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


8 December 1999



Following is the text of a statement by Theo-Ben Gurirab, President of the General Assembly, to the Pledging Conference for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), delivered on 8 December:

This meeting has been convened pursuant to General Assembly resolution 1729 (XVI) of 20 December 1961 to enable Governments to announce their pledges of voluntary contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

We meet today on a date that resonates with history. It was 50 years ago today, on 8 December 1949, that the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted resolution 302 (IV) establishing UNRWA.

In its preamble, that resolution recognized, and I quote, that "continued assistance for the relief of the Palestine refugees is necessary to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them and to further conditions of peace and stability". Today, half a century later, the living conditions of the Palestine refugees have undoubtedly improved, thanks in no small part to the assistance provided through UNRWA. But that assistance remains as necessary as ever, and UNRWA 's role in furthering "conditions of peace and stability" has been recognized by all.

But it is unlikely that many of those involved in the passage of resolution 302 (IV) could have imagined that the organization they were setting up would still be needed -- and still be at work -- half a century later. Unfortunately, as we all know, circumstances have meant that the refugee issue has remained with us ever since. In its wisdom, the General Assembly has chosen in subsequent sessions over the past 50 years to renew UNRWA's mandate -- most recently until 30 June 2002. This regular extension of UNRWA's mandate should be seen as a constant reaffirmation of the international community's commitment to meeting the needs of the Palestine refugee community.

Our purpose here today is to voice an equally strong commitment -- to provide the resources needed for the General Assembly's will to assist the refugees to be carried out.

The UNRWA provides basic education services, health care and relief and social programmes through a network of more than 900 installations operating under the United Nations flag. These facilities -- schools, health clinics, community centres serving women, young people and the disabled -- are a visible reminder, particularly to the refugees themselves, of the international community's responsibility for their day-to-day needs. In recent years, UNRWA has added to these basic services a range of developmental programmes, focusing on job creation and income generation.

However, the gap between the resources provided by the international community to continue providing these services, and the needs of the refugee community, has steadily widened. Since early 1993, UNRWA has been compelled to institute a series of austerity measures in order to bridge that gap. These measures had an unavoidable negative effect on both the level and the quality of the services provided by UNRWA. This, in turn, created an atmosphere of concern and apprehension among the refugees and host governments. Any diminution of UNRWA services, for whatever reason, is invariably interpreted as an unwelcome sign that the international community is somehow not serious about maintaining the commitment that it made 50 years ago to provide for the welfare of the refugees.

The Member States of the United Nations, and the others represented here today who have been identified with the cause of the Palestine refugees for so long, have a grave responsibility which must be faced. That is to ensure that this vital humanitarian programme, established by us so long ago to help a people who still cry out for help, has the resources that it needs to carry out the tasks that we have assigned it to do. I believe we must strive to put the Agency onto a firmer financial footing than it has enjoyed of late. We must find a way to translate the statements of support which we hear every year, in the debate on UNRWA and, indeed, at this annual Pledging Conference, into a level of financial support which will enable UNRWA to live up to the commitment which it symbolizes, and fulfil the mandate which it has been given.

In its budget for the biennium 2000-2001, the management of UNRWA, under the leadership of Commissioner-General Peter Hansen, has presented us with a very clear picture of the Agency's requirements. That budget seeks to deal once and for all with the chronic deficits that have plagued the Agency for so many years. The UNRWA's financial requirements for next year, the first year of the 2000-2001 biennium, are as follows: $280.4 million for the cash portion of the regular budget; $20.5 million in voluntary in-kind contributions, and $59.3 million in project funding. The Agency also urgently needs to build up its working capital, which has been dangerously depleted in order to finance deficits in the cash budget.

The UNRWA is the longest-running humanitarian programme the United Nations has ever undertaken. It is the only such programme devoted to the well-being of a single people. It is the only programme that reports directly to the General Assembly. It is a programme with a remarkable record of achievement in one of the most troubled areas of the world.

I know from my own experience how much the Palestine refugees have contributed to -- as much as benefited from -- these remarkable achievements. I also know how much they value UNRWA. And I am aware of the dedicated and untiring work of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have worked for UNRWA over the past half-century, turning that concern and that engagement into a daily reality. As we make our pledges here today, I
ask you therefore to demonstrate to the more than three-and-a-half million Palestine refugees that their faith in this organization, and their belief in our commitment, has not been misplaced. I call on all present here today, and those not represented here, to respond generously to help UNRWA to carry out the fine work which we in the international community have asked it to do, on our behalf, and which it has been doing so ably for the
past 50 years.

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