General Assembly Fourth Committee
Seventy-third Session, 24th Meeting (PM)
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) faces the greatest financial predicament in its history this year following the abrupt end to funding by the United States, its Commissioner‑General told the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) today.
As the Committee began its consideration of that Agency’s work, Commissioner‑General Pierre Krähenbühl said that, because of support from Member States, UNRWA is now on a path to overcoming that crisis. Reporting that $300 million in funding was cut in January following the decision by the United States, he said the resulting shortfall threatens general education for 525,000 students, essential primary health care for 3 million patients and food assistance for 1.7 million refugees.
In response, he continued, UNRWA launched a global campaign, #DignityIsPriceless. Citing two ministerial meetings as critical to mobilizing support, he said the $100 million was pledged in Rome on 15 March and $122 million in New York on 27 September. Overall, donors contributed or pledged an additional $382 million in 2018, reducing the shortfall to $64 million, he said. Reporting that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have raised $50 million each — accounting for 50 per cent of the additional amount pledged — he noted that 40 other countries and institutions from every region have also raised their contributions.
Turning to assertions made about Palestine refugees — including accusations that UNRWA is inflating their numbers — he described such allegations as blatant misrepresentations. “Children born to refugees, and their descendants, are recognized as refugees by both UNRWA and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) under their respective mandates,” he pointed out. He went on to cite the situations in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Congo, where the descendants of those displaced are recognized as refugees and receive assistance from UNHCR.
Presenting the report of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA was that panel’s Rapporteur.
The observer for the State of Palestine echoed that sentiment, emphasizing that Palestine refugees are not the exception to the rule applied to other protracted refugee situations around the world. “We reject rhetoric aimed at redefining who constitutes a Palestine refugee in an attempt to strip our refugees of their status and rights,” she said, emphasizing that those rights do not diminish with time. She noted that cost‑cutting measures and concerns prompted by the United States funding cut have stirred deep worry among refugees, stoking fears that the international community is abandoning them.
Israel’s representative, however, said UNRWA’s budgetary needs will grow, describing its business model as “irredeemably flawed”. Moreover, Palestinians are refusing, through the Agency, to accept the Jewish right to self‑determination under the guise of the right of return, he said, noting that UNRWA refugees enjoy a special status that is automatically passed down to future generations. No other refugee population in the world has a similar dedicated agency, he said, emphasizing that the vast majority of UNRWA beneficiaries do not meet the criteria for refugee status under international law.
Also speaking today were representatives of Venezuela (for the Non-Aligned Movement), Bangladesh (for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), Mexico, Philippines, Thailand, Cuba, Qatar, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Namibia.
An observer for the European Union delegation also delivered a statement.
Speaking in exercise of the right of reply were a representative of Israel and an observer for the State of Palestine.
The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Monday, 12 November, to conclude its general debate on the work of UNRWA.
PIERRE KRÄHENBÜHL, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said that, because of support from Member States, “we are on a path to overcoming the greatest financial predicament ever in the history of this Agency”. Stressing the importance of UNRWA’s services, he said there is no alternative to its school system in the Gaza Strip. He went on to note that the demolition of the West Bank Bedouin hamlet of Khan al‑Ahmar is imminent, and access to the essentials of life precarious and insecure. In Syria, six students were killed by mortar and gunfire in 2018, and in Lebanon, refugees remain cut off from Government services and formal employment.
Turning to the Agency’s financial crisis, he reported that $300 million in funding was cut in January following an abrupt decision by the United States, which has since announced that it will not contribute any funds as of 2019. The resulting financial crisis has been unprecedented, he said, citing a mid-January shortfall of $446 million, equivalent to 40 per cent of the Agency’s operating income. It threatened general education for 525,000 students, essential primary health care for 3 million patients and food assistance for 1.7 million refugees who fled complex emergencies, including Syria.
