1. Executive Summary
  1. Between January and August 2018, the U.S. administration ended seven decades of longstanding support for Palestine refugees and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the body that was established by the UN General Assembly in December 1949 to assist them. According to US pronouncements, the reason for the policy change lay in UNRWA’s alleged mismanagement and procedural irregularities. In particular, the United States has taken issue with the Agency’s system to define and register the refugees which, by extending status to descendants, purportedly perpetuates—instead of resolving—the refugee crisis. This system, critics argue, is contrary to international refugee law and the practice of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). [See paras 21-27]
  2. The claims that UNRWA operates outside the realm of the international refugee regime and perpetuates the refugee problem are based on selective use and an erroneous understanding of facts regarding Palestine refugees and UNRWA; misconstrue the international refugee framework, particularly the mandates of UNRWA and UNHCR; and neglect UN norms and procedures regarding cooperation with the UN and among states. [See paras 28-31 and subsequent]
  3. Under international refugee law, Palestine refugees, including descendants, are legitimately recognized as refugees. They are internationally recognized refugees with a sui generis status under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951RC). Unlike other refugees in the world who derive their status from Article 1A of the 1951RC, the legal status of Palestine refugees under international law is rooted in a combination of provisions including: the 1951RC (article 1D), UNHCR’s Statute (paragraph 7), and the refugee definition utilized by UNRWA, as per its Consolidated Eligibility and Registration Instructions, endorsed by the UN General Assembly. [See paras 29-31, 34, 36-37]
  4. Palestine refugees enjoy a different institutional regime compared with other refugees worldwide, for historical reasons. In 1949, shortly before the drafting of the 1951RC was finalized, the refugees from Palestine had already been afforded both de facto asylum by host countries and a UN regime consisting of: (1) the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), tasked to help resolve the refugee question as part of the larger objective of peace-making in Palestine; and (2) UNRWA, primarily to provide assistance and relief to the refugees pending a political solution. Such an institutional regime, enshrined by article 1D of the 1951RC, was maintained as Palestine refugees were considered as deserving of special attention by the General Assembly, in connection with the latter’s role in the partition of Palestine (UNGA Resolution 181 of November 1947) and the consequences of the disposition of that territory in igniting the hostilities that occurred between 1947-49, resulting in the displacement of most of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. [See paras 29-30, 34-36, 77]
  5. The United States played a crucial role within the General Assembly to set up and develop this ad hoc regime, particularly UNRWA and the way the Agency has worked and evolved. [See paras 40,52,54]
  6. UNRWA was not mandated to achieve peace or promote durable solutions for the refugees; the UNCCP, chaired by the United States, was. As the parties to the conflict failed to reach such a political solution in the years following 1948, by 1952 the UNCCP became de facto inoperative —at least in its peacekeeping functions. Since then, UNRWA has been the principal entity serving Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, as well as the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip (i.e. UNRWA’s areas of operation). [See paras 54-55, 57-59]
  7. UNHCR and UNRWA, created by the General Assembly only three days apart, have a complementary mandate vis-à-vis Palestine refugees, so as to ensure continuity of protection in the spirit of the 1951RC (article 1D). In practice, UNRWA is responsible for Palestine refugees in its areas of operation and UNHCR is responsible for Palestine refugees when they find themselves outside UNRWA’s areas of operation. [See paras 56, 62-65]
  8. Like UNHCR, UNRWA’s mandate has evolved to respond to successive situations of humanitarian necessity and, over time, it has expanded to adapt to growing refugee needs. From the work and relief programs it implemented in the early 1950s, UNRWA has further allowed millions of refugee children to receive quality education, families and individuals to access vital health care, and women and men to access job and development opportunities. Since the late 1980s, UNRWA emergency programs have mitigated the impact of continuous waves of conflict, crisis and poverty on refugees across Lebanon, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Syria. [See paras 32, 58-59,78]
  9. While attempts to legally define who is a refugee from Palestine for the purpose of UNGA Resolution 194 para. 11 (namely return and compensation) halted with the de facto demise of UNCCP’s peace-making activities, UNRWA, at the behest of its major donors (first and foremost the United States), was pressured to operationally define refugees for the purpose of carrying out censuses to delete “ineligibles” from the ration rolls that predated the Agency’s setup. Such a definition responded, since the outset, to the intent of putting a ceiling to the number of refugees eligible for assistance (rather than inflating them). [See paras 40-41]
