on the hill

Thomas-Greenfield commits to reforming UNRWA and U.N. Human Rights Council

The U.N. ambassador said the U.S. has formulated a memorandum of understanding with UNRWA to ensure strict oversight

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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield testifies during a hearing before House Foreign Affairs Committee at Rayburn House Office Building June 16, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told legislators that the Biden administration is conducting strict oversight and pursuing reforms of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) as well as the U.N. Human Rights Council.

UNRWA has faced criticism for alleged ties to terrorists, disputes over its definition of Palestinian refugees and distribution of educational materials containing antisemitic, anti-Israel and violence-promoting content.

Speaking in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, Thomas-Greenfield said that the State Department has formulated a memorandum of understanding with UNRWA about “all of our requirements that we have” for the agency to fulfill. She also emphasized that the department monitors “every dime that goes into that organization.”

“We are putting all of our weight behind monitoring everything that UNRWA does and monitoring the funding that the U.S. government provides to this organization,” she said. “I met with the commissioner for UNRWA early in my tenure in New York and made clear in no uncertain terms that the U.S. will be watching everything they do very, very closely.”

She also praised UNRWA for what she described as unilateral actions to stop distribution of textbooks containing antisemitic and anti-Israel material.

“They themselves have reviewed some of these textbooks and they actually identified textbooks that had issues and brought those to our attention,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “It’s my understanding that UNRWA itself is pushing back and acting promptly to remove this material from the textbooks.”

Marcus Sheff, CEO of IMPACT-se, an Israel-based NGO that monitors UNRWA educational materials, was skeptical of the U.N. agency’s efforts to reform its curricula, but praised the U.S. for “working hard to deal with” the issue.

“Much more clarity is needed,” Sheff told Jewish Insider. “I think UNRWA is simply back to its years-long modus operandi of assuring donor countries it is dealing with the hate while precisely nothing changes in the UNRWA classrooms where the Palestinian textbooks are taught. After UNRWA printed its own hateful teaching materials last year, this unverifiable self-regulation ship has obviously sailed.”

Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged that UNRWA itself exercises limited control over the educational content distributed to Palestinians under the NGO’s auspices in various countries.

“Some of [the textbooks] are provided by countries where Palestinian refugees are. And we’re also engaging with those countries,” she said. “But we’re going to be monitoring this even more closely than we’ve ever done before.”

The ambassador also defended the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has faced repeated accusations of anti-Israel and antisemitic bias. The panel has also faced criticism for including several member states with poor human rights records.

“I’m… appalled that we have to sit next to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers when we’re sitting in the council. But I know that when we’re sitting there at the table we have much more influence and power to push against their efforts to push the council in the wrong direction,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “They feel the discomfort as well because we are pushing back against them as well.”

The ambassador told lawmakers she believes some members of the Human Rights Council are antisemitic, but that Michelle Bachelet, the body’s commissioner, is not. She argued that the council proposes fewer anti-Israel measures when the U.S. is a member and insisted that the U.S. can reform the body.

“We know it’s tough. We’re not going into this with any starry eyes,” she said. “It’s going to take hard work, but it’s going to take the work of linking and being flanked by our allies to push back on these efforts,” she said. 

Thomas-Greenfield also said that the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Holocaust memorial museum, was one of her first stops in New York, and that she has discussed her visit with every member of the Security Council.

“[I] encouraged all of them to visit and see what I saw there so that there’s just no doubt in anyone’s mind that we absolutely have to fight these efforts,” she continued.

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