Exposed: UNRWA’s Rigged “Independent” Review

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Exposed: UNRWA’s Rigged “Independent” Review

Advance Copy of UN Watch’s Report on The Extreme Bias of the Colonna Group Investigating UNRWA’s Terror Ties

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Final Report PDF: UNRWA’s Rigged “Independent” Review
Submission: Evidence of UNRWA’s systematic complicity with terrorism

Introduction

On February 5, 2024, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the appointment of an “Independent Review Group” with the stated purpose of assessing whether the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) “is doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations of serious breaches when they are made.”[1]

The announcement came shortly after 18 top donor states to UNRWA suspended funding to the agency,[2] due to revelations that at least 12 UNRWA staffers participated[3] in the October 7th massacre and that hundreds of the agency’s employees are operatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.[4]

Catherine Colonna, the former French Minister of Foreign Affairs, was selected to lead the Review Group, which also consisted of the following three Scandinavian research institutions: The Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) in Norway; The Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, and The Danish Institute for Human Rights.

The Review Group began its work on February 14th and submitted an interim report to the Secretary-General on March 20th. Though the interim report was not made public, the UN announced that the report “found that UNRWA has in place a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with the Humanitarian Principle of neutrality.”[5] The final report is scheduled to be released to the public on April 20th.

The EU, Canada, Sweden, Finland, France, Australia and Japan have already each announced that they are resuming funding to UNRWA.

A brief examination of all of the parties involved in the review group confirms that they are not unbiased, objective observers. Rather, Ms. Colonna, the three organizations, and many of their staff have previously issued statements, published content, and liked social media posts demonstrating their positive feelings towards UNRWA and its work, often even after the newfound allegations of UNRWA’s links to Hamas post-October 7th, and their animosity towards the State of Israel.

Top UNRWA Official: Colonna Report Is To “Provide Cover” 

In a moment of candor, the actual purpose of the Colonna Report was stated by longtime UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, who retired in 2019 after 12 years in the post, returning recently to act as a  surrogate for UNRWA with frequent appearances on Al Jazeera and other media.  “I hope that the external report by the former French foreign minister, soon to be available, will provide the donors with further cover if that’s what they need within their own internal constituencies to resume funding for UNRWA,” Gunness told Passblue, a website that advocates for the UN.

In other words, the review is not an impartial investigation into how UNRWA’s mechanisms and procedures have completely failed to ensure compliance with the humanitarian principle of neutrality, turning a blind eye to hundreds of UNRWA staff, teachers, school principals and union leaders who serve as Hamas operatives and as members of the Hamas Politburo. Rather, the appointment of the review group was designed by the UN and UNRWA as a political maneuver to give “further cover” to donor states—“if that’s what they need within their own internal constituencies to resume funding for UNRWA.”

UN Chief Named Colonna “To Reassure Donors”

This is corroborated by statements made by the UN itself, acknowledging that the purpose of the Review Group is to ease the concerns of donors, rather than to objectively investigate UNRWA’s ties to terror.

On February 21, UN Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said that Secretary-General Guterres named Catherine Colonna to lead the Review Group in order to “reassure those donors who may have doubts.”[6]

Likewise, on February 22,  Ms. Colonna herself stated that that the entire purpose of her investigation is to ensure that donations to UNRWA continue—not that everything be done to objectively investigate and stop systematic UNRWA staff complicity with and promotion of terrorism. Speaking at a UN press conference on February, Colonna said:

“The aim of this important and delicate mission, entrusted to us by the Secretary General, is to enable donors, the largest among them, but in fact everyone, to regain confidence, when they have lost it or when they have doubts, in the way UNRWA operates.”[7]

These statements confirm that a predetermined outcome to ensure the reinstatement of funding was in mind for both the UN and Ms. Colonna.

Colonna Biased For UNRWA, Against Israel

Colonna Hailed UNRWA

Less than two weeks before being appointed to head the review group, Ms. Colonna posted on X on January 13, 2024 to commend UNRWA for its work, which she wrote was “more useful than ever.” She expressed this praise for UNRWA just four days after UN Watch revealed to the world that 3,000 UNRWA teachers were members of an UNRWA Telegram chat group that celebrated the October 7th attack. Ms. Colonna was also a public supporter of UNRWA during her time as French foreign minister.

The feelings were mutual. UNRWA referred to its “strong support from France” while Colonna was foreign minister, and specifically praised Colonna:

“One week after the Humanitarian Conference at Elysee, thank you to [President] Emmanuel Macron and [Foreign Minister] Colonna for their continued political and financial commitment alongside UNRWA. The strong support of states like France for UNRWA is crucial for the humanitarian operation at Gaza.”

