Former UNRWA official James Lindsay speaks on the agency’s future

At the September session of the Human Rights Council, UN Watch put a global spotlight on the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) during a breakout event in the Palais de Nations. Executive Director Hillel Neuer moderated a panel discussion on the agency’s future with former senior UNRWA official James Lindsay and Israeli intellectual and former Member of Knesset Dr. Einat Wilf. (See Mr. Lindsay’s full remarks below)



Remarks of Mr. James Lindsay

Side event at the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council

Geneva, Switzerland

Monday, September 23, 2019

I spent almost seven years with UNRWA, early in the century, when UNRWA was under great stress because the Second Intifada broke out in the late part of 2000 a month after I arrived in Gaza and then Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. All of this created a war zone in much of Gaza and the West Bank. It was a time when UNRWA was under a lot of stress. Those years gave me a certain amount of experience with UNRWA and while the future is never certain, I am at least reasonably qualified to discuss how things might go, how the future of UNRWA might be determined in the next few years.
My time with UNRWA led me to the conclusion that much the organization was doing required an examination. I saw particularly the American contribution to UNRWA to about one-third of the total budget. This reminded me of the saying that if you do the same thing again and again and expect a different outcome, you’re likely to be disappointed. I think that’s what happened with the United States during much of the first two decades and a half of this century. The United States and another donor stood, I will focus on the United States because that was my greatest concern, was pretty much unquestionable providing its contribution to the yearly budget to UNRWA.
It was not insisting upon UNRWA doing the sort of things that the Americans really wanted done, which in essence was to try to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem and promote a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The fact that they were simply unquestioningly giving the money every year and allowing things not to change, struck me as being very dysfunctional. And so, when I left UNRWA, after my seven years or so, I decided to write a paper on what my experience had been and what I thought should change. That paper was done with the sponsorship of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and was published in 2009. It was quite extensive. It’s very long—much longer than the usual publications for the Washington Institute and it suggested many things that should be done and could be done were the United States to take some action in order to try to achieve the goals that it had set in the Middle East. I wanted to contribute to the goals being the pursuit of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis and the ending of the Palestine refugee problem.
The paper was published in 2009. Basically, for the next ten years, nothing really happened. The new administration had just come in and it basically had other things it was concerned about—the new American administration, the Obama Administration. It took no action really whatsoever to change anything. It was one of these things we’re going to push down the road that are not causing huge problems.
In 2017, after the Trump administration came in, there apparently was an increased push on UNRWA by the Americans to try to get them to try to move in the direction that the Americans were interested in—ending the refugee problem and promoting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
At the very beginning of 2018 the administration announced its efforts to push UNRWA toward these sorts of reforms had been unsuccessful and it was suspending aid. It was suspending aid—future aid to UNRWA—even though it had already contributed about 60 million dollars for 2018. And shortly thereafter, after what the Trump administration considered an insufficient response from UNRWA, it simply cut the aid completely. No one had ever done anything like this before and it caused great consternation not only within UNRWA but also amongst the donors in general which provided the funds for UNRWA.
As a result, UNRWA was under great stress. Then, a few months later, I think it was May of 2018, the Swiss foreign minister spoke out on UNRWA in ways that showed they were not nearly as supportive as they had been in the past, talking about UNRWA perhaps being a part of the problem and not so much a part of the solution. This was really unheard-of criticism from Europeans. He also said, as many people have said, that UNRWA tended to focus the Palestinians view on the so-called right of return, that is the idea that every person UNRWA has declared to be a refugee should be allowed to return over any objections from Israel to what is now the State of Israel. It did not go well at all but still there was no great change except on the American side.
The money that the Americans had taken away was not accumulating. It was largely made up by Europeans and Arab countries primarily Germany and Saudi Arabia. So, I think that perhaps the UN felt under pressure, UNRWA felt under pressure but not terribly so. There have been rumors that at least the salary contribution might have been conditioned on the idea that UNRWA would change in ways that the Americans had suggested. Whether that’s true, I don’t know, this has been reported but not as a direct quote from any official.
Then, we have what Hillel just described, in the last couple months, this really scandalous accusation about the top echelon of UNRWA. That sort of accusation does not really point at any structural problem. It’s rather a personnel problem and it can lead to a great embarrassment, but not necessarily to great change so I think it added to the pressure on UNRWA and it adds to the bad publicity, the bad view people can have of UNRWA. So, I think that right now, we’re probably in a situation under a great deal of stress and if there is ever going to be a time in which we can change UNRWA—reform UNRWA—it may well be that now is the time. So, it could be that the future of UNRWA will in fact be different from the past of UNRWA, at least the recent years.
