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Addressing Fourth Committee, Senior Officials Cite Funding Shortfalls Affecting Support to Palestine Refugees, Rights Violations in Occupied Territory

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GA/SPD/729

GENERAL ASSEMBLY FOURTH COMMITTEE
SEVENTY-SIXTH SESSION, 2ND MEETING (PM)

Members Grant Hearings to 140 Petitioners on Issues Related to Decolonization

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) today heard introductory statements and held interactive discussions on the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the Special Committee tasked with investigating Israeli practices affecting human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, while also beginning its consideration of agenda items related to the issue of decolonization.

Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, presented that body’s latest report, saying that sustaining quality services is becoming an impossible mission. There is a serious disconnect between the growing reliance of Palestine refugees on UNRWA services and decreased donor funding, he stressed, warning that disruptions to Agency services could cause a humanitarian disaster that the region cannot afford.

Highlighting the effectiveness of the UNRWA’s education services, he reported that over 540,000 girls and boys go to 711 UNRWA schools in the region. Warning that a reduction or suspension of services may need to be considered without proper funding, he added that the Agency’s achievements are under threat amid politically motivated attacks aimed to delegitimize and defund it. Citing UNRWA’s zero-tolerance policy for hate speech, incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, he declared: “To continue succeeding, [UNRWA] needs to be shielded from political attacks”.

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, Israel’s representative said the fact that UNRWA pleads for new funding year after year proves that its work is unsustainable, while its inability to ease the situation of Palestinians across the region shows how ineffective the Agency is. Among other things, a Hamas tunnel was recently found under an UNRWA boys’ school, and UNRWA textbooks have been found to display maps that erase Israel entirely. Moreover, it is clear that the Hamas terror organization continually uses UNRWA infrastructure to pursue its aims, he said.

The observer for the State of Palestine disagreed, expressing appreciation for UNRWA and dismissing accusations and attacks against it — including attacks on the Agency’s education programme — as distortions and attempts to distract attention from the real issue, namely, the continuation of the conflict. Thanking UNRWA staff for their tireless efforts amid volatile conditions, she noted with concern that they continue to be hampered by a lack of sustained, predictable funding, and appealed to the global community to mobilize resources for UNRWA’s essential operating costs from the United Nations regular budget.

Mohan Peiris (Sri Lanka), Chair of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting Human Rights of Palestinian People and Other Arabs of Occupied Territories, said the body’s latest report provided updates on human rights violations, including during the May escalation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip and the subsequent critical humanitarian situation. Citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a raft of human rights issues — including access to education, health care, water, sanitation, and restrictions on freedom of movement — he noted that only 16 per cent of Palestinians eligible for COVID-19 vaccines had reportedly received two doses as of 31 August. Israel must comply with its international legal responsibility as the occupying Power, he said in that regard.

Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), presented three related reports. She said excessive use of force by Israeli Security Forces in the context of law enforcement amounts to collective punishment and restrictions on freedom of movement. “A lack of accountability for international human rights and international humanitarian law violations by Israeli Security Forces remained pervasive,” she stated. During the reporting period, demolition and confiscations of Palestinian structures in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, increased by 59 per cent in comparison to the previous period — the highest number since the United Nations began publicly recording them, she added.

At the outset of the meeting, Bassam Sabbagh (Syria), Rapporteur of the Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, presented that body’s latest report. He said it contains 13 chapters and two annexes on themes including the dissemination of information on decolonization; the question of sending visiting and special missions to Non-Self-Governing Territories; and economic and other activities which affect the interests of the peoples of the Non-Self-Governing Territories, among others.

Keisha McGuire (Grenada), the Chair of that body, went on to detail progress made during the most recent session of the Special Committee on Decolonization. Ultimately, it adopted 21 resolutions and one decision, she said.

In other business, the Committee granted 140 requests for hearings by petitioners on agenda items related to decolonization. Those were contained in documents A/C.4/76/2, A/C.4/76/3, A/C.4/76/4, A/C.4/76/5, A/C.4/76/6, A/C.4/76/7, A/C.4/76/8 and A/C.4/76/9.

Also speaking today were representatives of Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, the United States, India and Pakistan. A representative of the European Union, speaking in his capacity as observer, also took the floor.

The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 6 October, to continue its debate on decolonization.

