Lebanon + 1 more

Lives of millions of Palestinians would be worse off without refugee agency, says Secretary-General at exhibit to welcome 'Friends of UNRWA' Association


Following is the text of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's remarks at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) event marking the opening of the exhibition and welcoming Friends of UNRWA, in New York, yesterday, 5 May:

It is a pleasure to join so many friends and supporters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] this evening, and to inaugurate a collection of photographs that will surely register deeply with everyone who looks at them.

On my way here, I had the opportunity to view the full exhibition that UNRWA has mounted in the lobby of the Secretariat building. I was deeply moved by the images of the day-to-day life of Palestinian refugee children -- sleeping, at play or in school.

It is difficult to look at a frightened, tearful child and not be affected; or to have trouble relating to the sight of children bursting with life and energy in scenes reminiscent of any American suburb. We are them; and they too are us.

I experienced this at first hand when I visited a Palestinian school last year. I was so humbled at meeting these courageous children who wished for nothing more than to be studying in normal conditions as so many other children do. I could see from their eyes their yearning, aspiration and hope that I, as Secretary-General, would do something for their future.

This exhibit strips away the political layers and stereotypes of the Palestinian tragedy and lays bare what remains: ordinary people struggling with life under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

UNRWA has been working alongside these Palestinian refugees in the Middle East for almost as long as the problem has existed. That is already almost 60 years; this is just unacceptable. I was so humbled by looking at all those pictures. Those children in the pictures should now be almost 60 or 70 years old -- this is just an unacceptable situation. Through both times of war and peace, it [UNRWA] has assisted millions of Palestinians whose plight remains at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Were it not for UNRWA, generations of Palestinian children would not have received a decent education. And they would have been denied the most basic tools necessary for them to stand on their own feet or to contribute to the societies in which they live.

Were it not for UNRWA, gender equality in the refugee population would be a meaningless slogan; and primary health care for all -- from reducing common childhood diseases to ensuring maternal well-being -- would be a distant dream.

Indeed, long before world leaders proclaimed the Millennium Development Goals at the United Nations, UNRWA had quietly been putting those same principles into action -- with impressive results.

But for all its remarkable work, UNRWA -- and the United Nations -- has not escaped criticism. Amidst the passions engulfing the Arab-Israeli conflict, claims of bias have come from all directions. Some have even insisted that UNRWA is part of the problem, not the solution.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I can personally vouch that the UN is strictly impartial in its approach to the conflict. If we harbour a bias, it is towards the peace and welfare of all people, Israelis and Palestinians alike.

And were it not for UNRWA, this often underrated and misunderstood UN agency, the lives of millions of Palestinians would be much, much, more worse. I'm also sure that, without UNRWA, the threat to peace and security in the Middle East would undoubtedly be far greater as well.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Karen AbuZayd, an American with a lifetime of service to refugees around the world, for her resolute and inspiring leadership.

Tonight, we warmly welcome the establishment of the Friends of UNRWA Association in New York. I am delighted that, in Ambassador Murphy, we have such a distinguished American with long experience of the Middle East as chair.

The tasks ahead are demanding: we need to increase awareness and appreciation of the UN's work in the Middle East among the American public; and we need to tap the extraordinary tradition of philanthropy that so distinguishes and ennobles American life.

Today, in three out of UNRWA's five fields of operation -- in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza -- the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Palestinians have been ruined by events not of their making. Donor Governments have been doing their best but far too little money has become available for essential and life-saving needs.

I hope I can count on your assistance to help us make up this shortfall, and to help ensure the safety and well-being of all Palestinian refugees.

Thank you for being here tonight, and for your commitment. Please do take some time to view the exhibition on your way out. The images will stay with you.

For information media - not an official record