Press Release
Department of Public Information · News Coverage Service · New York

Fifty-second General Assembly
Fourth Committee
22nd Meeting (PM)
24 November 1997



UNRWA Commissioner-General Invites States To Participate In Pledging Conference on 2 December

Words of solidarity with the Palestinian refugees should be matched with contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the representative of Norway said this afternoon, as the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) concluded its consideration of UNRWA's activities.

The natural population increase, combined with inflation, had increased the difficulties facing the Agency, while tensions resulting from Israeli actions had hampered its efforts, Tunisia's representative told the Committee. The international community must act to save UNRWA from financial crisis, he said.

The representative of the Syrian Arab Republic stressed the need for donor States to respect their commitments to the Agency and to increase their contributions, in keeping with the increased number of refugees. The representative of Australia said that for peace to take root, there must be economic development and an improvement in the Palestinians' quality of life. The work of UNRWA was vital to that effort, he said.

In closing remarks, UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen stressed that the Palestine refugee population was among the best educated groups in the world. High standards of primary health were maintained and women's and youth centres had helped energize the community. However, while there was much of which to be proud, there was also a real concern that those achievements could be undermined. He invited States to participate in a pledging conference for UNRWA, to be held on 2 December.

Statements were also made by the representatives of Malta, Japan, Saudi Arabia, China, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Libya and Colombia.

The Fourth Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 25 November, to begin its consideration of the report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.

Committee Work Programme

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the activities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). (For background, see Press Release GA/SPD/125 of 24 November.)


FAYSSAL MEKDAD (Syria) said that even after 50 years, there was still no hope that the Palestinian people would be able to return to their homeland. The Israelis were encouraging the immigration of Jews from all over the world into Arab territory. That flouted the tragic situation of the refugees. The refugees' right to regain their land had been reiterated year after year by the General Assembly. There must be a just and lasting settlement to the crisis in the Middle East, and the problem of the Palestine refugees was at the heart of the crisis. Those millions of people must not be pushed into even greater suffering.

He said the Israeli Government was not only rejecting the peace process, but also flouting all previous United Nations resolutions. It was doing nothing but worsening the situation. Syria was also concerned by the 29 per cent decline in refugee incomes, while their numbers had increased by 27 per cent. Syria had worked hard to mitigate the suffering of the refugees, with contributions in excess of $40 million.

Donor states should respect their commitments to the Agency, he said. They should also increase their contributions, in keeping with the increased number of refugees. The services to the refugees should not be halted. Rather, they should be expanded across the board.

GEORGE SALIBA (Malta) said that UNRWA remained a beacon of hope for millions. The services it provided in the field of education, health, relief and social services helped over 3.4 million Palestinian refugees. The Agency's educational sector continued to be its largest in terms of human and financial resources. It was regrettable that austerity measures had been undertaken in that area. In the health sector, the array of services provided should guarantee the Palestinian refugees a degree of security and dignity.

MASAHIRO KOHARA (Japan) said that economic development was essential to improving the lives of the Palestine refugees. Any action that could have a negative impact on their economic situation must be avoided. Japan hoped that all the parties would set aside political considerations and act in such a way as not to impede UNRWA's humanitarian activities aimed at assisting those most vulnerable members of society -- the sick, the poor and the elderly.

He said that UNRWA continued to face chronic deficits. While Japan appreciated the various retrenchment measures it had been taking, the unrest which those measures could sometimes cause among the refugee population -- as seen in the hunger strikes and other protest actions witnessed in the camps in Lebanon -- was a matter of concern. The reduction in UNRWA personnel could also mean the loss of jobs for some Palestinians. It was hoped that those problems would be given the
attention they deserved. Donor confidence would be enhanced if UNRWA ensured that its core account was clearly separated from the projects account in the General Fund; that the allocation of capital was adequately explained; that projects were prioritized; and that limited resources were used effectively.

EMAD AL-MUHANNA (Saudi Arabia) said that the severe financial situation of the United Nations had adversely affected the work of UNRWA, which needed quality programmes to improve the plight of the Palestinian refugees. His Government was keenly interested in that issue. Those Western countries responsible for the partition of Palestine must shoulder their responsibilities and give sufficient support to the Palestinian people's goal of regaining their homeland.

ZHANG QIYUE (China) said that since UNRWA's headquarters was moved from Vienna to Gaza, its cooperation with local groups and with the Palestinian Authority had increased. That cooperation would support its own work and help to save costs.

Since the beginning of this year the peace process in the Middle East had come to a standstill, she said. Incidents of violence had increased markedly, making a solution be the refugee problem seem even more remote. It was hoped that negotiations would be resumed at an early date.

At such a critical juncture, UNRWA's work was a symbol of the international community's commitment to the refugees, she said. Efforts should be made to avoid any actions that would negatively impact on their plight. It was hoped that UNRWA's current financial difficulty could be overcome. Over the years, China had provided assistance to the people of Palestine through UNRWA and would continue to do so.

CAROLINE MILLAR (Australia) said that for peace to take root, there must be economic development and an improvement in the Palestinians' quality of life. The work of UNRWA was vital to that affect. Australia was therefore concerned about the financial difficulties the Agency was experiencing.

