Commissioner-General Defends Humanitarian Nature of Agency’s Work, Reinforces Palestinian Descendants’ Right to Refugee Status
Delegates called today for sustainable financing to secure the future of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), also urging enhanced efficiency and reduced costs on its part, as the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) concluded its general debate on that Agency’s work.
Egypt’s delegate expressed appreciation for donors who helped alleviate the Agency’s 2018 financial crisis, while warning: “Addressing the shortfall this year does not mean we will not face the same problem next year.” He called for sustainable funding to secure the Agency’s future.
Echoing that sentiment, Lebanon’s representative called for predictable funding of UNRWA and welcomed new initiatives to fund the Agency, highlighting the challenge of ensuring that its crisis does not prove a long-term one. Caring for Palestinian refugees is a shared international responsibility, he emphasized.
Also calling for predictable and sustainable financing, Brazil’s delegate said UNRWA’s essential operational costs should be met by the regular budget of the United Nations, and expressed hope that the General Assembly can adopt a resolution in this regard.
Similarly, India’s representative called for adequate, sustainable and predictable funding and the allocation of additional resources to the Agency from the regular budget, emphasizing that austerity is not the only path to delivering on its mandates.
Japan’s delegate called upon UNRWA to expand its donor base and enhance the involvement of the private sector, expressing hope that those initiatives will provide it with reliable funding. “We expect UNRWA to continue its own efforts to improve efficiency and reduce costs,” she said, adding that such efforts will attract increased contributions. In that context, she highlighted a new “crowd-funding” project spearheaded by UNRWA and Japan — the first of its kind — the proceeds of which will go to the Agency.
Other speakers today included representatives of Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, Norway, Kuwait, Ecuador, Australia, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Sudan and the Russian Federation.
An observer of the Holy See also delivered a statement.
The Commissioner-General of UNRWA delivered concluding remarks.
Speaking in exercise of the right of reply were a representative of Israel and an observer for the State of Palestine.
The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 November, to begin its general debate on Israeli practices affecting the human rights of the Palestinian people and other Arabs of the occupied territories.
MOUNZER MOUNZER (Syria), emphasizing that the question of Palestine refugees is an international political, legal and moral responsibility, said the inability of the United Nations to enforce resolution 194 (1948) has emboldened Israel to continue its displacement policy. Noting that his country is hosting Palestine refugees as “dear brothers and sisters” pending their return home, he said they are suffering in Syria because of attacks by armed terrorist groups that have infiltrated their camps, causing a humanitarian crisis until the Syrian military liberated them. He said the attacks are the implementation of an agenda to interfere with the right of Palestine refugees to return home.
He went on to emphasize the importance of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), calling upon Member States to secure donations to the Agency in a consistent manner and noting that the cost of hosting Palestine refugees was 558 billion Syrian lira in 2017. Syria rejects any option that would end UNRWA’s services as a violation of international law, he said, also objecting to attempts to shift responsibility for refugee services to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or any other of the Organization’s agencies. The United Nations and the Secretary-General must bridge the Agency’s funding shortfall and work with UNRWA to sustain funding, he stressed.
SIMA SAMI I. BAHOUS (Jordan) recalled that UNRWA was formed after the 1948 Nakba [the 1948 Palestinian exodus], reflecting the General Assembly’s desire to protect Palestine refugees. Today, many of those refugees are denied their right to prosper and to return to their villages, she said. Noting that her country hosts the largest number of Palestine refugees, she said Jordan mobilizes efforts to support UNRWA so that it can carry out its mandate. Concerned about the negative repercussions of the Agency’s financial shortfall, she warned that undermining UNRWA could deepen the frustrations of refugees and cause young people to fall prey to extremism. Moreover, the situation of Palestine refugees is a final-status issue, unaffected by the assumptions of other nations, she pointed out. Palestine refugees have had to move to different States because of violations committed against them while they await justice, she observed.
Outlining Jordan’s support for Palestine refugees, she said that the Government granted them nationality to allow them to live in dignity. However, that action should not affect their inalienable right to return to their own land, she stressed. Expressing appreciation for the efforts of States that have addressed the Agency’s financial shortfall, she singled out Jordan, Egypt and Sweden for their cooperation in hosting the Rome Conference in March, adding that several States hosted a ministerial meeting during the General Assembly’s high-level debate in September. Such support has reduced UNRWA’s deficit to $64 million, allowing the Agency to keep its schools open and continue its services, she said. However, the absence of a collective solution to UNRWA’s challenges will undermine the Agency, she observed, emphasizing that its role will remain critical until a just resolution of the question of Palestine is found.
