Recommendations to UNRWA: Restore Trust through Concrete Actions

The activities of U.N. agencies in conflict zones should be premised on maintaining a distance from both sides in a clash. Trust can only be restored through concrete actions being done, in order to dispel doubts over the neutrality of the U.N. agency in question.

An independent U.N. review panel has listed problems with staff management and operations regarding the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and made 50 recommendations for improvements.

A report released by the panel calls on UNRWA to immediately improve the situation, pointing to instances of the U.N. agency’s staffers expressing political views and using textbooks with antisemitic content in schools.

Even if this behavior was limited to only some staffers, the fact that UNRWA undermined its neutrality is a serious matter. The U.N. agency needs to take the panel’s findings seriously.

Israel has alleged that 12 UNRWA staffers were involved in the surprise attack by the Islamist group Hamas against Israel in October last year. In response, the independent panel was set up in February to probe the allegations.

An internal U.N. body has continued to separately investigate the allegations.

UNRWA has been engaged in support work — such as providing medical services, operating schools and distributing supplies — for about 5.9 million Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Amid the escalating humanitarian crisis, the importance of UNRWA’s role has been increasing.

Most of the UNRWA personnel involved in such missions are refugees. It is not surprising that historically, they may have animosity against Israel. But as long as UNRWA is an U.N. agency, their personal feelings must not take precedence.

UNRWA’s senior management should take great care to ensure that the agency’s personnel do not act in collusion with one of the warring parties. In addition to background checks at the time of recruitment, once staffers get assignments they must be checked constantly as to whether they have any links with terrorist organizations. Improved training is also imperative.

Following the allegations that UNRWA staffers were involved in the surprise attack by Hamas, Japan, the United States and European Union countries temporarily halted financial contributions to the agency.

Because UNRWA has since promised to improve its staff management ability and properly handle funds for refugee support programs, Japan and some European countries have resumed their funding. However, the United States, the largest donor country for the agency, has been negative about restoring its financial support.

If UNRWA’s activities are stalled, the refugees who rely on its assistance are likely to fall into dire straits. That could cause the number of people starving to death in Gaza to increase. To prevent such a situation, UNRWA first needs to self-regulate.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 5, 2024)