Christopher Luxon says NZ won't contribute to under-fire UN agency until Winston Peters satisfied, Helen Clark says withholding would be 'outrageous'

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon says New Zealand won't be contributing further funding to the under-fire UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) amid an investigation into allegations some of its staff members took part in Hamas' attack on Israel in October.   

"The allegations are incredibly serious," Luxon said on Tuesday morning. "It is important they are properly understood and investigated. We won't be making any further contributions until the Foreign Minister says it is good to do so."

That would take as long as it takes, Luxon said.

He said New Zealand's contribution is $1 million and is part of a wider $10 million in humanitarian assistance for Gaza through the Red Cross and World Food Programme.

Former UN administrator and ex-New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark earlier urged the Government to not withhold the funding.

Clark said if the Government were to follow in the footsteps of other countries by withholding funding, it would be "callous", "simply outrageous" and could have dire consequences. 

But Luxon dismissed that, saying he appreciated Clark's comments, but "we are the Government".

It comes after leading economies around the world, including Britain, the United States, Australia and Italy, have either withdrawn or temporarily paused funding to the agency after Israel accused some of its staff members of being involved in the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.   

The UN says 70 percent of humanitarian aid going into Gaza is dependent on global funding and is asking countries to rethink their stance.    

The Financial Times reported UNRWA had fired "several" employees after receiving information from Israel about their alleged involvement in the attacks.  

Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, said the contracts of the employees had been immediately terminated and he had ordered "an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay".   

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) in New Zealand will "assess the situation" in Gaza before releasing a planned million-dollar payment to the under-fire agency.     

Trade Minister Todd McClay claims the government is "taking its time" before a decision on future UNRWA funding is made.    

McClay told AM on Tuesday morning the government is sticking with that plan, despite Clark and other experts claiming any cut of funding would be "simply outrageous."  

Cutting funding to UN agency would be "callous" - Clark   

But for those war-torn and left with no home, they say losing UNRWA means having nothing left and is equivalent to a "death sentence" for Gaza.    

Clark had similar thoughts when speaking to AM on Tuesday morning. She said during her time as administrator of the UN development program, she never had any concerns about members of staff there.   

Former UN administrator and ex-New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Former UN administrator and ex-New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. Photo credit: AM

She told the show the allegations aren't serious enough in comparison to the consequences that stopping the funding would cause in Gaza.   

She was pleased New Zealand hasn't "rushed to judgment" as it's currently just allegations against the major agency delivering humanitarian aid to the besieged Gaza population.   

But she said a pause in funding could have deadly consequences for those in Gaza.   

"If they [UNRWA] haven't got the money, people literally starve. You can't create another delivery platform overnight... so it's a deadly situation," she told AM co-host Melissa Chan-Green.   

"That's why I say, looking at the bigger picture to defund over these allegations released on the day of the International Court of Justice ruling, I think is simply outrageous and actually callous."  

She told AM the countries that have suspended funding to the agency have done so prematurely.    

"What you have are allegations against a tiny proportion of the staff of UNRWA. To use that as an excuse to remove literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from the organisation is outrageous, particularly when that organisation is so critical in trying to get the limited aid that Israel does allow over the border to people who are starving and sick there," she said.   

Clark told AM Israel has a long-term agenda against UNRWA and would like to see it disestablished as it doesn't want to be reminded there are people with refugee status who come under UNRWA's auspices.   

"So this is their agenda to get rid of it and unfortunately, this premature, precipitous defunding of UNRWA by a number of the donors plays to that agenda," she said.    

"I really cannot rationalise how countries can cut funding to the major delivery agency to starving and sick Palestinians in Gaza.    

"I saw the National Security Council of the US spokesperson, John Kirby, acknowledging that UNRWA has done a very good job of delivering support. If it's done a very good job why do you suspend its funding at this critical hour because of allegations against 12 people."   

Clark wasn't the only expert urging the government not to suspend money to the under-fire UN agency.    

Robert Patman, Otago University international relations expert, told AM on Tuesday morning Clark's assessment was "spot on".    

"We shouldn't overlook the desperate situation that UNRWA is operating under. More than 140 members of UNRWA, that is UN employees, have been killed since October 7," Patman said.   

"By definition, they were not involved in the October 7 Hamas attack. They were killed simply doing their work and it's multifaceted work. Distributing humanitarian aid but also providing education for displaced people."    

Otago University international relations expert Robert Patman.
Otago University international relations expert Robert Patman. Photo credit: AM

Govt 'taking its time' before a decision is made on funding 

McClay told AM on Tuesday morning the allegations against the under-fire agency are "serious" and the New Zealand taxpayer has a right to know any money sent to the UN or any other countries in the world is going to be spent appropriately and properly.   

He confirmed the government is "taking its time" before a decision on future UNRWA funding is made.   

Trade Minister Todd McClay.
Trade Minister Todd McClay. Photo credit: AM

"Until the Minister of Foreign Affairs is comfortable that the funding will be used appropriately on behalf of New Zealanders, no further payments will be made," McClay said.     

"But as I said, there are some many months before that decision has to be made and look forward to the inquiry taking place."   

If the money was to be suspended that would be a cabinet decision, McClay confirmed.