Time for transparency and accountability for UNRWA

So do U.S. taxpayers get to see independent audits of how UNRWA spends its money? No. In fact, most U.S. taxpayers have no idea what UNRWA does. If they did, they might insist on more transparency and accountability for this unusual international organization.


Here are a few facts about UNRWA:

It was originally founded in 1949 as a temporary agency to provide relief services to Palestinian refugees and is the only United Nations agency dedicated to one specific group of refugees. (For example, there were millions of refugees after World War II, but the U.N. set up only one — UNRWA — dedicated to serve Palestinians and Palestinians alone.)
UNRWA’s definition of the refugees to whom it devotes its time and attention are well beyond the original 900,000 Palestinian refugees who were identified in 1950. Today the number served is over 4.5 million. Why? Because UNRWA has defined its mission to serve the descendents of the original 900,000. This means grandchildren or even great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees are the focus of UNRWA’s attention — in refugee camps located in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. (Some might ask: Why haven’t the Saudis, with all their oil money, contributed to finding homes for the great-grandparents, parents, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees over these 60 years?)

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency tasked with resolving refugee problems worldwide, employs approximately 6,300 staff to care for a global refugee population of 11.4 million — not counting the 4.5 million Palestinians served exclusively by UNRWA. Yet the UNHCR gets along with a worldwide staff of approximately 6,300 people. And how many staff does UNRWA employ for less than one-half the number of refugees in a concentrated area in the Middle East? The latest estimate: over 24,000 people, and most of them Palestinians — with a total budget in 2008 of over $400 million. (Some might ask: Why do the Palestinians require more almost four times the number of paid staff in the Middle East to serve less than one-half the number of people served by the UNHCR globally?)

According to the UNRWA Report of the Board of Auditors for the biennium ended Dec. 31, 2005, UNRWA does not track recording, deleting, renaming or manipulation of financial information by staff members or volunteers, and therefore has no means of detecting the alteration of financial data or other types of redirection of UNRWA funding. (Some might ask: Why not? Why doesn’t the U.N. require an independent auditor to track all use of funds and put everything on the Internet for all to see — especially U.S. taxpayers?)

These and other facts are all contained in a resolution introduced this year by Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) along with over 20 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors. The legislation is aimed at requiring, at the very least, full transparency and accountability by UNRWA. And in two specific areas — support of terrorism and the teaching of anti-Semitic and -Israeli hate — Rothman demands answers.

For example, there is significant evidence that members of Hamas, an organization that the U.S. lists as terrorist — meaning it intentionally kills Israeli civilians to achieve its announced goal of destroying the state of Israel — are on UNRWA’s payroll. According to Rothman’s resolution, in 2004, Peter Hansen, then the commission-general of UNRWA, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., “I am sure that there are Hamas members on the UNRWA payroll, and I don’t see that as a crime.”

Moreover, there is indisputable evidence that anti-Semitic and anti-Israel textbooks are being used in UNRWA-sponsored schools — including texts that contain negative references to Jews and omit entirely the state of Israel from maps.
Rothman’s resolution would urge the secretary of State to take all necessary measures (including, presumably, a full investigation) to determine whether UNRWA is using, contrary to U.S. law, U.S. tax dollars for Hamas terrorists on its payrolls or to further terrorist propaganda; to publish online copies of all educational materials used in UNRWA-administered schools; and to use terrorist name-recognition software to ensure that UNRWA staff and volunteers are not terrorists or affiliated with terrorist organizations.

And then there is the question of the anti-Israel bias of UNRWA’s top officials, also paid in large part by U.S. taxpayers. The record of UNRWA press spokesman Chris Gunness for biased statements against Israel is widely perceived.
Rothman has the right idea — turn the lights on, ramp up transparency and accountability, and then U.S. taxpayers and voters can decide whether they still want to send their hundreds of millions of dollars to support UNRWA.

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.