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OPT/Lebanon: UNRWA Commissioner-General's statement to the EU Political and Security Committee, Council of Ministers

News and Press Release
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Brussels, 11 November 2008

Distinguished Chairman and members:

I appreciate being given the opportunity to meet this Committee. While UNRWA always welcomes the chance to exchange views with its stakeholders, the opportunity for engaging with the EU Political and Security Committee is especially significant. Europe is the largest source of financial support to UNRWA and Palestine refugees. We are sincerely grateful for Europe's generous assistance and for the close and constantly deepening partnership we share. I say, without fear of contradiction, that the exceptional help Europe offers is indispensable to UNRWA's ability to pursue its mission.

My appreciation for this Committee goes well beyond financial support and partnership on UNRWA's humanitarian and human development work. The greater benefit derives from Europe's place as a principal player on the global stage and in the region where I work.

The collective strengths of the European Union and its member states place you in a position to influence in a positive way the conflicted situations that bedevil the Middle East. In recent years, and over the past six months in particular, we have seen how Europe's weight can be brought to bear to create possibilities to turn tensions into openings for peace. UNRWA's hope, and the fervent wish of Palestinians, is that the authority of the European Union will be applied to achieve a just and lasting solution to their plight and a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians are now in their sixtieth year of exile, a period of dispossession without historical precedent. With the help of its donors and the countries and authorities hosting refugees, UNRWA, in accordance with its mandate has been developing its programmes in primary education, primary health care, social safety-net services, camp improvement and infrastructure, microfinance and emergency assistance. Allow me to offer an outline of these programmes.

UNRWA's programmes

Education is UNRWA's largest progamme, accounting for some 50 percent of the budget. This year, UNRWA's primary and preparatory schools offer some 480,000 pupils the opportunity to build a solid foundation of knowledge and learning. UNRWA also offers secondary level education in Lebanon and Jordan. Boys and girls are equally represented in our primary schools, where enrollment rates exceed the average in the Middle East. UNRWA also maintains technical and vocational training centres where some 5,800 students are enrolled this year. These centres produce graduates able to compete successfully in regional job markets.

Our Health Programme, which accounts for approximately one-third of the budget, provides primary health care with a focus on maternal and child care and disease prevention and control. Immunization coverage ranges from 95 per cent to 99 percent. Key indicators such as infant and maternal mortality among Palestine refugees are well below average in the Middle East. As a measure of the effectiveness of these programmes, no disease outbreaks have been recorded despite the emergencies persisting in three of the five fields.

Our Relief and Social Services programme provides a safety net services for the poorest refugees and essential support for particularly vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities. It offers vital assistance in the form of food, cash and other support to families affected by specific crises or otherwise unable to support themselves. The programme also sustains civil society through support to community-based organizations which offer refugees legal advice, skills-training for women and a range of other assistance. In the past year, the programme has introduced important changes to its targeting, re-orienting the focus to those determined to be living in abject or absolute poverty.

UNRWA's microfinance programme promotes economic development and helps to alleviate poverty through the provision of credit for small businesses, micro-enterprises, household consumption and housing needs. It has been very successful at stimulating local enterprise and generating income for small scale entrepreneurs in the Palestinian community. To date, UNRWA has issued 142,000 loans valued at $150 million, and won broad recognition for encouraging women entrepreneurs and achieving high rates of repayment. Even in Gaza, despite the economic blockade, the programme continues to keep its head above water.

UNRWA's infrastructure and camp improvement programme ensures the provision of adequate housing and infrastructure for the 30 percent of Palestine refugees who still live in official camp areas. Its activities, funded exclusively by extra-budgetary project funds, include urban planning, shelter rehabilitation, environmental infrastructure, sustainable development and the building of livelihoods. The programme employs a participatory and community-driven approach which integrates elements from other programmes. The current priorities are to support the major camp reconstruction and rehabilitation initiatives underway in the Syrian Arab Republic, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

UNRWA is constantly striving to raise the quality of its programmes. Through innovation and a commitment to high professional standards, we seek greater efficiencies and improved outcomes for the refugees we serve. Over time, UNRWA has made significant strides towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals. In the area of women's health, education and employment, for instance, the social and economic advancement of Palestinian refugee women is one of the great unsung stories of the United Nations.

A point for emphasis is that UNRWA's programmes contribute to human security and stability in the communities we serve. This is a result of several closely-related dimensions: the humanitarian and human development outcomes of the programmes themselves, the perception of what UNRWA's services signify and the broad influence of UNRWA's presence.

The cumulative outcomes of UNRWA's services continue to make a tangible difference in the lives of a population of 4.6 million refugees across the region. The benefits in human terms speak for themselves. UNRWA's services broaden life-choices for refugees, opening up for them a wider horizon of opportunity than otherwise available. UNRWA's work also provides the building blocks for sustainable self-reliance.

