A United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy delivers aid packages in the rebel-held town of Nashabiyah in eastern Ghouta for the first time in five years on 30 July 2017.
3. Developing a Principled Humanitarian Framework
IHOs should work together to come up with detailed operational guidelines to argue for a reduction in the need for administrative approvals and to improve their operational independence. This includes ensuring their ability to choose local partners freely, to develop transparent mechanisms for procurement and to create independent monitoring and evaluation processes.
Since the improved security situation has not automatically resulted in increased access, IHOs are trying to play a more active role in principled engagement. Some INGOs started discussing new joint operating procedures (JOPs) to come up with concrete principled guidance for agencies registered in Damascus. While this is considered a positive step by the INGOs involved, the JOPs are typically broad principles that can be interpreted and implemented flexibly by the respective organizations. There is a risk of turning them into another box that can be ticked to show compliance without much behavioural change. Instead, the focus should be on drawing on those JOPs to come up with detailed operational guidelines on their application to ensure that humanitarian actors provide aid in accordance with humanitarian principles. The framework should be created and agreed upon by IHOs. The following sections highlight key areas to include in the framework.
Reduce administrative approvals
Limiting the bureaucratic permissions required for aid operations and the number of stakeholders involved (gatekeepers, ministries, intelligence agencies) should be a priority. For example, in practice IHOs could demand general or area-based approvals for repeated access instead of the current single approvals for each intervention or movement of goods. To mitigate the government’s politically motivated decisions to withhold permissions, IHOs can use Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, whereby states are not allowed to deny approvals for ‘arbitrary or capricious’ reasons. Towards that end, a joint system must be created to combine information about all the requests that were denied and demand an official explanation in writing from the government.
Doing so will create concrete and reliable evidence about the government’s systematic efforts to manipulate aid and could potentially allow IHOs to push back. Since most of the requests are usually denied due to security reasons, IHOs should be allowed to conduct independent security assessments. On this basis humanitarian organizations could challenge the government’s use of lack of security as a pretext to determine where aid is distributed. Instances where access is denied, which are not supported by an independent security assessment, could be listed in the reporting system for arbitrary denials.
The government does not deny all access requests through a response, sometimes there is no response at all. This typically happens by simply ignoring the request completely or giving permission after the requested access date, which has the same effect. The reporting system for arbitrary denials should include such instances in its statistics. The OCHA, among others, collected detailed information about the cases where requests for humanitarian access were denied by the government. That information played a crucial part in proving that the government was using arbitrary denial, which violates Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. It was also used to help persuade the UN Security Council to pass Resolutions 2139 and 2165, which provided legal grounds for IHOs to conduct cross-border and cross-frontline relief operations in Syria without government consent.
Improve operational independence
International humanitarians should target a broadening of their ability to conduct systematic, comprehensive and impartial needs assessments through direct and reliable access to the field. One strategy would be to insist on opening more field offices to increase their presence on the ground and to decrease the access restrictions they face. To ease this process, international humanitarians should add a condition to any memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government permitting them to open field offices by simply notifying the government rather than having to apply for additional approvals. Discussions on such MoUs should be part of wider negotiations to simplify and accelerate the existing registration procedures. This includes demanding a unified MoU in accordance with humanitarian principles to strip the government of its current leverage, which is amplified by negotiating individual agreements. The MoU should be standardized among IHOs to prevent the government from using renegotiations to increase its leverage or influence.
International humanitarians should target a broadening of their ability to conduct systematic, comprehensive and impartial needs assessments through direct and reliable access to the field.
To mitigate access constraints, IHOs should look to develop new creative ways to collect or crosscheck data. This could be done through social media, online chat applications and phone calls. IHOs should also consider conducting joint assessments or sharing information to crosscheck the data they have. When such data are collected by their partners or a third party, IHOs should state who gathered the information and what measures were used to verify the information to mitigate interference. The involvement of the government in this process should be limited to the consultation level without the ability to change the data or the wording of reports.
Ensure the independence of staff hiring and positioning
IHOs should attempt to resist and prevent the government from playing a role in recruitment. There should be a zero-tolerance policy of any external interference with recruitment processes. This can be made clear by immediately excluding candidates imposed on them through different pressuring mechanisms. Such cases should also be reported officially to the respective ministries, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to ensure the evidence of these attempts is recorded. IHOs should refrain from hiring local staff as a tactic to please the government or individuals affiliated with it, as it creates a non-transparent transactional culture, which is ethically problematic and can lead to unintended violations of humanitarian principles.
