The toughest spokesperson's job in the world? A decade speaking out for Palestinian humanitarian needs

25 August 2015 (UN News Centre) – Chris Gunness has served as the Spokesperson and Director of Advocacy and Communications for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for almost a decade.

His Twitter account is carefully watched. His every word is deconstructed and parsed for nuance and intent. He is indefatigable in his advocacy for the five million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East who are the responsibility of UNRWA. A regular voice in media coverage of the Palestine conflict, Mr. Gunness has been reviled and revered for his dogged commitment to easing their plight.

Based in Jerusalem but covering UNRWA operations in the surrounding region, he has lived and worked through five wars – three in Gaza, one in Lebanon and another in Syria – in addition to many other moments of extreme tension and violence as the international community works towards bringing peace to the Middle East.

Mr. Gunness came to the United Nations through his previous work as a journalist with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), where he worked for 25 years. A term as the BBC correspondent in the press corps at UN Headquarters exposed him to the UN system, which led to a stint with the UN Protection Force in the Balkans. Soon after, while working back at the BBC, the loss of his partner added to his desire for a change. Not long afterwards, he landed work with the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) in Jerusalem from where he took up the job as UNRWA’s point person for strategic communications and advocacy. He has been there ever since.

With the Syrian conflict in its fifth year, Mr. Gunness never loses an opportunity to remind the world of what makes headlines fleetingly and then recedes. The besieged Palestinians of Yarmouk, a suburb of Damascus, took over television screens around the world, as aid was finally allowed in – and a now staggering but iconic photograph that UNRWA circulated captured how civilians are the ultimate pawns in the chess-game of politics.

However, last year he went from feeding the news cycle to becoming a headline when a video clip of him in an emotional state after a TV interview during the last Gaza war went viral.

UN News Centre: You have been in the “hot seat” at UNRWA for almost a decade now. What were your expectations when you first joined the Agency?The UN News Centre spoke with Mr. Gunness about the challenges UNRWA faces in 2015, his experiences on the frontlines of one of the world’s most contentious issues in international relations, and becoming the subject of a viral video.

Chris Gunness: I knew it was probably the toughest UN spokesman job on the planet – but I didn’t know exactly how tough it was going to be, because the job really is a lightning rod for a lot of the totally understandable anger that is felt about the UN in general – not just UNRWA -- on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side.

On the Israeli side there’s a feeling that we only work with the Palestinians, that we do all this advocacy for the Palestinians; but that’s what the General Assembly has mandated us to do and that’s what we do as best we can. On the Palestinian side there’s a lot of anger with what we’re about – and again, I’m a lightning rod for that – because they’ve been denied a just and durable solution. They’ve been denied their political rights and huge injustices are perpetrated against the Palestinians, and the UN has, frankly, been unable to do much about it.

Look at Syria or the conflict last summer in Gaza: massive denial of human rights and dignity. UNRWA is on the frontline of al that literally and we’re the nearest thing that the Palestinians and Israelis have that represents the international community and I’m perhaps the most public face of this, so I’m the one that is, like I say, a lightning rod.

UN News Centre: How do you negotiate those “lightning strikes”?

Chris Gunness: We have a great Commissioner-General, a man who is principled and believes in public advocacy done in the right way. We do it in a way which contains as much controversy as we can, based on international law, on our mandate and on humanitarian principles. The thing about controversy is that you often don’t end up having a conversation about the thing you want to have a conversation about. So you begin by talking about rights abuses, about protection, and then you suddenly get into a debate about are you Orientalist or an anti-Semite.

One tries to limit as much as possible all the surrounding noise around the issue by being actually very perspicacious and judicious in the way we approach public messaging; so we all do what we can to contain and to limit the political fallout from what we say.

But the fact is that we work, I work, in a highly combustible political atmosphere. At any moment, there are these explosions – literal and metaphoric – that take place and so we have to look forward, we have to predict and we have to take as many precautionary measures as we can.

UN News Centre: How do you cope with that pressure?

Chris Gunness: I would be lying if I tried to pretend that there was no stress and that it didn’t take a toll, because for me it’s a very human experience. I think that being a UN spokesman is about having a humanity yourself – that doesn’t mean that you yourself become the story – I think it’s about being what the UN stands for and embodying the UN values of compassion, of humanity, of dignity, of all of those things, and at the same time trying to be eloquent and expressive.

And I think just being a sort of uptight UN spokesman in an Armani suit really puts a distance between the UN and the world that we’re serving. So I don’t wear suits very often, I don’t wear ties very often. But I am bound by all the internal staff rules, I’m hemmed in by the politics of the conflict, I’m bound by the policies of the Security Council, and all those other dynamics.

