Repurposing the UNRWA in a post-truth world

No longer dependent on US funding, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees must recommit to its historic mission.

A Palestinian demonstrator holds a UN flag during a rally against a US decision to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on September 26, 2018 [Reuters/Mussa Qawasma]

In the post-truth, post-shame world of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson in which policies are flipped with a tweet, history is rewritten in a soundbite and “reality” made-over by a headline, the UNRWA’s steadfast support for over five million Palestinian refugees, their rights and dignity has never been more important.

But the agency now marking its 70th year must lay to rest its recent mismanagement scandal, restore donor confidence and reconnect with the refugee communities. Under its new leadership it can achieve this and emerge stronger.

The stakes have never been so high.

In August 2018, the Trump White House cut the US annual contribution to the UNRWA – $365m, a quarter of the agency’s budget – jeopardising services to the world’s largest and oldest refugee population. 

A pattern of destructive unilateralism soon emerged. In December 2017, the US announced the decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognising Israel’s illegal annexation and occupation of the city, shattering decades of international consensus. 

In March this year, Washington’s ambassador to Israel endorsed its unlawful annexation of the Golan Heights and in November the US declared that Jewish settlements were not inconsistent with international law, thus condoning multiple “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions – potentially amounting to war crimes – by Israel, the occupying power, against a UN-protected people. 

Heartened by the toothless international response, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded more. He urged US support for his annexation plans for the Jordan Valley, where over 65,000 Palestinians live alongside some 11,000 Jewish settlers on land also seized in contravention of international law.

The legal frameworks on which the world order has been predicated since World War II are under unilateral attack. 

Moreover, the White House is attempting to redefine three issues central to the search for peace in the Middle East – Jerusalem, refugees and settlements – all of it cost-free for Israel, with nothing demanded in return.

Make no mistake who is driving this. As early as December 2016, Netanyahu called for the UNRWA to be “dismantled”. His acolytes in Washington, such as Netanyahu family friend and Trump son-in-law turned Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner, offered support for Israel’s long-cherished goal: the elimination of the status of over five million Palestinian refugees registered with the UNRWA, along with their right of return.

The Trump White House argued that descendants of the 1948 refugees were not themselves refugees, a notion flagrantly at odds with international norms and refugee best practice espoused by many, including the UN’s other refugee agency, UNHCR, to which the US is the largest donor.

But there was pushback against this attempt to airbrush the rights, the identity, the very existence of millions of refugees from history.

In December, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve UNRWA’s mandate for three years, including the legitimate definition of refugees. No less than 169 members supported, just two voted against: the US and Israel. They were isolated, defeated.

For the UNRWA this diplomatic victory had added significance.

In the run up to the UNGA debate, the agency was consumed by a management scandal limited to a small group of officials around the executive head, the commissioner general, who was forced to resign.

An interim leader, Christian Saunders – a seasoned UN-reformer and close confidant of the UN Secretary-General – was sent in to sort out the mismanagement. The overwhelming UNGA vote was an early sign that the UNRWA was turning the corner. Recently, donors who had suspended aid until the agency resolved its internal problems are returning.

The UNRWA still has a huge financial deficit to bridge by the end of the year. But it has a plan in place to fill the void left by Washington’s perfidious defund. Crucially, and no doubt temporarily, it has seen off the Israel-inspired political attack, which included an attempt to shut down UNRWA operations in Jerusalem.

So how does the agency move forward after the triple whammy of the financial crisis, the management scandal and the political attack on its mandate?

To begin with, it must shore up the confidence of its main donors by driving through the management reforms initiated by Christian Saunders, aimed at steadying the agency in the wake of the departure of the previous commissioner general and his inner circle.

Donors must fully honour their much-vaunted “grand bargain” and respond with multi-year agreements across the board, facilitating longer-term planning and financial security, recognising UNRWA’s long-standing contribution to human capital and the ongoing necessity of its life-saving programmes.

Guaranteeing and improving services will assist the UNRWA in restoring credibility with the Palestinians it serves, which has been damaged by the recent mismanagement allegations.

But the agency must go further.

With increased Arab funding and greater diversity in its donor base in the wake of America’s departure, there is an opportunity for more robust, evidence-driven, international-law based advocacy and media work, which has been glaringly absent this year.

A reinvigorated UNRWA must root its humanitarian advocacy in the experiences of the refugees. To achieve this, the agency must initiate a broad-based inclusive conversation with refugee communities. Freed from the constraints of American-Israeli financial leverage, now is the time to consult the refugees about their aspirations and advocate meaningfully for their rights, including their right to self-determination and the full range of their civil and political rights.  

The UNRWA must make the argument forcefully to the donor community that aid is not a displacement activity. It can never replace rights and dignity. Palestinian rights are not for sale. 

UNRWA spokespeople must bring to the fore the context in which the agency works and its impact on the refugees, people living under a half-century occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, 13 years of an illegal blockade in Gaza, nine years of war in Syria and decades of social marginalisation in Lebanon.

The agency must re-historicise the public discourse, reminding the world of the events of 1948 in which 770,000 people were displaced and more than 450 Palestinian villages destroyed in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing by Jewish armed groups.

Seventy years on, the UNRWA and its donors must recommit to their historic mission until the injustices of 1948 which endure to this day are addressed and the dispossession of the Palestinians is resolved. 

Most of all, the UNRWA must empower Palestinian refugees to present themselves to the world as the owners and agents of their own dignity and destiny.

To do this, services must be fully-funded; there must be thorough and ongoing management reforms and robust, rights-based advocacy. These are the three pillars on which the UNRWA’s recovery will surely be built.

They are also a powerful and achievable response to Trump’s unilateralism around which the UNRWA and all its stakeholders – including the refugees – must unite.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.