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Fifty-third General Assembly
18th Meeting (PM)
11 November 1998
ISRAEL INTENT UPON IMPLEMENTING ITS AGREEMENTS ON ROAD TO PEACE,
FOURTH COMMITTEE TOLD AS IT CONCLUDES DISCUSSION OF UNRWA
Israel was intent upon implementing its agreements on the road to peace, including the recent Wye River Memorandum, which the Israeli Cabinet had ratified this morning, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) was told this afternoon as it concluded its debate on the activities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The representative of Israel said it had been agreed in principle that the question of refugees would be on the agenda of the final status talks between Israel and its neighbours within the context of the Middle East peace process. That, and only that, would be the proper place to examine the refugee question. Since the various agreements had been reached between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the vast majority of Palestinians in the former West Bank and Gaza Strip, including many refugees, lived today under the rule of the Palestinian Authority and were no longer under Israeli control.
The observer for Palestine, speaking in exercise of right of reply, said that in announcing the Israeli Cabinet's ratification of the Wye River Memorandum, the representative of Israel had neglected to mention certain conditions that fell outside the original agreement and which were in violation of the Memorandum itself. They included the continued building of settlements in an area south of East Jerusalem. Moreover, the agreement had been delayed a number of times under different pretexts.
The representative of the United States said that true assistance to the Palestinian people came in two forms: either countries paid into the relevant international assistance programmes or they gave material and service support in kind. Countries lacking the means to contribute financially should back the Middle East peace process. Given the tremendous challenges in the peace process, it was crucial that the international donor community demonstrate its strong and unwavering support.
As UNRWA's largest donor, he said, the United States continued to support UNRWA's efforts to adapt to the changing needs of the Palestinian refugees throughout the region in the midst of a continued climate of limited resources. Moreover, his country encouraged UNRWA's continuing dialogue with its major supporters to map out a strategic vision for the future which must align the Agency's priorities more closely with realistic projections of available resources.
Peter Hansen, the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, said that references to corruption, made previously by the representatives of Bangladesh and Norway, had arisen out of sweeping allegations by an UNRWA staff member after he had been informed that his one-year contract would not be renewed. Complete and independent investigations had been ordered, and no wrongdoing had been found. Nevertheless, large sums of UNRWA's money were being handled by poorly paid staff members. The Agency must remain vigilant and hit back very hard when that sort of thing occurred. The UNRWA's credibility was its major asset and that could not be compromised or lost.
Statements were also made by the representatives of Cuba, Canada, Turkey, Tunisia, Japan, Viet Nam, Kuwait, Bahrain, Cyprus, China and Indonesia.
The Fourth Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. on Friday, 13 November, to begin its consideration of questions relating to information.
Committee Work Programme
The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the activities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
(For background information on documents already before the Committee, including the report of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, see Press Release GA/SPD/147 of 9 November.)
Also before the Committee was a draft resolution on assistance to Palestine refugees (document A/C.4/53/L.9), by which the General Assembly would note with profound concern that the structural deficit problem confronting UNRWA portends an almost certain decline in the living conditions of the Palestine refugees and that it, therefore, had possible consequences for the peace process. It would also call upon all governments, as a matter of urgency, to make the most generous efforts possible to meet the anticipated needs of UNRWA. The Assembly would urge non-contributing governments to contribute regularly and encourage contributing governments to consider increasing their regular contributions.
By other terms of that draft, the Assembly would reiterate its deep concern regarding the persisting critical financial situation of UNRWA as outlined in the Commissioner-General's report. Further, it would urge all Member States to extend and expedite aid and assistance with a view to the economic and social development of the Palestinian people and the occupied territories. Also by that text, the Assembly would decide to extend the mandate of the Agency until 30 June 2002, without prejudice to the provisions of General Assembly resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948.
The draft is sponsored by Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
By a draft on the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA (document A/C.4/53/L.10), the Assembly would request the Working Group to continue its efforts, in cooperation with the Secretary-General and the CommissionerGeneral, for the financing of the Agency for a further period of one year. It would also request the Secretary-General to provide the necessary services and assistance to the Working Group for the conduct of its work.
That draft is sponsored by Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
Also before the Committee was the Secretary-General's report on Palestine refugees' properties and their revenues (document A/53/644). The report was submitted in pursuance of Assembly resolution 52/62 of 10 December 1997, by which, among other things, the General Assembly reaffirmed that the Palestine Arab refugees were entitled to their property and to the income derived therefrom, in conformity with the principles of justice and equity. The resolution also urged the Palestinian and Israeli sides, as agreed between them, to deal with the important issues of Palestine refugees' properties and their revenues in the framework of the final status negotiations of the Middle East peace process.