But, within that, I think it’s important to find as much space to be human because that is what the world has to recognize, I think, in the UN – it’s essentially a very human and humane institution and it’s our job, I think, to project that and to live it and to be it. That’s important.

UN News Centre: What are the biggest challenges for UNRWA this year?

Chris Gunness: Dealing with UNRWA’s $101 million deficit is by far the biggest challenge. If we don’t bring in all the money soon then we are looking at a tough decision which might involve not opening our schools at the start of the upcoming academic year. It would be a devastating blow for an agency whose largest programme is education. And having 500,000 kids who we should be educating potentially on the streets at a time of rising extremism across the Middle East is an alarming prospect. It’s also going to be a very interesting year in the Israel-Palestine conflict, because I think, post-Oslo, what we’ve seen is the slow erosion of the peace process and that makes the humanitarian work we do all the more important.

The lack of a just and durable solution, the lack of any sense of real justice for the Palestine refugees, is going to make the advocacy we do and the work we do at UNRWA and our critical human development work all the more important. With that is likely to come political and rhetorical attacks on UNRWA based on the nonsensical idea that we perpetuate the Middle East conflict – which, of course, we don’t. The reason UNRWA exists, as I have said many times is political failure. We are mandated to do our humanitarian work until there is a just and lasting solution for the refugees. While the world fails to find such a solution we will continue to exist. To be clear, UNRWA wants nothing more than to go away, but that happens once the parties to the conflict resolve the refugee issue, based on international law and UN resolutions.

UN News Centre: How has the Syria crisis affected UNRWA’s ability to do its work?

Chris Gunness: The Syria crisis was really quite unexpected and four years ago completely engulfed us. I keep saying to people that what UNWRA should be doing is human development, running schools and health clinics. But every time we try and get on with that a crisis happens. The Gaza conflict happens again, or the Syria war breaks out, and UNRWA has to move into emergency mode, which it does very well, by the way.

The Syria crisis was another example of where the lack of a political solution and the failure of politics has given UNRWA an enormous workload, and that’s why we’re doing all the emergency work we’re doing in Syria. We’re very badly funded and therefore the refugees are not getting the help they need. For example last year we distributed less than 60 cents per refugee per day in Syria – well, that’s not enough. So many of our facilities have been destroyed and damaged and there’s no access to them, thus cash is a big part of our humanitarian response and yet we have no money for it.

UN News Centre: Can you tell us, from what you have seen, about the toll the violence takes?

Chris Gunness: I’ve been working for UNWRA during three wars in Gaza, the war in Lebanon, the war in Syria – those are five hugely disruptive conflicts. Of course, the physical toll is enormous.

When I first went to Gaza after the last war it looked like an earthquake, like Nepal, had just struck it except that this was manmade, this was not natural. I’ve been in Gaza when there have been sonic booms, where planes fly low and it’s really terrifying and awful, especially if you’re a baby or a child. There’ve been explosions and I’ve been in Gaza when there have been upsurges in violence.

But generally I think to be in a conflict zone means there’s always this potential for violence. In the Palestinian context, there’s always a low-level, low-intensity conflict. In Lebanon, you’ll be driving down the street and suddenly there’ll be a tank parked in the middle of a roundabout or you’re in the West Bank and suddenly there’s an incursion and there’s tear gas; but that, I think, is part of the job. I think you have to be used to the unpredictable and you have to be able to respond to it, I think, in a way that is rational and human.

UN News Centre: Your work takes you from the relative safety of Jerusalem to the hardship and suffering in places like Gaza – how do you adjust to the differences in such locations?

Chris Gunness: I have to say that the juxtaposition that you talk about for me is a constant reminder of what the Palestinians don’t have and rather than making me inured to the violence and the injustice, it actually sharpens the experience for me and heightens the need for compassion and to humanize the story.

Palestinian families travel to an UNRWA school to seek shelter after evacuating their homes near the border in Gaza City during the conflict in 2014. UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

When I go to Gaza and see the human impact of the conflict, it makes me more determined to go away and to tell their story and amplify those voices, to remind the world that there is this huge injustice, that there cannot be peace in the Middle East unless five million refugees are brought out of this state of dispossession and injustice.

UN News Centre: Last year you made headlines for different reasons than the usual – how did that come about?

