Towards the end of its seventy-third session this past year the UN General Assembly adopted a series of resolutions on Palestinian refugees and displaced persons. Revised and tabled annually, the resolutions address the operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), assistance and protection for Palestinians displaced during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, and the right of refugees to their properties and revenues derived by the state of Israel therefrom.
Expressing concern about the lack of adequate funding for refugee assistance in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the Assembly once again
Call[ed] upon all donors to continue to strengthen their efforts to meet the anticipated needs of [UNRWA], including with regard to increased expenditures and needs arising from conflicts and instability in the region and the serious socioeconomic and humanitarian situation, particularly in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and those needs mentioned in recent emergency, recovery and reconstruction appeals and plans for the Gaza Strip and in the regional crisis response plans to address the situation of Palestine refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic and those Palestine refugees who have fled to countries in the region.
While ensuring sufficient, predictable and sustainable funding of UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection programmes has been a persistent challenge over the Agency’s nearly seven decades of operations, as the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA noted in its most recent report, the scope and scale of the challenge assumed new proportions last summer when the Trump administration decided to terminate funding of UNRWA operations.
The decision followed an initial suspension at the beginning of 2018 of nearly 85 percent of pledged US contributions for the year which in total comprised around a third of the funds needed to run the Agency’s regular operations providing among others education, health and welfare services for Palestine refugees. The sudden termination left UNRWA with a projected deficit of USD 446 million including a USD 49 million deficit carried over from 2017. Describing 2018 as a “tumultuous year”, Pierre Krähenbühl, the Agency’s Commissioner-General, observed that “[a]t every level and on every front we have been been in crisis mode […] exacerbated by the largest funding shortfall [UNRWA] has every faced”.
This first in a series of commentaries examines the rationale behind the administration’s decision to terminate funding of UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection operations. Part two will explore the potential impact of the decision on Palestine refugees and others eligible to receive Agency services while part three reviews UNRWA efforts to reduce its projected deficit this past year. This is a somewhat round-about way of getting to the central issue of this series of commentaries, namely, UNRWA’s sustainability in the absence of a political solution to the long-running struggle over Palestine/Israel. The fourth and final part offers a few thoughts on ways forward as UNRWA, hosts and donors, as well as refugees themselves, look towards the current fiscal year.
Announcing the administration’s decision to defund UNRWA at the end of August last year, the State Department gave two reasons for terminating the historic partnership between UNRWA and the United States. First, referring back to the disbursement of USD 60 million in January, the Department noted that at the time the administration had “made it clear that the United States was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs that we had assumed for many years”.
In other words, defunding the Agency was an apparent effort to encourage more equitable burden or responsibility sharing for Palestinian refugees. As State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert explained at the beginning of last year,
The United States Government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden sharing to go around. […] We don’t believe that taking care of other nations and other people has to solely be the United States responsibility. People want that to be our responsibility. We’re very generous. In fact, I would argue we’re the most generous nation on the globe, but we will ask other countries to do more.
Nauert was responding to questions about whether the initial suspension of assistance aimed to punish Palestinians for refusing to take part in US-mediated peace talks after the administration decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the American Embassy to the city. In a tweet two weeks earlier President Trump had complained that
we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?
Setting aside the question of whether the termination of humanitarian and development funding is the best way to encourage other states to assume a greater share of the financial responsibility for UNRWA’s programmes, the State Department’s rationale raises an issue that is at the centre of international efforts to address the significant growth in the number of refugees and the increasingly protracted nature of many refugee situations, namely, international burden or responsibility sharing.
In the last decade the global population of forcibly displaced persons increased by 50 percent with just over a fifth of the world’s 25.4 million refugees last year originating from that part of Mandate Palestine that became the state of Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. This exceeded the previous decade high in the early 1990s when unresolved refugee situations, Afghanistan and Palestine in particular, and those newly-displaced by conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, among others, combined for a global population of more than 20 million refugees. In the last ten years, the number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA increased by around 15 percent due largely to natural growth and to a far less extent new registrations. The Agency’s registration of refugee children in the absence of a durable solution to their situation has been discussed elsewhere and is a matter which we will return to shortly.
It should be noted that the above figures for Palestinian refugees exclude those displaced during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war along with those uprooted in the years and decades that followed each of the two major wars between Israel and neighbouring Arab states. In the nine years since it began monitoring, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has recorded around 9,000 Palestinians displaced by house demolition, only one of an array of inter-connected triggers of forced displacement arising from Israel’s military occupation and the unresolved struggle over self-determination. Research carried out by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, for example
confirmed testimonies that the hidden face of displacement may not be the incidents of demolition which attract international attention and media coverage, but, rather, the steady trickle of families who are ground down by years of harassment from Israeli military and civilian officials and settlers. Informants spoke of a wide range of triggers to leave – including impossibility of obtaining building permits, denial of access to pastures, settler violence and Israel military training exercises. Having survived years of pressure and vandalism, and seeing their assets depleted and access to resources restricted, they have little choice except to abandon their homes forever, often slipping away in secrecy.
