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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
9 June 2009

Commissioner-General’s Opening Statement

Advisory Commission Meeting

Amman, 9 June 2009

Distinguished Chair, Your Excellencies, distinguished delegates:

I welcome you warmly to this regular session of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission. A special welcome goes to our distinguished guests from Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

In previous meetings, I have remarked on the advances this Commission has made since February 2006, when, after 18 months of effort we initiated our formal response to the call of the 2004 Geneva Conference to reform the Advisory Commission’s membership and procedures and to bring fresh energy to its work. When I consider the proceedings of the subcommittee over the past six months and cast an eye over the rich agenda before us, I see abundant evidence of the quality of your engagement with UNRWA’s work, and the commitment you continue to demonstrate in supporting our humanitarian and human development mission for the well-being of Palestine refugees.

I commend and thank the outgoing Chair, Representative Wennesland, for his enthusiastic, diligent and able leadership though an eventful and busy period. I am confident that Ambassador Al Atta of Egypt, who assumes the role of Chairman, will follow the tradition of building on the successes of previous Chairs, while generating a productive new dynamic of his own.

The political, security and operational environment in UNRWA’s fields of operation are often in flux, offering few, if any, moments of respite. This is certainly true of the months since we last met in Regular Session in November 2008, a period in which we witnessed dramatic events in Gaza and were compelled by the pressures of financial turmoil to convene in February an Extraordinary Session of the Commission.

Later this morning UNRWA’s Field Directors will share updates of recent developments in their respective fields. Allow me to offer a few reflections of my own.

In the occupied Palestinian territory, the state of Palestinians and Palestine refugees remains precarious.

In Gaza, the quantity of commercial, humanitarian and development imports through legitimate channels remains wholly inadequate for the needs of the civilian population. Very few Palestinians are allowed into and out of Gaza and the export of goods is non-existent. Like others, on many occasions I have appealed to Israel and the international community to re-establish normal life in Gaza by reversing the artificial conditions of isolation and imposed poverty and allowing the ordinary people of Gaza to sustain themselves through unhindered socio-economic activity. Sadly, these calls are yet to be heeded.

Gaza’s closed borders make the recovery and reconstruction, which are essential in the aftermath of the December/January war, impossible. Even the entry of currency is forbidden, further paralyzing Gaza’s economy and its private sector, already functioning at barely 5% of its pre-2006 level.

It is no exaggeration to say that UNRWA’s humanitarian and human development programmes are a vital lifeline for the over one million Palestine refugees in Gaza. John Ging, the Director of Gaza Field, will brief us on the work he and his team are doing, in spite of the daunting environment.

In the West Bank, access restrictions and violence, both from settlers and inter-factional conflict, have increasingly adverse effects on refugee lives and livelihoods.

UNRWA’s own work is constrained as our staff and vehicles are not immune from myriad restrictions. As well, UNRWA’s Emergency Programmes in the West Bank have been hit particularly hard by the shortfall in funding. We are grateful to donors who have offered, or are considering offering, additional contributions to enable us to avert a crisis. Barbara Shenstone, our West Bank Field Director, will provide you with further details on how UNRWA is addressing these and other challenges in her field.

In Lebanon, the reconstruction of Nahr El Bared Camp remains a major preoccupation. UNRWA’s appeal to rebuild the camp now stands at $277m. Pledges of $67.3m plus $10.3m from the World Bank Multi-donor Trust Fund have been received, allowing UNRWA to begin reconstruction. Our Lebanon Office, working closely with UNRWA’s partners, has had to overcome a variety of obstacles to arrive at this milestone. One setback followed the unearthing of valuable archeological finds, which has prompted the imposition of new conditions on the construction process.

We are grateful for the generosity some donors have demonstrated. Given, however, the scale of this undertaking and its significance for refugees and the communities neighbouring Nahr El Bared, much more is required. Salvatore Lombardo, the Director of Lebanon Affairs, will offer further insights into the operations in his field.

