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Foreign Policy: Why Has the U.N. Given Assad a Free Pass on Mass Murder?

Author: Colum Lynch
November 17, 2013

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"Is it better to use the bully pulpit to increase pressure on a government to treat its people humanely, or is it better to nudge the government quietly behind the scenes? For decades, U.N. relief workers have preferred to keep their concerns off the headlines and reveal little about the perpetrators of violence against civilians, thereby preserving their role as neutral healers and helpers. But a spate of internal reviews of U.N. responses to mass killings from Bosnia to Rwanda and Sri Lanka have challenged that view."

During the past year, the United Nations' chief relief agency has routinely withheld from the public vital details of the Bashar al-Assad regime's systematic campaign to block humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians. This silence has infuriated human rights advocates, who believe that greater public exposure of Assad's actions would increase political pressure on the Syrian government to allow the international community to help hundreds of thousands of ordinary Syrians who are trapped in the line of fire.

Instead, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) -- which oversees international relief efforts in Syria -- has relied on low-key, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to quietly persuade the Syrian regime to open the aid floodgates. So far, critics say, the strategy has been ineffective. Worse, it provides a measure of political cover to the Assad regime as it carries out mass starvation and slaughter, these critics contend.

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