UNRWA chief vows to fulfil mandate despite US funding cut

The abrupt US decision to stop funding UNRWA was “specifically and exclusively a political decision,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl.
Sunday 24/02/2019
UNRWA  Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl speaks at the UN European headquarters in Geneva. (AP)
Determined. UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl speaks at the UN European headquarters in Geneva. (AP)

BEIRUT - A year ago, the US administration cut funding to the UN refugee agency, UNRWA, depriving an organisation that sees to the needs of approximately 5.4 million Palestinian refugees of a $300 million contribution and jeopardising its existence.

“2018 has been the most challenging year in the history of the agency,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl. “We started the year with a deficit of $446 million but succeeded to overcome the financial shortfalls by mobilising the international community through a global campaign ‘Dignity is Priceless.’”

The gap left by Washington’s cut was compensated by additional funding from other donors, especially Arab Gulf countries and the European Union.

“We hope these funding levels be preserved in 2019 for us to continue with all of our important work in education, health care, social services and emergency response for over 5.4 million refugees throughout the region,” Krahenbuhl said.

“Although we were successful last year, this is by no means a guarantee that every single donor will give the same amount this year. In 2019, we start again from zero; UNRWA’s financial situation remains fragile. That is the only honest way of describing the situation,” he added during a visit to Lebanon.

Some countries have 4-year funding agreements with UNRWA but most donors give annual contributions that are not necessarily the same every year.

The abrupt US decision to stop funding UNRWA was “specifically and exclusively a political decision,” Krahenbuhl said, dismissing allegations of mismanagement of the agency’s funds.

“Only two months earlier, UNRWA had reached a new cooperation agreement with Washington. Then the announcement on (moving the US Embassy) to Jerusalem was made, creating tensions between the US and the Palestinian leadership, followed by the US move to cut all the funding to the Palestinians and for the first time they included humanitarian assistance,” Krahenbuhl said.

“It says very clearly that this decision had nothing to do with UNRWA’s performance. It was exclusively political,” he added.

The US administration cited UNRWA’s “irredeemably flawed operation” as one reason for cutting funding to the agency established 70 years ago to assist Palestinians who fled their homes when Israel was established.

The agency runs schools and clinics and provides socio-economic assistance to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

In January, UNRWA appealed for $1.2 billion to fund its services this year, aiming to maintain the same amount of money the agency received from donors in 2018.

“We did not close a single school or a single health centre last year,” Krahenbuhl said. “We will continue to invest all our energy in seeking to preserve all our services and the quality of these services in 2019, especially for the over 534,000 students in UNRWA schools.”

Fourteen countries, including India, Turkey, China and Gulf nations, increased their funding of the agency last year. The European Union also increased its donation and is, after the US withdrawal, the agency’s largest single donor.

Krahenbuhl stressed that the agency’s mandate is clear about providing assistance and protection to Palestine refugees until a just and lasting solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict has been found.

“Nobody expected that we still be here 70 years on or claims that we should be here for much longer. We are not a self-created organisation but we were tasked by the most diverse and politically representative body of the planet, the UN General Assembly,” he said.

“While we were not mandated politically, we see every single day in the entire region the humanitarian consequences of unresolved political problems. The fact that there is no resolution to the fundamental conflict of Israel-Palestine is creating this prolonged refugee experience for millions of people,” Krahenbuhl added.

The Palestinian refugee question and refugees’ claim to the right of return to their original homes in what is now Israel are among the most difficult challenges to a peace agreement. While many Palestinians would choose to return, thus making Jews a minority in Israel, it is unlikely that Israelis would recognise a Palestinian right of return before a final settlement is agreed.

In the meantime, Krahenbuhl said that “UNRWA is extremely determined to live up to its mandate.” He promised to mobilise the international community once again in support of the agency and its work with Palestine refugees.

“We did mobilise it last year and will do that again,” he said. “That was a way for the world to say that Palestinian refugees matter, their situation is not forgotten and that they are not overlooked and will not be ignored.”