Main story image

Gaza: UK refusal to fund key UN aid agency is an abandonment of duty

The SNP has written to the Prime Minister and UK Foreign Secretary over their failure to reinstate funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), describing the decision as a "categorical negation of duty".

In the letter, the SNP's Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Brendan O'Hara MP, has warned that the decision demonstrates "that the UK government is not concerned with the ongoing intentional starvation of the Palestinian people" nor the potential war crimes being committed by Israel.

It comes following independent investigations from both the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and Catherine Colonna, confirming the neutrality of the UNRWA - leading to UK allies including Canada, France, Finland, Australia, Sweden and the European Union fully restoring funding.

Read the SNP's letter below.

House Of Commons address and crowned portcullis emblem

25 April 2024

Dear Prime Minster and Foreign Secretary,

I am writing to ask why there has been no statement this week, from either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary, with regards to the final Colonna report into the operational capacity and processes of UNRWA. This is a categorical negation of duty from both parties and demonstrates to Parliament, and the public, that the UK Government is not concerned with the ongoing intentional starvation of the Palestinian people, and potential war crimes being committed by their ally, Israel.

For months, we have heard the UK Government, including the Foreign Secretary, the deputy Foreign Secretary, Minister Mitchell, as well as the Prime Minister, and other Cabinet Colleagues regurgitating the line that their decision to suspend funding for UNRWA in January 2024, after Israel accused 12 Agency workers of involvement in the horrendous Hamas attack on the 7th of October, would be reviewed and further detailed with Parliament once the final report had been released. The final report was published on the 20th of April 2024, but we are yet to hear from either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary.

On the 12th of March, at FCDO questions, Minister Mitchell said: "We are doing all we can to increase aid into Gaza. With our allies, we will take decisions on the future of UNRWA funding after scrutinising Catherine Colonna's interim report on UNRWA neutrality."

And, on the 19th of March, when asked about the timeline of re-committing funding to UNRWA, Mitchell stated that: "I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise timetable, but I can answer yes to his question about it being done as soon as we think it is possible to do so."

Furthermore, Minister Mitchell acknowledged the fundamental role that UNRWA plays in the region and the need to rapidly ensure that the situation was resolved, in response to a WPQ tabled by myself on the 26th of March 2024: "We are aware that the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services and Catherine Colonna have now provided their interim reports to the UN Secretary-General. We want UNRWA to give detailed undertakings about changes in personnel, policy and precedents to ensure this can never happen again. We are working with allies to try to bring this situation to a rapid conclusion - not least because UNRWA have a vital role to play in providing aid and services in Gaza".

I understand that the initial allegations by Israel had to be taken seriously and that, in January when they were made, there was not due to be an instalment of financial aid to UNRWA before the end of the financial year.

However, while the UK Government has repeatedly told Parliament that it prioritises humanitarian aid into Gaza, we only have evidence to the contrary.

On the 19th of March, during a statement on Gaza, Minister Mitchell stated: "we expect the report from the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services and, indeed, the interim report from Catherine Colonna, the former Foreign Minister of France, tomorrow, and we will read it with very great interest".

I am aware that the interim report was accessible to the Foreign Secretary and the UK Government from the 20th of March. We began to see other allied states re-commit UNRWA funding throughout March, as the overwhelming conclusion form the report was: a) Israel had no material or factual foundations for their allegations and are still to provide any evidence of their accusations, and b) UNRWA operates with the UN mandated principle of neutrality and is committed to implementing the report's recommendations. The Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini, summarised the current attacks on the agency as "not necessarily motivated because of neutrality issues, but are primarily motivated by the objective to strip the Palestinians of their refugee status".

It must not be overlooked that the relentless operation to prevent humanitarian aid into Gaza and to undermine UNRWA is part of a systematic and long term policy by the Israeli authorities to collectively punish Palestinians in Gaza, and to prolong their illegal war in the enclave. We can see this through their deliberate targeting of journalists - to prevent the true horrors of their actions being shown to the world, the targeting of hospitals and medical staff who, though specifically protected under the Geneva Conventions, are being significantly prevented from providing care to the elderly, the wounded, and children: another demonstration of the deliberate ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. The ICJ, in their assessment of potential genocide in Gaza ordered that Israel must take all action to ensure the deliverance of humanitarian aid into Gaza. The allegations against UNRWA staff and subsequent cessation of funding by donor states has resulted in the serious inability of this deliverance and must now be intentionally rectified by the international community.

To date, 180 UNRWA staff and at least 400 people seeking UN protection have been killed since October 2023. More than 160 UNRWA premises have been damaged or completely destroyed. There are also numerous reports that UNRWA staff are being arrested, mistreated, and tortured. Yet, the UK Government does not feel the need to comment, criticize, or contribute to the ongoing deconstruction of the international world order which is unfolding before our eyes. This is shameful.

I am requesting that Parliament is updated on the assessment taken by the Foreign Secretary of the final Colonna report. Additionally, I am seeking an update on the UK Governments commitment to UNRWA funding for this financial year. The people of Gaza, and the region more broadly, will continue to suffer greatly without the pledge and support from this Government.

Yours sincerely,

Brendan O'Hara MP
SNP Foreign Affairs spokesperson

Main image © UNRWA Photo by Ashraf Amra.