Speech by UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl to the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee

03 November 2017
UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl (centre) speaks during the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee discussions on aspects of the Agency’s work. Also pictured, the Director of the UNRWA Representative Office in New York, Mr. Peter Mulrean (left), and Fourth Committee Vice-Chair Mr. Ahmed Abdelrahman Ahmed Almahmoud of the United Arab Emirates (right). Photo by Thejasvi Ramu

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl tells the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization Committee) that he is encouraged by ongoing efforts to improve the Agency’s financial stability, but urges collective action to address a shortfall of US$77 million in this year’s budget, which threatens to force the Agency to suspend vital programmes 

Mr. Chairman, 
Distinguished delegates,

It is an honor to participate in this meeting of the Fourth Committee, under your Chairmanship Excellency Ambassador Ramirez Carreño of Venezuela, present my annual report for 2016.  I look forward to a productive debate, in particular about the developments that are specific to this year 2017, and the challenges ahead and ways to address them.  

This has been, and you mentioned it Ambassador, a special year for UNRWA thanks to our parent body, the General Assembly, its Member States, and all the delegations that animate its work. In 2017, with inspiring unity, you answered the call to step up the engagement with the Agency and reinforce it.  And I am sincerely grateful for that and I also wish to express the deepest appreciation to the Secretary-General for his principled leadership in the effort to strengthen the support for UNRWA.

This mobilization of diplomatic and political support in 2017 has set crucial milestones.  In January, the Secretary-General responded swiftly to the request of the General Assembly, in its resolution “71/93” of December 2016, for him “to facilitate broad consultations” towards securing “sufficient, predictable and sustained” funding and report to the GA with recommendations.  

Just one month later the consultations were launched, and concluded successfully in March.  Unprecedented for UNRWA in scope and impact, the consultations deepened engagement not only with close partners and members of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission, but also the diverse Member States who stand with us in unwavering solidarity in the General Assembly.   Let me pay tribute to the regional and political groupings for their robust and positive interaction throughout the process.

The active contributions of the Hosts to the consultations were essential for their success, and I recognize in particular Palestine, whose diplomacy and follow-through has been without equal.  

To the delegations of Switzerland and Turkey, I once again express my strong appreciation for their invaluable role in conducting the consultations and providing the Secretary-General the substance on which he based his report.

Furthermore, I warmly welcome and acknowledge Egypt’s support during the process, and note to the Committee that Egypt currently Chairs UNRWA’s Advisory Commission until June 30, 2018.  

I shall return to UNRWA’s financial situation in my remarks. But first, I would like to review the situation in the field, and I start with the truly difficult juncture where the Palestine refugees find themselves.   

Deep anxiety in the fields

In every visit I carry out to our field of operations and those that I carried out this year, I saw the depth of despair, uncertainty and anxiety in the Palestine refugee community. I was also confronted with the profound and far-reaching expectations of the Palestine refugees.  And in June 2017, Palestinians marked 50 years of Israeli occupation and the conflict in Syria entered its seventh year. 

There are new traumas for the refugees, adding to the many layers of suffering that call out for resolution. 

And we cannot be indifferent to their pain and suffering.  We must ensure that their plight is not forgotten in a world affected by so many other situations of armed conflict and crisis. We must ensure also that the rights of Palestine refugees are duly protected and their needs appropriately covered.

We cannot be indifferent to what the occupation means in the lives of individual refugees in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 

It means living in a shattered space, boxed into enclaves, often deprived of freedom of movement and economic opportunity. 

On average, Israeli security forces mount two incursions into refugee camps every day.  Fieldwork carried out this year by renowned health experts suggests residents of Bethlehem’s Aida camp are exposed to more tear gas than any other population surveyed globally.  When Palestine refugee mothers are forced to seal their infants in closets while clouds of tear gas saturate their shelter, the situation has gone too far.  

In the Gaza Strip, we cannot be indifferent to a human nightmare unfolding under our very watch. Ten years of blockade have led to the highest unemployment rates in the world.  Electricity and clean water are scarce.  And to every parent here I ask you to imagine bathing your children with sewer-contaminated water, or watching them study under candlelight for exams that will shape their future.  