In Syria, Palestine refugees are fortunate to enjoy a climate of stability, hospitality and access to government services. UNRWA seeks to turn these favourable conditions to the refugees’ advantage. An illustration of this approach is the "Youth and Business" initiative, which channels private sector expertise and resources towards enhancing livelihood and self-reliance options for graduates from UNRWA’s vocational training centre. Innovations such as these are at risk when funding shortfalls force UNRWA to revisit its priorities. Phase II of the Neirab project similarly requires an injection of more funds to enable UNRWA to renovate the original camp barracks in Aleppo. Lisa Gilliam, Acting Director of the Syria Field Office is here to elaborate on the situation in that field.

In Jordan, Palestine refugees also enjoy an environment free from humanitarian emergencies and the distractions of conflict and access problems. Yet, here, as in other fields, and notwithstanding the exemplary generosity of the Government and people of Jordan, our human development goals are frustrated by the limits of the resources available to us. UNRWA’s facilities and infrastructure lack badly-needed maintenance. Poverty and abject living conditions affect many refugee communities and an entire group of Palestine refugees, referred to as "the 67 displaced" or "ex-Gazans", receive only limited access our services. Richard Cook, the Jordan Field Director, will have more to say on this and other issues when he takes the floor. The visit to Talbieh camp tomorrow will be an opportunity for you to see first-hand some of the urgent needs of refugees in Jordan.

Distinguished Chair, Your Excellencies, distinguished delegates:

This is an appropriate juncture at which to touch briefly on the situation of UNRWA’s finances, a topic we will address tomorrow morning following presentations by my deputy, Filippo Grandi, UNRWA’s Comptroller, Ramadan al-Omari and our Director of External relations, Fabian McKinnon. All of our three funding streams – the General Fund covering core programmes, Projects and Emergency Appeals– are characterized by deficits and uncertainty, none more so than the General Fund. In February of this year, we anticipated an overall General Fund deficit of $124 million for 2009, of which $52 million was needed to maintain services at existing levels to the end of 2009.

We are grateful that some donors, responded generously to our call, helping to reduce the deficit to $38 million. However, as will be explained tomorrow, a $38 million deficit remains a cause for acute concern, because it represents one month’s salary for UNRWA staff who play the lead role in delivering on our mandate to contribute to the human development of Palestine refugees.

I appeal to you to recognize the central importance of the General Fund and to help us erase the longstanding shortfall. Bear in mind that the General Fund is the fuel that makes possible the consistent, predictable, essential public services and programmes by which UNRWA has become the bedrock of assistance and protection to Palestine refugees over the past sixty years. The General Fund must be fully funded if we are to implement and sustain improvements in the quality of services in education, health, social safety-net and infrastructure programmes across all five fields. I ask for your full support for the General Fund to allow us to maintain our key role of ensuring refugee well-being and contributing to stability in the communities in which refugees live.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that UNRWA’s poor financial health and the related possibility of reduced services have become a cause of agitation in some sections of the refugee community, notably in the West Bank, and also among UNRWA staff. Refugees are understandably apprehensive about the implications of diminished services. Our staff, affected by higher costs of living, demand salary increases which our circumstances of austerity prevent us from granting, despite their being obligated by our pay policy. These tensions must be addressed along with the shortage of financial resources which are their main cause.

Distinguished Chair, Your Excellencies, distinguished delegates:

Allow me to offer some remarks on the Organizational Development process and to relate it to the Medium Term Strategy. The MTS is on the agenda for tomorrow morning in a session to be led by Filippo Grandi.

The success of the OD process is widely recognized by this Commission and other interlocutors. This is not to suggest, however, that the process has achieved all its aims. The principal setback has been the delayed establishment of a staff classification, compensation and performance management system - an undertaking of crucial importance if we are to modernize our human resource management practice. Just as vital to UNRWA’s future is an Enterprise Resource Planning project. The ERP is inherently of a long-term nature and requires multi-year preparation and funding commitments. In March this year we recruited a Director, Raymond Abou, under whose leadership we will establish the management foundations that will facilitate the eventual adoption of an ERP.

Quite apart from these outstanding "big ticket" items, and speaking more generally, much remains to be done across our programmes and operations to translate the reform of systems and processes into direct benefits for the refugees we serve.

