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Bridging Aid and Accountability: The Complexities of Australia's UNRWA Funding Suspension

Grace McClenahan | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

Image credit: Naser Jafari via Wikimedia Commons.

Australia's recent move to suspend humanitarian aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) sparked a series of debates and raised significant questions about Australia’s diplomatic positioning in the Middle East. Against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Israel and Hamas, Australia's decision carries immense implications for regional stability and humanitarian efforts in Gaza.

In January, Australia, along with more than a dozen countries including the US and the UK, suspended funding after allegations were made by Israel that as many as 12 UNRWA staff were involved in the Hamas-led attacks on 7 October 2023. Australia had already allocated AUD$20 million in core funding for UNRWA for the 2023-24 financial year, but an additional AUD$6 million in funding announced in mid-January was temporarily put on hold. Australia’s   hardline stance reinforced its view that it would not support activities that prejudice human life or undermine peace and stability in the region. However, it also highlighted the delicate balance that Australia must maintain between upholding humanitarian principles and addressing security concerns.

Critics of Australia's decision argued that it risked exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. UNRWA plays a vital role in providing essential services such as education, healthcare, and food assistance to Palestinian refugees, many of whom continue to rely on this aid for their basic needs. By suspending funding to UNRWA, Australia could have inadvertently contributed to the suffering of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moreover, critics pointed out that Australia's continued suspension of funding came as the International Court of Justice handed down an order on 26 January in relation to South Africa’s request for the indication of provisional measures to prevent genocide against Palestinians. The Court concluded that it is “of the view that Israel must take all measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide”, as well as to “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip”.

The allegations of ties between UNRWA and Hamas, while arguably murky, raise legitimate concerns about the accountability and transparency of aid distribution in Gaza. In a region mired by political instability and armed conflict, ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches its intended recipients and is not diverted for nefarious purposes is paramount. Australia's call for evidence to substantiate these allegations underscores the importance of accountability in humanitarian assistance.

Moreover, Australia's decision to suspend funding to UNRWA may have served as a diplomatic signal to both Israel and Hamas. By taking a stand against alleged ties between UNRWA and Hamas, Australia sent a clear message that it expects all parties to uphold international norms and obligations. This move could potentially encourage greater scrutiny and oversight of aid distribution in Gaza, ultimately contributing to a more transparent and accountable humanitarian assistance system.

However, it is crucial for Australia to ensure that decisions like this do not inadvertently harm innocent civilians or undermine the broader goals of humanitarian assistance. Any suspension of aid must be accompanied by efforts to mitigate the impact on vulnerable populations and explore alternative channels for delivering essential services.

Recently, Anthony Albanese has dismissed a letter to the International Criminal Court that accused members of Federal Parliament of supporting alleged war crimes in the Hamas-Israel war. The letter, written by the law firm Birchgrove Legal, stated that the government, including the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Defence Minister Richard Marles, and Opposition leader Peter Dutton, provided "explicit political, rhetorical, moral, military and material support" for alleged war crimes carried out by Israel. Albanese argued that this has no credibility going forward and that “there has been substantial amounts of misinformation about what is occurring.”

On 15 March, Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced that Australia will resume funding to UNRWA, with AUD$6 million in additional funding that had been suspended. Since the allegations, UNRWA has terminated the contracts of some of its staff and launched an investigation in response. Senator Wong affirmed that these allegations "warranted an immediate and appropriate response", and that "the best available current advice… is that UNRWA is not a terrorist organisation, and that existing additional safeguards sufficiently protect Australian taxpayer funding". While Canada and the European Union have also announced that they would resume funding to UNRWA, its largest donor, the U.S., has maintained its freeze.

With the situation in Gaza constantly evolving, Australia's decision to suspend and later return humanitarian aid to UNRWA reflects the complex and challenging nature of contemporary international diplomacy in the Middle East. Moving forward, countries must carefully consider the diplomatic implications of any decision to suspend aid to Gaza. While concerns over whether humanitarian assistance directly or indirectly supports activities that undermine regional stability, countries must also recognise the humanitarian imperative of assisting vulnerable populations in Gaza.

Continued support for humanitarian aid can contribute to stability and peacebuilding efforts in the region, while a prolonged suspension of aid can further exacerbate tensions and deepen the humanitarian crisis. Australia must engage with all stakeholders to address the root causes of the conflict and work towards a just and lasting peace in the region. Failure to do so risks further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and undermining Australia's credibility as a champion of human rights and international law.

Grace McClenahan is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

She holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in International Relations) from Macquarie University. Grace has also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice and was admitted as a lawyer in 2023. She is currently studying a Master of Laws at the Australian National University.


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