415th Meeting (AM)

Calling Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees ‘Backbone’ of Humanitarian Response in Gaza, Secretary-General Urges Member States to Continue Funding

Donor countries that have suspended funding to the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees — following allegations of staff involvement in the 7 October attacks against Israel — should reverse their decisions, speakers told the Palestinian Rights Committee today, as they stressed that such cuts will penalize millions of aid recipients, rather than individuals implicated in the case.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) “is the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza”, said Secretary-General António Guterres in his remarks to the forum, formally known as the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.  “I appeal to all Member States to guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s life-saving work.”

He emphasized that the United Nations immediately acted following the serious allegations against UNRWA staff members.  “I was personally horrified by these accusations,” he said, noting that on 30 January, he met with donors to listen to their concerns and outline steps to address them.  The humanitarian system in Gaza is collapsing, he warned, reiterating his call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, reported that the city of Rafah near the Egypt border has been inundated with people displaced from their homes.  “There is a huge bubble on the fence between Egypt and Gaza,” he said, warning that if the war continues, “this bubble might burst” and 1.5 million Palestinians — living a second Nakba — might flee to the Egyptian side.

It is high time for Palestine to become a full member of the United Nations, he demanded, stressing that “no issue at the UN enjoys more global consensus than the unity around a two-State solution”.  To reach that goal, an international peace conference must be convened.  A resolution will be put forward in the General Assembly to that end.  If lessons are not learned from this tragic situation in Gaza and from the past 75 years, then “we did not learn a damn thing”, he said, imploring:  “We need results and we need to see it as quickly as possible.”  The Palestinian people deserve their inherent rights, including self-determination, statehood and the rights of the refugees.

Gréta Gunnarsdóttir, Director of the UNRWA Representative Office New York, appealed to Member States that suspended funding to the agency to reconsider their decisions, indicating that the agency would run out of money after February 2024.  “If we collapse, the whole operation in Gaza will collapse,” she said, explaining that other humanitarian organizations depend on UNRWA — by far the largest humanitarian actor, with 13,000 staff members in the enclave.  If the agency’s services stop, the impact will be immediately felt on its five fields of operation — Gaza, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Turning to the allegations against 12 of its staff members, she reported that the agency’s Commissioner General terminated the contracts of eight staff members without any prior investigation.  It is an exceptional measure given the severity of these allegations.  Two are confirmed dead, one has not been identified and one does not match with staff lists.  The Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has launched an investigation, she noted, expressing hope that it will proceed swiftly.

Also addressing the Committee was the representative of South Africa who reported on her country’s case — filed with the International Court of Justice — against Israel concerning alleged genocide committed in Gaza. She said that South Africa and Israel are both parties to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and must fulfil their obligations.  In instituting proceedings, her country also requested provisional measures, because it would take long for the case to conclude.  On 26 January, the Court ruled that Israel must take all measures to prevent the commission of genocide and take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of humanitarian aid in Gaza.

The Court fell short of honouring South Africa’s request for a ceasefire, she noted.  However, for Israel to implement provisional measures, it needs a ceasefire.  If Israel does not respect the Court’s ruling, South Africa will invoke any legal provision at its disposal for its enforcement, including Article 94 of the Charter of the United Nations.

In the ensuing discussion, Committee members expressed firm support for South Africa’s case before the Court, Palestine’s bid for full United Nations membership and the convening of an international peace conference. They also urged donors to continue their funding to UNRWA.

The representative of Indonesia said that the allegations must be investigated, but reactions must be proportionate, insisting that “innocent Palestinians should not be the ones to be punished”.

The representative of Türkiye, as Chair of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA, asked the donors that suspended funding to the agency to reverse their decisions, also welcoming the Court’s ruling.

The representative of Cuba called for a ceasefire and unhindered aid delivery and rejected a forcible displacement of Palestinians by Israel.  The United States is complicit in enabling the occupying Power to act with impunity, he said, citing the use of veto by Washington, D.C., in the Security Council to block a ceasefire.

The representative of Nicaragua applauded the courage of South Africa in bringing the issue to the Court, also expressing support for Palestine to be recognized as a full United Nations member.  He also backed the convening of an international conference.

The representative of Malaysia underscored the crucial role played by UNRWA, pledging that his country will continue its financial contribution to the agency.  Millions of Palestinians should not be punished due to the allegations against several of the 13,000 UNRWA staff members.

The representative of Venezuela expressed regret that the Court fell short of ordering a ceasefire despite the clear demand for it.  UNRWA’s work is irreplaceable, he stressed, warning that several donors’ decisions would prolong the collective punishment of Gazans.

The representative of China expressed support for a comprehensive solution to the question of Palestine.  The Court’s provisional measures must be implemented, he said, urging Israel to remove all restrictions on aid delivery.  The two-State formula is the only way out of the long-lasting conflict.

The representative of Guyana said that as a Security Council member, her delegation will work towards a ceasefire, advocating for the implementation of all relevant Council and General Assembly resolutions.

An observer for the State of Palestine said that funding cuts are punitive, only causing more hunger, more deprivation, more destitution, more despair and more suffering.  Such an inhumane, reckless outcome must be averted.

The representative of Bolivia called for a ceasefire, welcoming provisional measures ordered by the Court.  She urged donors to reconsider their decisions and expressed support for Palestine’s full United Nations membership as well as a two-State solution.

In other business, the Committee adopted its work programme for 2024 and unanimously re-elected Cheikh Niang (Senegal) as Committee Chair.

“It is time to begin to heal the wounds” that have been reopened on both sides, which is essential for rebuilding confidence-building measures and recreating a path to peaceful coexistence,” he said, advocating for a two-State solution — Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace and security within recognized borders based on the pre-1967 lines.

The Committee will continue to engage with Member States and regional groups to advance the Palestinian cause, he pledged, expressing support for any initiative aimed at the full realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and a just and law-based solution.

For information media. Not an official record.