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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
29 June 2009

Commissioner-General’s Opening Statement
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Refugees: Present and Future
International Conference, Egmont Palace, Brussels , 29 to 30 June, 2009

Minister De Gucht, Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues:

It is a pleasure to welcome you to this Conference - one of many events marking the sixtieth anniversary of UNRWA’s establishment. I express sincere appreciation to the European Commission, to the Belgian government and to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel for giving freely of the time and resources needed to make this Conference possible. I thank Professor Van der Borght, representing the organizers, as well as the speakers and panelists, many of whom have come a long way to be with us. I reserve a special word of thanks and recognition to the States and inter-governmental institutions of Europe.

We could not wish for more generous, more reliable allies than the EU, the EC, and the European Parliament, whose support over the decades has been indispensable to UNRWA’s ability to remain a positive force in the lives of Palestine refugees and the communities in which they reside. As we come together to mark UNRWA’s sixtieth anniversary, it is fitting that I convey in clear terms, on my own and my agency’s behalf, and on behalf of the Palestine refugees we serve, UNRWA’s gratitude to Europe.

The headline for this Conference is rich with substance and immediate relevance. From the programme before us, it is clear that the organizers have given careful thought to the topic and invited panelists capable of leading us authoritatively through the principal issues. My task in these opening remarks is to offer a few of my own thoughts on some key dimensions of Palestinian rights, from the vantage point of UNRWA’s sixty years of humanitarian and human development experience. I will draw as well on the personal insights I have been privileged to garner from living and working in Gaza since 2000 and from 28 years of service to refugees around the world.

Any discussion of the economic, social and cultural rights of Palestine refugees must begin with a view of the current conditions in which they live and go on to assess, through the prism of their reality, the actual and potential content of their rights. It is worth noting at the outset that the population of 4.7 million refugees registered with UNRWA constitutes only a part of the community of Palestinians descended from those dispossessed by the 1948 conflict. There is as well a substantial number of Palestinians – estimated at some five to seven million – who are either in the Middle East but not registered with UNRWA, or who are in the diaspora around the globe.

However, as the focus of this Conference is on Palestine refugees registered with UNRWA and living in the occupied Palestinian territory, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, an initial observation must be that the enjoyment of human rights is uneven across the region.

By virtue of the generosity and hospitality of the governments and people of Jordan and Syria, Palestine refugees hosted in these countries benefit from rights and freedoms equal or approximate to those of citizens. Palestine refugees in these countries are free from the threat of death, injury or other consequences of large-scale violence or armed conflict. In spite of this favourable rights environment, sight must not be lost of the many thousands of refugees who suffer from poverty – in some cases, of the chronic, generational kind. These refugees are constrained from converting available economic opportunities into sustainable livelihoods - not by any deliberate denial or infringement of their rights - but by the lack of resources needed to assist them towards self-reliance.

In Lebanon, the government’s efforts since 2005 to improve the human rights situation of Palestine refugees still has far to go. Refugees continue to face considerable obstacles to freedom of movement and access to employment. As the events of Nahr El Bared also portrayed dramatically in 2007, the threat of armed conflict constitutes an added layer of vulnerability in some parts of the country. Developments over the last six months, including the recent elections, give cause for hope of improvements in conditions generally in Lebanon, which will also benefit Palestine refugees. The re-construction of the Nahr El Bared camp, which is yet to be fully funded, will make a significant contribution, not only to the realization of refugees’ right to a decent standard of living, but also to the security and stability of the surrounding Lebanese communities.

In the occupied Palestinian territory, the human rights status of Palestine refugees is without parallel. Nowhere in the region is there a comparable array of State-enforced measures ensuring such a degree of systematic denial, abridgement and infringement of human rights. The occupied territory is a place where broad spectra of abuses find their expression – from refusal to recognize Palestinian identity, through incarceration of thousands, to civilian trauma, injuries and deaths in armed conflict.

In the West Bank, the separation barrier and its associated movement obstacles, security zones and administrative restrictions starve the economy, stifle social and family relations and place normal life out of the reach of many Palestinians. Arrests and detention of Palestinians, often of young males, occur frequently, as do sporadic armed clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, reported to be on the rise, are a tragic complement to the effects of intra-Palestinian violence. And just as methodically as Palestinian homes are demolished, forcibly displacing hundreds of poor people, Israeli settlements continue to rise on Palestinian land, including in East Jerusalem.