At a time when the Middle East peace process was in deep crisis, it was of paramount importance that UNRWA be able effectively to carry out its mandate to provide relief, support and assistance to Palestine refugees, she said. Donors' should honour their stated commitment to the Agency and provide the financial support which was now so necessary. Australian assistance to UNRWA and the region as a whole totalled some $7 million in 1996-1997.

ANTONIUS AGUS SRIYONO (Indonesia) said the deteriorating situation in the Middle East was a source of concern and grew more unstable with each passing day. Instead of reaping the benefits of the peace process, the daily lives of the refugees had been made more difficult as a result of Israeli actions. The optimism generated by the peace accords had all but dissipated and the world was now faced with an impasse. Policies of closures and the building of illegal settlements in and around Jabal Abu Ghneim had shattered the spirit of peace and harmony which had prevailed in recent years. Such developments did not bode well for the work of UNRWA, which faced severe constraints with Israel's closures of territories under the flimsy pretext of security considerations. As the occupying Power, Israel should fulfil its obligation to cease placing obstacles and extend its cooperation to UNRWA.

The financial situation facing UNRWA had worsened to the extent that it was now technically bankrupt, lacking the resources to fulfil even its current obligations, he said. Moreover, the increase in the refugee population owing to natural growth and inflation had heightened those financial problems. If the situation was not remedied, it would not only profoundly affect the basic services provided to the Palestinian people, but would also impact negatively on the peace process. Indonesia shared the Commissioner-General's view that utmost importance must be accorded to "placing the programmes on a sound financial footing", lest the current crisis lead to even greater hardships for the refugee population, resulting in "potentially destabilizing consequences".

NGO QUANG XUAN (Viet Nam) commended UNRWA for being able to maintain basic services for Palestine refugees and for its contribution to improving their socio-economic conditions by providing education, health care, relief and social assistance. However, it was regretted that the Agency's operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued to face constraints arising from the measures imposed by the Israeli authorities, which had led to a serious deterioration in the peace process. Further redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank, as called for in the Interim Agreement, had not taken place. The permanent status negotiations, which were to include the issue of refugees, had been postponed and, as of the end of June 1997, had still not begun. The closures must be lifted as soon as possible, and the financial difficulties facing the Agency must be addressed in a timely fashion.

The refugee issue could only be tackled when the root cause was dealt with once and for all, he said. The crisis in implementation of the agreements already signed and the failure to achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the region was regretted. The prospect of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, as foreseen in previous agreements between the parties, appeared increasingly remote. A political solution went hand-inhand with sustainable socio-economic development. Viet Nam called for the immediate implementation of the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip signed in September 1995, and the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements signed in September 1993 between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel.

WALID DOUDECH (Tunisia) said that IsraelI actions had led to a freezing of the peace process and the elimination of trust between the parties. The Israelis had imposed a collective sanctions measure which blocked access by some Palestinians to their work. Tensions had increased as a result of Israeli actions, and UNRWA's ability to fulfill its mandate had been hampered. Refugees had been cut off from their food supplies. The Israeli Government had flouted international law in worsening the situation of the Palestines.

The problems resulting from such Israeli practices were not the only ones facing the Agency, he said. It was also suffering from a serious budget deficit. If that problem was not solved, UNRWA would not be able to meet its goals. As a result of austerity measures, the Agency's programmes had been decreased by an average of 20 per cent -- despite assistance from contributors following last Fall's appeal for more contributions. The natural population increase, combined with inflation, had increased the difficulties. The international community must act to save UNRWA from financial crisis.

DAG WERNO HOLTER (Norway) said that since the initiation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1993, UNRWA's importance had not diminished. On the contrary, it was more important than ever to underline the need for the donor community to sustain the Agency's efforts. Norway was concerned by disturbing signals that some important donors were considering a reduction in their contributions. His country again appealed for an expansion of the donor base. Words of solidarity with the Palestinian refugees should be matched by actual contributions.

KHAIRI MOHAMED BUNI (Libya) said the Israeli Government had refused to enable UNRWA to carry out its humanitarian mandate. The assistance given to Israel permitted it to pursue such policies and to flout the international community. The Palestinian problem was not a humanitarian matter but a legal and political issue in which a people had been deprived of their homeland. The UNRWA was supposed to be a temporary agency providing assistance to a displaced people until they could recover their homeland and regain their rights. For nearly 50 years, they had lived in poverty and now risked losing even the modest assistance they had been receiving.

GERARDO PAEZ (Colombia) said donor countries must not fail in the noble cause of contributing to UNRWA. He praised the host countries for their exemplary role in taking in the refugees.

PETER HANSEN, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, said the Palestine refugee population was among the best educated groups in the world. High standards of primary health were maintained. Women's and youth centers had helped energize the community. There was much of which to be proud. There was a real concern, however, that those achievements could be undermined.

Mr. Hansen said he was grateful that UNRWA had not been abandoned by its donors. However, it was facing increasing problems, based on demographic changes as well as on changes in the political climate in the region. While there had been strong support for the Agency's humanitarian basis, it was important to remember the close connection between humanitarian and political issues. The plight of the refugees represented an important variable in the regional situation. A pledging conference for UNRWA would be held on 2 December, in which member States were invited to participate.

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