Since last week’s marked shift in strategy, President Obama has agreed to back a diplomatic effort through the UN to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, and a bipartisan group of senators has announced work on a resolution emphasizing UN control over the chemical weapons. Further, in his primetime address to the nation, Obama committed to giving UN inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what type of attack occurred in Syria on August 21.
After being dismissed by some as irrelevant to the Syrian crisis, the UN is now playing a critical role in conducting impartial investigations into the Syrian use of chemical weapons, and potentially, via the UN Security Council, blessing a chemical weapons removal process. While these diplomatic efforts may not bear fruit, this is exactly why the UN remains a must-have tool in the American diplomatic toolbox.
Yet—promising as these steps may be—alone they cannot solve Syria’s two-year civil war, nor do they portend to. While important, they will not provide food or shelter for the one million Syrian children who now live as refugees, or the two million more who are displaced within the nation. They will not deliver medicine or healthcare to the families who mourn more than 100,000 Syrian people who have perished. For that, we must bear in mind yet another role that has been, and will continue to be, uniquely carried out by the United Nations.
In fact, UN agencies—from the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF; to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR; to the World Health Organization; and the World Food Program—are providing displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees water, education, health care, registration papers, and even a basic place to live.
The UN’s effort, along with assistance from humanitarian partners, to support the Syrian people in this time of crisis is the one of the largest operations of its kind — ever. In addition to receiving shelter, more than 1.3 million children in refugee communities have been vaccinated against disease. Emergency medical supplies have been provided to serve 1.3 million people just between January and July of this year, and health workers have been trained in chemical hazards management. Further, nearly 167,000 refugee children have received psychosocial assistance; more than 118,000 refugee children have been able to maintain their education inside and out of formal schools; and more than 222,000 refugees have been provided with water supplies.
It does not stop there. The UN has also been the leading authority on human rights abuses in Syria, documenting atrocities as to enable the U.S. and the entire international community to react. Long before the latest evidence on the use of chemical weapons emerged, the UN Human Rights Council’s special commission on Syria established a foundation on which future criminal prosecutions can be presented to the International Criminal Court. Its evidence has shaped the global response to date.
Further, the UN chemical weapons inspectors delivered their impartial findings to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon yesterday in a report that has been regarded as the first purely scientific and politically neutral accounting of the facts about the weapons that were used.
Without the UN presence in Syria and among its refugees, the international community would lack the clarity to navigate any response to this appalling and heartbreaking crisis — including the response that is now formulating in Turtle Bay and in the world’s capitals. Whether it is caring for the victims of this war or providing a platform for action on chemical weapons, the UN has been in this conflict from the beginning, and it is the right vehicle to help the world find a way to its end. No matter what actions follow next, we must continue to support its vital work.
Yeo is executive director of the Better World Campaign.