EXCLUSIVE: In May 2011, as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was moving to crush a growing tide of anti-government demonstrators, the United Nations was extolling a group of Syrian companies, including one owned by Assad’s cousin, for their admirable adherence to ethical principles.
According to documents from the U.N.’s private sector partnership, known as the Global Compact, one of the Syrian companies that met its high standards of social and ethical responsibility was Syriatel, a mobile phone company whose owner, Rami Makhluf, is an international poster child for the opposite of those avowed U.N. principles.
Makhluf has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury since February 2008 -- and still is -- because he “improperly benefits from and aids the public corruption of Syrian regime officials.” The sanctions mean that any assets from Makhluf’s sprawling business empire discovered in the U.S. would be frozen, and Americans forbidden to do any kind of business with him.
Syriatel was explicitly added to a Treasury list of blocked Makhluf properties in July 2008, though the prohibitions already applied de facto.
Makhluf is, by general agreement, the most powerful businessman in Syria, and according to a European Union sanctions website, “no foreign companies can do business in Syria without his consent. “
His brother, Hafiz, one of the most feared military intelligence officials of the brutal Syrian regime, has been under similar U.S. sanctions since August 2007 for “acting on Syria’s behalf to undermine the sovereignty of Lebanon.” (In July 2012 Hafiz was one of four top officials of Assad’s regime who were either killed or seriously injured in a massive Damascus bomb blast set off by forces resisting the regime’s brutal repression.)
In August 2011, Syriatel came under further, explicit U.S. sanctions as a Makhluf property; it also allegedly has helped security forces locate and eavesdrop on dissidents opposed to the feared regime.
None of those activities are in synch with the lofty aims of the U.N. Global Compact, whose members swear they will “support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights,” as well as “make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses”—and will work against “corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery.”
The Compact is intended to create a privileged relationship between the U.N. and the businesses that sign up for it -- and, on the other hand, give an impressive U.N.-approved gloss to the corporate image of those companies. For the U.N., it is also an opportunity to enlist the business sector, with its money and expertise, in a variety of U.N.-endorsed projects, including support for the world organization’s widely-touted Millennium Development Goals, an anti-poverty effort whose finish line is 2015.
For its part, the U.N.’s Global Compact offices in New York flatly denied, in response to queries from Fox News, that Syriatel had ever participated in the organization. There is no mention of Syriatel in the current Syrian membership list on the Global Compact’s website.
The flat-out denial, however, is hard to square with the Syrian Global Compact documents in Fox News’ possession.
These include a Global Compact recruitment brochure that hails, among other things, the arrival on May 18, 2011, of a delegation from the 36-nation Executive Board of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the U.N.’s anti-poverty flagship that was instrumental in creating the Syrian Compact network.
The Executive Board delegation’s arrival is noted on page 18 of the brochure; Syriatel’s membership in the local Global Compact is included on page 16, in a graphic entitled “Syria Network Membership Update: May 2011.”
Syriatel’s Global Compact membership also is noted on page 7 of a PowerPoint presentation created by a UNDP local staffer in Syria, as part of a Global Compact “private sector focal points meeting,” held in Paris from April 11-13, 2011.
The meeting’s title: “Transforming Partnerships: Moving to the next stage of U.N.-business collaboration”
Overall, the presentation extols a “win-win situation” in Syria in which UNDP and the Global Compact play the role of “broker” between the regime and its private sector to create “public-private partnerships” for “achieving inclusive growth, enhancing civic engagement and corporate citizenship.”
The presentation was noted in the New York-based Global Compact’s annual report for local chapter networks for 2011, which said the Syria chapter was singled out as “a case study on partnering with the private sector” at the Paris session.
Even without Syriatel, the local Global Compact chapter has some questionable members. One of them is the Syrian Trust for Development, founded and headed by Asma Al-Assad, glamorous wife of the country’s dictator. She has been under European Union sanctions since March of this year as a beneficiary and financial supporter of the regime.
