Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
As I said in my welcoming remarks, this annual gathering is a unique opportunity to come together as donors, host countries, stakeholders, staff and again this year, with refugees. It is a chance to re-affirm our collective faith in UNRWA’s mission and to re-commit ourselves to the interests of Palestine refugees. Mr. Brahimi’s inspiring speech provides an incisive reminder of how the issues that concern UNRWA relate to the global context. The Secretary-General’s last statement to this group (kindly read by Kevin Kennedy) expressed his hopes and concerns for the region and for Palestine refugees. The field directors reported on the particularities of providing services to Palestine refugees in the five fields of operation and we heard about the remarkable progress made by the Advisory Commission from its Chair, Frans Makken. The Comptroller and Director of External Relations grounded us in the realities of financing such a large and vital operation. I will try to complement and draw on all of these approaches by reflecting on some core features of the Agency and its work in today’s context.
I begin with two facts that are self-evident and well-known. The first is that UNRWA’s operational environment is unpredictable and volatile. The second is that UNRWA’s role evolves in response to pressures and influences that are themselves constantly shifting within and outside our theatre of operations. In spite of the need to be flexible enough to accommodate a volatile environment, the Agency’s ultimate strength lies in its ability to serve refugees and stakeholders as a steady source of support and a competent and reliable partner. This may sound somewhat paradoxical, and it does indeed require a delicate balancing act. However, I believe that it describes the reality of UNRWA’s experience in years past, particularly in the last 12 months.
This discussion will no doubt be familiar to those of you who attended our Advisory Commission meetings earlier this year.
Let us take as a first example developments in Lebanon this past summer. The experience proved beyond any doubt that our operational environment is unpredictable and volatile. The loss of over 1500 lives in a period of just over one month took most of us by surprise. It was not foreseen that the war would be fought with such uncompromising intensity. And it was shocking to see the consequent scale of civilian deaths and injuries and destruction to civilian infrastructure.
UNRWA’s response to the Lebanon conflict was in many ways exemplary of the strengths of the Agency. At the time the conflict erupted, those of us who associate the term "emergency" mainly with Gaza and the West Bank today might have been concerned about the capacity of UNRWA to respond. We need not have worried. Our services continued as usual and UNRWA served as a committed and active partner in the inter-agency effort. UNRWA was already on the ground – as it had been for 57 years. It was able to immediately deploy and share its service network, utilizing its solid foundation of local staff who have intimate knowledge of the terrain.
Prior to the war breaking out, UNRWA had worked with the government to prepare a 50 million dollar plan to improve living conditions in the refugee camps in Lebanon. We were extremely pleased when the camp improvement initiative survived the hostilities. 3 million dollars worth of UNRWA projects were incorporated in Lebanon’s recovery plan, underlining the link between improvement in refugee living conditions and the reconstruction of southern Lebanon.
This, it seems to me, is an instructive example of UNRWA’s facility for staying true to its core activities, while retaining the capacity to respond, as needed, to rapidly changing circumstances.
In Gaza, the year began on a note of hope. It is sad to say that in the occupied Palestinian territory hope tends to die in its infancy. Such was the experience in 2006.
This is a territory where students have been struck by bullets while sitting in their classrooms; teenagers killed as they rode their bikes in the fields; where teachers have died in a cross-fire as they walked to work; and where entire families have been killed by artillery shells. For those of us who live and work in Gaza and the West Bank, 2006 brought new reasons for shock and dismay - new reasons to ask the old rhetorical questions: "Why is this happening?"; "For how much longer can we allow Palestinians to remain unprotected?"; and "Just how much more suffering can Palestinians endure?".
We are aware that the answers to these questions do not lie within the powers entrusted to us by our mandate. So we focus on what we are best equipped to do, which is to make a positive difference in the daily lives of refugees. Our principal tools remain our dual humanitarian assistance and development role, complemented whenever required by our emergency programmes. Those who are familiar with UNRWA will know that our operations in the occupied territories are not only about emergency responses.
