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United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
20 November 2008
Statement by the Commissioner General of UNRWA Karen AbuZayd
French Cultural Centre, Jerusalem November 20th 2008
Many thanks to all of you for attending this event. I would like to thank in particular our colleagues at UNICEF for inviting us to partner with them in this inspiring exhibition. My thanks also go to the French Cultural Centre for giving us this lovely space, but more important for allowing us an opportunity to endorse in a manner both creative and beautiful, the ideals and values that stand at the heart of this exhibition.
We are here to mark the 19th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document unique in the canon of international law, distinguished by the beauty and sensitivity of its language. Beyond linguistic beauty the document embodies achievable stipulations, clearly and substantively set out. It combines soaring idealism, with practical injunctions that illustrate beyond all doubt one important fact. Those who drafted this high water mark of international law had a genuine grasp of the meaning of childhood itself and the existential necessities of living the life of a child to the full. With that, they were able to set out with astonishing clarity of vision what we all must do to make these noble ends a reality for the next generation.
In its preambular paragraphs the convention recognizes (and I quote) “that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding. It advocates (and again I quote) “that the child should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society and be brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity."
It is hard to reconcile this language with the daily realities faced by the children UNICEF and UNRWA serve in this region--and most particularly in Gaza today. The cruelties of occupation render normal childhood a virtual impossibility for the children of the West Bank and Gaza. They are denied in a systematic manner, as a matter of policy, a broad range of rights which children and their parents take for granted the world over: the right to life, the right to freedom of movement, the right to a decent standard of living to name but three. The children we serve see their parents and grandparents, their brothers and sisters, their playmates and teachers being daily humiliated by this appalling denial of their rights.
We in UNRWA are as aware as any human development actor of the particular and additional burdens that refugee status places on children. Being a refugee child deprives children of the fundamental dignity of a childhood in their own state, a place to call home in the broadest sense. They and their families have been subjected to sixty years of statelessness and dispossession, robbed of the vision of a place in the world that is the right of any child.
Pending the realization of that right, we in the UN family have an obligation to guarantee to the children we serve the rights embodied in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In this context, we in UNRWA thus give to this convention and its universal obligations the utmost importance. Our health and education programmes are underpinned by the injunctions to protect children in the fullest sense. Our micro-finance projects aim to improve the quality of their lives by giving to their parents the means to live decent lives, free from the scourge of poverty and deprivation.
The rights of refugee children, while particular, are linked to a broader set of rights, the economic and social, the civil and political rights of the refugee population we serve. It is the duty and obligation of the entire UN family here in the occupied Palestinian territory to grasp that essential truth and allow it to inform all of our interventions. The rights of the child are at the centre of a complex web of other rights, hence the unity of purpose and harmony between the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At the level of practicalities, a child’s development is inseparable from the human security of her family and the wider community. We, the humanitarian community, must address the whole plethora of rights that guarantee human development and human security. If we fail to do that, then we fail to protect the right that lies at the heart of the Convention whose anniversary we mark today: the right simply to be a child.