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26 April 2000
CONF/PAL/1
26 April 2000

UNITED NATIONS INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON PALESTINE REFUGEES
TO BE HELD FROM 26 TO 27 APRIL 2000 OPENS AT UNESCO


PARIS, 26 April-The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, in cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States, convened the International Conference on Palestine Refugees which opened today at the UNESCO Headquarters. His Excellency Mr. Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian Authority, attended the opening session. Participants included eminent political personalities, world-renowned experts on Palestine refugees, the Palestinian Authority, representatives of intergovernmental organizations, United Nations system organizations, non-governmental organizations and the media. In the following days, participants will discuss the present situation of Palestine refugees, examine the role of the United Nations in finding a just solution to the refugee issue, provide an in-depth analysis of the question of Palestine refugees in the context of the current Middle East peace process, and promote concerted political and other action in support of a lasting solution to the Palestine refugee problem in accordance with international legitimacy.

Message of MR.KOFI ANNAN, United Nations Secretary - General delivered by Mr. Kieran Prendergast/Under Secretary General for Political Affairs.

This International Conference on Palestine Refugees is the second event organized by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Right of the Palestinian People in cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States.

The Secretary-General noted that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are at a delicate stage. Both sides want to bring them to fruition. Mr. Kofi Annan urges the parties to move the peace process forward in order to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 in accordance with the agreed timetable. The divisive issues they that the parties will have to deal with are, inter alia: Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees. The issue of more than 3 million Palestinian refugees, is central to the question of Palestine and a sustainable peace in the entire region.

The General Assembly has repeatedly stressed the need to resolve the refugee issue in accordance with resolution 194. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has been the principal source of humanitarian assistance for millions of Palestinians. It provides social services, schools and health care, but it has been beset in the recent years with financial problems. Mr. Annan calls on donors to continue to support UNRWA, and thanks the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria who have hosted the refugees over years.

Recently appointed by the Secretary-General, Mr. Terje Rod-Larsen of Norway, the United Nations Special Coordinator is working closely with the various parties in an effort to ensure that the varied assistance provided by the United Nations is more effective and efficient. Though the peace process in the Middle East is reaching a dramatic point, much remains to be achieved. This conference will no doubt make a valuable contribution by focusing on a key part of the picture.

MR. BRUNO RODRÍGUEZ PARRILLA, Vice-Chairman, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People

Since the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the parties have travelled a long way. The future of some 3.6 million Palestine refugees scattered throughout Middle East and beyond are among the issues that are being addressed in the context of the final settlement negotiations. A humanitarian problem of unprecedented proportions, is the most complicated, painful and old of all permanent status issues. If this problem is not approached with due care and patience, if it is not resolved fairly and in accordance with norms of international law, the potential for peace and stability in the region will be seriously jeopardized.

Throughout the years, the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council have addressed the question of Palestine refugees and displaced persons in scores of resolutions. The most important and specific among them, are General Assembly resolutions 212 (III) of 19 November 1948 - the first resolution on providing assistance to Palestine refugees; 194 (III) of 11 December 1948 - establishing United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP); 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 - UNRWA; and Security Council resolutions 237 (1967) and 242 (1967).

The Committee strongly believes that the United Nations should continue to have the permanent responsibility towards all aspects of the question of Palestine, including the problem of Palestine refugees until it is resolved in conformity with relevant United Nations resolutions and in accordance with international legitimacy. It is universally acknowledged that the right of return is the core of the refugee problem. On numerous occasions it has been discussed at international meetings and conferences organized under the auspices of the Committee. In 1997, the Division for Palestinian Rights, under the guidance of the Committee, began a project aimed at the preservation and modernization of the property records of the Palestine refugees, originally prepared by the UNCCP. This important project is now nearing its completion.

Together with the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States, the Committee would like to bring this unresolved issue to the focus of international attention, and to reaffirm the determination of the world community to ensure a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement in accordance with international legitimacy and United Nations resolutions. It is also of great significance that this meeting, hosted by UNESCO, is being held here in Paris - in the centre of Europe, whose countries have done so much, together with the co-sponsors of the peace process, to create a political and economic environment favourable and conducive to peace.

MR. AZEDDINE LARAKI, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference

In 1948, the Israeli authorities embarked on a series of massacres and expulsions that lead to the dispersions of Palestinians all over the world. In 1967 the Palestinians experienced another series of mass deportations. The Palestinian Diaspora is now spread over Iraq, Egypt and the Gulf countries, with the majority in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The geographical breakdown of Palestinian refugees is nowadays as follows: Jordan : 1,512,742, Lebanon : 370,144, Syria : 374,521, Gaza : 98,444, the West Bank : 69,741, total : 3,625,592.

After the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, the UNRWA was established as per a December 1949 United Nations General Assembly resolution and went into operation in May 1950. UNRWA has been providing essential services to the refugees in the areas of education, health, relief and social care. UNRWA is different from other international organization because, despite its 50 years in operation UNRWA ‘s mandate still has to be reviewed every 3 years, 95% of UNRWA’s budget is in the form of voluntary contributions from donor states, and its mandate is that of a humanitarian agency. The UNRWA financial crisis calls for the provision of additional resources to the agency. It would not be appropriate to transfer the responsibility for the refugees to any other agency until the refugee issue is resolved in accordance with resolution 194.

The OIC would like to stress the following facts: the Palestinian people’s right to return to their homeland is inalienable, supported by the General Assembly resolution 194, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, other human rights agreements, the Nurenberg Charter and the 4th Geneva Convention. There is an organic link between the right of return and the Palestinian right to self-determination. International Law experts are aware that the honoring of the right to return was a sine qua none condition for the founding of the state of Israel, as its admission to the UN was conditional on its agreement to implement resolution 194. It is necessary to compel Israel to admit its historical and political responsibility to implement resolution 194. It is also necessary to immediately implement Security Council resolution 237 regarding the Palestinians displaced in 1967. OIC considers the right of return non-negotiable; changes in sovereignty or actions of representatives cannot annul it. Compensation is not a substitute for return. Rather, in addition to the right of return, refugees are entitled to compensation, namely moral compensation to individuals and communities, compensation for war crimes, compensation for the crimes against humanity and compensation for crimes committed against peace.

MR. SAID KAMAL, Under-Secretary-General for Palestine Affairs, representative of the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States

Mr. Kamal stated that permanent status negotiations have reached the issue of Palestine refugees- one of the basic root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1948 over 700,000 Palestinians had to seek refuge to escape the horrors of war and sometimes deliberate Israeli expulsions which are being increasingly recognized by historians and politicians in Israel.

Mr. Kamal stated that General Assembly Resolution 194 affirmed the Palestine refugees’ right of return. This right has been reiterated 110 times by the UN. The Arab States continue to assist the Palestine refugees over the years, including the provision of employment opportunities in their labor markets. The Arab States provide contributions the Peace Implementation Program and UNRWA, which is playing an important role in granting social services to the Palestine refugees. The League of Arab States’ support is further evidenced by placing of the Palestine refugee issue as a permanent agenda item at the meetings of the Arab League. A Conference on Palestine refugees meets twice a year in the host countries.

In the view of the Arab League, a permanent solution to the Palestine refugees issue must acknowledge their right of return. Attempts to circumvent UN resolutions and international legitimacy through resettlement are not practical. Genuine peace and stability for Israel cannot be achieved without solving the Palestine refugee issue, otherwise revolutions and intifadas will follow for generations to come.

MR. AHMED SAYYAD, Assistant Director-General, representative of the Director-General of UNESCO

Mr. Sayyad stated that UNESCO has been cooperating with UNRWA in the field of education for Palestine refugee children. It supports the preservation of the Palestinian cultural heritage, as long as the refugee problem remains. In the wake of Oslo, UNESCO made a proposal to UNRWA and to the Palestinian Authority to consider the eventual integration of all schools into the Palestinian education system. Though this proposal may have been misinterpreted, it was dictated solely by concern for the interests of Palestinian children. UNESCO will continue to support Palestine refugees within its educational and cultural mandate.

MR. AS’AD ABDUL RAHMAN, Member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Head of the Refugees Department

Mr. As’ad Abdul Rahman stated that the 5 million Palestine refugees had not forgotten that they have a homeland. The condition for Israeli recognition was its acceptance of resolution 194 and the refugees’ right of return. However, resolution 181 on the Partition of Palestine, which is still relevant, as well as resolution 194, and subsequent resolutions have been flouted by Israel. Resolution 194 is the only just solution acceptable to the Palestine refugees and the PLO. The right of return is enshrined in Human Rights laws, Geneva conventions and has been acknowledged repeatedly by UN bodies. However, the Palestinian Authority finds itself still struggling with the last withdrawal. In spite of the existing agreements for Israel to vacate 91 percent of the Palestinian territory. Israel is trying to reopen the territorial issue. While no progress has been achieved in the permanent status talks, several suspect trial balloons have been floated (withdrawal from 65, 70 or 80 percent of the territory). Israel would supposedly withdraw from a certain percentage of the occupied territories in return for concessions on the permanent status issues. Israel is pursuing a policy of stalling in the negotiations while delaying withdrawals. Proposals are made to postpone the issues of Jerusalem and refugees until after permanent status talks. Despite optimistic media reports, there is little positive happening in the negotiations. The international community took quick action to redress the refugee situation in Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere. The Palestine refugee issue should be treated with equal seriousness; without a solution to the refugee problem the dream of peace in the Middle East can turn into a nightmare.

OMAN on behalf of the Arab group

The representative of Oman stated that without a solution to the Palestine refugee issue there can be no peace. Arab states have made a strategic choice in favor of the peace process based on the principle of land for peace. The international community was asked to set up a mechanism to find a solution to the refugee problem through resolution 194 and the UNCCP. He called on Israel to implement its commitments and comply with relevant UN resolutions. The Palestinian right of return is enshrined in Human Rights covenants and reaffirmed by the General Assembly over 110 times.

SOUTH AFRICA on behalf of the non-aligned movement.

The ambassador of South Africa stated that as early as 1961 the Non-aligned movement called for the full restoration of Palestinian rights, including the right of return, and the right to its own state with Jerusalem as its capital. The Non-aligned movement continues to emphasize the need for UNRWA to have the fullest financial support. The Cartagena Ministerial Conference of the Non-aligned movement reaffirmed the need to fulfill agreements reached, support for resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace. UN retains a permanent responsibility for the Palestine refugee issue until it is resolved.

FRANCE

The representative of France noted that the refugee issue continues to be one of the main elements for a lasting solution to the conflict in the Middle East. France continues to support UNRWA and he announced that his Government will increase by 50 percent its contribution. He indicated that there are 4 principles that guide the solution to the refugee question: 1. International legality. United Nations resolutions constitute an abiding reference to the negotiations. 2. The new realities in the Middle East regarding political, demographic and socioeconomic aspects. These new realities have to be taken into account and require political compromises. The right of return will depend on the absorption perspectives. The right to compensation which does not substitute for the right of return will depend on financial arrangements and modalities of its distribution. 3. The wishes of the refugees should be taken into account and consultations should allow the refugees to express their preferences. 4. The international community has to play a role and coordinate the modalities for the implementation.

INDONESIA

The representative of Indonesia stated that no other refugee issue has been this challenging. Generations of Palestinians have grown up facing hardship. The right of return stipulated in resolution 194 has been reiterated time and time again. It does not diminish with the passage of time. Security Council resolution 237 is unequivocal in calling for the return of refugees.

CHINA
The representative of China welcomed the decision of the Palestinian people to chose peace and to adopt a flexible and gradual approach to the realization of their rights. Respect for UN resolutions and agreements reached is needed, but it should also be anchored in realities. Since 1965 China has supported schools for Palestine refugees. This year his Government is providing 30 million Yuan to the Palestinian Authority for economic rehabilitation.

UKRAINE
The representative of Ukraine stressed the importance of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. He also underlined the significance of implementing the Oslo agreement, the Wye River memorandum and the Sharm el Sheykh agreement. The transfer of territories and release of prisoners should be accelerated. He also pointed out the role of the UN as the guarantor of international law. Ukraine stands ready to develop economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.

ITALY

The representative of Italy stated that Italy is committed to a just and lasting solution in the framework of the peace process. Its Government has contributed specifically to the multilateral track. Palestinians are the main beneficiary of Italian development assistance in the Middle East. Italy contributes 4 million dollars to UNRWA. It will further contribute 1 million dollars for hospitals for the refugees in Lebanon and another 900,000 dollars to the Palestinian Red Crescent for training needs. His Government is the main contributor to UNESCO programs for Palestine refugees.

EGYPT
The representative of Egypt stated that new hopes for peace arose after the defeat of the Likud government. However, the Israeli negotiators are mistaken if they believe that the Palestine refugee issue can be circumvented through tactical maneuvers. Arab negotiators cannot negotiate away the right of return. This right is inalienable and therefore is not for Israel to grant it or take it away. He deplored the continuing Israeli settlement activity, which undermines the negotiations.

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