In response, UNRWA launched a global campaign, #DignityIsPriceless, encouraging a renewed spirit of multilateral cooperation, he continued. Citing two ministerial meetings as critical to mobilizing support, he said $100 million was pledged in Rome on 15 March and $122 million in New York on 27 September. Overall, donors contributed or pledged an additional $382 million in 2018, reducing the shortfall to $64 million, he said, expressing hope that it will be further reduced after additional contributions. Reporting that Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have raised $50 million each, accounting for 50 per cent of the additional amount pledged, he noted that 40 countries and institutions from every region have increased their contributions.
On the Agency’s efficiency and financial discipline, he recalled the rigid cost controls applied to its 2018 budget, the enforcement of UNRWA‑wide austerity during the 2015‑2017 period and the avoidance of service cuts. Regarding assertions about Palestine refugees in the media and certain political forums — including accusations that UNRWA is inflating the number of refugees it serves — he described them as blatant misrepresentations, pointing out: “Children born to refugees, and their descendants, are recognized as refugees by both UNRWA and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) under their respective mandates.” He went on to cite the situations in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Congo, where the descendants of those displaced were recognized as refugees and received assistance from UNHCR. That Office has a mandate to seek solutions while UNRWA does not, he pointed out, emphasizing: “The preferred solution for all refugees under international law is voluntary return, in safety and dignity.”
The representative of Indonesia wondered what impact the war in Syria is having on the population of Palestinian refugees there.
The representative of Sudan asked what the Commissioner‑General anticipates for the next two years in terms of donor support, and what cooperation the Agency enjoys with other regional organizations like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the European Union and the League of Arab States. Finally, he asked if there exists an education alternative for UNRWA, suggesting the Agency provide scholarships for the refugees in neighbouring countries and offering Sudanese universities and schools for that purpose.
The observer for the State of Palestine highlighted the importance of the Agency’s youth initiatives and sought elaboration of its current and future projects for Palestinian youth.
The representative of Israel said the Palestinian population that UNRWA serves does not meet the criteria for refugee status under international law. Noting that 2.2 million are citizens of Jordan and 2.1 million live in Gaza and the West Bank, he said they have never crossed an international border. He also pointed out that UNRWA’s mandate permits it to define descendants as refugees, describing that as a political decision behind the spike in the Agency’s financial needs. He asked why UNRWA inflates the number of refugees in the region and how it functions in Gaza, where so many terrorist organizations, including UNRWA officials, are active.
The representative of Syria said that UNRWA’s reports continue to neglect the role of the Government of Syrian in humanitarian efforts for Palestine refugees. Noting that his country’s Government has treated them equally and generously, he said violence against the Palestinians has been perpetrated by armed terrorist groups who have attacked refugee camps in Syria. UNRWA must indicate in its reports that the shortage of financing has had a negative impact on refugees, he said, calling on donors to increase their contributions to UNRWA’s budget so the Agency can rebuild the refugee camps. Furthermore, the Agency’s report neglects to mention the Government of Syria developed 57 public schools for UNRWA, he said.
Mr. KRÄHENBÜHL, Commissioner‑General, responding to Indonesia’s delegate, said that before the conflict in Syria began, thousands of refugees lived there, covering most of their needs themselves. The war transformed that situation in painful ways that deeply affected the Palestine refugee population. Noting that 430,000 refugees remain in Syria today, he said many have fled to other countries. Several camps have been affected and their future is uncertain, he said, noting that UNRWA lost 18 colleagues in the Syrian conflict and 25 are still missing. Palestine refugees fleeing the conflict were integrated into the Agency’s service delivery apparatus in Lebanon and Jordan.
In response to Sudan’s representative, he noted that the situation of Palestine refugees is particularly precarious in the Gaza Strip. More than 90 per cent of the children in schools there have never left the enclave. As a result, professional engagement or contact is no longer taking place among Palestinians in the enclave and young Israelis, he said, calling for investment in efforts to allow each community to rediscover the other’s humanity. Turning to the recent mobilization of support for funding, he noted the geographic diversity of that support. On the question of scholarships, he said UNRWA is prepared to work with the Palestinian Authority in seeking opportunities for the higher education of young people in the region and beyond.
