The Trump administration’s decision to cut funds to the organization has sparked its largest-ever financial crisis.
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Who is affected?
NEVILLE MELVIN GERTZE (Namibia) said his country recognized the significant steps taken by the Commissioner-General and United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to strengthen financial control and budgetary regulation. However, the Agency’s programme budget still had a $126.5 million shortfall amounting to two months of operational costs. Over the past two years, funding had not kept pace with the number of refugees, he noted, stressing that Palestine refugees were expected to number 6.4 million by 2020. Today, 5.3 million Palestinians comprised one quarter of refugees around the world, he said, calling upon Israel to cease all settlement construction in the occupied territories and to stop destroying Palestinian homes and infrastructure.
MOUNZER MOUNZER (Syria), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, said more than 5 million Palestine refugees had been forcibly displaced from their homeland by the racist, settler Israeli occupation, in violation of their most basic rights. In spite of the targeting of its workers and facilities, however, UNRWA continued to play an important role, adding that the countries hosting it were also donors assisting the Agency and thereby enduring unique pressures. As such, Syria provided assistance to the refugees, treating them like Syrians without any distinction, he said, recalling that the Commissioner-General had been informed of that during his visit to Damascus. No effort would be spared to protect Palestine refugees on Syrian territory, despite the attacks committed by armed terrorist groups against them and against Syrians, he emphasized.
He went on to recall that the Yarmouk refugee camp, invaded by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and others, had been besieged, with its inhabitants used as human shields and denied humanitarian aid. On 26 August, terrorists had prevented secondary school students from travelling to Damascus to write exams, he said, adding that they had continued to prevent all students from attending school since September. UNRWA had repeatedly stated its inability to provide Yarmouk with assistance due to the actions of armed terrorists, he said, stressing that those committing them were the same groups targeting Palestinians with a view to eliminating their right to return to their homeland. He underlined the importance of donors providing assistance to UNRWA in a predictable manner, rejecting the option of cancelling services to Palestine refugees, which would constitute a violation of international law.
AHMED ELSHANDAWILY (Egypt) stressed the importance of UNRWA’s education services for Palestine refugees, emphasizing that it was free from radical ideologies seeking to poison young minds. He also pointed to the Agency’s continuing financial crisis, saying it warranted the international community’s full attention, as funding challenges continued to impede its ability to discharge its mandate and responsibilities towards refugees. That obstacle had been exacerbated by severe conditions in the Middle East. As hosting States struggled with burdens exceeding the Agency’s budget several times over, it was impossible to expect them to incur additional responsibilities, he said.
HUMBERTO RIVERO ROSARIO (Cuba), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, noted that UNRWA had been able to provide human development services and humanitarian relief with speed and efficiency despite the operational shortfall. However, Cuba was concerned about the Agency’s critical financial situation, he said, emphasizing that it must be able to maintain its financial allocation. UNRWA must be funded from the regular United Nations budget, he said, rejecting the actions of certain States that did not support the funding allocation and had threatened to withdraw their support for purely political reasons. The Agency’s basic needs programmes must be protected until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved, he stressed, saying Cuba would continue to support a comprehensive settlement on the basis of a two‑State solution.
TAREQ MD ARIFUL ISLAM (Bangladesh), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, emphasized the importance of strengthening the Agency’s capacity to fulfil its humanitarian and human development mandates. Expressing concern about the safety of UNRWA’s staff, he noted that 30 personnel had been killed and 26 were missing. There could be no justification for the killing and abduction of United Nations staff, or for the wanton destruction of emergency shelters, homes, schools and civilian infrastructure, he stressed. Noting that the shortfall in UNRWA’s regular programme budget had risen to $126 million, he said the dire situation had forced the Agency to take a loan for the first time in its history. Recalling the influx of hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh, he reaffirmed his country’s solidarity with Palestine refugees around the world.
OLIVIER MARC ZEHNDER (Switzerland) expressed concern about the Palestine refugees who continued to face a protection crisis. UNRWA provided 5.3 million Palestine refugees with services and protection, but the Agency continued to face a significant funding shortfall. Thus, he called for the swift implementation of the Secretary-General’s recommendations to ensure a stable funding base for the duration of its mandate. For its part, Switzerland would help to fund the Agency’s resource mobilization strategy and programme budget. Switzerland would also undertake a multiyear contribution to ensure the Agency would have greater flexibility to carry out its mandate.
