Saturday, June 09, 2012

Syria: Principles or pragmatism? Negotiating access in Syria

Aid distributions in Syria need to be scaled up to meet growing needs
Photo: Ibrahim Malla/Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Aid distributions in Syria need to be scaled up to meet growing needs

Source: IRIN
  • UN and Syria have agreed to a humanitarian response plan
  • Humanitarians had to accept of “second-best” options to obtain access
  • Principles of impartiality, neutrality, humanity were not compromised
  • But donors remain skeptical of how plan will be implemented 
A Syrian government response plan, agreed with the UN after six weeks of negotiations, satisfies minimum humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality but falls short of the unhindered access the international humanitarian community was calling for, according to aid workers.

“Comfortable, or not comfortable, we simply have to accept that situation, and probably live with some second-best options,” Claus Sorensen, director-general of the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO), told IRIN. “If we are not allowed to make pragmatic solutions, then I think we will basically shut ourselves out of humanitarian assistance in a few difficult situations.”

The plan is based largely on an earlier proposal by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It allows nine UN agencies and seven international NGOs to provide aid for one million people affected by more than 15 months of unrest in Syria: people who have been injured, who cannot access food as easily, who have been displaced, or no longer have income or access to basic services.

The plan also allows the UN to set up field offices in four locations of unrest and the government has promised to lift bureaucratic blockages to aid, like delays in issuing visas and clearing shipments at customs. But it has not allowed new international NGOs to enter Syria to scale up aid, and has limited the response to 44 specific projects. It also maintains a strong level of control in all relief operations.

While the balance has left some humanitarians wondering whether the aid will be neutral, reach the right people, and be combined with adequate oversight, at the highest levels most are satisfied that it has not crossed any red lines in humanitarianism. But getting there took time.

The back story

The Syrian government started negotiations with the view that it should control the whole process of humanitarian response through its line ministries, said Radhouane Nouicer, UN regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, who led the negotiations.

According to diplomats and aid workers, the Syrian government was wary of a large foreign aid presence on its soil, seeing it as a Trojan horse that could lead to international intervention. Negotiations focused on convincing them otherwise.

“You cannot say they are altogether unreasonable when they are skeptical,” Sorensen said of the government. “I don’t think as humanitarians you have many other options than persuasion and trust-building… We have to say to them with conviction, we are neutral, and we have to then make sure that the people we finance are also behaving.”

Those who have dealt with the government say it also did not see itself as in need of help, far more accustomed to giving than receiving assistance, having long been a refuge for Palestinians and Iraqis.

Finally, OCHA, the drafter of the response plan, was a foreign body to them, with which they had never worked and likely did not trust.

The government saw the International Committee of the Red Cross as preferable, because of its “neutrality and well-recognized status of international competence”, according to Mikhail Lebedev, deputy permanent representative of the Russian mission to the UN in Geneva. The World Food Programme (WFP) was also seen by the government as “effective and unbiased”, he said.

It took heavy lobbying by the Russians, the Chinese, and the UN - from Nouicer to the highest ranking humanitarian official Valerie Amos - to bring a change of course.

“We explained to the Syrian authorities that they would win by opening up to international humanitarian agencies,” Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva, the Russian mission’s third secretary, told IRIN. “They will win not only from the humanitarian point of view, but politically they will win. It has never been and will never be profitable and wise to shut the doors in front of the international community.”

The negotiations covered the broad strokes down to the minute details. The word “displaced” was removed from an original proposal by OCHA and replaced with “those who left their homes”. Reference to the impact of sanctions and the sovereignty of the state was added in. 

By and large, however, the final document is very much aligned with OCHA’s original draft, said John Ging, director of OCHA’s Coordination and Response Division.

“It’s exactly what we could have hoped for,” he told IRIN, “but it’s a question now of whether it’s going to be implemented or not and what is the timeframe for implementation, which for us is immediate.”

Access at what price?

But others say that while the agreement is a sign of progress, it is by no means perfect.

It allows only for those international NGOs already present in Syria before the crisis (helping Iraqi refugees) to expand their operations to those affected by the current crisis. Larger NGOs like Save the Children and Médecins sans Frontières, which have repeatedly tried to gain access to Syria, have so far not been successful. Save the Children, among others, has contingency plans, and stocks ready at the border waiting to be allowed in.

NGOs say getting hold of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) - understood to be the gate-keeper for new registrations of NGOs - has been a challenge, given its focal role in the emergency response; and there is much confusion about how best to make a request to operate in Syria.

In addition, the response plan will be managed by the government, with a government focal point in charge of the implementation of humanitarian projects, and a government focal point for each of the sectors who will coordinate with the lead agencies in the UN. The participation of any NGOs or community-based organizations must be approved by a steering committee, chaired by the vice-minister for foreign affairs and expatriates, but also including Nouicer and a representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

According to Nouicer, all assessments, distributions or rehabilitations of public clinics or schools would be coordinated with government bodies, which he viewed as normal and legitimate.

“They are the day-to-day managers of these facilities and they have their say on the usefulness of giving priority to this clinic or… this school; because they know better,” Nouicer said. “They also have data; they have knowledge; they have needs that have been expressed by the people.”

