UN struggles to meet needs of refugees

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Established 60 years ago, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is now more relevant than ever, both as the purveyor of essential education, health and relief services and as a reminder to the international community of unfulfilled Palestinian rights that others take for granted. Unfortunately, while the agency's work has increased, so has its funding gap.

UNRWA's mandate, derived from UN Resolution 302, is to give emergency assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict and their descendants living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The resolution has since been renewed yearly and will continue so unless the international community reneges on its responsibilities towards Palestinian refugees.

This year, Canada voted once again with the majority supporting draft resolution A/C.4/64/L.11 on assistance to Palestine refugees, UNRWA's work and "the importance of its unimpeded operation." However, Canada withdrew its support from another resolution, entitled operations of UNRWA, and abstained for the first time when virtually all the international community, including most of our allies, voted in favour of it. The resolution, which was adopted, called "on Israel to comply fully with the provisions of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949, and to abide by Articles 100, 104 and 105 of the United Nations Charter and the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. Israel would be urged to speedily compensate the Agency for damages to its property and facilities, including as a result of the military operations in the Gaza Strip between December 2008 and January 2009, and to reimburse all transit charges and financial losses incurred as a result of delays and restrictions on movement and access it imposed."

UNRWA's buildings are essential to their efficient delivery of badly needed services, and must therefore be restored to their pre-Operation Cast Lead state. Putting the burden of reconstruction on UNRWA is unfair and unjust, especially considering that UNRWA is already struggling financially to meet the existing needs of the refugees. Expenses incurred because of Israeli military operations and restrictions on access and movement should be covered by Israel.

It is worth noting that well before Operation Cast Lead, Israel targeted non-Israeli infrastructure in Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) without ever facing consequences. Both Gaza's seaport and airport were destroyed, the seaport twice since 2002. United Nations buildings have also been targeted, including the UN peacekeepers' observation post in Southern Lebanon where Major Paeta Derek Hess-von Kruedener, a member of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, was killed along with three other peacekeepers.

However, in spite of repeated calls by human rights organizations, Israel has evaded accountability, putting itself above the rule of international law that applies to all other UN member states. Moreover, while the partition of Mandated Palestine was decided by a UNGA resolution, leading to the creation of the state of Israel, the UN has failed to enforce subsequent UN resolutions regarding Israel.

Canada's decision to abstain suggests that the Canadian government considers the state of Israel to be "exceptional" and not accountable for unacceptable norms of behaviour. As of November, Canada had not yet paid its overdue financial contribution for the operation of UNRWA share.

In his 2002 address to the UN General Assembly, George W. Bush said: "Are Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions to be honoured and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant? ...We want the resolutions of the world's most important multilateral body to be enforced."

UNSC Resolutions 237 of June 14, 1967 (Right of return of Palestinian inhabitants forced to flee from their homes), 242 of November 22, 1967 (Inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war), 252 of May 21, 1968 (calling on Israel to rescind measures changing the legal status of Jerusalem and to end its expropriation of land and properties), 446 of March 22, 1979 and 452 of July 20, 1979 (calling for the end of illegal settlement activity), 462 of March 1, 1980 (calling for the existing settlements to be dismantled) and more have yet to be implemented.

No such leeway was allowed in the cases of Iraq, Kosovo, East Timor, Rwanda and Sudan, against which the UN enforced such measures as arms embargos, economic sanctions and indictment at international tribunals.

Some 4.5 millions of Palestinian refugees are still living in camps with no end to their situation in sight. To Palestinians UNRWA is the human face of the international community. To the international community UNRWA is a reminder of the plight of the Palestinian refugees. It also represents the affirmation of our collective commitment to the Palestinian people and, as such, the symbol of our common humanity in inclusive terms. To paraphrase President Barack Obama, by investing in our common humanity, we strengthen our common security. UNRWA is therefore a key element of building peace in the Middle East.

But funding its humanitarian work is not enough. The international community must also address the Palestinians' quest for justice and human dignity. We should all add our voices to outgoing UNRWA Commissioner-General, Karen AbuZayd, who called recently "on the international community and the parties to the conflict to acknowledge the 60-year-old injustice as a first step towards addressing the consequences of that injustice. Let us build facts in the mind to create facts of a just and durable peace on the ground."

Bahija Réghaï is former president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations -- NCCAR.

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