SHAHIR ALKHANINY (Saudi Arabia) said his country was one of UNRWA’s main donors, having provided more than $51 million in 2017 towards a number of projects in health, education and other sectors. It had also pledged $37 million towards projects planned for 2018 and had been an active member of the Agency’s Advisory Commission since 2005. However, UNRWA was still facing a financial shortfall, he said, noting that it faced an even graver situation than that of 2016. In that regard, Saudi Arabia welcomed the recommendations emanating from the Advisory Commission’s consultations, he said, adding that he looked forward to the adoption of a General Assembly resolution on predictable and sustained financing for UNRWA from the regular United Nations budget. There had been wide support for that text, exemplifying the commitment of Member States to relieving the plight of Palestine refugees, he said. Saudi Arabia renewed its call for the international community to provide UNRWA with support, and for donors to redouble their efforts so the Agency could finance its programmes and the influx of Palestine refugees, he said. Moreover, the root causes of the crisis must be addressed and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and all other occupied Arab territories ended.
HASSAN ABBAS (Lebanon) said UNRWA had played a stabilizing role for more than 5.3 million Palestine refugees by providing education and health-care services. Nevertheless, the Agency’s role had been jeopardized in recent years by its recurring financial deficit, coupled with the growing Palestine refugee population. The situation had been exacerbated by Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, which had negatively impacted the quality of UNRWA’s services to hundreds of thousands of Palestine refugees, he noted.
He went on to note that Lebanon was the host to more than 400,000 Palestine refugees, many of whom faced economic, social, environmental and security challenges. Despite its limited capabilities, the country had taken measures to alleviate some of those challenges, he said, recalling that in June 2005, the Ministry of Labour had granted Palestine refugees access to some 70 professions previously reserved for Lebanese nationals. Furthermore, Parliament had adopted a law granting additional rights to Palestinian workers in the country, he added.
SONALI SAMARASINGHE (Sri Lanka), associating herself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, emphasized that UNRWA’s maintenance of schools and education infrastructure in the occupied territories was crucial in ensuring that children and youth turned away from violence and in inspiring them to hope for the future. Half a million students were enrolled in the Agency’s 702 schools, which had achieved full gender balance as well as one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East. The ongoing violence in Syria had created large-scale movements of people, further complicating the Agency’s work, she said, adding that it had placed an added burden on UNRWA’s depleted finances. As such, the principle of non‑refoulement must be honoured in relation to Palestine refugees fleeing the conflict, she said, emphasizing that, in accordance with international law, there must be no discrimination against them. Sri Lanka was deeply concerned about UNRWA’s precarious financial situation, she said, cautioning that the Agency, if underfunded or without reserves, would be overtaken by a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions that would threaten its good works and services. The lack of funding and consequent drawing down or hindrance of UNRWA’s work would pose a serious threat to international peace and security in an area of volatility and conflict, she warned.
KAZUFUMI AOKI (Japan) stressed that the financial crisis affecting Palestine refugees must not be forgotten, although conflicts and humanitarian needs in the Middle East had grown. Japan was a staunch supporter of UNRWA’s efforts and recognized the difficulties of its unpredictable funding. However, he urged the Agency to operate within the boundaries of voluntary contributions by United Nations donors, emphasizing that UNRWA must continue its outreach work to potential donors, including private ones like the Palestinian diaspora, for example.
DAVID YARDLEY (Australia) said his country supported continued efforts to pursue alternative funding and broaden UNRWA’s donor base. Noting that the draft resolution on a potential future funding model had been withdrawn in July, he said he did not believe that seeking assessed contributions from the regular United Nations budget was a sustainable funding option for the Agency. Emphasizing the critical importance of neutrality to UNRWA’s operations, he said the discovery of tunnels under its schools illustrated the need for continued vigilance on the Agency’s part. Australia was committed to a lasting political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two‑State solution within internationally recognized borders, he reiterated.
BENJAMIN KRASNA (Israel) said UNRWA often chose to promote a controversial political agenda instead of focusing on relief and humanitarian assistance. That was the case with its proactive campaigns in support of the so‑called right of return for millions of Palestinians. Noting that the refugee question had not yet been agreed, he emphasized that it could only be resolved as part of a bilateral negotiation between the parties. It was unacceptable for a United Nations agency to actively support the agenda of one side of a conflict, he emphasized, noting that UNRWA had again failed to uphold the standard of balanced reporting and neutrality during the current reporting period. Israel demanded impartial, frequent and thorough reporting of realities on the ground, he stressed.