Decolonization

BASSAM SABBAGH (Syria), Rapporteur of the Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, presented that body’s latest report (document A/76/23). He said it contains 13 chapters and 2 annexes on themes including the dissemination of information on decolonization; the question of sending visiting and special missions to Non-Self-Governing Territories; and economic and other activities which affect the interests of the peoples of the Non‑Self‑Governing Territories, among others. It also contains the Special Committee’s recommendations in the form of 19 draft resolutions. Adding that Annex II contains the report of the 2021 Caribbean Regional Seminar on the implementation of the Fourth International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, which was held in Parish of St. John, Dominica, in August 2021, he expressed hope that report’s recommendations will be considered favourably by the Fourth Committee.

KEISHA ANIYA MCGUIRE (Grenada), Chair of the Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, reported that in 2021 the Special Committee resumed its session fully in-person, despite the myriad of challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eight Non-Self-Governing Territories and a substantial number of Member States and participants attended one or both of its major activities, namely, the substantive session in June and the regional seminar in August.

With COVID-19 mitigation measures in mind and in an effort to utilize allocated time and resources efficiently, the Special Committee consolidated its deliberations and convened fewer in-person meetings than originally scheduled, she said. Ultimately, it adopted, by consensus, 21 resolutions and one decision. The Special Committee’s agility to adjust to each unique circumstance of the respective Territories has been at the forefront of its efforts. Furthermore, the Bureau maintains its regular dialogue with the administering Powers and other stakeholders, as well as with the Secretary-General, and visiting missions are again being dispatched on a regular basis to obtain first-hand information on various Territories, she said.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

PHILIPPE LAZZARINI, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), introduced his annual report (document A/76/13). He warned that, for the first time in decades, four out of the five areas where UNRWA operates are simultaneously in crisis: The Gaza Strip; the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; Lebanon; and Syria. As a result of the conflict in Gaza in May — the fourth since 2008 — UNRWA lost 20 of its students and over 1,300 shelters were damaged and made uninhabitable. The Agency is now providing food assistance to almost all Palestine refugees in Gaza, 70 per cent of the total population.

“No one wants to be a refugee,” he went on, adding: “No one enjoys being handed food and humanitarian assistance”. Unfortunately, sustaining quality services is becoming an impossible mission. There is a serious disconnect between the growing reliance of Palestine refugees on UNRWA services and decreased donor funding, he stressed, warning that disruptions to Agency services could cause a humanitarian disaster that the region cannot afford. Nevertheless, with the support of donors, the Agency has found creative ways to manage its cash flow and pay salaries on time, he said, reporting that austerity and efficiency gains helped save over $600 million in the last six years. Over the long term, however, continued austerity comes at a price and causes immense distress among the Palestine refugees across the region.

As for Agency reforms, he reported that UNRWA strengthened its internal oversight body, made the ethics function independent and put in place an Ombudsman. Turning to the Agency’s education services, he cited a recent study authored by the World Bank and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which argued that the UNRWA’s education programme is the best value for money and its students outperform their local counterparts by one year of learning. Today, over 540,000 girls and boys go to 711 UNRWA schools in the region. Moreover, he said he has never seen an organization that goes to such great lengths to abide by United Nations humanitarian principles. Noting that those achievements are nevertheless under threat, he warned of politically motivated attacks on the Agency’s education system, which aimed to delegitimize and defund UNRWA. Citing its zero-tolerance policy for hate speech, incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, he declared: “To continue succeeding, [UNRWA] needs to be shielded from political attacks.”

Turning to the Agency’s dire financial crisis, he stressed that UNRWA lacks the funds needed to operate in November and December and is suffering a shortfall of $15 million in October alone. Without proper funding, a reduction or suspension of services may need to be considered, he cautioned, appealing to Member States — particularly those who have not yet contributed and those who did not contribute to the level of previous years — to help the Agency sustain its services. “The mandate of UNRWA is a common responsibility and the stability of the region is in our common interest,” he said.

As the floor was opened for questions and comments, the representative of Israel said the fact that UNRWA pleads for new funding year after year proves that its work is unsustainable, while its inability to ease the situation of Palestinians across the region shows how ineffective the Agency is. Expressing shock at the Commissioner General’s remarks about the Agency’s educational system, he stated that he had intended to bring photographic evidence of an UNRWA teacher’s social media post, featuring a picture glorifying Adolph Hitler, but he was prevented from doing so.

