UNRWA and current and future challenges
On the sidelines of the UNRWA Advisory Commission meeting in Beirut
With the deterioration of its financial crisis since 2015, at the very least, the UNRWA has been facing a fierce US and Israeli campaign that uses this crisis to achieve further goals, aiming not only at drying up UNRWA's resources, but also at terminating UNRWA's existence itself. That campaign under the Trump administration was reflected in the latter decision on August 31, 2018 to cut off completely the American funding for UNRWA, which amounts to one third of its regular budget, under malicious and misleading pretexts expressed quite openly by President Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner in his correspondence with a number of US officials, published by Foreign Policy magazine (August 3, 2018). “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace,” Kushner said in one the messages.
In any case, the plans to eliminate UNRWA’s role are not new. In fact, they have accompanied the Agency since its establishment and have been linked, on the on hand, to the political context governing its work at every stage and the temporary mandate under which this Agency was born, and to its dual mandate between relief/works on the other hand.
Although the Biden administration has resumed US support for UNRWA, its policy toward Palestinian refugees and UNRWA has not fundamentally changed. This administration is the one that put pressure on UNRWA to sign the Framework Agreement (2021-2022), which links continued US support to UNRWA with the requirements of the peace process.
- Current Challenges and Repercussions
One of the latest challenges facing UNRWA is the references contained in the Commissioner-General's message to Palestinian refugees (April 23, 2022) to the depth of the financial crisis, and the solutions it has entailed that have raised the concerns of Palestinians, host countries and the Palestinian refugee community in the first place.
The Commissioner-General's message stated that, “My priority is and remains your continued access to quality services and the protection of your rights and the UNRWA mandate. Within this framework, one option that is currently being explored is to maximize partnerships within the broader UN system. Central to this option, is that services could be provided on behalf and under the guidance of UNRWA, and hence strictly in line with the mandate UNRWA received from the UN General Assembly.”
Although the Commissioner-General made it clear that: “there is no handover or transfer of responsibilities and programmes on the table, and no tampering with the UNRWA mandate.” and that “UNRWA is and remains irreplaceable”, the phrase “on behalf and under the guidance of UNRWA” provoked a wave of angry and denunciation reactions in Palestinian circles and host countries. It was seen as a “trial balloon” for the possibility of UNRWA relinquishing its mandate and transferring it to other international bodies, especially since partnerships, in their linguistic and terminological sense, mean sharing.
In this context, the Head of the PLO's Refugee Affairs Department, Ahmad Abu Holi, said that Arab host countries refuse to transfer the powers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to their governments or to any international organization. “the meetings of the UNRWA Advisory Commission chaired by Lebanon, to be held in Beirut in June, will discuss the latest developments of the financial crisis and innovative mechanisms for mobilizing financial resources, in addition to the Agency's strategy for the years 2023-2028,” he indicated. Abu Holi denied that the merger scheme, addressed by the media, was on the agenda of the Commission, as it was not even empowered to discuss issues related to the Agency's mandate, which is limited to the United Nations General Assembly. (Al-Quds Press, April 4, 2022).
In notes, statements, media releases and field activities, all Palestinian factions and civil society organizations in Palestine and the diaspora have expressed their rejection of the options mentioned in the message of the UNRWA Commissioner-General, and announced their adherence to UNRWA's mandate and refusal to prejudice it, until the Palestinian refugee issue is resolved by implementing the right of return. The Palestinian firm stance in this regard is of paramount importance in influencing the positions of regional and international actors, in favour of the Palestinian refugee issue.
For several months, the Palestinian camps in Lebanon have been witnessing continuous activities and protest movements demanding that UNRWA expand its services and relief provisions as the economic and social crisis continues in Lebanon to spiral out of control, with its repercussions on the living reality in the camps.
On the other hand, the Chairman of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, Dr. Basel al-Hassan, stated that the host countries, including Lebanon, “refuse to delegate UNRWA’s tasks such as education and health to other agencies within the United Nations. However, it agrees that these agencies play an advisory role, as part of the development of the work and the required reforms” (Al-Akhbar, May 31, 2022).
- Ambiguous Message
Perhaps the most striking feature of the UNRWA Commissioner-General's message to Palestine refugees is its timing, as well as its ambiguity and equivocation in its content. The message timing came on the eve of the UNRWA Advisory Commission meeting in Beirut on 14-15 June, whose agenda includes ways to find innovative mechanisms to mobilize financial support for UNRWA, as well as ahead of the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate for an additional three years by the United Nations General Assembly next December. All of this is not seen without significance by the refugee community. As for the concept of “on behalf” of UNRWA in providing services, it is ambiguous and vague, and may have legal dimensions that would prejudice UNRWA’s mandate in accordance with United Nations General Assembly Resolution (302/1949), despite the Commissioner-General’s assertion in the same message that this does not conflict with the mandate of UNRWA by the UN General Assembly. This is a matter that should be carefully considered.