NASREDDINE NAOUALI (Tunisia), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), stressed the urgent need for collective efforts to provide UNRWA with the necessary support to overcome its current unprecedented financial deficit. The inability to provide Palestine refugees with the services that the Agency currently provides will upend the lives of more than 5 million people and increase the risk of radicalizing frustrated youth, he warned. Noting that forced displacement, home demolitions and restrictions on movement have a negative effect on Palestinian living conditions and pose daunting challenges to the Agency’s mandate, he emphasized that the international community must urge Israel to abide by its responsibilities under international law, underlining also that humanitarian funding must not be politicized.
BACHIR SALEH AZZAM (Lebanon), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement and the OIC, noted that for 70 years Palestine refugees have suffered the unutterable suffering of being deprived of property, homeland and a decent life. Emphasizing that a just cause does not age, he said that every year that goes by makes the issue more relevant. Noting with concern the funding crisis that the Agency is experiencing, he pointed out that his country hosts about 469,000 registered Palestine refugees and is a member of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA. He expressed regret at the United States funding cut, saying Lebanon directly feels the Agency’s financing shortfall. Emphasizing that caring for Palestine refugees is a shared international responsibility, he welcomed the proposed initiatives to fund the Agency through four stages.
However, the challenge of ensuring that UNRWA’s crisis is not a long-term one remains, he said, urging predictable funding for the Agency. Having carried a human message since its founding, UNRWA has contributed to efforts aimed at keeping the right of return on the table, he said, describing that as a political solution to which Lebanon is attached while expressing concern over attacks against that idea. He also condemned Israel’s attacks against the Agency, including threats to close its offices in East Jerusalem and to undermine the status of Palestine as refugees. UNRWA is tasked with providing assistance and protection to Palestinians until there is a lasting solution to the conflict in the region, not to predicate the status of refugees in general, he stressed.
TORE HATTREM (Norway) said 2018 has been a year of unprecedented financial crisis for UNRWA, with the humanitarian situation of 2 million Palestinians in Gaza critical. The Palestinian economy is under great pressure and facing possible collapse and Palestine refugees are still displaced by the Syria crisis. Without a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, UNRWA is indispensable as a service provider, employer, vehicle of economic activity and regional stabilizer, he said, emphasizing that its financial situation is very concerning and that the coming months will be more difficult than ever before. With the withdrawal of the United States, long-term donors to UNRWA must work for a more sustainable financial situation for the Agency, he said, welcoming its strong efforts on cost efficiency and reform, which are painful but necessary so as to maintain the ability to deliver essential services to the most vulnerable populations. Norway remains a consistent partner to UNRWA in terms of political and financial support and has allocated additional resources in 2018 because of the prevailing situation, he said, expressing regret over the unprecedented lack of consensus in the 2018 report of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA.
TAREK AHMED MAHFOUZ AHMED MAHFOUZ (Egypt), noting the vital services provided by UNRWA as well as its assistance to Arab countries hosting Palestine refugees, urged Member States not to politicize its financial shortfall issues. Any disagreement over the Agency’s work can be discussed in an open and transparent manner, but there can be no disagreement that its absence would lead to a humanitarian disaster, imposing additional burdens on host States, he warned. How can young Palestinians born as refugees, and continuing to live as such, understand the denial of their right to education and health care for no apparent reason? he asked. While expressing appreciation for the UNRWA Commissioner-General’s efforts to support Palestine refugees and provide for their needs, as well as for the endeavours of donor countries which have allowed the Agency to continue its work, he declared: “The challenge remains and addressing the shortfall this year does not mean we will not face the same problem next year,” calling for sustainable and predictable funding for UNRWA’s future.
MESHARI SALEH AL-MUZAINI (Kuwait) reiterated his country’s support for and assistance to UNRWA, noting that it is going through an unprecedented financial crisis. Expressing concern in that regard, he said the shortfall jeopardizes the continued provision of services, and as such, Kuwait calls upon the international community to exert pressure on Israel, the occupying Power, to end the blockade imposed on Gaza and the restrictions on movement and goods in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He also called for a fair and sustainable solution to the conflict, in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions, which also address all final-status issues. Kuwait responded to the Agency’s recent appeals by providing $50 million in response to UNRWA’s critical 2018 budget shortfall, he reported.
