Ibra Deguène Ka, the Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, presided over the Conference. After declaring it open, he welcomed the participants and invited the representative of the Government of the host country, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Belgium, Erik Derycke, to address the meeting. Mr. Derycke, speaking on behalf of Belgium and the other member States of the European Union, reminded the audience of the European Union's engagement in favour of a partnership for peace.
The President of the General Assembly, Hennadiy Y. Udovenko (Ukraine); Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast, speaking on behalf of Secretary-General Kofi Annan; and Mr. Ka, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, made statements. They stressed the responsibility of the United Nations and its subsidiary organs and bodies to search for a solution on the question of Palestine and to work towards the implementation of the peace process in the Middle East.
The Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, denounced what he called attempts of the Israeli Government to "create new references for the peace process". He appealed to the international community to exert pressure on Israel, in order to guarantee the continuation of the peace process, with full respect for the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.
Statements were also made by the following: Azeddine Laraki, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference; Said Kamal, Under-Secretary-General and representative of Ahmed Esmat Abdel Meguid, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States; Carlos Lemos Simmonds, Vice-President of Colombia, on behalf of the Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano, current Chairman of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries.
ERIK DERYCKE, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Belgium, spoke of the importance for the European Union of an enduring peace in the Middle East. Remembering the optimism engendered by the work of the Conferences of Madrid and Moscow and the various meetings on the economies of the region that began the process of economic development and brought about harmonious and constructive relations for the countries of the region, he regretted the stagnation of the Israeli-Palestinian understanding since the signing in Washington, D.C., of the Declaration of Principles establishing a series of measures for a five-year period of Palestinian autonomy. Following that understanding, Belgium and its European Union partners made a resolution to work towards the renewal of the partnership for peace.
He said that the present blocked situation in the peace process had added to the discouragement of the Palestinian people and that that added to the loss in standard of living and had in turn led to loss of hope. The European Union placed great importance on the Madrid and Oslo peace processes between Israel and the Palestinians. It had helped with financial aid and by helping to organize Palestinian elections. The British Presidency of the Union had made peace in the Middle East a priority of its foreign affairs policy. The Union was determined to use any necessary diplomatic efforts to help re-start the peace process as a matter of urgency.
In that context, he said that assistance from the Union, in the form of significant financial aid, would help to build an airport and also a maritime port. The assistance was not only technical but was for cooperation in the area of security and included a programme of assistance to the Palestinian Authority for dealing with terrorism. He warned that renewed contributions from the Union, once the five-year plan expires, would depend on obstacles being removed to the free movement of people in the region. Diplomatic means must be used to the full to seek resumption of the peace process and to honour the respective contracts of the Madrid and Oslo agreements.
HENNADIY Y. UDOVENKO (Ukraine), President of the General Assembly, said the Assembly had been concerned with efforts to find a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of Palestine for the past 50 years. Ever since resolution 181 (II) called for the partition of Palestine into two States, the Assembly had kept the question of Palestine on its agenda.
He said the first signs of hope for the Palestinian people were heralded by the Middle East Peace Conference held in Madrid in 1991, which paved the way for following bilateral agreements, notably the signing of the Declaration of Principles of 1993 and the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1995. However, in the course of 1997, the Israeli-Palestinian track of negotiations had largely been stalemated. The international community had become increasingly alarmed at the continued deterioration on the ground, particularly on the question of Israeli settlement activities, the prolonged closures with damaging economic effect and the exacerbation of violence and tension; the General Assembly condemned the bombing attacks and called on the parties not to let the peace process be derailed by the enemies of peace; it called on them to implement fully the agreements already reached and to refrain from unilateral measures that jeopardize the peace process.
In its fifty-second session, he said, the General Assembly called upon the concerned parties, the co-sponsors and the entire international community to exert the necessary efforts and initiatives to bring the peace process back on track; stressed the need for the realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, primarily the right to self-determination, and the withdrawal of Israel from the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967. The Assembly would support the United Nations role with respect to the question of Palestine until the question was resolved in a satisfactory manner in accordance with international legitimacy.
KIERAN PRENDERGAST, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, read a message to the Conference from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said that, like his predecessors, he attached a high priority to the search for a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and its core question, the question of Palestine.