In June, a Hamas tunnel was found under an UNRWA boys’ school, he continued, adding that UNRWA textbooks contain passages that refer to Jews as “Satan’s helpers” and display maps that erase Israel entirely. Moreover, it is clear that the Hamas terror organization continually uses UNRWA infrastructure to pursue its aims. Noting that many countries support the Agency under the impression that it is part of the solution, he said it is instead part of the problem. As such, he called on the international community to cut off funding for an Agency that only exacerbates the conflict.

The representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, said UNRWA is an essential provider of services and a stabilizing force in the region. Indeed, until a solution to the issue of Palestine refugees is found, the Agency will remain essential. Recalling that the European Union’s member States are collectively the largest contributor to the Agency, he welcomed the renewed commitment from the United States and called on Arab Gulf States to step up their own contributions.

The representative of Morocco recalled that, as chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Al Quds Committee, Morocco continues to protect Jerusalem, which is a symbol of religious coexistence. The Al Quds Committee implements projects in all areas which benefit the people of Jerusalem, he went on to say, adding that Morocco will continue supporting the UNRWA to help it fulfill its Mandate.

The representative of Jordan thanked UNWRA for its efforts despite economic and financial challenges, which have been complicated during the pandemic. He further welcomed the resumption of funding to UNRWA by the United States — which helps meet the humanitarian, educational and health needs of Palestine refugees — and thanked Sweden for mobilizing international support for the Agency. He went on to call on international donors to intensify their efforts to support the Agency in its aims to obtain funding for 2022 and beyond. “UNWRA should be able to perform its mandate in line with the General Assembly decision 194,” he said, stressing that Jordan stands in favour of a two-State solution.

The representative of Turkey reiterated her country’s longstanding support to and solidarity with the Palestine refugees, and the lifeline services provided to them by UNWRA. She praised innovative frontline services provided by the Agency, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and noted with appreciation the significant progress achieved in implementing management reforms, which strengthen the Agency’s accountability, transparency and governance. She noted that further slashing of UNRWA’s budget will not only come at a further cost to Palestine refugees but will also impact its mandate and asked the Commissioner-General to elaborate on his expectations for Member States in that regard.

The observer for the State of Palestine, expressed appreciation for UNRWA and dismissed accusations and attacks against it — including attacks on the Agency’s education programme — as distortions and attempts to distract attention from the real issue, namely, the continuation of the conflict. Thanking the Commissioner-General for sharing his vision for the road ahead to ensure implementation of UNWRA’s mandate, she expressed deep appreciation to the Agency’s staff for their tireless efforts amid volatile conditions. She went on to express gratitude to all donor countries and organizations for their generous support extended to UNRWA, and noted that Palestine looks forward to the November international donor conference, to be convened by Jordan and Sweden, as an important opportunity to mobilize funds to support the functioning of the Agency. Noting with regret that despite all efforts, including cost-cutting measures and the resumption of funding by the United States, UNWRA continues to be hampered by a lack of sustained, predictable funding, she appealed to the global community to mobilize resources for UNRWA’s essential operating costs from the United Nations regular budget.

The representative of the United States said his country is proud to be the largest donor to UNRWA, having contributed more than $315 million in 2021. In that context, he encouraged donors that have yet not contributed to the Agency to do so. The United States is committed to serving as a strong partner to the Agency, to help it to provide the most efficient services possible, in line with United Nations principles. In that context, he asked the Commissioner-General what steps the Agency is taking to increase its efficiency while ensuring it does so in line with aforementioned principles.

The representative of India said that, even amid the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and a dire funding crisis, UNRWA managed to adapt and provide essential services to Palestine refugees. For its part, India has made contributions to the Agency’s core budget, he reported. Expressing appreciation for UNRWA’s steps to ensure transparency, he said India considers the Agency essential.

Responding, Mr. LAZZARINI said that, since 2013, UNRWA’s income has remained the same despite multiple crises that have unfolded in the region during that time, significantly increasing the needs of the refugees. That mismatch between income and expectations explains why the Agency has constantly been running behind on cash and on the edge of a budget crash. Indeed, UNRWA never knows if it will be able to keep up its critical activities month to month. That uncertainty is highly unnerving for both refugees and host countries, and is unsettling for the staff and the supporters of the Agency. To address the gap, UNRWA is undertaking discussions with a group of friends of donors. As for its efforts to ensure that Agency activities reflect the highest United Nations standards, he reiterated that he has never seen an agency that puts so much effort into making sure its staff uphold those principles. For example, the Agency has put in place several measures to help teachers address content in schoolbooks that could be questionable. In addition, UNRWA is developing a digital learning platform where guidance material is available for teachers, and it continues to carry out inspections of Agency premises to ensure they are only used for United Nations purposes.

