The United Nations is a good, some would argue necessary, institution. But man, there are days when you have to question what real impact it’s having on the world.
Days like, say, yesterday.
The UN has been working, to its credit, to open regular access for humanitarian aid to reach Syrians living under siege and without access to food, medicine, and other essentials. The UN was planning to ask Bashar al-Assad to allow humanitarian airdrops. Airdrops can’t deliver as much aid as large truck convoys, but they can deliver it more frequently and instead of a general ceasefire, which you pretty much need to allow truck convoys to move safely, you only need a commitment from Assad not to fire on the aircraft delivering the aid. Assad is the only actor inside Syria that has an air force and air defenses, so get an agreement from him and you’re all set. One presumes, though I guess this could be a flawed presumption, that international players conducting flights over Syria, chiefly the US and Russia, wouldn’t want to be seen as standing in the way of humanitarian aid, so they’d readily agree to allow relief flights. And Assad already allows aid flights into Deir Ezzor, where his own forces and loyalists are besieged by ISIS. At the very least, the request for aid flights could have been a negotiating tactic to get Assad to allow more frequent overland aid to reach needed areas.
But the UN decided, after all, not to ask Assad for permission:
The United Nations on Monday backtracked on its plan to move ahead with airdrops of humanitarian aid to Syria, saying it was focusing for now on securing access for land convoys.
UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council last week that a formal request for Syrian permission to begin airdrops and air bridges would be delivered to Damascus on Sunday.
But no such request was made, with UN officials instead presenting a letter seeking Syrian approval for ground convoys to deliver food and medicine to 34 areas including 17 besieged towns.
“Our main focus is on land delivery, given the challenges in terms of safety and logistics of air deliveries,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
What “the challenges in terms of safety and logistics of air deliveries” means is “we were pretty sure Assad would say ‘no,’ and we didn’t really have a plan B.” And if Assad also says “no” to allowing more overland aid, that will probably be the last word on that issue as well. I’m not sure what leverage the UN could bring to bear to get the answer it wants out of Assad, but the fact that it doesn’t even have the leverage to ask the question is pretty embarrassing.
Embarrassing, but not surprising. Not when you consider how easily the UN caved on another issue yesterday, one that was entirely within its power to defend. The UN put Saudi Arabia on a blacklist of states and non-state actors who have violated the rights of children in conflict, which is total bullshit inasmuch as they only did it because Saudi Arabia has, you know, repeatedly violated the rights of children in its conflict in Yemen. Like I said, bullshit. Anyway, the Saudis complained about being put on a list with the Assads and ISISes of the world simply because they do some of the same shit those other guys do, and the UN took bold, decisive action to, uh, totally capitulate to Riyadh’s tantrum:
In a move that sparked sharp criticism from human rights advocates, Saudi Arabia persuaded U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take it off of a U.N. blacklist of countries, rebels, and terrorist groups that have egregiously violated children’s rights despite mounting evidence that Riyadh’s air war in Yemen has killed hundreds of children.
The retreat came hours after Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador protested Ban’s decision to include the Saudi-led coalition in a 41-page report about those responsible for the worst abuses against young civilians.
To be clear, this was a list, a PDF file (or a piece of paper for us old folks). There was literally no risk to the UN or any of its personnel by standing firm and leaving the Saudis on it. Yet the UN opted to cave to Saudi pressure anyway, and trash its credibility in the process. The UN is saying it plans to fully investigate the child deaths in Yemen, which presumably leaves open the option that the Saudis might be put back on the list, but the Saudi ambassador to the UN is insisting on a strict “no backsies” rule in this case.
Amazingly, this isn’t even the first time the UN has caved on this very report; last year they removed Israel from the list for its actions in Gaza in order to appease the Israelis and the US. They also took the Palestinians off the list to maintain some semblance of balance, testing the principle of two wrongs making a right.
All in all, then, yesterday was not the UN’s best day.
UPDATE: This Saudi story is actually worse than I thought. I figured the UN caved to the Saudis simply because they didn’t have the stomach for a fight. It turns out they caved because Riyadh threatened to shut off its gravy train:
Saudi Arabia threatened this week to break relations with the United Nations and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to its humanitarian relief and counterterrorism programs to strong-arm the U.N. into removing Riyadh and its allies from a blacklist of groups that are accused of harming children in armed conflict.
The threat — which has not been previously reported — worked, and the U.N. subsequently dropped the Saudis from a rogues’ gallery of the world’s worst violators of children’s rights in conflict zones.
In their Monday warning, senior Saudi diplomats told top U.N. officials Riyadh would use its influence to convince other Arab governments and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to sever ties with the United Nations, the officials said. The threats were issued in a series of exchanges between top Saudi officials in Riyadh, including Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, according to U.N.-based officials. The Saudi mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
So we’ve now established a precedent that wealthy nations can threaten their way out of any sort of international disapproval, at least when it comes to the UN. Now the Saudis are saying that the UN backtrack has “vindicated” their war in Yemen, which is just a fantastic outcome for everybody. At least now any cluster bombs that wind up killing Yemeni civilians, perhaps children, will come with a virtual UN stamp of approval.