International Conference on UNRWA: UNRWA and Humanitarian Principles, Deputy Commissioner-General Speech

16 November 2021
Leni Stenseth, Deputy Commissioner-General

Your Excellencies,

It is my pleasure to be here with you today, and allow me as well to thank the hosts, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Sweden for bringing us here together today.

Today, we have a dual, urgent purpose with this conference.

It is an incredibly important opportunity for us to present our plan for a transformed UNRWA and to solve our dire funding situation.

And it is also a platform to reiterate UNRWA’s commitment to our shared UN values, and to humanitarian principles in particular.

For us, it is critical that our partners share a clear and accurate understanding of how we apply these principles in our operations - in practice - in a very challenging environment.

As you know, since its founding General Assembly resolution, UNRWA has been given a human development and humanitarian mandate.

Accordingly, UNRWA has adopted and upholds the four humanitarian principles – humanity, impartiality, independence, and neutrality, as endorsed by the General Assembly – in all of our operations. 

For UNRWA, as for all United Nations agencies with a humanitarian mandate, these principles are not theoretical. They are core to the identity and the responsibilities of every single UNRWA staff.

And it is a fact that without strict adherence to these principles delivery of services would not be possible. 


You Excellencies,

UNRWA’s approach is anchored first and foremost on the principle of humanity, and the respect for the life and dignity of every person.

In our vision for the future, this translates into an increased focus on leaving no one behind, in line with the UN Charter, in line with the SDGs.

The principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence are for UNRWA instrumental to respecting our commitment to humanity and to the fulfillment of our mandate.

And our approaches to these principles are explicitly linked to existing provisions of the UN Charter.

Allow me to expand on the principle of neutrality.

Our commitment to neutrality is unwavering. Our efforts are continuous and they will be intensified.

And they include the review of the educational curricula checked against human rights values and norms, including relevant international standards, such as UNESCO’s, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in line with article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Let me repeat this fact:

We conduct a review of every single word and sentence in every textbook provided by host countries in our 715 schools, across all subjects;

And wherever language is not consistent with those principles, UNRWA provides specific instructions to our teachers on how to address the problematic material.

We are the only UN Agency with a team of dedicated staff to ensure the Agency upholds humanitarian principles, including neutrality, at all times.

We have invested immense efforts in training personnel to promote their understanding of neutrality and the vital role it plays in their daily work and of their obligations in this regard.

To ensure that all the guidance material that teachers produce to support distance learning during the pandemic, we launched a centralized digital learning platform where every guidance material undergoes a 3-tier review to ensure full compliance with UN values and principles.

We vet all our staff, beneficiaries, suppliers and partners to ensure that no payment goes to, or is received from, someone on the Consolidated UN Sanctions list.

When it comes to our installations, since 2002, and despite funding shortages, we have managed a strong system of inspections through which any signs of politicization or incitement are monitored. In line with our humanity-first approach.

And as we witnessed most recently in May, these installations often provide a vital safe haven to refugees in times of conflict.

They embody humanitarian space and must continue to do so.

As a result, and despite the very challenging context that which UNRWA staff operate within, there are extraordinarily few verified breaches of neutrality.

Where there are breaches, UNRWA has a robust system of response, investigation and follow-up. If an investigation confirms the allegations, staff members are disciplined in line with UN rules and regulations.

And while doing so, we respect the rights of all the persons directly or indirectly targeted by these measures and procedures

Due process too is a UN value, a reflection of humanity.



I would like to conclude with three simple points:

First, UNRWA approaches its mandate as an expression of the international community’s shared values, disregarding specific political agendas. 

Two, we always welcome constructive engagement and scrutiny of how we carry out our General Assembly mandate and how we implement these principles in practice.

This scrutiny needs to be based on facts, and free of ulterior motives.

Three, our efforts and our plans for the future require resources.


Your Excellencies,

UNRWA works in a very difficult environment, on the grounds of a conflict that has not been resolved for more than seven decades now.

Upholding humanitarian principles has provided the Agency with essential space to work, a space in which UNRWA has provided food, medicine and education to Palestine refugees.  

UNRWA will continue to protect this space. We know we can always improve, and we are always open to dialogue and guidance on how to manage this complex environment

But we cannot do this alone.

We need your funding, and we need your voice, to protect UNRWA’s integrity and its humanitarian mandate.

I would encourage you to be proud and defend your investment in the Agency which provides a lifeline to millions of Palestine refugees across the region.  And if you have a doubt come to visit our schools, meet our students and witness first hand how the mandate you have given to UNRWA contributes to prepare the future responsible citizens of the region.


Thank you.