When hiring local staff, IHOs should conduct due diligence to ensure that the people they are employing are not involved in human rights violations or in the promotion of hate speech. While this might sound like common sense, the author’s work with UN agencies in Syria until early 2012 clearly showed that employees on various occasions were openly broadcasting and sharing their violent views, or even practices, and nothing was done to stop that. As the denial or revoking of visas is the main tool used by the government to control non-Syrian aid workers, the international humanitarian organizations should continue to ask for official reasons for every single rejection in writing and compile them in a joint list with which to challenge authorities.
Develop transparent mechanisms for procurement
IHOs should stop sharing procurement files with the government or any other entity affiliated with it (namely SARC and the Syria Trust) to avoid giving individuals affiliated with the regime an unfair advantage in the tender process. They should also create a comprehensive and thorough vetting process to exclude people involved in humanitarian violations. This vetting process should review all existing contractors to eliminate those who supported human rights violations after winning contracts. For example, many of the UN agencies use the mobile operator Syriatel, in which the sanctioned Rami Makhlouf is the majority shareholder, when they could switch to the other mobile operator MTN, which is not on any sanctions list.
IHOs should also be aware of the legal means that can be used to manipulate procurement procedures and take measures to counter them. For example, a government technical department or adviser can ask for a specific water pump model, which may not sound suspicious as they are experts and have a vested interest in the project’s success. However, since such projects are typically known in advance, influential figures can use their connections to pressure the department to request specific models that they have a monopoly on or only they can supply in time for the intended project. Accordingly, those individuals can manipulate the system through semi-legal means to win contracts. To mitigate this risk, when organizing tenders IHOs should examine why particular models or specifications are requested and if there are other options available. To increase competition and make humanitarian tenders less attractive to sanctioned individuals, international humanitarian organizations could divide large-scale procurements and contracts into smaller contracts to allow medium-sized businesses that are not controlled by sanctioned individuals to apply. Moreover, they should increase their transparency and accountability by disclosing all information on all contractors hired by them or their partners and make it accessible to the public. Doing so helps IHOs create public channels to report any wrongdoings and, thus, complements their vetting system.
Choose local partners freely
The selection of local partners should be done independently, based on competence rather than their political stance or loyalty. To determine the eligibility of local partners, international humanitarian organizations should set clear criteria and vetting processes to ensure that their partners have the required skills and operate in accordance with humanitarian principles. Sound due diligence is essential to identify and exclude entities that are involved in human rights violations either directly or through their senior members. IHOs should stay clear of all entities and individuals sanctioned by the EU and the US. While the UN is not legally obliged to comply with non-UN sanctions, its agencies should still avoid dealing with such entities due to their controversial role in supporting human rights violators.
While reducing the number of partners makes coordination easier, IHOs are advised to diversify their local partners to limit the influence of any single associate. But, since steering away from the government-approved list might put undesignated local partners at risk of being arrested or prosecuted, IHOs should come up with clear mechanisms to protect their local partners from any unfounded persecution related to their aid work. Such measures should include advocating for modifying the law that regulates the work and registration of local NGOs. Doing so could increase the number of potential local partners and allow the organizations that were operating outside government-controlled areas to regularize their status. Similarly, international humanitarian organizations should ensure the safety of their own staff, especially local employees. Several of these were detained by the government in the past due to their work, but the respective organizations did not put in place clear measures to help them.
Create independent monitoring and evaluation processes
To establish independent monitoring and evaluation processes, international humanitarian organizations need full access to all relevant data, activities and locations. They should be able to comprehensively assess if aid is delivered to targeted groups, cases of abuse, aid impact, and access denial requests (specifically their locations, the reasons behind them and how ramifications could be mitigated). To enable regular and reliable monitoring, IHOs should endeavour to increase their presence on the ground during and after aid distributions or projects. This may be possible if they negotiate the freedom to conduct frequent field visits for which they are only required to notify the government rather than apply for approval. Again, rejected requests for monitoring and evaluation should be compiled and the government should be asked to give its reasons in writing.
A more comprehensive and transparent monitoring system should be created and made public to document the reach of aid to identify the areas and populations that are experiencing discrimination. When IHOs are unable to directly monitor and evaluate their projects, they should use third-party monitoring to validate the data submitted by their implementing partners. This could be done by other INGOs or reliable entities that have the relevant knowledge and connections. Participation by locals in such processes is crucial to ensure their direct and independent feedback and engagement across all stages of humanitarian operations targeting them.
To improve their monitoring and evaluation processes, IHOs need to be more open and willing to rapidly share the information they have with each other about where they are operating, who their beneficiaries are, and the restrictions imposed on them.
Admittedly, implementing a framework such as the one described above is not an easy task, but it is not impossible either. The success stories of the IHOs working inside government-controlled areas in Syria indicate that more can be done to ensure coherent and principled engagement.