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The UN Is Still Doing Business With Russia, Is That O.K.?


The World Food Program relied on Russian aviation services until last year, when the country was slapped with safety violations by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization. Yet the UN still has active procurement contracts in other sectors with Russia, even as it breaches the UN Charter daily. WORLD FOOD PROGRAM/TWITTER

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not discouraged the United Nations from buying millions of dollars of goods and services from Moscow, according to the latest annual statistical report on UN procurement, published in July.

In 2022, UN purchases from Russia, which has a decades-long procurement relationship with the UN, totaled $256.62 million, according to the report produced by the UN Office for Project Services (Unops), compared with $282.25 million in 2021. But while UN procurement with Russia decreased by a modest nine percent in 2022 over the previous year, the question arises: Should the UN be doing business with Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, who has flagrantly violated the UN Charter by invading its neighbor Ukraine?

For context, the United States was the largest supplier in procurement volume in 2022 at the UN, totaling $2.4 billion, followed by Belgium, with $1.7 billion, and Britain with $1.3 billion, according to the annual report.

Russia’s mission to the UN did not respond to PassBlue’s request for comment regarding the new procurement report.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters at the UN on Feb. 24, 2022, the night Russia breached Ukraine’s border: “I have been clear that such unilateral measures conflict directly with the United Nations Charter. The use of force by one country against another is the repudiation of the principles that every country has committed to uphold. This applies to the present military offensive.”

Referring to Russia’s military invasion, he added: “It is wrong. It is against the Charter. It is unacceptable.”

Guterres is not the only figure at the UN to publicly disapprove of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The General Assembly has condemned Russia in six resolutions since the invasion in February 2022, highlighting various aspects of Russia’s aggression. The Assembly’s latest Ukraine-focused resolution, regarding the war’s one-year anniversary, in 2023, demanded that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally” withdraw its military forces from Ukraine; called for a “cessation in hostilities”; and stressed the urgency to reach a “comprehensive, just and lasting peace” adhering to the UN Charter.

“Today marks a year and a half since the Russian Federation launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Rosemary DiCarlo, the head of the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said at an Aug. 24 Security Council meeting marking Ukraine’’ 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.

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“Eighteen months of death, destruction and unimaginable suffering for the Ukrainian people,” DiCarlo added, describing Russia’s war as a violation of the UN Charter and international law.

Despite the collective condemnation and calls for peace, UN business with Russia has carried on, out of the limelight. Further complicating matters is that procurement contracts documented between the UN and various entities and governments are not made public. Additionally, the UN’s global marketplace website, where supplier names are listed, reserves the right to withhold supplier names for “security reasons,” when sharing their names would “breach confidentiality,” or if the UN is “unable to provide the supplier’s name” for reasons that are not explained.

According to the 2022 report compiled by Unops, the top-three UN buyers of Moscow’s goods and services — which entails a wide array of products, such as helicopters, food and beverages, pharmaceuticals and administrative services — included the World Food Program (WFP), purchasing $100 million in goods and services; followed by the UN Secretariat at $90 million and Unicef with $46.5 million. However, total procurement values for 2022 do not necessarily reflect new business with Russia that year but are likely to include actual payments made toward long-term contracts signed before the full war in Ukraine began.

Melissa Labonte, a political science professor at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y., says, however, that honoring multiyear procurement contracts with Russia, even if they were established before the war in Ukraine, is still “incredibly problematic” for the international body.

“The UN procurement division of code of conduct does communicate that contractors will abide by UN Charter principles regarding human rights norms and standards,” she said in an email to PassBlue. “More sunlight should be given to this issue if the UN cares about its legitimacy as a global actor.” (The UN supplier code of conduct.)

Additionally, when Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea, was invaded and annexed in 2014, UN purchases from Russia totaled $421.19 million, the highest dollar amount spent by the world body on Russian purchases over the last 10 years at the time. The UN Secretariat was Moscow’s top client in 2014, spending $313 million in goods and services, followed by WFP at $75.9 million, according to the global marketplace website.

“The UN has to be this global broker,” said Julian Baggini, a British philosopher and author who has written about companies who continue to do business with Russia as it wages war in Ukraine. He spoke with PassBlue by phone on Aug. 23. “And as such, I think the UN is in a position where it kind of inevitably has to get his hands dirty in ways that nation states and companies don’t have to. You know, high-level diplomacy and international relations, I think, is an uglier business than people would like to think it is.”

As PassBlue reported a year ago, the UN’s procurement relationship with Russia took an unexpected turn when, in September 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) flagged Russia for breaching international aviation law. The breach resulted in the grounding of dozens of planes and helicopters leased from Russia by UN peacekeeping missions and humanitarian operations.

The designation by the Montreal-based ICAO, formally called a Significant Safety Concern, sent top UN officials, such as Atul Khare, the head of the UN Department of Operational Support (DOS), and David Beasley, the director of the WFP at the time, scrambling to figure out how to keep critical air transport services running without compromising safety, violating international aviation law and wasting millions of UN dollars.

Beasley left his post in April 2023 and was succeeded by the American diplomat and businesswoman Cindy McCain.

According to an Aug. 2, 2022 memo, a copy of which was previously obtained by PassBlue, Khare and Beasley were aware of ICAO’s looming designation and Russia’s “unresolved” development as early as June 2022, if not before. The memo was sent to Guterres, calling for his “immediate attention.”

