Syria: Major Problems with UN Procurement Practices
Lack of Human Rights Diligence Risks Dealing With Abusive Vendors
(New York) – A lack of sufficient safeguards in procurement practices by UN agencies providing aid in Syria has resulted in a serious risk of financing abusive entities, Human Rights Watch and the Syrian Legal Development Programme said today. The two organizations released a report and guide in question-and-answer form about human rights-compliant procurement practices to assist UN agencies in Syria
The organizations found that UN agencies do not sufficiently incorporate human rights principles in their assessment of UN suppliers and partners in Syria, and this exposes them to significant reputational and actual risk of financing abusive actors and/or actors that operate in high-risk sectors without sufficient safeguards. The guide sets out recommendations to assist the United Nations country team and UN agencies in Syria in strengthening their procurement practices from a human rights perspective. It also includes an assessment tool to help UN agencies identify Syrian suppliers at risk of involvement in conflict-related human rights abuses.
“The Syrian government has committed atrocities against its own people, including mass torture, chemical weapons attacks, and sexual violence,” said Sara Kayyali, senior Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite this horrific track record, UN agencies have often failed to do the necessary human rights due diligence to ensure that the way they acquire supplies and services locally does not enable human rights violations and corruption.”
Human Rights Watch and the Syrian Legal Development Programme, a nongovernmental group that conducts research and advocacy for innovative accountability for abuses during the conflict, reviewed the procurement processes of several UN agencies. They corresponded with and interviewed UN officers involved in procurement processes and researched existing UN partners to understand their human rights records, including through interviews with former employees and economic experts and a review of project documents.
Ten years of conflict have decimated Syria’s infrastructure, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions more. The enduring conflict has also had a detrimental impact on the economy, with the UN estimating economic losses at US$442 billion since September 2020. These catastrophic costs translate into a massive loss of livelihoods, with 11.7 million people dependent on humanitarian assistance. The assistance is primarily provided by UN agencies, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), and international nongovernmental humanitarian organizations.
Parties to the Syrian conflict, especially the Syrian government, have committed egregious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law – from arbitrary detention and torture to property confiscation, indiscriminate airstrikes, and the use of prohibited weapons. Humanitarian agencies should actively avoid contributing to or facilitating such abuses, the groups said. They should abide by the humanitarian principle of do-no-harm and their existing human rights commitments, and avoid reputational risks associated with facilitating human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch and the Syrian Legal Development Programme found that UN agencies operating in Syria often do not carry out a human rights risk assessment specific to the country of operation. Tender and procurement documents the researchers reviewed did not include human rights standards that vendors are expected to abide by. Procurement officers appear to rarely actively look for human rights-related disqualifying criteria, instead typically relying heavily on self-reporting by the prospective suppliers themselves or UN sanctions lists.
These sanctions lists only include al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and ISIS, but do not include other rights abusers, including those within the Syrian government and affiliated militias. As a result, the UN has contracted with entities that have been sanctioned by the US or European Union for involvement in human rights abuses and repression of the civilian population.
The guide includes examples of direct procurement from abusive actors, as well as examples of where further UN scrutiny of secondary partners should be required.
In one example, between 2015 and 2020, UN agencies have awarded Shourouk for Security Services contracts worth over $4 million. This private security firm reportedly has links to Maher al-Assad, brother of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and the abusive Fourth Division of the Syrian military, which has participated in acts that resulted in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of protesters and the arbitrary arrest of tens of thousands of people across the country.
These abuses were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population and thus constitute crimes against humanity. The organization is staffed by retired and former members of several militias and reportedly led by former members of the Syrian Army and intelligence services, including Air Force and General Intelligence division.
In another example, in 2019, according to publicly available images, the UNDP reportedly contracted the Aleppo Defenders Legion, a militia-turned-service provider in Aleppo, to support the repair of water supply pipes and removal of rubble in a district of Aleppo city. The group, which announced the cooperation itself, was formed from militia groups that participated in the forcible displacement of people in Aleppo.
By making financial resources available to a supplier involved or at risk of involvement in human rights abuses, UN agencies risk becoming themselves involved in the abuses, the groups said. The UN is bound under international law by an obligation to respect human rights. The UN Procurement Practitioners’ Handbook states that the “UN is committed to conducting business with only those suppliers sharing its values of respect for fundamental human rights, social justice, human dignity, and respect for the equal rights of men and women.”
Under the Parameters and Principles for Assistance in Syria, the UN has also affirmed that “rigorous standards of due diligence should apply, drawing from the principles of the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy. The UN shall apply the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights in all areas of its work in Syria.”
Human Rights Watch and the Syrian Legal Development Programme urged the UN and major donor governments to make full use of the newly established Regional Dialogue Mechanism, a forum for UN and government officials to discuss procurement contracts and flag potentially problematic projects that could involve doing business with people or entities linked to serious human rights abuses in Syria.
UN humanitarian agencies play an essential role in meeting the basic needs of the Syrian population amid the undeniable difficulties inherent to the humanitarian response in Syria, including in the context of procurement. But agencies can and should make detailed human rights risk assessments for procurement activities, and make those assessments transparent, including via the Regional Dialogue Mechanism. If their due diligence shows that a potential Syrian partner could be tied to serious ongoing or future human rights abuses, the UN should find alternative partners. Human Rights Watch and SLDP’s new report offers practical guidance on how to conduct those risk assessments.
“The scale and breadth of human rights abuse have made Syria among the most difficult operating environments for humanitarian aid,” said Giorgio Migliore, principal legal adviser at the Syrian Legal Development Programme. “But the UN can do more to incorporate human rights principles in their procurement processes and ensure that they do not award funds to entities that may have been implicated in violations.”
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