He went on to point out that although Hamas played a destructive role in Gaza, it was barely mentioned in the Agency’s report. He recalled the recent discovery of a tunnel beneath an UNRWA school, warning that such activities placed the school, Agency workers as well as children in great danger. He asked UNRWA what steps were being taken proactively to ensure that tunnels were not dug under other Agency facilities in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere. Also, UNRWA’s employment of active Hamas members must be condemned, he said, adding that the group continued to arm itself and to call for Israel’s destruction.
While Hamas was doing everything to hinder reconstruction, Israel was working with UNRWA and the international community to support rebuilding efforts in Gaza, he said. Too often, humanitarian shipments had been used in the smuggling of illicit materials for Hamas and other terror groups. Despite such challenges, however, Israel had been facilitating the enclave’s reconstruction, including through the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, thereby enabling the shipment of more than 8 million tons of building materials, he said, voicing dismay that the latest report scarcely mentioned the extensive cooperation between UNRWA and the Government of Israel.
ALI NASEER MOHAMED (Maldives) said UNRWA had become indispensable in protecting the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people by providing them with humanitarian assistance. Because financing uncertainty challenged the Agency’s ability to deliver to people in need, it was crucial to ensure predictable, sustainable and sufficient funding. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, the occupying Power had hindered the Agency’s efforts to deliver emergency humanitarian aid, he noted, raising concern about the increase in forced displacement in the West Bank. Israel should end its unlawful settlement activities and the illegal occupation, he said.
TORE HATTREM (Norway), urging Israelis and Palestinians to resume credible negotiations towards peace, affirmed that protecting the rights of Palestine refugees was crucial to that effort. Commending UNRWA’s work in that regard, he also recognized the key support role played by host countries. He expressed concern, however, over the Agency’s financial situation and hope that the Secretary-General’s follow-up report would help remediate the problem. Endorsing the recommendation to increase assessed contributions, he called for exploring ways to provide more support from the regular United Nations budget for costs beyond international staffing. Acknowledging UNRWA’s need to constantly adapt to the region’s changing reality, he welcomed the priority of supporting the most vulnerable refugees. He also recognized efforts to expand the donor base, reaffirming Norway’s commitment to support UNRWA in delivering core services in all five fields of operations.
WOUTER HOFMEYR ZAAYMAN (South Africa), paying tribute to UNRWA, said the continued poverty and suppression of Palestine refugees with no end in sight made its work even more urgent. There was an obligation for Member States to ensure that the humanitarian needs of Palestine refugees were met. Affirming the need for a just political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he called for an end to Israel’s settlement activity — saying it obstructed the peace process — the lifting of the Gaza blockade, and the bridging of UNRWA’s financial gap. South Africa would continue to support the Agency, in addition to supporting Palestinians through other mechanisms, he confirmed, while endorsing the Secretary-General’s recommendations to ensure sufficient, sustainable and predictable funding. South Africa would also work through the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) to ensure a larger allocation from the regular United Nations budget, and seek additional funding through financial institutions, he pledged.
DOUGLAS NICOMEDES ARCIA VIVAS (Venezuela), said it was vital that UNRWA received the support it needed to deal with the deteriorating situation of Palestine refugees. The Israeli occupation had exacerbated their living conditions, thereby increasing their need for basic services provided by the Agency. The occupying Power had also prevented development on Palestinian land, further condemning the Palestinian population to poverty and reliance on outside support, he noted. Those humanitarian problems were inevitably linked to the outstanding need for a political solution, he said, emphasizing that without a just and lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, everything else, including UNRWA’s efforts, was just a palliative. Venezuela rejected the construction of Israeli settlements, including in East Jerusalem, which only contributed to growing refugee numbers, he said, adding that the blockade constituted a clear violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. Despite the situation, UNRWA had adopted financial reforms and continued to provide efficient service, he said, expressing indignation over its continuing budget problems. How could the occupying Power ask the Agency for neutrality when its own actions were in violation of international law? He called upon the international community to support, without conditions, the draft resolution on guaranteeing a budget for the functioning of UNRWA.