The memo also said that if the ICAO warning to Russia was left unresolved, “approximately 45 aircraft/helicopters chartered by DOS and 17 aircraft/helicopters chartered by WFP” would be affected.

The Significant Safety Concern designation alerted the world that Russian aircraft were no longer recognized by the agency as “airworthy.” The label, however, “does not necessarily indicate a particular safety deficiency,” according to ICAO, but indicates that a member state — in this case, Russia — “is not providing sufficient safety oversight to ensure the effective implementation of applicable ICAO Standards.”

Moscow has yet to resolve the problem and how it affects its aviation services at the UN. Steve Taravella, the WFP’s senior spokesperson, said in an Aug. 3 email to PassBlue that the agency currently has no Russian-registered air assets operating in their work.

“Since the SSC was published by ICAO in September 2022, WFP has gradually replaced all [Russian]-registered rotary wing [helicopters]/fixed wing aircraft chartered by the organization with air operators from other countries that have similar or other aircraft types,” Taravella said.

Khare, however, has been less open about plans to replace or ground Russian aircraft being used by the Department of Operational Support.  These include the workings for the Support Office in Somalia (Unsos) and the missions in South Sudan (Unmiss), Western Sahara (Minurso), Monusco, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan (Unama), Lebanon (Unifil), the Central African Republic (Minusca), Abyei (Unisfa, in South Sudan/Sudan), Minusma, which is closing, in Mali and the Verification Mission in Colombia.

On Sept. 14, 2022, as PassBlue reported, Khare instructed various UN missions to immediately avoid tasking their Russian-registered commercial aircraft until further notice. A month later, UN instructions to relevant parties became more explicit. An Oct. 14 confidential “code cable,” or memo, sent by Khare to seven UN peacekeeping missions and three political missions, a copy of which was seen by PassBlue, said that attention was being “devoted” to replacing Russian aircraft “whose contracts have already expired or are likely to expire prior to the resolution of the ICAO SSC.”

Until then, only “exceptional circumstances” would allow [Russian] aircraft to be used for “emergency” medical situations and the transport of “life-support cargo,” the cable read. And “under no circumstances should United Nations personnel be accepted as passengers on these cargo flights until further notice.”

More recently, Khare attended Moscow’s annual aviation talks in August, where he met with Alexander Neradko, the director-general of Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency (Fata). Relatedly, the Security Service of Ukraine recently indicted Neradko for allegedly helping to transport Russian military, including weapons and ammunition, to Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, where fighting is concentrated.

According to a UN press release issued on Aug. 1 about Khare’s meeting with Neradko, the parties “covered a wide range of issues, including safety and security and procurement.” It added: “They discussed the Significant Safety Concern (SSC) issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the efforts made by the Russian authorities toward addressing the issues raised by ICAO.”

When asked for more details on the meeting between Khare and Neradko about the ICAO breach by Russia, UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told PassBlue in an email that “following the 15 September 2022 issuance of the ICAO SSC, DOS instructed to all missions to refrain from tasking Russian Federation registered aircraft. The instructions allow for the use of Russian registered aircraft in extremis situations . . . where no other solution is available.”

Haq added that “immediate aircraft support was provided through intermission sharing of assets” to the UN missions most affected by the safety alert. In a subsequent email, PassBlue asked Haq to clarify the use of Russian registered aircraft in “extremis situations” and for more details on the exact number of aircraft that have been grounded or replaced at various missions, but Haq did not reply.

Meanwhile, Russia’s war in Ukraine — in its 18th month — is not the first instance where the UN’s procurement relationship with a member state that is violating the UN Charter and potentially committing war crimes has been openly criticized. Syria, for example, has been undergoing a civil war for 12 years, but the UN still does business with the country.

The Syrian Legal Development Program is a nongovernmental organization based in Britain that studies the relationship between business and human rights in the country, and the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, or Obsalytics, is a Canadian nonprofit that uses data to foster positive political and social changes. Together, they published a report in 2021 revealing that nearly 47 percent of UN procurement funding in Syria between 2019 and 2020 was estimated to have been awarded to “problematic” suppliers in Syria who were likely involved in conflict-related human rights abuses.

That includes the Desert Falcon, a company that was awarded procurement contracts worth over $1 million.

Desert Falcon, the report adds, “is co-owned by Fadi Saqr, who enjoys close ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is the leader of the National Defence Forces militia in Damascus. . . the entity that committed the Tadamon massacre in 2013.” In that attack, at least 40 unarmed Syrian civilians were allegedly blindfolded, executed and piled up in a mass grave, where their bodies were burned by regime officials.

From 2019 to 2020, the UN’s total procurement with Syria was worth more than $406 million, according to the report. Of that, $75 million went to suppliers whose identity was marked “unknown.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the UN doing business with Russia?

Dawn Clancy is a New York City based reporter who focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she has written for The Washington Post and HuffPost.

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The UN Is Still Doing Business With Russia, Is That O.K.?
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Alexandre Gorelik
Alexandre Gorelik
7 months ago

A useful update to a story covered by PassBlue since mid-2022. A quoted expert rightly says the UN sometimes inevitably has to get its hands dirty. Indeed, UN peacekeeping often makes strange bedfellows.Two observations. First, grounding Russian air assets is set to affect every aspect of several UN mission. And air support is one of the sure advantages a mission has over its opponents and foes.Second, regarding the “UN’s procurement relationship with a member state that is violating the UN Charter”: I’ve never heard about the Secretariat’s plans to sever such partnerships with the US or the UK during the “coalition”‘s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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