Video Link-up in Dáil Eireann with Dr. Roger Hearn (former director of UNRWA in Syria)

Recent activities of ISSM

As part of its on-going campaign to raise awareness of the war in Syria and currently in particular the starvation sieges, ISSM is organising meetings and video link-ups between Irish state officials and politicians and experts on Syria. The most recent of these took place on 28th June with Dr. Roger Hearn, former director of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), former Regional Director for the Middle East and Eurasia with Save the Children, and prior to that with Care International, and is transcribed below.
A previous video link-up meeting was held on 12th May between Haid Haid, a Syrian independent activist and political analyst based in Lebanon, and officials of the Irish Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
ISSM would like to take this opportunity to express its sincere thanks to both Dr. Hearn and Mr. Haid for their participation and their continued contribution to the cause of peace and justice in Syria.


On 28th June 2016 a meeting at the Dail Leinster House (Irish parliament) was addressed by video link by Dr. Roger Hearn, concerning the general failures of the United Nations in its handling of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. He recently contributed to the report by the Syria Campaign in this regard:

Dr. Hearn was Regional Director for the Middle East and Eurasia with Save the Children, and prior to that with Care International. He is currently lecturing in disaster management in Copenhagen. The meeting was hosted by independent T.D. (M.P.) Maureen O’Sullivan.

The following members of the Oireachtas –or members’ representatives -attended the meeting:

Brendan Smith TD (opposition, Fianna Fail /chairman of newly formed Joint Foreign Affairs committee); Fiona O Loughlin TD (opposition, Fianna Fail, spokesperson migration); Brid Smith TD (opposition, member of Anti Austerity Alliance /People before Profit); Eric Scanlon representing Sean Crowe TD (Sinn Fein –opposition: he described the meeting as ‘very interesting and informative’); Aideen O Sullivan representing Clare Daly TD (Independents for Change -opposition); Fionn Wallace representing Mick Wallace TD (Independents for Change -Opposition);
Senators Alice Mary Higgins and David Norris sent apologies and requested updates on the meeting. Minister for Children Katherine Zappone also sent apologies.

Also in attendance was Simon Murtagh of AWEPA -The Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa. He suggested to Deputy O’Sullivan after the meeting that they might raise Dr Hearn’s points at a meeting they are attending in the UK the following week.

Also attending the meeting from the Irish-Syria Solidarity Movement were Valerie Hughes, Anne Daly, Leonie O’Dowd and Ronan Tynan.

NB: The following Acronyms are used in text below:
UNRWA United Nations Relief Works Agency
OCHA United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
UNDP United Nations Development Programme


Dr. Hearn said that his basic premise was ‘that the UN had been dealt a very bad hand in Syria but it then played that hand very poorly. This ultimately led to the UN operation really struggling in terms of its independence, neutrality and impartiality.’

The Context: Dr. Hearn witnessed the Arab Spring events and recalled saying -after an event with UNRWA which half the Syrian government attended along with diplomats from the international community -that ‘no way would there be an uprising in Syria -5 days later the uprising started.’ He says he has been consistently wrong in terms of his predictions in what would happen in Syria.

He spoke of the early days of the uprising: ‘There were 10 different UN agencies working -UNRWA was the largest at the start of the uprising. This was before it was a humanitarian crisis: it was very much a human rights crisis in the early stages of the uprising. Very early on we had the very small, by today’s standards, blockade of Daraa -as UNRWA director, we had 30,000 Palestinian refugees in Daraa. Very early on I went to other heads of UN agencies (and insisted) we have to be able to deal with the Syrian government as a unified United Nations. We can’t be dealing with them individually as individual agents.’

Unfortunately his call went unheeded -Dr. Hearn continued: ‘The Syrian government was able to make independent negotiations with the different UN agencies. As a result there was a huge amount of pressure. Any kind of independent action became very difficult. A whole range of threats were being made by the government. Early on we would say ‘Let’s as a group of UN agencies demand to break the siege of Daraa. Let’s go down together and basically make it a ‘fait accompli’. But instead the different agencies wanted to be able to negotiate and keep their own presence independently and that really set a very dangerous trajectory that has really impacted on the rest of the operation.’

He spoke on the theme of delivering humanitarian aid as response to a ‘Human Rights Catastrophe’: ‘Another major theme that really impacted early on was in terms of the way the different UN agencies started navigating their way through the crisis. In August 2011, by this stage it was very clear that there was really a human rights catastrophe going on inside Syria. Peaceful protests took place, followed by very repressive tactics to put down these protests.

