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UN chief appoints independent panel to probe allegations on Agency for Palestinian refugees

February 5, 2024 at 8:55 pm

United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks to press ahead of the Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York, United States on October 13, 2023. [Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images]

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, announced Monday that he is appointing an independent new panel to determine if the UN’s Palestine refugee agency, or UNRWA, is acting neutrally in its operations, in response to “allegations of serious breaches”, Anadolu Agency reports.

The external review group will be led by former French Foreign Minister, Catherine Colonna, Guterres said in a statement. She will work with three research firms in carrying out the probe: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

The panel will be seated 14 February and is expected to submit an interim report to Guterres by late March, with a final public report to follow the month after. The oversight comes in response to a request made by UNRWA Commissioner-General, Phillipe Lazzarini.

At least 18 countries suspended funding for the Agency based on Israel’s allegations that a dozen of the Agency’s roughly 13,000 staff members in Gaza were involved in the 7 October cross-border attack by Hamas.

Israel has repeatedly equated UNRWA staff with Hamas members in efforts to discredit them, providing no proof of the claims, while lobbying hard to have UNRWA closed as it is the only UN agency to have a specific mandate to look after the basic needs of Palestinian refugees. If the agency no longer exists, argues Israel, then the refugee issue must no longer exist, and the legitimate right for Palestinian refugees to return to their land will be unnecessary. Israel has denied that right of return since the late 1940s, even though its own membership of the UN was made conditional upon Palestinian refugees being allowed to return to their homes and land.

The UN agency has launched an investigation into the allegations, and Guterres has been engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity to have donors resume funding. The UNRWA said it could shut down all of its operations across the region this month if funding is not restored.

The review panel will conduct its work in parallel with the ongoing investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services. The Secretary-General said Israel’s cooperation in that internal probe “will be critical to the success of the investigation”.

“These accusations come at a time when UNRWA, the largest UN organisation in the region, is working under extremely challenging conditions to deliver life-saving assistance to the 2 million people in the Gaza Strip who depend on it for their survival, amidst one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in the world,” he said.

The review group that Guterres is setting up will be tasked with identifying mechanisms and procedures that the UNRWA has established “to ensure neutrality and to respond to allegations or information indicating that the principle may have been breached.”

It will also seek to determine “how those mechanisms and procedures have, or have not, been implemented in practice”, and will “make recommendations for the improvement and strengthening, if necessary, of the mechanisms and procedures that are currently in place.”

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