This system would not prevent aid workers from providing relief in rebel-held areas, he added.

But many modalities - for example the role of SARC under the new arrangement - do not yet seem clear.

“SARC will be informed [of every aid operation],” Nouicer said, “but not necessarily authorizing, accompanying and being on the ground with [the UN and NGOs]. That is our interpretation of the agreement. But it remains to be seen.”

This is slightly different from the government’s interpretation. At the third meeting of the Syria Humanitarian Forum in Geneva on 5 June, in which the response plan was announced, Syria’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Faysal Hamoui, said UN-accredited organs would deliver aid “under the supervision of the SARC and in coordination with the competent national authorities,” according to a copy of his speech provided to IRIN by his office. “This is to make sure that humanitarian assistance is delivered to those in need with no discrimination,” he added.

While an agreement has been made “in principle”, one non-Western diplomat said, “the devil is in the details.”

Allowing humanitarians to go anywhere at any time, as the US has called for, is “unimagineable” for security reasons, and removing bureaucratic obstacles will be a “long process”, the diplomat said.

Aid workers worry the implementation of this plan will not be as smooth and immediate as promised, with Amos, the emergency relief coordinator, telling CNN: “It’s going to be very hard to catch up” to the needs.

“Between a rock and a hard place”

“We are all very skeptical if not cynical about the whole thing and we don’t really expect much,” said an NGO representative. “We’ve been very disappointed for a very long time and it has been hard to tell positive developments from delaying tactics. Right now, however, there seem to be some signs of positive engagement.”

Still, donors remain skeptical that normal monitoring and accountability requirements will be adequately met.

“To put it very bluntly, the donors are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said ECHO’s Sorensen, “in the sense that our citizens want to support, and put us under enormous pressure to do something… then on the other side, the difficulties the humanitarian organizations have in actually getting a structured, honest analysis of the situation on the ground and agreement of the sovereign state. This is the tension we have.”

According to one aid worker who worked in Syria, some past deliveries by the UN were simply “dumped” in a SARC warehouse, with no ability to monitor where they ended up.

OCHA’s Ging said he and those who negotiated this agreement in Syria were very aware of the “clear risks” involved.

“We’re not naïve,” he said. “I understand all the different sentiments that are there: There is pessimism, there is cynicism, there is skepticism; there is optimism, there is hope…

“But everybody is going to have to move beyond their emotional reaction [and] their opinion and decide whether they’re going to take the risks - including on the donors side investing money - for success.”

Ging, Sorensen and Nouicer insist the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality were red lines during the negotiations and will continue to be red lines during the implementation, which OCHA will monitor for breaches.

For all of them, the best approach is neither strictly pragmatic nor principled, but a marriage of the two.

“Because we know that people are dying or suffering unnecessarily in the absence of an effective humanitarian response, for us it is an incredibly difficult struggle as to how you move things forward in such a circumstance, where everything is to be negotiated,” Ging said. “At the end of the day, it’s about operationalizing a response with integrity.”

Indeed, Syrians were growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of action while that balance was being struck.

“We were expecting more from the humanitarian organizations,” said one religious leader from the central city of Homs, still reeling from months of sieges and conflict and in need of children’s milk, medicine, and psycho-social support, among other things. People like him have increasingly been filling the gap in the absence of a big international aid response. “Governments don’t allow international organizations to work. It’s up to organizations to find a way of working with people to provide help,” he told IRIN. “Instead of sitting in their offices, they need to do something.”

What do we mean by access?

Some agencies have been doing so. WFP, for example, has been distributing food through SARC since August 2011 and recently doubled its target to reach 500,000 people every month.

An aid worker with another agency, which has been quietly but successfully distributing relief under a separate agreement with the government, said the government had not refused any of the agency’s requests for movement. He suggested the “no-fanfare” approach was more effective than loud advocacy.

Aid workers have also questioned whether the UN would have the capacity to deliver if the full access they have been demanding was granted; they point to challenges recruiting the right people, a lack of aid infrastructure in Syria, and heavy restrictions imposed by UN security rules.

“Not all the challenges are in the hands of the government. We have our own weakness,” said one high ranking UN official. “I hope the UN will be up to the challenge.”

But in the case of Syria, aid workers say, access means more than UN agencies having physical access to the field: it means having NGOs present who can implement the projects; issuing visas quickly so that staff can get in, limiting red tape, building trust between aid agencies and government, collecting data with which aid decisions can be made, and creating a climate in which aid workers feel safe and free to work.

Still, in appealing for US$180 million to reach out to one million people over the course of six months, Nouicer has been careful not to overstate the needs or the UN’s ability to implement. To date, the appeal has been funded at 20 percent. If that money can be received and effectively spent, he hopes it will be a start to more openings from the government.

But Russian diplomats, who have commended Syria for opening itself up to a larger humanitarian response, say the government might be reluctant to let additional international NGOs in. They also say the government is pushing for Western and Arab countries to lift the sanctions, which Syria says are responsible for much of the humanitarian needs, and stop arming rebels.

Lifting the sanctions would also make it easier to lobby the government to allow in more international NGOs, one observer said.