AMÉRICA LOURDES PEREIRA SOTOMAYOR (Ecuador), associating herself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said that support for Palestine refugees is a fundamental facet of the Palestinian question. The various reports issued by the United Nations on the situation of Palestine refugees demonstrate the essential need for UNRWA, she said. The Agency’s functioning is vital to ensuring the delivery of vital services, she added, citing statistics from the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA on education, primary health-care clinics, solid-waste disposal in refugee camps, food security assistance and youth training programmes. The Working Group’s report reveals that a large portion of the refugee community requires food security. Noting that UNRWA’s funding crisis has been exacerbated by the reduced contribution of the Agency’s main donor, she called for sustained and predictable contributions to UNRWA, especially in light of the predicted increase in the Palestine refugee population to 6.4million people.
ROWAN ROBERT ASHBY (Australia), noting that his country has provided funding to UNRWA for more than 50 years, including $A80 million on a multi-year basis, said it is essential that the Agency keep reaching out to new or non-traditional donors and private sources. Describing UNRWA’s neutrality as one of its most important assets, he urged the Agency to redouble its internal oversight efforts. “The future for Palestinian refugees must come through a political solution,” he added, emphasizing Australia’s commitment to a two-State solution and encouraging the parties to resume negotiations as soon as possible.
MAURO VIEIRA (Brazil) highlighted UNRWA’s vital role in ensuring the delivery of health, education and other basic services for almost 5.3 million refugees. By alleviating their suffering, the Agency contributes to the restoration of stability and peace to the region. Given its unquestionable relevance, UNRWA’s current financial crisis concerns the entire international community, emphasizing that since the United Nations gave the Agency its mandate, it should be provided with the means to implement it as well. As a member of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission, Brazil supports more predictable and sustainable funding, he said, emphasizing that its essential operational costs should be met by the regular budget of the Organization, and expressing hope that the General Assembly will be able to adopt a resolution in that regard.
SHIORI AMIYA (Japan) said UNRWA plays a crucial role in serving Palestine refugees, adding that his country provided it with $45 million in 2018. Noting that the Agency’s funding needs until 2018 have been met, she cautioned that the funding situation for 2019 remains uncertain. “We expect UNRWA to continue its own efforts to improve efficiency and reduce costs,” she said, adding that such efforts will attract increased contributions. UNRWA recognizes the need to expand its donor base and enhance private-sector involvement, she said, adding that Japan hopes those initiatives will provide reliable funding. She said proceeds from a new “crowd-funding” project spearheaded by UNRWA and Japan — the first of its kind — will go to the Agency. “Japan continues to provide assistance to Palestine refugees,” she said, adding that her country will contribute to efforts to improve UNRWA’s efficiency.
ÖNCÜ KEÇELI (Turkey) said his country has increased financial assistance to UNRWA and worked to mobilize the international community to raise contributions. Alongside Switzerland, Turkey established a steering committee to ensure financing for the Agency, he said, also noting the existence of new funding mechanisms associated with international financial institutions. Underlining that allegations of political motivation against the Agency are false and baseless, he called upon Member States to support the extension of UNRWA’s mandate when it is considered in 2019.
MAHESH KUMAR (India) noted that his country’s Government has increased its annual financial contribution to UNRWA’s core budget from $1 million in 2016 to $5 million in 2018 and is committed to contributing $5 million in 2019. Moreover, India provides 150 places for Palestinians annually in the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme. India launched an annual youth exchange programme with the State of Palestine in 2017, he said, noting that the number of young people participating in the programme doubled from 50 to 100 in 2018. As part of a development partnership, 17 agreements have been signed between India and the State of Palestine in such fields as agriculture and women’s empowerment. He went on to state that India offered approximately $70 million in financial support and project assistance for reconstruction in Gaza, a specialty hospital in Bethlehem and the India-Palestine Techno Park in Ramallah, among other projects. Welcoming UNRWA’s efforts to enhance efficiency, he said austerity is not the only path to delivering on its mandates, calling instead for adequate, sustainable and predictable funding for the Agency and the allocation of additional resources from the regular budget.
MOHD AINI ATAN (Malaysia), associating himself with the OIC and the Non-Aligned Movement, cited the Commissioner-General’s report, expressing concern over the deteriorating situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and the impact of armed violence on safe access to crucial agency services, including health care and education. Reiterating his country’s unwavering support for UNRWA’s role in providing assistance, protection and advocacy for more than 5 million Palestine refugees, he called for the establishment of an independent and sovereign State of Palestine based on the pre‑1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital. He noted that the Government of Malaysia has provided assistance to the people of Palestine, in particular for the reconstruction of Palestinian communities.