In Gaza, over a million and a half Palestinians are confined within borders sealed by the occupying power. The closure of Gaza’s borders survived the most recent conflict and is now in its 24th month of creating a surreal state of siege which would not have been out of place in medieval times. Israel is careful to ensure that a minimum of basic food commodities, health supplies and the goods of UN and humanitarian agencies, is allowed into Gaza. These, together with the traffic through the tunnels of Rafah, ensure that the risk of a dramatic collapse in humanitarian conditions is kept at bay and that life in Gaza maintains an illusory veil of normality.

The thinness of that illusion becomes apparent when one considers the creeping threat of malnutrition, the collapse of public services, employment, commerce and industry, the total ban on exports and the fact that there appears to be no discernible security rationale for decisions to allow or disallow the entry of goods into Gaza. Items on the prohibited list include books, paper for textbooks, hearing aid batteries, crayons, light bulbs, candles, matches, musical instruments, clothing, shoes, mattresses, bed sheets, blankets, tea, coffee, chocolate and nuts. Shampoo is allowed in unless the product contains conditioner, which is banned.

No petrol or diesel has been allowed through the official crossings into Gaza since November 2008. Gaza’s power plant receives only 70% of its weekly fuel requirements and only half of the cooking gas needed. With construction materials banned, UNRWA and other aid agencies are prevented from implementing plans to help Gazans recover from the devastation of the recent conflict. Schools, public buildings, mosques and industrial properties cannot be repaired and over 52,000 homes remain damaged or destroyed, affecting 250,000 people.

In his 2002 poem Under Siege, the venerated Mahmoud Darwish, with his customary vision, found the words to convey the sense of fearful limbo, isolation and precariousness the blockade has brought upon Palestinians in Gaza. He wrote:

The siege is a waiting period
Waiting on a tilted ladder in the middle of the storm.
Alone, we are alone as far down as the sediment
Were it not for the visits of the rainbows.

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests:

From this short sketch, it is possible to discern a few features that define the essence of the prevailing human rights condition of Palestine refugees. I will mention three of these:

§ The composite, indivisible nature of rights,
§ The international community’s pivotal enforcement role, and,
§ The inalienable character of rights and their link to identity and culture.

Perhaps these and other underpinnings of Palestinian rights could be explored in your panel discussions.

The composite, indivisible nature of human rights

In practice and in their enjoyment, human rights are composite and indivisible and must be approached as such. For ease of understanding and analysis, we tend to demarcate, as the Conference title does, economic, social and cultural rights from political and civil rights. In reality, however, these categories cannot obscure the intimate linkage among, and the mutually reinforcing inter-dependence of, the various categories of human rights. To take a simple example, the availability of economic rights creates the conditions in which the enjoyment of cultural rights is enhanced, while the denial of social rights inevitably triggers the decline of economic and cultural aspects of life. The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory clearly illustrates these inter-linkages, with armed conflict and movement restrictions often serving as the proximate triggers for the violation of other rights.

A relevant point recognized in international instruments is the centrality of the right to self-determination as the font from which the full enjoyment of human rights and freedoms flows. Article 1 common to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights observes that it is by virtue of self-determination that people "determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." Evidence of this linkage is clear in Gaza and the West Bank, where the military occupation of Palestinian land since 1967 – the very antithesis of Palestinian self-determination - serves as the context for recurrent human rights abuses.

The composite nature of human rights, and the fact that Palestinian self-determination is a prerequisite for their full enjoyment, poses questions about the wisdom or validity of piecemeal approaches to addressing Palestinian issues. An example is the tendency to leave aside questions labeled ‘final status’ in peace negotiations, questions that are deemed too difficult to tackle, in favour of giving priority to specific economic projects that are expected to flourish regardless of the occupation context.

The international community’s role

Another essential feature of the human rights situation facing Palestine refugees is the unquestionable importance of the international community’s role. This emerges from the fact that issues relating to Palestinians and Palestine refugees intersect with questions that are inherently of an international character and therefore invoke the international responsibility of governments. Refugees and forced displacement; military occupation; armed conflict; the use of force in international law; the peaceful resolution of disputes; the aspiration for a Palestinian state – all of these matters are squarely on the international agenda and governed by binding international instruments that stipulate obligations for both protagonists and for the international community.

The point is that while host countries, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas at this time in Gaza, bear the primary responsibility to protect Palestine refugees. The international community of States also bears a duty to defend and enforce international law. This duty is unequivocal in the UN Charter’s statement of its purpose, which is, "to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social cultural or humanitarian character and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction." It is equally unambiguous in Article 1 common to the Geneva Conventions which enjoins States Parties to "respect and ensure respect" for the provisions of international humanitarian law.

Given the international community’s legal commitments to protect Palestinian civilians, we recall with concern its role in imposing and maintaining the blockade of Gaza – with all its humanitarian implications, its omissions on enforcing the rules of international humanitarian law governing obligations of the occupying power and its failure to call the combatants equally to account on the many occasions when civilians have not been protected during armed conflict. With regard to accountability, however, there are welcome signs in the succession of fact-finding missions tasked to investigate violations of international law during the recent Gaza conflict. It remains to be seen how the outcomes of these missions will be taken forward to a logical conclusion which fulfills international necessity and the Palestinian aspiration for justice. We trust that the international community will not allow the ongoing investigations to meet the fate of the advisory opinion of the International court of Justice on the West Bank barrier or the OHCHR investigation led by Archbishop Tutu into the 2006 killing of 18 civilians in Beit Hanoun.

Inalienable character of rights, identity and culture

If one more essential feature of Palestinian rights, or lack thereof, deserves mention, it is their inalienable character. As these rights spring from innate human dignity and inherent worth of human beings, in this case, Palestinians, they are indelible and enduring. In spite of the dispossession of Palestinians, their sixty-year sojourn as refugees and the untold distress of recurrent abuses, their entitlement to rights and freedoms cannot – and will not – be obliterated. The inalienable character of Palestinian rights strongly suggests close parallels with Palestinian identity and culture.

These are profound and complex concepts. They partake of the ineradicable character of human rights, are recognized in international instruments and are among the precepts most rigourously protected by international law. However, Palestinian identity and culture belong in essence to a different realm – a realm inhabited by the shared psyche of ancient history and the collective consciousness of being that transcends memory, surpassing the here and now. This sphere, better described by poets and philosophers than by international lawyers, is the world in which Mahmoud Darwish was engrossed when he declared:

My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras,
Before the pines and the olive trees,
And before the grass grew.

My own observation is that for a people as beset by decades of armed conflict and harsh circumstances as Palestinians are, it might be expected that the impulses of resistance and survival have become prominent in the definition of their identity and culture. This prominence serves and reinforces the purposes of the protections provided by the law, while at the same time helping to cement the inalienable character of identity and culture. My experience in Gaza over these many years has been that throughout the most harrowing days and nights of the recent conflict and at other times of extraordinary stress, the Palestinian spirit has shown unusual fortitude and resilience. These attributes have proved to be assets in UNRWA’s human development work.

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests:

If we are to look to the future, as the Conference title urges us to do, we must draw our inspiration – not from the cruel daily realities of violations of economic, social and cultural rights of Palestinians – but from the promises enshrined in those rights, and the possibilities and potential that exist within and around the difficult circumstances Palestinians face.

Over the past sixty years, UNRWA’s humanitarian and human development work has been driven by our resolute belief in what is made possible by the human capital that Palestinians and Palestine refugees represent. UNRWA has cultivated the Palestinian thirst for knowledge and built on their proven capacity for self-sufficiency and economic independence. And in refugee communities in the region, we have loyally played our part as a constant, presence and a dependable source of principled assistance and support, always firm in our resolve to assist and protect.

UNRWA will continue to perform these roles and maintain its efforts to remain a trusted partner to donors and to host countries. Even as we renew our dedication to our mandate, we are aware that although the humanitarian and human development sector is vital and indispensable to the well-being of refugees, our work must be complemented by credible progress towards the achievement of larger political goals, including, as I already pointed out, the ultimate prize of Palestinian self-determination.

Today, we harbour some hope that achieving this goal is, perhaps, not as remote as it seemed prior to the change of leadership in the United States. The pronouncements of President Obama, the positions he has expressed and his recognition of Palestinian suffering have resonated powerfully across our region, breathing fresh life into hopes that so recently lay dormant, and generating instead a wellspring of anticipation.

UNRWA, like the Palestine refugees we serve, welcomes the new signals of principle, balance and respect for the human dignity of Palestinians on a par with that of Israelis. Much more will be required, however, if the occupation is to end, settlement activity reversed, Gaza’s blockade lifted, Palestinian freedom of movement and other fundamental rights restored, the situation of refugees resolved and a viable, secure State of Palestine brought closer to reality.

UNRWA looks forward to these steps commencing in the political arena. As and when they do, UNRWA will ensure that any transition towards implementing a negotiated solution will be consistent with refugee wishes and reflect their choices, while safeguarding their rights and entitlements.

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests:

On the occasion of our sixtieth anniversary, UNRWA re-dedicates itself to keeping faith with Palestine refugees until the day dawns when a just and lasting solution is fully realized and an UNRWA presence is no longer required by the international community and the refugees we serve.

I wish you a productive and fulfilling seminar.

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