Except for a small number permitted to travel, for the Gaza Strip’s 2 million people – including some 1.3 million Palestine refugees – there is no exit.  In September I met cancer patients denied access to outside medical treatment, which they need to survive.  Such treatment is nowhere to be found in Gaza where the medical system is broken and cannot recover under the blockade and related measures.  A rampant mental health crisis means things will worsen. 

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, the blockade and violence, and the divide between Palestinians entrenched since 2007, have brought us to this cruel place.  For too long international political inaction has prolonged it. 

In Syria, we cannot be indifferent to the cataclysm raging since 2011 and which has splintered the once close-knit Palestine refugee community. Its social core in Yarmouk has been devastated by 5 years of ruthless urban combat opposing a range of non-State armed groups including ISIS and Syrian governmental forces.  

Most refugees escaped in search of safety, hollowing out the camp as they fled for their lives. A few thousand Palestine refugees today remain, unable or unwilling to uproot.  

Throughout Syria, a majority of the refugees have been displaced once again. On my trip to Aleppo a few months ago, I met many Palestine refugees deeply marked by the traumatic levels of violence, by the destruction and the fear generated by a very uncertain future.

120,000 Palestine refugees have left the country, victims of the second largest cross-border displacement of Palestine refugees after 1948.  The history of borders closing behind them hangs like an omen over every family.

Those displaced inside Syria are trying, in small numbers, to return to the camps or their homes elsewhere. In some areas, a sense of normalcy returns, such as we’ve seen in the Husseinieh camp. But the conflict still rages and for many there are simply no guarantees of safety.  

For the 440,000 remaining Palestine refugees in Syria, most of them robbed of their livelihoods, and their assets depleted, life is a precarious struggle to survive and to cover most of their basic needs. Ninety-five percent depend on UNRWA to survive.  Even when the guns fall silent, the struggle will continue in the ruined landscapes of Aleppo, Khan Eshieh, Yarmouk, and Dera’a.

In Lebanon, we cannot be indifferent to the denial of rights whereby Palestine refugees are shut out from almost all economic and social opportunities outside the camps.  They suffer one of the highest rates of poverty in the region and live out their days in over-crowded camps where criminality is on the rise and where factional fighting frequently affects the lives of Palestine refugee families and the context of efforts of reconciliation. 

As I have said to you before, Palestine refugees need a horizon, a personal, societal and political horizon.
In that context, we welcome the process of dialogue between Palestinian parties in the context of efforts of reconciliation. 

I was in Gaza last month when Prime Minister Hamdallah and the Palestinian cabinet made their important visit.  I witnessed the hope it unleashed, on a scale I have not seen in the three and a half years that I have lived in the region.  This is a moment to be seized by all stakeholders who want peace in the Middle East. 

Truly, nothing is more important today than recreating a political horizon.  Indeed, 70 years after what the Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba, only a comprehensive political process, such as called for by the Secretary-General, will bring peace to the region.  

Allow me to share a further personal reflection about the situation of Palestine refugees.  I often hear how admirable is their resilience. Resilience is something we all possess, to allow us to endure and accept the inevitable traumas of life like the passing of a relative, or surviving a natural disaster. But there is nothing inevitable in the situation of Palestine Refugees.  Changing their situation is crucial, by means of a political solution embraced by all. 

I would also say that resolving the deep, often personal wounds of conflict requires people to rediscover humanity in the Other.  Without recognition of the Other’s pain, peace will remain fragile and elusive. 

Operational Achievements 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Against this backdrop of severe hardship, UNRWA continues operating and achieving results.  Let me turn to some of them.

With 515,000 children enrolled in our basic education system, we are equipping this generation of refugees with knowledge and skills to lead productive lives and become outward-looking and committed citizens of our world.  Empowered by gender balance in our 700 schools, refugee girls are among the best performers.    

UNRWA’s primary health care system has reinvented itself in the past 5 years.  We have embedded the concept of a family doctor, and put an end to the practice of mass antibiotic prescriptions and have begun integrating mental and physical healthcare provision, beginning in Gaza.

