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French ex-minister heads UNRWA commission

She was France's foreign minister until January. Now Catherine Colonna is supposed to investigate the control mechanisms of the Palestinian relief agency UNRWA for the United Nations. The reason is allegations of terrorism against several employees.

Following allegations against the Palestinian relief agency UNRWA in connection with the terrorist attacks by the militant Islamist Hamas, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has set up an independent investigation group. This was announced by the United Nations in New York. The expert group will be led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna.

Its body is tasked with reviewing whether UNRWA has the necessary internal control mechanisms to ensure neutrality and respond to indications that United Nations principles may have been violated. It also aims to determine whether these mechanisms failed in the present case and what needs to be improved in the future. From 2020 to 2023, Colonna worked on a Middle East peace initiative together with Germany, Jordan and Egypt – the so-called cloverleaf format.

Israel accuses UNRWA that some of its employees were involved in the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th. At that time, around 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 hostages were taken. Several states, including Germany, had suspended their payments to the aid agency following Israeli reports that twelve of the more than 13,000 UNRWA employees were involved in the large-scale terrorist attack on Israel by the militant Islamist Hamas on October 7th.

Special payment from Spain

Spain, on the other hand, announced that it would support the UN aid agency, which has recently come under criticism, with a special payment of 3.5 million euros. This is intended to ensure that this “indispensable organization” can maintain its activities in the short term, said Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares before the Committee on International Cooperation in the House of Commons in Madrid. He had already informed UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini about this on Friday.

The situation in the Gaza Strip is “desperate,” said Albares. A few days ago, UNRWA warned that all work might have to be stopped in four weeks if promised funds were not paid. Several countries, including the largest donors USA and Germany, suspended a total of more than 400 million euros in payments.

“Temporarily no new funds” from Germany

Germany – as the second largest donor after the USA – announced last week that it would “temporarily not approve any new funds for UNRWA in Gaza” until the investigation was completed. However, there are currently no new commitments pending anyway, according to a statement from the Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry for Development.

UN experts had criticized the funding freeze of several states and warned of catastrophic consequences. The announcements come at an “existential moment for more than two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip,” said 32 special rapporteurs and experts in Geneva on Friday.

Colonna's working group should be completed by the end of April

According to the statement, Colonna's working group is supported by three research institutions: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden, the Norwegian Christian Michelsen Institute and the Danish Institute for Human Rights. The work begins on February 14th. The UN Secretary General expects an interim report by the end of March and a final report by the end of April. This should be published.

In parallel to the external investigation, an internal UN supervisory authority is currently investigating the suspicion that twelve UNRWA employees were involved in the Hamas attacks on October 7th. UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini asked for clarification after relevant information came to light from the Israeli side. Next Monday he is expected at a meeting of EU development ministers in Brussels.

The EU, UNRWA's third-largest donor, also announced last Thursday that it would conduct an assessment by independent external experts. The next payment is due at the end of February. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at the weekend that there was “no replacement for UNRWA.”

Gabor Halasz, ARD Berlin, tagesschau, February 5th, 2024 7:17 p.m

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