Responding to the observer for the State of Palestine, he noted the investments made to protect the education system despite concerns over the growing number of children per classroom. On student parliaments, he said they are significant in terms of youth involvement and community engagement.
Turning to Israel and the different interpretations of refugee issues, he reiterated that UNRWA’s actions in relation to its mandate are defined by the General Assembly. As such, the definitions that the Agency uses for refugees and the ways in which it has registered them have all been defined and validated by that body. Refugee situations are resolved in the context of political resolution of conflict, he said, pointing out that the number of conflicts resolved by political means have been very limited in recent decades.
Concerning Gaza, he emphasized that the principle of neutrality must be safeguarded. Recalling that nine international UNRWA staff members out of 12,500 were temporarily withdrawn from Gaza, he said that was due to demonstrations by Palestinian staff members unhappy about losing their jobs. He explained that the 118 staff members who lost their jobs protested vigorously because unemployment in Gaza has now reached 50 per cent. He said that, while he deeply disagrees with their protest methods, he understands what unemployment means for their families, who risk imprisonment for defaulting on loans. He said nine staff members were withdrawn to send a message to Hamas about providing security, after which things began to change, he recalled.
In response to Syria’s delegate, he said the Agency recognizes that country’s historical role in welcoming and supporting Palestine refugees. Noting that half of the Agency’s school buildings in Syria have been damaged or cannot be used, he said that if conditions in Yarmouk permit, UNRWA will consider rehabilitating its installations in that camp and the possibility of Palestine refugees returning there.
KJETIL J. HALVORSEN (Norway), Rapporteur of the Working Group on the Financing of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, introduced that panel’s report (document A/73/349), noting that it met six times before adopting its report. Noting the Agency’s unprecedented financial shortfall, he said that its 2018 programme budget stands at $64 million. The shortfall threatens the human development of Palestine refugees and the region’s stability, he emphasized. He urged Governments to increase and sustain their voluntary contributions to the Agency through its three funding portals so that it can meet the growing needs of the Palestine refugee population, taking into account the effects of inflation and other factors driving the cost of providing services. Taking note of UNRWA’s efforts to contain costs, he encouraged Member States to accompany those measures with adequate funding for the Agency as it continues to serve more than 5 million Palestine refugees in the Middle East.
FEDA ABDELHADY‑NASSER, observer for the State of Palestine, said UNRWA has been in crisis mode for a year, forced to contend with an unprecedented financial shortfall of $446 million that jeopardizes its essential services and causes widespread distress among refugees. “We reject rhetoric aimed at redefining who constitutes a Palestine refugee in an attempt to strip our refugees of their status and rights,” she said, emphasizing that those rights do not diminish with time. The right to return is not a claim, but a right which cannot be negated to accommodate Israel’s narrative and its schemes to ensure a Jewish majority, she added. Under international law, children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found, she pointed out. Palestine refugees are not the exception to that rule applied to other protracted refugee situations around the world, she said, underlining that the Palestine refugee problem persists because of the failure to address the conflict’s root causes and justly to resolve the question of Palestine
She went on to describe claims that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee problem as absurd and offensive, calling for the denunciation of any attempts to discredit the Agency. Expressing gratitude for the high‑level meetings convened to remedy UNRWA’s financial crisis and to the donors who responded, she said that display of compassion and responsibility has helped to ensure the continuity of the Agency’s vital programmes. The forced displacement and dispossession of Palestine refugees by Israel, the occupying Power, has also inflicted a critical loss of hope, she observed. That is most damaging for young people, for whom the absence of a political horizon and the lack of opportunity have diminished belief in the possibilities of peace, making them more vulnerable to the forces of radicalism and extremism. Any interruption or suspension of UNRWA services will seriously exacerbate refugee hardships and destabilize the fragile situation on the ground, she warned, pointing out that cost‑cutting measures and concerns prompted by the United States funding cut have stirred deep worry among refugees, stoking fears that the international community is abandoning them.