Three quarters of the world’s refugees in 2017, when the 5.4 million Palestinians registered with UNRWA are included, were caught up in protracted refugee situations, defined by UNHCR as 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality who have been in exile for five consecutive years or more in a given asylum country. This includes the world’s other major refugee situations—Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia—with refugees in protracted situations spending an average of around 22 years in exile. “A protracted situation”, as UNHCR further explains in its summary of global trends in forced displacement, “will be the result of conditions in the refugees’ country of origin, the responses of and conditions in the host countries, the availability of durable solutions, and the level of engagement by the international community”.
In 2015, faced with the highest annual increase in refugees in a single year, then High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, warned that the world was “witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before”. When combined with estimates for internal displacement the total number of displaced persons in 2017 was similar to the number of refugees in continental Europe after the Second World War, however, when persons displaced outside Europe are included, as Gatrell observes in his history of the modern refugee, “[i]t is hard to avoid the conclusion that the most dramatic period of mass population displacement occurred in the 1940s as a result of war and political upheaval around the world”. Nevertheless, with the significant increase in refugees and migrants from across the Mediterranean seeking asylum and shelter in Europe in recent years, former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, emphasized that the global refugee crisis referred to by Guterres was “not just a crisis of numbers; it is also a crisis of solidarity”.
In a report addressing large movements of refugees and migrants, Ban Ki Moon went on to observe that
If one lesson can be drawn from the past few years, it is that individual countries cannot solve these issues on their own. International cooperation and action to address large movements of refugees and migrants must be strengthened. Both national and collective responses must address the reasons people leave their homes, their need for safe passage and protection and both the immediate and long-term needs of those who cross into other countries. In short, all members of the international community must do much better.
Addressing the situation at a high level meeting in 2016, UN member states adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants reaffirming their commitment to the principle of international burden or responsibility sharing in meeting the needs and finding solutions for the growing number of refugees around the world:
We acknowledge a shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centred manner. We will do so through international cooperation, while recognizing that there are varying capacities and resources to respond to these movements. International cooperation and, in particular, cooperation among countries of origin or nationality, transit and destination, has never been more important; “win-win” cooperation in this area has profound benefits for humanity. Large movements of refugees and migrants must have comprehensive policy support, assistance and protection, consistent with States’ obligations under international law. We also recall our obligations to fully respect their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we stress their need to live their lives in safety and dignity. We pledge our support to those affected today as well as to those who will be part of future large movements.
International burden or responsibility sharing, as Milner explains, is “the principle through which the diverse costs of granting asylum assumed by host states are more equitably divided among a greater number of states”. Cooperation among states in sharing the costs of asylum is especially important given that 60 percent of the world’s refugees (including registered Palestine refugees) are located in only ten countries with the majority of the world’s refugees (85 percent in 2017) located in the developing world. Put another way, the combined Gross National Income of the ten countries which hosted nearly two-thirds of the world’s refugees last year, including registered Palestinian refugees, was around one-twentieth of the combined Gross National Income of UNHCR’s top ten donor states. The latter, by way of comparison, hosted around ten percent of the world’s refugees with nearly half finding refuge in Germany.
The primary way in which states share responsibility for meeting the needs of the global refugee population is through their financial contributions to countries of asylum, international organizations like UNHCR and UNRWA and non-governmental organizations. In 2017 ten governmental donors along with the European Union provided around 80 percent of UNHCR funding with eight of the same donors including the European Union along with Saudi Arabia and Switzerland providing around 80 percent of UNRWA funding. Denmark and Italy, which were among UNHCR’s top ten donor states in 2017, ranked 13th and 14th respectively among UNRWA’s top donor states in the same year.
In their specific commitments to refugees, member states taking part in the above-mentioned high-level meeting in New York
not[ed] with concern [the] significant gap between the needs of refugees and the available resources […] encourag[ed] support from a broader range of donors and [committed to taking] measures to make humanitarian financing more flexible and predictable, with diminished earmarking and increased multi-year funding, in order to close this gap.
They emphasized that
United Nations entities such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and other relevant organizations require sufficient funding to be able to carry out their activities effectively and in a predictable manner.
In its recent resolution on UNRWA operations, the General Assembly, by an overwhelming majority, welcomed the above affirmation that “the Agency, along with other relevant organizations, requires sufficient funding to be able to carry out its activities effectively and in a predictable manner”.
What then of the State Department’s claim that the US shoulders an inequitable share of the burden or responsibility for Palestinian refugees? It is true that the United States has been the Agency’s single largest donor state—with contributions exceeding USD six billion—since UNRWA’s establishment nearly seventy years ago in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. In 2017 the US pledged a total of USD 364 million including USD 157.5 million for UNRWA’s core programmes (including education, health and welfare services), USD 198 million for emergency operations in Syria and in the Israeli occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip along with a further USD 8.5 million for Agency projects. The US was also UNHCR’s single largest donor state in 2017.
