UN covered up Assad’s killing of humanitarian workers - exclusive

The UN has allegedly covered up the murder of two humanitarian workers in Syria by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

People stand near near rubble of damaged buildings in the northern Aleppo countryside in Syria in December 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
People stand near near rubble of damaged buildings in the northern Aleppo countryside in Syria in December 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The United Nations has allegedly concealed the murder by the regime of President Bashar Assad of two humanitarian staffers who were part of a relief convoy between the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs in 2016.

A year-long investigation into alleged UN misconduct in Syria can now reveal that UN officials in 2016 appeared to have worked at cross purposes and did not publicize an internal UN message saying that Assad’s military had killed two aid workers.

A UN source in the Middle East said the reluctance to investigate and report the alleged murder of aid workers can be explained by the global organization’s fears it would be banned from conducting future relief missions in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Mohammad Al Abdallah, a Syrian human rights and democracy researcher and activist who is executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, said the UN had accepted a “poisoned and unhealthy” relationship with the Damascus government, in which the Syrian regime has allowed them to access places where they operate in exchange for dealing with the regime or concealing its violations.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses the new members of parliament in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on August 12, 2020 (credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses the new members of parliament in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on August 12, 2020 (credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

When confronted about its failure to disclose the killings, including in its public documents, the UN proceeded to delete evidence on its webpage that was based on a disclosure from a local UN official for Syria.

After press queries were sent to the UN in June, the international body scrubbed its website of a video news conference that took place in Geneva on April 28, 2016, when an Arabic translator noted the death of one person during an aid mission.

Jan Egeland, humanitarian adviser to the UN special envoy for Syria who delivered English-language remarks to reporters at the Geneva event, did not mention the Arabic-language translation about the death of the staffer. The UN declined to say why it withdrew the video soon after queries about the failure to mention the death in Syria.

When questioned about Egeland’s news conference, Michelle Delaney, senior media adviser to Egeland in his current position at the Norwegian Refugee Council, wrote, “We weren’t in a position to answer your inquiry directly, but the office of the special envoy to Syria at the UN in Geneva said they would get back to you on it.”

According to the transcript of Egeland’s 2016 media conference, he said, “Two convoys of the UN took place in the Homs area [in the] last three days. One of them was hit by a mortar, another one had to stop several times because there were air raids on the road and in the places they went to.”

Egeland’s statement ostensibly corresponds with what a UN local official for Syria said – as a whistleblower – that Assad’s regime carried out military strikes against two humanitarian convoys. The UN local official for Syria, who requested anonymity fearing workplace retaliation, said that a review of internal UN messages revealed that a report was sent about the killing of the two aid workers on April 25, 2016.

“Humanitarian convoy affected by shelling on the road to Homs,” the message reads. “Due to the clashes and shelling, a planned inter-cluster humanitarian convoy was restricted. Reports on casualties and two humanitarian workers have been killed.”

Asked about the deaths, Vanessa Huguenin, a Geneva-based spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), wrote in an email that regarding “security incidents involving humanitarian convoys and humanitarian workers in Syria for the requested period, all our reports are available in the public domain.”

HUGUENIN SAID that “since the beginning of the conflict, hundreds of humanitarian workers have reportedly been killed.”

A review of OCHA’s public reports covering the time frame during which the Assad regime allegedly attacked the relief convoy showed the agency failed to cite the deaths of the two aid workers.

Jenifer Fenton, a spokesperson for the UN special envoy for Syria, sent the reports.

“Speaking in general, the UN has consistently reminded all parties that attacks on civilians, including humanitarian workers and civilian infrastructure, are absolutely unacceptable,” Fenton said. “The UN has also long stressed that safe, sustained and unhindered access by all humanitarian parties to provide life-saving assistance to all in need must be guaranteed.”

On the same day that Egeland held his news conference in Geneva, Stephen O’Brien, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, submitted a statement on the situation in Syria to the Security Council in New York.

The former British MP wrote in his statement to the council that “a mortar struck in front of one of the vehicles in the convoy to Rastan, injuring the driver and killing a civilian. Let me condemn such attacks.”

Rastan is near Homs, and the convoy referenced by O’Brien could easily be the one that the local UN official in Syria cited in the internal message.

O’Brien’s report, however, did not cite the killing of two aid workers. Rather, he stated that a “civilian” died and a driver was injured.

Huguenin, the OCHA spokeswoman, declined to reveal the names and nationalities of the civilian and driver, telling us, “We are not in a position to answer this question.”

In response to a query, O’Brien said he “gave the fullest facts as I knew them at the time of making the statement and [as they] were known to my team in New York. I shall never be able to forget the truly abominable scenes of carnage I personally witnessed when I visited Homs around that time in 2016.

“I was known for not pulling my punches at the UNSC, not least as I felt as the senior diplomat on the humanitarian/emergency brief that it was my duty to lay out as much as I knew to ensure the members of the UNSC were aware of the facts at any given time, even if it offended some.

“I am confident my statement to the UNSC will have been the best information that I and my excellent and diligent team had at the time I gave the Statement − we were often drafting it right up to the time I was walking into the Chamber to ensure it was as ‘live’ as possible.”

The exclusive report was jointly published by The Jerusalem Post and the US government Arabic-language news organization Alhurra, where a longer version of the investigation into alleged UN corruption appeared.