The report says that on 11 August the Secretary-General requested the Permanent Representative of Israel to inform him by 11 September 1998 of any steps his Government had taken or envisaged taking in implementation of the relevant provisions of the resolutions.
In the response by Israel, the Permanent Representative replied that resolutions regarding UNRWA remained rife with political issues irrelevant to the work for which UNRWA was responsible, and thus remained detached from the new reality in the area.
Also before the Committee was the report of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA (document A/53/569), which considers the recent developments in UNRWA's financial situation. The report states that the Agency ended the 1997 financial year with a shortfall of $1.9 million, based on total expenditures of $252.4 million and total income of $250.5 million.
The report states that in view of the critical financial situation, the Commissioner-General was compelled, in August 1997, to introduce additional austerity and cost-reduction measures, which, despite strenuous efforts to avoid such an effect, would have represented for the first time a reduction in services provided by UNRWA. Those measures included a general freeze on recruitment, a reduction of 15 per cent in the number of international staff posts, and the imposition of freezes on regular budget allocations for the rehabilitation of refugee shelters. Donors responded generously and rapidly, announcing additional pledges of $21 million for 1997 and enabling the Agency narrowly to avert having to suspend operations and permitting it to rescind, even before they were implemented, the proposed measures relating to hospitalization and school charges.
According to the report, the measures taken by UNRWA to get through 1997 included the maintenance of previously imposed austerity measures and the introduction of new ones. As a result, some activities provided for in the budget approved by the General Assembly for the biennium 1996-1997 once again were not fully implemented, thus negatively affecting the level and quality of its humanitarian programmes. Moreover, the Agency began 1998 with depleted working capital, low cash balances and no indication of a significant increase in overall income.
RAFAEL DAUSA-CESPEDES (Cuba) said the Palestine refugees had unquestionably had to deal with harsh living conditions over the past 50 years. The work of UNRWA was necessary, and of fundamental importance for the future to ensure the necessary network of security for that vulnerable population.
The inadequacy of funds endured by UNRWA exacerbated the difficulties the Agency must deal with to carry out its important mandate, he said. Cuba supported the appeal to all Member States, international agencies and donors to increase the resources and allocations needed to help the refugees. His country supported the ongoing peace process and the goal of finding a quick solution to the problem. His country expressed its solidarity with the needy Palestinian people. Cuba also encouraged Palestinians to continue to come to work and study in the country, in order to further help their heroic people.
MICHEL DUVAL (Canada) said Canada welcomed the Wye River Memorandum and the spirit of compromise and trust that had led to its achievement. That spirit would be vital as both sides worked to implement the Memorandum in the coming days and weeks. As important as the Memorandum was, the world must not lose sight of the ultimate objective -- a just, comprehensive and lasting peace, that provided security, stability and prosperity for all peoples in the Middle East region. The existence of almost 3.5 million Palestine refugees, many of them still living in camps in the Palestinian territory, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon 50 years after the events of 1947 to 1948, was a constant and very tangible reminder that the Arab-Israeli conflict remained unresolved.
He said Canada had a long history of support for the humanitarian situation of refugees and had accepted the responsibility to serve as Chair of the Refugee Working Group in the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process. Canada had led an international mission to Lebanon in May 1996 and the Working Group had just completed a mission to refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. Egypt, the European Commission, Germany, Japan and Norway had also participated in that mission. During its visits, the mission had observed first hand the consequences of serious overcrowding and high population density.
He said the basic services of UNRWA were under enormous strain. In the area of education, the refugees had expressed concern over the long-term impact of deterioration in the quality of education in the UNRWA school system because of overcrowding in classrooms. In health, refugees had spoken about the need to expand the limited available services. They had underlined the need for the rehabilitation of sewer systems in the camps and had drawn attention to the existence of open sewers in camps and to the health hazard posed by sewage seeping into drinking water.
For almost five decades, UNRWA had offered basic humanitarian, relief and social services to Palestine refugees. Its responsibilities and engagement in the provision of primary health care, education and social services made it a safety net and force for stability that must be maintained, at least until a political solution to the refugee problem was achieved. The UNRWA had recently suffered repeated financial crises. It was a sad fact that the cost of those crises had ultimately been borne by the refugees. It was essential that UNRWA continue as a healthy, vibrant agency. It was the responsibility of the international community to ensure its ongoing vitality.