While the US has played a significant role in responsibility or burden sharing through its financing of UNRWA operations since 1950, a fact highlighted repeatedly by both the US and the Agency during their many decades of partnership, it is important to note that other donors have contributed an increasingly greater share of funds required for UNRWA’s regular programs, projects and emergency operations. According to Schiff, between 1962 and 1972, the US share of total pledged contributions fell from 72 to 52 percent declining further to 37 percent in 1982 and 25 percent in 1991. In 2017 US pledged contributions comprised around one fifth of Agency’s total budgetary requirements—programmes, projects and emergency operations—with around three-fifths earmarked for special projects and emergency operations.
It is also important to note that while US funding of UNRWA’s operations has remained significant, notwithstanding the notable decline relative to other donor states over the past seven decades until the termination of financial support last August, overall contribution to the Agency’s programme, project and/or emergency budget is not the only metric of financial burden or responsibility sharing. In a study written some fifteen years ago, Brynen examined “donor generosity” to UNRWA using three additional metrics: financial contributions as a percentage of gross national product, in relation to the UN scale of assessment (for annual membership dues based on economic measures), and as a percentage of a donor state’s overseas development budget.
While the first two measures are based on the premise that wealthier states should assume a greater portion of responsibility for refugees, the study uses the third measure to gauge the importance of a particular humanitarian or development programme, in this case, UNRWA operations for Palestinian refugees, for development agencies and foreign ministries. The measures are updated below based on pledged contributions to the Agency for 2017 relying on World Bank data for gross national income (rather than GDP), the UN scale of assessment of member state dues for 2017, and the most recent Development Assistance Committee report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
When the contributions of UNRWA’s 17 traditional donor states—who accounted for more than three-quarters of all pledges to the Agency’s combined programme, project and emergency budgets in 2017—are measured as a percentage of gross national income, the United States ranked 11th dropping another rank when donations to UNRWA’s projects and emergency programmes in the OPT and Syria are excluded. Sweden, by way of contrast, was by far the most generous on both accounts. The calculation here, in contrast to the above comparison between UNHCR and UNRWA, includes European donors’ share (based on population) of European Union contributions to UNRWA. In order to bring its overall contribution in line with Sweden, the US would have had to increase its overall contribution to UNRWA by around six times and double that when the Agency’s programme budget covering the above-mentioned core services is considered separately.
In late July 2017, speaking before the UN Security Council, US ambassador Nikki Haley criticized states, mentioning nearly a dozen by name, for failing to shoulder their share of responsibility for meeting the needs of Palestinian refugees. Using the above measure, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, two of the states mentioned by Haley, were more generous in their overall contribution to UNRWA than the United States. In order for the US to bring its financial share equal to that of the Kuwait, the most generous of the three, the US would have had to increase its overall and programme contributions to UNRWA by more than three times. By way of further contrast, the US would have had to increase its overall contribution to UNRWA by 12 times and its contribution to the Agency’s programme budget by more than twice that in order to equal the share carried by the Observer State of Palestine in 2017.
The United States did somewhat better when its overall generosity is measured according to the UN scale of assessment for 2017 ranking 9th among Agency’s traditional donors, but falling to 10th when contribution to UNRWA’s programme budget is considered separately. Sweden, which once again led in terms of generosity among traditional donors, was around four times more generous than the United States in terms of overall contributions and twice as much when project and emergency donations are excluded. While Sweden was the only traditional donor that was at least twice as generous as the US in its overall contributions to UNRWA, another four were more than twice as generous in contributing to the Agency’s programme budget. Five non-traditional donors and three regional state partners—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were also more generous than the US in terms of overall contributions to the Agency. Three non-traditional donors and two regional state partners were also more generous than the US in their contributions to UNRWA’s programme budget.
Finally, looking at pledged contributions to UNRWA in 2017 as a percentage of a country’s total overseas development budget moves the US up to second place in terms of overall contributions with Sweden once again ranking first among the Agency’s traditional donors. In other words, by this measure and until the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Agency funding, UNRWA appeared to be a relatively important mechanism for the delivery of US humanitarian assistance. However, this was also driven to a considerable extent by funding of Agency projects and its emergency programmes. The US fell to 6th place when contribution to UNRWA’s programme budget is considered separately. UNRWA also appeared to be more important to nine non-traditional donors when all three budget lines are included, but only one when contributions are limited to the Agency’s programme budget. This appears to reflective the relative ease, notwithstanding the fact that emergency appears remain far from fully funded, with which the Agency has been able to mobilize funds for emergency operations and the more difficult task of funding recurrent expenses in the context of a protracted refugee situation. ODA information was unavailable for four non-traditional donors, 11 emerging or emergent donors along with 14 regional partner states.
In justifying the administration’s decision to defund UNRWA, the State Department further argued that
the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years—tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries—is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years. The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.
The US Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations repeated this allegation in a letter to Secretary-General Guterres several months later.
The opening phrase in the above paragraph appears to suggest that, coupled with the apparent effort to encourage more equitable responsibility sharing, the termination of US funding was a simple business decision, that is to say, the administration decided to defund UNRWA’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection operations because they were a bad or poor return on investment. When asked about the issue in January 2018 after the initial suspension of US funding, for example, Heather Nauert, the spokesperson at the State Department confirmed that it was her “understanding” that the decision was “purely [related to the Agency’s] management and organization”.
