Lebanon + 1 more

Commissioner-General's statement on UNRWA and Palestine refugees in today's context

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hague, The Netherlands

Thank you, Director Rade, for your kind words of introduction, and good afternoon to you all.

I very much appreciate this opportunity to speak to you and exchange views on one of the most testing international issues of our day. The majority of the 4.4 million registered Palestine refugees, for whom my agency is responsible, are located in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. Yet for many complex reasons, the Palestine refugee issue transcends the geographic borders of the Near East, preoccupying the Foreign Ministries of the European Union and beyond, and consuming a considerable amount of diplomatic time and resources.

The Palestinian question is quintessentially international in nature. It impinges on the principles, law and practice on which the post-1945 construct of international relations was established. A shortlist of these would include: human rights and fundamental freedoms and their relationship to the regional and global security of States; the international rule of law and its dependence on a multilateral system of global governance; the efficacy of international humanitarian law in the context of a conflict of asymmetrical capabilities; the quest to eliminate poverty and achieve human development and now the Millennium Development Goals; and the nexus between the peaceful resolution of disputes, self-determination and durable solutions to the plight of refugees.

When we consider these areas in relation to the Palestinian issue, there is no escaping the sense that something is not quite right. One would have expected that an international community that has hastened the end of colonialism, the demise of apartheid, the collapse of communist States on the continent in Europe, the dissolution of the USSR and the conclusion of the cold war might have made more significant progress in bringing the Palestinian issue to closure.

I would suggest that a solution continues to elude us for reasons lying outside the humanitarian sphere, as that is the one dimension in which the international community has on balance been responsive and attentive to the needs of Palestinians and Palestine refugees. The establishment of UNRWA and the consistent support it has received from host countries and donor governments, not least among them the Government of the Netherlands, is evidence of this.

At UNRWA, we have taken up the humanitarian and human development challenge of our mandate in earnest, maintaining a range of essential services for Palestine refugees and constantly seeking to improve the quality of our work. Through UNRWA's primary and preparatory schools, the human right to - and Millennium Development Goal of - free primary education became a reality for Palestine refugee children as far back as the 1950s. Today, nearly half a million of refugees - boys and girls in equal number - are educated in UNRWA schools each year, benefiting from courses on human rights, tolerance and conflict resolution that are unique to UNRWA's curriculum. In all of UNRWA's five fields our vocational training centres offer youth the opportunity to acquire marketable skills.

Again, consistent with the MDG's, UNRWA's primary health programme has eradicated communicable diseases and achieved a close to 100% childhood immunization record. The programme handles nine million patient visits annually and is a vital part of the support on which the refugee community relies. UNRWA's relief and social services have ensured that the most vulnerable refugees - the poor, the elderly and those with disabilities - receive attention and care to help them cope. We also promote community-based programmes to enhance the skills and prospects of women and youth.

We build and maintain refugee homes and infrastructure, thus helping to raise living standards and contribute to public and environmental health in and around refugee camps. Through UNRWA's micro-finance programme, refugees in the business sector enjoy access to flexible credit, enabling them to weather difficult economic circumstances and to generate sustainable livelihoods. In addition to these programme interventions, the impact of UNRWA's work is evident in its response to emergency situations that have arisen in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory. For refugees most affected by armed conflict, we offer emergency health and shelter programmes, cash and food assistance to families living in special hardship, and temporary paid positions for the unemployed.

Our efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our services to refugees are part of our drive for comprehensive management reforms - which we refer to as our organizational development process. We are linking our approach to programme planning and implementation to the human development paradigm. UNRWA emphasizes enhanced life choices and sustainable self reliance for refugees as strategic goals, and recognizes that our methods for achieving them must include partnerships with UN and other entities. We appreciate the significant role that host countries and authorities currently play and are committed to exploring new ways of working with them in the best interests of Palestine refugees.

All UNRWA programmes are constrained by uncertain finances. This year, we anticipate an income shortfall of about 90.5 million euros for our General Fund budget of approximately 372 million euros. These deficits, which have been an unfortunate feature of UNRWA's financial life for many years, hamper our ability to maintain essential education and health services to the required standards. Our emergency programmes have shared a similar fate, with a few welcome exceptions. In 2007, our 168 million euro emergency appeal for the occupied Palestinian territory was in arrears of 72.8 million euros. Last September, we launched a 12-month emergency appeal for 37.6 million euros to meet the needs of displaced refugees in northern Lebanon. We have received 24 million euros so far and very much hope that the balance will be forthcoming.