‘Unfortunately -and this is where (we see) the whole sort of bad hand that the UN was dealt -because of the divisions in the UN Security Council, largely relating back to mistakes in Libya and the sheer paranoia that came out at the Security Council level -that level of division really meant that we were unable to really call for the things we needed to do. At that point it was about how can we really monitor and address the human rights catastrophe going on in the country.

Unfortunately what the UN did was it responded by saying: ‘Let’s send a team from OCHA in Geneva -we’ll come and look at the humanitarian situation in the country.’ I remember early on, soon after the delegation would leave a place like Homs, there’d be shooting: people would have come into the streets wanting to talk about human rights (abuses) and a whole range of other atrocities and they would be met by gunfire soon after the delegation would leave. It’s what we’ve seen really -something never really been fit for purpose in terms of how the UN agencies would work.

‘The sorts of things that different agencies were trying to preserve are I think worth looking at. At that point UNDP was working and wanted to maintain its good governance programme. It wanted to suggest its good governance program in early 2011 had basically pretty much gone on course. Similarly UNICEF was keen to continue working on its own governance issues.
‘Again with the sorts of abuses and atrocities going on, particularly focused on children, one can suggest that was not a major priority anymore in terms of Syria. What you had were different agencies who wanted to maintain their presence.

‘I won’t make any suggestions of why they wanted to maintain their particular presence. What it did do, was it really put the whole operation at risk.’

Maureen O Sullivan TD: ‘Please bring it up to the more recent situation Roger and what happens now with the different agencies.’

Roger Hearn: ‘What we have now is a situation where the lion’s share of the humanitarian relief going into Syria passes through Damascus and through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and a smaller number of registered national institutions, basically vetted by the Syrian government. Of that approx. $3 billion passing through Damascus, you’re really left with a situation where the Syrian government can determine where that aid goes. A small amount of aid is going via cross-border operations but the lion’s share of aid is passing through Damascus.

‘Since (despite) Security Council resolutions where we had clear recommendations by the world body, (to wit): ‘we want to see cross-border, cross-line operations, we want to make sure that people in most need actually receive the aid’ –unfortunately (in practice) individual agencies have continued to refuse to work cross-border, basically because of threats they would receive from the Syrian government. They could continue operations (but only under conditions) largely to be stipulated by the Syrian government.

‘As an example of that: you can have sieges in one area (sieges by and large are constructed by the Syrian government) and in the next area, an area supporting the Syrian government, they could be getting consistent and ongoing aid flows.

‘I think there’s a fundamental flaw in terms of what we’re seeing in Syria where basically the UN agencies and humanitarian relief effort is being manipulated by the Syrian government to basically reach its political ends. I think that’s the really dangerous path of where we find ourselves at the moment. And unfortunately we have different cross-border operations:
we have different agencies working with different, more independent Syrian non-government operations but the whole response -a mess of individual actions, as opposed to unified operations -is profoundly flawed.’


Maureen O Sullivan TD: ‘How do we make progress on this -the lack of unified action?’

Roger Hearn: ‘The Syria Campaign report (which I wasn’t an author of but which I did contribute to, along with a number of other current and former UN officials) does identify some of the key fundamental issues. Since that report, a common response has been, ‘you need to make compromises, otherwise we’ll all be thrown out, and where would we be then?’
The answer to that is we just have to be very conscious about what we are doing in relation to Syria. We might as an international humanitarian community conclude that the most appropriate way to reach those most in need is to continue our operations at all costs through Damascus.

I think at the moment though what we’ve done is we’ve blindly gone down a particular path -‘we just have to maintain our presence in Damascus, otherwise the sky will fall in’. I think we need as an international community to be a lot clearer: ‘This is how far we are prepared to go in terms of compromise. We are not prepared to see 90% of our aid leave our side and be taken by proxies of the Syrian government.’ We just have to be very, very clear about what decisions we take and how far we are prepared to make compromises to maintain that presence. And my basic premise is there is no way the Syrian government would risk $3 billion of aid flows currently pouring into the country.’

Brendan Smith TD: ‘Has the UN the capacity to pull together the international community’s response and coordinate the international community’s response?’

