UNRWA’s Whitley fallout

Posted: November 3, 2010 by Rex Brynen in peace process

It took a day or two, but as those who follow the issue will know there has been a torrent of condemnation of outgoing UNRWA New York representative Andrew Whitley for his recent comments at NCUSAR on the political feasibility of large-scale refugee return to Israel in the aftermath of any future peace agreement. UNRWA has disavowed the comments. Both the PLO and PA have condemned them. So has Hamas. So has Jordan. Even the Arab League has jumped on the bandwagon.

Now Al-Awda (The Palestine Right to Return Coalition) has issued an “Action Alert” calling for his immediate dismissal , claiming that “As a UN official, Mr Wiltley [sic] undermined the integrity and the credibility of UNRWA and exposed himself as the enemy of the people he is supposed to serve.”

Whitley has apologized today for the comments, in a letter to UNRWA:

3 November 2010

Dear Mr. Gunness,

I am writing following my realisation – from media reports, statements and letters from individuals, organisations and governments – that part of the remarks I delivered at a conference in Washington hosted by the National Council on US – Arab Relations, on 22 October, 2010, were inappropriate and wrong. Those remarks did not represent UNRWA’s views. I express my sincere regrets and apologies over any harm that my words may have done to the cause of the Palestine refugees and for any offence I may have caused. I have spent much of my long career working for the Palestinian people, and defending their rights, in different professional capacities. It is definitely not my belief that the refugees should give up on their basic rights, including the right of return. I wish to put this letter on the public record out of concern that what I said in Washington could be interpreted in ways that negatively affect the reputation and work of UNRWA, an organisation I have been proud to serve since July 2002. The Agency is at liberty to use my statement in whatever ways it sees fit. There is no need for a reply.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Whitley

A few quick thoughts on all of this:

  • Anyone considering a career at the UN, the World Bank, or similar international organizations should take this as an object lesson in the dangers of telling the truth mindless of the diplomatic consequences. I’m not saying that in a sarcastic way, moreover: reporting as you do to a fractured and fractious international community, you are constantly walking a diplomatic tightrope.
  • There is more than a little irony in the PA, PLO, Jordan, and the Arab League condemning Whitley for expressing what is their own implicit policy. The Arab Peace Initiative (2002), after all specifically makes any refugee agreement conditional on Israeli agreement: “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.” They adopted that language knowing full well that Israel would never accept an unlimited right of return, and equally knowing that neither Israel nor much of the international community believes that UNGAR 194 actually contains a “right of return.” This isn’t to say that the PA/PLO aren’t seeking Israeli recognition of the right—they are. But they really aren’t expecting that the bulk of refugees would ever be able to exercise it. (If you need further evidence, look at the language adopted in the unofficial Geneva Initiative, which was written in large part by former and current PA/PLO officials. In that draft agreement, return to Israel is—as in the Clinton Parameters—largely determined by “Israel’s sovereign discretion.”)
  • For al-Awda to condemn Andrew Whitley as an “enemy of the people” is beyond stupid. They may strongly believe that a serving UN official shouldn’t speak out on these issues without a clear mandate to do so—fair enough, on that I agree. They may certainly strongly disagree with his analysis. But are they saying that thoughtful, well informed, and sympathetic individuals should withhold from refugees (and others) their analytical conclusions if those differ from the politically correct orthodoxy? And does expressing such views suddenly make you an “enemy of the people” (a rather dangerous term to be throwing around in the contentious atmosphere of the Arab-Israeli conflict)?


  1. Terry Rempel says:

    If I can, allow me to offer a slightly different perspective.

    Yes, there are consequences for speaking your mind. This is all too evident, for example, in what diplomats are willing to say privately and publicly on a range of issues relevant to the conflict. How else to explain the relative silence on issues of systemic discrimination. NGOs that used to receive funding from the Canadian government know all too well the consequences for speaking one’s mind.

    I’m not sure what’s ironic about the Arab statements re: Andrew Whitley. The language used in the Arab Peace Initiative is not as conclusive as you suggest. Depends, in part, on the context in which you read the language. On the one hand, its consistent with how Arab states defined what was meant by a “just settlement of the refugee problem” when they introduced that phrase in the context of debate over Resolution 242. A just settlement meant one based on Resolution 194. On the other hand, if you read it in the context of the broader contemporary debate about what a just solution means, e.g., the Road Map and Geneva, then, of course, it has implications as you suggest. Seems to me that the statement is far too ambiguous to rule out interpretation either way, and that would be consistent with both the principled support among Arab states for refugee rights, and the failure in practice to take required measures to ensure that refugees are able to exercise their rights.

    Finally, on the language in al-Awda’s statement. I agree with you on the language, but you overlook a broader issue, which, partly, explains the apparent anger and frustration in the statement. As I’ve said elsewhere, its not as if refugees are unaware of the obstacles to a rights-based solution. It seems to me that they are all too well-aware. Thus, however, well-intentioned and sympathetic efforts to “speak the truth” to refugees might be, such efforts tend to be received as both paternalistic and an insult to refugees’ intelligence. When you talk about speaking the truth, what you are really saying, and you’ve been more clear about this elsewhere in the blog, is that you are trying to convince refugees to forgo the right of return, in part, it seems, because you believe that it is impossible to change Israel’s view on the issue. A person caught in the situation refugees have been in now for more than 60 years can adopt at minimum two different approaches. You can either accept the situation as given and work to find a solution within the given constraints, OR, you can envision what a solution should look like and then seek to work to change realities in ways that will enable you to realize that vision. My sense is that refugees generally view efforts to convince them to forgo return as falling within the former, while efforts to a achieve a rights-based solution fall within the latter. Frankly, I don’t see why it’s any more realistic, or where there is sufficient evidence to support the fact that it is easier to change refugee views than it is to change Israel’s position on the refugee question. People are free to try to convince refugees to forgo return or as you put it “speak the truth” to them, but if, indeed, their “truth” lies in a different view of their situation and how to get out of it, don’t expect a reception by the welcome wagon. That said, obviously, the importance of language that is both respectful and responsible is without question.

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