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Syrian Rebels' Rights Record Spun by UN's ReliefWeb, Run By UK's Amos

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, May 13, updated -- Should the UN be collecting and distributing statements to downplay armed rebel groups' violations of international humanitarian law?

  For the Syrian rebels, recently accused of sarin gas use and including groups affiliated with Al Qaeda which behead their enemies, that is what the UN's IRIN has done today, here.

  The article or argument is entitled "'Sometimes you cannot apply the rules' - Syrian rebels and International Humanitarian Law."

  Actually the acronym IHL is used. The article appears on the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' "ReliefWeb" site, where what IRIN stands for it not spelled out or explained.

  The UN's OCHA is run by Baroness Valerie Amos of the United Kingdom, a country whose David Cameron government wants to arm the Syrian rebels.

  The UK is given OCHA, just the way France has been ceded UN Peacekeeping in the form of Herve Ladsous, the fourth Frenchman in a row to hold the post (video here), and the US had the Department of Political Affairs, two times in a row now.

  The UN's argument has a first quote from "a former colonel now commanding a unit of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the northwestern governorate of Idlib, said he sees the regime's blatant disregard for human rights as all the more reason to commit himself to international norms. 'The abuses were one of the main reasons the revolution started, so of course we should respect humanitarian laws.'"

  How nice. The UN's IRIN says that "Jabhat al-Nusra (The Front for the Support of the people of Syria)... relies on a religious scholar among its commanders who provides guidelines that all the members adhere to." These include beheadings.

  As if in an infomercial, the UN's OCHA runs this quote: "'If we distribute food supplies, we go from house to house and check who is in need,' said Raed al Aliwi, the FSA commander in Hama. 'We don't ask about people's religion or political opinion.'" The article has no byline, only three sets of initials: "gk/ha/cb."

  It is helpfully noted that "the UK is also funding a programme by two consultancy firms to train rebels using an Arabic curriculum about international humanitarian law."

The problem here, not addressed in the article, is that whatever its other aspirations, IRIN is a project of the UN. ReliefWeb is run by UN OCHA, which is run by a UK official. These are problems. Watch this site.

Footnote: In the past, OCHA has been responsive, at least when compared to Ladsous' UN Peacekeeping. For example, when Inner City Press pointed out that the English translation of an OCHA report on Haiti called the internally displaced persons' camps (and thus the IDPs) "promiscuous," OCHA quickly replied to Inner City Press, explained and apologized, and re-translated. This one goes more to the political heart of the matter, so we'll see.

Update: as predicted, while OCHA acknowledged the problem with the lower profile Haiti IDP camp report translation, on this one, it's response is formal, does not acknowledge any problem with a UN OCHA "project" operating in essence to bolster the human rights reputation of the Syrian rebels.

Many things claim to be independent, but ownership or affiliations are just that. If IRIN started running anti-UN stories, would OCHA remain affiliated with them?

A UN "project" is still the UN; many UN activities are "funded entirely by voluntary contributions from governments and other institutions" but are not, for that reason, not UN projects...

But out of respect, we'll publish it in full:

Subject: Re: Post on IRIN story
From: Amanda Pitt [at]
Date: Mon, May 13, 2013 at 4:28 PM
To: Matthew Russell Lee [at]

Dear Matthew,

I saw your post today. I just wanted to make sure, that for future reference, the difference was clear between OCHA's 'corporate' web and social media presences and the two information services we maintain for the international and humanitarian community: IRIN and ReliefWeb.

As stated on the IRIN website, the IRIN humanitarian news service

is an editorially independent, non-profit project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), funded entirely by voluntary contributions from governments and other institutions.

ReliefWeb is an information aggregator service, scanning content from thousands of sources (eg NGO, media, Government, OCHA, other UN, and others) on humanitarian issues.

Both sites carry disclaimers, i.e. that the content represented on these sites is not endorsed by or reflective of OCHA or UN views and policies - unless where specifically stated or described.

I hope this helps, Regards,

Amanda Pitt
Spokesperson / Head of Media Relations
OCHA New York

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