Has the United Nations Failed Ukraine and the World?

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Natasha Hall testified before the Helsinki Commission on how the Syrian civil war served as a blueprint for Russia’s current exploitation of multilateral institutions and humanitarian assistance in the Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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Chairman Wilson, Co-Chair Cardin, distinguished Members of the Commission, I am honored to share my views with you on this important topic. CSIS does not take policy positions, so the views represented in this testimony are my own and not those of my employer.

Congress founded this Commission to unite the countries of Europe and the United States around core values of human rights and humanitarian principles. What we are seeing today is that authoritarian regimes, and particularly Russia, are undermining these principles around the world. For many, Russia’s actions in Ukraine crystallized this threat. However, their tactics were most clearly distilled during the Syrian conflict. In Syria, the Assad regime and Russia presented a successful blueprint for how to exploit the benefits of these core principles while simultaneously undercutting them. Through lessons learned in Syria, the United States will be better able to confront these challenges to vital multilateral institutions and humanitarian assistance.

The UN in Syria

Early on in the Syrian conflict, the Assad regime learned to access resources and support from the very multilateral institutions they sought to undermine. Taking advantage of the United Nations (UN) agencies’ mandate to provide aid, the regime allowed UN agencies to stay in Damascus under certain conditions. In doing so, they extracted unprecedented compromises from the humanitarian community. For the first time, the UN allowed a government-affiliated aid organization with military escorts to deliver aid to areas that were in rebellion with that same government. As a result, these convoys were stopped, damaged, or diverted to loyalists throughout the war.[1]

As the conflict dragged on, control over the international humanitarian apparatus in Damascus allowed the regime to provide line edits to humanitarian reports and cover up brutal sieges, effectively flipping the script on the conflict itself. Most infamously, the UN failed to publicize the siege of Madaya until international media outlets reported on the starvation of children in the area.[2]

Seeking to stay in the good graces of the government, aid organizations have resorted to giving incentives to the regime to continue working. More recently, The Associated Press reported that the head of the World Health Organization gave gold coins, cars, and contracts to Syrian regime officials.[3] I have submitted other examples as part of my written testimony. Yet another report showed that many UN contracts in regime-controlled areas were awarded to sanctioned actors or those connected to human rights violations such as Fadi Saqr, the mastermind of the Tadamon Massacre.[4] The Financial Times reported that the daughter of Hussam Louka, head of Syria’s general intelligence directorate who has been sanctioned over human rights violations, had been working in the UN emergency fund just after the tragic earthquake earlier this year.[5] My work with Karam Shaar has shown that the UN lost over 100 million USD in the regime’s distorted exchange rate between 2019 and 2020.[6] Further research to uncover numerous UN contracts concealed for privacy and security reasons, suggests the figure could be three times higher. The UN continues to use a so-called ‘official’ exchange rate that is sharply at odds with the black-market rates that many businesses and individuals rely on, ensuring that tens of millions meant to aid people in need is lost.

Authoritarian Collaboration

This is a story that is larger than aid diversion. These regimes have learned to “use humanitarian negotiations to gain legitimacy on the international stage as high-level UN and government officials must curry favor with them for access when their unsavory military tactics would otherwise cause them to be sidelined.”[7]

We have seen these strategies elsewhere, including in Myanmar, Sudan, and Ukraine. In Myanmar, the military junta has used humanitarian negotiations to legitimize their role as the primary international interlocutor and decision-maker regarding aid. The Sudanese military has consolidated control over aid efforts by enforcing additional bureaucratic requirements for aid workers and establishing the Supreme Committee for Crisis Management to oversee aid operations.[8]

Russia’s and China’s protection of the Syrian regime and the aforementioned actors at the international level fuels authoritarian impunity in Syria and other countries. China and Russia’s leaders have long understood the need to control NGOs domestically, but both have become far more aggressive in pushing against humanitarian actors and NGOs on the world stage.[9]

China has introduced amendments to the UN General Assembly highlighting the importance of territorial sovereignty over human rights by emphasizing the need for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States”.[10] On this point, I have tracked the budding alliance between China and Russia during the Syria conflict as they defended the regime’s right to obstruct humanitarian aid. In fact, since 1971, ten of the 18 People’s Republic of China’s vetoes have been to protect the Assad regime during the Syrian conflict.[11] Those watching Syria closely should not have been surprised by China’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has also directly used these tactics with the UN in both Ukraine and Syria. The UN Security Council Resolution on Syrian cross-border assistance and the Black Sea Grain Initiative were both initially hailed as great diplomatic successes to mitigate human suffering. However, Russia used these deals to maintain leverage over the international community and gain concessions. In both instances, they shortened the time between renewals in order to maintain greater control over the process. They also gradually whittled away the benefits of both deals. In Syria, they shut down border crossings and, in Ukraine, they severely constricted exports by slowing the inspection process.[12] Understanding the leverage that this granted Russia - a warring party, both Syrians and Ukrainians insisted on finding alternatives. Russia then terminated both deals this summer. Still lacking alternatives, UN cross-border aid for Syrians is now back under the thumb of the very regime, which systematically cut them off for over a decade. Ukrainians are scrambling to find alternative routes while world food prices continue to surge.[1] In the meantime, Russia continues to blame the United States for the resulting suffering.[13] In other words, Russia benefits from setting the world on fire and blaming the West for lighting the match.


The answer to this dilemma does not lie in turning away from the UN, which is an essential diplomatic and humanitarian forum. On the contrary, this is the time for the United States to lean in. When we withdraw from the UN, China and Russia fill the vacuum. When the United States exited the UN Human Rights Council in 2018, Beijing immediately began pushing a vision of so-called noninterference that allowed for human rights abuses to go unpunished while the formation of autocratic alliances was promoted.[14] However, relying on stultified and manipulated UN negotiations to deliver peace and aid for years or decades is fueling war economies and undermining humanitarian principles.

  1. The United States should aim to remove humanitarian assistance from the remit of the Security Council. Life-saving assistance should not be subject to great power competition.
  2. In countries where peace negotiations are stalled and UN agencies are cut off from populations for extended periods, the United States needs to work with allies to find alternatives. Local NGOs can be this alternative. Localization of aid is more cost-effective and these actors often have better access to populations that are blocked by warring parties.
  3. Funding for humanitarian aid should not be cut. On the contrary, more aid is desperately needed in Syria and worldwide, but it needs to be coupled with a coherent strategy to end conflicts and counter corruption. Without that strategy, aid can fall prey to war economies, exacerbating the drivers of conflict and instability.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today, and I look forward to your questions.