Roundtable on UNRWA’s Contemporary Role

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). (Picture credit: Aljazeera)

Sunday marked 70 years since the founding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Palestine Square gathered a diverse group of experts with legal and academic backgrounds for a roundtable to reflect on UNRWA’s role in this era of uncertainty surrounding the question of Palestinian refugees.

2019 has been a challenging year for UNRWA’s relationship with the international community in the wake of further funding withdrawals, a misconduct inquiry, concern over the mandate renewal, and, most recently, the resignation of the Commissioner-General, Pierre Krähenbühl. At least one of these challenges was headed off on November 15 when the UN General Assembly’s fourth committee voted to renew UNRWA’s mandate until June of 2023. The decision will most likely hold when it comes to a full vote of the General Assembly.  

  • The events described above offer an opportunity to reflect on UNRWA’s role going forward. What do you believe should continue and what should change in the agency’s role?

Ardi Imseis: In the absence of a resolution for the Palestine refugee problem, at the very minimum the international community must ensure that UNRWA’s core and emergency service provision should remain in place at sufficient levels. Two things, however, that could be added by the General Assembly to UNRWA’s role are: (1) expanding the agency’s mandate to include finding a durable solution to the Palestine refugee problem in line with international law; and (2) urging the agency to end, once and for all, the systematic gender discrimination UNRWA employs in its definition of who qualifies as a “Palestine refugee.”

Francesca Albanese: Central to any rethinking of the UNRWA should be the consideration that the situation of Palestinian refugees, which continues to be treated as a humanitarian issue to manage rather than a political, legal and moral question to resolve, remains a political matter and an enduring responsibility of the international community.

UNRWA has often argued that it does not have the mandate to pursue durable solutions, that other actors are responsible for that, and that its role is apolitical. While other actors are important players, Palestine refugees – many of whom remain vulnerable to a precarious status or discrimination – need and deserve an independent international entity engaged in upholding their inalienable rights, including return, restitution and compensation. This is justified by the fact that the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, which was mandated to find a political solution to the Question of Palestine, ceased operations in 1964.

Karen AbuZayd: UNRWA’s role does not need to change significantly, but perhaps it must consider, where appropriate, to engage more politically with interested and able actors. 

Jo Kelcey: When UNRWA was created there was very little, if any, consultation with the refugee population about what the agency’s role should be. Although its mandate has evolved, many of the issues it currently faces – funding shortfalls, short-term planning horizons and the concentration of power with few senior and almost always foreign officials– can be traced back to tensions between the role that the refugees, host states and Western donor governments have ascribed to the agency and the power differentials that exist between these groups. 

Mouin Rabbani: There is no shortage of proposals regarding the adaptation of UNRWA’s role and mandate. But to pass the smell test, these proposals need to at least preserve, and where possible enhance, the rights and interests of the Palestinian refugee population. In the current environment, this could include a greater role for advocacy by UNRWA, and a similar expansion of the agency’s work with respect to protection. A further challenge is that growing numbers of Palestinian refugees live outside UNRWA’s area of operations.

  • The United States’ approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict has garnered strong criticism from leaders in the region. How is the Trump administration’s strategy going to affect the refugees under UNRWA’s watch?  

Ardi Imseis: The Trump administration’s attack on UNRWA and Palestine refugees will continue to have a negative impact on the agency’s ability to discharge its mandate of providing humanitarian aid, protection and assistance to 5.5 million Palestine refugees in Occupied Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. This attack has taken two forms: (1) the abrupt cancellation of US funds to the agency; and (2) a series of spurious and unfounded claims about the agency’s purported role in perpetuating the Palestine refugee problem. In terms of pushback, effort will have to be undertaken to help the Agency continue its admirable effort to make up the funding shortfall, while reminding the world that pressure must be brought to bear on those responsible for the creation and maintenance of the Palestine refugee problem.  

Francesca Albanese: The ongoing political attacks against UNRWA by the Trump administration have created a climate of uncertainty that is damaging both the agency and the refugees. A case in point is the false charge that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee crisis by registering ‘illegitimate’ refugees (i.e. Palestine refugee descendants). That is dangerous because it distracts from the reality that both the protracted nature of the Palestinian refugee situation and the conflict are of a political nature and require political resolve that goes beyond UNRWA’s functions.

