The United Nations agency dealing with Palestinian refugees in the Middle East has responded to criticisms by the Beirut-based Syria Campaign that the UN is giving the Syrian Government an "effective veto" over the distribution of humanitarian aid in Syria.
Speaking to RTÉ’s This Week, Commissioner General of UNRWA Pierre Krähenbühl said: "We are a humanitarian agency in the middle of very powerful actors on the ground.
"I guess the question that would come up for me is: what consequence do I draw from the comment? Is it withdrawal from the region? That can’t be it."
The Syria Campaign’s report, ‘Taking Sides: The United Nations’ Loss Of Impartiality, Independence And Neutrality In Syria’ says the UN has "allowed the Syrian government to direct aid from Damascus almost exclusively into its territories".
Mr Krähenbühl told RTÉ its operations focused on where Palestinian refugees were located: "The focus is on where are Palestine refugees today and the majority have been, for historic reasons, in areas that are today under the control of the Syrian Government".
The UNWRA chief also said the agency had worked in areas outside regime control.
"We have camps in other parts of Syria that are under opposition control and we do daily cross-line operations and these are very delicate. And when you lose 16 people and have 28 missing, I think it is a very clear indication of the risks one is prepared to take."
'Aid being used as a form of arsenal for Syrian government'
Reacting to the Syria Campaign report, a former head of UNRWA in Damascus, Roger Hearn told ‘Foreign Policy’: "There are always limits, and there are always compromises - I’m not naive about the purity of aid, but when you don’t even know where your aid is going, when you can actually have sieges literally a couple of kilometers from the Four Seasons Hotel where UN officials are based, and when your aid is being used in a sense as part of the arsenal of the Syrian government, it’s fair to question: What do we actually risk if we are thrown out of the country?"
Asked about Mr Hearn’s comments, Mr Krähenbühl said: "I have always preferred the dilemmas associated with being present, because I don’t know what the alternative is. I mean it’s great to say when you’re in humanitarian operations, and I’ve worked for 25 years in conflict zones, that of course one should never be naive about the context one’s operating in.
"One should be particularly careful ones assistance doesn’t go into the wrong hands, doesn’t favour one side or the other.
"During my last trip to Damascus four weeks ago I was in areas under opposition control where we were carrying out distributions. Now that means, of course that these issues are negotiated. They are part of a facilitation, both from the opposition side and the government side, but we make every effort possible to get into the areas where people are in need".
The UNRWA Commissioner General also responded to the recent reports that Saudi Arabia had threatened to withdraw funding to UN Agencies- including UNRWA- over its inclusion in a blacklist of parties who had killed children in Yemen
"Saudi Arabia is our third largest donor now and it focuses on construction and reconstruction projects, for example in Gaza after the war, so it’s a very solid partner, an important one. We currently have no indication they are reconsidering their support to UNRWA, but for us any donor that disengages from the agency.
"For three years Canada had decided no longer to fund UNRWA. We are currently discussing a renewal of that partnership. But of course any donor that steps away when we deal with as many needs as we do in the region is something of great concern".