Such anxiety has been particularly severe in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and most acute in Gaza, as reflected in the protests and strikes to mark the Great March of Return, she continued. UNRWA remains a lifeline for refugee families in the enclave and elsewhere, especially for the Bedouin community currently at risk of another forced transfer. It also remains critical for Palestine refugees in Syria and Lebanon, ensuring their basic sustenance and protection. Expressing regret over the politicization of the Agency’s humanitarian work by the United States and Israel, she called for concerted action in response to the current challenges. She also called for further efforts to address UNRWA’s recurrent financial shortfall and generate sufficient and predictable funding to ensure implementation of its mandate. In that context, she appealed for increased and more sustained voluntary contributions, including multi‑year funding, if possible, also urging support for UNRWA’s efforts to expand and diversify its donor base. As such, she called for further engagement to bring the World Bank Trust Fund and OIC’s Waqf Fund to fruition.
SAMUEL MONCADA (Venezuela), speaking on behalf of the Non‑Aligned Movement, said the Government of the United States took an unjust step when it cut funding for the Agency. He also expressed concern over Israel’s announcement that it intends to close UNRWA centres in East Jerusalem. The deteriorating situation in the region, including Syria, has intensified the needs of Palestine refugees, he said, adding that the Movement is deeply concerned about Israeli practices in the occupied territories, including forced displacement, generalized violence and the demolition of Palestinian homes.
He went on to point out that the blockade in Gaza has inflicted terrible suffering on the Palestinian people, depriving them of basic requirements, humanitarian assistance and preventing the reconstruction of housing. Lifting the blockade will be the only way for Palestine refugees to become less reliant on UNRWA, he said, calling on upon Israel to uphold its responsibilities under international law. He went on to note the General Assembly’s inability to follow up the Secretary‑General’s recommendations on the provision of adequate financing for UNRWA.
MASUD BIN MOMEN (Bangladesh), speaking on behalf of OIC, reaffirmed the necessity of upholding the moral, political and legal commitment to the rights of Palestine refugees and to the alleviation of their suffering, pending a just solution. Millions of them continue to endure forced displacement, exile and denial of their legitimate rights as a result of the ongoing Israeli colonial occupation and the failure to achieve a just and lasting solution. Their plight risks worsening as UNRWA experiences an unprecedented funding crisis, exacerbated by the United States decision to cut its contributions, thereby jeopardizing the Agency’s essential education, health, relief, social and emergency programmes.
Today’s meeting is timely and must send a message of hope and political commitment to the rights of Palestine refugees, so to ensure their concerns are receiving attention in this time of humanitarian crises, he continued. Cooperation and joint action to share burdens and contain the growth of core costs will mitigate the suffering of the Palestine refugees. OIC, in cooperation with the Islamic Development Bank, continues the process of implementing the resolution adopted to establish a fund to support Palestinian refugees, he said, reaffirming unwavering support for the Palestinian people in the exercise of their right to return, in accordance with the relevant resolutions of international legitimacy.
PIERRE‑CHRISTOPHE CHATZISAVAS, European Union delegation, warned that ending UNRWA’s humanitarian activities could generate instability across the region and create a vacuum that will only serve extremists. The European Union and its member States are collectively the largest contributor to UNRWA’s budget and among the first to respond to its call for additional funds, he noted. While acknowledging the far‑reaching reforms undertaken by UNRWA to counter the shortfall and contain its impact, he called upon donors to intensify their efforts to help the Agency find its financial footing while staying focused on its mandate.
MARÍA ANTONIETA SOCORRO JÁQUEZ HUACUJA (Mexico) said the absence of stability in the region poses serious consequences for the civilian population, causing a sustained increase in the number of Palestine refugees. UNRWA’s recent funding shortfall poses further risks for that population, she said, noting that her country’s Government has donated $500,000 towards 2018 efforts in that regard. Reaffirming her delegation’s commitment to a resolution of the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict, she called for the establishment of a politically and economically viable Palestinian State, and for the peaceful coexistence of two States pursuant to the relevant United Nations resolutions.