Chris Gunness: The day I burst into tears on television began very early when an UNRWA school in Gaza was hit and people were killed when they slept on the floor of a UN classroom, and we were all called to the office, it was a very harrowing day. I was interviewed by Al Jazeera in Arabic; now, on Al Jazeera English, which is what I’m normally on, they sanitize it. Al Jazeera in Arabic showed that day appalling pictures and it was live, with a monitor just underneath the camera, so I saw all these images and I started to think “I can’t get through this – I’ve just seen too much suffering”. But I did just about manage to get through the interview and said goodbye at the end, but I began to feel myself losing control but it was live so I couldn’t just end it.

Then when the interview was over I broke down crying. But I break down a lot. Often I would do an interview, put the phone down and weep quietly to myself because what we’re dealing with is so profoundly tragic and unjust. And these are people I know and work with, and have met them and they’re under attack in spaces I’m very familiar with.

So I put my head in my hands and wept uncontrollably and the Al Jazeera cameraman carried on filming, didn’t ask my permission, I had no idea, I thought it was a private moment of grief, and the footage was sent back to Doha and broadcast every hour at the top of the hour for the next day or so and went viral.

Afterwards, I had thousands of emails from people saying it was so human and so authentic a moment. And coming from a UN official it showed, I think, to the world, that the indignation and outrage was real. This was not some rhetorical “the UN is deeply concerned” or whatever, this was the UN clearly and profoundly grief-struck. I had emails from the people in the Secretary-General’s office saying “we’re all proud of you, we’re all pleased that we’re being portrayed as a human organization.” Nobody has said to me that what you betrayed a lack of neutrality.” Quite the reverse – many have said “we’re proud that we have a spokesperson who can show that level of humanity.”

UN News Centre: There is a view that spokespeople should work under a strict principle of neutrality – do you think that is possible when you see up close so much suffering?

Chris Gunness: I think it’s very easy to confuse being neutral with being unengaged. I think it’s perfectly possible – in fact, I think it’s essential – that the UN should be engaged. I think you can have emotions as long as your brain, ultimately, is what rules your heart. And you’re able to use language which is neutral and are able to do things that are neutral, and you are able to project a sense of humanity while being neutral.

Certainly, I had an email from a very senior UNRWA leader saying that there’s nothing worse than a slick humanitarian, so people supported me and I had peacekeeping colleagues, colleagues in UNICEF, colleagues in [UN] information centres around the world just saying “what can we do to help you?” It was a very touching reaction, frankly.

UN News Centre: It is considered par for the course that spokespeople are attacked for their work. You have attracted your fair share of it, from government officials to members of the public on social media. How does that affect you?

Chris Gunness: I would like to say that it hasn’t affected me, that it’s all water off a duck’s back. But that’s not true. It’s affected me profoundly. What it doesn’t affect, I hope, is my judgement.

I think I have carried on, regardless of the attacks on me, I have carried on, I hope, very steadfast in the UN mission, and projecting the [UN] values and being able to project what UNWRA’s work is all about. But I go home and scream and shout at my partner; I go home and feel profoundly affected by it. But who wouldn’t be in that kind of situation?

I don’t think anyone really expects humanitarian workers not to be affected. I think quite the reverse, I think people would think you’re kind of weird if you went through these experiences and behaved as if you were going to an office every day and being an accountant.

I think we’re allowed to have emotions, it’s just that, ultimately, neutrality is what matters and I think you can have an engaging emotional life when you’re dealing with these unjust situations while still remaining entirely neutral.

UN News Centre: How do you unwind after a day at work?

Chris Gunness: I run and play the violin obsessively – it doesn’t look like I run very obsessively! I’m a musician, I was a musical scholar, at Oxford as it happens, and for me music is enormously important and I love medieval music and I’ve sung it. I was a performer, I used to sing in a professional choir and I continue to find music as a very restorative, palliative part of my life. So I listen to a lot of music, I play the violin, I run and I have the most wonderful partner you can imagine.

UN News Centre: Where do you see yourself after your stint with UNRWA?

Chris Gunness: Unfortunately, I’m defying the UN rule that you should move every four years. But, frankly, I can’t think of another job I want to do more. I have extraordinary colleagues, people I work closely with are inspirational humanitarians, we all have a real sense of engagement, and frankly, after the advocacy I’ve done, I’m not sure that many people want to employ me! Moreover, when you work with refugees who have lost everything it’s very hard to say goodbye and move on.

UN News Centre: Lastly, what end result do you see for the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Chris Gunness: I think that ultimately there will be a political resolution. People can’t be denied their rights for that long. History doesn’t have an example of where for decade after decade after decade people live in this state; scattered, exiled and dispossessed. I passionately believe – I may be dead – but I passionately and overwhelmingly believe, that there will be justice one day for the Palestinians.