These observations touch on the question we will consider during the discussion later this afternoon, namely, how best to ensure that the momentum for positive change, which has been generated over the past three years, can be sustained and brought fully into fruition in the years ahead? True reform, of the kind we committed to under the OD plan, must not be confined to a rigid time frame. Rather, it must be designed with the ability to evolve in a dynamic, self-renewing way, enhancing the Agency’s ability to respond to the challenges of the future. I look forward to your guidance on these and related questions during the discussion later today.

Our six-year Medium Term Strategy is tangible evidence of how effectively the OD process has served as a vehicle for developing a strategy-driven approach to programme planning, implementation and assessment. We see the MTS as a blueprint for ensuring that the implementation plans of each field are informed by UNRWA’s strategic goals and integrated with progammes, support services and the budget process. The MTS is the culmination of an unprecedented process of consultation, of sharing and learning across UNRWA’s five fields, a process that involved host countries, donors, this Commission and its subcommittee. UNRWA is grateful for the excellent guidance you provided along the way.

We are proud of having come this far and appreciative of the efforts of all who made the drafting of the MTS possible. I mention particularly the work of the head of the Programme Coordination Support Unit, Robert Stryk, and our MTS consultant, Kathryn Casson. At the same time, we recognize that much hard work remains to transform the MTS into a living document that steers our activities and facilitates our quest for sustained effectiveness in serving refugees better. I look forward to your views and counsel when we address this topic tomorrow.

Distinguished Chair, Your Excellencies, distinguished delegates:

At the outset of my statement, I mentioned a state of flux as one feature of our operations. Although I was referring mainly to the context of recurrent armed conflict, I wish to mention another dimension of uncertainty that has been a feature of the recent Palestinian experience. I am alluding to the ebb and flow of hope and despair, the cycles of expectation and gloom that Palestinians and Palestine refugees have lived through over the years, as assurances of breakthroughs and new beginnings stimulate dreams and anticipation, only to have these shattered by the realities of occupation, anguish and misery.

We have seen over recent weeks, a swelling tide of optimism propelled by public statements of leading world figures, not least His Majesty King Abdullah in his 10th Anniversary speech and President Obama in Cairo last week. These pronouncements suggest a refreshing inclination to address Israeli-Palestinian issues with principled even-handedness, and a readiness to show recognition and respect for Palestinians and their plight. As we welcome the promise of brighter prospects, we know from experience that ordinary Palestinians, weary of the burdens of conflict and dispossession, will be eager partners for peace.

We know also from experience that they will demand the fulfillment of these promises. They will ask that the acknowledgement of their suffering be accompanied by action to end the occupation, to lift the regime of blockades and closures and to restore to Palestinians the dignity, human security and economic opportunity to which they are entitled under international law. And in the event that a credible, inclusive negotiation process is launched, Palestine refugees, their issues, interests and concerns must be presented at the table, and ultimately in any solution that may emerge.

In the meantime, UNRWA’s significance – for Palestine refugees, for the communities in which they live and for the international community - rests on our role as a constant, reliable presence, a dependable source of principled assistance and support. For sixty years, and regardless of recurring turbulence, UNRWA has played this part, steadfast in its dedication to the protection and care of Palestine refugees, and consistent in propagating the values of the United Nations – neutrality, impartiality, respect for diversity, the peaceful resolution of disputes and the promotion of human rights and dignity for all, without distinction.

UNRWA’s existence is inextricably associated with unresolved issues of conflict and Palestinian exile. As long as fundamental rights of Palestinians and Palestine refugees remain unmet and unresolved, UNRWA’s anniversaries will be occasions to be marked, not celebrated. They will be moments, not for festivities, but for sober reflection.

And so it is with our sixtieth anniversary this year. You will shortly hear from Fritz Froehlich, the very, very active and able Coordinator of UNRWA @ 60, an update of events organized to date and planned for the months ahead. I take this opportunity to express my thanks to our donors and partners whose contributions have made - and will continue to make - these activities possible.

In conclusion, I call on you all to join us in using this year of commemoration to consider and explore ways of strengthening UNRWA in all the dimensions of its mission. For its part, UNRWA, with the help of this Commission, host countries, donors and partners, will remain resolute in our humanitarian and human development mission, as long as a just and lasting solution to the plight of refugees remains out of reach and our presence and services continue to be required by the refugees we serve.

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