President Trump's misguided approach on UNRWA

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on the eve of the U.S. mid-term elections (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on the eve of the U.S. mid-term elections
In recent days, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has reported that donations from Gulf counties and others have contributed to dramatically reduce the agency’s budget deficit for 2018 – a deficit occasioned in large part by US President Donald Trump’s decision to cut all US support for UNRWA. This is good news for Palestinian civilians who depend on the critical assistance that UNRWA provides, but it does not alter Trump’s wrong-headed decision to deny life-sustaining aid earlier this year. Nor should it end efforts by members of the US Congress to push back on this unfortunate decision.
As the former US official in charge of relief to Palestinian refugees, I was dismayed by the president’s decision, which was first announced in August. At about $360 million per year, the United States had been UNRWA’s largest country donor.
Notwithstanding the efforts of other governments to give more in response the president’s action, the abrupt cancellation of US support has impacted UNRWA’s effort to provide aid and created considerable uncertainty about the future of assistance that includes food, healthcare, and education.
Like all humanitarian aid organizations, UNRWA is imperfect.
But it has also proven effective in meeting humanitarian needs over decades. Moreover, it is clear that the US funding cut-off had little to do with UNRWA’s effectiveness as an aid organization.
In fact, the president has been unambiguous about his rationale: as long as the Palestinian political leadership is not prepared to toe the line on administration policy, Palestinian civilians will suffer the consequences. In a January 2 tweet, the president declared that “with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?” On the same day, when asked explicitly about support to UNRWA, then-ambassador Nikki Haley said that the president would “stop funding” UNRWA’s civilian relief programs until the Palestinian leadership met US political demands.
This linkage flies in the face of decades of responsible US policy on humanitarian aid to civilians around the world. During the Ethiopian famine in 1984, the administration of Ronald Reagan declared that “a hungry child knows no politics.” And it was the administration of George W. Bush that signed onto the Good Humanitarian Donorship Principles, an international declaration committing governments to humanitarian aid “solely on the basis of need, without discrimination between or within affected populations.”
These principles are not only morally sound. They have also enabled the United States to exercise enormous influence on international humanitarian issues around the world. In fact, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both boasted that the United States leads the world in humanitarian assistance.
But those boasts lose their ethical significance if leadership means making life-saving relief to civilians hostage to politics.
Indeed, that is exactly what is occurring. According to a report in Foreign Policy magazine, presidential adviser Jared Kushner pressed Jordanian officials to terminate the refugee status of Palestinians living in Jordan, and thereby end UNRWA responsibilities for this population.
The corresponding White House attack on UNRWA is directly related to this unilateral effort to redefine who is a Palestinian refugee.
It reflects an administration determined to dictate the terms of a political settlement, including the disposition of issues relating to the right of return for Palestinians.
By terminating its support for UNRWA, the administration is pursuing its political objectives at the expense of the wellbeing and the lives of Palestinian civilians.
Supporters of this unfortunate approach have cobbled together additional rationales for the funding cut-off that simply do not withstand scrutiny. Claiming that refugee status cannot be inherited, they have argued that Palestinian descendants of those who became refugees some 70 years ago should not be deemed refugees. However, the protracted refugee cases of Somalis in Kenya, Bhutanese in Nepal, and Afghans in Pakistan – and UN recognition that descendants in those situations were also refugees – demonstrate otherwise.
They have wrongly contended that the granting of citizenship to Palestinians in Jordan somehow deprives Palestinian refugees of rights to any other durable solution to the forced displacement of their families many decades ago. And they have argued that UNRWA has failed the Palestinians because it has not resolved their political plight, when that objective was never part of the organization’s mandate.
To be sure, an end to the long term suffering of Palestinian refugees will only come about through a political solution that meets the needs of all parties to the conflict.
But in the meantime, the Trump administration must cease measures that make humanitarian relief hostage to its political objectives and it must resume support for UNRWA.
Eric Schwartz is president of Refugees International. He is the former US assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, and serves on the board of directors of HIAS, the American Jewish community’s refugee assistance organization.