How the sort of changes could be made so that the future of UNRWA was different from its past? Perhaps the main change that needs to be made, and I’ve argued for over a year, has been to change the definition of a refugee. When UNRWA first began its operations, it had a very loose definition of a refugee and it included things like for instance “need”, UNRWA was providing rations to people who were starving, they were providing blankets to people who were freezing, it was very much of a humanitarian organization focus on immediate needs of people in great distress.
That definition that they used was not difficult. It was not a problem at the time. Even so, UNRWA at that time made great efforts to clarify who was legally a refugee, who was entitled to their services. This involved removing a number of people from the roles—people who had perhaps, in some cases, used more than one name, so they were getting double rations; people who died, things of that nature. And it resulted in a substantial decrease in the number of refugees. Something like that probably needs to be done again today because now UNRWA is a very different organization, it’s no longer providing immediate relief. The amount of UNRWA budget that goes toward what we would call welfare payments to people who are extremely poor is quite small—10%, I think, the last time I checked.
Most of UNRWA’s expenditures are for education and medical care and other ancillary services. These are basically governmental responsibilities and there’s no particular reason why UNRWA should be providing governmental services to a particular group of people who UNRWA, now under their definition, called refugees. This definition issue is a difficult one because the UNRWA definition is quite different from the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, definition.
When you look at the people who are considered refugees by UNRWA compared to the people who would be refugees under the UNHCR definition, which is the definition that appears in the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951, the main difference and the one that would have the greatest impact upon UNRWA’s operations is that the UNHCR does not consider someone a refugee who has acquired citizenship in another country. In other words, if you have been a refugee but then you become a citizen, you can no longer be a refugee. If you can’t be a refugee under those definitions, then a very large number of UNRWA Palestinian refugees would not be refugees at all. For instance, in Jordan approximately 90% of the people UNRWA considers Palestine refugees are citizens of Jordan, and they would not be refugees under the UNHCR, or the UN Convention terms.
So, I think that perhaps the first thing that needs to be done would be to address this particular issue and if there is the ability of the donors to change the definition—to make it consistent with every other refugee in the world that would be a very desirable thing. Now I’m not suggesting that people should immediately be switched. In other words, the day that the definition changed I wouldn’t expect 1.8 million Jordanian “citizen/refugees”—oxymoronic term—to suddenly become dependent on Jordanian government services. This would have to be a sort of a general—a gradual—rather transfer of responsibility from UNRWA to the Jordanian government. The Jordanian government said that they don’t want to do that. It is the public position of the Jordanian government. But these are things that would have to be done during the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
It was 2001, there was a discussion about ending UNRWA and the proposition was that it would be ended gradually over a five-year period. There’s no reason why that couldn’t be done now, taking into account that the money that is going to UNRWA would have to be, at least initially, transferred to the new provider of services, in this case the Jordanian government. Otherwise, I think it would be unfair, 1.8 million people, the responsibility for their education for their health care, for their various other things that UNRWA does, urban planning, microfinance. There would have to be a transition period in which the money would be transferred to the Jordanian government.  And this is true in the other areas as well. There are certainly some people who have been granted Lebanese citizenship—some people, meaning some Palestine refugees, they were mostly Christian refugees to be fair, and there have been some also in Syria.
In addition to this, it would be helpful if UNRWA changed its definition of refugee, which is perhaps the most important. The mandate currently is focused on providing governmental services and on providing legal protection to Palestine refugees. In my view, the original purpose of UNRWA was to provide relief which was desperately needed at the time, and otherwise assist these Palestine refugees. It was relief, and resettlement, to get them back into the economic culture of their societies from which they had been uprooted by the 1947-48-49 war. If that could be done, that would certainly be helpful.
There have been issues also with textbooks, there are many writings on this particularly with regard to the ones that are in use in the Palestinian areas, but also in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, in each of these and we would need to examine this. UNRWA has resisted this on the basis that they want to use the textbooks that are provided by the governments in the countries where they are operating, but there’s no particular reason why that would have to be true. The UN has UNESCO, which is focused on education. UNESCO could easily review the books that are in use now, make whatever changes are necessary.
If all of these things were done it would be a big benefit to UNRWA. It would be back to achieving its original goals of moving people out of refugee status and into citizen status which in some cases, as pointed out, they already are. And it would probably result in an overwhelming support of UNRWA‘s budget including the reintegration of the American contributions to UNRWA.
These are the main things that would have to be done, and I think they could be done. At the present time, UNRWA is under great stress; and it would be a good time if donors could come together and try to push forward these rational changes. That would be UNRWA, once again fulfilling its original goal of supporting the refugees and moving them out of refugee status integrating them into the life of the societies where they are.
Thank you.

UN Watch