4 September 2018

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration and the World Health Organization.

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Briefing on the situation of UNRWA

Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), speaking by phone from Jerusalem, said that he had expressed regret and disappointment about the recent decision by the United States of America to entirely cut funding to UNRWA; he regretted the nature of the decision and rejected the accompanying narrative around it. The United States had been historically the largest single greatest contributor to UNRWA and had therefore made a strong contribution throughout the decades. In January 2018, when the United States had announced that it would contribute only USD 60 million for 2018, down from the USD 360 million it had contributed in 2017, UNRWA had launched the campaign “Dignity Is Priceless” in order to mobilize existing donors and branch out to new partners for the additional funding required. UNRWA had in fact begun the year with a shortfall of USD 146 million, and so already at a critical point funding-wise. Since the launch of the campaign, UNRWA had successfully mobilized an additional USD 238 million, with key partners such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, India, Turkey, a number of European countries and Canada. Thanks to that additional funding, UNRWA had been able to open the 711 schools it operated in the Middle East on time. Nevertheless, the situation remained critical: UNRWA still needed over USD 200 million of additional funding to sustain its operations until the end of 2018. It was working with several countries that had indicated that they might be able to provide further funding. There were major meetings involving the League of Arab States and the General Assembly in the coming weeks; it was hoped that they might lead to additional funding commitments. UNRWA had been a very consistent provider of education, health care and other services for a community of five million refugees in the Middle East. Its mandate had been approved by the General Assembly and although he deeply regretted the decision by the United States to cut its funding, the Agency’s energy, passion and commitment to implement its mandate was not affected by the funding decisions of a single State, even if that State had historically been its greatest contributor. Mobilizing additional funding was a matter of human dignity for refugees; it would also serve to maintain stability in one of the most polarized and emotionally charged regions on the planet. UNRWA was indebted to the Secretary-General for his trust and for mobilizing the international community in coming to its aid at such a critical time.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that the Secretary-General had indeed issued a statement in support of UNRWA on 31 August which had been already distributed to the press.

Asked to comment on the Swiss Foreign Minister’s criticism of UNRWA in May 2018 following his visit to Jordan, Mr. Krähenbühl said that while such criticism had initially caused surprise and concern, Swiss President Alain Berset had swiftly clarified that the country’s policy vis-à-vis the region and UNRWA itself remained unchanged. Swiss engagement had been strong, generous and creative since he had begun serving as Commissioner-General of UNRWA.

Responding to further questions from the press, Mr. Krähenbühl said that the broader base of donors UNRWA had, the better. The Agency had reached out to many potential donors over the years to sustain a more diverse array of partners. While the United States had previously been remarkable in being the largest single contributor, it was important to put such contribution into context: some 55 per cent of UNRWA funding came from the European Union. Strategically, it was very important that the funding base adequately reflected the membership of the General Assembly, which had given UNRWA its mandate. It was furthermore hugely encouraging that, as a group, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) had essentially doubled their contribution in 2018. Qatar, which had traditionally contributed USD 1m annually for the core funding of UNRWA, had committed, in 2018, to USD 50 million, the payment of which had already been received; the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which usually each contributed between USD 15 million and USD 20 million annually to core funding, had pledged to contribute USD 50 million in 2018. Saudi Arabia was the third largest donor, and had been so for a long time, as it contributed not only to core funding, which mainly supported schooling and health-care and social and relief services, but also to the construction of new schools and clinics. Gulf countries were generally an important part of the strategy in the region. In addition, in 2016, the Russian Federation had, for the first time, signed a multi-year agreement to provide USD 10 million over a five-year period; it had furthermore been one of the first countries to advance its payment in 2018. China had just significantly increased its annual contribution to USD 2.3 million. It was hoped that all the BRICS countries could continue to build on their recent commitments.

Responding to questions about the consequences of the recent decision by the United States, Mr. Krähenbühl said that UNRWA intended to keep the lines of communication open with the United States, which had always been a major partner. Its decision to cut funding was not related to the performance of UNRWA, as the Agency’s management and ways of dealing with operational and financial challenges had been recognized at the highest level in meetings in Washington, D.C., in November 2017. The decision had clearly been a form of politicization of humanitarian funding, and should have been avoided as such. Since then, the United States had recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and tensions had further developed between the United States and Palestinian leadership, something which UNRWA was powerless to change. As for the impact on regional stability, he could only quote the Jordanian leadership, which regularly highlighted that the opportunity for 122,000 Palestinian boys and girls to attend UNRWA schools in Jordan was a matter of regional security and stability. UNRWA helped to preserve a focus on education; moreover, it was the only one to include human rights in its school curriculum, which emphasized tolerance and respect for others, and it was proud of its achievement and maintenance of gender parity. Its contributions were valued and recognized at the highest levels worldwide. The need to uphold rights, justice and fairness in fact also reflected American values and were deeply worth preserving.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog040918