- The United States has been strategic in determining the UN regime regarding Palestine refugees. The United States, under the auspices of the General Assembly, has played a crucial role in setting up UNRWA and in the way the Agency has worked and developed. For decades, it has influenced through its role within the UN, by means of multilateralism, politics, and processes regarding Palestine refugees. By allowing UNRWA to provide Palestine refugees with relief and development opportunities, especially quality education, employment opportunities, and health services, the international community—and the United States first and foremost—has contributed to alleviate the suffering of Palestine refugees and also fostered stability in the region.
- The current U.S.-led attempts to reshape the way Palestine refugees are defined, registered and counted, and to dismantle UNRWA, have no legal basis; rather, they seem to constitute an attempt to attain political goals without regard to international law, human rights and history.
- Both UNRWA’s definition and its registration system are in line with international norms and practice, and Palestine refugees, including descendants, are legitimate refugees. While some irregularities exist (unlike UNHCR, UNRWA only registers refugees though the male line and does not count those who were displaced for the first time by the 1967 hostilities as part of its Registered Refugee population), these have not been made the object of U.S. criticism and request for reform.
- It is irrelevant whether UNRWA’s refugee definition differs from how all other refugees in the world are classified. Upon the initiative of the U.S. government, the UN has adopted a sui generis regime for Palestine refugees, by creating (UNCCP and) UNRWA and by incorporating article 7(c) in the UNHCR Statute and article 1 D in the 1951RC. Article 1 D contains its own “cessation clause” and it was upon insistence of the United States, which saw UNRWA as an instrument to prevent countries in the Middle East from falling into the Soviet sphere of influence that UNRWA continued to treat all Palestine refugees—including those who had citizenship, like in Jordan—as eligible for its services.
- UNRWA’s history demonstrates that rather than “perpetuating” the refugee problem through its services to refugees, and in the absence of a political solution, the Agency has been a stabilizing factor, helping maintain peace by supporting welfare and development of the refugees in the various host countries. Rather, dependency of growing numbers of refugees on UNRWA services stems from the failure to achieve a political resolution in line with international law. UNRWA stands as a symptom of these structural deficits, not its cause.
- The right of return of Palestine refugees rests upon international law, as reaffirmed repeatedly by the General Assembly, and its exercise cannot be cancelled based on political considerations.
- As a United Nations 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. However, the pressure that the United States appears to be exerting both on UNRWA—pressing the Agency to reform itself in a way that contrasts with the Agency mandate and the immediate interests of the refugees—and on other UN member states to change their policies vis-à-vis UNRWA and Palestine refugees, sits uncomfortably with these states’ sovereignty and the independence that UN agencies enjoy. It is also at odds with the overall purposes of independence of states in their dealings with the United Nations and cooperation among nations for maintenance of peace and stability enshrined by Article 2 of the UN Charter.
- Should the General Assembly advise that UNRWA needs to be reformed, new visions and strategy should be discussed within the framework of UN rules and procedures and, bearing in mind the importance of respecting international law—especially human rights norms—also as a stabilizing factor.
Electronic publishing date:
November 15, 2018