Human rights organizations recently revealed a flaw in the aid system provided to Syria, through procurement practices by United Nations agencies, noting that the security company of Bashar al-Assad's brother received millions of dollars.
The new report of the two organizations comes after dozens of previous documentation of the theft and corruption of UN agencies in Syria and providing hundreds of millions of dollars to indirectly support the Assad regime and its militias, in addition to its involvement in concluding contracts with pro-regime suppliers whose identities have been deliberately concealed over the past years.
It is noteworthy that the continuous granting of contracts by the UN to entities controlled by the regime shows the extent to which the head of the Syrian regime has been able to divert humanitarian aid to an additional source of new income for his cash-strapped government, according to observers.
Ethical and Human Scandals
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Syrian Legal Development Program (SLDP) said in their report on January 27, 2022 that “UN agencies facilitate or contribute to human rights violations, through procurement practices within areas controlled by the Syrian regime.”
“The defect is represented in the failure of the UN agencies to adequately investigate the UN suppliers and its partners in Syria about the extent of their commitment to human rights principles,” the report clarified.
The two organizations said that this led to serious problems related to the financing of entities violating the rights of Syrians, stressing that the UN has put its reputation at great risk because of its abusive funding.”
“The bidding and procurement documents submitted by the researchers did not include the human rights standards that suppliers are expected to abide by,” the report added.
“Procurement officials rarely actually search for human rights disqualification criteria, they rely heavily (apparently) on self-reporting by potential suppliers, or UN sanctions lists,” it noted.
These sanctions lists include only Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and it does not include other rights violators, including those associated with the Assad regime and its militias.
“As a result, the UN has contracted with entities that have been sanctioned by the United States or the European Union for their involvement in human rights abuses and the repression of the civilian population,” according to the report.
The two organizations stressed that the UN is bound by international law to respect human rights.
The UN Procurement Manual states that the UN is committed to doing business only with suppliers who share its values of respect for human rights and human dignity.
Syrian activists recently circulated a Facebook post of the UNHCR, in which its office in Damascus announced on December 2017 a tender to purchase iPhone 8 phones (that is, in the year of its release) at a price of more than a thousand dollars for its employees, most of whom are loyal to the Assad regime.
In addition, the UN offices in Damascus, Lattakia, Tartous, Qamishli and Aleppo have conducted several tenders during the last four years, most of them have nothing to do with the priorities of the UN, which claims to give priority to helping the displaced and refugees affected by the war in the country.
Activists pointed out that “while the UNHCR in Syria is supposed to launch major humanitarian campaigns to support the displaced, the UN agencies have spent the money originally intended for those who live in tents and suffer from cold and hunger to buy smart TVs, tablets and furniture for its offices, and providing agricultural support, sewing, carpentry and blacksmith equipment, generators, batteries and heaters to villages loyal to the Syrian regime.”
It is noteworthy that ten years of war destroyed the infrastructure of Syria, killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions of others, and 11.7 million Syrians are now dependent on humanitarian aid.
In turn,The Guardian said in October 2021 that “the Syrian regime embezzled millions of dollars in foreign support funds, by forcing the international aid agencies of the UN to use the official exchange rate.”
Funding the Assad Regime
In their new report, the two human rights organizations cited examples of direct procurement practices from violators, in addition to examples that required further UN scrutiny of secondary partners prior to contracting with them.
The evidence of the human rights report revealed in one example that between 2015 and 2020, UN agencies awarded Shorouk for Protection and Guard security service contracts worth more than $4 million.
This private security company is linked to Maher al-Assad, brother of the head of the regime and commander of the Fourth Division, which is considered one of the most violating formations of al-Assad forces against Syrians, such as extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests.
In addition to its association with drug manufacturing and smuggling operations, as confirmed by Western press investigations.
The company's staff includes, according to the report, retired and former members of several militias, and its leadership consists of former members of the Syrian army and intelligence services, including the Air Force and General Intelligence.
In another example, specifically in 2019, the UNDP contracted with the Aleppo Defenders Corps, which became a service provider in Aleppo, such as supporting the repair of pipelines, water supply and rubble removal in one of the neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo.
