UNRWA – a different perspective

UNRWA spokesman in op-ed says body welcomes legitimate discussions, as well as critical reviews, with stakeholders, including members of the media – such as 'The Jerusalem Post.'

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl sits with students at a UN-run school in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip  in the Gaza Strip earlier this year (photo credit: REUTERS)
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl sits with students at a UN-run school in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip in the Gaza Strip earlier this year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a neutral UN human development agency, UNRWA is proud of its long track record in the fields of education, health and social services, which brings a sense of dignity and respect to a marginalized and disadvantaged population in one of the world’s most unstable regions. Every day half a million children study in one of our over 700 schools and millions annually have access to primary healthcare in our clinics. We are equally proud of our emergency work during times of instability and conflict, delivering humanitarian services in places like Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.
Arguably our operations take place in highly polarized contexts, which explains why what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, leaves no one indifferent. With 30,000 employees in such complex environments, striving to maintain neutrality is of paramount importance.
Against this background, UNRWA welcomes legitimate discussions, as well as critical reviews, with our many stakeholders, including members of the media – such as The Jerusalem Post – but also with our largest donors, as well as host governments, refugee communities and the Israeli authorities.
While there is much praise for UNRWA and the courage of our staff, we also face criticism that we are partisan or carry an agenda contrary to the interests of some stakeholders.
That these allegations are made by parties on both sides of the conflict – who also routinely express support – is surely indicative of the effectiveness of our efforts on neutrality. It has been our consistent practice to address these criticisms as factually and appropriately as possible.
One such criticism focuses on the notion that UNRWA in some sense endorses extremism.
This is an accusation we reject in the strongest possible terms. During the latest Gaza hostilities, it was UNRWA that came out proactively condemning militant groups that had placed rockets in our schools and which we had discovered during our own neutrality inspections. It is little reported, but our staff on the ground has received threats of abductions and violent retribution. As the conflict raged, UNRWA’s commissioner- general condemned the firing of rockets into Israel, not from the comfort of his office in Jerusalem, but from the battle zone itself, inside Gaza.
There is a related argument that UNRWA is in some sense anti-Israel. This is a notion we reject as groundless. Many of our stakeholders support us precisely because we oppose intolerance and discrimination and speak out against them as appropriate. No doubt in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amid the appalling violence in Syria and in light of the wholesale denial of rights to Palestinians in Lebanon, maintaining staff neutrality is challenging, yet we take direct ownership of this issue. We have a plethora of procedures and systems in place for ensuring our staff understands why it is important to remain impartial.
Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that we pay a heavy price for working in such environments. Eleven UNRWA colleagues lost their lives during the conflict in Gaza, in addition to 14 in Syria since 2011, and one in the West Bank in 2013.
Meanwhile, you hear almost nothing in the media about our proactive programs to promote UN neutrality in the context of an increasingly radicalized Middle East. You rarely hear about thousands of UNRWA education staff members teaching human rights and conflict resolution as part of a discrete curriculum which we developed, promoting values based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A related comment is that we allegedly promote the right of return for Palestine refugees in “UNRWA textbooks.” The fact is that we do not promote or prescribe specific political solutions and in reaffirming that the refugees have rights, we stipulate that the only solution to the conflict can be one acceptable to all the parties. As for text books, according to long accepted practice, we use the same books as host governments and local authorities.
This includes the schools administered by the State of Israel in east Jerusalem.
It is also alleged that UNRWA prevents people leaving refugee camps and somehow intentionally perpetuates the problem through the generations, unlike UNHCR, which, as our critics would have it, has a mandate to resettle refugees and never registers through generations. This is erroneous.
UNRWA does not run refugee camps, neither do we prevent people leaving them.
Our human development programs offer an escape from the grind of the camps, and incidentally only one-third of the refugees live in camps, a proportion declining over time thanks in no small part to social mobility nurtured by UNRWA. Moreover, UNHCR also registers children of refugees as refugees where their political plight remains unresolved.
UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status states: “If the head of a family meets the criteria of the definition [for refugee status], his dependents are normally granted refugee status according to the principle of family unity.”
UNHCR’s Procedural Standards for Refugee Status Determination makes the same point.
These attacks are based on the notion that if you get rid of UNRWA, you get rid of the refugees. The logic of this runs contrary to international law and refugee best practice.
Moreover, if UNRWA vanished, these human beings would continue to exist and a resolution to their situation would still be necessary.
If UNRWA disappeared, host countries in the case of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian government, or the Israeli occupying authorities in the case of the West Bank and Gaza, would need to provide them with basic services.
What perpetuates the refugees as an issue is the political failure to address their plight based on international law and the precepts of justice, in the context of a just and lasting settlement of the Middle East conflict. That is one reason why UNRWA constantly calls on the political players to take meaningful political action. We seek nothing more than our own closure, which will come when the political parties finally resolve the issue for which we were created.
Let us recognize UNRWA for what it is: a UN human development organization providing essential services to an increasingly desperate and perpetually displaced population that lingers in a state of political uncertainty. The United Nations General Assembly, which represents the international community as a whole, established UNRWA for a particular reason, namely to address the needs of Palestine refugees, and the General Assembly continues to renew our mandate in the absence of a just and durable solution of their plight.
Meanwhile, we continue to ask the political actors and the international community to address the future of this population through a just and lasting resolution that provides the dignity and sense of peace that all people deserve. Until that occurs, we will continue in our mission as defined and mandated by the UN General Assembly.
The writer is spokesperson for UNRWA.