Senator Nita Green – Estimates questions regarding Australian funding to UNRWA

February 15, 2024

We know that Australia has announced a pause in its funding pending reassurance that UNRWA’s processes remain robust. What has been paused—I think there was a reference in earlier statements about that—and have any other countries taken the same action?

Senator GREEN: I have some questions about UNRWA. Perhaps it is helpful to start with the basics. What exactly is UNRWA?

Mr Innes-Brown: UNRWA is a UN body that was established by the UN General Assembly. It is specifically mandated to provide relief and social services to Palestinian refugees.

Senator GREEN: What makes UNRWA different from other UN bodies with a mandate to provide basic services to Palestinian refugees?

Mr Innes-Brown: UNRWA was specifically set up to provide those relief and social services, so it was a dedicated body to provide to Palestinians.

Senator GREEN: How long has the Australian government funded UNRWA?

Mr Innes-Brown: Since 1951.

Senator GREEN: In relation to their work in Gaza, we know that Gaza is controlled by the terrorist group Hamas, so I just want to go through some history. When did Hamas take over Gaza?

Mr Innes-Brown: They took over Gaza completely in 2007.

Senator GREEN: Since then, governments of both persuasions have continued to fund UNRWA. How exactly does the Australian government provide funding? Presumably, we don’t deal with Hamas. How have we provided that funding since 2007?

Mr Innes-Brown: We provide an annual contribution to UNRWA, and UNRWA uses that money to provide health and education services and other relief services not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, as well as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. So they have five areas of operation.

Senator GREEN: Is there a framework agreement that funding is provided under?

Mr Innes-Brown: Yes, there’s a strategic partnership agreement. We’ve had several of these over the years, at least as far as I’m familiar with. That sort of sets out that they are multi-year agreements. It sets out how we’re going to provide the funding and also requiring UNRWA to meet various conditions.

Senator GREEN: You say that there have been several agreements. When was the strategic framework agreement with UNRWA first designed and agreed to?

Mr Innes-Brown: The most recent one that was operational was in 2016 but, as I understand it, there have been earlier ones, but I’d have to take on notice all the details of that.

Senator GREEN: That’s fine—the current agreement?

Mr Innes-Brown: Yes, that’s right. It was extended. The initial agreement went from 2016 to 2020 and then it was extended. It has been extended three times, and it went to the end of 2023.

Senator GREEN: What laws does Australia have to ensure that this funding doesn’t flow to a terrorist regime, like Hamas? Does DFAT have its own controls to ensure that?

Mr Innes-Brown: There are general laws in terms of not only our Criminal Code but also our sanctions in domestic legislation. DFAT also has its own controls. As I’ve said, the partnership agreement sets out requirements in relation to counterterrorism, antifraud and anticorruption. We have processes whereby we evaluate UNRWA’s compliance with those requirements and so on. So we take a close interest in these issues and we have appropriate frameworks and controls in place.

Senator GREEN: From what you understand, is UNRWA transparent with Israel about its personnel? Do they provide lists?

Mr Innes-Brown: UNRWA says that it provides lists of all its employees to Israel annually.

Senator Wong: Of all its employees.

Senator GREEN: You will be aware of a letter sent by members of the Australian community that raised concerns about UNRWA’s activities. Were these sorts of allegations that were raised in the letter new?

Mr Innes-Brown: Over time, from time to time, there have been allegations about members of UNRWA’s staff. When these things do happen, we take them up vigorously with UNRWA. Also, UNRWA have undertaken to have a zero tolerance in these sorts of things and they also investigate them. So, in relation to the allegations late last year to which that letter referred, there was one case of someone allegedly holding people hostage in their house. UNRWA sought additional information from the journalist who provided that report, but the information was never provided.

Senator GREEN: You’ve skipped over a key piece of information. These are allegations, and advocacy groups, I understand, have a role in raising those allegations; I just want to make that clear. But how long have these types of allegations about UNRWA been raised by advocacy groups?

Mr Innes-Brown: Off and on for years, in my experience. In my experience, working on Middle East issues, I can remember there being some allegations back to 2012.

Senator GREEN: I’m about to ask you some questions about those allegations or, essentially, what action has been taken.

Mr Innes-Brown: Sure.

Senator GREEN: What action has Australia taken to address these concerns, and when was it done?

Mr Innes-Brown: Pertaining to the letter that you’ve mentioned, first of all, these allegations are serious and they need to be investigated, so we do try to unpack them. We do take it up with UNRWA and have done so with those allegations initially through our representative office in Ramallah. In those cases, and I have explained one example, we also took up some of those allegations with Assistant Foreign Minister Watts’s office in December and later during the foreign minister’s visit. So those things we have pursued with UNRWA. We’ve had a range of meetings with them about actions that they’ve taken in relation to them. UNRWA takes these issues seriously because they know that they’re matters of public interest, and they know that, frankly, there are groups focusing on these issues and seeking to attack UNRWA at every turn.

Senator GREEN: Can I ask about those groups? You’ve referred to advocacy groups—or perhaps I used that term—or organisations that compile these reports and make these types of allegations as far back, as you say, 2012—

Mr Innes-Brown: And probably long before, but that’s as far as my memory stretches back.

Senator GREEN: and it probably goes back, and we understand that there are reasons for people doing that. But what do we know about these organisations? If you can speak in general terms, what sorts of organisations are we talking about?

