After Justin Trudeau became prime minister, I predicted that our new PM’s “sunny ways” would affect Canada’s relationship with Israel.
I worried that Trudeau would return to the classic Liberal ways of pledging solidarity with Israel, but undermining that bond by resuming Canada’s no-questions-asked support of the United Nations despite its anti-Israel obsession.
And I feared that he would quickly back down from the courageous stand of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, who scaled down and then withdrew Canada’s funding of one of the most corrupt and misguided UN agencies, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA, pronounced “Un-rah”).
Sure enough, the Trudeau government resumed funding of UNRWA last fall to the tune of $25 million a year, with great fanfare about “enhanced due diligence” and a “robust oversight and reporting framework.”
But even after Geneva-based UN Watch issued a scathing report earlier this year, exposing 60 cases where UNRWA teachers, principals and other employees publicly endorsed anti-Israel terrorism or classical anti-Semitism, our PM insisted that it was better to keep an eye on UNRWA than to abandon it.
“We believe that constructive engagement on the world stage is what Canadians expect,” the prime minister said in question period in July.
“And our re-engagement with UNRWA is actually allowing us to hold to closer account the choices and the funding that are delivered through that mechanism.
“We know that Canadian pressure and Canada’s being part of UNRWA help us to ensure that the help is going where it’s needed and it’s not creating negative consequences for Israel or for anyone else.”
If only that were true.
There are two major issues with UNRWA. First is the agency’s failure to properly vet its employees for support of Hamas and other terrorist groups, and its insistence on using Palestinian schoolbooks that deny Israel’s right to exist, promote hatred of Jews and incite to violence.
It’s important that organizations like Palestinian Media Watch and UN Watch document these serious flaws in an organization that is supposed to be impartial.
But what is often ignored is the second major issue, which is that UNRWA should no longer exist.
UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide humanitarian aid to Arabs and Jews displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
By 1952, Israel had resettled the Jewish refugees. But the 750,000 Palestinian Arab refugees, who ended up in neighbouring Arab states, were never properly resettled and continued to rely on UNRWA support.
Indeed, it is not within UNRWA’s mandate to resettle these refugees, but to maintain them – and their descendants – as refugees in perpetuity.
“It is the only UN agency that increases its refugee population, now in its fourth generation and totalling more than five million people, rather than seeking to bring an end to their vulnerability,” Shimon Koffler Fogel of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs wrote in the Globe and Mail when Canada was considering restoring UNRWA funding.
All other refugees in the world are the responsibility of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
A report in August by the Abba Eban Institute of International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya revealed that in 2016, UNRWA spent an average of $246 US for each of the Palestinians it defines as refugees, while UNHCR spent only $58 per refugee.
The report found that UNRWA employees 30,000 people to handle about five million Palestinian “refugees,” while the UNHCR employs only 10,000 people to deal with about 68 million refugees worldwide.
It gives an example from Jordan, where there are 44 UNHCR clinics to treat refugees from civil wars in Iran and Syria, and 25 UNRWA clinics that ignore Syrian refugees and treat only Palestinians.
The Institute recommends merging UNRWA into the UNHCR to improve the treatment of refugees around the world. That’s the kind of change Canada can and should be supporting.
Our PM is currently too determined to win a two-year seat on the 15-member UN Security Council to rock the boat by criticizing the UN or its agencies.
But if he’s determined to embrace the UN model, he can and should use his charm and newfound clout – along with his genuine concern for refugees – to push for reform of UNRWA, which could include a merger of the UN’s refugee agencies.
That, rather than throwing money at a corrupt and misconceived organization, is the best way for Canada to use its “constructive engagement” on the world stage.