INA HAGNININGTYAS KRISNAMURTHI (Indonesia), associating herself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said the report reaffirmed the continuing despair of the Palestine refugees and the immense obstacles confronting UNRWA. “We should never use refugees as bargaining chips on a political chessboard,” she said, emphasizing that the United Nations must ensure adequate, sustainable and predictable funding for the Agency because the refugee matter is a global problem. Palestinians should not be deprived of the right of return simply because the United Nations cannot enforce its own decisions, she stressed, while highlighting Indonesia’s increased contribution to the Agency’s work as well as its humanitarian efforts, including establishing the Indonesian Cardiac Centre in Gaza.
YAO SHAOJUN (China) said UNRWA promotes peace and stems the rise of extremism in the region. Its humanitarian programmes have been enhanced by efficiency reforms, but it remains challenged by enormous practical difficulties, including the lack of adequate funding. Calling upon all parties to continue intensifying support for UNRWA, he noted that China has itself contributed consistently for 40 years while also providing support for relevant relief projects in host countries. He said that in 2018, China made a $2 million contribution, in addition to its regular donation, and will continue to provide support to the best of its ability. Noting that the current instability in the region is exacerbating the suffering of the Palestine refugee population, he called on all parties to support the efforts of the host countries bearing an outsized burden, emphasizing further that Israel should cooperate with international aid efforts by lifting the blockade on Gaza.
IBRAHIM MODIBBO UMAR (Nigeria) said the alarming humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the near collapse of its infrastructure due to Israel’s blockade should be a matter of grave concern to the international community. Calling for an end to the blockade and respect for Palestinian freedom of movement, he urged the parties concerned to work closely with the United Nations in the pursuit of peace and a two-State solution. However, that will be impossible without ending the expansion of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, he emphasized, encouraging Israel to freeze and reverse those activities in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Palestinian leaders, in turn, must return to the negotiating table, forge unity and deal with militancy, he said, stressing that violence and unilateral actions will not resolve the long- drawn-out conflict.
ASMA AL-HAMMADI (United Arab Emirates), associating herself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China and the OIC, emphasized UNRWA’s important role in preserving regional security and stability and called for assistance to address its funding gap. Describing her country as one of the Agency’s main donors, she reported that the United Arab Emirates contributed more than $173 million in 2016 and 2017. As part of its overseas assistance policy, the Government is focusing on the rights of children to education, she said, adding that in 2018 it provided a further $50 million to support UNRWA’s education programmes, while also supporting health care and providing job opportunities. Moreover, the United Arab Emirates provided $2 million in February to ensure the flow of fuel and electricity to hospitals in Gaza, she noted.
HUSNI MUSTAFA YAGOUB HUSNI (Sudan), associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement and the OIC, highlighted the suffering of the Palestinian people caused by the violence, demolitions and restrictions imposed by the occupying Power. That situation has been exacerbated because of the arbitrary reduction in support for UNRWA, which has not been able to cover costs related to social services, he said, noting that the situation is affecting regional stability. “Depriving children of education is an investment in hatred, war and extremism,” he warned, stressing that there can be no justification for preventing the delivery of assistance to defenceless people. The bleak situation will inspire the Palestinian people to stand their ground and continue their fight to achieve their goals, especially their right to return to their own homeland, he stressed, emphasizing that all such challenges have unified nations.
ANDREY LISTOV (Russian Federation) said it is a sad state of affairs when the United States pulls its contribution to UNRWA, which helps in stabilizing the region. The Agency has carried out balanced and impartial work since its founding and has avoided politicization in circumstances of conflict, he noted. The Russian Federation contributed $10 million to UNRWA, he reported, emphasizing that, as a member of the Security Council, his country is keen to develop a peace process and facilitate direct negotiation between the relevant parties. UNRWA must continue to provide assistance to Palestine refugees until a just solution is found, he said.
BERNARDITO CLEOPAS AUZA, Permanent Observer for the Holy See, said UNRWA faces its largest funding shortfall ever, urging the international community to maintain its solidarity and demonstrate greater sensitivity to the plight of refugees across the region. It is concerning that some would like to limit refugee status to those who fled in 1948, excluding their descendants through the paternal line, he noted, emphasizing that such a restrictive understanding will deprive the descendants, who remain stateless, of any claim to support. The international community has a grave responsibility to facilitate the settlement of the millions of refugees concerned, he said, reaffirming the Holy See’s unwavering support for a two-State solution as the only viable manner by which to address the extended statelessness of Palestinians.
