Thank you, Executive Director Obaid, for your inspiring keynote speech.
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues and friends of UNRWA:
My statement takes as a point of departure the theme for this year’s meeting. “Three generations of Palestine Refugees: Challenges and Successes”. As I mentioned in my remarks earlier today, “three generations” calls to mind the extraordinarily long duration of Palestinian exile – a period without contemporary parallel.
The conflict of 1948, which Palestinians refer to as the Naqba or catastrophe, brought the State of Israel into being. At the same time, those events compelled the flight of around 800,000 Palestinians from their ancestral lands. These were the forbears of the 4.6 million refugees whom UNRWA serves today. Many of those who experienced the trauma of expulsion and flight in 1948 are no longer with us. However, their sons and daughters remain refugees in accordance with the principle of family unity. This is an established precept of refugee law whereby the descendants of refugees retain that status as long as their need for international protection remains.
There is no expiry date on refugee status or the rights and entitlements thereof. The fundamental human right to self-determination does not lapse. Palestine refugees will continue to require international protection until their entitlement to a viable State of their own is realized, a State in which they can lead normal lives, enjoy human rights and freedoms and attain their human potential. Only on that day will Palestinians lay to rest the awful burden of their status as refugees.
Until that day dawns, UNRWA will not waver in the pursuit of its mission to protect and care for Palestine refugees. In partnership with host countries, donors and other stakeholders, we will continue to lead the international community’s efforts to ensure to the fullest extent possible provision for refugee needs. We will maintain our drive to make reforms an integral part of the way we work and seek to improve the quality of the services we offer. UNRWA will also continue to remind the international community of its obligations towards Palestine refugees, particularly those contending with the harshness of life in the occupied Palestinian territory and to a lesser extent, in Lebanon.
Later this afternoon, the Directors of UNRWA’s fields will brief you more fully on the situation in each of our areas of operation. Allow me to set the scene with a few highlights.
In Jordan and Syria, the majority of Palestine refugees benefit from an exceptional climate of stability, hospitality and access to civil rights and government services. In these fields, UNRWA is seeking to build on the assets of national stability, economic opportunity and relatively well developed infrastructure to create new avenues of achievement for Palestine refugees.
Human development through primary and vocational training and microfinance are sectors of great potential in both fields. In Syria UNRWA is harnessing the economic expertise and resources of the private sector to enhance employment options for vocational centre graduates. We are identifying creative ways to give youthful entrepreneurs access to microfinance tools and training in business practice. Through broadening the economic horizons for refugee youth UNRWA contributes to the security of entire families and communities. We have only begun to systematically explore the possibilities offered by the secure environments of Jordan and Syria. We are confident that with time and the necessary funding, we will broaden our capacity to create new human development space in the best interests of refugees.
In Lebanon, the humanitarian situation for Palestine refugees continues to warrant our concern. Positive political developments, the election of a President and formation of a national unity government earlier this year brought a welcome respite from the instability of recent times. UNRWA remains anxious, however, about persistent signs of inter-factional tensions and recurrent security incidents, in the refugee camps and surrounding areas, that place Lebanese and refugees alike at serious risk.
Our central operational preoccupation in Lebanon is the protection and care of some 30,000 refugees who were driven from their homes in the summer of 2007, when the Nahr el-Bared camp was destroyed in armed conflict, provoked by a radical group that had infiltrated the camp. UNRWA has launched a $43 million Relief and Early Recovery Appeal to address their food and shelter needs and to consolidate the emergency assistance provided throughout 2008.
Covering the period September 2008 to December 2009, the appeal will ensure the maintenance of social safety net support for the most vulnerable, including food aid, health care and shelter. The response to this appeal has been limited, with only four pledges made so far, from the United States, Norway, Germany and ECHO. If we are to maintain the most basic of services, we must receive additional pledges.
I take this opportunity to appeal to our partners, particularly those in the Gulf region, to respond to the Relief and Early Recovery Appeal. We urgently need your help to avoid considering a reduction of services to refugees who, through no fault of their own, have been repeatedly displaced in their country of refuge. It would be unconscionable to leave them to suffer further.
The reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared camp and its surrounding areas is another matter of high importance to UNRWA and Palestine refugees in Lebanon. This project is based on a master plan prepared in cooperation with the government of Lebanon, the World Bank and other partners. In June, UNRWA and its partners jointly launched an appeal for $445 million of which $282 million is for UNRWA’s rebuilding of the old camp, $80 million is needed for the coming year. Funds for UNRWA received so far amount to just under $33 million. Our partners in the Gulf have an admirable record of support for large-scale projects in Gaza and the West Bank. UNRWA looks to them to repeat that record for the benefit not only of Palestine refugees, but also in the interests of the government and people of Lebanon.
