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Are UNRWA aid cuts an Australian breach of Genocide Convention, or another double standard?

by Farah Abdurahman | Feb 3, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Does Australia’s government treat Jews and Palestinians differently, both in foreign policy and at home? Defunding the UNWRA is the latest example of double standards and puts Australia at further risk of breaching the Genocide Convention. Farah Abdurahman on aid cuts, false allegations and fake chants.

The government has joined 10 other Western nations who pre-emptively “paused” aid funding to Gaza. It is a move that UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese says may constitute a violation of the Genocide Convention as it is complicity to collectively punish a civilian population.

The decision to halt funding came after Israel provided the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA) a list of 12 names of staff who they alleged were involved in the October 7 attack.

Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, UNWRA took proactive measures and terminated the staff, confirming one had been killed. An independent third-party investigation is also being conducted by The Office of Internal Oversight. 

But this isn’t the first time Australia has cut its financial support for the UN agency that provides aid to more than 5.5 million Palestinian refugees.

Scott Morrison cuts

In 2020, former PM Scott Morrison halved Australia’s contribution to the agency from $20 million to $10 million per annum, undercutting significant work by 2012 Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who coordinated a $90 million funding deal for UNWRA over five years.

UNWRA has more than 13,000 staff working in Gaza in unimaginable circumstances to support the entire population who are now displaced and experiencing famine. 

At least 152 UNRWA staff have already been killed and 145 UNRWA facilities deliberately damaged by Israeli bombardment.

UNWRA Commissioner General Phillipe Lazzarini said it was immensely irresponsible to sanction an aid agency and the entire community it serves because of allegations against some individuals, especially at a time of war.

The International Court of Justice ordered: “Israel 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.” 

“These measures are aimed at preventing irreparable damage to the rights of Palestinians. The only way that this can be done is through cooperation with international partners, especially UNRWA as the largest humanitarian actor in Gaza.”

Earlier this week, Australia’s UN ambassador, James Larsen, met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres and other donor countries to discuss the allegations and the urgent need to recommence funding.

While politicians continue to debate, some 3,000 core staff in Gaza continue to report to work, giving their communities a lifeline, which Lazzarini said could collapse at any moment.

Follow the money

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Penny Wong declared that UNWRA funding should resume given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, but Australia seems unlikely to move on the reinstatement without support from its allies.

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said Australia had already “disbursed its 2023-24 funding to UNWRA to a total of $20.6 million.

“Australia has provided financial assistance to UNRWA every year since 1951 and recognises the organisation’s vital role as the only UN body with the specific mandate to provide relief and social services to Palestinian refugees.

“Since 7 October, Australia has committed $46.5 million to the region, including $35 million to meet urgent needs arising from the conflict in Gaza. The entirety of this funding will be disbursed.”

However, the disparity of funding allocations between Israel and Palestine is rife with inequity. In 2020, for example, Australian investment in Israel was $1.6 billion, while Australian investment in Palestine was $29.8 million.

While Gaza remains under complete siege and blockade, Australia seeks to strengthen economic ties with Israel, exploring the feasibility of a free trade agreement.

Opera House chants and double standards

Lawyer and executive member for the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, Ramia Abdo Sultan, said the actions by the Australian government since October 7 have been grossly counterproductive.

“The siege on Gaza by the occupied forces affects me personally. I have family on the ground in Khan Younis. Families that are desperately scouring for food. Family that are being attacked and shot at as they wait for aid. Families that are drinking contaminated water and surviving unliveable, untenable circumstances. 

“The Australian government was quick to punish a civilian population in Gaza, in direct contravention of an order issued by the world’s highest court, and yet they continue to fail to condemn the genocide being carried out against my family.” 

The Arab and Muslim communities have failed to get their stories heard in mainstream media, compared with the amplified narratives broadcast in sympathy with the Israel lobby.

“On home soil, the Australian government were even quicker to not only broaden the definition of antisemitism almost overnight but also tighten anti-Semitic laws based on false allegations by the AJA in a continued and concerted effort to demonise Muslims, Arabs, and Palestine supporters.

“Just today, we saw the NSW police confirm that allegations of antisemitic chants at Sydney’s Opera House were a fabrication of doctored footage. The intention was clear, continue to dehumanise Palestinians. 

“But do you think we are going to see our state or federal government unequivocally condemn the AJA and all those who propagated these false and damaging allegations? The slanderous video has caused irreversible damage and distress to Arab and Muslim communities in Australia.

“Palestinians have the right to self-determination. We, as a people of conscience, have a duty to uphold the basic human rights of all people. We maintain our position in calling for an immediate ceasefire.”


International Court of Justice finds against Israel in genocide case

Farah is a former political reporter for Fairfax Media. She has almost 20 years of media and communications experience in senior and executive roles working across government, research and innovation, and the private sector.

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