Do not punish Palestinian refugees for UNRWA dysfunction

Recently revealed abuses by top UNRWA management should not be politicised and used as an excuse to defund the agency.

In this Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015 file photo, a Palestinian school girl chants slogans during a demonstration against a U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) funding gap that could keep about 500,000 Pales
The Netherlands and Switzerland cut funding to UNRWA after an internal investigation report was leaked to the media [File: AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra]

Earlier this week, an internal ethics report about the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees was leaked to both Al Jazeera and the AFP news agency. The report details serious abuses of authority within the agency’s senior management team, based on testimonials from former and current staff as well as a variety of other supporting documents.

Most importantly it accuses Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl and a couple of others from his inner circle of having “engaged in misconduct, nepotism, [and] retaliation”. The report also notes that the situation worsened in 2018, following a decision by the United States, UNRWA’s largest donor, to cut its funding of the agency. This allowed the senior management to justify “an extreme concentration of decision-making power in members of the ‘clique’ … increased disregard for agency rules and established procedures, with exceptionalism becoming the norm; and continued excessive travel of the commissioner-general”.

Many Palestinians were not particularly surprised by the content of the leaked report. Over the years, we have heard many anecdotes about the highly problematic culture of entitlement and abuse perpetuated by well-paid foreign staff at UNRWA and other UN agencies.

Apart from nepotism and abuse of power, there are major issues with the distribution of limited financial resources assigned to these bodies. In times of austerity, for example, support programmes are usually cut before the salaries of senior and foreign staff.

High-level employees have also been known to engage in a variety of hypocritical actions, including renting houses stolen from Palestinian refugees in 1948 in Jerusalem (particularly in its popular neighbourhood Musrara) and allowing the UN duty free shop to sell products from illegal Israeli settlements, such as Israeli wine produced in the occupied Golan Heights.

This type of misconduct, however, is not unique to UNRWA and has been exposed in other UN agencies and large humanitarian organisations. The revelations of the report are indeed reprehensible and those responsible should not go unpunished. But that does not mean that UNRWA should be defunded or shut down.

UNRWA as a separate agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees has a special status and function. It was established in 1949 in order to provide relief services for Palestinians expelled from their homeland following the creation of the Israeli state. It now operates in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and provides some 5 million Palestinians with primary and secondary education, health services as well as various camp infrastructure projects. It also employs about 30,000 people, mostly Palestinians.

UNRWA’s mandate to provide for the refugees is repeatedly renewed pending the implementation of UN Resolution 194 which affirms the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homelands and to receive just compensation. 

For so many the agency is not only an important lifeline, but an official body which safeguards the Palestinian right of return from all the powers that want to do away with it.

Indeed, since Donald Trump took office, efforts to force the Palestinian refugees to give up their right of return have accelerated. The attacks on UNRWA have been incessant and this leaked report has added fuel to the fire.

Former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley was quick to comment on the report saying that this was “exactly why we [the US] stopped our funding“, while Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, tweeted the Al Jazeera article, claiming that “UNRWA’s model is broken/unsustainable & based on an endless expanding # of beneficiaries.”

Neither of these statements is true; the funding was cut to collectively punish the Palestinians and their leadership and the dysfunction of the UNRWA is no worse than any other UN agency.

The US is taking its lead from Israel, who since its establishment has sought to eliminate the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. At the beginning of this year, for example, the Israeli government announced that it would be closing down UNRWA-run schools in occupied East Jerusalem which serve over 3,000 Palestinian children in direct violation of the 1946 Refugee Convention. Nir Barkat, then Jerusalem’s Israeli mayor, claimed that they were putting “an end to the lie of the Palestinian refugee problem”. 

Clearly a systematic culture of abuse is at work at the highest echelons of the UNRWA which needs to be confronted and addressed. However, this report cannot and should not lead to more funding cuts. Both the Netherlands and Switzerland have unfairly suspended aid to the agency in light of this report.

The millions of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian employees, many of whom are struggling to provide for their families, should not be collectively punished for the offences and selfishness of UNRWA’s top management, many of whom are foreigners.

Holding accountable those responsible for the mismanagement of the agency is crucial, as many fear that the powerful people exposed in this report will simply be recycled within the UN system, only to continue their misconduct at another agency.

Meanwhile, the focus should be shifted back to the seven million Palestinians who live in perpetual exile from their homeland, many facing secondary displacement. It is their wellbeing and their right to return that should be the top consideration of donors.

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