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests:
Allow me to offer a few remarks on the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory. This is where the refugees we serve are most beleaguered in every aspect of their lives. The occupation and its consequences are becoming a permanent and oppressive presence in Palestinian lives. The list of destructive features is long. Border closures and restrictions on food, fuel and electricity supplies deny the passage of items essential for a normal life, penalizing an entire population. The illegal separation barrier and associated movement restrictions diminish or deny access to families, education, medical care, religious worship and livelihoods.
Physical obstacles and settlement activity slice away large portions of Palestinian land, while undermining the economic viability of the West Bank. House demolitions, arbitrary arrests and human rights abuses traumatize the Palestinian population. Armed conflict continues to exact a toll on civilian lives. The cumulative effect is to lay waste to the socio-economic and cultural foundations of the occupied Palestinian territory and to threaten its human capital in unprecedented ways.
There can be no justification for this – certainly not in international law, or in appeals to the security of any State. Nothing warrants the deliberate infliction of violence against a population in its entirety, without distinction. The rights of men, women and children are uniformly denied, regardless of their affiliations or involvement in militant action. The international community bears a responsibility to bring these punitive measures to an end and to hold the parties to account under international law. It is also duty bound to help parties to the conflict towards a negotiated settlement which ultimately yields a just and lasting solution to the plight of Palestine refugees.
As the Field Directors will make clear, the fraught conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory constrain the efficiency and effectiveness of UNRWA’s operations. In spite of that – and the physical risks encountered by our staff - UNRWA refuses to stand still amidst the harsh landscape of the West Bank and Gaza. On the contrary, the Gaza Field Office has courageously blazed a trail of innovation and constructive change with concrete benefits for Palestine refugees and the community at large. In addition to the schools of excellence initiative, you will hear about a revamped human rights curriculum, gender initiatives, reforms in social-safety net targeting, to name a few.
Our West Bank Field Office has also introduced new and more accurate ways to identify refugees in the greatest need. A new family protection initiative focuses on ensuring care for the elderly, addressing violence against women and safeguarding children from neglect and abuse. An excellent example of the creative use of partnerships, the initiative combines the expertise of Palestinian non-governmental organizations with a referral and training system which centres on UNRWA’s own facilities.
The creative impulse that is now evident in each field is matched by a similar drive in UNRWA’s programmes and support services. This is one product of the three-year reform process we initiated in 2006 –the organizational development process, or “OD” for short. In embarking on this process, UNRWA made a public commitment to serve Palestine refugees better. As we enter its final year, we can be proud of the advances being made in reforming the key areas of human resources management, programme management, procurement, leadership and organizational processes.
An upgrade of our information systems is on track for completion early in 2009 and a proposal to overhaul our staff compensation and classification system is well advanced. Our Medium Term Strategy for 2010 to 2015 will encompass existing innovations. The strategy will incorporate a framework for performance indicators and Field Implementation Plans which bind each programme, field and support service to the achievement of UNRWA’s strategic objectives. The overarching goal is a qualitative improvement of UNRWA’s ability to plan, execute, monitor and evaluate our operations with a view to enhancing human development outcomes for Palestine refugees. The result will be a more agile, responsive and modern human development agency.
Within and outside the formal OD process, UNRWA’s programme directors – our centres of professional expertise – have also responded to the challenge of constructive change. These programmes have notched impressive, groundbreaking achievements decades ago, not the least of which were the achievement of gender parity in school enrolment and a near 100 percent immunization rate. Given these and other accomplishments, UNRWA consciously balances the demand for change with the preservation of positive aspects of existing practice.
Our education programme has recently revised and strengthened the framework for promoting discipline in UNRWA schools. The emphasis in its new package of materials, which will be formally launched in two days time, is on ensuring an enabling atmosphere for enhanced learning and self-development for refugee children, in keeping with international standards.
UNRWA’s health programme has made admirable progress with its “e-Health” initiative. This is a computerized health information system which streamlines the collection of data and consolidates information to enhance data management and decision-making. The health department has also partnered with the Japan International Cooperation Agency to introduce a Maternal and Child Health Book. This facilitates the comprehensive monitoring of health status of women and children up to the age of five years. Careful assessment in these early years is the key to ensuring a good foundation for health in later years.
