Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about Australian aid to Palestine and UNRWA

photo of Senator Eric Abetz
March 5, 2020

Questioned which organisations in Palestine were recipients of Australian aid and discussed the contents of UNRWA textbooks for Palestinian children.

Given the Australian government’s rejection of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, why didn’t the department seek assurances from the UN humanitarian fund for the Palestinian territories that Australian funds were not being directed to NGOs that are known supporters of the BDS movement?

Whole interaction with Ms Frances Adamson (Secretary, DFAT) and Dr Angela Macdonald (First Assistant Secretary, Middle East and Africa Division) with additional questions from Senator David Fawcett and Senator Concetta Fierravanti Wells during Senate Estimates (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio).

CHAIR:  If I may, in the absence of Senator Canavan, return to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Regrettably I don’t have my questions with me, but I can provide you with the questions on notice. Referring to question on notice 932, can you please specify which UN agencies and/or specific programs were allocated the $1 million which was referred to in the answer? If that’s going to take some time, I’ll just quickly read out the questions and then potentially put them on notice again. Also referring to the same question, can you please list the non-government organisations that shared the US$3.1 million allocated to them. Referring again to question 932, given the Australian government’s rejection of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, why didn’t the department seek assurances from the UN humanitarian fund for the Palestinian territories that Australian funds were not being directed to NGOs that are known supporters of the BDS movement. And if you don’t have—


Ms Adamson : We’ve got it. Apologies. 932 is cross-referenced in a number of places. We’ve now got the primary document. So your question goes in particular to the $1 million?


CHAIR: Yes, and it followed up on 974 I think as well. But anyway, yes.


Ms Adamson : Sorry, but would you mind repeating the actual questions?


CHAIR: Can you please specify which UN agencies and/or specific programs were allocated the US$1 million to which you refer? And can you please list the non-government organisations that shared in the US$3.1 million allocated to them?


Dr Macdonald : I can get that for you.


CHAIR: On notice? Do that on notice, and then whether any of the organisations that were funded were in fact supporters of the ugly BDS movement.


Ms Adamson : We’ll take that on notice.


CHAIR: And what Australia taxpayer money is doing funding organisations that support the BDS movement, which is against the government policy. Can I turn to UNRWA. Has Dr King moved on?


Dr Macdonald : Yes, he has.


Senator Payne: To greater things!


CHAIR: I am sure. And we wish him well. He assisted during the October estimates and advised that Australia was waiting for the outcome of the UN’s investigation into the alleged misconduct of former UNRWA Director-General Pierre Krahenbuhl and his team. Have we received this report?


Dr Macdonald : Yes. The UN’s office of internal oversight services investigation findings—yes, we have.


CHAIR: You’ve got that report. Is it possible to table it or is it on your website? Where is it?


Dr Macdonald : It’s not our report. It’s a UN report. I can find you a copy, I think. I’ll just have to confirm that.


CHAIR: Thank you. Given Australia is a significant funder of UNRWA, what action has been taken in response to that report?


Dr Macdonald : As Dr King said at the last estimates, we have had numerous conversations with UNRWA since those allegations were first made and assured ourselves that the governance, management and accountability mechanisms are being improved. The acting commissioner-general has implemented some of those reforms already. I can go to some of those.


CHAIR: Acting UNRWA director-general Christian Saunders said in a speech in January that, in the wake of that investigation, ‘we have put the place in order’. So why weren’t we aware that it wasn’t in order beforehand, given all the accountability measures that we are continually told are in place, especially with UNRWA, given its antecedents? Why didn’t we know about it, and what has been put in place to confirm to us and satisfy us that the place is now ‘in order’?


Dr Macdonald : Acting Commissioner-General Saunders talked about reforms including introducing an ombudsman function, strengthening the department of internal oversight services, shifting to needs based budgeting rather than what had been the income based approach, and reviewing the organisational structures as well as the recruitment systems. The allegations, as you might be aware, went to management deficiencies and misconduct rather than fraud or diversion of funds.


CHAIR: Are we satisfied that Australian contributions are not being misused?


Dr Macdonald : Yes.


CHAIR: As a member of the UNRWA advisory committee, has a request been made to expedite the changes or ‘put the place in order’, or are you now satisfied that the place is in order?


Dr Macdonald : We continue to work with UNRWA through that position that you mentioned and, through our embassy and office in Ramallah, continue to make those representations, most recently in February of this year, to the UNRWA commissioner-general.


CHAIR: If we’re so satisfied, can you tell me whether Australia has made representations to the Palestinians or to UNRWA over the content of textbooks. And, just for the record, allow me to remind you: the Australian government has previously expressed concerns about the contents of school textbooks available in UNRWA schools. Examples of incitement, praise of terrorism and celebration of jihad have been found in school textbooks used in UNRWA schools, and that was reported in the British press. In response, the British government vowed to urgently press the Palestinian education minister to take swift action. Have we done anything similar?


Dr Macdonald : In relation to UNRWA, yes indeed, and UNRWA itself undertakes reviews of any newly issued textbooks and develops the complementary materials to counter any bias that may exist in them and provides those materials—


CHAIR: But these were textbooks used in UNRWA schools. They must have approved it; they must have allowed this incitement and support of jihad. We say we’re relying on UNRWA to vet the textbooks, but they got in under UNRWA.