The Defenders Corps is one of the most prominent militias formed by Iran and participated in the forced displacement of civilians in Aleppo, and a living example of the Iranian project aimed at economic domination and penetration within the Syrian army's military formations and forces.
In the same context, the Syrian journalist Suhail Al-Ghazi indicated in a statement to Al-Estiklal that “all companies and associations in regime-controlled areas that the UN organizations deal with are mired in corruption and in direct relations with militias and security officers responsible for violations of international law such as enforced disappearances and torture.”
As for the reasons, Al-Ghazi explained that “they are summarized in the corruption of the UN agencies that have been going on for years, where people are hired who are only interested in obtaining funding and implementing projects without caring about the consequences of dealing with the militias.”
“The commitment of the UN to the principle of neutrality has become a negative thing, and it is being exploited by dictatorial regimes, such as the Assad regime, to benefit from the support and funds instead of the real beneficiaries, which reduces donors' confidence for Syrian refugees and displaced persons,” he noted.
“The evaluation of the role of the UN organizations within the regime’s areas is still weak, this is due to the regime’s interference in the work of organizations, and the employees’ lack of interest in doing what needs to be done to help the Syrians, as most of them come from pro-regime backgrounds,” Al-Ghazi also pointed out.
A report issued by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), on July 22, 2021, documented the role of the UN in supporting the Syrian regime by granting contracts to the entities it controls.
“The list of UN procurement announced in 2020 concealed the identity of the suppliers of 212 contracts related to Syria, with a total value of $44.4 million, under the pretext that there were security or special reasons for the suppliers,” the institute noted.
“The UN paid $14.9 million in 2020 for the four Seasons hotel, where UN staff reside in Damascus, with a total expenditure of $70.1 million on the hotel since 2014,” the report also revealed.
“The spending of these amounts came despite the US Treasury's imposition of sanctions on the aforementioned hotel in 2019 due to the role that its owner plays in financing the Syrian regime,” the report indicated.
It is noteworthy that the Syrian regime is well aware of the importance of UN aid and its role in supporting its economy, that is why it and its international allies are always trying to stop cross-border aid and control the UN aid sector inside Syria to achieve political, security and economic gains.
According to an investigation published by the Guardian in August 2016, the UN awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with Bashar al-Assad, as part of an aid program.
The investigation revealed that businessmen whose companies are subject to Western sanctions received large sums of money from the UN mission, as well as government departments and charities.
Such as the Syrian Trust Foundation for Development, which was established by the wife of the head of the regime, Asma al-Assad, and the Al-Bustan Association, which was established by the cousin of the head of the regime, businessman Rami Makhlouf.
The UN has also paid more than 13 million dollars to the government of the Syrian regime to support agriculture in its areas of control, as well as more than four million dollars in financial resources and fuel to institutions affiliated with the regime, and the World Health Organization has spent more than five million dollars to support the Syrian National Blood Bank.
In the first reaction to the Guardian investigation, 73 Syrian NGOs announced on September 8, 2016 that they had stopped cooperating with the UN and its relief organizations in Syria, after the recent accusations of the UN of helping the Syrian regime through humanitarian aid programs, which are supposed to serve civilians in need in the besieged areas.
In turn, Stephane Dujarric, Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, commented on the message of the Syrian organizations by saying: “In order to work in any region or country, we need the approval of the responsible regime. Many countries, including Syria, insist that we work with organizations and partners accredited to them. So we have no other choice but them.”
In January 2016, Middle East Eye revealed that the Syrian regime had interfered in writing the reports issued by the UN office in Damascus, and had manipulated their formulation.
“One of the UN agencies allowed the Syrian regime to change the word (conflict) to (crisis), and deleting the word (besieged) and replacing it with the word (difficult to access), as part of a report talking about the city of Madaya in Damascus countryside, which was besieged and bombed by the Syrian regime at that time,” the report said.
“The UN underestimated the amount of war crimes the regime has committed in the country, when it announced that the number of besieged people in Syria at that time was about 393,700 people, at the time, Doctors Without Borders estimated the number at about one million,” it added.