  10. The operational definition of refugee developed by UNRWA—which provides that “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict”—has been tacitly endorsed by the General Assembly since the early 1950s. It has undergone only minor amendments over time. [See paras 39, 41-43]
  11. UNRWA’s registration of descendants, corresponding with the need to protect family unity, is in line with UNHCR procedures. UNHCR registers, counts, and protects descendants of refugees in similar protracted refugee situation That includes 13 million refugees worldwide (two-thirds of the whole refugee population), primarily from Afghanistan, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, DRC, Angola, and Bhutan. The General Assembly has supported UNRWA’s registration of new births and asked the Agency to deliver services to children (education) across generations of Palestine refugees. [See paras 48-51]
  12. The registration of Palestine refugees who have been given Jordanian citizenship is rooted in history and has occurred with U.S. acquiescence for political reasons. Nonetheless, the cessation of refugee status under article 1C of the 1951RC is dependent on an end to the need for international protection, and does not equate to relinquishing fundamental rights of the refugee as enshrined by international norms, particularly international human rights law, and UN resolutions. Palestine refugees who have acquired citizenship in a host country continue to have special entitlements until their position is definitively settled in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. [See para 52]
  13. The duration of UNRWA’s mandate is contingent upon the parties to the conflict reaching a durable solution, in accordance with relevant international law. UNRWA will no longer have reason to exist once the position of Palestine refugees is “definitively settled in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations” (1951RC, article 1D(2)). [See para 52,77]
  14. Although the deprivation of funding to UNRWA may hinder its operational capacity, such deprivation will neither end the Agency’s mandate nor vitiate the rights and status of Palestine refugees under international law. This is in line with article 1D(2) of the 1951RC. As a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, only the latter may extend or alter the Agency’s mandate. [See paras 61]
  15. Should Palestine refugees fall under UNHCR’s purview, the relevance of international norms and UN resolutions, such as UNGA Resolution 194, for Palestine refugees, would remain unchanged. Furthermore, consideration of the decisive role of the host countries, in determining both the extent to which UNHCR can operate and the legal status and residency of the refugees, is of primary importance. [See paras 68-69, 73]
  16. In UNHCR’s practice, return—more precisely, voluntary repatriation in “safety and dignity”—as protected by international human rights law, represents the most common and preferred remedy to mass refugee crises. This is confirmed by the numbers of refugees who return to their country compared to those who are resettled (5 million versus 102,800 in 2017). Should Palestine refugees in the various host countries fall within the purview of UNHCR, nothing in the law and practice of UNHCR regarding the preference for voluntary repatriation would change. [See paras 69-73]
  17. The protracted nature of the Palestine refugee crisis is not caused by UNRWA’s procedures and UNRWA’s alleged lack of will to either resettle or locally integrate Palestine refugees or promote peace in the region. UNRWA does not possess a comprehensive mandate over durable solutions of the refugee problem (UNCCP did, and it has not achieved this task). The lack of a solution to the Palestine refugee crisis must be examined in connection with the dynamics of the Middle East peace process, or lack thereof, and the lack of observance of international law. [See paras 56-58,61]
  18. By supporting UNRWA’s services to ensure welfare and development of millions of Palestine refugees (particularly through quality education, health care, employment opportunities, relief and social services), the international community—and the United States first and foremost—has not only alleviated the suffering of the refugees, but also fostered stability in the region for decades. [See paras 59-60, 74, 78]
  19. As a UN member state, the United States has the power to bring any issues for discussion before the UN, including the need to reform a UN agency, its mandate, or operations. The UN system affords means and avenues to pursue such goals. [See para 80]
  20. However, it is not in the purview of any UN member state to unilaterally negate fundamental human and people’s rights as enshrined under international law or the inherent claims stemming from UN resolutions. Pressuring a UN entity to redefine its mandate, align its policies and procedures to the political goals of one or more UN member states, and attempting to disrupt or undermine it by tarnishing its reputation and threatening its existence by abruptly defunding it, runs against the integrity and operational independence that guides the UN. Exerting influence on other UN member states to change their policies vis-à-vis a UN agency and the population it serves sits equally uncomfortably with the overall purposes of the independence of states in their dealings with the UN and their cooperation with the UN for maintenance of peace and stability, an obligation under article 2 of the UN Charter. [See para 80-81]