James G. Lindsay at the International Summit for a Future Beyond UNRWA

James G. Lindsay, Former UNRWA General Counsel

Full Remarks:

Thank you Hillel. Very kind. Good afternoon now and thank you for all being here and for that long introduction. 

During my years with UNRWA, I suggested several ways that the agency could improve its operations. But I found that these sorts of suggestions were not welcome by the people in charge.

I started as a senior lawyer, but not the senior lawyer, and neither the senior lawyer nor the other members of the UN staff were receptive to really any changes to be made to UNRWA.

After leaving the agency, and as a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, I wrote a monograph entitled, “Fixing UNRWA” which urged UNRWA to make a large number of reforms.

It’s now 15 years since I wrote that and other people have also made critiques of UNRWA and suggested ways that it can be improved. As near as I can tell, all of those suggestions, mine and other people’s, have remained unwelcome, and they certainly remain unheeded. 

With the recent intelligence indicating that large numbers of UNRWA staff are associated with terrorist groups, a lot of the calls for reforming UNRWA  have somewhat fallen by the wayside and been replaced by calls to end UNRWA.

But how exactly would that be done?

There are three ways that I can think of that it could in fact be ended. 

The first one is, the General Assembly of the United Nations created UNRWA and it could end UNRWA. 

As a practical matter, that’s probably not going to happen. Most recently in December of 2022, the General Assembly once again renewed UNRWA’s mandate for another three years. The votes on that were: there was 1 vote against renewing UNRWA, there were 10 abstensions, and there 157 votes in favor of continuing UNRWA, so as a practical matter, I don’t think this is going to happen in the General Assembly.


Another way to end UNRWA is for the donor nations to withhold their donations. Which is a bit of what we’ve been hearing today already. Moving the donations from UNRWA to somewhere else.

In the past that has not been overwhelmingly successful. In 2018, the Trump Administration eliminated all American aid to UNRWA, but other countries, including European countries increased their aid to try to offset the loss of American aid. And to a very large extent that did occur and UNRWA was not forced to make any changes of significance.

In 2019, somewhat better story, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands temporarily withheld their donations due to a scandal involving UNRWA’s Commissioner General, and their donations were renewed, but only after the Commissioner General had resigned. So there was a bit of a modest success there.

Right now we have, as some of the speakers have mentioned, a situation in which 18 of the largest donors have withheld their denotations. They have paused them. But the language used with this discussion of pausing is suggesting that the donations would resume once the UN internal investigations were completed and UNRWA gave assurances that corrective actions were being taken.  

Still, that’s not very encouraging really, but still there are two things about this that are unprecedented. Firstly, is the large number of donors pausing their donations. That’s 18 and they constitute at least two-thirds of the money that UNRWA needs to constitute its professed budget.

The second thing is that the US is being pressed by the Congress to eliminate funding, and that has forced the administration to mention that it is looking at alternatives i.e. non-UNRWA ways to provide aid to Gaza. Again, that is something that the Americans have not done before. And one can hope that other donors who have paused will be trying to do the same thing.

I believe it’s possible that the donor nations could defund and thus end UNRWA. But it is not 100 percent sure by any stretch of the imagination.

The third way to end UNRWA is for the host nations to refuse UNRWA access to the areas under their jurisdiction. Now as a practical matter, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon will not take that step. They see themselves, and want to be seen as being supportive of the Palestinian cause. And in addition, they fear that they will be the ones that end up paying the bill. 

Israel though, which controls the borders of Gaza and the West Bank, is different. Israel has been hinting that it would be using the defeat of the terrorist forces in Gaza and the subsequent Israeli occupation to create a new and peaceful self-governing authority. There have been a lot of rumors in the Israeli press about what that would consist of. But as part of this ambitious plan UNRWA would be replaced by other organizations as quickly as possible without creating some sort of a humanitarian disaster. The Israeli military particularly has been concerned that removing UNRWA immediately would cause them difficulty in their  operations 

As of last Friday, these hints have become more realistic when Prime Minister Netanyahu said it has become official Israeli policy to remove UNRWA and to create a peace-loving state in Gaza.

Even if the Israeli plans succeed in Gaza and even if it is successfully transmitted to the West Bank, it really doesn’t appear that UNRWA will disappear like tomorrow. Not in Gaza, certainly not in the West Bank, and for sure not in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. It just won’t happen. 

So in my view while UNRWA  still exists, whether in whole in all 5 areas or even in just 3 of them, even if just continued in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, the donors, if they can’t end UNRWA, they must insist upon it being reformed. 

The reforms are ones that people have indicated for many years that should be made. And I’ll give you the most important ones. The first is of course because of October 7 is that all UNRWA staff and all beneficiaries should be vetted for terrorist ties using information provided by donor nations and the relevant host nations, including the Israeli government. 

Second, as Ambassador Ross mentioned, those agencies denominated Palestine refugees who are not actually refugees according to the UN convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees, should be removed from the roles of UNRWA. There are about 1.8 million of these oxymoronic citizen refugees in Jordan alone. This is out of the 5.9, so with the stroke of the pen, you could reduce the size of UNRWA dramatically. 

Thirdly, as I’ve urged on UNRWA many times in the past, they should move from a status base i.e. a person who is called a Palestine refugee by their definition, to a needs-based provision of services. There’s no particular reason why people who don’t need aid should be given aid, which makes less available for those who need aid

Fourthly, UNRWA should eliminate from its currently used educational materials all anti-Israel and antisemitic material incompatible with UN principles and it should immediately revise its textbooks and curricula as necessary. This has been urged on UNRWA for many many years. And the excuses they give for not doing it are quite weak. They insist that they have to use local textbooks so that when their students graduate from grade school and go to high school that they will be properly prepared, as if there is some sort of UNRWA mathematics which is different from Syrian mathematics. There is no reason why, and I have proposed many times, that all their materials be vetted by some neutral body like UNESCO to remove any anti-UN principles material. 

And lastly, As I’ve said, and this is still a big issue, UNRWA, and particularly its commissioner generals, should refrain from making political comments which they do all the time unnecessarily. 


So in summation, I think for the first time there is a real possibility of movement towards ending UNRWA at least in Gaza and the West Bank. But that said, as long as UNRWA operations continue, donor nations should demand that those reforms I just mentioned should be enacted. Doing so would make UNRWA more rational, less political, and much smaller, and when the time comes, easier to end. Thank you.  


UN Watch