In Gaza, 85,000 families have – with our assistance – rebuilt their shelters that were damaged or destroyed during the summer 2014 hostilities.   

Sustaining our achievements is a priority, and a serious challenge. The need to improve quality, meet growing needs, and at the same time contain rising costs, are parameters that we are constantly addressing.    

So, with refugees and donors expecting action on these parameters, in the past two years UNRWA has made transformative changes in programming, management support, and delivery.  

Key reforms were envisioned in our Medium-Term Strategy for 2016-2021. The Strategy allowed for implementation over a 6 year period.   Instead, we decided to front-load the reforms and within the first 6 months of 2016 we had carried out some of the most difficult transformations in that short period of time.  Political and reputational risks were high but in our view the reforms were imperative. 

We transitioned, for example, from bulk food distribution to e-cards and cash vouchers in Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank in the the spring of 2016.  Political friction mounted but ultimately there was buy-in, and for anyone who has been to a food distribution center, the dignity of the e-card and voucher is obvious. The new approach also stimulates the local economy, including in refugee camps.  

In Lebanon we adjusted our hospitalization subsidy to ensure greater consistency across fields, sustainability, and coverage for the most vulnerable refugees.  Community resistance was intense initially, but following sustained outreach and assurances of tertiary coverage for the poorest refugees we implemented the changes successfully in 2016.

This year we will begin rolling out changes to our microfinance programme.  The reforms will actually expand the number and type of loans available and widen the range of clients including small enterprise owners.  The programme, which covers operating expenses through its loan income, is opening new branches in the field to support the reforms. 

Medical procurement was also overhauled in 2016.  Savings were very significant and allowed us to introduce statins in our clinics, to target high cholesterol. Statins mitigate the growth of heart disease, the leading cause of death among Palestine refugees and one of the most costly non-communicable diseases to treat.   

Had we not carried out and carried forward decisive management actions, nor introduced key reforms in 2015 and 2016, our financial requirements would have been $81 million higher this year. That is no small achievement for a humanitarian organization like ours.


I would like to turn now to some of the specific challenges we face in an unstable, politically complex landscape and operational environment.  

UNRWA’s locally recruited staff are key to our unique capacity to function in different contexts, including during severe conflict. They are also very vulnerable in those contexts because they live and work within the community and are mostly frontline staff.   Since 2010, and Ambassador you referred to this and I am grateful for that, we have lost 30 of our Palestinian colleagues to the violence in Syria and Gaza. These are devastating and unacceptable losses.  

I have drawn your attention in the past to the fact that our Palestinian staff are excluded from the UN’s system of security management and security umbrella and I have been committed, and I am committing and I am engaging, to improving their safety and security.  Among the measures taken is the establishment of a department of security risk management to mitigate risks our staff face.  New policies and procedures have been operationalized at the field levels. 

The new approach was put to the test when we kept staff and services running during the last phase of the siege of Aleppo, after sister UN agencies relocated outside. And I visited our staff there this year, in particular, to say thank you to them, and I cannot emphasize strongly enough the humility and pride I felt in our colleagues, who remain dedicated to serving the most vulnerable under these extremely difficult circumstances.   

Another serious challenge we face is neutrality, an extremely important issue for UNRWA. Neutrality is often misunderstood and misrepresented. But I want to say here clearly, I see neutrality as a crucial access and action-enabling tool, which seeks to preserve the reputation and trust in the Agency and its staff.  

And I want to emphasize that UNRWA has a strong commitment to neutrality and we have a regulatory system that promotes it. It is comprehensive and I think UNRWA, in many ways, goes further than others in upholding neutrality principles.  We have policies and protocols to prevent, to monitor and detect, and to address neutrality breaches if they occur. 

This year UNRWA had to deal with two very important neutrality problems. Through an internal investigation early in the year, we found that two staff members had been elected to positions in Hamas. The staff members were terminated. And these actions were taken swiftly and decisively.  