Across the region, UNRWA's programmes are regarded as an expression of the international community's continuing commitment to the protection and care of Palestine refugees. UNRWA furnishes visible proof that the underlying issues remain on the international agenda and that one day they may be successfully addressed. This reassurance is important at a time when policies of political actors fail to inspire confidence among Palestinians.

UNRWA's work reflects the principles and purposes of the United Nations. Values such as neutrality, impartiality, gender equality, peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for human rights are given concrete expression in our staff rules, primary education curricula and in the agency's modus operandi generally. UNRWA's extensive field presence and the large number of its 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 tendencies towards insular and extremist attitudes.

For all these reasons, UNRWA deserves Europe's strong and unstinting support - support which is even more urgently needed at a time of escalating refugee needs and serious global financial uncertainty.

Financial situation

For some time now, UNRWA has grappled with shortfalls in all three of its budget lines - the General Fund, emergency appeals and projects. Because of these recurrent deficits, the quality of our services leaves much to be desired and UNRWA has been unable to update some programme activities in line with internationally agreed development goals.

In spite of significant increases from European donors and others, UNRWA's funding gap remains large and is set to increase to unmanageable levels. An important contributor to this crisis is the rising value of the dollar against the euro, which means exchange rate earnings no longer supplement our income.

The gap between planned expenditure and receipts is expected to reach $78 million this year, against a "cash budget" of $541.8 million. The simple fact is that the rise in contributions has not kept pace with increased needs. Contributions in 2000 covered 90 per cent of the planned budget. In 2007, despite having risen in absolute terms, pledges received represented only 80 per cent of funding requirements. The squeeze on the Agency has been aggravated further by rapidly rising food and energy costs in 2008.

In the course of weathering many financial emergencies over the years, our creed has always been to consider untouchable our programmes in primary education, primary health care and social safety-net services. Regardless of how serious the shortfalls have been, UNRWA has managed to find ways to preserve these functions by applying austerity measures to other activities such as maintenance and repairs. The present crisis is qualitatively and quantitatively different. Unless increased contributions of over 60 million dollars are pledged in the first quarter of 2009, we will be compelled to begin to reduce the services we had previously held sacrosanct.

In the present financial and economic turmoil besetting much of the world, donors may consider the possibility of reducing their contributions. I strongly appeal to UNRWA's donors to resist this temptation. The international community, and Europe in particular, have invested substantially in safeguarding the well-being of Palestine refugees. Now is the time to defend and preserve those investments by reinforcing support to UNRWA.

Opt and Lebanon

Distinguished Members,

Allow me to provide an overview of the occupied Palestinian territory and Lebanon, the areas where UNRWA manages emergency situations alongside its regular programmes.

At the outset, I must express my alarm about the devastating economic and human cost of the situation in the occupied territory. The fundamental cause of this distress is the system of closure and other movement restrictions imposed by the Government of Israel on Gaza and the West Bank, with the aim of improving security for Israelis. The World Bank estimates that the Palestinian economy would have doubled in size between 2000 and 2007 were it not for the restrictions and other punitive measures that have choked the economy. Palestinian growth rates plummeted from six per cent in 1999 to consecutive years of negative real growth. In 2007 alone, the projected income loss was $4 billion, an intolerable price to be paid by a people living under occupation and struggling to lift themselves out of dependency and hardship.

In the West Bank, the illegal separation barrier and its associated regime of rigid controls continues to stifle the ability of Palestinians to lead normal lives. Physical obstacles to movement are reinforced by a complementary system of permits and identity cards. Many Palestinians require valid permits to visit relatives, schools, clinics, mosques and their own land. Families are separated and kept apart in instances where, for example, one parent is registered as a "Gaza resident", while the spouse and children are registered as residents of the West Bank. The occupation authorities effectively require Palestinians to remain confined in the part of the occupied territory where they are registered as having been born.

The proliferation of physical obstacles, security zones and other aspects of occupation have resulted in the splintering of the West Bank to a point where its integrity as a viable economic and social unit is compromised. This has obvious repercussions for a negotiated settlement. There is now a real question whether, in its condition of multiple fragments, the West Bank provides the foundation for a viable Palestinian State. Israeli settlements continue to expand on Palestinian land, further whittling away the living space and resources available to Palestinians. Actual injury is added to insult by an increasing trend of sustained violence perpetrated by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, mostly with impunity. Add to this bleak picture of a beleaguered, abused people the phenomenon of house demolitions. Hundreds of Palestinians have become homeless for lack of having been granted a valid permit. These include nomadic herders who have lived off the land for centuries and are already deeply affected by poverty.