There is absolutely no problem at all in UNRWA expanding its partnerships with other relevant United Nations organizations such as UNICEF, UNESCO, World Health Organisation, World Food Program, and other international organizations, provided that they take the form of contributions and assistance to UNRWA and not directly to refugees, in order to support and improve its services to refugees. This is already what has been happening in the past to some extent, as these partnerships have existed almost since the establishment of the Agency. What must be ensured, however, is that UNRWA remains the international body legally and morally responsible for providing services, not only this is carried out “on behalf” and “under the guidance” thereof. This support should remain an additional support to UNRWA, not a substitute for it, in full line with UNRWA's mandate, as the mandate is NOT open to interpretation.
Expanding UNRWA's partnerships with other United Nations agencies, as indicated above, is not the optimal solution to fill UNRWA's chronic budget deficit, which should be done through other mechanisms. Host countries and the refugee community need to see things clearly: that UNRWA receives funding from donor countries or receives in-kind support from other international agencies does not mean that they are taking over — even though UNRWA is a UN body, and there is international “ownership” of the Agency — nor does it mean that they have the right to change UNRWA's mandate, exclusively owned by the UN General Assembly. In this context, we ask: Why do those international agencies not allocate part of their budgets to support UNRWA, each agency according to its competence, instead of acting on behalf of UNRWA in providing services?
UNRWA's financial crisis is primarily political, linked to the international and regional developments that govern the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, the UNRWA Commissioner-General's approach to addressing the Agency’s financial crisis represents a clear encroachment upon his powers as an executive officer, and undermines the refugee issue in its political and legal dimensions, as it paves the way for de-linking between UNRWA and the refugee issue, by letting go of the issue political dimension and limiting it to the human dimension. This would lead to eliminating the legal protection of the refugee issue, threatening the right of return, and depriving the Agency of its powers.
The UNRWA Commissioner-General's approach to dealing with the Agency's financial crisis by expanding its partnerships with other international agencies and institutions raises the concerns of the refugee community and host countries, as this might hinder the efforts and actions to mobilize financial support for UNRWA. Further, this approach may constitute one of the proposed scenarios to liquidate UNRWA, through the distribution of tasks between international organizations, host countries, institutions and civil bodies working among the refugees.
Any possible expansion to secure additional resources for services necessary to ensure the well-being, development and protection of the refugees would be accepted in principle by the parties concerned, if these resources were in form of assistance and contributions given directly to UNRWA, which undertakes to provide to the refugees, and as long as this expansion does not in any way prejudice the Agency’s mandate.
- Suggestions and Recommendations
On the sidelines of the UNRWA Advisory Commission meeting in Beirut in the middle of this month, in light of the current and future challenges facing UNRWA, and the renewed fears of compromising its mandate, and with its coming mandate renewal at the end of this year, we call on all concerned parties participating in the Advisory Commission meetings with this unified message, which includes the following suggestions and recommendations:
- Calling on the members of the Advisory Commission gathered in Beirut to listen to refugees’ voice in all areas of UNRWA’s operations, to take their legitimate demands and concerns into consideration, and submit them to the UNRWA Commissioner-General and to the next General Assembly meeting, which will discuss the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate for the next three years.
- Urging the UNRWA Commissioner-General to secure additional channels of support for UNRWA that do not conflict with its mandate (expanding the circle of donor countries, international and regional organizations, business community, NGOs, and others).
- Calling on the members of the Advisory Commission to urge their governments to intensify diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to support the renewal of the mandate by the United Nations General Assembly next December, with the broadest possible political and financial support, while seeking multi-year, not annual, support pledges from donor countries to UNRWA budget.
- Making the UNRWA budget part of the countries' mandatory contribution to the United Nations Fund: a permanent and predictable budget. In this context, it is necessary to press for the implementation of the UN Secretary-General's proposal in this regard (August 2017).
- Adopting a flexible financial policy for UNRWA that allows recycling aid and donations received from outside the regular budget, in order to cover the deficit in basic services programs, by adopting a specific mechanism that allows transferring part of those aid and donations to the regular budget, if needed. This with UNRWA continuing to rationalize spending and enhance transparency in the Agency's financial and administrative systems.
- Working to promote the concept of community participation, adopted by many international organizations, including UNRWA, that is, to effectively involve refugees, through civil society organizations, popular and civil committees, in formulating their policies, planning and implementing programs.
Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Forum
June 11, 2022
 This Agreement was signed between UNRWA and the United States on July 14, 2021.
 The Advisory Commission was created by UN Resolution 302 on 8 December 1949. It is tasked with advising and assisting the Commissioner-General of UNRWA in carrying out the Agency’s mandate. Consisting of five members when it was first created, today the Advisory Commission is made up of 25 Members and three Observers. The Advisory Commission meets twice a year to discuss issues of importance to UNRWA.