Mr Innes-Brown: I want to make it very clear that everyone who expresses a concern about some UNRWA activities is not in this category—

Senator GREEN: I understand.

Mr Innes-Brown: but, as I’ve said, there have been serious allegations about misbehaviour that has been pursued and appropriately dealt with, and it should have been dealt with. But, generally speaking, I think it’s generally known that there are at least several organisations whose agenda is to focus on misconduct by UNRWA, and unfortunately often these reports can contain a significant amount of exaggeration. But the agenda is—and this is well known—for UNRWA to be disbanded. UNRWA is the organisation which protects Palestinian refugees and which provides support.

Senator GREEN: In saying that, I understand that the nature of the most recent allegations is very serious, and I understand that some of those allegations that go to the alleged activities of UNRWA staff were made by the Israeli government. I’m now referencing just these allegations and not the history.

Mr Innes-Brown: Which allegations?

Senator GREEN: I’m sorry; the most recent allegations that were referred to in the letter which we were discussing earlier.

Mr Innes-Brown: Yes.

Senator GREEN: What actions have we seen from the UN to address some of these concerns?

Mr Innes-Brown: There were two reports, I think, in November containing concerns about UNRWA’s staff and social media activity and celebrating the dreadful events of 7 October. So UNRWA set up a very senior investigative group internally and investigated those allegations. They’ve advised us that a couple of people—two people, I think—were terminated. Also, they were conducting further investigations into a number of people—around 10, I think—and there were three people about whom there was no evidence. I think that the initial report said that 30-odd people were involved, but when UNRWA checked into it they could only find that only about less than half of them were actually UNRWA employees, and this is the character of some of these reports. Some of the people who are involved in some of the alleged acts are UNRWA employees, but often significant numbers of people are not, so it sort of all gets a bit blurred.

Senator GREEN: Is that what you were referring to earlier—that some of the organisations that are making these allegations do, from what you’ve seen, have an agenda?

Mr Innes-Brown: That’s right. When these things come up, we obviously take them very seriously and look into them. There was another report recently that 3,000 UNRWA teachers who had a Telegram channel were celebrating. We had a look at that report—it’s obviously a pretty serious allegation—and I’m not sure where the 3,000 came from, but the channel wasn’t set up by UNRWA; it was people seeking work with UNRWA. The report itself only documents this sort of information about 30 people and not 3,000. The report was being promoted with a picture of, supposedly, the 3,000 people dancing in the streets about what happened on 7 October. Our office in Ramallah had a good look at the picture and, actually, the picture was taken before 7 October; it was actually people protesting outside UNRWA headquarters about getting some compensation for the 2014 conflict. So sometimes there are kernels of truth in these claims, but, often, concerning the multiples of people involved there’s a degree of exaggeration.

Senator GREEN: We know that Australia has announced a pause in its funding pending reassurance that UNRWA’s processes remain robust. What has been paused—I think there was a reference in earlier statements about that—and have any other countries taken the same action?

Ms Delaney: The minister announced the temporary pause of $6 million which was to be disbursed to UNRWA, obviously in the context of very deep concern around the more recent allegations that UNRWA staff may have been involved in the 7 October attacks.

Senator GREEN: That was the $6 million in additional funding, but the foreign minister mentioned annual core funding in her opening statement, and I’m asking which part of that has been paused. I understand that there is a difference.

Ms Delaney: The core funding was disbursed in October 2023. What has been paused is the proposed contribution to the UNRWA flash appeal, which was an amount of $6 million.

Senator GREEN: Sorry. I asked and didn’t let you answer about other countries taking the same type of action in pausing funding.

Ms Delaney: As the minister mentioned in her opening statement, Australia paused its funding, like many others. Other major contributors have also paused their funding—around 14 countries. It depends a little bit on announcements versus those that we understand are awaiting the actions and the processes before they consider further disbursements. But it is around 14 others, including Canada, the US, the UK, Netherlands, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Finland, Estonia, Italy, Romania, Lithuania and Iceland.

Senator GREEN: In the process of investigating claims while the funding is paused, how is the Australian government engaging in that, what actions are we hoping to see and what support does the UN need to complete its processes?

Ms Delaney: We’re actively engaging in these processes. Obviously, it’s really important that we work in cooperation with other international partners but also very closely with UNRWA itself. Certainly, that’s been the focus of those engagements. Since the allegations came to light and the Secretary-General announced the investigation into the allegations and a separate and broader review of UNRWA, we’ve been working, as I’ve said, with our international partners and UNRWA. That’s included direct engagement by me with capitals. The minister has, of course, referred to the conversations that she’s had with senior UN leadership, including Commissioner-General Lazzarini. As you would expect, the locus of a lot of this work is occurring in New York, so our permanent representative in New York has also been actively engaged. In terms of actions, the minister certainly welcomed those early actions that were taken by the Secretary-General and the Commissioner-General, which was the termination of staff. Since then, as I mentioned, the investigation process has commenced, and there’s also been the announcement of a separate independent review, to be led by former Foreign Minister Colonna. They will both be very important processes, so we will continue to engage on those.

In terms of what support the UN needs, obviously there’s the broad engagement. When it comes to not only the specifics of the investigation that they’ve launched but also the review, key will be cooperation from the government of Israel, because for those investigations to be robust and thorough they both require not only the information that is the basis of the allegations but also access in order to enable them to carry out those investigations.

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