Philippe Lazzarini has a difficult job. He officially took the position of head of UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee body fought by the United Nations, on April 1, in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. As a UN humanitarian coordination veteran, especially in the Middle East, he did not think he was appointed because he was Swiss. But that helps, he told swissinfo.ch. He also has a plan to get the organization back on track.
“In the Middle East, Switzerland is one country that is still considered to be politically unbiased,” Lazzarini said. “There is still a perception about a country which has long carried the idea of neutrality. Because of that, certainly not the reason why I was appointed. But it helps to be Swiss in an area like this. ”
Indeed, the Middle East conflict seems insoluble and highly sensitive, as is the mandate of UNRWA, the Refugee and UN Works for Palestinian refugees.
Founded by UN Resolution in 1949, UNRWA was tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees who were driven out of their homes by “Nakba” (“catastrophe” in Arabic) after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Their right to refugee status was based on the right to return to their homeland, but this has become an ongoing delay in peace negotiations. And from the original 700,000 displaced, their number has increased from generation to generation to 5.6 million now in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, as well as in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
UNRWA, which is largely dependent on donations from UN member states, provides education, health care and social services for refugees. But it is currently facing a severe financial crisis, especially since the Trump Administration cut funding in 2018.
Meanwhile, his former boss, Pierre Krähenbühl, also a Swiss, resigned last year amid accusations of mismanagement; he claimed he was a victim of “dirty politics”, especially by the US and its ally Israel. Even the Swiss foreign minister, Ignazio Cassis, said in 2018 that UNRWA was part of the problem rather than the solution in the Middle East.
And now there is also Covid-19. Lazzarini’s first months at work were not easy. Coming from Beirut, where he was previously the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, he said it took three weeks to negotiate authorization for travel to East Jerusalem, through Syria, Jordan and the West Bank. When he arrived, he was quarantined for two weeks. His first induction to the organization was online.
“I think it’s normal for us all. But it’s a bit strange to start with an organization like that,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Fighting the spread of the corona virus in Palestinian camps full of vulnerable people is a priority at the moment, he said. “We are very worried that if Covid-19 hits Gaza or the camps, it will spread very quickly.” But with only around 160 cases recorded to date in five areas of its operations, he said he was proud of UNRWA’s response. He shifted his health services to remote medicine, and education to e-learning “from day one,” he said, while food shipments were diverted from distribution centers to home deliveries to avoid situations where people would gather in large numbers.
“So I think it’s through a massive prevention campaign, but also because of the way we adjusted our modus operandi, we have so far prevented the spread of Covid-19,” he said.
In addition to Covid-19 and the potential socio-economic impact on refugees, Lazzarini said his first priority was trying to overcome the financial crisis of UNRWA and restore confidence in the organization. “I have to make sure that the organization is adapted to its environment and we take lessons from the crisis that struck the organization last year,” he said. “To restore trust, a number of management initiatives need to be implemented.”
The initiative aims to strengthen institutional accountability, strengthen its relationship with its governing board (advisory committee) and restore financial transparency, he told swissinfo.ch. “But beyond that, we also need to adjust the organization, to create a culture where everyone feels empowered. That’s the way to restore trust in the organization, and also with a number of partners. ”
Lazzarini said a number of these initiatives were already in the process and were being discussed with member country representatives on the advisory board. He expects implementation to take 12-18 months.
What did Lazzarini say in Swiss Foreign Minister Cassis’s statement that UNRWA was part of the Middle East problem and not the solution?
“There is no doubt that it is part of the solution, and I do not see alternatives to UNRWA and invest in what contributes to peace and security here in the region,” he told swissinfo.ch. “It is unfortunate to abandon all investments that have been made in human development.”
But he acknowledged that the relevance and legitimacy of the organization had been regularly questioned. Another priority is to do something about this, he said. “My aim and priority here is to ensure that we protect the organization from political considerations, that donors and member countries feel proud of their investment in the organization. It is important for us to focus on our mandate, on service delivery, on promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to that day there is a fair and lasting political solution in the region. ”
Protecting UNRWA from politics might be a high order in a politically sensitive area. Israel, which is leading the effort to undermine UNRWA’s legitimacy, is currently seeking to annex parts of the West Bank under the controversial “peace plan” of the United States drawn up by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. This means there will be even less Palestinian land to return to, even if Palestinian refugees can return.
Lazzarini declined to comment on the political process, only saying that he would follow every day “if any of these developments impact the agency’s ability to fulfill its mandate to ensure proper access to services for Palestinian refugees”. He also told swissinfo.ch that he was in contact with the Israeli government.
Switzerland is one of the few countries that came in to help fill the UNRWA funding gap after the US withdrew its contribution in 2018. But Switzerland also suspended payments last year amid allegations of mismanagement, before resuming in December. And Cassis’s comments cannot be forgotten.
Asked about his relationship with Swiss authorities, Lazzarini (who is Swiss and Italian), was optimistic. He said he had made contact from Jerusalem and had exchanged letters.
“The Swiss government has become a strong advocate and critical partner for UNRWA. I truly hope and I understand that Switzerland will continue to be an important partner. Now, as soon as I travel, I will also come to Switzerland, and I definitely intend to have a direct dialogue with the authorities. ”
Once Covid-19’s restrictions were lifted, Lazzarini also intended to visit refugee camps. “I intend to visit the camp every month in every area of our operations,” he told swissinfo.ch. However, for now, in overcrowded camps, restrictions remain.
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