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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
12 June 2008

Press Release
June 10, 2008

OPT: Commissioner-General's opening statement - Advisory commission meeting

Damascus, 10 June 2007 - Your Excellencies, distinguished Chair, distinguished delegates:

It is a pleasure to welcome you to this session of UNRWA's Advisory Commission, which for the first time is taking place in the historic city of Damascus. As we mark the sober anniversary of sixty years since the events of 1948 triggered the forced flight of Palestinians into exile, it is fitting that the Advisory Commission should be hosted by a government offering exemplary hospitality and support to Palestine refugees.

This is a transitional moment for the leadership of this Commission. At the end of June, Syria will complete its term in the Chair, a role that has been performed excellently by Ali Mustapha. Norway will assume the chairmanship in the person of Tor Wennesland, who is attending the Commission's meeting today. I take this opportunity to extend to Mr. Wennesland a warm welcome.

Following the Geneva Conference in 2004, we set out on a bold joint venture – donors, host countries, stakeholders and UNRWA - to transform the character of this Commission. Through a reinforced membership, revised procedures and a dynamic approach to our work, we sought to renew this Commission's sense of purpose and to breathe new life into its partnership with UNRWA in the service of Palestine refugees.

As I look back, I see evidence of the progress we have made - and continue to make - along the path of a constructively evolving, mutually beneficial partnership. I see the routine smoothness of the succession of the Commission's leadership; the intensity and focus all members bring to participation in the Commission and its sub-committee; the breadth and operational relevance of our agenda; and the collegial, candid spirit which animates our proceedings. I believe we can rightfully claim a measure of satisfaction from covering as much ground as we have in a relatively short time. I take this opportunity to express, personally and on behalf of UNRWA, my sincere appreciation for the support and goodwill you offer UNRWA and Palestine refugees through this Commission.

Since we last met in regular session in November last year, UNRWA's area of operations has lived up to its billing as a region of multi-dimensional challenges. It is a zone prone to political tensions, outbreaks of armed conflict and humanitarian crises. Yet it is also a region where the desire for peace and potential for human development are ever present, alongside real opportunities to pursue them.

Under the next agenda item, my Field Directors and the Director of UNRWA's New York office will share with you updates of recent developments in their respective fields. Allow me to set the stage by offering a few perspectives of my own.

In the occupied Palestinian territory, the state of Palestinians and Palestine refugees remains grimly precarious. Poverty and unemployment are rife, while movement restrictions and grave human rights abuses continue to deny to Palestinians the dignity and human security which should – under international law - be theirs by right.

In the West Bank, it is gravely worrying that physical and administrative obstacles to Palestinian movement are beginning to assume the quality of permanence. In defiance of international law, the separation barrier and its associated regime continue to expand, rendering the economy stagnant, paralyzing livelihoods and destroying hopes of any return to normal Palestinian life. Appeals – some from high diplomatic quarters - to ease movement restrictions for Palestinians have thus far yielded little or nothing. Minimal undertakings by Israel have been followed by small gestures or the imposition of more impediments. A recent OCHA report indicates that between September 2007 and the end of April 2008, closure obstacles increased in number from 566 to 607.

The increasing rigidity of the closure regime adversely affects UNRWA's operations, impeding access to Jerusalem for Palestinian staff, and necessitating additional expenditures for storage, demurrage, transportation and palletizing of humanitarian supplies. Further costs for lost staff days, labour replacement costs and associated administrative work amount to tens of thousands of dollars in the course of the year.

Meanwhile, there is no let up in the pace of arbitrary expropriation of Palestinian land. On May 2, a Quartet meeting in London repeated a call - made in past statements - for a halt to Israeli settlement activity and the dismantling of settlements constructed since March 2001. Eight days ago - exactly one month after the Quartet's London call - a decision to build 884 new homes in East Jerusalem was announced. This was one more demonstration of the disregard for international law that leads to the sustained violation of Palestinian rights.

In Gaza, such violations occur on a scale so dramatic, so pervasive and so visible that it never fails to shock those allowed through Gaza's tightly sealed borders to catch a glimpse of the reality of Palestinian life. One recent visitor was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who led a Human Rights Council fact-finding mission to Gaza from 27 to 29 May. The following extract from his concluding press conference conveys his impressions in brief:

"All we had heard about the conditions in Gaza - the deprivation, the sense of despair, the lack of economic activity – had not prepared us for the stark reality we saw. We saw a forlorn, deserted, desolate and eerie place. Hardly any pedestrians as would be the case in a more normal setting. We were struck particularly by the absence of the sounds of children shrieking and playing. Usually, when there is a convoy in a normal situation, children will rush out to wave, to be funny and to laugh. We saw none of this. There was no hustle and bustle as in a normal urban setting. There are hardly any vehicles on the road because of the scarcity of fuel. We saw more donkey- and horse-drawn carts.

