The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) provides life-saving food, education and medical services to over 5 million Palestinian refugees, including these ones in Syria. The Harper government reduced to zero the Canadian financial contribution. The Trudeau government is hesitating about restoring funding. Read more
When Prime Minister Trudeau met UN head Ban Ki Moon in New York, officials in Ban’s office were confident that Trudeau would commit to restoring Canada’s contribution to UNRWA. After all, Canada had announced that it wanted a seat on the Security Council, and Mr. Trudeau had made it clear that “Canada is back”.
In fact, the UN secretary general was so confident of Canada’s restored funding that his office released a press release saying so. However, much to the embarrassment of every one, Trudeau did not make such a commitment, and the press release had to be “walked back”.
Nearly 800,000 Palestinians were made refugees in 1947/48 when the State of Israel was created. Canada and many other nations including the USA contributed to UNRWA from the beginning, recognizing its humanitarian role and expecting that the problem would some day be resolved.
But still no solution to the refugee issue has been found after 68 years, and the financial demands on UNRWA grow every year. The agency is now responsible for over 5 million Palestinian refugees, and it runs operations in 58 refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.
The Harper Government dropped Canada’s core funding to UNRWA in 2010, leaving only money for “special “ programs, and even that was eventually cut. Embarassingly, Canada contributes nothing to this UN agency despite our desire to be a player at the UN.
Deer in the headlights
Trudeau is caught between opposing pressures. The Israel lobby, which has significant influence within the Liberal Party, actually opposes the very existence of UNRWA, which is a constant reminder of the Palestinian “Nakba’.
“UNRWA is a counterproductive anachronism, especially when juxtaposed with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency responsible for all other refugee populations throughout the world.” argued Shimon Fogel Chief Executive of CIJA, the main Israel lobby organization in Canada in an article in the Globe and Mail.
Undoubtedly, Israel is also made uncomfortable by UNRWA’s constant law based public advocacy for refugees and their challenges such as Israel’s ongoing home demolitions in the West Bank, and the effects of Israeli policy in Gaza and elsewhere..
On the other hand, many Canadians feel that until the Palestinian refugee issue is dealt with, Canada should recognize this as an ongoing humanitarian crisis – just as important as, for example, the Syrian crisis, which has gained a lot more attention recently.
Support for UNRWA in Canada is growing. Many Canadian church groups and other organizations, including Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, have begun lobbying for a restoration of Canadian funding.
Support has also come from former Canadian diplomats with experience in the area. In an op ed in the Globe and Mail, “Why Canada should restore funding for Palestinian relief agency”, Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel points out that while many countries continue to finance UNRWA, Canada is the only one to have withdrawn its support.
“The reason given (i.e. by Harper – ed.) was that UNRWA was a repository of Hamas-directed radicalism and terrorist activity. As so often, on-the-ground realities had nothing to do with Mr. Harper’s decision; rather it reflected his ideological commitment and community-focused politics.”
– Michael Bell, Former Canadian Ambassador to Israel
An on-line petition has been launched asking that Canada restore its funding.
Readers wanting to share their views with key Canadian politicians can do so by sending an email to their offices.
- Hon. Stephane Dion, email@example.com
- Hon. Tony Clement, PC Foreign Affairs Critic, Tony.Clement@parl.gc.ca
- Mme Helene Laverdiere, NDP foreign affairs critic, Helene.Laverdiere@parl.gc.ca
Will Dion’s “responsible conviction” extend to the Palestinians? Will Trudeau’s “sunny ways” shine on the Palestinians?
We will know soon which way Trudeau/Dion will jump.
What do you think? Should Canada resume its funding? Or is UNRWA an anachronism that should be folded into UNHCR? Or should Canada focus on finding a solution for the refugee issue? Your comments welcome.