We also discovered what appeared to be tunnels under two of UNRWA’s schools in the Gaza Strip. In accordance with our protocols, verification was done quickly, and we took the extraordinary measure to seal the tunnels.  We unreservedly condemned Hamas in a public statement, and I say it here again.  UNRWA will not allow the integrity of its operations, the safety of students and staff, or stakeholder trust in UNRWA, to be undermined in this or any other way.

Before closing my remarks to this Committee, it is essential that I update you on UNRWA’s financial health.  In his report on mobilizing finances for UNRWA, the Secretary-General recommended action through four avenues. 

One was international financial institutions.  It is the one that entails the greatest promise and we have made remarkable progress with plans to establish a World Bank Trust Fund for UNRWA, and with a proposed waqf endowment fund in support of Palestine refugees managed by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB).  In Jeddah last week I had my second round of meetings with the IDB and OIC leaderships and I am grateful for the positive discussions to move forward with a proposal.

We regret that we have been unable to capitalize on a recommendation to access a more equitable share of the UN budget, despite the very broad support of Member States. This comes at a financial cost to UNRWA and will require action on other fronts to make UNRWA financially more stable. 

The Agency will continue to diversify and broaden the voluntary donor base. I reiterate the importance here of political and financial support to UNRWA properly reflecting the diversity of the General Assembly membership.  Partnerships with private and public contributors are also being pursued actively by UNRWA.

I have therefore been very encouraged by the major efforts underway this year to move towards improved financial stability for UNRWA. And I tell you I believe very strongly that this is a very achievable goal for us.

Unfortunately, I must draw the attention of Member States to the current critical shortfall of $77 million in our programme budget, the core services that we provide, which threatens to rupture basic, vital services to the refugees in all fields.  This shortfall was $126 M in late September. And at a special meeting on UNRWA, convened by the OIC on 22 September, and co-chaired by Sweden and Jordan, additional contributions of just under 50 million were announced, for which I am very grateful.

Now 77 million is the remaining amount in 2017 that is needed for the entire set of core UNRWA activities across all fields. And unless this is rapidly bridged, very specifically in the next 2 weeks I will have to make urgent and critical decisions about what programs we would need to suspend.

The consequences of suspending programs would be extremely serious for the region. At a time of such instability in the Middle East but also at a time when investments are made in reconciliation in the Gaza Strip, it is my firm belief that the last thing that is needed is financial and programmatic uncertainty for UNRWA. 

We strengthen the dignity of Palestine Refugees in these troubled times and provide them and the region with a measure of stability. Our schools and clinics have contributed to one of the most successful human development dynamics in the Middle East. 

And yet, here we are once again on the verge of a major funding breakdown. It is urgent that this be addressed. Several member states have signaled to us their readiness to come forward with additional support. And I call here for very urgent collective action to prevent a very dramatic crisis from unfolding.

In a recent meeting, Ladies and Gentlemen, a close partner of UNRWA, a very dear and trusted partner, indicated to me that its funding should not be taken for granted, and I fully agree with this principle and wish to reassure the Members of this Committee that I would never take support, whether political or financial, for granted. 

However, I ask in return that no one take for granted that thousands of UNRWA staff continue to risk their lives year after year so UNRWA can assist refugees in places as difficult as Aleppo, Homs or Dera’a, as challenging as Shatila or Ein El Helweh, as tense and complex as Balata and Shu’afat, or as acute as Khan Younis and Beit Hanoun.

Humanitarian partners do not take each other for granted. They recognize each other's value. And they build on it, and I say to every single delegation in this chamber, one and all: Let us ensure this remains the principle on which we strengthen the good work that UNRWA does. 

At the special OIC event at the margins of the General Assembly in September, two of our students, Karim and Rahaf addressed participants and spoke of how it was “education received in UNRWA schools that keeps us alive”. 

I truly cannot imagine returning to them, whether today, tomorrow or in a few weeks, and hundreds of thousands of other students with the news that we would have failed to match the courage they show with a collective ability to safeguard their access to education and keep UNRWA schools open and active.

I thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen, Ambassador, so much for your trust and support.

Background Information: 

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA programme budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s programme budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals. UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5.4 million Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA across its five fields of operation. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.