UNRWA: Beyond the myths

Spokesman for United Nations Relief and Works Agency defends organization against claims it perpetuates Palestinian refugee situation.

Gaza children 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/ Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Israel Picture Servi)
Gaza children 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/ Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Israel Picture Servi)
As debate intensifies over the anticipated Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September, many column inches have been devoted to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the agency mandated by the UN General Assembly to offer education, health, relief and social services to Palestinian refugees until a just and lasting resolution of their plight is achieved. Some commentators have focused on the neutrality, or alleged lack thereof, of UNRWA, its staff, installations and education programs.
The agency has been accused of “perpetuating the refugee situation,” and the question “why not dissolve UNRWA and hand the refugees over to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which would resettle them?” has also been raised.
The allegations with regard to the agency’s neutrality are founded on misunderstandings and discredited myths, and, most importantly, fail to take into account the measures undertaken by the agency to ensure its neutrality. The critics who view UNRWA as a “perpetuator of the refugee situation” fail to grasp the fact that UNRWA’s work is consistent with established international refugee law and practice and that the agency’s mandate to protect and assist refugees, as exclusively granted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, will remain in effect until its parent body decides otherwise.
UNRWA imposes the strictest standards of neutrality on its staff, beneficiaries, suppliers and installations, standards that go well beyond those of many comparable organizations and even governments. From recruitment to separation there are a broad range of agency processes and mechanisms aimed at ensuring staff neutrality.
Every six months, staff names are checked against the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee list of terrorists and terrorist entities; the only terrorist list issued by the UN Security Council. There have been no matches.
In addition, a list of all staff is provided annually to, for example, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
UNRWA also conducts checks of the names of all suppliers and other payees against the 1267 list every six months. There have been no matches.
With regard to UNRWA installations in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, UNRWA’s Operations Support Officer Program, a team of specially-tasked officials, conducts regular installation inspections.
The agency protests armed incursions into its installations by the IDF and Palestinian militants.
There is a strict no-weapons policy in UNRWA installations. Inappropriate conduct triggers agency investigations and can result in the denial of discretionary assistance such as burial expenses, shelter rehabilitation or re-housing assistance. In addition, the gravest accusations made by UNRWA’s critics have been shown to be unfounded upon investigation. The repeated claim during the Gaza war that there were militants in our installations is perhaps the most notable high-profile recent example.
All the above neutrality measures are underpinned by internal and external oversight and auditing.
Moreover, we report regularly on all the above to our donors, including the United States, who conduct their own regular reviews. The support for the work of UNRWA from the governments of the US and Israel speaks for itself.
Likewise, our curriculum and textbooks have been subjected to independent review. UNRWA in the West Bank and Gaza uses the books of the Palestinian Ministry of Education, which makes sense given that we are preparing students for public exams.
A US State Department review of the textbooks used by UNRWA found them to be free of incitement, and the curriculum to be a “peaceful” one in which “religious and political tolerance was emphasized.”
The other set of arguments advanced against UNRWA is based on the fanciful notion that UNRWA itself and its approach to its work are the reason for the continuing existence of Palestine refugees. Therefore, as the false argument goes, Palestine refugees and the issues they represent would disappear if UNRWA were dissolved and the refugees became the responsibility of another agency, such as UNHCR. These notions have no foundation. They are contradicted by the established principles and practice of international law and by the realities of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and its political context.
Like many other refugee populations, Palestinian refugees emerged from circumstances of armed conflict, forced displacement and dispossession of land. To the present day, and particularly in the occupied Palestinian territory, their state of exile is compounded by human rights violations, intra-Palestinian tensions and economic deprivation.
Palestinian refugees continue to be refugees because the issues which caused their exile remain outstanding.
Only by addressing in a just and durable fashion the underlying causes of conflict – and by doing so in accordance with international law and the rights of refugees – can the refugee issue be laid to rest. This is the responsibility of the parties and international political actors. It is wishful, cynical thinking to suppose that these refugees can be made to “go away” by dispersing them around the globe or by dissolving the agency established to protect and assist them pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.
In addressing the Palestinian refugee issue, agencies and actors are guided by various considerations and frames of reference which are integral to the international framework of protecting and assisting such refugees. These include established principles that are of universal application and must be observed by all, including UNRWA or any other agency or actor charged with the Palestinian refugee issue. Those who criticize UNRWA’s role conveniently ignore these considerations.
In the context of seeking solutions to refugee situations, one such consideration is the importance refugees attach to voluntarily returning to the country from which they originally took flight. In the global context, voluntary repatriation is generally referred to as the “preferred choice” of refugees. A pertinent reference is Article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which states that, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”
Another relevant and universally recognized principle is that refugees and their dependents retain their status as refugees until such time as a just and lasting solution to their plight is realized. That some refugee situations (for example, the situation of groups of refugees from Western Sahara, Burundi, Somalia, Myanmar and Afghanistan) are described as “protracted” reflects this recognition.
Given that this principle (the principle of family unity) is universally recognized and implemented, there is no basis to question the reality that Palestinian refugees have for generations been compelled by circumstances to retain their refugee status.
Those who question this betray a lack of understanding of the international protection regime and serve only to distract from the need to address the real reasons for the protracted Palestinian refugee situation, namely the absence of negotiated solution to the underlying political issues.
Let me conclude by saying that UNRWA will continue to advocate for the full protection of the human rights of Palestinian refugees as required by UN resolutions and international law. We will continue to advocate for a resolution of their plight in the context of a just and lasting peace, agreed by the parties in consultation with the refugees, whose freely exercised and informed choices must be respected. It is the failure of the parties to reach such a peace that has led to the perpetuation of the refugee question, not UNRWA, without which hundreds of thousands of the most disadvantaged people in the Middle East would be deprived of essential services – a situation that would hardly advance regional stability. Meanwhile, we will continue with our human development work in education, health, relief and social services, thus contributing to calm in the communities in which refugees live.
The writer is spokesman of UNRWA.