BEIRUT (HPD) — The United Nations has paid out tens of millions of dollars in contracts to companies associated with people supported by the Syrian government and sanctioned for human rights violations, according to a report by two nongovernmental organizations.
The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011 as an uprising, has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced half of the country’s 23 million people before the conflict. More than 80% of Syrians now live in poverty, leaving much of the population dependent on humanitarian aid.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has the military backing of Russia, Iran and the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, has since been able to retake much of the country. But Syria remains mired in a severe economic crisis. An outbreak of cholera recently infected some 20,000 people, reflecting the country’s plight.
A report analyzing the list of 100 United Nations vendors in Syria in 2019 and 2020 by the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, a non-profit organization, and the Syrian Legal Development Program, a non-governmental organization, concluded that almost half of the contracts in those two years were with suppliers implicated in human rights violations or who could have benefited from them. The report was published on Tuesday.
Nearly a quarter of UN contracts in that period were with companies wholly or partially owned by individuals sanctioned by the United States, Britain or the European Union for human rights violations, amounting to some $68 million in total. .
One of them is Fadi Saqr, who is close to Assad and who heads the National Defense Forces in Damascus, a pro-government militia that executed dozens of blindfolded prisoners in 2013 and buried them in a mass grave near the Syrian capital.
The UN told The Associated Press it was aware of the report and would comment on its findings soon.
“The processes of the UN agencies fall short of due diligence,” Eyad Hamid, a senior researcher at the Syrian Legal Development Program, told The Associated Press. They also limit themselves to checking who is the legal owner of a company instead of checking who is the “ultimate beneficiary of the company”, he pointed out.
Activist groups have accused the Syrian government and its associates of withholding or diverting aid to families in opposition-controlled areas or manipulating exchange rates to fill state coffers.
“We understand that you can’t deliver aid to Syria without cost… The question for me is how do we minimize that cost,” Karam Shaar, director of the Syria program at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, told the HPD. “I think it is now established that the cost of doing business through the United Nations in regime-controlled Syria is by far the highest compared to aid provided by other organizations in other controlled areas.”
Shaar pointed out that while aid can sometimes only be channeled through United Nations agencies, donor states should divert funding to international NGOs that comply with unilateral sanctions, specifically from the United States and Britain.
“Although the UN says it is not subject to unilateral sanctions, NGOs are accountable in the countries where they are based,” he added.
The HPD published the results of an investigation last week showing that the World Health Organization representative in Damascus had embezzled millions of dollars and covered members of the Syrian government with gifts such as computers, gold coins and cars.