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Syria: Will the UN investigate its earthquake aid delays?

Cathrin Schaer | Omar Albam in Syria
March 24, 2023

Locals in northwest Syria say aid delays after February's earthquakes led to unnecessary deaths. They blame the UN in particular. Now a UN commission has called for further investigation. But will it happen?

A man carries the dead body of a person who died under the rubble in the earthquake in Idlib, Syria.
Syrians in the northwest say they were deserted by the international community after the devastating February earthquakeImage: Muhammed Said/AA/picture alliance

After the February 6 earthquake hit Turkey and Syria, Muhannad Aswad and surviving friends and neighbors spent the first four hours using their bare hands  to dig desperately through the rubble of their former homes. They heard voices under the debris, including those of children. Aswad heard his own brother.

"[My brother] Ammar was a journalist and a relief worker. He was asking for help from under the rubble," he recalled. "We waited for help," said Aswad, who lives in Salqin, northwest Syria, in an area controlled by forces that oppose the government of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. "But nobody came."

In the end, Aswad lost 25 members of his family in the earthquake, including Ammar. When outside help finally did arrive, "it was much, much too late," Aswad said.

The survivors of the devastating earthquake in the city of Jinderis in the countryside of Aleppo, northwestern Syria, on February 27, 2023, are searching between the ruins of their destroyed homes.
The Syrian town of Jinderis was one of the worst impacted by the earthquakeImage: Rami Alsayed/dpa/picture alliance

Louay Younis, a media activist from the Syrian town of Jinderis, told a similar story. "It was like the end of the world," he said. Immediately after the earthquake, volunteers wielded axes and picks in their attempts to reach trapped survivors.  

"We saw many cases of people who were alive under the rubble for two or three days," he told DW, "but as a result of the slow arrival of outside help, they died."

The United Nations says over 4,500 people were killed by the earthquake in northwest Syria. More than 8,700 were injured and over 11,000 are homeless. 

Why did aid take so long?

Various reasons have been given for the delay in aid reaching rebel-held, northwest Syria. For example, aid organizations based just over the border in Turkey were also affected by the earthquake — humanitarian workers died and headquarters were wrecked — and some roads into Syria were damaged.

But the UN has come in for particular criticism because, as a coordinating organization, it did not call for international urban search and rescue teams to address the dire situation in this opposition-held part of Syria. The UN waited for permission from the Syrian government, headed by dictator Bashar Assad, to do so. This is despite the fact that, for some time now, legal experts have been saying that the UN doesn't need permission for this kind of cross-border aid. It also ignores the reality on the ground: The Syrian government doesn't actually control these borders anyway. Syrian rebel groups and the Turkish government do.

Head of the UN's relief efforts, Martin Griffiths, had previously apologized for his organization's failure on social media.

After the earthquake, Raed Saleh, the head of Syria's White Helmets civil defense force, told journalists the UN had not helped quickly enough and he asked for an apology and an investigation.

"Undoubtedly, the response failures in northwest Syria, including of the UN, have directly caused avoidable deaths, injury and morbidity," a group of researchers confirmed in a March issue of British medical journal, The Lancet. They also called for "an independent UN-mandated commission to investigate."

UN commission also wants review

Earlier this week, a UN body, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, joined the growing chorus.

The commission, which was set up in 2011 to monitor human rights abuses in Syria, was presenting its 27th report to the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the meeting, commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro said the body supported "calls by many Syrians and others for a thorough review of the effectiveness of the UN and the wider international community's humanitarian response to the disaster." 

Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria speaks at the UN.
Syrians 'feel abandoned and betrayed,' said Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on SyriaImage: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

The commission's comment was praised by many Syria observers. But what would such a review look like? And could an investigation like this ever bring justice to the Syrians, like Aswad, who have been so tragically impacted?

DW called various agencies and offices of the UN and, despite the Commission on Syria's recent suggestion, it remains unclear exactly how any such investigation might proceed or if it would ever go ahead at all.