Karen AbuZayd: Today’s politicized US-UNRWA relationship impedes a positive approach to the UN, to UNRWA’s requests, and genuine humanitarian needs. Supporting a strong UNRWA staff presence in the United States and working closely with the active UNRWA-USA in Washington would improve information flow to the United States Government and hopefully yield improved funding.

Terry Rempel:  The withdrawal of US funding obviously does little to enhance human development and the security of refugees. For the time being, however, the administration’s apparent gamble that such tactics will eliminate the “refugee issue” from the political agenda appears to have failed. Other donors have been stepping up to fill the budget gap while UN member states voted overwhelming this past month to renew UNRWA’s mandate.

That said, the responsiveness of states to UNRWA’s financial troubles should not be conflated with or interpreted solely as a vote in favor of the agency nor for that matter as a demonstration of support for refugee rights. While it likely reflects pushback if not rejection of President Trump’s approach and more broadly continued belief in the importance of multilateralism, it also appears to be an attempt to bolster the “two-state solution,” that is to say, the status quo.

Mouin Rabbani: The Trump administration’s assault on UNRWA represents an agenda that far transcends US hostility to the agency – which for many years has been as relentless as it has been bipartisan. Its real target is the Palestinian refugee question, and Washington has made clear that it seeks to redefine Palestinian refugees so that they effectively cease to exist and are removed from the agenda. The Trump administration’s policies – and indeed those of previous administrations – have had an at best negligible impact on either UNRWA or the status of Palestinian refugees. But complacency is not an option moving forward.

  • Mandate renewal is not as much of a concern as the agency’s financial stability. Moving forward, how can the Palestinian diaspora, the international community, and the UN collaborate to address the crisis?

Francesca Albanese:  The financial crisis will hardly be resolved without tackling the root causes of many refugees’ dependency on UNRWA’s assistance beyond core services. For example, addressing the ‘de-development’ that has been imposed on Gaza through the over ten-year long blockade and allowing Palestine refugees the right to work without discrimination in Lebanon would help foster refugees’ self-reliance and lift the pressure from UNRWA.

While donors may have developed a sense of fatigue vis-à-vis the Palestinian refugee ‘problem’ that seems to have no end in sight, they must be reminded that the longevity of the Palestinian refugee question is due to the absence of political solutions, which each UN member-state remains ultimately responsible for.

Terry Rempel: As with past funding crises, many of the agency’s traditional donors have increased their contributions while new donors have come forward with added funds, with regional partners playing a particularly significant role. While financial contributions from other sources appear minimal, private actors along with community-based organizations and individuals, in particular, arguably play an important complementary role in awareness-raising, solidarity and advocacy.

Jo Kelcey: UNRWA has experienced at least one major financial crisis every decade that resulted in service cut-backs. A guaranteed annual budget funded through UNGA member-state contributions would allow UNRWA to plan and implement its services more effectively and efficiently. It would also mitigate the agency’s susceptibility to funding contingencies imposed by donors that don’t necessarily address the needs or priorities of the refugees. 

Mouin Rabbani: The simplest way to resolve the financial challenges confronting UNRWA would be for its funders to muster the political will to resolve the Palestinian refugee question pursuant to relevant UN resolutions and the international consensus.

Roundtable Participants

Ardi Imseis is an Assistant Professor of Law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. He was formerly a UN legal advisor.

Francesca Albanese is an international human rights lawyer and affiliate scholar at Georgetown University. Together with Lex Takkenberg, she is the author of Palestinian Refugees in International Law(Oxford University Press, May 2020).

Karen Koning AbuZayd is a UN (pro bono) Commissioner for the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria. She was the Deputy Commissioner General of the UNRWA between 2000 and 2010.

Dr. Terry Rempel is an independent analyst and researcher whose interests include forced displacement, Palestinian refugees and the struggle over Palestine/Israel. 

Jo Kelcey is a doctoral candidate in International Education at New York University. Her research examines the history of UNRWA’s Education Programme. 

Mouin Rabbani is a senior fellow with the Institute for Palestine Studies.