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Opening Statement by UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini to the Advisory Commission on UNRWA, June 2022
Excellencies, distinguished members of the Advisory Commission, Donors, partners and hosts
I would like to welcome you to the first meeting of the Advisory Commission this year and thank you for being here to help shape the Agency’s strategic thinking and approach.
Let me start by thanking:
- Dr Bassel el Hassan of Lebanon for assuming the leadership as Chair of the Advisory Commission.
- Ms. Diane Corner, Consul-General of the United Kingdom in Jerusalem, for your role as Vice-Chair of the Advisory Commission.
- Mr. Gerhard Krause, Head of Cooperation of the Representative Office of the European Union in Jerusalem, for your role as Chair of the Sub-Committee until the end of March.
- Mr. Erling Hoem, Deputy Head of the Representative Office of Norway in Jerusalem, for taking on the role of Sub-Committee Chair from this April.
Finally, I also wish to thank Mr. Magdi El-Derini, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Egypt in Jordan, for your role as Vice-Chair of the Sub-Committee until the end of 2021, and Engineer Rafiq Khirfan, Director-General of the Department of Palestinian Affairs of Jordan, for assuming the Vice-Chair role from January.
This is an extremely challenging period for UNRWA.
It is an extremely distressing period for Palestine refugees, one of the most vulnerable communities in this region.
Palestine refugees, who UNRWA is mandated to protect and assist, face a huge uncertainty.
Since June 2020, I have repeatedly informed this forum that the Agency’s funding model is unsustainable.
Since June 2020, I repeatedly cautioned this forum that our financial challenges could lead to the slow erosion of the quality of our services or to their interruption.
Since that time, I also informed the Advisory Commission that it could not be the sole responsibility of the Commissioner-General to open or not schools for more than half a million girls and boys.
The UNRWA mandate is a collective responsibility.
Solidarity with Palestine refugees is clearly manifested at the United Nations General Assembly voting sessions on the mandate of UNRWA.
Under this mandate, Palestine refugees have the right to a dignified life.
They also have the right to being constantly and continuously remembered as a community that awaits a fair and lasting solution to its plight.
As Commissioner-General, I am responsible and accountable for enacting and implementing the mandate that UNRWA receives.
But today, the Agency faces the most threatening financial situation of its recent history.
This financial crisis does not happen in a vacuum: it happens amidst global attention shifting elsewhere, and general fatigue from what is seen by some as an irritatingly long and unresolved conflict.
It may be irritatingly long at the international political level, but for Palestinians it is their daily lives, their past and their future that is at stake.
Meanwhile, UNRWA, the only entity that provides a sense of normality and safety to Palestine refugees is threatened with paralysis.
It is hard to believe that the lack of sufficient resources for UNRWA can only be the outcome of financial constraint.
The immense impact of our services on the fulfillment of human rights and of the Sustainable Development Goals are visible in every Palestine refugee household.
External credible validators like the World Bank or MOPAN assert that the UNRWA education and health programs are great value for money.
The impact of predictable services on the safety and security of the refugees and on regional stability should suffice to convince every member state to commit funding to UNRWA in line with the resolutions they adopt.
But shifting geopolitical priorities, new regional dynamics, the emergence of new humanitarian crises and donor fatigue, have all pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict down the list of priorities in many donor countries.
Coordinated campaigns to delegitimize UNRWA with a view to erode the rights of Palestine refugees are increasing in frequency and aggressivity. Today when I visit donor capitals, I spend most of my time meeting Parliamentarians to address misconceptions about UNRWA.
UNRWA has also increasingly been exposed to domestic politics in some of its traditional donor countries, where the outcome of national elections determines the countries’ continued support to the Agency.
Palestine refugees are acutely aware of these dynamics and very anxious about their impact.
In the absence of a political horizon, they perceive UNRWA as the last standing pillar of the commitment of the international community to their right to a dignified life and their right to a just and lasting solution to their plight.
In the last few years, and despite immense outreach and fundraising efforts, the resources available to UNRWA have stagnated. Meanwhile the needs of Palestine refugees and cost of operations kept increasing.
Every year, the Agency is forced to operate with a funding gap of around US$ 100m.
I wish to pause here to acknowledge the members of the Advisory Commission that have been exemplary in their support.
I would like to thank those who have sustained their funding to the Agency through the years.
I am also very grateful to those donors who have increased funding and have walked the extra mile to add end-of-year top-ups or make their funding flexible.
Such good donorship allowed the Agency to keep schools and health centers open and provide a safety net to the poorest.
I would also like to reiterate our gratitude to Host countries who over seven decades have hosted Palestine refugees.
Today, after 10 years of underfunding of its programme budget, UNRWA is at a point where it cannot stretch its resources to cover all the needs anymore.