The Syrian Trust is not only a local Global Compact in Syria, but has been an important participant in UNDP’s local social development programming, where it was used to help create an elaborate structure of reform initiatives to demonstrate that Assad was moving toward a more modern, liberalized regime. That effort fell apart as Syria’s bloody toll of repression rose higher.
Assad’s Syrian Trust is currently listed on the Global Compact headquarters website as “non-communicating,” meaning that it has not forwarded a scheduled statement on its progress toward meeting the Compact’s ethical and developmental goals.
As for UNDP’s programs in Syria, including those involving the Trust, they were described weeks ago as “stalled” by a UNDP spokesman in response to questions from Fox News. Last month ,UNDP’s executive board approved a renewal of the organization’s Syrian program and operations “to support humanitarian assistance, livelihoods and coordination activities.”
According to a UNDP spokesman, only programs related to refugee relief, repairs of water systems and medical facilities, emergency food assistance and “psychosocial support” for victims of the current violence are going forward. The previous UNDP program of activities will formally expire in December.
Syriatel’s presence in the Global Compact — denied or not — as well as the inclusion of Mrs. Assad’s private foundation, highlight some troubling issues for the Global Compact, which is one of the fastest-growing U.N. initiatives in a world of shrinking government foreign aid resources—as well as for UNDP, which is the world organization’s spearhead in most of the 169 countries in which it operates.
The Global Compact describes itself as an initiative that “seeks to combine the best properties of the U.N., such as moral authority and convening power, with the private sector’s solution-finding strengths, and the expertise and capacities of a range of key stakeholders. The Global Compact is global and local; private and public; voluntary yet accountable.”
One question is whether UNDP’s unique relationship with the governments it serves — often undemocratic and/or corrupt -- also gives it unique opportunities to favor and cooperate with companies and individuals, like Makhluf, that are influential precisely because of their insider connections, and can wrap themselves in the U.N.’s high-minded principles while continuing more unsavory business as usual.
In Syria, at least, the local private-sector network is very much a creation of UNDP, in close collaboration with the Syrian regime.
A project document signed in February 2008 between UNDP and Syria’s State Planning Commission makes UNDP responsible for the creation of the local Global Compact network while declaring that the regime “attached a great importance to the role of the private sector in the socio-economic development process as strong partners.”
“UNDP’s practical role in launching the Global Compact is catalytic to the process and involves initiating the building of a viable, self-sustaining local network that is business-led,” the document says. “UNDP strategy will be to fulfill different roles that will change over time as the process gets under way and specific, depending on the local context.”
A management chart on page 14 of the densely worded document shows that UNDP is a joint partner with the planning council, some Syrian ministries, and the local chambers of commerce and industry in oversight of the creation of the Compact network. A UNDP project officer is specifically charged with hiring the staff to make the project work, under UNDP rules and regulations.
Among other things, the document notes, “Anti-corruption will also be a major concern considering the sensitivity of the topic and the malpractices that are presently exercised on the part of the public and private sector.”
Then it adds: “While the project might not be able to reach to tangible results, however raising awareness on this topic using media, academia and NGOs [non-government organizations] would help in bringing this important issue to the attention of the public.”
Whether the Syrian public needed that kind of ineffectual assistance is, at a minimum, debatable. Syria ranked No. 147 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in 2008.
UNDP’s continuing role in the Compact Project is underlined in the 2011 recruiting brochure obtained by Fox News, which continues to call it “a partnership between the Syrian Government represented by the State Planning Commission and the UNDP.”
The brochure cites such accomplishments as an agreement to fund the country’s first cancer research center, a venture with a local bank to support child cancer treatment, and a project to rehabilitate a provincial marketplace. It also offers support to the U.N.’s anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals.
It also cites “global and local opportunities” for Syrian companies to leverage “the UN’s global reach with governments, business, civil society and other stakeholders.”
“The Global Compact is doing well in Syria because it is a societal norm to give to others,” the brochure quotes Muhammad Agha, the local project director, as saying, “We have a giving private sector. The Global Compact gives a framework to that.”
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell