The United Nations altered a key humanitarian aid plan for Syria after consultation with the Assad regime, including deleting references to “besieged” areas such as Madaya where thousands of people are starving, Buzzfeed News can reveal.
UN insiders in the region and NGOs have accused the organisation of pandering to the regime by allowing it to censor the document.
A leaked copy of an original draft of the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan shows that a number of key changes were made to the final report after it was sent to the regime by the Damascus arm of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The proposal, which will form the basis of a $3.1 billion global aid appeal, was written in consultation with other UN teams and NGOs working in Syria, but the changes were made after it had been sent to the government by the Damascus office without consultation with the other authors. The edits include:
The removal of all instances of the words “besieged” and “siege” in reference to areas where nearly half a million people in Syria are thought to be trapped.
The redaction of any mention of a programme to remove landmines, unexploded bombs, and missiles.
The removal of references to violations of international humanitarian law, such as aerial attacks on medical facilities and the targeting of civilian areas.
The revelations come just weeks after shocking reports emerged of children dying of starvation in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya, which UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called a “war crime”.
The rebel-held town has been under siege by the Assad regime for many months and is surrounded by government and Hezbollah landmines.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the UN defended the final report. It said the suffering of the people trapped in the besieged areas was “horrifying”, but it had to consult with the Assad regime over its report because “as humanitarians we have to continue to talk to all the parties in this conflict”.
But a UN insider has told BuzzFeed News that the decision to change the document has horrified other teams working in the region.
“Besieged and extremely hard-to-reach areas contain millions of people living under starvation and disease,” the insider said. “If this is not prioritised within the humanitarian response, then what are humanitarian agencies really doing?"
A senior NGO member involved in producing the report said: “It completely downscales the suffering and scale of the need in those areas. That’s what’s worrying about a lot of the changes – they were politically motivated changes that were just accepted.”
In a letter to Stephen O'Brien, the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, an alliance of Syrian NGOs said they were “alarmed” at the negotiations with the Syrian government and that the regime “should be treated as a party to the conflict and should not exert any greater influence over the humanitarian response than any other party".
The document is expected to feature at a major international donor conference in London that British prime minister David Cameron will jointly chair next month.
The aid plan was supposed to be an equal collaboration between Syrian and international NGOs and the three UN offices that oversee aid distribution in Syria, based in Damascus, Jordan, and Turkey. The Syrian government was only meant to part of the consultation process.
The final draft report that was agreed upon by the NGOs and other UN offices was sent to the Syrian government for consultation in December last year, which is standard procedure.
However, after government consultations the document was reportedly supposed to be sent back to UN's Turkey and Jordan teams and NGOs for consideration. That didn’t happen. Instead, BuzzFeed News has been told, the government’s requested changes and redactions were made by the UN Damascus arm and published without informing or consulting with the other two UN offices or NGOs.
The UN employee, who wanted to stay anonymous to protect their job, accused the Damascus office of being ‘‘too close” to the Syrian government.
“There were three or four personalities on the Damascus [UN] end that went to work on it right away,” the source said. "There was a lot of toning down of some of the language, they rewrote entire sections... it was a full filtering system basically and this is what caused the bilateral uproar.
“These so-called colleagues of ours that are famed to have everyone’s best interests at heart took it upon themselves to make changes because of what the Syrian government had very obviously directed them to do.”
One of the changes that angered the whistleblower was the deletion of the words "besieged" and "siege", which were instead replaced with "locations listed in UNSCR 2139, 2165, 2191" – a reference to adopted UN Security Council resolutions that have given aid agencies access to besieged areas without the Syrian government's approval.
The redaction of the word “besieged” as Madaya became the latest face of starvation in the country also concerned NGOs involved in the report.
“Without this public attention, Madaya could have passed without any notice – and now we leave all mention of besieged towns out of the document?” said Faki Hakim, coordinator for the Syrian NGO Alliance. “How can you bring the world’s attention to what’s going on?”
The UN’s secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, described “shocking depths of inhumanity” at a press conference earlier this month and said staff who have entered Madaya reported seeing “the elderly and children, men and women, who were little more than skin and bones: gaunt, severely malnourished, so weak they could barely walk, and utterly desperate for the slightest morsel.”
“The document turned from a humanitarian aid document to a political document after the Syrian government changes, rather than centring on what the civilians really need,” said a coordinator from another NGO, who wished to remain anonymous to protect his relationship with the UN. “I totally understand that the UN should not take sides, but at least they should be on the side of the civilians.”
The redaction of any mention of the "Mine Action services" de-mining programme has also caused concern among Syrian humanitarian agencies. The programme works to remove the unexploded bombs and missiles that riddle Syria, particularly in rebel-held areas such as Madaya.
“De-mining is a humanitarian, life-saving activity, so the fact that was removed is a horrifying precedent to be setting,” one employee at an international NGO said. “The Syrian government has bombs and landmines as part of their military strategy and so it’s not in their best interest to have UN programmes come in and essentially fix that.”
The UN has repeatedly warned of violations of international humanitarian law by all parties in the Syrian conflict, including attacks on medical facilities and water stations and the blocking of aid. These kinds of violations were something UN agencies and NGOs wanted to flag up in the aid plan. But references to “indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilian areas and facilities” were removed and phrases detailing the frequency of aerial attacks on a medical facility were altered in the final document.
An NGO member working on the ground said: “The biggest problem in Syria is not a shortage of food or an earthquake – it’s an active war where every party, especially the government of Syria, is breaking international law time and time again.”
A database passed to BuzzFeed News by an NGO involved in the report details a number of further changes reportedly made by the UN Damascus office at the request of the Assad regime. It includes the downplaying of war language such as “conflict” to “crisis”, the removal of some references to gender-based violence, and the refusal to recognise NGOs not registered and approved by the Syrian government.
For those involved in the publication of the report – a process they were told would be more inclusive and substantive than before – even the small changes and redactions are alarming.
“It’s laughable that they [the UN] think they’re being impartial,” the UN insider said. “I think they’re more concerned with being neutral at a very superficial level.”
The UN’s Damascus office is reliant on the Assad regime for all their foreign staff visas, their security, and access to hard-to-reach areas, according to the UN insider and NGOs.
But Faki Hakim, of the Syrian NGO Alliance, has different concerns: “It is a matter of accountability to our own people, because they are all expecting us when describing the humanitarian situation in the country to say clearly who is actually suffering and from what.
“So when you are removing all of that context and providing a sterile document, of course there will be consequences in the longer term.
“Madaya is not the only place; there are other places under terrible besiegement for three years and we should try and find a solution, otherwise there will be other Madayas in the future.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the UN stated that the report was “finalised in consultation with a range of partners including the Government and it is normal practice. ... As humanitarians we have to continue to talk to all the parties in this conflict to obtain access.”
The statement added: “Our focus must be on making sure all the people in desperate need in Syria receive the assistance they need to survive.”