UNRWA praised France’s role at a pledging conference, for having “highlight[ed] unanimous and continuous support to UNRWA.”

France also praised UNRWA lawyer Johann Soufi, who recently said on French television that evidence of UNRWA ties to terrorism should be ignored because the group releasing it was “a Jewish lobby.”[8]

 

Colonna’s Conflict of Interest As UNRWA Donor & Board Member 

The independence of Catherine Colonna as the head of the Independent Review Group into UNRWA is further called into question by her recent role as French Foreign Minister. She served in this position from May 2022 to January 2024. Previously, she had served many years as a French diplomat and as spokeswoman for the Elysée, the French presidency.

France is the fourth-largest donor to UNRWA. In addition to financial support, France is also a major political backer of UNRWA, routinely promoting and endorsing its work. On March 4, 2024, in a statement before the UN General Assembly, the French ambassador declared  complete support for UNRWA, describing its role as “crucial.” The agency, France insisted, is “an essential contributor to the stability of the region,” and for years to come, its mandate “will remain relevant until a political settlement is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

All of this contributes to the complexity of Colonna’s position in leading an impartial review. Her lifetime in French governmental roles and associated responsibilities towards the foreign policy of France, which is a donor and founding board member of UNRWA, presents a conflict of interest.

If the review were to find systemic failures within UNRWA concerning its ties to Hamas or other terrorist groups, or systemic failures to address UNRWA staff encouragement and promotion of terrorism, as well as incitement to violence and antisemitism, such adverse findings would retrospectively cast a shadow on Colonna’s decisions and actions as Foreign Minister, where she might have overseen or endorsed French financial and political support for UNRWA. Such findings could also cast a shadow on any decisions and actions by her predecessors and colleagues in the French foreign ministry, and in other levels and departments of the French government, who were involved in overseeing the country’s support for and oversight of UNRWA.

This situation places Ms. Colonna in a delicate position where her very recent affiliations with French governmental policies towards UNRWA could influence her current evaluative responsibilities and could lead to potential biases, consciously or subconsciously, in the review’s findings.

Colonna’s ability to lead an impartial investigation into UNRWA could therefore be compromised, as her professional integrity and historical decisions, as well as those of other diplomats and elected officials in France, could be at stake depending on the outcomes of the review.

Colonna’s Conflict of Interest Violates UN Standards of Conduct

Catherine Colonna’s participation in the Independent Review Group for UNRWA amounts to a gross violation of legal principles relating to conflict of interest and the requirement for impartiality in administrative and legal reviews.

• Conflict of Interest: According to general principles of administrative law, any individual involved in a decision-making or review process should be free from any conflicts of interest that might influence their judgment. As a former French Foreign Minister, Colonna’s prior involvement with policies or decisions relating to UNRWA funding could represent a conflict of interest, particularly if her actions during her tenure could be indirectly assessed as part of the review.

• Duty of Impartiality: The duty of impartiality is fundamental in international law and administrative procedures, ensuring that decisions are made based on fairness and without bias. The UN itself emphasizes the importance of impartiality in its operations. Because Colonna’s previous role aligned with French foreign policy that is supportive of UNRWA, her impartiality in evaluating the agency is compromised.

• United Nations Standards of Conduct: The UN has its own standards concerning the conduct of individuals who undertake roles on its behalf, which stress independence, impartiality, and integrity. These standards are meant to ensure that reviews and assessments are conducted without any undue influence from previous affiliations or potential future incentives.

Colonna’s participation in and leadership of the Review Group violates these principles. Her very recent role in a government that supported UNRWA financially and politically could be seen as a direct conflict with the need for an unbiased review of the agency’s conduct, infringing on the legal and ethical standards expected in such reviews.

Secretary-General Guterres could have chosen from any number of prominent and credible figures who did not have these conflicts, or prior public pronouncements that take a position on the work of UNRWA. But the UN chose Colonna precisely because they were certain that her findings would “reassure the donors.”

Review Group Researchers Biased For UNRWA, Against Israel

Chr. Michelsen Institute: Israel Guilty of ‘Apartheid,’ ‘Genocide’

The impartiality of Norway’s Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI) concerning UNRWA is undermined by the extreme bias of its publications on UNRWA, and by the litany of pronouncements by numerous of its staff and board members accusing Israel of “apartheid” and “genocide.” 