UNRWA's immediate focus in Lebanon is on ensuring decent housing and essential services for displaced refugees, planning for their orderly return.

The rebuilding of Nahr El Bared promises to be a huge task for UNRWA and the government of Lebanon, an undertaking for which a few hundred million dollars will almost certainly be required. A master plan for the reconstruction effort is being finalized and will be the basis of a fundraising effort. Beyond Nahr El Bared, UNRWA will continue to implement existing plans to improve living conditions in the eleven other refugee camps across the country. In this we are conscious that camp improvement will not only raise the quality of refugee lives, but will also contribute to the stability of the community.

UNRWA is not alone in ensuring that the relief, humanitarian and human development needs of Palestinians and Palestine refugees in the Near East are well served. A variety of UN, non-governmental agencies and donor entities carry out important work to support governments and authorities. The Temporary International Mechanism is an example of a donor arrangement which alleviates the effects of sanctions on many thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

I have offered this short sketch of UNRWA's work to show how much effort and investment is being made, by and on behalf of the international community, to service the humanitarian needs of Palestinians and Palestine refugees. The results are far from perfect, refugees' living conditions are far from ideal, and too many thousands of refugees across our five fields still struggle with poverty and limited life choices. And yet, in spite of the shortcomings, very few Palestinians doubt the sincerity of humanitarian and human development efforts, or question the intentions of agencies leading these efforts on behalf of the international community.

What about the international community's policies and approach on matters within the domain of political and diplomatic action? How is the performance of the international community in these areas judged by Palestine refugees who mark, this year, the sad anniversary of sixty years of exile? Integrity and consistency of effort and even-handed

The fact that no solution to their plight appears readily in prospect, six decades after they were compelled to flee their homes, is a measure of the frustration refugees feel. The desire for a just and lasting solution has not faded with the passage of time. On the contrary, that desire intensifies. It is passed on from generation to generation along with a great deal of incomprehension as to why this particular conflict seems beyond the collective will of the international community themselves to resolve.

The absence of a State of Palestine from the community of nations means the indefinite deferral of the Palestinian right to self-determination. From the Palestinian perspective, the postponement of such a fundamental right is itself a charge the international community has to answer. But there is a basis for an even graver indictment and it lies in the scarcity of international protection afforded to Palestinians and Palestine refugees during the long wait for their situation to be resolved. I am referring here to the protection to which they are entitled, individually and collectively under international law generally, and in particular, under human rights and international humanitarian law.

Allow me to illustrate this point by referring briefly to conditions endured by Palestinians living under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

In the West Bank, measures restricting or prohibiting the movement of people and goods cause immeasurable suffering to Palestinians. Ironically, the illegal separation barrier has become so much a part of the landscape that it often escapes international media attention. Yet its impact on Palestinians is anything but discreet. In defiance of the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, the construction of the barrier has not abated and neither has its devastating impact on Palestinian lives. It continues to divide and isolate communities, destroying livelihoods and preventing hundreds of thousands normal access to their jobs, families, markets, schools and hospitals.

The most starry-eyed optimist struggles to see the shape of a viable, contiguous Palestinian State against the loaded backdrop of land confiscations, movement restrictions, and the barrier with its allied regime of permits, security checks, towers, trenches and electronic fences.

Over the past ten days or so, Gaza has been in the news for the usual tragic reasons of armed conflict, civilian deaths, sanctions and, finally, the Palestinian reaction to these and other cruel privations, as we've seen with the Gazans' breaking through the Rafah crossing as a response to the total closure imposed the week before last. Gaza's borders have been subject to a regime of closure that is without precedent anywhere, both in terms of its extent and its human consequences for the people of Gaza. This closure is aimed at halting the firing of Qassam rockets and driving from power those currently in control of Gaza. The chosen method of achieving these aims is to incarcerate 1.5 million Palestinians within Gaza's borders; to substantially diminish the quality of their lives by reducing to barely subsistence levels their supplies of food, medicine, fuel and other necessities; and to generate fear, fury and distress among Palestinians, including through air strikes, incursions, assassinations and other military action that regularly take civilian lives.

