Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission
Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative for Foreign Affairs / Vice-President of the European Commission
Janez Lenarčič, European Commissioner for Crisis Management
Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement
Foreign Ministers and Development Ministers of the EU member states
February 7, 2024
RE: urgent call to restore and continue EU and member states’ funding to UNRWA
Dear President von der Leyen, High Representative Borrell, Commissioners Lenarčič and Várhelyi,
Dear Foreign Ministers and Development Ministers of EU member states,
We are writing in the context of the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Gaza to urge your government and the EU collectively to announce a clear intention to continuing support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
As you know, UNRWA was created by the UN General Assembly in 1949 to serve Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from the territory that became part of the state of Israel. It has about 30,000 employees and provides direct humanitarian assistance and human development and protection programming for more than 5.9 million Palestinian refugees registered with the agency and living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
Since the beginning of the current round of hostilities in Gaza, UNRWA and other humanitarian organizations and agencies have been operating under enormous duress. UNRWA is currently sheltering over 1 million displaced Palestinians in or near 150 facilities within Gaza, including its schools. At least 376 displaced people sheltered within the agency’s premises have been killed and 1,365 have been injured between October 7 and January 31, according to UNRWA. In this same period, UNRWA also reports that 152 of its employees have been killed since October 7 and 147 of its facilities damaged in 278 “incidents” related to the conduct of hostilities.
After Israeli authorities provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of its employees in the October 7 attacks, UNRWA announced that it had “immediately terminated” the contracts of the employees identified and opened an investigation to “establish the truth without delay.” The UN Secretary-General later confirmed the independence of the UN inquiry into the allegations, noting that the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) was immediately activated.
Despite that, the governments of Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania and Sweden, among others, announced that they are indefinitely pausing or considering pausing payments to UNRWA in response to the allegations that a dozen agency staff members were involved in the October 7 attacks. By contrast, the governments of Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain, rightly issued statements confirming their continued financial support to UNRWA, or even boosted it, while also underlining the importance of an investigation into the allegations. The EU High Representative also made a strong case to continue supporting the Agency and stressed that the suspended funds put UNRWA’s very existence at risk.
The accusations against UNRWA staff are serious and the UN appears to be taking them seriously. Should anyone be found to be responsible for criminal activities, they should be held accountable.
Withholding funds from the agency, though, could have dangerous consequences, both immediately and longer term.
Amid a desperate humanitarian situation, with people on the brink of famine, it is unconscionable to consider shutting down the UN agency most able to provide lifesaving food, water, and medicine to the more than 2.3 million people of Gaza. Aid groups have highlighted the vital need for and value of UNRWA’s operations in Gaza. In a joint statement, 21 humanitarian organizations said they were “shocked by the reckless decision to cut a lifeline for an entire population by some of the very countries that had called for aid in Gaza to be stepped up and for humanitarians to be protected while doing their job.” The director-general of the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders also echoed calls to donors not to suspend their UNRWA funding.
According to the Principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the longest-standing and highest-level humanitarian coordination forum of the UN system, “no other entity has the capacity to deliver the scale and breadth of assistance that 2.2 million people in Gaza urgently need.” Janti Soeripto, president and CEO of Save the Children, called it “magical thinking" for governments to think other aid groups can replace UNRWA in Gaza. The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council has said that other humanitarian groups combined “are not even close to being what UNRWA is for the people of Gaza.”
The announced halting of funding to UNRWA by some donor governments comes directly after a landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a case brought by South Africa against Israel for alleged violation of the UN Genocide Convention. Among the binding provisional measures ordered by the Court to prevent a genocide is that “[t]he State of Israel shall take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip”.
We are also concerned about the longer-term implications shutting down UNRWA would have, especially on the right of Palestinian refugees to return, enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 70 percent of Gaza’s population are refugees. UNRWA plays a unique role in keeping registers and issuing of documents for Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel, and their descendants. The Israeli government refusing to fulfil that right for 75 years lies squarely among the often-referenced “root causes” of the ongoing violence.
The Israeli government has referenced the recent allegations in order to further a longstanding campaign against UNRWA. In the wake of the most recent allegations being made public, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz highlighted on January 27 his government’s longstanding opposition to UNRWA, claiming among other things that the UN agency “perpetuates the refugee issue”, and disclosed that “under his leadership,” the Israeli government intends to “work to garner bipartisan support in the US, the European Union, and other nations globally for this policy aimed at halting UNRWA’s activities in Gaza.” Prime Minister Netanyahu made similar statements on January 31.
Pending investigations on the allegations against some UNRWA staff, and with no prejudice to the adoption of measures made necessary by the results of the investigations, we urge all EU member states that already announced a halt of their funding to UNRWA to reverse their decision, continue funding the agency and for the EU collectively to express commitment to continue supporting the agency in fulfilling its vital role.
Bruno Stagno Ugarte
Chief Advocacy Officer
Human Rights Watch