The Current

Millions in UN aid for Syria paid to Assad-linked companies

An investigation by the Guardian newspaper has revealed the United Nations has paid tens of millions of dollars in aid money to the Assad regime and businesses close to it. Critics are calling the UN "morally bankrupt" but the UN says it's complicated.
An investigation by The Guardian newspaper finds the United Nations is giving business to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. (AFP/Getty Images)

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An investigation by The Guardian newspaper suggests tens of millions of dollars collected by the United Nations intended for Syrian aid have ended up with friends and family members of President Bashar al-Assad's regime — including businesses and agencies close to the Syrian president.

The report found hundreds of UN contracts have been awarded to companies linked to regime members currently under U.S. and EU sanctions, ranging from the agricultural sector, to a charity — the Syria Trust — chaired by Assad's wife, Asma, and much more.

The only other option is to stop working in Syria.- Stéphane Dujarric, UN spokesperson 

Reinoud Leenders has been tracking the UN's handling of money in Syria. He works in international relations and Middle East studies at King's College in London. Leenders tells The Current's Robyn Bresnahan why he calls the UN "morally bankrupt."

"UN agencies have been largely uncritical, has largely accepted… outrageous demands put forward by the regime."

 Leenders says The Guardian's revelations follow "many other examples in the last few years."

"These conflicts of interest and procurement of regime officials and so on… I think that's a moral outrage."

Reinoud Leenders is critical of the UN using aid money to the Assad regime, calling them 'morally bankrupt,' but the UN says it's more important to be in Syria than not there at all. (Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images)

Leenders recognizes the risks and good work the UN has done and adds this story is not an assessment of its performance, but overall, Leenders believes the UN isn't  doing their job "well enough." He suggests an internal investigative panel within the UN could bring total transparency and accountability and could benefit their position.

"An ongoing investigation would help UN negotiators in Damascus to gain much more leverage vis a vis the regime so that they can say 'well all the demands you put forward to us we cannot meet them because we are under scrutiny as well.'"

Every government has to be our partner — that's the way the UN works.- Stéphane Dujarric, UN spokesperson 

A spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Stéphane Dujarric, defends the work that the UN is doing in Syria. He tells Bresnahan that people have to understand the context in which the UN operates. 

"We, of course, welcome any scrutiny in any question of how we work, but the UN in every country in the world where it works, works and is accredited to the government. Every government has to be our partner — that's the way the UN works."

Dujarric explains that when the UN works out of Damascus in Syria, they procure basic services - for phone services, for fuel - by offering bids to a limited number of vendors. He tells Bresnahan there are no other options.

"The only other option is to stop working in Syria. And if we did, millions would go without aid. The UN doesn't have the freedom that international NGOS have."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post including commentary from the founder of War Child Canada, Dr. Samantha Nutt.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese, Kristin Nelson and Willow Smith.