GURCAN TURKOGLU (Turkey) said that while the recently signed Wye River Memorandum offered new prospects for peace and stability in the region, much remained to be achieved. Optimism had emerged, while the political climate continued to be as sensitive as ever. The UNRWA was one of the main factors which complemented the peace process. It did that by temporarily providing very much needed stability among the major countries involved. Inefficiency or failure of the Agency would deprive the peace process of an essential element.
He said stronger response to the economic, cultural and social needs of the Palestinian refugees could have a further stabilizing effect and contribute to the creation of a more peaceful atmosphere. Moreover, the increasing poverty and high unemployment among the Palestine refugee community should be a source of concern. The deterioration of socio- economic conditions, especially in the Gaza strip, was of alarming proportion.
MOHAMED SALAH TEKAYA (Tunisia) said that the refugee tragedy had existed for several decades in the absence of a resolution to the Middle East conflict and to the rights of the refugees to return to their homes and to be compensated for their lost property. The UNRWA undertook tremendous work in providing basic services, as well as education, health and other services to the refugees. The Agency had been able to carry out its work in a manner that allowed it to enjoy special status among the refugees.
He thanked the Commissioner-General of UNRWA and his staff for their work in spite of the difficult circumstances facing the Agency. The Commissioner-General had stated that the period covered by his report showed a lack of progress in the Middle East peace process and increased tension, despair and frustration among the refugees, whose living conditions were precarious. In addition to those difficulties was the financial crisis which was forcing the Agency to adopt austerity measures. The refugees strongly objected to those measures and saw them as resistance on the part of the international community to help alleviate their plight.
Despite a growing refugee population, their increasing care and assistance needs had been reduced by the financial crisis facing the Agency, he said. The crisis was a threat to UNRWA's efforts to alleviate the suffering and anxiety of the refugees. The wealthy countries should increase their contributions to enable the Agency to continue and improve its services. Tunisia had decided to renew its contribution to UNRWA so that it could continue its work for the refugees until they were no longer refugees.
DAVID ZOHAR (Israel) said his country was impressed by the far-seeing policy of UNRWA in developing a peace implementation programme, designed to teach children the values of peace, democracy, tolerance and conflict resolution. Israel hoped that that UNRWA effort would flourish and prosper and that it would be extended eventually to all Agency schools in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon as well.
For half a century this Assembly had been debating annually the question of the Arab refugees, he said. It was high time a solution was found, and Israel and its neighbours had agreed in principle that the question of refugees would be on the agenda of the final status talks within the context of the Middle East peace process. That, and only that, would be the proper place to examine the refugee question. It would be more to the point if this Committee concentrated upon humanitarian and non-political aspects of the matter, rather than using up more valuable time and paper and ink on political rhetoric.
He said it was no less important to note that the Arab refugee problem had not been created by Israel, but rather by the very refusal of the Arab States to permit the establishment of Israel as a free and democratic nation, in the exercise of the full and inalienable right to self- determination of the Jewish people. The war of 1948 had been started by the Arab side which bore to this day the moral and historical responsibility for the problem of the refugees of Palestine.
He said that since the various agreements had been reached between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the vast majority of Palestinians in the former West Bank and Gaza Strip, including many refugees, lived today under the rule of the Palestine Authority and were no longer under Israeli control. That fact alone should help place in proper perspective the significance of much that had been said in this Committee, which was urged to update its data and refrain from an unhelpful anachronistic attitude. Until such accommodation to reality was recognizable, Israel would be compelled to refrain from expressing its full support in the vote. Yet, Israel's vote should not be construed as a negative criticism of UNRWA and its invaluable humanitarian work.
His country sought to enable a continued economic relationship between Israelis and Palestinians -- including refugees -- coming into Israel for work, he said. Israel thereby had taken a calculated risk, knowing that here or there a terrorist might try to pass into the country as an innocent worker. It should be stressed that terrorism had hurt the Palestinians and their cause no less than the Israelis, and it was incumbent upon all sides to act and prevent acts of terrorism wherever possible. Israel was intent upon implementing its agreements on the road to peace, including the recent Wye River Memorandum, but vicious acts of terror constituted a real obstacle on that road. He added that Israel welcomed its Cabinet's ratification of the Wye River Memorandum today.