The Agency’s ability and internal tools to manage this chronic underfunding are now exhausted.
We have depleted our reserves.
We have not increased our budget for the last 3 years despite the soaring needs in the refugee community, despite a deterioration of economic conditions in host countries, and despite sharp increases in the prices of food and fuel.
Last month, UNRWA had to resort to a loan from CERF to pay teachers, doctors, sanitation workers and social workers. We needed a loan already so early in the year!
My team and I have left no stone unturned to find long term sustainable solutions to our financial challenges.
The Agency is focusing its efforts on broadening the donor base, on bringing back those who have disengaged and on diversifying funding sources.
Since the last Advisory Commission, the Deputy Commissioner-General, senior UNRWA staff and myself have engaged with over 60 Member-States, committed and prospective donors, and have reached out to public and private institutions.
Our efforts to raise funds have never slowed down, and my number one priority is to mobilize sufficient resources to cover all services.
My primary commitment is to ensure the continued access of Palestine refugees to quality services, the protection of their rights and those of the staff.
At the Brussels conference co-hosted by Jordan and Sweden in November 2021, we presented a vision and a three-year budget to increase predictability and facilitate multi-year funding.
The conference confirmed an unwavering political support to the Agency and its mandate. This is very reassuring in a year when the mandate is up for renewal.
The conference also confirmed that funding from donors will continue to be mostly unpredictable and below the needs of the Agency to provide all mandated services.
Based on these observations, I have engaged extensively with members of this Advisory Commission to find sustainable solutions.
Some donors have requested that the Agency make cuts to services to fit within the expected income.
To the Advisory Commission members, I ask: how would your ministers decide on the suggested financial cuts? How many children are you ready to put in one classroom?
Which children should be denied an education?
Which patients should be denied urgent hospitalization?
Which families of Palestine refugees who already report reducing their food intake, will you ask to reduce even more?
UNRWA cannot be treated like another humanitarian or development organization. The General Assembly has mandated UNRWA to provide government-like services. But when it comes to raising funds, we must do it like an NGO.
In trying to explore options to protect the services, the hosts and partners have identified clear parameters:
First, the responsibility to protect the mandate bestowed on UNRWA by the UN General Assembly is a collective and paramount one;
Second, upholding Palestine refugees’ rights is non-negotiable;
Third, there will be no transfer of any responsibility or service to Host countries or any other third party.
These are the three parameters that I have used in every decision and statement – public or private, big or small – to meet my responsibilities as Commissioner-General.
Within these parameters, one avenue we have been exploring is enhancing partnerships between UNRWA and other UN Agencies to tap into resources that are available within the UN system.
Partnerships are part of the UNRWA mandate.
Resolution 302 in its article 18, calls on specific UN Agencies to support UNRWA.
Year after year, the General Assembly has urged UNRWA to seek partnerships as it did again in its last resolution in December 2021.
And you, members of the Advisory Commission, called on UNRWA to explore increased partnership opportunities last November. At this Advisory Commission meeting, you are encouraging the Agency to explore possible synergies and complementarities with other actors.
Partnerships are in the DNA of the United Nations. UN agencies are required to seek, strengthen and maximize partnerships. It is something that donors welcome as they support several UN agencies.
Partnerships have been a central part of UNRWA operations since the Agency was first established.
UNRWA has nearly 30 active ongoing partnerships with UN Agencies. Partnering with UN Habitat in Syria allowed Palestine refugees to rebuild their homes in Dera’a camp.
WFP supports us in providing food to the Bedouins in the West Bank.
And United Nations International Computing Centre helped us create an information technology hub in Gaza providing jobs to 120 Palestine refugees.
And yet, despite all of these facts, my recent public communications on partnerships have created fear that increased partnerships would lead to the transfer of responsibilities and activities to other UN entities.
That it would signal the beginning of the dismantling of UNRWA.
Let me be clear: when in my message to refugees in April I mentioned that services could be provided by other UN Agencies “on behalf of UNRWA”, I did not mean “instead of UNRWA” but was constantly referring to partnership with UN Agencies, in line with article 18 in the resolution 302.
The strong reactions against the word “partnership” are emblematic of the growing feeling of abandonment among Palestinian refugees from the international community.
The reactions must be read within the broader context of a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the occupied Palestinian territory including the recent events in East Jerusalem, the severe financial situation of the Palestinian Authority, and a worsening socio-economic situation in the region.
Given this context, I deeply empathize with the fear invoked around partnerships within the refugee community.
I am leading extensive outreach to reassure the communities that there will be no transfer of services or delegation of responsibilities to other UN Agencies.
UNRWA is the sole entrusted Agency to deliver on the mandate given by the UN General Assembly.
We need unity, courage, vision and leadership to find solutions to fulfil the General Assembly’s commitment to Palestine refugees.