As a result, every facet of normal life is undermined. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians cannot leave or enter Gaza. Without fuel and spare parts, public health conditions are declining steeply as water and sanitation services struggle to function. The electricity supply is sporadic and was reduced further along with fuel supply reductions in these past days. UNICEF reports that the partial functioning of Gaza city's main pumping station is affecting the supply of safe water to some 600,000 Palestinians.

Essential medication is in short supply and hospitals are paralyzed by power failures and the shortage of fuel for generators. Hospital infrastructure and essential equipment are breaking down at an alarming rate with limited possibility of repair or maintenance as spare parts are not available.

The impact of closures on access to medical care outside Gaza is especially distressing. The demand for such care is rising at a time when medical standards are falling inside Gaza, yet the occupying power's permit regime for approving medical referrals has become more stringent. Many have had their treatment delayed or denied, leading to worsening of their medical conditions and preventable Palestinian deaths.

Living standards in Gaza are at levels incompatible with the professed global commitment to eliminate poverty and uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. 35 per cent of Gazans live on less than two dollars a day. Unemployment stands at around 50 per cent, and 80 percent of Gazans receive some form of humanitarian assistance. It is one thing for poverty, unemployment the destruction of the economy and massive aid dependency to result from chronic economic mismanagement, or lack of resources or even armed conflict. It is quite another thing for such abject ruin to be deliberately caused by conscious policy choices.

UNRWA condemns in the strongest terms the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel. We cannot emphasize enough that the lives, rights and freedoms of Israeli civilians must be safeguarded as much as those of Palestinians. However, given UNRWA's mandate, and having lived and worked in Gaza for as long as I have, it is clear to me that on the Palestinian and Palestine refugee side a human rights void persists, and this requires the urgent intervention of the international community.

As the head of a humanitarian and human development Agency for Palestine refugees, I have no interest in arguing the merits or otherwise of methods being deployed by either side in this conflict. What gravely concerns me is the stark inhumanity of the effects of Gaza's closure, and the fact that these inhumane consequences are deliberately imposed and clearly foreseeable. We cannot look the other way while hundreds and thousands of Palestinians are harshly penalized for acts in which they have no part.

The situation in Gaza and the broader Palestinian condition is a reflection of distortions and imbalances in the rules that should normally apply in international relations. The rule of international law rests on the maintenance of a fine balance in the complex web of international relationships. For example, the pursuit of foreign policy aims should be consistent with human rights principles and considerations of humanity and in any given context, an individual's rights and freedoms are weighed against the rights and freedoms of other persons as well as the interests and security of the community and the State. In the same vein, the legitimate desire to prevail in armed conflict is constrained by the equally legitimate concern to preserve civilian lives and property - hence the provisions in international humanitarian law limiting the choice of weapons as well as the means by and locations in which they may be deployed. And by a similar token, the pursuit of compromise and conciliation is standard practice where the peaceful resolution of disputes is desired.

In these and many other areas of international law and practice, the balance is skewed, distorted or lost in the occupied Palestinian territory. In this the sixtieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, frequent and grave violations of a range of human rights are part of the daily reality of Palestinian lives under occupation. International humanitarian law is frequently a casualty of the conflict. Principles of proportionality, restraint and the protection of civilians are habitually disregarded by both sides, further reinforcing the impression that Gaza and the West Bank are places to which international law does not apply. And there is little evidence of a culture of compromise or mutual accommodation among all relevant parties, on which a negotiated solution could be founded

I speak of a deep disequilibrium in the occupied territory, a widening chasm between well-established international principles and laws and the practice as applied to Palestinians. This imbalance costs lives and livelihoods, robs Palestinians of their dignity and causes the prospect of a just and lasting solution to recede ever further. It is in the interests of the international community of States to act quickly to correct this imbalance. More than that, it is our responsibility to so act, in concert with the parties, to preserve the integrity of the rule of international law. We can reclaim our credibility as honest brokers in the eyes of all parties, holding them to account, equally and without bias, against the yardstick of international law. We must seek ways to bring an end to Gaza's counterproductive isolation and avoid a situation where Palestinians are compelled to resort to blasting holes in the border fences of Gaza to win a temporary breath of the freedom to which they are entitled under international law.

We live in a multilateral world built around the common interests of humankind and premised on our mutual responsibility to uphold the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter. We must work harder to make the people of Palestine a part of that world.