On April 6, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres released a summary of the report issued by the Board of Inquiry (BOI) which he created to investigate seven attacks against hospitals and schools in Idlib since 2018. The BOI found it highly probable that “the Government of Syria and/or its allies” conducted most of the attacks, while an opposition group probably conducted one attack. Following the release, there has been significant criticism that the report fails to make definitive conclusions that the Russian government was responsible for at least some of the attacks, in spite of strong evidence of its involvement. But the most egregious omission from the BOI’s report was its failure to identify the role of the UN in facilitating attacks that it intended to prevent and how the UN can avoid doing so in the future.
What is deconfliction?
Deconfliction is an information-sharing mechanism created by the UN to prevent unintentional attacks on specially protected facilities, such as hospitals and schools. These facilities enjoy special protection under international humanitarian law (IHL) and those operating the facilities were asked to share their coordinates with the UN Office for Civil and Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). OCHA then reported this information to the warring parties, namely the Russian government and the US-led coalition forces, to help them avoid targeting the locations for military strikes. Coordinates were not shared directly with the Syrian government or armed opposition groups.
Many of the sites reported to the UN through the deconfliction mechanism ended up being the subject of armed attacks, including barrel bombs and bombing by fixed-wing aircraft. On July 30, 2019, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Peru, Poland, Kuwait, the Dominican Republic, and Indonesia responded by delivering a demarche – a formal diplomatic petition – to the UNSG questioning the failure to investigate 14 such incidents. Several days later, on August 1, 2019, the UNSG ordered the creation of the Board of Inquiry to investigate seven of the attacks on areas in northwest Syria, particularly facilities on the deconfliction list and UN-supported facilities in the area.
Of central importance to the BOI’s mandate was to make recommendations on what the UN should do “to avoid or at least minimize the recurrence of such incidents or to mitigate their effects.” In other words, the purpose of the BOI was to determine what went wrong with the deconfliction mechanism. Why was it that hospitals and schools, which are subject to special protection under international law, became the subject of attack after their locations were reported to the United Nations?
What was the purpose of the BOI’s investigation?
What the BOI does say about UN failures is quite limited. It says that the absence of UN OCHA staff in northwest Syria at the time of the incidents (due to concerns for their safety) was problematic because their presence was necessary to ensure adherence to humanitarian principles, to promote respect for international law, to assess any breaches, and to demonstrate solidarity with civilians (paras 82-84). The BOI notes that thematic clusters (divisions within OCHA) were not required to share information about attacks with one another. Where such attacks were reported, they were not verified or recorded systematically let alone investigated (paras 91-92). The BOI notes that a guidance document explaining the purpose of the deconfliction mechanism emphasized that “the mechanism was designed to identify and protect humanitarian personnel, offices, facilities, distribution sites, IDP sites, routes that mobile clinics took and so on.” But incredibly, “OCHA had cautioned against use of the mechanism as a ‘protection tool’” (para. 94).
The BOI recommends that the UN raise awareness about IHL among all groups, attempt to install UN staff in northwest Syria, engage with non-state actors, and clearly identified implementing partners working with the UN. It further recommends that any attacks on facilities that are identified through the deconfliction mechanism should be reported in a systematic way.
Finally, the BOI recommends that OCHA rename the deconfliction mechanism, clarify its guidance document to “directly notify all parties to the conflict, including the Government of Syria, of the deconfliction information,” require groups to acknowledge receipt of information, require reporting of attacks, inform implementing partners of OCHA’s follow-up to attacks, and maintain better record-keeping.
Where the UN failed
The role of the deconfliction mechanism was clear since at least the 2016 bombing of Aleppo. Dr. Hamza Al Khatib, who ran the last hospital in besieged Aleppo, recalls that everyone knew at the time that the Russians and Syrians were targeting hospitals (@6:45). Yet a UN representative approached Dr. Al Khatib asking him to share the coordinates of his hospital with the UN’s deconfliction mechanism to avoid Russian attack. The UN representative refused to give assurances that if he shared the coordinates, and the hospital was then bombed, the UN would blame Russia for the attack. Despite the pressure, Dr. Al Khatib refused to share the hospital’s location with the deconfliction mechanism, noting this was the reason it survived the bombardments.
So how did the Syrian government and its allies obtain information that allowed it to target facilities that should have been protected in Idlib? The BOI makes no attempt to engage with these issues. The BOI only notes “it remained unclear whether deconfliction information had been transmitted and received by it [the Syrian Government].” Did the Russian government share deconfliction information with the Syrian government (as expected) that was then used for military targeting in direct violation of IHL?
The report instead doubles down on information sharing, concluding that the UN thematic clusters should have reported incidents to one another and the location of humanitarian objects should have been shared with the Syrian government as well as the Russian government and armed opposition groups.
If the deconfliction mechanism helped to facilitate attacks on hospitals and schools, an allegation supported by strong evidence, sharing of information was the cause of the problem; not its solution. Deconfliction only works if the parties to the conflict intend to use the information to avoid attacks on protected objects, such as hospitals and schools. As noted in the report, the UN was put on notice in July 2019 that the Syrian government considered that “all health-care facilities in Idlib Governorate had been overrun by terrorist groups, that they no longer served their original purpose, that they could not be considered hospitals, health-care centers or even civilian objects under international humanitarian law” (para. 42). Although the BOI did not find the Syrian government’s assertions to be supported by evidence with regard to the seven locations within its mandate, the UN was nonetheless on notice that any location information provided to the Syrian government would be used to target hospitals.
Did the Syrian government’s July 2019 announcement provide the UN its first opportunity to understand that the deconfliction mechanism was being flipped on its head, and is used for military targeting instead of humanitarian protection? Or should it have known to act sooner? Once this information was known, the solution was not to share further information with the party suspected of using the information for the bombing. The solution was to stop facilitating attacks by providing targeting information to warring parties. The BOI should have recognized the deconfliction mechanism for what it was: a complete failure. Of course, the perpetrators of these attacks (“the Government of Syria and/or its allies”) should be condemned for the acts and subject to prosecution. However, the UN must take a more serious look at its own lapses in the deconfliction mechanism if it hopes to avoid facilitating such attacks in the future.