This is hard to square with the terms of the two year cooperation agreement between the United States and UNRWA signed barely a month before the administration’s initial decision to suspend Agency funding. While not legally binding, the now defunct agreement states that
The United States is committed to continuing its partnership with UNRWA to assist UNRWA-registered refugees and other persons falling under the mandate of UNRWA until a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement is achieved and UNRWA’s mandate ends. Recognizing the need for early, sufficient, predictable and sustained funding, the United States intends to strive to provide flexible and early contributions to UNRWA for the Agency’s Program Budget and Emergency Appeals.
In a section on shared goals and priorities, the agreement refers to UNRWA’s “efficient and effective” delivery of core eduction, primary health care, and relief and social services. The UN Secretary-General’s 2017 consultations on UNRWA financing similarly reported that “[t]raditional donors emphasized the high level of efficiency at which the Agency was operating, and many noted the decisive steps taken over time that had contributed to that result”. According to Hanafi, Hilal and Takkenberg, regular funding crises and related donor calls for efficiency gains “have made the [UNRWA] one of the leanest organizations in the United Nations system”.
In terms of the Agency’s effectiveness, a World Bank study of UNRWA’s flagship education program found that its schools “continually and consistently outperform public schools by a margin equivalent to more than one additional year of learning”. The report further explains that “[t]hese higher learning outcomes are achieved teaching the same curriculum as the public schools in their host countries, at a lower unit cost and with unstable funding that could decline from one year to the next”. As UNRWA notes in its resource mobilization strategy, “[t]he annual cost per pupil in its schools is less than 10 per cent of that spent on children in Member States of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and between 25-50 per cent of the cost per pupil in middle-income countries”.
Source: UNRWA Operational Report 2017
The cooperation agreement between UNRWA and the US also describes the Agency’s curriculum on human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance; its Operation and Support Officers teams, set up during the second intifada in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to help facilitate humanitarian assistance, secure mobility of UNRWA staff and enhance norm-based implementation of Agency programmes; along with policies and procedures on gender-based violence as “successes”. It further states that UNRWA reforms over the past decade have “improved management capacity, increased program quality and efficiency, and increased financial stability and accountability of the Agency”.
Barely a month after the State Department signed the above-mentioned agreement, however, Heather Nauert explained somewhat curiously that
one of the things this administration would like to do, just as we talk about UN reform, is take a look at UNRWA, trying to make sure that the money is best spent and best spent so that people can get the services, whether it’s school or the health care services, that they need.
When pressed further on the substantive content of reforms demanded by the US, Nauert conceded that she was “not aware” that the administration had given UNRWA “a list of specific things that we are asking them to do”.
The State Department’s rationale is also hard to square with similar agreements between UNRWA and other donors. A joint declaration signed in 2017 between UNRWA and the European Union, the Agency’s largest multilateral donor, describes European support to Palestine refugees as “a key element in the EU strategy of contributing to the promotion of stability in the Near East which facilitates the parties’ quest for peace”. UNRWA operations, as the declaration goes on to explain, help ensure that the “essential needs” of refugees are met, contribute to the development of “educated, skilled and healthy citizens [needed] to deliver peace, security and prosperity for all”, and provide “political space for efforts to conclude a peace deal and state building”. This latter role, described by Forsythe as “peace-servicing”, will be addressed in a later commentary.
In line with long-standing US policy, the Trump administration also appeared, at least until its decision to terminate the Agency’s funding, to recognize UNRWA’s contribution to regional stability. Explaining the initial suspension of US funding in January, Heather Nauert, told reporters that
in terms of instability, one of the questions that people had asked about 10 days, two weeks or so or ago, was will you zero out this money. […] Look, a big part of the reason we didn’t, after a lot of interagency deliberations, was we thought that that would have a negative impact. So here’s where we came down: $60 million today; a potential second tranche, $65 million; and potentially more in the future. So we took those concerns into consideration.
In its current multi-year strategy for engagement with UNRWA, Denmark, one of UNRWA’s most generous donor states according to the above metrics, further emphasizes that in the context of armed conflict and regional instability “stable and predictable support to the Agency is pivotal for mitigating the risk of Palestine refugees joining other refugees on risky journeys towards Europe”. It was the onward migration of refugees from the region, primarily from the civil war in Syria, and Africa, as noted earlier, that led to the above-mentioned high-level meeting and its outcome document—the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. According to UNHCR figures for refugee arrivals in Greece during the first half of last year, the West Bank and Gaza Strip was the fifth most common country or territory of origin.
The Danish strategy document further explains that “[b]y providing opportunities to Palestine refugee youth through job creation programmes, vocational training and education, UNRWA contributes to allowing refugees to realize their full human potential and mitigates the risk of infiltration of radical extremists into poor refugee communities”. Sude et al., for example, highlight the importance of adequate, sustained humanitarian assistance and the protection of basic rights in “lessoning the risk of refugee radicalization”. The study further emphasizes the need for a “multi-pronged approach which also ‘gives refugees viable choices for their future’”, an issue which we will return to in a later commentary.