ARIEL RODELAS PEÑARANDA (Philippines), stressing UNRWA’s importance, pointed out its critical efforts in providing emergency relief, education, health care and housing to Palestine refugees. He confirmed his country’s voluntary financial contribution of $10,000 to the Agency’s 2018 programme budget, saying it demonstrates the solidarity of the Philippines with the Palestinians.
VITAVAS SRIVIHOK (Thailand) noted with concern that UNRWA’s funding remains unpredictable and insecure. Noting that his country has made consistent contributions to the Agency since 1978 and remains committed to its multi‑year pledge to provide voluntary contributions to UNRWA for the period of 2017‑2021, he expressed hope that they will help to ensure delivery of assistance to Palestine refugees. Applauding UNRWA’s efforts to diversify its donor base, he urged Member States to continue their support of the Agency. He also recalled that support for the socioeconomic development of Palestine refugees and for building the capacity of Palestinians was mobilized during the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development.
HUMBERTO RIVERO ROSARIO (Cuba), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, said it is truly surprising that despite the shortfall affecting UNRWA’s operations, the Agency has continued to uphold its mandate. Expressing appreciation to donors, including Gulf States that stepped up their contributions to bridge the funding gap, he said it is regrettable that the main contributor to the Agency is attempting to strangle it by cutting its support. Noting that attempts have been made to quibble about how Palestine refugees should be counted and registered in order to break the resolve of that population, he called upon Member States to demonstrate the political will to provide adequate and sustainable funding for UNRWA, warning that the region’s volatility will only increase if the refugee problem is not addressed.
JASSIM SAYAR AL‑MAAWDA (Qatar), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement and OIC, noted that UNRWA provides support and protection for Palestine refugees in the face of the challenges facing them. The number of Palestine refugees depending on the Agency has exceeded 5 million, he noted, warning that UNRWA’s chronic financing gap threatens its activities and all the vital service it provides. Accordingly, it is critical to ensure sustained funding for the Agency, he said, also calling for increased efficiency within available resources. Qatar has increased its contribution to UNRWA’s budget by $50 million, he reported, noting that the contribution is vital to accelerating the reopening of the Agency’s schools. Qatar has also provided further urgent financial assistance as well as fuel to the population of Gaza.
THANDEKILE TSHABALALA (South Africa) noted that global migration crises have highlighted the plight of refugees, who are among the world’s most vulnerable people. As such, South Africa is concerned about the cuts to UNRWA’s funding, which threatens the lives of many refugees, undermining the progress towards a peace agreement and a resolution of the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict. She urged all Member States to continue honouring their commitments to support the Agency’s good work, which is invaluable in ensuring the basic well‑being of Palestine refugees until they are eventually afforded their rights in a self-determined and viable State.
ABDALLAH AL‑MOUALLIMI (Saudi Arabia) recalled that UNRWA was established by the General Assembly in 1949 as a result of the Nakba, when Israel displaced the Palestinians from their lands. Today, 5.4 million Palestine refugees are displaced and deprived of the most basic means of dignified living, he noted. Their suffering increases daily because of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where the illegal blockade has increased despair and the expansion of settlements has demolished any hope for a two‑State solution. Meanwhile, Israel continues to refuse to pursue peace on the basis of justice, equality and the right of the Palestinian people to establish their own State with Jerusalem as their capital, he said. For its part, Saudi Arabia has provided approximately $1 billion in financial support to UNRWA, he said, pledging that it will continue to seek lasting solutions to its financial challenges. He called upon Member States to fulfil the Agency’s needs and to increase their contributions so that it can implement its programmes, which have seen increased demand due to Israel’s continued aggression. Saudi Arabia is also committed to addressing the root causes of the crisis, including the Israeli occupation, to seek progress towards a two‑State solution. Meanwhile, the right of return is an entitlement that will be achieved through the will of God, he said, describing the international community’s weakness in pursuing that right as a disgrace.
