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Published On: Tue, Feb 2nd, 2016

UNRWA’s Cyclic Financial Crises: The “Human Dignity” Rhetoric

The recently feared financial shortfalls of UNRWA in the Middle Eastern region, which could have caused a delay in the start of the 2015-2016 academic year, showed once again how some commentators, the general public, and especially UNRWA mechanically draw on the language of human rights as well as the rhetoric of dignity and Palestinian identity to explain political failures and financial risks. How does nude morality and the language of dignity make a difference in the human rights discourse?

"No weapons" sign on the door of a UNRWA building in Jerusalem. Photo: Kyle Taylor.

“No weapons” sign on the door of a UNRWA building in Jerusalem. Photo: Kyle Taylor.

For several months the present UNRWA General Commissioner Pierre Krähenbühl had expressed his concerns, by writing to Ban Ki Moon heartfelt words on the Palestinians’ isolation, exclusion, and dispossession, which keep representing a “time bomb for the region,” and “a denial of dignity and rights.” He was therefore encouraging the payment of the debt of 101 million US dollars that would have helped the Palestinian children start their school year regularly. Aside from the fact that, eventually, schooling staff did manage to start the academic year on time due to incoming financial sources, the rhetoric of dignity is used as a way to give significance to the alleged “indifference of the international community,” and the unwillingness of politicians to support the Palestinian cause worldwide.

The payment of the international debt has been seen by the school leaders of the 58 refugee camps in Palestine (West Bank and the Gaza Strip) – as well as those in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan – more in terms of national and individual dignity and identity, and less as deprivation of the universal right to education. However, people often use the language of “humanity” to express frustration and demands for better treatment.

The dignity rhetoric populates the international media nowadays much more than the daunting low quality of education services. While the latter is inseparable from the protection of refugees’ rights, in the face of a growing refugee population and static resources, the school system in the Palestinian refugees’ camps is overwhelmed, and the material conditions of the schools as well as teaching quality are increasingly dire: overburdened teachers who have to deal with two school shifts per day. Already in 1996, erstwhile UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen had appealed to the international community to increase financial engagement.

There is no doubt that for Palestinian camp dwellers education can be a beacon for a hopeful future, but the dignity rhetoric struggles to reflect a development discourse, whose eternal un-accomplishment actually stands against resilient forms of self-reliance and efficacious everyday tactics of survival.

What new aims does the UN General Assembly mean to achieve by recently renewing UNRWA’s mandate until June 30 2017? UNRWA, created after the Palestinian exodus due to the 1948 foundation of the state of Israel, has come to represent the condemnation of Palestinians people to unachieved promises. Expectations and hopefulness historically became a national stigma for Palestinians; a stigma which further risks fossilising people in predicament and deprivation.

In this framework, it has widely been campaigned that education for Palestinian refugees is their passport to “dignity” (karama). Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the concept of dignity had already assumed an important place in human rights jurisprudence. On the one hand, the term “dignity” is frequently used as a rhetorical flourish, creating abstraction and vagueness of how and what sort of social justice should be achieved. On the other, it can still be employed to reinforce the status of individuals, and as a defining component of human rights protection. However, rendering “dignity” and “human rights” synonyms with each other leads to misconceptions, in that, while the former is supposed to carry a moral implication, the latter more firmly reasserts the illegality of the Palestinian condition in the Middle East and elsewhere. Effective human rights’ advocacy should certainly include the principles of equality, justice, and freedom but it should primarily commit to a wide institutionalisation of such principles.

Mere sympathy as a cause of action does not provide us with rational justifications able to guarantee the institutional arrangements within which we can uphold human rights. Moreover, the absence of such a rational input behind the sentimentalism of the dignity language makes the possibility of a supportive normative community as ephemeral as people’s ability to empathise with the others’ suffering. When sympathy is lacking – as now that the media draw public attention on issues other than UNRWA’s financial cuts – the contingent dignity language alone will neither contribute to any effective change in Palestinian lives, nor it will establish a public understanding of the reasons why it is a moral duty to get back to the very legal nature of human rights. In a nutshell, we are very likely to read about new financial shortfalls next year.

So how does prioritising moral connotations affect the human rights discourse? If meant as the most spoken political emotion of the Palestinian people, human dignity can be interpreted as the essence of the human rights’ culture. The language of human rights – as well as international humanitarianism by definition – have gradually overshadowed the normative and legal connotation underlying “dignity” with a two-fold controversial practice: “nationalising” rights, that is attributing them to a specific people, and, at the same time, universalising the grammar of human rights, that is advocating for its implementation regardless of cultural specificities.

If dignity comes to signify deserving things equally, the logic of thinking that people “deserve” things due to their innate dignity becomes problematic; also the logic that we, in the capacity of rights bearers and rescuers, have the duty to respond to dignity with humanity, undercuts the importance of using the dignity rhetoric as an efficacious inquiry on human vulnerability. This way, dignity is portrayed as a token that can be granted or denied, clearly at the mercy of international politics. The Israeli formal and informal responses, in turn, heavily rely on the subjectivity and relativity of this moral legitimisation. Public deception of “righting wrongs”, very frequent among human rights campaigners, can therefore be explained through the belief that human rights should be complied with and recognised by the Israeli state as naturally “deriving” from the social fact that Palestinians own human dignity. And what if such an aprioristic right to dignity is ever questioned, as Arendt already problematised? The concept of dignity in international human rights and domestic constitutional law ends up being inconsistent and even harmful to the material accomplishment of social justice in the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To overcome the political impasse to which the Israeli-Palestinian issue has arrived, getting back to the materiality of what the law sanctions in terms of territorial boundaries and social policy would strengthen the revolutionary potential of the abovementioned dignity’s rhetoric. This would not rule out the emotional recognition of the “humanity” and “dignity” of the Palestinians, and, at the same time, it would not imply the homogenous denial of those of the Israelis, which is an abused rhetoric tool in the official Israeli diplomatic discourse – hasbara. The merging of the two explanatory and political expression instruments, moreover, would remind us that no subject has the intrinsic monopole of being only persecuted or persecuting.

In light of these considerations, dignity as a mere rhetoric jeopardises the political nature of the ageing deprivation of the Palestinians. What rights are we speaking of if not those inherently related to the political and legal framework they should be enforced and defended in?

Whilst the UNRWA Commissioner, Krähenbühl, stated that there would be no rest until the day when they could announce the opening of UNRWA schools for the 2015/16 academic year on time, there will actually be no rest until the day UNRWA has no reason to exist. With no constant reminder about the primary role of legality and politics, morality alone empties that framework of enforceability and overshadows the effective ways necessary to break the Palestinian deadlock.

About the Author

- PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Sydney (Australia), research fellow at Lebanon Support (Beirut) and a research consultant for the New York University - Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

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