Turning to some recent evaluations of donor aid, a 2012 assessment of Australian assistance found that UNRWA “has been able to demonstrate a significant contribution to the development and humanitarian needs of the Palestinian refugees”. The report emphasizes the Agency’s “strong [and] direct contribution to poverty reduction among the poorest” who comprise around a fifth (2014 figures) of all registered Palestine refugees. Finding that “levels of poverty do not seem to affect some key welfare indicators” among Palestine refugees in camps and gatherings, a summary of living conditions of Palestine refugees based on surveys conducted over a decade ago by FAFO, the Norwegian Institute for Applied Social Science, similarly concluded that this was “most likely due to UNRWA providing subsidized services in the camps”. Australia and the UK, discussed below, are together with Denmark among UNRWA’s 17 traditional donor states.
Finally, a 2013 Independent Commission for Aid Impact report described the UK’s financial contribution to UNRWA as “an effective way of supporting [the] twin aims of improving the human development outcomes of Palestine refugees and of contributing to regional stability”. Also similar to the above agreements and evaluations, the report further noted that UNRWA “delivers basic services in an efficient manner in comparison with other regional providers”. Much like the defunct cooperation agreement between the US and the Agency, moreover, the report concluded that “[u]ntil a regional political settlement is reached, UNRWA’s role is central to ensuring that Palestine refugees can access basic services”. The report’s authors nevertheless warned, in a remark that the US State Department appears to echo in its press release, that there is “a real risk to the sustainability of this model, caused by the growing gap between demand for and supply of UNRWA services”. We will return to the issue of sustainability in the final commentary in this series.
This is not to suggest that there is little to no room for improvement. Each of the above-mentioned cooperation agreements, declarations and evaluations identify areas where UNRWA can strengthen its human development, humanitarian assistance and protection operations. As noted elsewhere, constructive criticism of the Agency from a range of stakeholders including refugees themselves over many decades has contributed to various management and programme reforms that have enabled the Agency to sustain and improve the quality of its services notwithstanding chronic budget shortfalls and concomitant concerns about the sustainability of its services in the absence of a political solution to the conflict. It is simply to say that the Trump administration’s claim about UNRWA’s “business model” does not appear to align in any way with the State Department’s own cooperation agreement with the Agency nor does it correlate with the views of other donors and the results of a number of recent external evaluations of Agency programmes.
How then to make sense of the second reason given for the termination of US funding? It seems that the crucial issue for the administration is set out in the qualifying phrase in the State Department’s August press release announcing the termination of Agency funding which refers to “UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries”. With this phrase the Trump administration appears to have adopted a line of argument made by some of the Agency’s longstanding critics. These include organizations like the Center for Near East Policy Research, the Heritage Foundation, the Institute of the World Jewish Congress, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the Middle East Forum, UN Watch and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. While criticism of UNRWA pre-dates the launch of political negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s, the last twenty-five years have witnessed a significant expansion in publications targeting the Agency’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection operations drawing it appears on criticisms elaborated in earlier decades.
The US-based Middle East Forum, a conservative think-tank set up in 1990 to “promote American interests in the Middle East and protect Western values from Middle Eastern threats”, has been one of the Agency’s leading critics. On the same day that the State Department announced termination of UNRWA funding last summer, the Forum issued its own press release congratulating the Trump administration for adopting one of its “signature policy prescriptions”. Following the partial suspension of US funding at the beginning of 2018, the Forum offered one million dollars in funding, or less than half a percent of that withheld by the US, if UNRWA revised its definition of a Palestine refugee in ways that would reduce the number of registered refugees from more than five million to a mere 20,000. While many of the Forum’s criticisms of UNRWA were laid out in a series of articles published in the organization’s quarterly journal some five years ago, the Forum also noted in the same press release congratulating the administration that several weeks prior to the above announcement it had provided the State Department at the latter’s request with “a detailed plan to dismantle UNRWA”.
The criticisms and related “remedies” put forward by the above-mentioned Agency critics, notwithstanding differences in emphasis, detail and timelines for UNRWA’s future, are nevertheless broadly similar. In sum, as Rosen argues in the Middle East Forum’s journal, “UNRWA has evolved into an agency that perpetuates the refugee problem as a source of conflict rather than contributing to its resolution”. Critics commonly argue that UNRWA does this by failing to resolve the issue through the economic reintegration of refugees in the region and through the registration of their children or descendants. Speaking to the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee this past November, Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, described such criticisms as little more than “straight-forward misrepresentations” reiterating that UNRWA, unlike UNHCR, does not have a mandate to seek durable solutions while the Agency’s registration practices are consistent with UNHCR’s registration of refugee children in other protracted situations.