AHMED N. AL-SAHHAF (Iraq), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, expressed his delegation’s strong support for predictable UNRWA funding. At a time of unprecedented violence and suffering in the region, Iraq commended the Commissioner-General’s tireless efforts to focus on developing the local economy and the means for Palestine refugees to enjoy a dignified life through partnership with other organizations. As for the Agency’s ongoing financial crisis, he said it would threaten UNRWA’s ability to provide services to refugees, thus increasing the level of insecurity experienced by an already fragile population. Member States must take the necessary measures to bring stability to UNRWA through voluntary financing, expansion of the donor base, and allocations from the regular United Nations budget, he said. In closing, he emphasized the importance of a just and lasting political solution to the question of Palestine, saying his country was ready to participate constructively in efforts to support the Agency and the vulnerable population it served.
MAURO VIEIRA (Brazil) said that, as a member of UNRWA’s Advisory Committee, his country fully supported its activities. Besides providing basic services, the Agency generated employment and offered microfinance to refugee communities, thereby fostering local economic development and promoting stability in a volatile region. Regarding the Agency’s budgetary crisis, he reiterated Brazil’s proposal to have UNRWA’s budget absorbed by the regular United Nations budget, emphasizing the need for frequent, predictable and non‑earmarked financing for the Agency. To that end, Brazil had increased its voluntary financial contributions and regular food assistance to UNRWA, he said, emphasizing that, without progress towards a just and lasting resolution of the question of Palestine, the crisis would continue.
NUR ASHIKIN MOHD TAIB (Malaysia) said the flagrant violations committed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza had made it challenging for UNRWA to fulfil its duties. Moreover, the restrictions imposed by Israel were inconsistent with the United Nations Charter and the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations and relevant resolutions, she said, calling for the removal of restrictions placed on the movement of UNRWA staff and goods. Malaysia hoped the Secretary-General would ensure that the Agency enjoyed predictable and sustained funding, he said, adding that, for its own part, his country had just disbursed a contribution of $120,000 to the Agency.
Mr. AL SABAH (Kuwait), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, recognized UNRWA’s support for more than 5.3 million Palestine refugees while noting the primary responsibility of Israel, the occupying Power, for that situation. Kuwait had always supported the Agency’s activities and had made contributions in excess of $162 million, he noted, recalling that during the 2016 Pledging Conference, his country had pledged $5 million, in addition to making an emergency contribution of $15 million to enable 500,000 Palestinian students to continue their studies. Moreover, Kuwait had dedicated $50 million to support Palestine refugees in Syria through pledging conferences held inside the country over the years. The country had also provided $34 million to support Palestinians in Gaza after the occupying Power had destroyed schools in the enclave. Emphasizing the right of Palestine refugees to return, and their right to regain their dignity, he expressed his delegation’s solidarity with the Palestinian people.
YIĞIT CANAY (Turkey) recalled that 2017 had been an important year in terms of mobilizing diplomatic and political support for UNRWA. The broad consultation process, mandated by the General Assembly and carried out by Switzerland and Turkey, had animated discussions on ensuring predictable, sufficient and sustainable financing for the Agency. If implemented by each relevant stakeholder, the recommendations could ensure the continuity of UNRWA’s services and end its recurrent and severe financial shortfalls, which continued to affect its programmes. However, “the decades-old despair, uncertainty and anxiety in the Palestine refugee community are not easy to overcome,” he cautioned. As such, Palestinian reconciliation was an important element of a lasting peace, he said, calling upon the international community to respond to that step.
He went on to state that the Palestinian people deserved a strong confirmation of the two‑State vision as well as genuine efforts to end the protracted humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In terms of stabilizing UNRWA’s financial situation, he acknowledged the establishment of new funding mechanisms with international financial institutions including the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank. Turkey, for its part, in addition to its increased support for the Agency, had dedicated $100,000 solely towards efforts to materialize those new streams. While other members of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had also taken steps in accordance with commitments made in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in July, support from the broader membership would be vital to realizing concrete results on that track, he said.
IDRISS BOUASSILA (Algeria), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, said UNRWA’s role in helping to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people made it incumbent upon the international community to fulfil its responsibility to provide a solution to the Agency’s critical funding issues, especially in the face of the deteriorating circumstances of the Palestine refugee population. Denouncing Israel’s restrictions on the movement of UNRWA staff, especially in East Jerusalem, he said they compounded the difficulties for Palestine refugees. A lasting solution to the situation must be a political one, he said, emphasizing that the international community must help to find a solution to the protracted humanitarian crisis.
MARIO A. ZAMBRANO ORTIZ (Ecuador), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, said that, on the eve of the anniversary of the United Nations mandate for Palestine, it was important to consider the Organization’s role in conflicts like the one in that territory. In a complex situation, Ecuador recognized the importance of the services provided by UNRWA, he said, appealing to States that were financially able to increase their voluntary contributions to do so.