AKIO TANAKA (Japan) said that in the recognition that peace and stability in the Middle East was essential to world peace and stability, Japan had actively supported international efforts to advance the peace process in the region. The signing last month of the Wye River Memorandum by Israel and the Palestinian Authority had been welcomed throughout the international community. Japan applauded the sincere and courageous efforts of both sides and stressed the importance of moving towards the final status negotiations. The international community as a whole had a responsibility to support the concerned parties and to promote the advancement of the peace process.
He said UNRWA continued to face a critical financial situation, which had seriously affected its activities. As described in the report of UNRWA's Commissioner-General, the Agency had been compelled to impose a temporary general recruitment freeze, reduce international posts and freeze regular budget allocations for shelter rehabilitation, emergency cash assistance and university scholarships. That it had had to take those and other stringent steps was regrettable, as they directly affected the provision of those services to Palestinian refugees. In view of the crucial importance of UNRWA's activities, it was incumbent upon the international community to respond to the urgent needs of the Agency for further cooperation.
The activities of UNRWA were indispensable to the betterment of the living conditions of Palestine refugees, and also provided the necessary basis for progress in the Middle East peace process, he said. Japan remained committed to the Agency's activities and was determined to continue providing assistance for the development and stabilization of the Palestinian region.
NGUYEN THI NHA (Viet Nam) said the difficulties and lack of progress experienced by the Palestinian communities in UNRWA's area of operations called for greater assistance by the Agency and the international community as a whole. For peace to take root, there must be economic development and improvement in the quality of life of the Palestinian people. That was where UNRWA's work was so vital. The Agency's social and humanitarian work had been a significant factor in helping to reduce social and economic frustration for millions of people.
Viet Nam was concerned by UNRWA's financial situation, she said. Her country encouraged the Agency to expedite its financial and administrative reform measures. Moreover, UNRWA's efforts for a better use of the available resources should in turn be met with offers of greater resources from the donors. Moreover, Viet Nam believed a comprehensive peace settlement would resolve the refugee issue. Until then, UNRWA remained a beacon of hope, since it played a vital role in assisting millions of refugees.
MANSOUR AYYAD AL-OTAIBI (Kuwait) said the level and scope of UNRWA's activities must be maintained until the Agency fulfilled its mandate. It could not hand over its work to another body. Any decline in the provision of services to Palestine refugees must be rejected and the need for UNRWA to fulfil its mandate in all five fields without discrimination must be emphasized. Refugees must not be made to bear the costs, the financial crisis facing UNRWA notwithstanding.
He said the suffering of the Palestinian people was on the rise due to Israeli actions taken under the pretexts of security and combatting terrorism. Those pretexts violated United Nations resolutions and international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention. Kuwait supported the relevant United Nations resolutions and was also committed to the Arab stance in upholding a just and comprehensive peace as a strategic option.
It was hoped that the Israeli Government would abide by the Wye River Memorandum and other accords, enabling the Palestinian people to regain their rights, including the establishment of a national homeland with Al Quds/Jerusalem as its capital.
HOWARD SQUADRON (United States) said as UNRWA's largest donor, the United States had a strong stake in ensuring that the Agency addressed problems in a fair and comprehensive manner, and in a way that assured the Agency's future financial stability. The United States continued to support UNRWA's efforts to adapt to the changing needs of the Palestine refugees throughout the region in the midst of the ongoing climate of limited resources. His country encouraged UNRWA's continuing dialogue with its major supporters to map out a strategic vision for the future. Such a vision must align the Agency's priorities more closely with the realistic projections of available resources. This year, the United States had contributed $70 million to the Agency's regular budget. However, progress in developing a strategic vision would be a key factor in deciding how much money the United States could continue to contribute.
Political support did not equal real support and financial contributions, he said. The Middle East peace process was the framework for political support. Lasting peace in the region stemmed from cooperation among the parties themselves. However, the United States opposed resolutions that could be seen as prejudging the outcome of an issue that the parties themselves must resolve. Given the tremendous challenges in the peace process, it was crucial that the international donor community demonstrated its strong and unwavering support. There would be a donor conference in Washington D.C., at the end of the month. The UNRWA pledging conference was also upcoming. True assistance to the Palestinian people came in two forms: either countries paid into the relevant international assistance programmes or they gave material and service support in kind. He suggested that countries lacking the means to contribute financially should back the Middle East peace process.