Agency critics nevertheless appear to be unaware of or deliberately ignore repeated clarifications of UNRWA’s mandate and its registration practices, including those issued by UNHCR, not to mention a significant body of scholarly research on the matter. In order to “remedy” the situation as they see it, critics commonly suggest that UNRWA’s mandate and its definition of a Palestine refugee should either be reformed and revised or the Agency itself should be dissolved in its entirety, with donor states using humanitarian and development assistance as leverage to bring about one or the other of the proposed “remedies”. The needs of those refugees who still require humanitarian assistance would be met through bilateral assistance to host states, non-governmental organizations and, should it come into being, a future Palestinian state. In its press release heralding the Trump administration’s decision to terminate UNRWA funding, the Middle East Forum thus recommends that
The second step should be for the US government to divert funds to local partners on the ground via direct relationships with hospitals, clinics, schools, municipalities, micro-financing programs, vocational capacity building initiatives, infrastructure managers, social service providers, and others.
While Israeli governments past and present have shared such criticisms, since the election of the Trump administration, Israeli officials have been increasingly vocal in calling for UNRWA’s dissolution notwithstanding concomitant concern among some that the Agency’s termination would impose greater financial burdens on Israel and contribute to further instability in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and in neighbouring states in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, has publicly stated that “the time has come to disband UNRWA and integrate it into UNHCR” since the Agency “perpetuates—and does not solve—the Palestinian refugee problem”. Speaking this past November at the same Fourth Committee meeting mentioned above, Israel’s representative repeated the State Department’s claim that UNRWA’s “business model is ‘irredeemably flawed’” and called upon the international community to “redirect its support [of Palestinian refugees] into other international channels”.
The apparent assumption underlying the above recommendations is that revising UNRWA’s mandate and its refugee definition or dissolving the Agency itself will resolve the situation of Palestinian refugees by enabling or catalyzing their de facto resettlement in current places of exile and negating the return of those wishing to do so to homes and places of origin inside the state of Israel. In his remarks to the Fourth Committee, Israel’s representative alleged that UNRWA “uses social services to advance a maximalist political agenda and nurtures the Palestinian demand for ‘return’ to the State of Israel and its pre-1967 lines” and that “[u]nder the guise of the right of return, [refugees] are refusing, through UNRWA, to accept the Jewish right to self-determination”. These allegations deserve a commentary of their own. The important point here is that neither UNRWA’s critics, nor the administration which seems to have adopted their key recommendations, are really concerned about how UNRWA manages its operations or about the efficiency of the Agency’s human development, humanitarian assistance and protection programmes.
Similar to the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which led to the Palestinian decision to withdraw from US-sponsored negotiations, its termination of UNRWA funding appears to be little more than a poorly concealed effort to remove the Palestinian refugee issue from the negotiating table. Former US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, suggested as much in response to media questions this past August following the termination of US funding, notwithstanding subsequent remarks by the President that the US would “resume payments” if Palestinians “returned to the negotiating table”. It is far from clear whether this would include a resumption of US funding of UNRWA’s operations. The major difference between the two issues, however, as humanitarian organizations have pointed out, is that in the refugee case the administration has decided to use humanitarian aid as leverage to achieve political ends.
In one of its first resolutions on refugee relief, adopted on 11 December 1946, two years to the day prior to the adoption of Resolution 194 affirming that persons displaced by the war in Palestine should be allowed to return to their homes and receive compensation for loss and damage, the General Assembly
reaffirm[ed] the principle that at no time should relief supplies be used as a political weapon, and that no discrimination should be made in the distribution of relief supplies because of race, creed, or political belief.
Commenting on US policy and practice, Grisgraber points out in a report for Refugees International, that the administration’s decision
explicitly broke with decades of bipartisan consensus on an important principle of US foreign policy—that humanitarian aid should be provided on the basis of need, not politics. This principle has been defended by the United States on many occasions, including in the multilateral “Good Humanitarian Donorship Principles” first endorsed by the administration of George W. Bush.
The above “remedies” advocated by UNRWA’s critics and seemingly adopted by the Trump administration nevertheless face two major challenges. First, while the Agency could recommend changes to its mandate, approval of any reforms would be contingent on a majority vote from UNRWA’s parent body, the UN General Assembly, which is unlikely to support the remedies suggested by UNRWA critics. Indeed, some critics like Lindsay, a former UNRWA employee, whose monograph was published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy several years prior to the Middle East Forum’s above-mentioned special issue on the Agency, acknowledge this fact and have recommended caution in the withholding or withdrawal of US funding. Lindsay’s response to the termination of US funding published by the Institute rehashed many of the arguments set out in more detail in his monograph. The Trump administration suffered its first loss when an overwhelming majority of Assembly members recently voted in favour of a resolution on assistance to Palestine refugees which
Affirm[ed] the necessity for the continuation of the work of the [Agency] and the importance of its unimpeded operation and its provision of services, including emergency assistance, for the well-being, protection and human development of the Palestine refugees and for the stability of the region, pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees
In a second resolution on UNRWA operations nearly the same number of states “reaffirm[ed] that the effective functioning of [UNRWA] remains essential in all fields of operation”. Only five states voted against this latter resolution: Israel, the United States, two of three islands associated with the US through the Compact of Free Association, namely, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, along with Canada which voted in favour of the resolution on refugee assistance. In its fifth operative paragraph, moreover, the General Assembly for the first time
Express[ed] its grave concern about attempts to discredit [UNRWA] despite its proven operational capacity, record of effective provision of humanitarian and development assistance and consistent implementation of its mandate in accordance with relevant resolutions and its regulatory framework, even under the most difficult circumstances.