In 2022, CMI published a report on UNRWA examining reasons for the agency’s funding troubles and advising steps forward. In the report, CMI states that UNRWA’s funding problems are caused by “unfounded claims” that the agency “instigates violence, for example, through school curricula with an anti-Israeli edge.”

In other words, CMI has already expressed the opinion that claims of UNRWA incitement—documented over 10 years in a series of reports by UN Watch that show screenshots of UNRWA teachers calling to slaughter Jews—are “unfounded.”

The researcher and lead author of CMI’s 2022 UNRWA report is Kjersti G. Berg, who is involved in most if not all of CMI’s published material relating to UNRWA. Since January 2024, Berg has defended UNRWA and the continued funding of the organization (see here and here).

Ms. Berg published a book in 2023, “Palestina. Fakta på bakken,” where she argues in favor of the Palestinian “right of return,” which effectively means the destruction of the State of Israel. In 2017, Berg hosted a lecture with Raja Shehadeh, founder of the group Al-Haq, which in 2021 was designated by Israel as a terrorist organization.

CMI Senior Staff & Board Members Accuse Israel of “Genocide” & “Apartheid”

  • In January 2024, in a post entitled “Speaking out against genocide and repression”, the CMI’s Anthropologist blog issued a call for papers that spoke of “Israel’s ongoing destruction of Gaza and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” CMI made no mention at all of Hamas, its atrocities, or the Israeli hostages in Gaza.

 

  • The editor of this CMI blog, Antonio De Lauri, is a research professor at CMI. On March 7, 2024, he tweeted: “President Biden, why do you support genocide in Gaza?” This CMI employee has also endorsed similar claims by condemned antisemite Francesca Albanese. A review of his Twitter feed shows that, by contrast, he has never even mentioned Hamas.

 

  • CMI Research Director Torunn Wimpelmann, posted in support of South Africa’s legal action in the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of “genocide.”

 

  • In October 2023, 17 CMI researchers and staff signed a statement accusing Israel of practicing “apartheid.” The signatories alleged “historical inequalities, injustice and violence” brought about “by Israel’s longstanding occupation” and its “maintenance of an apartheid state.” Those accusing Israel of these crimes, as published on the CMI website, included the following employees, each of whom indicated “Chr. Michelsen Institute” after their names: Antonio De Lauri, Heidi Mogstad, Anwesha Dutta, Emily Hume Lovise Aalen, Salla Turunen, Jessica Schultz, Astri Suhrke, Carmeliza Rosario, Iva Jelusic, Saul Mullard, Cathrine Talleraas, Liv Tønnessen, Mari Norbakk, Karine A. Jansen, Aslak Orre, Kari Telle and Elin Skaar.

 

  • The recent chairman of CMI’s board, Guri Rørtveit, clicked like to endorse a post by the anti-Israel group “Jewish Voice for Peace,” in which members of the group celebrated an illegal sit-in at the US Congress.

 

  • On October 10, 2023, just three days after the Hamas massacre, CMI Board Member Catharina Bu published a Facebook post about “Orthodox Jews demonstrating for Palestine against Israel,” presumably the fringe Neturei Karta sect, and she added a photo of a sign reading “Israel is responsible for 75 years of tragic bloodshed.” In the same post, she encouraged the Norwegian government to increase funding for UNRWA. Likewise, this CMI Board Member also posted on X that she was “very happy” that a Norwegian activist group and its leader, at a conference of the Norwegian agency for development cooperation, “express[ed] their concern about the economic cuts to UNRWA.” Earlier, in 2013, Ms. Bu called on Norway’s government pension fund to divest from Israeli government bonds. Notably, Ms. Bu is the Secretary General of the UN Association of Norway, which claims that “Israel is practicing apartheid against Palestinians.

 

  • Another CMI Board Member, Andrew Norton, posted an article accusing Israel of “apartheid.”

 

 

In conclusion, it is clear that there is a systemic bias within CMI against Israel and in support of UNRWA, and that CMI lacks the impartiality necessary to objectively examine UNRWA support for and complicity with terrorism.

 

Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI)

The leading staff and board members of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI)  have been routinely portraying Israel as uniquely evil.

Eight years ago, in 2016, RWI Executive Director Peter Lundberg accused Israel of “apartheid.”