MOHAMED KHALED KHIARI (Tunisia), associating himself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, expressed concern over the recurring funding shortfalls which undermined UNRWA’s efforts to promote human development and meet the basic needs of Palestine refugees. Tunisia welcomed collective efforts, as well as the Secretary-General’s call to explore all potential means to ensure sufficient, predictable and sustained funding for the Agency, he said, also commending efforts by the OIC, World Bank, Islamic Development Bank and other stakeholders. He reiterated his delegation’s call for the international community to urge Israel to take the necessary steps to build confidence with the Palestinians through, among other actions, the immediate and complete cessation of all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, in accordance with international law and relevant resolutions.
ANDREY A. LISTOV (Russian Federation) said his country had contributed $10 million to UNRWA’s budget for the period 2016‑2021, which would help to provide predictable financing in accordance with the Secretary-General’s call upon Member States. The Russian Federation supported increasing the predictability of the Agency’s financing and, as such, had been prepared to consider assistance for UNRWA through the regular United Nations budget. The Russian Federation was also providing direct humanitarian assistance to Palestine refugees, as well as grants for higher education, he said. The conflict in Syria had led Palestine refugees to suffer “double deprivation” and it was difficult to imagine the fate of the Yarmouk camp residents without the Agency’s assistance. In Lebanon, the refugee camps were often controlled by armed groups, a situation exacerbated by the fact that refugees in that country had been joined by refugees from Syria. Rebuilding vital infrastructure in the Syrian territory liberated from terrorists would be important in that regard, he said.
MAISOON AL-DAH (United Arab Emirates), endorsing the statement by the Non‑Aligned Movement, said she was greatly concerned about the deteriorating conditions of Palestine refugees, as outlined in the Secretary-General’s report. Israel’s continuing occupation, restriction of movement and demolition of Palestinian properties only increased UNRWA’s burden, she said, adding that its financial crisis would prevent it from providing basic services to 5 million refugees in the region. In order to solve the financial gap, it would be necessary to implement the recommendations contained in the Secretary-General’s report, she said, emphasizing that, as one of the Agency’s main donors, her country was committed to continue its efforts to bridge UNWRA’s funding gap, which had grown after the United States had reduced its contribution.
CHENG LIE (China) said the crisis in Syria and other areas continued to spill over, exacerbating the humanitarian situation in Palestine. Calling on all parties to alleviate pressures on host countries, he urged lifting of the continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip. UNRWA had made vital contributions to the Palestine refugee population, and had advanced regional peace and stability by preventing the spread of terrorist ideology, he noted. China had been making contributions to the Agency for more than 30 years, and would continue to support it, he emphasized. However, only by realizing peace between Israel and Palestine could a lasting solution be found.
INA HAGNININGTYAS KRISNAMURTHI (Indonesia), associating herself with the Non‑Aligned Movement, said that, given the sad and desperate situation of the Palestine refugees, the critical lack of funding for UNRWA was of great concern. Reiterating her delegation’s position that the United Nations must ensure predictable funding for the Agency, she deplored the failure to approve the proposals on UNRWA funding. Indonesia supported progress on the establishment of a waqf under the management of the Islamic Development Bank, as well as a trust fund under the World Bank, she said, expressing appreciation for traditional and non-traditional donors as well as regional partners who supported UNRWA.
BERNARDITO CLEOPAS AUZA, Permanent Observer for the Holy See, said his delegation was alarmed about the situation in Syria and the tremendous toll on both Palestine refugees and UNRWA staff. The Holy See was also gravely concerned about the significant impact of that crisis on neighbouring countries. Noting that UNRWA’s funding had not kept pace with the increased needs of Palestinian refugees, he declared: “Ultimately our goal is to render UNRWA irrelevant and useless, but the only way to do this is to deprive it of its reason for continued operations through the full implementation of United Nations General Assembly resolution 181 in 1947.” Expressing grave concern over recent gradual attempts to move away from a two‑State solution, he said inflammatory rhetoric and the straying from the Madrid and Oslo Accords had increased the Palestinian people’s desperation. Resolving the Palestinian question would have a beneficial cascading effect on other crises in the region, thus allowing UNRWA to enjoy a well-deserved retirement, he said, noting, however, that until that time, its work would remain invaluable to the Palestine refugee population. The Holy See was convinced that a two‑State solution was the only option that would allow Israel and Palestine to coexist peacefully.