The second challenge facing the Trump administration’s approach is that its success ultimately depends on other donors following the US lead and terminating their own funding. This is where the Trump administration suffered its second defeat at least in terms of the 2018 fiscal year. Not only have other donors not fallen in line with the administration, they have, as described in more detail in a later commentary, contributed additional funding to fill the major gap left by the initial suspension and then termination of US funding. Indeed, this is a scenario that Lindsay, himself a critic, identified nearly a decade ago warning that the funding gap might be filled by states whose interests may not align with those of the United States. Canada, which voted against the above-mentioned resolution on UNRWA operations, was among the states that contributed additional funding in 2018 to close the gap created by the termination of the longstanding partnership between the US and the Agency.
In its annual report to the General Assembly, UNRWA’s Working Group on Financing, comprised of representatives of France, Ghana, Japan, Lebanon, Norway, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, the UK and the US, the Group
reiterat[ed] that the humanitarian problems faced by Palestine refugees today must be addressed as a shared international responsibility pending a just and durable solution of the Palestine refugee question, in accordance with international law, including the relevant resolutions of the United Nations.
The United States disassociated itself from the text of the report in its letter to the UN Secretary-General this past fall. It is unclear what the US decision to terminate Agency funding means for its position as a member of the Group not to mention its membership in UNRWA’s Advisory Commission. The Agency’s website still lists the US as a commission member.
The reasons why donors have failed to follow the US lead appear self-evident from the cooperation agreements and external evaluations discussed earlier. In short, whatever UNRWA’s shortcomings, setting aside the above criticisms, donors continue to regard the Agency as an efficient and effective mechanism for the human development of Palestinian refugees, their protection and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. An expert workshop on UNRWA held nearly two decades ago during final status talks between Israel and the PLO, moreover, concluded that while the situation varied among host states there was insufficient capacity to absorb Agency expenditures. Since then the capacity of host states to assume additional responsibilities for Palestinian refugees, setting aside political opposition to what hosts regard as burden/responsibility shifting, has likely decreased due to Israel’s protracted military occupation, armed conflict and the mass influx of other refugees. Even if other donors decided to follow the US lead, experts suggest that the winding down and transfer of UNRWA services would require more than five years given the complex operational, technical and legal issues involved.
The failure of donors to follow the US lead may also stem from the fact that “remedies” proposed by Agency critics, while focused on only one of a handful of final status issues enumerated in the 1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements agreed to by Israel and the PLO, essentially comprise a rejection of the so-called Oslo process. Under the terms of that process the signatories agreed to find a negotiated solution to the situation of 1948 and 1967 refugees. In contrast, the Middle East Forum recommendations, which appear to have informed administration policy, are part of what the organization describes as its Victory Project. Set up after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016, which reaffirmed the illegality of Israeli settlements, and drawing in part on President Trump’s penchant for “winning”, the initiative is a throwback to the ideas of Ze’ev Jabotinksy who argued that a “solution” to the struggle over Palestine would only come about once Palestinians were thoroughly defeated. Despite repeated warnings and doubts about Oslo’s future, the great majority of Agency donors, especially those who have invested significant political and economic capital in the process, nevertheless continue to support the framework. As the UN Secretary-General himself observed last year in remarks to the Security Council, “there is no Plan B”, a rather striking admission that raises important questions beyond the scope of this commentary.
Lastly, to the extent that donors regard the Trump administration’s termination of UNRWA funding as part of an ongoing assault on multilateralism and a rules-based international order, a trend highlighted by the Secretary-General in his opening remarks to the seventy-third session of the UN General Assembly this past fall, they are unlikely to follow its lead in seeking the Agency’s dissolution. Emphasizing that the “lasting commitment [of donors] to [refugees’] human development and the preservation of opportunities—pending a just and lasting solution—remains invaluable”, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, in remarks to UN member states in the Fourth Committee, further underscored the importance of their support “to human dignity, to regional stability and preservation of strong and engaged multilateralism”. It is not without some irony that heightened criticisms of UNRWA, coupled with the US decision to terminate funding, appear to have further “embedded” the Agency within an international system in which, according to its critics and even many if not most of its advocates, UNRWA has long been considered an anomaly. This too is the subject for another commentary.
