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UK under pressure to restore Unrwa funding following Colonna report

Scottish National Party and Labour both call on Rishi Sunak and David Cameron to respond to report on Unrwa neutrality
Displaced Palestinians receive food aid at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (Unrwa) centre in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 28 January 2024 (AFP)

The British government is coming under increased pressure to restore future funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) and to respond publicly to the Colonna report into the agency’s neutrality, which was released on Monday.

Brendan O’Hara, a foreign affairs spokesperson for the opposition Scottish National Party (SNP), wrote to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary David Cameron on Thursday to ask why they had not responded to the report or made a statement on whether the UK would now restore funding to Unrwa. 

Labour’s shadow foreign minister, David Lammy, requested an urgent question be answered by a government minister on the subject in parliament on Wednesday, but Middle East Eye understands this request was blocked by Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons. 

The report into Unrwa’s operations, which was produced by a review group chaired by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, was compiled after Israel accused some of the agency’s staff members of belonging to Hamas and participating in the Hamas-led attacks of 7 October. 

The accusations prompted 16 donor states, including the UK, US, Canada and Germany, to pause or suspend funding, which amounted to about $450m of its total $880m budget. 

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Charged with assessing whether Unrwa is “doing everything within its power to ensure neutrality and respond to allegations of serious neutrality breaches”, the review group concluded that the refugee agency has a “very strong, solid and extensive set of rules”.

'The Colonna Report makes clear that donors should have confidence in Unrwa' 

Lisa Nandy, Labour shadow minister

The UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) is carrying out a separate investigation into Israel’s allegations about Unrwa staff members participating in the 7 October attacks. 

On Wednesday, the German government announced that following the reforms recommended in the Colonna report, it would resume funding the UN agency. Britain is yet to follow suit.

Responding to Middle East Eye, a spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said: “Allegations that Unrwa staff were involved in the events that took place on 7 October in Israel are appalling, which is why we took decisive action to pause future funding to the organisation.
“The prime minister has been clear that the UK will set out its position on future funding to Unrwa following careful consideration of Catherine Colonna's final report, Unrwa’s response and the ongoing UN Office for Internal Oversight Services investigation into these allegations.”
On Monday, Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of Unrwa, said he welcomed the findings and recommendations of the review. “The report confirms that the agency has the systems in place and that it acts to address allegations of neutrality breaches,” he said.

Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow cabinet minister for international development, told MEE: “The Colonna Report makes clear that donors should have confidence in Unrwa. Ministers must now come forward and explain how they intend to respond to the report and if they will restore future funding for Unrwa.”

Other countries restore funding

As well as Germany, several countries that froze their contributions to Unrwa, including Australia, Canada and Finland, have since lifted those suspensions, with some citing a lack of evidence provided by Israel to stand up its allegations.

The White House said on Tuesday that it would have to “have to see real progress” before considering reinstating its funding. 

Colonna report: Israel has not provided any evidence of Unrwa staff link to Hamas
Read More »

Oren Marmorstein, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson, said on social media: “The Colonna report ignores the severity of the problem, and offers cosmetic solutions that do not deal with the enormous scope of Hamas' infiltration of Unrwa."

Colonna told CNN that "the vast majority of the international community do not share these views and I do not either".

Her review found that Unrwa has "established a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance” with humanitarian principles, particularly the principle of neutrality, “and that it possesses a more developed approach to neutrality than other similar UN or NGO entities”. 

“In the absence of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, Unrwa remains pivotal in providing life-saving humanitarian aid and essential social services, particularly in health and education, to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank,” the report reads. 

Colonna told reporters herself that Unrwa has a “very strong, solid and extensive set of rules”, but that “some improvement is needed”.

Her report includes some recommendations, including the strengthening of Unrwa’s internal audit function and improvement of its external oversight of project management.

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