Following the Trump administration’s withdrawal of funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Canada will contribute $50 million dollars to the UN agency. Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of International Development, made the announcement on Saturday October 13, 2018, stating that $50 million will be provided to the organization, with the majority of the funds focusing on health and education projects. This is a strong step forward for the Trudeau government and for placing Canada at the forefront of multilateralism and international development.
UNRWA was established in 1949 to focus on assisting Palestinian refugees after the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict led thousands of Palestinians to flee their homeland. The agency currently helps approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. The organization is funded mostly by donor states, with the U.S. previously being the largest donor.
The United States pulled out of funding the UN refugee agency in August 2018, alleging that the agency is “flawed” and leaving a $300m gap in the agency’s funding. This large gap left the agency underfunded and calling for other states to step up and attempt to help fill the quota. The cut puts the agency at the risk of having to close schools, clinics, and a variety of other critical services they provide. The decision can potentially have an impact on the calls for the ‘right of return’ by Palestinian refugees and activists, as it risks de-valuing their refugee status if the organization were to shut down.
Canada’s decision to donate aligns with Chrystia Freeland’s speech in 2017, whereby she asserted that in the face of the United States’ withdrawal from global leadership, Canada must take on the course of “the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order”. This donation is a prime example of Canada stepping up in its role in international development and aid as the U.S. decreases its focus on international issues.
The donation to the UN Agency also positively contributes to Canada’s reputation within the United Nations amidst their bid for a two-year temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. The move demonstrates Canada’s dedication to development and their major role within the United Nations. It has previously been noted by the former Liberal cabinet minister Allan Rock, that other UN member states may have been hesitant to vote for Canada during their previous bid for a seat in 2010 due to a hostility towards Conservative policies. The Conservative attitude towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as Harper’s excessive support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, may have had a major impact on Canada’s failure to secure the votes from other countries. The current governments donation may be seen as a more neutral approach towards the conflict.
For the Trudeau government, the move to donate to UNRWA contrasts significantly to their predecessor’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Harper government was more in line with the US pro-Israel policy towards the conflict. This donation by the Trudeau administration to UNRWA following the United States’ decision to cut funds not only displays a new approach for the Liberals that differs from their Conservative rivals, but also portrays Canada as an independent actor when it comes to this particular conflict (rather than a state that mirrors the actions of its neighbors to the South).
Donating to UNRWA is a significant step forward for Canada as an international actor. It demonstrates to other states Canada’s willingness to take on a leading role in multilateral projects and international developments. With the current Trump administration threatening the multilateral order by pulling out of international commitments, Canada is presented with an opportunity to step up and fill the gap the U.S. leaves behind. The question is: Will Canada be able to take on the role?
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