The US imposing hardship on Palestinian refugees
The US government is breaching its obligation to promote universal respect for human rights by cutting back on its contribution to UNRWA for aid to Palestinian refugees. Other states have extraterritorial human rights obligations to compensate for this reduction.
A human rights perspective
The US government is breaching its obligation to promote universal respect for human rights by reducing aid for Palestinian refugees.
The US measure
Recently President Trump decided to cut back on the US contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). This agency provides human development and humanitarian services which include primary and vocational education, primary health care, relief and social services, infrastructure and camp improvement, microfinance and emergency response to Palestinian refugees (www.unrwa.org ). UNRWA is dependent on voluntary contributions from UN members. The biggest donors are the USA and the EU, but also Germany, the UK and Saudi Arabia, countries that have considerable financial capacity to contribute. The US will almost halve its contribution from approximately US$ 360 million to US$ 125 million per year. For 2018 only US$ 60 million has been paid so far. Another US$ 65 million is conditional on reforms made by UNRWA. The US has said that there is a need for more burden-sharing between countries in contributing to UNRWA. Also the US$ 60 million contribution may not be used for Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon. The US measure is in fact used as a lever to force the Palestinians back to the negotiation table with Israel. It means that humanitarian needs are abused for achieving political goals to the detriment of those living in desperate need.
The human rights framework
As a member state of the UN, the USA is bound to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion (Article 1(3) UN Charter). It also has a duty to cooperate with other states and the UN to promote higher standards of living and conditions of economic and social progress and development (Article 55 and 56 UN Charter). Article 2(1) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provides for international assistance and cooperation to realise progressively these rights (food, housing, health care, education). The USA is not a state party to the ICESCR, but it has signed this treaty. Article 18 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides that under such circumstances a state is obliged to refrain from acts which could defeat the object and purpose of the treaty. It is submitted that the US measure to cut back on the contribution for UNRWA is regressive and contrary to object and purpose of the ICESCR. The latter can be defined as the progressive realisation of social and economic rights through domestic measures and international cooperation and assistance as part of the obligation of states to promote universal respect for human rights. This is especially the case when a vulnerable group is almost completely dependent on international assistance for its subsistence and survival like the Palestinian refugees who have been locked up in camps in the area since 1948. Their right to live in dignity is seriously at risk.
UNRWA has launched a campaign for extra contributions to compensate for the US reduction (#DignityisPriceless). It is submitted that it is in line with the extraterritorial human rights obligations of states that have the financial capacity to assist if they make additional donations to UNRWA to compensate for the US reduction (2011 Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, no. 31-33, www.etoconsortium.org).
The US government is breaching its obligation to promote universal respect for human rights by reducing aid for Palestinian refugees. Other states have extraterritorial human rights obligations to compensate for this reduction.
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A.P.M. CoomansMore articles from A.P.M. Coomans
Prof Fons Coomans holds the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Peace at the Department of International and European Law at the Faculty of Law, Maastricht University. He is the Director of the Maastricht Centre for Human Rights, and a member of the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research.
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