Speaking of his concern over the current, prolonged stalemate between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mr. Annan expressed fears that without renewed momentum in the peace process, and without tangible signs of progress, the situation may deteriorate further and with unforeseeable consequences. It was a matter for regret that the parties remained so far apart. He urged them to remember the many historic achievements of recent years: mutual recognition by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the signing of the Declaration of Principles and subsequent agreements, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the beginning of a process of reconciliation and economic cooperation among the countries of the region.
Those developments, he said, were welcomed worldwide and gave rise to hope that an irreversible turning point had been reached. The parties must not turn back now; they must find it in themselves to persevere. He called on all sides to take the difficult decisions needed to build on their impressive achievements and to move towards a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement based on the principles enshrined in Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) and the principles reflected in the Oslo Accords.
It is now 50 years since the General Assembly decided to partition Palestine, he said. The history of the conflict since then, and the advances made since the Madrid Conference of 1991, had shown that the road to peace requires an end to exclusive claims, respect for the legitimate rights and needs of all the parties, mutual accommodation, and the establishment of cooperative relationships between the peoples of the region.
He emphasized that the road to peace required the parties to respect and implement fully the agreements they had signed, and to refrain from unilateral acts that undermine trust and exacerbate tensions. The road to peace also made it essential to put an end to terrorism and violence among Palestinians and Israelis -- acts by extremists aimed not only at innocent civilians but also at the peace process itself. The creation of economic and social conditions conducive to peace was also of fundamental importance and the Secretary-General said those efforts must continue unhindered.
IBRA DEGUÈNE KA, Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said the Palestinian cause was a universal one. He remarked that it had been a concern of the United Nations for 50 years. In convening this Conference, sponsors had one objective in mind, namely effectively helping the revival of the peace process and bringing public opinion behind the rights of the Palestinian people.
He said that the conflict had provoked five wars since 1948 and that numerous resolutions adopted by the Security Council and the General Assembly had remained mostly without effect. However, the 1993 Declaration of Principles raised the international community's hope of a peaceful political solution of the conflict. But unfortunately, last year had witnessed the progressive fading of hope and the stalemate of the peace process.
He denounced the illegal policy of settlements, the violation of the international status of Jerusalem, the repeated violations of human rights, punitive measures and deliberated provocation by armed settlers. That situation had resulted in the Palestinians losing their hope and their rights being violated daily. Measures must be taken to allow Palestinians to exercise full sovereignty over their own territory, something for which legal instruments had been already in place for decades, precisely adopted by the United Nations. He appealed to the international community to extend efforts to restart the peace process swiftly, allowing for a new dawn of peace and development in the Middle East.
AZEDDINE LARAKI, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, regretted the halt in the peace negotiations and increased tension in the region, saying the direct cause of that development was the intransigence of the Israeli Government and its refusal to abide by the peace agreements or the principles underpinning the process. There was a serious escalation in measures taken by Israeli authorities against the Palestinian people that were a flagrant defiance of the will of the international community. Those were practices and measures that constituted a brazen violation of human rights and of all international conventions and agreements, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Times of War.
He singled out the changing of landmarks and sealing off the city of Jerusalem as being contrary to the principles of international law and said this prejudged the outcome of the negotiations on the final status of the city. The occupation had lasted too long, and rights were still usurped and freedoms denied. That was a threat to the security and stability of the region and the denial of rights inevitably led to violence and tension. That was why the Organization of the Islamic Conference had a commitment to peace as a strategic option based on right, justice and the exercise of sovereignty by the Palestine people over their own territory. Urging all parties to adhere to, and implement, the agreements and treaties arrived at within the framework of the peace process, he further emphasized that peace was a collective and imperative effort, which could neither be imposed nor evaded, but only realized with the commitment of all parties.
SAID KAMAL, Assistant Secretary-General, representative of Ahmed Esmat Abdel Meguid, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States and co-sponsor of the Conference, said that the League of Arab States had always supported the rights of the Palestinian people. The issue has been on the agenda of the United Nations for the last 50 years, and after numerous resolutions, five wars and thousands of refugees, the Palestinian people still saw their legitimate rights denied, their land usurped and their rights confiscated. However unjust, hope had not been lost.