Roger Hearn: ‘There are some fundamental flaws with the leadership capacity of the UN. One fundamental problem is that there is the assumption that because you work for UNDP or work for UNRWA or you work for UNHCR that you’re ultimately reporting to the Secretary General. Unfortunately that’s not the case. In a sense, you actually don’t have a UN that necessarily follows a line of command. So you can have a Security Council Resolution that says one thing and you can continue to do another. I think that’s a fundamental weakness in terms of really ensuring a robust response to the calamity we see inside Syria. On the ground, you have very strong capable people working but when you have a gaggle of independent actors preserving their self-interest and preserving their organisational self-interest, it’s very difficult to have a sensible response.’

Brendan Smith TD: ‘If you were a decision-maker and in a position to decide who should pull the whole international community response together, to try to get maximum benefit from the aid being provided and to try to eliminate the time being lost and the suffering being endured by so many people, what would you recommend?’

Roger Hearn: ‘I think ultimately the large international humanitarian donors need to sit together and basically come up with some ground rules about what they’re prepared to do. On an individual level, I’ve had many very good conversations; I think there was some very clear analysis in relation to Syria. It was a little crude but it said: ‘we’re going to do this 50/50: 50% of our aid will go cross border and end up in opposition areas; 50% will go directly to Damascus and either stay within Damascus or go across lines. ‘I think at some point, we need to draw ourselves (up) some ground rules of what we want as an international donor community. I think that has to be the starting point.’

Brid Smith TD: ‘I just want to ask you about how we got here. Because you said earlier on that different agencies wanted to negotiate their presence separately and maintain their presence separately and you didn’t want to make any suggestions as to why they wanted to behave like this to maintain their presence separately like this. And I want to ask you could you explain that a bit better and really just to ask you what makes Syria different to any other conflict? Is this not a situation you would have seen in other conflicted regions or is there some dynamic that makes it different in Syria?

Roger Hearn: Having seen contexts similar to Syria before, I think the scale of this makes it just even more fraught in terms of a response capacity. South Sudan probably is a comparable example in terms of having this split operation that could ultimately go down a fairly dangerous path also. There are at director level within the UN some serious leadership gaps and often people are more concerned with maintaining their own presence, their own career, than rocking the boat -which can be a very dangerous proposition within the UN. That’s one thing I think from an agency level: Organisations are very keen to maintain donor share and to not lose out. And not just the UN: also INGO’s want to maintain their presence in a particular context. It’s good for business ultimately. At some point, you have to question whether anti-smoking campaigns are really a priority in Syria at the moment or whether WHO could be focussing on something else. We get this rather perverse situation where a few kilometres away from where the head of WHO is congratulating the Syrian government on their great anti-smoking policy, you have got mass killing going on a kilometre away with sieges, barrel bombs and so-on.’

Fiona O Loughlin TD: ‘My understanding is that Crisis Action did a lot of work in relation to assessing the situation and trying to bring the various different aid agencies together.’

Roger Hearn: ‘No, Crisis Action have attempted a few interesting campaign ideas but in terms of trying to pull together different UN actors, none at all.’

Anne Daly Irish Syria Solidarity Movement: ‘While we’re unpicking and trying to work out strategies and agencies ‘ response to what’s going on -at a human level
what are the consequences of what’s actually happening, this relationship between the UN and Assad, because as far as I’m concerned, Assad is not being taken on by the international community in the way he should be taken on and called to account for what’s happening in his country.’

Roger Hearn: ‘What’s happening is that you are seeing people most in need often missing out on humanitarian relief. I’ve made compromises in this business for many years as well. You’re forced to make compromises. There’s no such thing as purity when it comes to a humanitarian operation. But when you’ve lost sight of potentially 95% of what you do because you’re simply not given permission by the government of Syria to actually block the aid which Syrian proxies are taking, I think this is an incredibly dangerous step and I think the consequences of that is that people probably most in need and people not living in government areas are the ones missing out.

‘A lot of cross-border stuff I’ve been involved with crosses into Syria from Turkey. Because this has not really received the blessings of different UN agencies, this has been disorganised and ad-hoc. There hasn’t been a coordinated effort across the country which I think is terrible, given we are more than 5 years into the crisis. In 2016, as a humanitarian group of organisations, we should be far more progressed in terms of how we deal with this crisis.’

Maureen O Sullivan then finished up the meeting by expressing the hope that in the future there might be a face to face meeting in the event of Dr. Hearn coming to Ireland.

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