“Too Little, Too Late" for Northwest Syria: Lethal UN Negligence and the Imperative of an Accountability Process
As the sun set on 5 February, the majority of rebel-held Northwest Syria’s 4.6 million civilians, including close to 3 million people displaced by the country’s civil war, remained in dire need of humanitarian relief. Besieged by the government and pounded by years of indiscriminate aerial bombardment, much of the civilian population lacked access to even the most basic goods which, since 2020, had trickled through Bab Al-Hawa, the one remaining border crossing open with Turkey. The next morning, therefore, when a pair of devastating earthquakes struck the region, it was obvious that international rescue and relief efforts would be desperately needed.
Despite significant failings, the emergency response in Turkey was buttressed by functioning state institutions and a dedicated disaster management service (AFAD), as well as financial and material support from the UN and dozens of national governments. Northwest Syria, by contrast, was abandoned. And while UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, lauded his office’s coordination of nearly 5,000 emergency response teams in the first 72 hours after the disaster, he omitted to mention that not a single UN rescue team – nor aid convoy – had reached tens of thousands in Northwest Syria either dying beneath the rubble or sheltering from freezing winter temperatures, with minimal supplies and makeshift shelter.
When UN aid eventually reached the Northwest via Bab Al-Hawa, local responders were distraught to find standard-issue relief packages, rather than the rescue equipment urgently needed to save those trapped under buildings, such as pneumatic rock drills, bolt cutters, search and rescue sensor equipment and/or trained canines, and other critical tools. Due to the lack of materials, the White Helmets were forced to terminate rescue operations in the Northwest after just 108 hours. In Turkey, by contrast, adequate equipment ensured survivors continued to be pulled from the rubble for thirteen days after the initial tremors.
Moreover, while Griffiths met extensively with Turkish ministers and mobilized UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams in Turkey and government-controlled Syria, in Northwest Syria, where needs were most acute, local responders were left to mobilize entirely of their own initiative. UN officials blamed damage on the road to Bab Al-Hawa for delayed aid convoys, yet corpses of Syrians who had died in Turkey streamed back across the border apparently unimpeded. UN officials stressed the need to patiently negotiate the opening of alternative cross-border access as thousands were left helpless beneath the debris. Although other parties to the conflictobstructed the delivery of aid, and while Griffiths later apologised for failings in the relief process, neither fact absolves the UN from the egregious errors, which cost innumerable lives. In the eyes of the White Helmets – and those of so many in Northwest Syria – the UN response was simply “too little, too late.”
Alongside the Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, responsibility for the failure to deliver urgent rescue and relief aid to the Northwest lies in part on the UN Office of Legal Affairs, headed by the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel Miguel de Serpa Soares. Contrary to the well-founded legal opinion supporting the viability of cross-border aid delivery, OLA refused to publicly sanction humanitarian operations without either the assent of the Syrian government or a Security Council Resolution. As early as 2014, a group of pre-eminent jurists and legal experts expounded a strong case for the legality of cross-border operations, lamenting an “overly cautious interpretation of international humanitarian law.” Not only was a renewed case for the legality of cross-border operations published in the weeks prior to the earthquakes, but the argument was also corroborated by an in-depth report commissioned by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Diplomatic sources informed SJAC that, in the days following the earthquakes, OLA was approached by several representatives from UN Member States, including a permanent member of the Security Council, asking OLA for a decision to authorize the provision of assistance to Syrians in NW Syria. Despite the strength of this argument, OLA refused to offer a legal pronouncement. Instead, the UN’s approach continued to revolve around “discrete diplomacy" intended to avoid “the aid becoming even more politicized.”
The Syrian Government, and Russian and Chinese allies on the Security Council, have argued that cross-border aid without the government’s consent violates Syria’s national sovereignty. However, the International Court of Justice has made clear that the provision of strictly humanitarian aid to persons in another country, regardless of their political affiliations or objectives, cannot be regarded as unlawful intervention, particularly after a humanitarian disaster such as an earthquake. Even still, UN diplomats considering cross-border action were concerned not only with its legality, but also with the geopolitical ramifications of a more robust response. Considering the dire costs of the delay, UN officials should have put such considerations aside and urgently proceeded with cross-border aid. The people of Northwest Syria needed – and deserved – immediate cross-border support. Through design or neglect, the failure to meet those needs must be accounted for.
The price of overlooking these errors is clear – the loss of countless more innocent lives. In Syria, previous instances of UN negligence have already had fatal consequences. In 2016, the OCHA was complicit in whitewashing the Syrian government’s role in besieging populations under its control, conceding alterations to the 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan at the behest of the Syrian government to portray it in a more favorable light. In 2020, SJAC reported on the UN’s sharing information on the location of hospitals, later used to direct bombing campaigns. While the Secretary-General formed an internal Board of Inquiry to investigate the matter, the UN ultimately failed to take responsibility for its role in endangering civilian lives. Similarly egregious cases elsewhere, including in Haiti, where justice efforts continue to prove fruitless ten years after the UN’s direct involvement in an outbreak of cholera, show that the current system cannot hold the UN accountable for its repeated failings.
Where previous UN-enacted accountability measures have fallen short, the UN now has an opportunity to take meaningful corrective action that requires the UN accept responsibility for its nonperformance. Considering these and the UN’s historic failures, SJAC calls for an effective internal investigation into why UN rescue and relief aid was delayed in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Leading member states, including the U.S. and EU member states, should pressure the UN Secretary General to take a corrective course of action to not only repair the UN’s image, but to restore Syrians’ long-lost faith in the UN.
The UN should create an internal Board of Inquiry to investigate failings including: (1) why the Office of the Legal Adviser did not publicly authorize cross-border aid in a time of natural disaster, absent a UNSC Resolution approving it; (2) why UNSC members did not, as a matter of priority, put the situation in the Northwest Syria on the calendar, instead of waiting 5-7 days before considering the matter in the council; (3) why OCHA was not authorized, or did not consider itself authorized to conduct cross-border aid; including why OCHA did not utilize the UNSC-approved Bab Al-Hawa crossing point. It should also assess and definitively determine whether cross-border aid requires a UNSC resolution in a full, public report.
Even with the formation of a Board of Inquiry, there are no clear internal mechanisms for holding UN staff accountable. For that reason, SJAC calls on Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, and Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs, Miguel de Serpa Soares, to show that apologies are not hollow and tender their resignations in recognition of the UN’s abject failure to the people of Northwest Syria. The Board of Inquiry should also recommend meaningful accountability measures, including staff dismissals and reparations to victims. The UN must not only acknowledge its wrongdoing but take steps to own the responsibility both of what happened and what failed to happen in the aftermath of the earthquake.
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