How will the UN investigate the UN?

In a statement, the Commission on Syria told DW that it can't do anything more because any such review falls outside of its mandate, which is to monitor human rights abuses inside the country. It would not be the right body to conduct such an inquiry, a spokesperson for the commission pointed out. 

Another spokesperson at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, which works more closely with aid agencies based near the Turkish-Syrian border, explained that there would likely be an internal review.

"It's normal practice for OCHA to conduct an internal review of its response for any major emergency," Kirsten Mildren, OCHA's head of public advocacy, explained. "This helps us improve the way we respond to future crises and make changes to the system when needed."

Chief of the the Syrian civil defence known as the White Helmets Raed al-Saleh holds a press conference in the Syrian town of Sarmada.
White Helmets boss Raed Saleh said the UN's bureaucracy meant some Syrians, who could have been rescued, died insteadImage: ABDULAZIZ KETAZ/AFP

However, she added, that review would not have started yet, as aid efforts were ongoing, nor would the results be made public.

A future investigation could be supported by the UN's Human Rights Council, Matthew Brown, the council's public information officer, told DW. The Council, or UNHRC, is led by its 47 member states, not by UN administrators, Brown explained. If any member state wanted to convince other countries to request an independent investigation, then this would be one way of getting an inquiry started, he said.

The UNHRC is currently in session until April 4, Brown added, but right now, the idea of an investigation into Syrian aid delays is not on its agenda.

Putting pressure on management

Another way of getting such an investigation going would be to make a request at the UN General Assembly. This would be more difficult though, because then a majority of 193 UN member nations would have to agree to a resolution — that an investigation into the UN, by the UN — is necessary.

The UN's Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also has the power to order such an inquiry. Putting pressure on UN leadership has helped in similar cases in the past. For example, it is how Haitians eventually gained some recompense after a 2010 cholera outbreak in their country.

The illness started to spread in Haiti after UN peacekeepers — most likely from Nepal, where there was a cholera outbreak at the time — disposed of "contaminated fecal waste" in a major river. In other words, the UN mission introduced cholera to the country. Over the following decade, around 10,000 locals are thought to have been killed by cholera and over 800,000 contracted the disease. 

 Workers of Haiti's Health Ministry carry the body of Stephanie Sanbronce, 17, who died of cholera, outside her house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010. .
Lawyers and activists are still trying to achieve some sort of justice for Haitians affected by a cholera epidemic they say was started by a UN missionImage: AP

Despite various claims made through the UN's internal disputes system, as well as legal claims in US courts and street protests, it was not until 2016 that the UN issued a public apologyand set up a special fund for Haiti. Observers suggest that the UN's secretary-general at the time, Ban Ki-moon, finally responded because of public pressure. 

Living with the consequences

However, when it comes to a potential investigation into aid delays immediately after the earthquake in northwest Syria, none of these options are being taken up.

"It's easy to say we need an investigation, but it's much harder to do," a UN staff member, who requested anonymity because they were not permitted to comment publicly on the situation, told DW. "It's also hard to know which part of the UN would investigate. I do know for a fact that humanitarian agencies inside the UN are looking hard at what happened there and that it's being discussed at the highest levels. People are very sensitive about it. There's the feeling that it was a really complicated situation, but also that it really needs to be looked into." 

Aid trucks enter Bab Al-Hawa border crossing.
The first UN aid convoys entered northwest Syria almost a week after the earthquake hitImage: Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty Images

As for Syrians like Aswad and Younis, who lost friends and family in the disaster, they have no choice but to bear the consequences of decisions made so far from their homes in early February.

Aswad would like to see locals better prepared for natural disasters and improved medical facilities in this neglected part of Syria.

"I found out that there are thermal and also audio devices that can help determine where survivors are," he told DW. "Why didn't we have any of these here?

"The response from the UN and other international organizations was terrible, and too late," Younis argued. "I would like to see UN officials held accountable for their slow response. People died because of them."

Edited by: Lucy James

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