Following are other posts endorsed on the X account of Peter Lundberg including when he was a Swedish government official before joining RWI. Specifically, Lundberg clicked “Like” on several pro-UNRWA posts since the Hamas-Israel War, including:

    • Jan Egeland’s post attacking critics of UNRWA as “abhorrent”: A united humanity must stand with, fund and defend UNRWA. They do more for civilians in Gaza then the rest of us combined.  The extremist political attacks on them are abhorrent. More than 100 of their aid workers have been killed.
    • OCHA chief Martin Griffith’s tweet advocating support for UNRWA, endorsing criticism of Switzerland’s vote to defund UNRWA: What @UNRWA needs right now is more support, not less.

RWI Board Member Anne Ramberg has accused Israel of committing “an ongoing genocide in Gaza.” She also liked several pro-UNRWA posts, including:

    • Isabella Lovin’s post defending UNRWA funding: There will be catastrophic consequences for the 2,2 million people of Gaza if funds are stopped to @UNRWA. Everyone knows no other entity has the capacity to replace this support, the entire humanitarian system in Gaza will collapse. Please listen to @UNReliefChief!
    • Malin Bjork’s post defending UNRWA funding: “It’s devastating to stop the support for #UNRWA. Even members of the liberal group in the EU Parliament understand this. Why don’t the Swedish liberals understand it? Good initiative from @samiraraf.”
    • Ramberg likewise has written that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “equates to apartheid” and accused Israel of ethnic cleansing.

RWI on its website features a lengthy interview with Richard Falk, after he was famously condemned for antisemitism by the United Kingdom, championing his report for Arab states that accused Israel of “apartheid.”

 

Danish Institute Backs UNRWA Funding

The Danish Institute for Human Rights has demonstrated a sharp anti-Israel and pro-UNRWA bias, as evident by its public statements, pronouncements of its board members and senior staff, and its sole Palestinian partner organization.

For example, DIHR applauded South Africa’s ICJ case that accused Israel of “genocide.” In a statement on behalf of DIHR, Senior Researcher Peter Vedel Kessing called the ruling a “breakthrough and an important progress for international humanitarian law.”

In addition:

  • DIHR Board Member Jonas Vejsager Nøddekær supported continued funding to UNRWA, stating, “It will make the humanitarian disaster even worse to suspend support for the UN’s humanitarian work in Gaza. The humanitarian aid that comes into Gaza is already extremely limited, so we support the Danish government’s decision to continue the support, because the needs are so great.”

 

  • DIHR’s Communications Director, Jakob Sheikh, has posted anti-Israel content. For example in 2021, he publicly stated that Israel has “illegally occupied” Palestinians for 70 years, effectively contesting Israel’s recognition by the United Nations before and after its founding in 1948.

 

  • Sheikh also clicked like on pro-UNRWA posts as recently as January 29th, 2024, just one week before his organization was selected for the Review Group, including Waleed Safi’s post condemning Western countries’ withholding of support to UNRWA.

 

In addition, the DIHR’s Palestine partner is the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), a group that hosted at its events members of the US-designated terror groups Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Multiple staffers of this DIHR partner have voiced support for these terror groups, and its founding members include PFLP members Raja Shehadeh and Raji Sourani. The Director of ICHR’s North Gaza office, Raafat Salha, represented the PFLP at a conference in 2012. In a January 28, 2024 statement, DIHR’s partner voiced support for UNRWA and opposed its defunding. The notion that DIHR could be impartial on matters affecting UNRWA is not credible.

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[1] Statement by the Secretary-General – on UNRWA, UNRWA (February 5, 2024), https://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/official-statements/statement-secretary-general-%E2%80%93-unrwa.

[2] List of Countries Suspending UNRWA Funding, UN Watch (January 29, 2024), https://unwatch.org/updated-list-of-countries-suspending-unwra-funding/.

[3] Details Emerge on U.N. Workers Accused of Aiding Hamas Raid, The New York Times (January 28, 2024), https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/28/world/middleeast/gaza-unrwa-hamas-israel.html.

[4] Intelligence Reveals Details of U.N. Agency Staff’s Links to Oct. 7 Attack, The Wall Street Journal (January 29, 2024), https://www.wsj.com/world/middle-east/at-least-12-u-n-agency-employees-involved-in-oct-7-attacks-intelligence-reports-say-a7de8f36.

[5] UNRWA review panel presents interim findings to Secretary-General, UN, (March 20, 2024), https://news.un.org/en/story/2024/03/1147796.

[6] Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, UN (February 21, 2024), https://press.un.org/en/2024/db240221.doc.htm.

[7] @HillelNeuer, X (March 22, 2024), https://x.com/HillelNeuer/status/1771139517170205067?s=20

[8] FranceInfo, March 5, 2024, “12/13 Info” program.

UN Watch