CONFERENCE OF HIGH CONTRACTING PARTIES TO THE FOURTH GENEVA CONVENTION
08 January 2015
GENEVA, 17 DECEMBER 2014
STATEMENT BY THE UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY FOR PALESTINE REFUGEES IN THE NEAR EAST (UNRWA)
Delivered by Lance Bartholomeusz, Director of Legal Affairs, UNRWA
UNRWA is grateful to the Chair for inviting UNRWA to address this important conference.
UNRWA warmly welcomes the Declaration that High Contracting Parties have come together today to adopt. Its elements are very relevant to the work of humanitarian organizations such as UNRWA, and the people we serve.
UNRWA protects and assists Palestine refugees in its fields of operation – the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – including during armed conflict and occupation. We do so in accordance with well-established humanitarian principles, including impartiality and neutrality, as well as international law.
During the hostilities in the Gaza Strip between 8 July and 26 August 2014, UNRWA provided humanitarian assistance as well as psychosocial support to displaced Palestinians in its shelters. It also maintained its core services, such as the operation of health centres and water and sanitation services in the camps.
At its peak some 500,000 people were displaced within the Gaza Strip and UNRWA opened some 90 of its schools as emergency shelters for up to 293,000. These civilians sought the protection of the blue United Nations flag. But on seven separate occasions UNRWA schools that had been used as designated emergency shelters were either hit directly or struck nearby by shells or other munitions, injuring and in three cases killing civilians sheltering there. We remember in particular Beit Hanoun on 24 July, Jabalia on 30 July, and Rafah on 3 August, which resulted in over 42 deaths and hundreds of reported injuries. We have explicitly and repeatedly condemned those attacks on United Nations premises which constituted violations of international law by Israel and we have called for investigations and accountability.
International humanitarian and criminal law offer important protection to civilian objects and civilians, including humanitarian personnel. In addition, UN premises are inviolable under the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. The 1946 Convention determines the details of the application of the United Nations’ privileges and immunities under Article 105 of the Charter of the United Nations, and it applies at all times.
Unrelated to the incidents where UNRWA emergency shelters were struck directly or indirectly, UNRWA found during its own inspections weapons components placed in three empty UNRWA facilities in the Gaza Strip. We immediately alerted all relevant parties to their existence, and we strongly and proactively condemned the placement of weapons in our schools as a violation of international law. UNRWA has worked with United Nations partners to improve procedures to address such violations of inviolability, in a manner that does not compromise the safety of staff or other civilians, including UNRWA beneficiaries.
I would also like to pay tribute to 11 UNRWA colleagues who lost their lives during the recent conflict in the Gaza Strip, in addition to 14 in Syria since 2011, and one in the West Bank in 2013. I know of no other international agency that would have continued operating under these circumstances and after losing so many staff members. It reminds us of the pressing need of humanitarian personnel for protection, especially during armed conflict, in accordance with international humanitarian law and United Nations resolutions.
We also express deep appreciation for the many High Contracting Parties who provided rapid financial and other support to UNRWA and to the people of Gaza. The Dubai Humanitarian Airlift of thousands of tonnes of relief supplies by dozens of aircraft into Jordan and then by land into Gaza exemplified international cooperation to facilitate relief operations. We are very appreciative of the cooperation with the Palestinian Government of National Consensus.
The hostilities may have ceased for the time being in Gaza, but the blockade of Gaza continues to impact all aspects of daily Palestinian life and corrodes the enjoyment of most human rights. Today UNRWA must provide regular food assistance to almost 868,000 Palestine refugees in Gaza. That is half the population, up from some 80,000 in the year 2000, before the current blockade was imposed. The United Nations has repeatedly highlighted the illegality of the blockade as a form of collective punishment and called for it to be lifted.
Turning to the West Bank, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of refugees killed and injured in operations by Israeli Security Forces involving the use of live ammunition. In October there were 149 injuries, three times the total for the whole of 2013.
UNRWA is also concerned about the threatened forcible displacement of approximately 7,000 Palestinians in the Jerusalem periphery, many of whom are Bedouin registered as UNRWA refugees. In addition to threatening traditional livelihoods and culture, forcible transfer of protected persons from land under occupation would represent a breach of international humanitarian law.
This conference arises out of a specific geographical context. But the Declaration is important because key paragraphs are of universal application and there are serious challenges to the implementation of international humanitarian law in other parts of the world.
It is of utmost importance that all parties to conflict observe the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. We must remember that behind every so-called “incidental loss of civilian life” is a very human story. Not a statistic but shattered destinies.
International humanitarian law is law made by States. But it should be understood also as a solemn promise by the international community that civilians caught up in armed conflict will be protected.
Speaking to many inhabitants of Gaza we have heard the same messages time and time again: “if we are not safe in an UNRWA school, we are not safe anywhere in Gaza” they say, and they add “the world has failed us, has failed to protect. Protection of civilians is an expression we do not want to hear anymore”.
Ordinary people in Gaza, the West Bank and other places engulfed in armed conflict or under occupation expect this Declaration to be a call for action on the international community’s promise to protect and to respect, and ensure respect, for international humanitarian law.
It is important that the High Contracting Parties here today re-emphasize in the Declaration that “all serious violations of international humanitarian law must be investigated and that all those responsible should be brought to justice”. There must be an end to impunity. There must be accountability. But simply repeating these words is not enough. Concrete action must be taken
The ongoing denial of rights and exposure to multiple crises are severely affecting the Palestine refugees we serve. At the heart of the destiny and plight of Palestine refugees is an unresolved conflict, an ongoing occupation and a lasting injustice. This is now compounded by the devastating effects of recent conflicts in the Gaza Strip and Syria. It is time for a change of paradigm. It is time for energy and commitment to resolve one of the longest standing conflicts of our time and provide a basis for a just and lasting solution for the refugees themselves.
Respect for and implementation of international law, including international humanitarian law, is essential to achieving a just and lasting peace.
UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and is mandated to provide assistance and protection to a population of some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip to achieve their full potential in human development, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.
Financial support to UNRWA has not kept pace with an increased demand for services caused by growing numbers of registered refugees, expanding need, and deepening poverty. As a result, the Agency's General Fund (GF), supporting UNRWA’s core activities and 97 per cent reliant on voluntary contributions, has begun each year with a large projected deficit. Currently the deficit stands at US$ 81 million.
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