PIERRE KRÄHENBÜHL, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, thanked the Committee for their recognition and support, also noting the remarkable support mobilized in the face of the Agency’s dire financial shortfall. Emphasizing the exclusively humanitarian nature of the Agency’s work, he said UNRWA is not part of the political discussion but is focused on helping human beings in severe circumstances. Responding to suggestions that the Agency determines its own mandate, he reiterated that it functions on a mandate agreed by Member States through the General Assembly and any suggestion to the contrary is misleading.
The suggestion that Palestine refugees are unique under international law as the only group enjoying that status as descendants is a misrepresentation, he continued, stressing that under international law, the children of refugees and their descendants are also refugees until a durable solution to their situation is found. That designation is widely accepted by the international community, he added. UNRWA exists as an illustration that a refugee community can receive meaningful support that preserves opportunities and hope, he said, describing the Agency’s continuing existence as a reminder of the abysmal failure by the international community and relevant parties to find a lasting solution to the conflict. When a just and lasting peace is established, UNRWA can hand over its commitments, he said.
He went on to underline that Palestine refugees are not “so-called” refugees, pointing out that even if UNRWA no longer exists, the refugees will still exist under international law, and some other entity will have to take care of their needs. The laws applying to armed conflict impose responsibility on all, he stressed. Reiterating UNRWA’s gratitude for the collective support it has received this year, he reported that he received expressions of intent from several States prepared to pledge support for a multi-year period. UNRWA is an invaluable investment, he said, noting the Agency’s contributions to the institutional backbone of the Middle East. It has built a set of institutions that can be handed over to an independent Palestinian State, he noted.
Right of reply
The representative of Israel, speaking in exercise of the right of reply, expressed appreciation for the humanitarian assistance extended by UNRWA to Palestinians. He went on to outline the history of Israel’s statehood and of the wars fought between that country and its Arab neighbours, emphasizing the need to reconsider the “ritual” and traditional blaming of Israel for the conflict. Moreover, the approach to the Palestine refugee problem must change, he said, observing that the right of return is presented as the only solution to the problem. Other organizations, like UNHCR, are dedicated to alleviating the suffering of refugees by offering other solutions, he said describing the claim to a right of return as a mistake that plays into the hands of those who wish to perpetuate the conflict. “We haven’t seen any goodwill on behalf of the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel,” he added.
Noting that decisions in the General Assembly are made by a majority, he said such democracy is misleading because the decisions taken do not support peace in the Middle East. In that context, he said General Assembly resolution 194 (III) is not legally binding and does not give Palestine refugees the right of return. The Arab interpretation of one article of that text granting Palestinians such a unique right is a subjective and invalid one, planting false hopes for millions of people, he emphasized. Reiterating that the right of return does not exist under international law, he said repatriation is a policy preference but does not constitute a right. UNHCR works to resettle refugees in third countries, especially in cases of ongoing conflict, he observed, noting that UNRWA’s mandate does not make it possible to resettle Palestine refugees. He called upon Palestinians to understand that the refugee problem cannot be solved by the right of return, stressing: “There can be no return to Israel.”
An observer for the State of Palestine, also speaking in exercise of the right of reply, said that a national narrative that distorts and negates history is called “propaganda” and should have no place in discourse. Recalling that Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1947‑8, she said they were either forcibly expelled or fled in fear of the killings and destruction perpetrated by Jewish militias. Their uprooting was deliberate, as was the prevention of their return, she said, emphasizing that Palestinians should have been able to return to their homes and lands after the hostilities ceased. However, Israel wanted the land without its people, she added, noting that it is a well-known fact. “This is ethnic cleansing,” she emphasized, noting that it is fully documented by Israeli historians.
She went on to underline that the right of return is not a claim of the Palestinian people but their right, just as it is for any refugee. That right has been reaffirmed and recalled more than 150 times in international legislation, she pointed out, stressing that General Assembly resolution 194 (III) does matter and Palestine refugees do have rights. “Stop dehumanizing the Palestinian people and stop disparaging the rest of the international community that has reaffirmed their rights and these laws over and over again,” she demanded. The situation is not a zero-sum game, she said, reiterating that Palestinians have legitimate rights, and that their leadership has been fully committed to peace for more than a quarter-century, since the Oslo Accords. “We await an Israeli partner to achieve that peace,” she added.
The representative of Israel said the Palestinians have double-track demands — on statehood and the right of return. While Israel accepts a two-State solution, it cannot agree to the right of return, he emphasized. The obstacle to peace lies in the disagreement among Palestinian leadership, he said, calling upon Palestinians to speak in one voice, with one leader, to negotiate peace. The right of return would mean the cessation of Israel, he added.