The residents of Yarmouk have a devastating absence of good friends, and no shortage of enemies. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), however, is an important exception. The agency has supported the Palestinian diaspora through the generosity of host and donor countries for over 60 years, and is essential in satisfying the daily needs of refugees by providing services such as healthcare, education, finance, relief, and emergency aid.
Since UNRWA’s formation in 1949, Canada consistently funded the agency, but this longstanding policy started to deteriorate in 2009 when the federal government introduced a twofold reform to its contributions. First, the overall amount of funding was dramatically decreased and second, Canada’s contribution was reallocated to UNRWA’s Emergency Plan rather than its core services. In 2007 Canada contributed $32.4 million to UNRWA, and by 2012 it gave less than half that amount – just $15.1 million. Last year Canada made no contribution, and there is no indication that it will do so this year, despite the systematic destruction of the Palestinian presence in Syria. Meanwhile, the costs associated with expanding Canada’s airstrikes into the country’s eastern region, far from Damascus and likely to exacerbate the current refugee problem, are expected to exceed half a billion dollars.
The tragedy in Yarmouk is a symptom of a larger problem, namely the lack of a global or regional political will to alleviate local suffering. Though it has developed important normative frameworks, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a concept embraced by many Canadian leaders and influential thinkers alike, has not established a binding legal obligation on behalf of states. The international community is not required to interfere in the affairs of sovereign states in the event of humanitarian crises, and a discretionary right to intervene persists. This means that comprehensive efforts to protect innocent civilians will continue to be effected by, if not predicated on, other political calculations.
In the continued absence of a clear obligation, states remain able to selectively protect the victims of mass atrocities. The inconsistent application of R2P in recent years has had a negative impact on the doctrine’s credibility, especially in customary international law, which requires an objective component of widespread and uniform practice as well as a subjective component of state understanding that their practice is mandatory as a matter of law. Neither component exists, as is clearly evidenced by the Syrian case.
Without a convenient confluence of political interest and humanitarian sensitivity, the Palestinian refugees of Yarmouk will be displaced and dispossessed once again while the world stands watch. For precisely this reason, alternative legal justifications for action should be developed to improve the consistency of international or regional responses to humanitarian disaster. Perhaps then, rather than pouring personnel and resources into a Sunni-dominated military coalition, Arab leaders could collectively take the steps needed to form a humanitarian one as well.
Today, those still trapped inside Yarmouk confront the double danger of regime bombs from the sky and terrorist bullets on the ground, while those who have escaped are haunted by the all-too-recent memory of expulsion. “We must go back,” insisted one refugee to the BBC. “It’s our little Palestine.”