UNICEF Wants State Officials to Negotiate With Islamic State to Help Aid Delivery

UN children's agency chief in Syria says aid workers are unable to gain access to IS-held territory or start dialogue with militants.

by Liz Fields
Mar 13 2015, 3:25pm

Photo by Muhammed Muheisen/AP

The head of the United Nation's children's agency in Syria has called for governments to begin negotiating with the Islamic State (IS) extremist group to facilitate critical aid access to militant-held territory.

UNICEF's Hanaa Singer said Friday that both local states, and those with influence in the region, should step in to try and confer with the group since UN aid workers across the region have been unable to secure access to the areas under IS control.

"[I]t's not the responsibility only of the humanitarian agencies," Singer told reporters in Geneva. "This is a political responsibility, and for the political parties to talk and put pressure and start a dialogue with ISIS."

"State parties" with influence in the area should begin the dialogue with IS, she said, but she did not name specific nations.

Global funding for aid to Syria has reached more than $4.8 billion, according to a report released Friday by London-based international development think tank, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Some 600 to 700 diaspora and local aid groups have sprung up to deliver aid and protection to Syrians where international aid agencies have been unable to obtain access.

But both the local and the international agencies' inability to negotiate with IS and other groups in the region has placed "enormous limitations on what these organizations can do and where they can go," ODI humanitarian programme director and co-author of the report, Sara Pantuliano, told VICE News.

"Because ISIS is listed as a terrorist organization, this makes negotiation very problematic," she said. "Some aid organizations work in fear of being prosecuted if they are found to be engaging systematically with a terrorist group, which could be construed as providing material support."

That's why, in part, UNICEF is urging government officials in interested nations to negotiate with ISIS.

Related: Propaganda Photos Show the Islamic State Allegedly Redistributing UN Aid

The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which is responsible for delivering aid to Iraq and Syria, told VICE News that it is imperative for aid agencies to have communications with all actors in the conflict, butsaid that the UN had not been trying to communicate with IS, which controls land in up to a third of Iraq and large portion of Syria.

"The principal of humanitarian work is that we need to be able to speak to everyone to ensure that we meet the needs of the most vulnerable people," spokeswoman Abeer Etefa said from the agency's Middle East office in Cairo. "But we have not been in communication with any militant or terrorist group."

Instead, Etefa said that WFP is working with partners and local community leaders on the ground to reach aid recipients in areas under IS's grip. These partners have to be vetted and subject to an evaluation process that routes through the agency's legal office in Rome, before any agreement to work with them is made, she said. This process can take anywhere between a week to six months in areas where there is insecurity and fighting.

"We have to do our due diligence before we start any work with them," she added.

The UN has conservatively estimated that more than 190,000 people have been killed over the course of Syria's bloody civil war since it began five years ago, which has been compounded with the IS insurgency that began last summer. Some 3 million people have fled to neighboring countries over the course of the conflict, while more than 12 million civilians require humanitarian assistance within Syria.

Earlier last month, the WFP said it was "extremely concerned" after the Aleppo branch of IS released a series of propaganda photos appearing to show boxes of UN and Red Crescent food aid plastered with the jihadist group's signature black insignia.

The photographs also portrayed militant supporters distributing the aid to women and children near a refugee camp near the town of Dayr Hafr in eastern Aleppo governorate.

Related: The Islamic State Is Burying Children Alive and Crucifying Them, Says UN

Pantuliano said that aid groups have frequently tried to argue for humanitarian exemptions, but local and international laws and restrictions on engagement with IS and other groups have made it difficult to even provide medical aid to those in need. For example, humanitarian groups are allowed to deliver medicine to areas under militant control, but not to train groups in those areas on how to use or administer it to people properly, she said.

"It really goes against the heart of humanitarian action and training," she said, adding that the diaspora and local groups that can get closer to communities in need rely primarily on funding from their own communities, and are struggling to keep up with the increased demand for aid.

Recent negative media coverage accusing a number of small charities of supporting jihadists, together with reports of militants posing as aid workers so they can travel to Syria through Turkey, has led governments to hold back support or funding while they try and determine which actors are legitimate and which are not, Pantuliano said.

"Many governments have been shy in supporting these smaller charities and put restrictions in place, some that say they had to have been operating for three years before they could get funding, for instance," she said. "Well, that's almost impossible because many started operating in that time as need has grown."

Despite the bureaucratic impediments, Pantuliano said that state actors "are starting to try and think about how they can work with these charities."

"But its not happened on the scale needed," she said, "They need to form genuine partnerships to maximize the impacts of collective action."

Related: Watch VICE News' documentary: The Spread of the Caliphate: The Islamic State (Part 1)

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields