As UNRWA sexual misconduct allegations unfold, the international community decides to punish ordinary Palestinians

As UNRWA sexual misconduct allegations unfold, the international community decides to punish ordinary Palestinians

6 min read
07 Aug, 2019
Comment: Without waiting for outcome of investigations into alleged misconduct at Palestine's refugee agency, the international community moved to cut its funding, risking further marginalisation of Palestinians, writes Ramona Wadi
Allegations of misconduct at UNRWA are being trumped up to justify cutting its funding [Getty]
Since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, UNRWA has made headlines on several occasions as Washington moved to cut its funding and undermine its work, but recent allegations of sexual misconduct and alleged misuse of the agency’s funds by the organisation’s top personnel could be just as damaging as the US assault on the organization.

UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. In truth, other UN-affiliated organisations have been accused of similar aberrations, but the international community's response to these has been more subdued. 

In January 2019, for example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was under investigation following allegations of corruption and racism.

Staff from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the World Food Programme (WPF) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have also been investigated for rape, sexual misconduct and exploitation in recent times.
Yet when it comes to the same kind of violations allegedly perpetrated by the top echelons at UNRWA, the international community has decided to mount a completely different kind of response with unmatched furore.

Without waiting for the outcome of any investigation, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium immediately suspended funding to the organisation, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees rely on UNRWA for employment and education.

Going further, the US administration, which has persistently lobbied for dismantling UNRWA to eliminate the Palestinian refugee question on behalf of Israel, engaged in outright revisionism, altering its own original hyperbole about the reason for withdrawing funding from the organisation to claim.

According to former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, these allegations are "exactly why we stopped their funding".

US Special Representative Jason Greenblatt also took to Twitter to express feigned concern over the allegations.

"Palestinians residing in refugee camps deserve much better," he claimed, weeks after the conclusion of the US "peace to prosperity" summit in Bahrain, which sought to lay down the groundwork for holding Palestinians perpetually hostage to humanitarian endeavours.
The UN and its agencies, as representatives of the international community, have often played a duplicitous role that replicates the corrupt dynamics inherent to world politics, business and power
International hypocrisy

These UNRWA allegations have exposed the international community's true dynamics when it comes to UNRWA and Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA donors have often exalted the agency and the larger entity it belongs to, the UN. Yet the UN and its agencies, as representatives of the international community, have often played a duplicitous role that replicates the corrupt dynamics inherent to world politics, business and power.

In other words, the international community has always been aware of flawed organisation and corruption in international organisations, but this was largely ignored. That is, until it became expedient to use misconduct allegations as a premise to drag Palestinian rights into a new cycle of exploitation.

UNRWA's particular mandate – to provide humanitarian aid for Palestinian refugees and their descendants – has been routinely portrayed as apolitical. Yet the organisation's structure mirrors that of political entities.

Indeed, it employs politics when it comes to hierarchy and funding, but when it comes to Palestinian rights, these are treated as a purely humanitarian endeavour, in line with what the UN envisaged throughout the decades since Israel established its colonial presence in Palestine.

Moreover, the UN's failure to enforce the Palestinian right of return as per its own resolutions has facilitated the international exploitation of Palestinians, including by its own organisations such as UNRWA.

Today, the Palestinian right of return is rarely brought up as an international concern. Rather, the international community and the UN have prioritised is safeguarding the bureaucracy that creates careers built upon the deprivation of rights.

Hence we have a situation where Palestinians speak of returning, while the UN and UNRWA speak of funding structures that are complicit in preventing Palestinian autonomy.
UNRWA provides necessary basic services which Palestinian refugees would otherwise be deprived of
Cutting off UNRWA punishes Palestinians

Nevertheless, UNRWA provides necessary basic services which Palestinian refugees would otherwise be deprived of.

Withholding funding from the organisation does not put UN bureaucrats in any economic peril. It will mean a capitulation to US and Israeli demands that Palestinian refugees are stripped of their identity and left with even less access to services than they have now.

Instead of punishing Palestinians this way, this recent spotlight on UN agencies must be used to highlight the widespread complicity in ensuring that Palestinians are burdened with the ramifications of power abuse by officials who have given measures of humanitarian aid that do not promote a unified, collective voice for Palestinian refugees.

While there may be slight divergences, Palestinian refugees have, through no will of their own, been forced to remain on the sidelines of organisations and resolutions purporting to protect their rights. In reality, decades of pretence at an international level have resulted in gross abuse of power which is now being exploited by the US and Israel to accelerate their plans to reinvent their definition of who qualifies as a Palestinian refugee.

Unfortunately, the current debate on UNRWA is not serving the purpose to highlight what is at stake. The media focus is repeating the same mistakes which the UN has made ever since it enabled Israel's colonisation of Palestine. It is encouraging the perception of Palestinians as a voiceless appendage to the news, thus further divesting them of their rights.

As a result, the debate on whether or not to fund UNRWA is discussed as an organisational dilemma, which is what Israel and the US are relishing. Less focus on Palestinians – that is, to picture UNRWA in a corrupt vacuum rather than another international hierarchy tarnished by corruption – will consolidate the US-Israeli propaganda aimed at dismantling UNRWA.

Without funding, the organisation’s collapse may be seen as imminent. It is imperative, however, to look beyond and shift focus on the Palestinian refugees. With or without UNRWA, Palestinian refugees have been used by the international community. They have been degraded in an inhumane experiment that pretends to uphold their rights while divesting them of political action.
Depoliticising UNRWA and the current investigations will not help Palestinians
UNRWA and its deficiencies are an international responsibility which must be addressed with one sole aim – that of ensuring Palestinians receive rights beyond basic necessities in order to make the transition from humanitarian recipients to political actors.

Depoliticising UNRWA and the current investigations will not help Palestinians. On the contrary, the politics that present a neutral façade must be called out. Likewise, funding UNRWA must become both a political statement and an obligation.

The US and Israel have been able to campaign for UNRWA’s demise and influence decision-making as regards withholding funding due to an absence of international political commitment towards Palestinian refugees.

By all means, individual and organisational accountability must be established while reflecting on the fact that the allegations point towards rampant and complicit abuse within human rights echelons.

Still, UNRWA must not be painted as the victim. Unlike the Palestinian refugees, UNRWA has a platform from which it can influence public opinion to maintain its structure.

Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, have remained incarcerated by a flawed international system that prioritised colonialism over their political rights. If, in its haste to defund UNRWA, the international community loses sight of this fact, as it probably already has, it is important to state that the manipulation of human rights mandates go far beyond visible or alleged misconduct. 

Fixing the problem with UNRWA starts there.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.