The League of Arab States had always been behind Palestinians in their struggle to obtain independence, he said, adding that since 1993, steps had been taken towards accepting the principle of land for peace. Peace was a strategic option for Arabs. However, he denounced the Israeli Government's lack of enthusiasm and accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being intransigent in relation to issues such as colonization, economic blockade and punitive measures. The attacks on southern Lebanon had also de-tracked the Lebanese and Syrian peace negotiations.
He accused Israel of challenging all legal principles which granted Palestinians a right to self-determination. The peace process must progress on the basis of the principle of land for peace. The League of Arab States had hoped that the United States' efforts as main sponsor of the peace process would make for Israel's commitment to the agreements signed. He stressed the responsibility of the international community to compel Israel to abide by the accords that aimed at reaching peace in the Middle East, through the self-determination of the Palestinian people and the recognition of an independent Palestinian State, with Jerusalem as its capital.
CARLOS LEMOS SIMMONDS, Vice-President of Colombia, read an address on behalf of Ernesto Samper Pizano, President of Colombia and current Chairman of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, said that the international community must insist on respect for international law, on respect for the resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council that were in force, and on respect for international humanitarian law in the occupied Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem. He questioned whether there was a real possibility now of reaching a peaceful settlement.
Explaining how the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries regarded the Palestinian-Israeli breakdown of peace negotiations, he said the Movement deplored the Israeli Government's decision to continue their policy of settlements in occupied Arab territories, specifically in Jerusalem. It diverged from the spirit of the Oslo Agreements, so eroding the fragile climate of trust established between the parties. He called on the Security Council to adopt a firm stance to secure respect for its own resolutions and for international law. It was incomprehensible how the Security Council could fail to heed calls to joint action by the international community adopted by the overwhelming majority of its own members. The world order would be eroded if countries decide to selectively enforce some laws and United Nations resolutions while disregarding or delaying compliance with others.
He called also on the United Nations to continue to live up to its responsibility in this matter until the Palestinians were in a position to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination, until an independent sovereign State is established in their national territory and the refugee problem was addressed in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions. Reaffirming the Non-Aligned Countries commitment to seek peace in the Middle East and their concern that the fate of the peace process would have a long-lasting effect on international peace, he said they would remain watchful and willing to cooperate with all efforts to reach the objective of peace.
YASSER ARAFAT, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian Authority, praised the convening of the Conference under critical and sensitive circumstances that had besieged the peace process on all tracks. The Palestinian people, whose plight had been linked from its onset with the United Nations, had high expectations from the Organization, stemming from its historical responsibility towards the Palestinian people and their cause since the adoption of General Assembly resolution 181, which partitioned mandated Palestine in order to establish two States, one for Arabs and one for Jews. Hence, the United Nations had a permanent responsibility towards the Palestinian people until the achievement of a just and comprehensive peace.
Fifty years had gone by since the Palestinian people were driven into exile, Mr. Arafat said, 50 years also of continuous struggle by the Palestinian people towards the restoration of their national identity, preservation of their existence and the exercise of their legitimate rights, particularly their right to self-determination and establishment of their independent State with Jerusalem as its capital. This year coincided also with the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Principles with the Government of Israel, paving the way for a new era in the Middle East and a historical turn in the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The five year transitional period, once established, aimed at building trust, at establishing the Palestinian jurisdiction, at transferring the authority and at the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Palestinian lands to start negotiations regarding the issues of the final status, particularly Jerusalem, settlements, borders, refugees, water and other sensitive and complex issues.
However, Mr. Arafat stated, a new reality had emerged from the Israeli side. That new reality had been characterized by the absence of political will on the part of the Government of Mr. Netanyahu, including evasion from continuing the peace process, a denial of and retraction from agreements already reached and from the principle of land for peace. He affirmed the Palestinian commitment to peace as a strategic choice and called upon the Government of Israel to recognize the necessity of implementing the agreements reached and for the parties to comply with the contractual obligations of those agreements. He denounced the Israeli Government's continuous pursuit of its de facto policy in relation to the expansion of Israeli settlements in and around Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The refusal of the current Israeli Government to implement its due obligations had intensified feelings of anger and frustration, he said, calling upon the international community to give an undertaking to exert pressure on the Israeli Government to force it to comply with its obligations and to cease its violations of the peace agreements.