bread distribution in Qudsaya, Damascus. Credit: SARC 2015

Inside Syria, as in other countries, UN agencies must work with key government departments to support the delivery of public services and humanitarian relief. Some governments, such as the one in 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. In areas not controlled by the government, we work with local partners that may not be authorised by the government.

As political solutions remain elusive, humanitarian needs grow exponentially. The UN is doing everything we can to reach all 13.5 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Our humanitarian imperative compels us to pursue every means of delivery, and though far from enough, we are saving lives every day in Syria. In 2016, the UN and its partners have provided food to 5.7 million people a month. We have delivered over 7m medical treatments to the most vulnerable. Our relief convoys have crossed active frontlines and our aircraft have air-dropped aid to reach over 1.2 million civilians, many more than once, in besieged, hard-to-reach and other priority locations in which people desperately need our help.

In Al Waer, the ERC visited a children’s hospital that was badly damaged, and in which patients of all ages are now treated. Credit: OCHA/ Bassam Diab

Cross-border operations are a vital part of the response to deliver assistance by crossing international borders into Syria, predominantly to areas not under government control. When we deliver to these areas crossing borders, we notify, but do not seek explicit approval from, the Syrian government. Since the security council authorised this in July 2014, we have sent nearly 10,000 trucks loaded with life-saving UN aid across the authorised borders from Turkey and Jordan.

The conflict in Syria is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Civilians across Syria are in desperate need and are crying out for our help. We cannot deprive people of aid because there is pressure to disengage from a party to the conflict. 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.

-Stephen O’Brien
UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator

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