The Agency does not need more detractors.
Today, any initiative we try to launch is hostage to the failure of the international community to resolve the conflict.
Any new project is read through the lens of suspicion and doubt.
One example is that of the creation of an online digital Archive of Palestine Refugees Files.
UNRWA has been maintaining and very closely protecting Palestine refugee files since it started its operations in 1950.
These UNRWA refugee files are the evidence of Palestine refugee status in line with the Palestine refugee definition.
Through our digitalization project, UNRWA keeps complete family files for every registered Palestine refugee. This is to preserve Palestine refugee status and associated rights in the Agency’s refugee registration systems.
The online Archive of Palestine Refugees Files is an extension of a digitalization process that started more than ten years ago.
Regretfully, the project has been described in recent weeks as part of a plan to destroy the record of Palestine refugees.
This project neither discloses private refugee files to the public, nor does it alter in any way refugee documentation and information that UNRWA has stored for over 70 years.
Instead, the project is focused on protecting the files and protecting refugee rights. UNRWA continues registering Palestine refugees while preserving its historic Palestine refugee records.
Another example is the recently announced Education Expert Advisory Group composed of prominent education experts from the region and beyond.
The experts accepted to help UNRWA ensure it continues to provide the best quality education using modern effective tools.
Their contribution is pro-bono, they volunteer their time and expertise for the benefit of Palestine refugee children, youth and teachers.
But the Advisory Group has also been attacked as part of a plan to eliminate the Agency.
Where do we go from here?
I, as Commissioner-General, welcome explicit guidance from the Advisory Commission as my primary governance body.
Between the expectation of some donors that I reduce UNRWA services to match the insufficient forecasted income; between the General Assembly’s commitment to Palestine refugees; and between the expectation of Hosts and refugees that I maintain all services: I need advice on how to proceed.
From my side, I reiterate that the mandate is the sole responsibility of the UN General Assembly. No discussions about the content of the mandate can happen outside of that forum.
But the mandate cannot be implemented without funding, or without political will and agreement between donors and hosts.
Without these elements, UNRWA will get weaker and weaker.
I confirm that the most straight-forward, cost efficient and practical way is for donors to provide funds that match the annual costs of running UNRWA services.
I commit to continue reaching out extensively to expand the donor base.
I have sought support from the UN Secretary-General for outreach to donors from the region.
I have conducted missions and sent teams to the US, Europe and the Gulf to help unlock stagnated funds and encourage continued and increased support.
I have also asked present donors, especially those that reduced funding, to reconsider the impact of their decision on the region’s stability.
I will also propose avenues for partnerships with sister UN agencies, similar to the partnerships that UNRWA has used for decades.
In doing so, I appeal to all Advisory Commission members to join our efforts in reassuring Palestine refugees about our collective commitment to their rights and to the UNRWA mandate.
In closing, and to sum up, UNRWA and its senior management are under three sources of acute pressure:
- the General Assembly, with quasi universal support, that instructs UNRWA to deliver services, including through partnerships and cooperation, to Palestine refugees;
- The lack of sufficient funding from Member States to implement the General Assembly mandate, and some donors’ demands to adjust UNRWA operations so as to live within our means;
- the Hosts and Palestine refugees who see in any change to UNRWA operations a step toward encroaching on refugees’ rights and destroying UNRWA.
What remains unclear to me, after all the consultations I have had with members of Advisory Commission, is how much risk you are ready to take by letting the Agency slowly implode, under the pressure of these forces.
How much risk are you ready to take by weakening the last standing pillar of support and hope of Palestine refugees?
Some members I have consulted seem to believe that a collapse might be needed to trigger renewed attention to the plight of Palestine refugees.
This should not and cannot happen.
A funding gap of around US $ 100 million might seem huge at first glance, especially as there are no guarantees of additional funds to come.
But for an Agency of the size, scope and impact of UNRWA, an additional US $ 100 million is a modest investment that can have a huge impact on regional stability and on the rights of Palestine refugees, in the absence of a fair and lasting political solution.
Being able to address chronic underfunding means that children in schools continue to receive modern education in line with UN values.
Patients can get more than the standard three minutes they get now with a doctor.
A predictable UNRWA will continue to pump hope in a volatile and highly unpredictable region.
I appeal to you to elevate the discussion about UNRWA and the financial support it needs from a question on budgets to the fundamental issue at the center of the General Assembly’s mandate – human rights, development and peace.
I appeal to you to match your political support for the mandate with financial resources.
Next week, on 23 June, the UNGA will host a pledging conference on UNRWA in New York. I urge you to consider pledging funds to the Agency at the conference and in the months to come.
The Palestine refugees we serve, and their Hosts, cannot afford another source of anxiety if the Agency is not fully funded.
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