15 December 2010
By Chris Gunness, UNRWA spokesperson
UNRWA was established in 1949 under a General Assembly resolution that called upon the agency to assist and support Palestine refugees pending a just and lasting resolution of their plight.
As a temporary agency, the duration of whose mandate is tied to the resolution of the Palestine refugee situation, UNRWA looks forward to the day when its services will no longer be required, allowing it to fold its operations. The arrival of that day, however, is contingent upon a real peace process that bears tangible results for Palestine refugees in line with United Nations resolutions and with international law and practice.
The Arab Peace Initiative, inclusive of its call for a just and agreed solution on refugees, has been recognised by the UN and other members of the Quartet as part of the terms of reference of the bilateral peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for his part, has referred to the API as one of the main pillars in the search for peace. United States and European Union leaders have commented upon the opportunity served by it. Not speaking to the API but addressing the need for a complete peace, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently remarked that there should be a just and permanent solution on refugees that meets the needs of both sides.
Consistent with the UN and it partners, UNRWA recognises that the API is an important element in the pursuit of peace. As the agency with a unique remit for Palestine refugees, UNRWA must commend, in particular, the definitive and explicit commitment on the part of Arab states and Palestinian leaders to ensure that the refugees are included in a comprehensive settlement that would see the end of conflict, and is encouraged by the international acceptance of this imperative. As an agency that has witnessed – and been impacted by – the peace process, we feel it is most urgent that Palestine refugees, including those outside of the occupied Palestinian territory, be integrated into our collective vision for a just resolution of this protracted conflict.
The responsibility to ensure a negotiated end to the conflict lies with states and other political actors. That said, UNRWA is a stakeholder in the outcomes of any peace process. The agency is obligated to advocate for the realisation and protection of the human rights of Palestine refugees. Promoting these rights is closely linked to achieving a just and lasting solution for refugees. This means, among other things, that refugees must be given the opportunity to exercise free and informed choices about any future dispensation. They should be granted comprehensive and adequate international support to ensure that their choices can be exercised in a voluntary and equitable manner. In keeping with UNRWA's mandate and its focus on promoting the well-being of refugees, the agency could serve as a facilitator and advisor to refugees, the United Nations and other entities engaged in formulating and implementing a future dispensation.
The API clauses on refugees appear to reflect these factors. The clauses will no doubt be clarified by the parties as they proceed in negotiations, taking into account other relevant terms of reference and real conditions and opportunities in the region. On that note, it is important to remind that the situation of the refugees across the region remains precarious — a fact we are witnessing daily. Left unresolved, the challenges refugees face could detract from the conditions conducive to peace. UNRWA is nevertheless hopeful that these challenges can and will be met with the combined commitment of the supporters of the API, thus enhancing the prospects for a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees.
[published in bitterlemons-api.org]