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

Fifty-fourth General Assembly
Fourth Committee
18th Meeting (AM)
3 November 1999



While speakers differed as to the degree of progress realized towards a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East question, participants in this morning's debate in the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) generally agreed that the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) must continue.

The Observer for the Holy See remarked that it was unfair to raise exaggerated hopes by proclaiming peace as land was confiscated, settlements were expanded in the occupied territories, closures played havoc with employment, and checkpoints restricted freedom of movement.

Several speakers agreed with the Canadian representative's assessment that the Agency's approaching fiftieth anniversary would be a sombre occasion, since more than 3.5 million Palestinian refugees remained displaced. Although there was now justifiable cause for optimism that the refugee issue was nearing resolution, said the speaker for Canada, it in no way diminished UNRWA's continued importance. The sad reality was that the refugees themselves had borne the brunt of the cost- cutting measures necessitated by the Agency's financial crisis. Although donor contributions had increased, they had failed to keep pace with the growth of the refugee population, which had led to a reduction in services.

The representative of Bangladesh also said that progress in the peace process should not automatically result in a scaling down of UNRWA activities. The level of services should be maintained until the refugee issue was fully resolved and UNRWA activities were taken over by Palestine, he said. Syria's representative noted, however, that it was necessary to distinguish between donations to the Palestinian Authority and donations to the Agency, as there was no connection between the two.

Also speaking during this morning's meeting were the representatives of Ghana, Oman, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cuba, Turkey, Kuwait and Cyprus.

The Fourth Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. tomorrow, Thursday 4 November, to take action on several draft resolutions relating to the work of UNRWA and to the Israeli practices affecting the human rights of the Palestinian people and other Arabs of the occupied territories.

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met this morning to continue debate on the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

(For background information, see Press Release No GA/SPD/171 of 2 November 1999).


YAW OSEI (Ghana) expressed concern over the financial shortfalls facing UNRWA, which had occasioned the curtailment of programmes. The Agency was having to impose the austerity measures that affected the level and quality of services. Until the Middle East problem was finally settled, the international community had an obligation to support UNRWA in discharging its responsibility towards the Palestinians.

He emphasized the need for greater budgetary transparency and efficiency in the management of UNRWA's funds. In that vein, Ghana welcomed the recommendations of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) aimed at creating greater transparency in areas of the Agency's activities that were at risk both for actual fraud and for creating public suspicions of corruption.

The absence of checks had led to allegations of corruption and financial impropriety, which could not be substantiated in subsequent investigations and were therefore unmerited, he said. Ghana was pleased to note that UNRWA had already accepted the recommendations and was in the process of implementing them. Only in that manner could donor support and confidence be sustained.

SALIM BEN-ABDULLAH AL-ALAWI (Oman), expressing concern over the situation of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories, said that a solution to the refugee problem must be based on General Assembly resolution 194 of 1948 and the other relevant United Nations resolutions.

He said that the rights of Palestinian refugees to the services provided by UNRWA were of paramount importance. Israeli practices that affected those rights posed a challenge to the international community.

Oman continued to support all efforts aimed at bringing about a peaceful solution; however, the problem of the Palestine refugees persisted. He appealed to all parties concerned to meet around a negotiating table and reach an acceptable solution, taking into account the right of the refugees to return home.

It was important that UNRWA ensure close cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, especially in regions within its administration, since it was the sole representative of the Palestinian people. The transfer of UNRWA's headquarters to the Gaza Strip had been a wise move. Oman called on the Israeli authorities to cooperate with the Agency so that it could carry out its tasks.

WANG WENZHAO (China) said that the work of the Agency in safeguarding the interests of 3.6 million Palestinian refugees had contributed to the stability in the region and to the Middle East peace process. The positive momentum in the peace process must be maintained; she hoped the parties would be sincere in the implementation of their agreements and understandings. She hoped the process would move forward in accordance with the "land for peace" principle.

The refugee problem had always been at the core of the Middle East peace process, she continued. Now, despite recent progress, the road towards lasting peace and security was by no means smooth. At this crucial moment, the Palestinian people needed the sincere and strong support of the international community. The efforts of UNRWA had become an indispensable part of the whole peace process. Pending a comprehensive, lasting settlement, the continued existence of the Agency was particularly important.