Dr Macdonald : The textbooks themselves are provided by the Palestinian authority, as is the usual case in terms of the education services provided.


CHAIR: Yes, but UNRWA schools allowed the Palestinian textbooks to be used in their schools. So how can we be confident that UNRWA has been vetting these textbooks? Clearly not, because they found their way into UNRWA schools.


Dr Macdonald : That’s right, the textbooks continue to do so, but in terms of the development of the complementary material which complements those textbooks in the education curriculum and in terms of the training of its staff, in terms of neutrality training, those are representations that we continue to make and the assurances we continue to get from UNRWA—


CHAIR: We continue to fund this organisation, which willingly uses these Palestinian textbooks, which provide examples of incitement, praise for terrorism, celebration of jihad. I’m sorry, but that answer does not satisfy me and I would have thought would not satisfy the vast bulk of Australians that our taxpayer money is continuing to support UNRWA, which must turn a blind eye to allowing these textbooks into their schools.


Dr Macdonald : Those are the textbooks that the Palestinian authority does provide, but in terms of the education—


CHAIR: I know they provide them. They are horrific books. They should not be provided. They should not be allowed in UNRWA schools. What are we doing as funders of UNRWA to ensure that these textbooks do not find their way into schools and facilities that we, as Australian taxpayers, help fund? Telling me they are Palestinian books just confirms to me the ugliness of elements of the Palestinian regime, who don’t believe in a two-state solution, who believe in the extinction of the state of Israel.


Dr Macdonald : The textbooks are provided, as you say, but it’s the complementary material and the way that they’re taught and the education and training of the teachers who are then using those books in the schools that UNRWA undertakes to emphasise the neutrality.


CHAIR: Of course.


Senator FAWCETT: Has DFAT challenged UNRWA about this and put the funding on the line? In other words, if they don’t stop the books that have this abhorrent content going into schools, then funding will be restricted?


Dr Macdonald : Not to that extent, no.


CHAIR: Why not? This is a fundamental issue, is it not?


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: And it goes against our own policy, does it not?




Ms Adamson : The part of this that you’re concerned about concerns us deeply and that’s what we seek to act on. I can well understand—


CHAIR: But we still fund them!


Ms Adamson : Yes, but children in those schools need text books on a wide—


CHAIR: On jihad!


Ms Adamson : But on a wide range of subject matter. This is a sub-element of it. I’m not trying to make the case that it doesn’t matter. It matters deeply. So, what we have been doing is working with them to ensure that the broader, if you like—not every child reads every word of every text book in any society—but the broader teaching ethos, environment, other points of view that are put—I see exactly where you’re coming from and what we need to be able to do is to deal with that element of it without removing completely your textbooks from schools, including where they cover other matters. So, it’s a question—


CHAIR: Whilst the Palestinian Authority has still got money for ‘pay to slay’, what on earth are we doing giving money to assist in the provision of textbooks that in fact support jihad, that support ‘pay to slay’ that the Palestinian Authority pays out to its people that engage in a suicide bombing and other notorious activities?


Ms Adamson : We try to ensure our assistance is as targeted as possible to people who do have a genuine need. I don’t dispute at all what you say and we will continue to take what the committee tells us during these hearings and to use that in our representations of further evidence of the deep feeling in Australia about this issue.


CHAIR: But it shouldn’t need me to be raising it. Senator Fawcett?


Senator FAWCETT: Ms Adamson, can I take your evidence to indicate that, through our representations, there has been training for staff around context, and additional material provided, that provide an alternative point of view?


Dr Macdonald : I couldn’t say that it’s solely due to Australia’s intervention, but what you talk about there is correct.


Ms Adamson : We believe we have contributed to that.


Senator FAWCETT: So, international pressure has contributed to the expenditure of funds, additional training and additional material. Why spend additional money to counter something that is bad? Why not just spend the money on actually replacing the text book with something that doesn’t have those offensive parts of glorified jihad and the terror? Surely if we can apply pressure to bring in extra materials and resources, we can apply pressure to actually remediate the bad resources that are there? And if there’s a refusal to do that, then we should withdraw the funding?


Ms Adamson : As we always do, we take away from these hearings the views of the committee and we seek to do what we can, looking afresh at the issues that continue to concern you. There are, of course, some limits, but we will look at this with renewed purpose, in light of what you have said to us today.


CHAIR: Secretary, have you heard or seen what UNRWA has said about this—namely, UNRWA cannot alter host government curriculum as this is a matter of national sovereignty, but it does have robust systems in place to ensure education delivered in its schools reflects UN values. Well, one imagines and hopes that jihad is not representative of UN values. UNRWA provides explanations which clearly are not reflective of UN values—or at least one hopes they aren’t. So what are we doing and what can we do? Often, money speaks very loudly. If we were to say, ‘No more funding to UNRWA until those textbooks are removed from the school or those elements of those textbooks are excised,’ wouldn’t that have some impact?


Ms Adamson : It would also have a range of other impacts, as I’m sure you’re aware.


CHAIR: Such as less money for ‘pay to slay’? That wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Or change the funding. As you said, Ms Adamson, there’s a wide range of things that are taught in schools. So instead of focusing our funding on one thing you could focus it on mathematics books or science books or something like that.


Ms Adamson : A very practical suggestion, if I may say so.

Link to full Hansard transcript.