We are in a state of shock, exacerbated by what we subsequently heard from the victims and survivors of the Beit Hanoun massacre. For us, the entire situation is abominable. We believe that ordinary Israeli citizens would not support this blockade, this siege, if they knew what it meant for ordinary people like themselves. No, they would not support a policy which limits fuel supplies or automatically cuts off the electricity supply. They would not support a policy which jeopardizes the lives of ordinary men and women in hospital, that cuts off water and food from hospitals jeopardizing the lives of babies."

This needless suffering, caused by an artificially imposed shortage of food, fuel, medical and other essential supplies, is but one dimension of the Gaza tragedy. Other aspects comprise incessant armed conflict featuring frequent military incursions, the deliberate destruction of Palestinian economic assets, extra-judicial killings, civilian deaths and injuries and the collective trauma of a population a million and half strong. In this conflict, armed militants in Gaza have themselves acquired the habit of breaching international law with their indiscriminate, haphazard yet deadly attacks on Israeli civilians in Sderot, Nahal Oz and the border crossings around Gaza. These attacks against civilians are illegal under international humanitarian law and damaging to the Palestinian cause.

Against this distressing backdrop have emerged credible reports of Palestinian, Israeli and Egyptian efforts to secure at least a temporary calm. And over the past few days, there have been welcome public indications of a rapprochement between the leaders of Hamas and Fatah. In light of the regional security risks of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and the distress it causes to Palestinians - and to some extent to Israelis - any and every opportunity to achieve conciliation and cessation of conflict must be grasped and actively nurtured by the international community.

In Lebanon, recent developments have brought in their wake positive opportunities that demand and deserve committed international support. Following two consecutive summers of devastating armed conflict, a long-running constitutional crisis and ten days of inter-factional fighting in May, the recent election of President Suleiman gives cause for a positive outlook for Lebanon and for UNRWA's work. Under the President's leadership and given the extraordinary support we enjoy from Prime Minister Siniora and his government, we approach with new confidence the myriad challenges facing Palestine refugees in Lebanon.

These include the passing of legislation allowing refugees normal access to employment, secondary education and other fundamental rights, and the implementation of a long-finalized plan to improve residential and living conditions in all refugee camps. Among the challenges ahead, however, the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared and its surrounding communities is by far the most daunting.

Yesterday, a meeting was held in Beirut to prepare for the Nahr el Bared conference in Vienna on 23 June. The gathering was useful to consider outstanding concerns and clarify a number of important issues. It was also an occasion to reinforce the spirit of partnership and common purpose among the government of Lebanon, the donor community, the World Bank, the PLO, the United Nations and refugees.

Re-building Nahr el Bared will be a massive undertaking which will put to the test the generosity of donors from around the world and the combined project implementation abilities of UNRWA and its partners. It is a task which requires each of us to remain firm in our belief that restoring homes, communities and normal life for 30,000 people displaced by conflict is the right and just thing to do for the refugees, for the people of Lebanon and for the stability of Lebanon. We in UNRWA are cognizant of the magnitude of the task at hand, but harbour no doubts that reconstructing Nahr el Bared is an endeavor to which our collective strengths are more than equal.

In Jordan and Syria, UNRWA and the Palestine refugees we serve are fortunate to benefit from unreserved government support and from a stable, operational environment, free from humanitarian emergencies and the distractions of conflict and access problems. I feel quite strongly that there is room to re-double our efforts and to build on the freedoms and opportunities afforded by Jordan and Syria in ways that maximize our human development work for Palestine refugees. This means supplementing the investments made by the governments in the well-being of Palestine refugees. It also entails active resource mobilization to improve the quality of UNRWA services, notably in the health, education, poverty alleviation and support for the most vulnerable Palestine refugees.

Your Excellencies, distinguished Chair, distinguished delegates:

This is an appropriate juncture at which to touch very briefly on two of UNRWA's principal internal preoccupations, namely our financial situation and management reform. The Deputy Commissioner-General, Filippo Grandi and the Comptroller, Ramadan Al-Omari, will elaborate on these issues during the discussions tomorrow.