Our relief and social services programme has adopted the proxy-means test formula – for reaching refugees most in need. The programme is also shortly bringing to successful completion the Palestine Refugee Records Project, which digitizes some 13.2 million refugee records dating back to 1950, another ground-breaking project with far-reaching implications.
The work of UNRWA’s Department of Infrastructure and Camp Improvement was central to the preparation of the master plan for the reconstruction of Nahr El-Bared. The Department blends urban planning with contributions from the refugee community through a participatory process involving all stakeholders. This forward-looking approach is being piloted in three locations in the West Bank and will be reflected in due course across the Agency.
Our Microfinance programme maintains its well-earned reputation for distinctive service. One of its recent innovations is a social performance management system to sharpen monitoring and evaluation of the impact on refugee livelihoods. Another is a new savings product in Gaza to shore up the capacity of deprived families to weather the current crisis.
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests:
This is the picture of an agency situated in a volatile and unpredictable region in which risks, conflict and myriad insecurities abound. It is the picture of an agency accountable for the well-being of 4.6 million Palestinians, who although vibrant and spirited as a people, find their horizons constricted by the unforgiving circumstances of occupation and exile. This is an agency with the highest sense of duty towards refugees and stakeholders, one which relishes the challenge of overcoming the constraints of its environment in the best interests of the refugees it serves.
Over the years, UNRWA’s work has contributed towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals and more generally to human security and stability in the communities we serve. UNRWA’s services enhance refugee opportunities for more rewarding livelihoods. The Agency’s presence is seen across the region as evidence that the international community acknowledges – at least in a humanitarian sense – its responsibility for addressing Palestinian issues. This reassurance exerts a calming influence and is especially valuable during times of crises and tension.
UNRWA’s work sets the standard for values such as neutrality, impartiality, gender equality, peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for human rights. These values are given practical expression in our staff rules and policies, primary education curricula and in other frameworks. Our close contacts with refugees and the large number of staff, now numbering over 27,500 are channels for diffusing these positive values into Palestinian communities. UNRWA’s role as a catalyst for tolerance and open-mindedness serves as a counterweight to parochial and extremist tendencies.
I would be remiss if I failed to remark that the value of UNRWA’s work, the devotion to duty of its staff and the benefits it brings to the region are at odds with UNRWA’s state of perpetual financial crisis. For many years, UNRWA has grappled with recurrent funding shortfalls, resulting in serious consequences for the quality and sustainability of our services. Our budget projections now show that in the first quarter of 2009, our General Fund will suffer a shortfall of upwards of $87 million. This is in addition to the unfunded requirements we have been telling you about in past years, which now amount to about $70 million. This means an overall shortfall of about $160 million. This will bring UNRWA closer to financial crisis than it has ever been and will confront us with the prospect of reducing core services. The crisis is grave and imminent. If it is to be averted, we must receive in the first quarter of 2009, significant additional pledges.
Later this afternoon, our Comptroller and Director for External Relations will fully explain the reasons for this truly grave situation. I believe that their descriptions will resonate with all our donors. I hope they will strike a particular chord with our partners in the Gulf region. For the sake of preserving your humanitarian investments in a better future for refugees, I call for your prompt and generous assistance in this a time of dire need for UNRWA and the Palestine refugees.
The destiny of Palestine refugees is delicately enmeshed with UNRWA’s mission. The difficulties of the Palestine refugee condition and the challenges UNRWA faces are only alternate perspectives of the same reality. By the same token, whatever we accomplish is not ours alone, but is shared by all within and beyond this troubled region.
You, our donors, host countries and stakeholders, are integral to this community of interests. From the very beginning, you have been part of the international effort to respond to the humanitarian and political questions that are posed so forcefully by the question of Palestine. You have kept faith with Palestine refugees and UNRWA through continuous investments in our programmes and operations. In the United Nations and globally, you are leading global custodians and practitioners of the international rule of law and human rights, to which Palestinians appeal for justice. Their appeal emanates from fundamental human needs which resonate with the sense of humanity we all share. Let us hear them as we heeded the millions of people liberated from oppression in other lands in decades past. And let us make available, as we have to others, the freedoms and human dignity Palestinians need to fulfill their destiny in a State of their own.
It behoves us all, each of us in our respective ways, to re-dedicate ourselves to securing for Palestinians and Palestine refuges a more dignified life and a better future - free from fear, free from want and free from bondage.
This we can do, if we act in concert, focus our wills, combine our strengths and stand together.