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Independent review panel releases final report on UNRWA
UNRWA
Photo Courtesy: UNRWA

Independent review panel releases final report on UNRWA

| @indiablooms | 23 Apr 2024, 11:57 am

An independent panel released its much-awaited report on Monday about the UN relief agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), providing 50 recommendations and noting that Israeli authorities have yet to provide proof of their claims that UN staff are involved with terrorist organisations.

“Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organisations. However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this,” according to the 54-page final report, Independent review of mechanisms and procedures to ensure adherence by UNRWA to the humanitarian principle of neutrality.

The UN Secretary-General, who received the final report at the weekend, had appointed the independent review group days after Israel announced the allegations against UNRWA, which employees 30,000 people and serves 5.9 million Palestine refugees in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and war-torn Gaza.

The much-awaited final report found that UNRWA, established by the General Assembly in 1949, has extensive tools in place to ensure it remains unbiased in its work and routinely provides Israel with employee lists and “the Israeli Government has not informed UNRWA of any concerns relating to any UNRWA staff based on these staff lists since 2011.”

UNRWA has ‘most elaborate’ rules within UN system

“The set of rules and the mechanisms and procedures in place [at UNRWA] are the most elaborate within the UN system, precisely because it is such a difficult issue to work in such a complex and sensitive environment,” Catherine Colonna, former French foreign minister and head of the review group, told journalists at UN Headquarters following the report’s launch. “What needs to be improved will be improved. I’m confident that implementing these measures will help UNRWA deliver on its mandate.”

Strongly encouraging "the international community to work side by side with the agency so it can perform its mission and overcome the challenges when they are there", she said “this is the purpose of the review.”

In its nine-week-long review of existing mechanisms, the group conducted more than 200 interviews, met with Israeli and Palestinian authorities and directly contacted 47 countries and organisations, presenting a set of 50 recommendations on issues ranging from education to fresh vetting processes for recruiting staff.

Report steers new UN action plan

The report’s recommendations include creating a centralised “neutrality investigations unit”, rolling out an updated Code of Ethics and associated training to all staff, and identifying and implementing additional ways to screen UNRWA applicants at an early stage of the recruitment process.

The report also suggested exploring the possibility of third-party monitoring for sensitive projects and establishing a framework with interested donors to ensure transparency.

In a statement on Monday, the UN Secretary-General’s Spokesperson said the UN chief accepts the recommendations contained in Ms. Colonna’s report. He has agreed with Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini that UNRWA, with the Secretary-General’s support, will establish an action plan to implement the recommendations contained in the final report.”

Claims financially hobbled UNRWA

According to the review group’s final report, Israel’s claims against UNRWA triggered the suspension of funding amounting to around $450 million.

The direct impact of Israel’s allegations swiftly hobbled UNRWA’s ability to continue its work. Operating solely on voluntary donations, UNRWA saw major donors, including the United States, cancelling or suspending funds for the agency.

In April, Washington banned funding for UNRWA until at least 2025, but other donors have pledged additional funding or restored their donations.

The new report recommended increasing the frequency and strengthening the transparency of UNRWA’s communication with donors on its financial situation and on neutrality allegations and breaches. The review group suggested regular updates and “integrity briefings” for donors interested in supporting UNRWA on integrity and related issues.

Findings on UNRWA schools

The UN agency delivers on its obligation to ensure neutrality of its 1,000 installations, including schools, healthcare centres and warehouses, according to the report, which also stated that “security and capacity challenges may hamper” existing due diligence mechanisms.

The review group said UNRWA “has consistently worked on ensuring neutrality in education” as it provides elementary and preparatory education for 500,000 pupils in 706 schools with 20,000 educational staff, including in Gaza, where right now all children are out of school following attacks destroying the enclave’s education system amid the ongoing conflict.

Claims of anti-Semitic textbooks

Investigating “sustained criticism, mainly from Israel”, about the alleged presence of hate speech, incitement to violence and anti-Semitism in Palestinian Authority educational material, the review group examined three major international assessments and studies.

The new report showed that two identified bias and non-compliant content, but did not provide evidence of anti-Semitic reference. A third, the Eckert report, identified two examples that displayed anti-Semitic content, but noted that one had already been removed and the other significantly altered.

As such, the report recommended several actions, including the review of the content of all textbooks with host countries, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA remains a pivotal ‘lifeline’ for Palestine

The report stated that “in the absence of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, UNRWA remains pivotal in providing lifesaving humanitarian aid and essential social services, particularly in health and education, to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank” and is “irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians’ human and economic development”.

“In addition, many view UNRWA as a humanitarian lifeline,” according to the report.

The UN chief on Monday said he counted on the cooperation of the donor community, the host countries and the staff to fully cooperate in the implementation of the new report’s final recommendations, the UN Spokesperson said.

“Moving forward, the Secretary-General appeals to all stakeholders to actively support UNRWA, as it is a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region,” he said.

Other top UN officials have voiced strong support for the agency, calling on donors to reverse funding cuts and allow UNRWA to perform its work, especially in Gaza.

In late March, Israel announced it would reject UNRWA’s requests to deliver aid into northern Gaza, where a famine is unfolding as Israeli authorities continue to block or severely delay lifesaving aid shipments, according to UN officials, who launched an appeal last week for emergency funding.

Lazzarini: Report will further strengthen UNRWA

UNRWA chief Lazzarini welcomed the report’s findings and recommendations.

“UNRWA is developing an action plan, with a timeline and budget to take forward the report’s recommendations,” he said in a statement on Monday.

He said implementing some of the recommendations will require extensive engagement with staff and partners, including Member States, host nations and donor countries, adding that the UN agency looks forward to cooperating with all concerned stakeholders to implement the recommendations.

“UNRWA is firmly dedicated to applying UN values and humanitarian principles,” he said. “The recommendations in this report will further strengthen our efforts and response during one of the most difficult moments in the history of the Palestinian people.”

First of two investigations

Following Israel’s allegations against UNRWA in late January, the UN agency immediately fired the staff members in question and requested a swift, impartial investigation. The UN chief ordered two.

Days later, the Secretary-General appointed an independent review team, led by Ms. Colonna and researched by Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights, to investigate the UNRWA’s process of ensuring neutrality in its work.

At the same time, the UN chief ordered the UN’s top watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS), to investigate the veracity of Israel’s claims against the 12 UNRWA staff members.

At the outset, OIOS investigators reached out to Member States concerned, visited UNRWA headquarters in Jordan and reviewed initial information received by the agency from Israeli authorities and from a variety of sources, including that released through the media and other public outlets.

That investigation is ongoing.

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