For some years now – and certainly since I joined the Agency - UNRWA's financial situation has been characterized by uncertainty. Budget shortfalls have been a constant feature, limiting our ability to plan on the basis of refugee needs, much less execute our ambitions to modernize and enhance our services to Palestine refugees. Much too often, we are compelled to leave untouched the many areas of innovation that we know to be necessary and which you, our donors and host countries, demand.

A General Fund deficit of some US$ 98.8 million this year means that we address just the bare minimum of refugee needs. Is it any surprise then, that our schools and clinics are overcrowded and poorly maintained, that decrepit infrastructure is the norm in our refugee camps and that the assistance we offer to poor refugees is meager by international standards?

Early this year, it became clear to us that a combination of factors was conspiring to exacerbate the threats to UNRWA's financial health. Besides the General Fund shortfall we had a US$ 18.5 million funding gap between our predicted income and our estimate of expenditure by year's end. At the same time, a world-wide economic downturn begun to affect UNRWA's finances as food, energy and commodity prices spiraled upwards. These coincided with the reduction or removal of some government subsidies in our region, creating hardships for many of our staff and justifying salary increases, which in turn put further pressure on UNRWA's weak finances.

These considerations – and the fact that high global prices seemed certain to continue - motivated us to request an extraordinary session of this Commission at the end of April. I believe we succeeded in our aim to bring to your attention our anxiety about the vulnerability of our financial situation and to seek your help to address it. I trust that in the time since we met in extraordinary session, you have had the chance to reflect on UNRWA's concerns. I look forward to hearing from delegations what new actions or measures you suggest to give UNRWA the financial stability it needs.

Before I leave the subject of finances, I must express our sincere gratitude to those States and governments who have increased their contributions to UNRWA over the past year. This additional generosity is deeply appreciated and will go a long way to mitigate our financial woes. The reality, however, is that much more is needed.

When we set out before you the needs of Palestine refugees and call for your support as States and partners in this Commission, we do so with a sharp awareness of our own responsibility to do whatever we can to place the Agency's internal functioning on a sound footing. My senior managers and I are conscious of our collective duty to reform UNRWA and the way we work. We understand that reforms are necessary to become institutionally agile, enabling us to utilize your contributions more efficiently and to serve Palestine refugees more effectively. On this understanding rests our firm commitment to ensuring the success of the Organizational Development process.

At this halfway point of the three-year plan, there are grounds for satisfaction with the rate of progress. To mention a few examples, the building blocks for programme cycle management have been established and the steps towards instituting a Medium Term Strategy which anchors Agency-wide planning and budgeting are advancing at a good pace. The evolution towards well-structured and modern human resources management is also on track, while the work on re-tooling internal processes is proceeding well. Of particular importance is the extent to which the OD process is broadly accepted across UNRWA as a necessity and a fact. It is this assimilation of reforms into the thinking and behaviour of staff that will ultimately deliver the permanent institutional transformation which we seek.

Your Excellencies, distinguished Chair, distinguished delegates:

Our determined, purposeful approach to management reform is a measure of UNRWA's sense of responsibility, our devotion to excellence in the discharge of our humanitarian and human development mandate. We are acutely aware, however, that our service to Palestine refugees was never meant to be a solitary endeavor or an end in itself.

Our striving cannot be solitary because humanitarian work is grounded in principles of humanity universally held, and on responsibilities internationally shared. UNRWA's work cannot be an end in itself because we are entrusted with one aspect – albeit an extremely important aspect - of the totality of Palestine refugee needs. This means that our programmes will be constrained in their impact as long as Palestinians are denied fundamental rights and freedoms and the protection of international law. It also means that UNRWA's work will be truly fulfilled only when a just and lasting solution is achieved for Palestine refugees.

This year we mark the sixtieth anniversary of the genesis of the Palestine refugee phenomenon. It is also sixty years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated. In 2009, we will commemorate six decades of UNRWA's existence. These anniversaries are occasions for solemn reflection on our respective roles in the epic saga of Palestinian exile. They offer opportune moments to consider what more we can do as international actors - within and beyond the relatively safe sphere of humanitarian assistance - to give meaning to human dignity for Palestine refugees, to bring closer to realization the elusive goal of justice for Palestinians and a State of their own and to seize opportunities for turning conflict around.

These opportunities are beckoning today, in Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territory. My call, in conclusion, is that we grasp them while we can.

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