SEBNEM MANAV, representing the Chairmanship of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA, briefed the Committee on the work of the Working Group as reflected in its recent report (document A/76/306). Noting that the financial difficulties faced by the Agency threaten the human development of Palestine refugees and the stability in the region, she said these challenges were further exacerbated by the challenges posed by COVID-19. With the Agency's programme budget shortfall currently standing at $100 million, she urged the General Assembly and the international community to undertake efforts to ensure that UNRWA services are maintained at an acceptable level. She further drew attention to several recommendations, contained in the report, including calls for funding increases and the maintenance of voluntary contributions to UNWRA.

Stressing that Member States’ contributions should keep pace with the requirements of the Agency, while taking into account the effects of inflation and other factors, she added that contributions should also reflect appropriate international burden-sharing. In its report, the Working Group commended UNWRA for the measures it has taken to increase its efficiency, while maintaining the quality of services to Palestine refugees, and for the measures taken to increase transparency through reporting to the International Aid Transparency Initiative. She urged Member States to provide UNRWA with unearmarked, multi-year funding and make sustained unpredictable contributions, in line with the recommendations made at the World Humanitarian Summit, as the Agency continues to serve more than 5,000,000 Palestinian refugees.

The representative of Pakistan stressed that Palestine refugees continue to live in a suspended state of exile with few opportunities for comfort and relief, aside from the services provided by UNRWA. The Agency’s crucial role has been further underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which UNRWA provided remote schooling and telemedicine programmes. Moreover, its cash support and food delivery services have provided a lifeline to the most vulnerable refugees. However, he echoed other speakers in noting that the continuation of the Agency’s activities requires sufficient and predictable funding.

Israeli Practices and Settlement Activities Affecting the Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories

PETER MOHAN MAITHRI PIERIS (Sri Lanka), speaking on behalf of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, presented the fifty-third report of the Special Committee, which was made available to the Fourth Committee in its advance form and will be circulated later as document A/76/360. Noting that the members were not able to travel to the region due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, he said the report’s contents are therefore based mostly on the accounts offered during online consultations with Member States, United Nations agencies and civil society representatives. The report provides updates on human rights violations, including the escalation of hostilities in Gaza in May and the subsequent critical humanitarian situation. Stressing that the Special Committee was appalled by the 11-day confrontation between Israel, Hamas and Palestinian armed groups, he noted that it claimed lives of 257 Palestinians and caused substantial damage to civilian assets and infrastructure in Gaza, in violation of the principle of distinction under international humanitarian law.

Drawing attention to the continued practices of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes by Israel, he said the Special Committee was particularly concerned by the situation of Bedouin and herder communities in the Jordan Valley and those located in areas designated by Israel as closed military zones.

Citing the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and the increase in violent attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians and their property since January, he noted the construction of an illegal building of the Evyatar outpost on private Palestinian land near the West Bank city of Nablus, which led to Israeli security forces using “incommensurate force” against Palestinians opposing the construction. He further spotlighted the impact of COVID-19 on a raft of human rights issues, including access to education, health care, water, sanitation and restrictions on freedom of movement, as well as on the situation of Palestinian detainees. Noting that only 16 per cent of Palestinians eligible for vaccination against COVID-19 had reportedly received two doses as of 31 August, he called on Israel to comply with its international legal responsibility as the occupying Power in that regard. He also expressed the Special Committee’s intention to continue to call upon the international community to use its influence and compel Israel to end its occupation.

ILZE BRANDS KEHRIS, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), presented three reports, starting with the report of the Secretary-General on Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, which was made available to the Fourth Committee in its advance form and will be circulated as document A/76/333. Underscoring the deterioration of the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which stems from Israeli policies and practices, she pointed to the May 2021 escalation in hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups, during which international humanitarian law was violated by all parties and 258 Palestinians were killed by Israeli attacks.

