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


3 December 1998



The following is the text of the statement delivered today by the President of the fifty-third session of the General Assembly, Didier Opertti (Uruguay), at the pledging conference for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA):

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 (UNRWA), which works on behalf of nearly 3.5 million Palestine refugees.

In accordance with its mandate, 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 centres, social centres for women, young people and the disabled -- are a visible reminder that UNRWA is a symbol of the international community's responsibility for their humanitarian needs and its commitment to their cause pending a political solution to the Palestine problem is found.

Within a few days, the General Assembly is expected to renew UNRWA's mandate for another three years, until 30 June 2002. This will represent a clear recognition of the continuing importance of UNRWA's work, notwithstanding criticism regarding its management and administration. As we are well aware, vigorous measures have been adopted to correct this situation.

In recent years, a widening gap has emerged between the international community's recognition of its responsibility to the Palestine refugees and its support for the work of UNRWA, on the one hand, and, on the other, a willingness to provide the resources with which that commitment can be met and that work can be facilitated.

Yet, also in recent years, UNRWA has been unable to carry out its full programme of work, as outlined in the operational budget of the Agency and approved by the General Assembly. The Commissioner-General has taken painful steps to reduce expenditure levels to bring them into line with the resources he has been given to carry out UNRWA's mission.

However, this austerity regime has begun to cut into programme delivery itself, hampering the Agency's capacity to keep pace with the natural growth in the refugee population and rising costs in the area.

Moreover, the need to carry over austerity measures from year to year for the past five years has meant that the problems created, in terms of programmes not carried out or maintenance not completed or facilities not built, will be that much harder to fix, once a solution to this downward financial spiral is found.

In recent years, faced with the prospect of reductions in services -- with all the social, economic and political implications that they would have -- the donor community has stepped back from the brink and come up with the resources needed to see UNRWA through, from one year to the next. As the cumulative value of the austerity measures taken have reached some $60 million, the stopgap approach is no longer sufficient. A way must be found to translate the statements of support which we hear every year in the debate on UNRWA and, indeed, in this annual ad hoc meeting, into a level of financial support which will enable the Agency to live up to the commitment it expresses and the mandate which it is given.

With cash income by year's end expected to reach only $252 million towards an approved core budget of $314 million, UNRWA has been obliged to carry forward austerity measures announced in previous years. It has had to take other steps to reduce cash expenditure, including the management of higher staff-vacancy rates, the delaying of recruitment for vacant posts and the engagement of school teachers on temporary special contracts.

Such measures are not conducive to the operation of an international humanitarian programme employing more than 20,000 staff, including nearly 12,000 teachers, in the direct delivery of services to a beneficiary population whose numbers and needs continue to grow.

UNRWA's financial requirements for next year are $322 million for the cash portion of its general fund budget, which covers the costs of its normal education, health, relief and social service programmes.

Funds are still being sought for infrastructure projects being carried out under the Peace Implementation Programme (PIP) introduced by UNRWA in October 1993 as a part of an integrated United Nations contribution to international efforts to support the Middle East peace process. Those multilateral efforts have taken another step forward this week with the convening of a second conference to support Middle East peace in Washington, D.C., and it is obvious that UNRWA still has an important role to play in them.

Once again, we, as representatives of the international community, must face the fact that we have not, in recent years, fully lived up to our responsibilities to the Palestine refugees. That responsibility, as clearly set out in the report of the working group on the financing of UNRWA, is to ensure the maintenance of UNRWA's humanitarian services at acceptable levels, both in quantity and quality -- as defined by the needs of the refugee community. That responsibility is also to see to it that the annual resolutions adopted by the General Assembly in support of the Agency's work -- and this year extending the mandate of UNRWA for another three years -- are translated into measures for ensuring the continuation of the Agency on a secure financial basis, with the understanding that its administration will improve its performance.

I ask you, therefore, to demonstrate today to the refugees that their faith in this organization and their belief in its 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 have asked it to do, on our behalf, for the Palestine refugees.

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