That being said, UNRWA’s critics are nevertheless correct in pointing out that the primary problem facing refugees, Arab host states, Israel and the donor community alike is the lack of durable solutions for the millions of Palestinians displaced since the beginning of the struggle over Palestine/Israel. Indeed, this is probably one of the few areas on which there is agreement on the Palestinian refugee issue. As Pierre Krähenbühl observes in his introduction to UNRWA’s 2016-21 Medium Term Strategy,
Halfway into the seventh decade of its existence, UNRWA is both an illustration of what has been achieved for Palestine refugees over this period and a living reminder of what happens when no political solutions are found to address the underlying causes of a situation of historic injustice. While the Agency is steadfast in its commitment to provide for the human development and protection needs of some 5 million Palestine refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank including East Jerusalem, it is clearly convinced that there is nothing more important for the refugees themselves than a just and lasting solution to their situation.
Krähenbühl is not the first Commissioner-General to make this point and one can only hope that he might be the last. In his above-mentioned report on large refugee movements, the UN Secretary-General similarly emphasizes that “national and collective responses must address the reasons people leave their homes” and that “[t]he international community must do better”. It is also one of the commitments undertaken by states in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.
The critics’ diagnosis or characterization of the problem, that is to say, the lack of durable solutions, however, leads them astray when it comes to elaborating remedies. Unable to allow for a situation in which Palestinian refugees wishing to do so are enabled to return to their homes and places of origin and/or new places of residence within the state, a basic human right acknowledged generally by Israel and a durable solution afforded to refugees around the world, critics have essentially manufactured a problem, arguing that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee situation by failing to fulfill its mandate and through its registration practices, in order to reach a solution, namely, resettlement of the refugees in their current places of exile or third countries, that is amenable to Israel’s interests. Once again, this betrays either a lack of understanding or a willful ignorance of the international framework and related principles, policies and practices governing durable solutions to forced displacement. As the Agency’s Commissioner-General reminded stated in his remarks to the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee this past fall
The responsibility for the continuing situation and conflict lies squarely with the parties and in the international community’s lack of will or utter inability to bring about a negotiated and peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Recognizing that securing durable solutions is one of the principal goals of international protection, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, annexed to the above-mentioned New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, similarly emphasizes that “[t]he success of the search for solutions depends in large measure on resolute and sustained international cooperation and support”. In agreeing to the Declaration and attached Framework, UN member states also
reaffirm[ed] the primary goal of bringing about conditions that would help refugees return in safety and dignity to their countries and emphasiz[ed] the need to tackle the root causes of violence and armed conflict and to achieve necessary political solutions and the peaceful settlement of disputes, as well as to assist in reconstruction efforts.
In contrast, and implicit in the above-mentioned critique of UNRWA, is that the Palestinian refugee problem is primarily of a technical nature that can in turn be resolved through technical means, that is to say through the reform of the Agency’s mandate and revision of its refugee definition. Focusing on technical issues such as these reflects in part a broader discomfort in addressing so-called intangible aspects of the Palestinian refugee situation, in particular, responsibility for the root and proximate or more immediate causes of forced displacement. But it also appears to stem from the lack of a “good answer” to the question of why those refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace, in the language of paragraph 11 of Resolution 194, are prevented from doing so, notwithstanding the answer implicit in Israel’s more recent demand for Palestinian recognition of the state’s Jewish character defined in part by a permanent Jewish majority, privileged treatment of Jewish nationals and the state’s special relationship with the Jewish diaspora. To be plain, and without diminishing the range of challenges that arise with refugee return, Palestinian refugees are not allowed to return because of their national, ethnic and religious origins. That is, admittedly, a tough answer to sell.
The “remedies” put forward by Agency critics, moreover, come with certain assumptions and misconceptions about self-reliance, resettlement and refugee status. Some of these will be addressed in greater detail in the following commentary. Important here is that resettlement, often used in the region to describe the local integration of Palestinian refugees in their countries of first asylum, is first and foremost subject to the sovereign decision of relevant states. While critics, such as Nachmias, often argue that Arab host states including “Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon have to award full citizenship to Palestinians who have resided in their territories for generations (Jordan has already done it)” [emphasis added], they are no more obliged under international law than Israel or the United States, for example, to naturalize refugees who are lawfully within their jurisdiction. This stands in contrast to the legal obligation of countries of origin to take back their nationals and habitual residents, principles clearly reiterated in the New York Declaration. Moreover, similar, to the other durable solutions afforded to refugees, local integration is also subject to the consent of refugees themselves, something which neither UNRWA’s critics nor the Trump administration appear to be overly concerned about.
In June of last year, Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and point person on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and Jason Greenblatt, the administration’s special representative for international negotiations, tried to obtain Jordan’s agreement or acquiescence to the administration’s plan with offers of bilateral assistance in exchange for the transfer of UNRWA services and the “liquidation” of the refugee issue in Jordan. Having failed to secure Jordan’s agreement, the administration decided two months later to terminate US funding of UNRWA operations. As Jared Kushner noted in emails leaked to Foreign Policy last year: “[The US] goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are. […] Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there”. Indeed, it seems that the administration is willing to wager the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, whose situation has grown increasingly vulnerable due to protracted military occupation and armed conflict in the region, something which we will examine further in the next commentary, in order to secure its political objectives. As noted above, for now the administration seems to have suffered a defeat. The immediate and longer term implications will be addressed in the third and final commentaries in this series.
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