On 9th September 2021, as part of the Question of Palestine program, Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD) organized a workshop to examine the recent resumption of US funding to UNRWA and the related conditionality as reflected in the US-UNRWA Cooperation Framework 2021-2022. The event was triggered by the critical reaction to, and intense debate generated by this agreement among regional civil society and institutional actors. The ‘new agreement’, critics maintain, turns UNRWA into an “intelligence agent for the occupation.”
The workshop, moderated by ARDD Executive Director Samar Muhareb, wished to clarify the main problems in the new ‘Cooperation Framework between the US and UNRWA’ and how related issues should be tackled, particularly considering the enormous pressure and challenges both UNRWA and the refugees face. Former UNRWA staff members, Francesca Albanese (formerly at UNRWA Department of Legal Affairs) and Lex Takkenberg (former Chief of Ethics, among others) offered their contributions on the topic, followed by critical reflections and input from the international legal expert Dr. Anis El-Kassim.
The speakers stressed the need for “clarity and openness” when discussing the terms of the cooperation framework and its legal aspects after the US decided to resume its funding to UNRWA, which it had suspended in 2018. Muhareb stressed the importance of having national and international entities working in synergy to preserve the rights of Palestinian refugees and to provide them with the necessities of a dignified life.
Albanese indicated that, technically, the Framework is neither an international agreement nor a contract and, as it is stated in its own preamble, it is not governed by international law and does not create legally binding legal obligations for parties under international or domestic law. As such it does not, and it cannot relinquish other obligations UNRWA has vis-a-vis the refugees, nor undermine the fundamental rights of the refugees.
The conditions written in the Cooperation Framework reflect US funding requirements as per Foreign Assistance Act 1961 (section 301(c)), which prohibits that US funds directly or indirectly provide support to anyone who participates in military training or in activities that may contribute to fueling hatred or inciting acts of violence or “terrorism” (sic). The same Act regulates the funds that the US provides to the Palestinian Authority. Albanese argued that this incites various problems as it creates possibilities for the donor to impose obligations, leading to extraordinary limitations on the civil and political rights of the refugees.
Albanese emphasized that while the language may read strong, “neither the Framework nor its language and general content was introduced in the context of resumption of US funds to UNRWA”. “The withdrawal of the United States from its responsibilities towards Palestinian refugees and the host countries that had occurred in 2018 had serious repercussions on UNRWA’s services, especially in emergency situations, as well as on the overall morale of the Agency and the refugees.” The resumption of US funds was not only necessary but due, and the US and UNRWA naturally restored the Cooperation Framework that they had been using since around 2008.
Based on his work with UNRWA for more than 30 years, Takkenberg noted that what is mentioned in the Framework, i.e., UNRWA’s compliance with impartiality and neutrality standards was always present. The concept of neutrality –Albanese noted – was introduced by UNRWA around 2008/2009 (after 9/11 and the second intifada), in response to US pressure on the agency to provide information on the use of its funds. UNRWA stressed that as a UN agency, UNRWA is naturally bound by neutrality (through its staff, facilities, vendors, and support to beneficiaries).
Takkenberg noted that the concept of neutrality requires that “Humanitarian actors, irrespective of their personal beliefs or opinions, must not take sides in hostilities or engage in public controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature”: this is the compelling principle for UNRWA and all in the humanitarian community.
Takkenberg acknowledged that “Neutrality is a very difficult principle and may not be in line with human rights and international covenants that guarantee freedom of opinion and expression, as it prevents UNRWA staff from talking about violations and problems facing refugees and others.” He emphasized the implications surrounding the word ‘neutrality’ and how UNRWA may apply this concept. He noted that what some countries might consider as “terrorists”, other countries might consider “freedom fighters.” However, he considered that the principle of neutrality also means condemning violations that affect humanity, regardless of the party that commits them; it is an important principle to keep balance among parties and gaining their trust in order to reach the largest number of beneficiaries and eventually protect both (UNRWA) beneficiaries and staff.
Participants acknowledged that this may open the door to undue donors’ pressure, which is particularly concerning where the concept of neutrality is anchored – as the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act stipulates regarding assistance both to UNRWA and the Palestinians in general – to the prevention of terrorism. Presently, there is no universally unified definition of terrorism. As UNRWA is a UN agency and is not governed by local laws, it cannot adhere only to the US definitions of terrorism, as there is no internationally agreed-upon definition for terrorism. El-Kassim offered his interpretation on the ‘agreement’, that “Although this framework in its introduction is considered not legally binding, it is full of legal obligations,” he stressed that “neutrality, as stated in the document, contains many legal inaccuracies, and does not adhere to international standards.” He indicated that the US’ fear of terrorism is not based on correct legal facts, given that there are more than 22 legal definitions of terrorism.
In response to a question about the impact of the framework on education, El-Kassim said: “Those responsible for the curricula must be aware, for any distortion of the Palestinian curriculum constitutes a violation of the laws of the host country. The people have the right to preserve their identity and struggle.” Regarding the right of return, El-Kassim stressed that no one can tamper with the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and lands that were forcibly stolen from them.
It was pointed out that some critics of the framework found in its provisions what may constitute blackmail to push UNRWA to spy on its employees; at the same time, they also consider the biometric fingerprinting as constituting a violation of the refugees’ privacy and a new burden for them.
While the participants agreed that biometrics is a way of enhancing the registration of Palestinian refugees, taking advantage of the latest technology. However, they also added that there are data protection risks. They also called for an open discussion between experts as well as between experts and refugees with the aim to ensure their information and participation as much as possible and to ensure there is transparency about data protection and that all the information is protected.
The participants recommended reviewing the Legal aspect of the framework to maintain clarity on what exactly is problematic in the new Cooperation Framework and how related issues should be tackled, especially with regard to the civil rights of refugees, and stressed the importance of coordination between host countries and UNRWA, and of launching a dialogue within this framework, to address fears and convey hope.