In Gaza, where I live, conditions are particularly wrenching. Following the takeover of the territory by Hamas in June 2007, a blockade has severely severed Gaza's access to the outside world, including for medical care, higher education and all manner of economic life. Ninety per cent of Gaza's small businesses and manufacturers shut down over the last year. In 2000 the unemployment rate was equal to the average in the region. It is now among the highest in the world, at 45 to 50 per cent. Few have been spared the effects of this policy, and it is beginning to scar indelibly Gaza's children, who make up over half of the territory's 1.5 million-strong population. When all the evidence is considered, there can no doubt of the futility and destructive human impact of the closure of Gaza's borders. The need to end the siege of Gaza has never been more obvious.

Through its extensive emergency programmes, UNRWA is shouldering the major burden of providing humanitarian assistance in the occupied territory. It is providing food aid to close to one million Palestinians rendered either destitute or food insecure. Additionally, last year we initiated a school feeding programme for 110,000 pupils in Gaza, after noting that hunger was affecting their educational performance. Close to 13,000 jobless refugees are employed each month on short-term contracts, generating modest incomes for a few months at a time for families living in deep poverty. In the field of heath, our mobile medical clinics provide primary health care to 60,000 refugees, mainly in communities unable to access West Bank health facilities due to roadblocks, checkpoints and the separation barrier.

Time does not permit me to provide many other examples I could give of the lifeline that UNRWA is providing. However, I would like to draw your attention to one bright light in the dismal gloom of Gaza. This is the Summer Games programme we carried out for 250,000 children this past summer. For several precious weeks, boys and girls were able to escape the trauma and despair of their daily lives and enjoy a period of normalcy, recreation and simple fun. At a time of deepening social conservatism and radicalization in Gaza, UNRWA provides a much valued alternative.

UNRWA's annual Emergency Appeals for the occupied territory have been relatively well funded. In 2006, we received 81 percent of the amount requested. In 2007, while the overall amount pledged remained about the same, the percentage dropped to 57 percent. This year we have nudged over the 60 percent mark. As a research study we published last year confirmed, this aid has had the undeniable benefit of staving off even deeper poverty and destitution. While it was gratifying that effectiveness of our programmes was acknowledged, I cannot overemphasize the extent of vulnerability of the beneficiaries to any cut-off of aid, lacking as they do any alternative sources of income and essential goods.

For Lebanon, the donor response to the two appeals we launched in 2007, to address the needs of the Nahr el-Bared crisis was very strong. Unfortunately, the latest appeal, launched in September, to continue our interim support programmes for the displaced population for another year, has not fared well. If new pledges are not received soon, we will have to begin cutting back on some of our basic support. Likewise, the response so far to the appeal made jointly in Vienna in June with the Lebanese Government and the World Bank for the reconstruction of the Nahr el-Bared camp and surrounding neighbourhoods has been disappointing, jeopardizing the future of this crucial project costed at $445m.

Distinguished Chair and Members:

UNRWA is concerned by the absence of concrete results from the peace process. While we do not discount the activity of the past nine months, we believe there is a need for a new, principled and more engaged approach. Such an approach would ensure that Palestinians and Israelis alike are protected under human rights law and international humanitarian law while negotiations are in train. This would entail holding both parties to account under international law and also ensuring that the international community's policies towards Palestinians are consistent with their rights, freedoms and human dignity as guaranteed by international law. We call for an approach which seeks ways to register the views, interests and choices of Palestine refugees as part of a bold effort to address the refugee question - one of the key final status issues. Whenever an agreement is reached, UNRWA stands ready to play whatever role it is given by Member States in managing transitional arrangements for the refugees and handing over its responsibilities to the appropriate authorities.

Next year marks the 60th anniversary of UNRWA's establishment by the General Assembly, in December 1949. The existence of the Agency for six decades and the persistence of the refugee problem is cause for sober reflection - not celebration. However, as those who have followed our work in the field can testify, the shared achievements of UNRWA in partnership with host countries, donors and others deserve recognition. With your support, we propose to hold a brief, Ministerial-level meeting during the opening of the next General Assembly, in September/October 2009, to mark the occasion and give renewed political backing to the UN's vital work in support of the Palestine refugees.

Distinguished Chair and Members of this Committee:

Allow me, in conclusion, to thank you once again for inviting me to speak to your Committee, and to express sincere appreciation for the support you provide to UNRWA and to Palestine refugees. The future for Palestine refugees remains shrouded in uncertainty and promises further challenges. I am confident, however, that with your support, UNRWA remains well placed to meet and overcome whatever lies ahead in the humanitarian and human development sphere.

Thank you for your attention.