U.S. politicization of humanitarian aid to UNRWA

Published: 28 January 2018 Author: Stefan Talmon

Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which resulted in many Palestinians being forced to flee their homeland, the United Nations General Assembly on 8 December 1949 established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestinian refugees in collaboration with local governments. In 2017, UNRWA provided essential services to some 5.3 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including running 700 schools and 140 health clinics. The United States has been UNRWA’s single largest donor for decades. In 2017, the United States contributed more than US$360 million to the UNRWA budget. Germany was the Agency’s second largest State donor contributing some US$ 76 million. Germany has also been a member of the UNRWA Advisory Commission since 2005.

On 6 December 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the United States were “no longer an honest mediator in the peace process” and that the Palestinians would “not accept any [peace] plan from the United States of America because of its bias and violation of the international law.” The Palestinian Authority also cancelled a scheduled meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during a visit to the region. This led U.S. President Trump openly to question financial aid payments to the Palestinians. On 2 January 2018, he tweeted:

“we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED [sic] OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel. […] But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

This thinly veiled threat of cutting aid to the Palestinians if they were not willing to negotiate a peace deal with Israel was followed on 16 January 2018 by an announcement by the U.S. Department of State that the United States was withholding US$65 million out of a US$125 million aid package earmarked for the UNRWA. Responding to questions, the State Department spokesperson said:

“You bring up an additional pot of money, and that’s also 2018 dollars: $65 million. That is money that will be held for future consideration. It’s money that’s being frozen at this time. It’s not being cancelled. It’s just being held for future consideration.

One of the things that the United States would like to do is see some revisions made in how UNRWA operates.

This is not aimed at punishing anyone. The United States Government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden sharing to go around. The United States has been, in the past, the largest single donor to UNRWA. We would like other countries – in fact, other countries that criticize the United States for what they believe to be our position vis-a-vis the Palestinians, other countries that have criticized us – to step forward and actually help with UNRWA, to do more. So we’re asking other countries to do more.”

The reason for the partial funding freeze was not, as stated, to “see some revisions made in how UNRWA operates”, but to bring the Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table. This was freely admitted by U.S. President Trump. Speaking to the press at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 25 January 2018, he said:

“That money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace, because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they’re going to have to want to make peace, too, or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer.

If you look back at the various peace proposals, and they are endless, and I spoke to some of the people involved. And I said, ‘Did you ever talk about the vast amount of funds, money that we give to the Palestinians? You know, we give hundreds of millions of dollars.’ And they said, ‘We never talk about it’. Well, we do talk about it. When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands, that money is on the table.”

Asked whether the Federal Government considered it helpful to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process when the U.S. President threatened to suspend payments in support of the Palestinians if they did not return to the negotiating table, the spokesperson of the Federal Foreign Office stated on 26 January 2018:

“With regard to the UNRWA refugee agency, I may add that we adhere to the general principle of international law that humanitarian aid must not be politicized, and that this organization is an important partner for the German Government and, in addition, an anchor of stability with regard to providing aid to the Palestinians.”

Five days later, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel criticized the United States for withholding funding to UNWRA. Speaking after a meeting with Palestinian President Abbas in Ramallah, he said:

“We have to make sure that the living conditions of Palestinians will stabilize. We think the funding cuts for UNWRA are mistaken. Germany is willing to provide support together with other partners to avoid increased suffering of Palestinian refugees.”

Germany was free to criticise the United States for the apparent political motivations behind the decision to freeze parts of the UNRWA funding. However, the suggestion that the United States violated a “general principle of international law that humanitarian aid must not be politicized” went too far. There is no legal obligation binding on States not to attach political considerations to their funding decisions. On the contrary, funding decisions have become increasingly political.

Both the United States and Germany are members of the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative, an inter-governmental donor forum and network. Germany is one of the co-chairs of the Initiative for 2016-2018. On 17 June 2003, members of the Initiative endorsed the “23 Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship” which, in principle 2, provides that humanitarian action should be guided by the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. The principle of “independence” is defined as “autonomy of humanitarian objectives from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.” It can thus be argued that the United States violated one of the principles of humanitarian donorship but not a general principle of international law. As a “soft law” instrument, the 23 Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship could not create any international legal obligation for the United States, let alone a general principle of international law.

Category: Sources of international law

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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