Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 10 December 2019

UNRWA mandate renewed for three years, ending US pressure

Diplomats criticise 'politicisation' of agency for Palestinian refugees

A Palestinian man transports boxes of food outside an aid distribution centre run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Bureij. AFP
A Palestinian man transports boxes of food outside an aid distribution centre run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Bureij. AFP

Countries voted overwhelmingly on Friday to renew the mandate of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, ending a concerted campaign by the United States to abolish it.

Having endured a funding crisis largely caused by the US withdrawing support, the finances of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency remain volatile.

But members of the United Nations Fourth Committee adopted a resolution approving the agency's operations until June 2023.

Among those who voted, 170 states supported renewal of the mandate and seven abstained. Only the US and Israel voted against.

“Despite bullying, blackmail and pressure they stood by UNRWA,” said Riyad Al Mansour, Ambassador for Palestine to the UN, thanking countries for resisting US lobbying against the agency and its donors.

The UN General Assembly will enshrine the decision in a second vote next month.

Some $1.2-billion is needed annually to fund UNRWA's operations.

A funding crisis began in 2017 when President Donald Trump said the US would cut all funding. That decision created a $446 million deficit last year – the US was previously the agency's biggest contributor – but the gap was filled by 42 donor nations and other backers.

In the past year US diplomats and officials have repeatedly spoken out against UNRWA, saying its efforts to provide Palestinians with medical facilities, schools, food and financial help are flawed and its funding model unsustainable.

However, diplomats say the Trump administration has politicised humanitarian aid and been egregious about assistance provided to Palestinians.

“This was just the same old American message: we want to get rid of UNRWA,” one UN diplomat told The National.

“As usual, they didn't provide any alternate plan on how to help Palestinians and that is why the mandate was renewed without any serious opposition. We had to fill the void.”

More than half of the two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which is under Israeli blockade, receive food aid from UNRWA. Spread across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Occupied Territories, five and half million people are provided some form of assistance.

A recent scandal centred on Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA's commissioner general, has added to the agency's problems. He resigned earlier this month after an interim investigation found mismanagement but no fraud among senior management. That probe followed the leak of an internal ethics report in July which implicated Mr Krahenbuhl and others in accusations of sexual misconduct, nepotism and discrimination. He denied wrongdoing.

The Netherlands, Switzerland and Belgium, who are major donors, chose to suspend or limit their contributions pending the outcome of the investigation.

Mr Krahenbuhl's removal was seen by some donor states as a way to “draw a line” under the scandal but Mr Al Mansour paid tribute to him after Friday's vote.

“He lost his job because he was a principled fighter,” said the Palestinian ambassador of Mr Krahenbuhl, who headed the agency for five years.

Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet, the acting US deputy permanent representative to the UN, reiterated opposition to UNRWA, without elaborating on suggested reforms.

“We have made clear our position that the fundamental model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years are simply unsustainable,” she said during Friday's committee meeting.

“Palestinians deserve better than a crisis-driven provision model that routinely imperils the very services that UNRWA seeks to provide to its beneficiaries, and the UN cannot expect the international community to fund a model based on an endlessly expanding number of beneficiaries.”

A diplomat representing a major donor to UNRWA told The National that while all humanitarian assistance is vulnerable to politicisation the agency for Palestinians was particularly exposed because of issues surrounding the Middle East Peace Process.

“Member states should put a firewall between the political aims they pursue and the humanitarian assistance they provide but clearly that's not always the case with UNRWA,” she said before the vote.

“The fact that the mandate ia about to be renewed without change is one clear indication of how much support UNRWA has in the General Assembly.”

UN member states say reforms have been taking place at UNRWA since 2007 and that donor countries actively support improvements in its health, education, and relief and social programmes. Individual governments also conduct due diligence and monitoring of projects that they have funded.

“We and other donors are pushing for continued implementation of reforms,” the diplomat added.

Updated: November 15, 2019 11:06 PM

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