Rothman: Despite gains, more needs to be done with UNRWA

Rothman: Despite gains, more needs to be done with UNRWA

By the time Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) went to the United Nations to visit with Secretary-General Ban Ki moon last month, the congressman had already been working for several years to increase the transparency and accountability of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. According to Rothman – a member of the House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee and author of H. Con. Res. 29 – the U.N. leader “was familiar with the resolution and with my efforts to ensure that no U.N. funds for Palestinian humanitarian relief would be given, either directly or indirectly, to a member of Hamas or any other terrorist group.”

The resolution, said Rothman, calls on UNRWA to make public its textbooks and other teaching materials; that would help to ensure that its schools are not circulating anti-Israel propaganda. In addition, it calls on the organization to make public a list of its employees, so they can be independently verified as not having terrorist ties.

Rep. Steve Rothman

“I introduced [the resolution] to ensure that not one cent of U.S. taxpayer dollars provided to UNRWA is redirected to terrorists, or to activities that support terror or promote a culture of hatred,” said Rothman at a press conference earlier this year. The United States contributes more than $3.4 billion annually to the group.

UNRWA’s mission is to provide education, health, relief, and social services to more than 4.3 million registered Palestinians in the Middle East. It has been accused of violating that mission, using anti-Israel teaching materials and hiring individuals with ties to terrorist groups.

During their talk, the U.N. secretary general “cited specific improvements since 2004,” said Rothman. He also “offered further cooperation and assigned one of his chief staff people to help achieve further improvements.”

Rothman said he is gratified by progress made since he introduced his resolution. He noted that H.R. 2346, a supplemental appropriations bill passed by both the House and Senate in May and primed to go before the conference committee – which irons out differences between House and Senate versions of legislation – includes an allocation of $300 million for Palestinians in Gaza, with $119 million to be administered through UNRWA. The bill includes language demanding both accountability and transparency and tightening reporting requirements.

Among other provisions, it calls on the State Department to monitor UNRWA’s efforts “to improve the transparency of all educational materials and supplemental educational materials … in UNRWA-administered schools” and to ensure the group’s use of supplemental curriculum materials “designed to promote tolerance, non-violent conflict resolution, and human rights.”

Rothman said that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared before his appropriations subcommittee in April, she provided a “similar list of improvements” to that offered by the U.N.’s Secretary Ban. For example, said the congressman, it was noted that “more than 100 UNRWA employees have been fired over the past several years, and lists of [the group’s] employees and beneficiaries have been run by both the U.S. and Israel.”

In addition, he said, “there has been an increased crackdown on the activity of workers outside work hours,” with a “zero-tolerance policy” on associating with Hamas and other terrorist groups.

Rothman said that he saw another sign of improvement during a fact-finding visit to Israel in April. Not only were there signs of progress, he said, but UNRWA “brought all its senior personnel to the meeting” to stress that it “had a clear understanding of what the U.S. Congress expects. They were extremely concerned that we be satisfied that they were making a good-faith effort and had cleaned up enough to warrant the continuation of U.S. foreign aid.”

In addition, said Rothman, the progress cited by the UNRWA officials echoed the reports of both Clinton and the U.N.’s Ban.

Still, Rothman said he is seeking “perfect compliance” and will continue his quest “to find the weaknesses and close the loopholes” in policy, incorporating additional safeguards as needed.

With this in mind, he said, in the fall the subcommittee will take into account the success of H.R. 2346 when marking up the 2010 annual appropriations bill.

“The cumulative effect of [all these efforts] is finally bearing fruit,” said Rothman. Nevertheless, “I am not yet satisfied that all that can be done is being done.”

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