The UN repeats mistakes of the past in Madaya


Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Two weeks before an aid convoy delivered food and medicine to the 42,000 people of Madaya, a representative for the town’s council made an urgent appeal to the UN office responsible for the region. The town had been strangled since July 2015 by Bashar Al Assad’s army and the Lebanese Hizbollah. The condition was precarious: inhabitants were subsisting on grass, cats, dogs, insects, salt and water. At least 28 had died of starvation since the beginning of December. The council representative received an automated reply: the staff were away until January 5.

On New Year’s Eve, when the UN chief Ban Ki-moon wished his Twitter followers a peaceful 2016, he made no mention of the unfolding tragedy.

The inertia was broken when a determined social media campaign forced Madaya on the world’s attention and, eventually, the UN relented. On January 7, the regime agreed to allow a one-off supply of aid. The UN was quick to praise the regime for this concession, but it took another four days before it delivered aid to the town. The delay resulted from the “complexity” of synchronising deliveries to the 12,000 inhabitants of Al Fu’a and Kefraya, two pro-regime villages in Idlib encircled by rebels. On entering the town, aid workers were shocked by the “horrifying” conditions. “There are people in Madaya, but no life,” said Sajjad Malik, the UNHCR chief in Syria. “They are fighting for survival. No food, no electricity, no heating, no medicines. People did not even have the energy to complain.”

The representative for the UN’s Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Syria, Yacoub El Hillo, too was moved: “We saw a people that are desperate; a people that are cold; a people that are hungry; a people that have almost lost hope”.

But in a curious statement, Mr El Hillo added that before entering Madaya, “it was at times difficult to determine whether what we were seeing was actually fabricated or exaggerated”.

It is unclear why Mr El Hillo should’ve faced such difficulty. The conditions in Madaya had been known to the UN for months. This scepticism may be unfounded but it is consistent with the state-centric bias of the UN’s humanitarian practices. UN agencies are required to respect state sovereignty regardless of legitimacy. And in Syria, they have been reluctant to act without the consent of the regime. This has turned the UN into an unwitting agent of the status quo, allowing the regime to politicise aid. [Continue reading…]

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