The United Nations has been accused of breaching its principles in the Syrian conflict by effectively letting the government control aid deliveries.
More than 50 humanitarian, human rights and civil society groups back a report that says the UN has given in to demands not to help rebel-held areas.
This has contributed to thousands of civilians’ deaths, the report alleges.
It calls on the UN to run a principled and impartial operation or withdraw co-operation with the Syrian government.
There was no immediate comment from the UN on the report, although it acknowledged in March that agencies were “not willing to jeopardise their operation in Syria by taking a tougher stance with the government”.
More than 250,000 people have been killed and 11 million others have been displaced since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.
‘Culture of compliance’
The report on the UN’s activities was published on Wednesday by the Syria Campaign, which describes itself as a global advocacy group campaigning for a peaceful and democratic future for Syria, and was based on more than 50 interviews with aid workers.
The report documents what it describes as a “serious breach of the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality”.
At the very start of the uprising, the reports says, the Assad government threatened to remove the UN’s permission to operate within Syria and withdraw visas for its non-Syrian staff if agencies attempted to deliver aid to the government-besieged southern city of Deraa.
“The Syrian government has used this threat consistently since then to manipulate where, how and to whom the UN has been able to deliver humanitarian aid,” it adds.
Rather than setting out red lines or conditions for their co-operation with the government, UN agencies “chose to accept the government’s constraints” and a “culture of compliance was born”, the report claims.
The report says this has provided the government with an effective veto over aid deliveries to rebel-held areas, enabling it to use sieges as a weapon of war.
In April, only 12% of food aid delivered from Damascus went to territories outside the government’s control, according to the World Food Programme.
“The Syrian government knows there is no sanction for denying access to territories it does not control. It will continue to receive billions of dollars in UN aid regardless,” the report says.
As a consequence, thousands of civilians in government-besieged besieged areas have died of malnutrition-related causes and lack of medical treatment, and hundreds have starved to death, some minutes away from the hotel where many UN aid workers are based in Damascus, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Roger Hearn, former head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees in Damascus, said: “There has been a systematic failure in the UN-led response. Rather than basing its response on need, it has developed into a billion-dollar response programme that is largely controlled by the regime and its proxies.”