On the contrary, UNRWA’s human development impulse is as strong in Gaza and the West Bank as it is in other Fields. This year, we are building an important new technical and vocational training center in Khan Younis. We are in the process of installing computer labs in all UNRWA Gaza schools, and over half of our appeal for Beit Hanoun is devoted to construction works for homes and infrastructure. Other fields show a similar pattern. In Jordan we are setting up a trust fund to generate income for community-based organizations to help them empower women and vulnerable groups, and in Syria you are no doubt familiar with our comprehensive and people-centered approach to camp improvement and housing schemes in Neirab and Ein El-Tal. Our intention is to ensure that the sum effect of these interventions is sustainable human development for Palestine refugees.
Allow me now to reflect for a moment on how the theme of a volatile and unpredictable environment plays out in the area of the Agency’s finances. Unpredictability of our working environment is not due exclusively to the upheavals caused by armed conflict – at least not in a direct sense. Sometimes the unpredictability emanates from forces that are extraneous to the region in which we operate, yet they nevertheless impact directly on UNRWA and on the welfare of Palestine refugees.
Take the experience we had in the first quarter of this year. In our financial cycle we normally expend the bulk of our financial resources by December. For many years, we have done this quite comfortably - secure in the knowledge that donor funds traditionally materialize no later than the end of the first quarter of the following year. This means that the Agency is financially vulnerable between January and March of each year because that is the period when we are expecting the "donor check to be put in the mail". It is the time when the Agency has to prudently draw on its reserves to tide itself over until donor funds for the new year are received.
We suffered through a moment of particular financial uncertainty in February-March when donor funds were delayed precisely at the time when our financial position was at its weakest. Our principal donors were in the process of considering whether the change in the identity of the Palestinian Authority might have implications for their funding of the UNRWA. This was a serious policy matter. In the time it took for clarity to emerge, the Agency was on tenterhooks. We continued to function, but were only weeks, or days even, away from being unable to pay salaries. We were literally held in suspense until these issues were resolved towards the end of April. We were of course pleased that in the final analysis our donors kept faith with UNRWA’s mission and came through with the resources we needed.
I refer to this experience because it provides food for thought at different levels. It brought forcefully home to us the hazards of relying on voluntary contributions for 97% of our budget. It also reminded us of what can occur when our humanitarian and development rationales are not congruent with the considerations that influence the global actions of our donors.
For the most part the Agency’s objectives have converged quite strongly with donor interests. For example, 82% of the 2006 Emergency Appeal is funded. At the beginning of the first intifada, the response to our emergency appeal was even more dramatic, with a funding level of 112%.
These examples contrast with the situation we are facing with our general budget for which funding has been fairly steady but with very limited incremental growth. This biennium’s expanded needs-based budget has not been funded to the extent envisioned. The effect, as in previous years, is that we will struggle to keep our regular programmes on an even keel, and have little scope for organizational innovation or programme modernization. Perpetual austerity, particularly during the last decade, is taking a serious toll on the Agency and on the quality of our services. I should mention that our intensive efforts towards organizational reform are critical to maximizing the effectiveness of our services and ultimately to make them more attractive to donors. I spoke to you about this in broad terms last year, and my deputy, Filippo Grandi, will brief you in more detail on some of the critical developments that have taken place since then, and those planned in the near term. This is the time for donors to show in concrete terms their support for our Agency’s determination to reform.
Allow me to turn from funding issues to develop further a point I made earlier. I refer to the issues surrounding the tension that frequently appears between the preoccupations of States on the one hand, and humanitarian questions on the other. This tension is manifested in a variety of ways. One of its most striking manifestations is the contrast between the readiness of states to fund emergency responses, compared to their failure to address the questions of international law and politics that cause these emergencies. That tension is clear in the way in which the urgency to resolve underlying questions of justice and peace for Palestinians is somehow divorced from the challenge of providing for their human needs.
We believe that these tensions and contradictions can - and should - be avoided, particularly in the Palestinian arena where political, security, humanitarian, development and refugee issues are often virtually indistinguishable. The issues are too tightly interwoven to allow the luxury of a fragmented approach. An approach in which security and political questions are deemed to supersede or override humanitarian and protection issues is unrealistic and simply not sustainable.
The point I am making echoes the growing emphasis in recent years in the UN and elsewhere on protection and the responsibility to protect. The protection imperative, if I may call it that, is not new. It is enshrined in the letter and spirit of a variety of international legal texts, including those that constitute the framework of human rights law and international humanitarian law. It would be true to say that the concept of protection is embedded in fundamental precepts of humanity and human dignity. They draw their inspiration ultimately from the ancient moral and religious codes on which modern civilizations are founded.