The financial crisis facing the Agency could not but arouse grave concern, she said. She hoped that the international community would join in giving meaningful support to the peace process and helping UNRWA to overcome its financial difficulties. UNRWA should also continue to improve its management mechanisms to better serve the refugees. The Chinese Government would continue to make contributions to UNRWA.

KAMAL YAN YAHAYA (Malaysia) said that his country continued to attach great importance to the work of the Agency. He commended UNRWA for its valiant effort to improve the level and quality of services, in spite of its declining resources. The Agency had undertaken some necessary austerity and administrative measures to return to a more stable financial position, so as to continue its much-needed work.

The solution to the refugee problem was a prerequisite to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. Until that objective was realized, UNRWA would continue to be a vital instrument. Malaysia supported the UNRWA programme, but continued to be concerned that the Palestinians had been uprooted for five decades. He would like to see further expansion of UNRWA's Peace Implementation Programme.

Malaysia strongly supported the activities of UNRWA and would like to see it remain operational. It should continue to assist Palestinian refugees until a final solution of their status was achieved. In that regard, he was pleased to announce Malaysia's modest annual contribution to UNRWA of $20,000, over and above its bilateral assistance to the Palestinian people.

HAZAIRIN POHAN (Indonesia) reiterated his country's support for UNRWA's mandate. Now more than ever, the Agency's efforts needed to be sustained. Undeniably, its endeavours had alleviated socio-economic pressures, thus contributing to stability in the region. He welcomed the signing of the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum. Indonesia hoped it would lead to the resolution of contentious issues within the framework of the final status negotiations, including that of refugees, in accordance with United Nations resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973) and 425 (1978) and based on the land-for-peace principle.

UNRWA's Peace Implementation Programme had been beneficial in channelling funds to crucial services as well as in income-generation, he said. By providing such services, the Agency had improved the lives of the Palestinian refugees, created job opportunities and contributed to the development of infrastructure.

Indonesia had from the outset extended unswerving support to the Palestinian cause, he said. Given the fact that peace and development were interrelated, it was crucial that the United Nations and its agencies, particularly UNRWA, continue to play a pivotal role in enhancing overall development so as to help build a foundation for stable peace in the Middle East region.

RAFAEL DAUSA CESPEDES (Cuba) said that throughout its existence, UNRWA had carried out praiseworthy and significant work in alleviating the difficulties faced by Palestinian refugees. The Commissioner-General had highlighted the challenges faced by the Agency due to the financial crisis affecting it.

He expressed concern that the work of UNRWA had been limited by the imposition by the Israeli authorities of restrictions on the movement of Agency staff between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Equally, it was regrettable that it had not been possible to conclude the functional viability study for the establishment of the University of Jerusalem/Al Quds for Palestine refugees.

Cuba knew what it was to receive international support in the face of financial and other difficulties, he said. Despite its own economic difficulties, Cuba would continue to support the work of UNRWA. The Agency should continue to operate; its humanitarian duties should be recognized as vital.

SYED RAFIQUL HAQUE (Bangladesh) commended the activities of UNRWA and supported the continuation of its mandate. He was concerned about continued shortfalls in the regular budget of the Agency. The international community must realize that such shortfalls affected the well-being of the Palestinian refugees. It should come forward with funds to help the Agency, and be more responsive to the needs of the Agency and its clients.

The Peace Implementation Programme of UNRWA deserved encouragement, he continued. Bangladesh was pleased that the Agency, despite its financial crisis, continued its efforts to ensure community participation in various activities, such as rehabilitation, health care, education, institute building and youth activities. He also appreciated the Agency's efforts to empower the refugees economically through establishment of a network of micro-enterprise credit programmes. Bangladesh would be happy to share its experience in that field with Palestine.

Recent positive developments with regard to peace in the region brought fresh hope for refugee communities in the region, he continued. Progress in the peace process should not automatically result in a scaling down of UNRWA activities. The level of services for Palestinian refugees should continue until the refugee issue was fully resolved and UNRWA activities were smoothly taken over by Palestine. He called on all concerned to honour their commitment and respect the UNRWA mandate. So-called security needs should in no way compromise the well-being of the refugee population.