She said the report cites excessive use of force by Israeli Security Forces in the context of law enforcement, including unlawful killings, as well as undue restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment — practices that may amount to collective punishment and restrictions on freedom of movement. “A lack of accountability for international human rights and international humanitarian law violations by Israeli Security Forces remained pervasive,” she stated. Turning to the issue of freedom of movement, she noted that during the reporting period — from 1 June 2020 to 31 May 2021 — Israeli authorities continued to restrict movement across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including to and from Gaza, thus profoundly affecting the enjoyment of fundamental human rights such as the right to work, to an adequate standard of living, to health and education, and to family life.

Turning to the Secretary-General’s report on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan — which was made available to the Fourth Committee in its advance form and will be circulated as document A/76/336 — she observed that, during the reporting period, demolition and confiscations of Palestinian structures in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, increased by 59 per cent in comparison to the previous period — the highest number since the United Nations began publicly recording them. She further noted intensified settler violence against Palestinians, stressing that on many occasions Israeli Security Forces intervened “with unnecessary and/or disproportionate force against Palestinians in the aftermath of settler attacks or when they demonstrated against settlement expansion and outposts”. In that context, she drew attention to the difficult situation of Palestinian herding communities located in or near Israeli-declared firing zones and settler outposts in Area C.

Introducing the latest report of the Secretary-General on the occupied Syrian Golan (document A/76/304), she noted that responses concerning the implementation of General Assembly resolution 75/99 were received from Cuba, Iraq and Syria.

The floor was then opened for questions and comments on those items.

The representative of Israel stressed that the Special Committee confirms its deep-seated bias against his country, year after year, while its recycled claims only incite hatred and silence discourse. Therefore, Israel objects to the operation of the Special Committee, whose sole purpose is to systematically attack the only vibrant democracy in the Middle East. Indeed, it outrageously attributes every Palestinian hardship to Israel, and its reports fail to mention that Hamas subjects Gaza’s citizens to terror and uses Israel as a scapegoat. Moreover, the Special Committee’s reports are based on unverified allegations, he said, pointing out that the historic Abraham Accords signed in recent months are evidence that Israel is tangibly working toward peace and stability in the region.

The representative of Jordan welcomed all the efforts made to secure a ceasefire after the recent escalation and to relaunch negotiations to establish an independent Palestinian State within the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. He called for an end to unilateral coercive measures, in particular, the demolition of houses, which are operations meant to chase Palestinians out of their homes. He added that the occupation of the Syrian Golan also needs to be put to an end, in line with Security Council resolutions.

The observer for the State of Palestine said the reports before the Committee describe the distressing conditions that are a consequence of systematic violations of international law by Israel. Even so, there will be States that have normalized that inhumanity and will accuse the Special Committee of bias. Those countries ignore the fact that the reports are based solely on international law and only document the violations being perpetrated by Israel. Noting that their sources are not only United Nations bodies but also international human rights organizations, including some Israeli organizations, she said that, instead of honestly reflecting on the reality Israel has created, those States persist in bashing the Special Committee in an effort to delegitimize its work. If Palestinians are not allowed to use diplomatic tools available to them, she wondered what alternatives exist. In fact, the reports contain only a fraction of the suffering being endured by Palestinians daily. In that context, she asked Ms. Brands Kheris if any steps have been taken to ensure Israel’s adherence to international law, and whether any action has been taken to ensure States do not support the human rights abuses Israel perpetrates in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Ms. BRANDS KHERIS, responding to questions relating to her presentation, said the report is based on the Geneva Conventions and on the rules applicable to Israel as the occupying Power. With regard to the seizure of territory by Israel, which is unacceptable, she said the latter constitutes a violation of international law, in particular as regards the establishment of settlements as defined in Security Council resolution 2334 (2016). To that end, some measures were undertaken by the third States in 2019-2020, mainly in relation to Israel’s publicly announced plans to annex parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. For example, in May 2021 Ireland became the first European Union country to declare that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory amount to an illegal annexation.

She underlined that, in her report to the Human Rights Council, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized the need for accountability. Member States must use their influence to ensure respect for international humanitarian law and oppose serious violations of its instruments, including the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts. Pointing to Security Council resolution 2334 (2016), she stressed that “the status quo is not sustainable” and that significant steps are urgently needed to stabilize the situation and to reverse negative trends on the ground, which are steadily eroding chances for a two-State solution.

For information media. Not an official record.