ISAAC BACHMAN (Israel) said that until the Palestinians can provide their people with services comparable to those of UNRWA on their own, the international community should continue to provide the humanitarian support they need. However, it should redirect its support into other international channels, he said, describing UNRWA as a political organization. The Agency uses social services to advance a maximalist political agenda and nurtures the Palestinian demand for “return” to the State of Israel and its pre‑1967 lines, he said. Furthermore, UNRWA refugees enjoy a special status that is automatically passed down to future generations, he noted, saying the phenomenon perpetuates and exacerbates the refugee problem. No other refugee population in the world has a similar dedicated agency, he noted.
Reiterating that the vast majority of UNRWA beneficiaries do not meet the criteria for refugee status under international law, he went on to state that the Agency serves a growing number of beneficiaries and its budgetary needs will grow, adding that its business model is “irredeemably flawed”. Recalling the region’s history, he said that while many Arab countries no longer consider Israel the enemy, Palestinians still do. Under the guise of the right of return, they are refusing, through UNRWA, to accept the Jewish right to self‑determination, he said, adding that the Agency is the lynchpin of the campaign to dismantle the Jewish State of Israel. Palestinian refugees should be supported by UNHCR, he said, describing the decision by the United States to freeze funding for the Agency as a wake‑up call for the international community.
NEVILLE GERTZE (Namibia), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, noted the monumental constraints Palestine refugees are facing due to the largest ever reduction in funding. Emphasizing the international community’s steadfast determination to preserve and withstand the “human‑created onslaught”, he said UNRWA is a stabilizing element in the region, rendering most essential and basic assistance to Palestine communities in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Citing the Agency’s efforts in education, health care and microfinance in the West Bank, he contrasted them with Israel’s blockade of 11 years, saying it continues to exacerbate the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The Agency represents a lifeline, he said, citing the presence of 271,900 students in 275 schools and the existence of 3.8 million primary health‑care consultants. Palestine refugees displaced globally are approximately 25 per cent of refugees around the world, he said, adding that their number will reach 6.4 million by 2020. Deploring the funding cut by the United States of $300 million, he stressed that the plight of Palestinians should not be considered a political bargaining chip. Namibia welcomes the Agency’s tightening of financial controls and budgetary oversight, he said, calling on the Government of Israel to cease illegal settlement activities in the occupied territories. “All parties should return to the negotiation table to ensure Palestinians’ right to self‑determination and independence in an independent State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital,” he emphasized.
Right of Reply
The representative of Israel, speaking in exercise of the right of reply in response to mention of General Assembly resolution 194, he said it has no legal bearing and does not give the Palestinian people the right of return to Israel. Recalling that Arab countries rejected that resolution when it was adopted because it recognized the State of Israel, said the Palestinian people’s ardent refusal to recognize the State of Israel is the root cause of the refugee problem. Recalling also that the Israelis accepted the partition plan, he said the Arabs rejected it and attacked Israel. As a result, the refugee problem was caused by a war they themselves initiated. He went on to state that the policy of allowing Palestinians to pass their refugee status on to future generations is causing the increase in refugee numbers, noting that many have never seen the home they claim to have left as refugees. As long as UNRWA exists under its current mandate, the refugee problem will increase and peace in the region will remain out of reach, he emphasized, adding that the Agency will always be in a budgetary crisis because of structural errors. While UNHCR has resettled millions of refugees since its inception, UNRWA has not, he said, adding that it will continue to feel entitled to cash flow unless the international community stops it. Regarding the blockade, he said Israel’s restrictions on the entry of certain goods into Gaza are necessary to curb Hamas and the immense danger it poses.
The observer for the State of Palestine, also speaking in exercise of the right of reply, pointed out that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized Israel’s right to exist in 1993. Meanwhile, Israel has never accorded that right to the Palestinian people or to the State of Palestine, she noted. Emphasizing that the refugee question has nothing to do with recognition of Israel’s sovereignty, she said Palestinians share the same right to which all refugees around the world are entitled, and are insisting on their rights under international law. Israel is making Palestine refugees the exception by denying their right of return, she stressed, recalling that after the 1949 armistice, Israel refused Palestine refugees the right to return to their homes. She underlined that peace remain elusive because of Israel’s desire to impose a Jewish majority, regardless of international law human rights and the minimum requirements of decency and morality.
For information media. Not an official record.