ANDREW ROBINSON (Canada) said that the Agency's fiftieth anniversary this year was not a cause for celebration. More than 3.6 million people were clinging to the hope that peace would come and they would be able to forge a new future. Each side in the Middle East situation must put aside its age-old animosities, fears and mistrust and make difficult choices in order to achieve peace and security. Canada offered them its full support and encouragement. He emphasized the importance of the Syrian and Lebanese tracks of the peace process and called on the Governments of Israel, Syria and Lebanon to resume their negotiations at the earliest opportunity.

Only the parties themselves could determine the outcome of the negotiations on Jerusalem, the status of Israeli settlements, the final borders between Israel and the Palestinian territory, and the fate of the Palestinian refugees, he continued. A just resolution of the refugee issue was essential to achieving lasting peace and stability in the region. The fundamental human rights and dignity of the Palestinian refugee must be respected in any negotiated solution to the refugee issue.

There was justifiable cause for optimism that the refugee issue was nearing resolution, he said, but that in no way diminished the continued importance of UNRWA. It was essential that the Agency have the means to provide services until a resolution was implemented. Canada was concerned by the ongoing financial challenges confronting the Agency. It was necessary to bear in mind that the international community was dealing with more than accounting procedures. The funds provided to UNRWA translated into education, health and social services for the refugees. Although donor contributions had grown, they had failed to keep pace with the rate of growth in the refugee population; this had meant a reduction in services. The sad reality was that the refugees themselves had borne the brunt of the cost-cutting measures. Canada had increased its contribution to the Agency by 50 per cent in the past two years. This year, in addition to its contribution of CDN $10 million, his Government had decided to provide a further CDN $5 million to UNRWA's core budget. He urged other donors to increase their contributions.

UNRWA had an obligation to ensure that the money was managed in an efficient and responsible manner, he said. He commended reforms aimed at bringing UNRWA's management practices up to the norms of other United Nations agencies. He welcomed an open dialogue among UNRWA, the host Governments and donors.

Despite the difficulties experienced in recent years in the peace process, the Working Group on the financing of UNRWA had also continued its efforts to bring tangible improvements to the situation of the refugees, he said. To date, it had helped raise over $100 million in additional assistance for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Canada had always felt that it was important for the refugees to voice their concerns directly to the international community, and so had led seven missions to refugee camps. The Working Group could play a constructive role in supporting the parties to achieve a solution to the refugee issue.

MEHMET KEMAL BOZAY (Turkey) noted that, unlike other United Nations agencies, which worked though local authorities or executing agencies, UNRWA provided its services directly to Palestine refugees. Education was its largest area of activity, accounting for half its regular budget and two thirds of its staff. Independent assessments had repeatedly confirmed that UNRWA's health care system was one of the most cost-effective in the region.

He said that the Agency's assistance and social services supported Palestine refugee families who were unable to meet their own basic needs. It also helped in promoting the self-reliance of the refugee community through community social development. UNRWA's Peace Implementation and income-generation programmes were exclusively aimed at socio-economic growth. A conducive atmosphere for peace could be created and sustained only by healthy, socio-economically developed and well-educated generations.

Enhanced support for UNRWA by Member States continued to be essential, he said. As a member of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, and as Chairman of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA,Turkey would continue its activities in that respect.

FAYSSAL MEKDAD (Syria) said that, like other refugees, Palestinians had an inalienable right to return to their homes, a right endorsed by the General Assembly every year. The Palestinian refugee problem was at the crux of the Middle East crisis and should not be disregarded by the international community under any pretext.