What is new is the attitude of bold neglect shown by some states towards the sanctity of Palestinian lives. What is newly worrying is the disdain and disrespect for the human dignity of Palestinians – refugees and non-refugees alike.
The humanitarian community – both within and outside the United Nations - is responding to these worrying trends in various ways. The fact-finding missions that are heading for Gaza and the West Bank over the next few weeks are one expression of heightened concern. Another response can be seen in calls from various quarters – not least from the United Nations General Assembly - for an international mechanism to protect civilian populations. The calls for new approaches are an expression of frustration with the existing situation. They are fuelled by an awareness that the status quo in Gaza and the West Bank must change for the better and that humanitarian actors bear an inherent duty to press for the necessary changes.
Our Agency shares these sentiments. We see in the occupied territory an inexorable slide towards the destruction of Palestinian society. And we feel fully justified in calling for new ways to halt that slide.
Earlier in my statement, I recited some of the painful questions that ring in our ears when we ponder the wretched condition of those who live in the occupied Palestinian territory. "Why is all this happening to Palestinians?"; "For how much longer can we allow Palestinians to remain unprotected?"; and "Just how much more suffering can Palestinians endure?".
These questions recall an important aspect of UNRWA’s evolving role. I am referring to our role as a global advocate for the care and protection of Palestine refugees. This role is implicit in our mandate and in our identity as an Agency that ultimately derives its authority from the General Assembly and the Charter of the United Nations. As an Agency that is devoted to the human development of Palestine refugees, our primary orientation and our principal tools are programmes and services that reach refugees directly. Our service orientation means that we live and work in close proximity to and with Palestine refugees. When we observe at close range and on a daily basis the egregious suffering Palestinians frequently endure, we cannot look the other way.
We speak to States and other political actors on behalf of Palestine refugees. And in so doing we remind States of the need to keep in view the human dimension of the refugee condition and to take measures to safeguard refugee lives, rights and livelihoods. We serve as champions on the Palestine refugee issue and encourage approaches that incorporate humanitarian issues into the search for solutions.
We do not assume this role lightly. We are fully aware that the legitimacy of our advocacy role rests on remaining within the boundaries of our humanitarian mandate. We are cognizant of the fact that the boundaries that separate the humanitarian from the political are indistinct at best, but nevertheless real. We have no illusions about how high the costs would be if we were to stray too far, and we have no desire whatsoever to jeopardize the international credibility we have worked so hard to create and maintain. That would be a price we are not prepared to pay.
Ultimately, the relevance of our advocacy role is inversely proportional to the constructive engagement of States and other political actors. As long as political actors play their part and show the leadership of which Ambassador Brahimi spoke, and as long as they engage with the issues in a positive and humane way, the need for UNRWA to exhort and cajole from the sidelines will diminish. However, in circumstances such as the present we simply cannot remain silent. Today we call for continuing, in more depth, discussions and exchanges on these, most pressing issues.
My remarks have highlighted the flexibility and responsiveness of our Agency. I have affirmed that UNRWA’s humanitarian assistance and human development interventions flow naturally from our mandate. The well-being of Palestine refugees cannot be separated from, or treated differently to, their enjoyment of rights and freedoms. For this reason, all our interventions and activities - in emergencies, in humanitarian assistance and human development, in reform and in advocacy – are inter-related parts of an organic whole. We strive at all times to be innovative, forward looking and inclusive in our methods. And we take a comprehensive approach that is grounded in a steadfast commitment to the human advancement of each Palestine refugee. We trust that these qualities will ensure that in years to come, and until a just and comprehensive solution is achieved, UNRWA will remain a competent and reliable partner to you - our stakeholders - and a steady source of support to Palestine refugees.
My deputy, Filippo Grandi, will now bring to you up-to-date on Agency developments related to our organizational development plan. We are also fortunate to have with us Mr. Piers Campbell of MANNET, the Geneva-based consultancy group that has been so instrumental in moving us forward in our reform efforts. I must say immodestly that we are very proud of what we have achieved in such a short time, and are excited about the coming period as major initiatives pick up steam and begin to have direct consequences on UNRWA’s productivity and effectiveness.