FAISAL EBRAHIM AL ZAYANI (Bahrain) said that Palestine refugees had just had five decades of living as refugees in difficult conditions that were causing growing tension. The UNRWA was striving to meet their health, education and other needs. Since 1993, the Agency's education programme had been unable to meet the needs of the refugees as the refugee population was growing. The UNRWA's health programme had been directly affected and the Agency had tried to apply rationalization measures in order to make use of existing resources.
He said that despite the difficult financial circumstances, UNRWA had tried to minimize the negative consequences of the financial crisis and was trying to apply the most appropriate methods according to the needs of the refugee population. The Agency was adopting austerity measures since contributions could only cover its basic budgetary deficits. It was hoped that it would emerge from the financial crisis and restore its previous position. The UNRWA must be permitted to carry out its activities in view of the growing number of refugees.
JAMES DROUSHIOTIS (Cyprus) said his country aligned itself with the statement made previously by Austria on behalf of the European Union. Moreover, as a country in the area sharing close and friendly ties with its Near East neighbours, Cyprus attached great importance to the enhancement of the economic and social conditions of the Palestinian people, and to the achievement of lasting peace and security in the Middle East. To that end, UNRWA's work was crucially important.
In placing high value on UNRWA's activities and the importance of its work, he said, Cyprus was seriously concerned with the difficulties that the Agency was encountering in carrying out its programmes, due to the critical financial situation which negatively impacted on its services. Moreover, the living standards in the refugee communities remained poor throughout the area of operations, and were characterized in some fields by high unemployment, falling household income, overburdened infrastructure and restrictions on employment and mobility. The fundamental prerequisites for lasting peace and stability were the attainment of higher living standards and a better quality of life for all people of the region.
SHEN GUOFANG (China) said that the refugee problem in the Middle East had been dragging on for too long. It was hoped that the parties to the Wye River Memorandum would strictly observe and implement that agreement and overcome various disturbances in order to move forward towards peace.
He said the work of UNRWA was a symbol of the international community's determination to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem. It was hoped that the international community would pool its resources to enable the Agency to play its role, which was irreplaceable. It was also hoped that UNRWA would improve its managerial processes so that it could provide even better services to the refugees. Despite severe floods in China this year, his country had continued to give support to the Agency, he added.
SIDHARTO REZA SURYO-DI-PURO (Indonesia) said UNRWA's work over the last few decades had contributed to reducing the socio-economic and political tensions in the region. The Agency continued to play a role at a significant juncture of the peace process. Moreover, Indonesia supported the Wye River Memorandum as the path to peace.
Indonesia was concerned that UNRWA was being forced to carry out its mandate under extremely difficult financial circumstances, he said. The Agency needed to maintain its basic services, such as health and education, to contribute to the overall stability in the region. His country hoped the donor countries would continue to provide the much needed assistance since peace and economic development were intertwined.
MARWAN A. JILANI, observer for Palestine, speaking in exercise of right of reply, said that in his announcement today that the Israeli Cabinet had ratified the Wye River Memorandum, the Israeli representative had neglected to mention certain conditions that fell outside the original agreement and were in violation of the Memorandum itself, including the continued building of settlements in an area south of East Jerusalem. Moreover, the agreement had been delayed a number of times under different pretexts. His delegation hoped the implementation of the Memorandum would be speedy, effective and on time.
With regard to Palestine refugees, he said the statement misrepresented history and the fact that the creation of the refugee problem had been due to the war and the massacres of innocent Palestinian civilians, particularly at Dir Yassin. It was also a fact that in the preamble to the resolution that had admitted Israel to the United Nations, there was a reference made that it would accept clauses that called for the return of Palestine refugees to their homeland.
The refugee problem was not only a humanitarian problem, but a political one as well, he said. Five million Palestinians were scattered around neighbouring countries waiting for justice after 50 years of living away from their homelands under harsh conditions.
PETER HANSEN, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, said the Agency would depend very much on the continued support of Member States and donor countries if it was to continue to carry on the minimal levels of work and support it gave to Palestine refugees.
He noted the allegations of misdoing and corruption raised during the debate by Bangladesh and Norway against an UNRWA staff member who had not been renewed after his one-year contract had expired. A complete, independent investigation of the situation had found no wrongdoing and "did not shed any light on the matter". Nevertheless, he drew attention to the fact that large sums of UNRWA's money were being handled by poorly paid staff members. The Agency must remain vigilant to detect and hit back very hard when this sort of thing occurred. The UNRWA's credibility was its major asset. That should not be compromised or lost.
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For information media - not an official record