He expressed concern over the alarming deficit in UNRWA's budget at a time when the refugee population had increased by 30 per cent. Syria provided numerous services and bore a great burden in hosting Palestinian refugees. It treated them as citizens, except in the matter of nationality, which should remain Palestinian. The responsibility for the Palestinian refugees was an international one. None of UNRWA's services should be discontinued or handed over to any other agency until the issue of Palestine refugees was settled in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions. Syria called on donor States not to be selective in extending aid to UNRWA programmes and opposed any measures that would limit the Agency's services. It was necessary to distinguish between donations to the Palestinian Authority on the one hand and UNRWA on the other, since there was no connection between the two. It was also necessary to increase the budget for the Agency's operations in Syria. He hoped that UNRWA would not impose burdens on the refugee population or on the host countries as a result of its budget deficit.

The only solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees lay in their return to their homeland and to their homes, he said. The construction of settlements by successive Israeli governments were attempts to co-opt the rights of the Palestinians and to undermine efforts to reach a just solution to the Middle East crisis.

MANSOUR AYYAD AL-OTAIBI (Kuwait) said that health, education, social and relief services provided by UNRWA in its five areas of operations were vital and should be maintained at the current level. He reaffirmed the position of the Arab States, highlighting the international responsibility for Palestinian refugees and the need for the Agency to continue its work until a solution was found to the refugee question. Refugees should not bear any additional burden due to the budget shortfalls of the Agency. For that reason, his country made significant contributions to UNRWA.

The suffering of the Palestinian people had increased because of Israeli practices, which were implemented under the pretext of maintaining security and combatting terrorism, he said. Basic rules of international law must be observed.

Kuwait fully supported the Palestinians in their efforts to regain their legitimate rights, he said. A comprehensive, just and lasting peace should be established on the basis of relevant Security Council resolutions and the principle of land for peace, in order to enable the Palestinian people to exercise its legitimate rights, including the right to an independent State. Further, UNRWA should be able to continue its activities without any problems.

JAMES DROUSHIOTIS (Cyprus) said that UNRWA contributed to the improvement of the living conditions of the Palestinian people and to stability in the region. As an associate State of the European Union, Cyprus aligned itself with the statement by the representative of Finland. As a country in the area sharing close and friendly ties with its neighbours, Cyprus attached great importance to the enhancement of the economic and social conditions of the Palestinian people and to the achievement of lasting peace and security in the Middle East. To that end, the work of the Agency was crucially important.

From its own experience of displacement, Cyprus could appreciate the significance of assistance to alleviate human misery and create conditions for socio-economic development, he said. It was also keenly aware of the refugees' permanent and inalienable right to return to their homeland, as set forth in United Nations resolutions and the norms of international law. He noted with serious concern the difficulties encountered by the Agency due to the critical financial situation. In light of those circumstances and UNRWA's management and other reforms, it was necessary to put the Agency's operations on a secure financial footing. Apart from cash contributions to UNRWA, Cyprus had developed its own scheme of assistance to the Palestinians, which included the construction of two medical centres in the West Bank and a programme of technical assistance and training to Palestinian officials.

Continuing, he welcomed the renewal of the peace process and underlined the importance of a sound economy to the achievement of social and political stability for the Palestinian people. The fiftieth anniversary of UNRWA would highlight the need for compliance with United Nations resolutions and international law in the quest for a just and lasting settlement.

RENATO MARTINO, observer for the Holy See, while expressing appreciation for UNRWA's services, said that the Economic and Social Council's report on "Economic and Social Repercussions of the Israeli Occupation on the living Conditions of the Palestinian People" (document A/54/152-E/1999/92) caused concern. While the renewed peace process initiated by the Wye River Memorandum deserved commendation, the ongoing expansion of settlements and confiscation of land could pose a real threat to a stable and definitive solution to the crisis in the Holy Land, especially to believers of the three monotheistic religions.

He said that it was inconsistent for the international community to be offering high praise for the political negotiations towards a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, while the negative experience of the refugees continued unabated. It was unfair to raise exaggerated hopes through the mass media, proclaiming peace as land was confiscated, settlements were expanded in the occupied territories, closures played havoc with employment, and checkpoints restricted freedom of movement.

While humanitarian aid would continue, it should not be seen as a substitute for a just, stable and definitive solution to the problems of the region, he said. It was hoped that the services rendered by UNRWA and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine during the past half century would soon be crowned by the full implementation of the Wye River Memorandum and by the conclusion of final status negotiations.

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