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Speech by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Karen Koning AbuZayd, at the Arab League special session marking UNRWA's 60th Anniversary

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Mr. Secretary General, Excellencies, distinguished guests,

I am very grateful to Secretary General Moussa for giving UNRWA this opportunity to stage one of the key events in a year of special events marking the 60TH anniversary of the founding of UNRWA. Similarly I am grateful to Ambassador Khairat of Egypt, the current Chair of UNRWA's Advisory Commission, and to Ambassador Qattan of Saudi Arabia, the Vice-Chair, for sharing the platform with me. I am also grateful to Ambassador El-Farra of Palestine and Mr. Mahmoud Qabil, UNICEF goodwill Ambassador, for their participation.

A shared history

UNRWA and the Arab League emerged at roughly the same time, six decades ago, from related historical circumstances. Both came into being as part of the fallout from the cataclysm of the Second World War.

Whereas UNRWA was intended to be temporary, the Arab League was created as a permanent organization. Sadly, UNRWA is still needed after 60 years, in the absence of the necessary firm resolve on the part of the international community to create the circumstances in which Palestine refugees could make choices regarding their future, based on the relevant international resolutions, including UNGAR 194.

The two institutions have developed over the years in parallel, always with a strong link. That link has come via the primordial importance of the issue of Palestine, both for Arab states who are members of the Arab League, and for the UN agency, UNRWA, whose mission it has been to give succour and protection to the Palestine refugees who have been among the chief sufferers from the failure to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Tribute to Arab hosts

Some Arab countries and administrations, those hosting large populations of Palestine refugees, have made enormous sacrifices, political as well as economic and social, to share with UNRWA the necessity of providing basic support to the registered refugees who now number 4.7 million in the region. This is often overlooked in assessing who has done most for the refugees. The brochure UNRWA has produced for this occasion draws attention to how much the host countries have done.

...and donors

The booklet also pays tribute to generous Arab donors and institutions that have not stinted in making donations to UNRWA, especially for emergency relief and camp infrastructure. This year has seen the biggest ever single Arab donation, a supremely generous $34 million for Gaza relief from His Highness the Amir of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia has made a timely pledge of $25 million for rebuilding part of Nahr El Bared Camp in Lebanon. Were it not for the Israeli restrictions on access of building materials into Gaza, I am sure we would have seen even larger donations.

Some try to make propaganda out of a supposed contrast between vocal Arab concern for Palestine refugees and oil price windfalls on the one hand, and contributions to UNRWA on the other. UNRWA does what it can to set the record straight in this regard. It is unfair to discount the sacrifices made and those still being made by the host countries, and the generous contributions made by Arab donors.

... but

It is, however, an unfortunate truth that Arab financial contributions have decreased in relative terms. In the early 1980s Arab donations accounted for almost 8% of UNRWA's budget, whereas the level today is closer to 1% for UNRWA's core services - the schools for half a million children, the clinics receiving ten million patient visits a year, the social services supporting a quarter of a million of the very poor and the 58 camps housing 1.4 million refugees. Only a few weeks ago, the Arab League Council reiterated its exhortation to member states to restore contributions to their level in the 1980s. UNRWA asks for no more than that.

We deeply appreciate the donations for emergencies and infrastructure and hope they will be sustained. We also urge Arab governments, some of whom have not increased their annual contributions for over a decade, to heed our plea for more support for basic services. This is not money for overheads. This covers salaries for the teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers and sanitation labourers, as well as funds for food for the poorest refugees and the purchase of schoolbooks and medicines.

A warning bell

I do not wish to dwell on UNRWA's financial difficulties. But I owe it to the refugees to sound a warning bell here, as I have in recent weeks in visits to Europe and the United States. Unless donors significantly increase their donations in the coming year, UNRWA will have major problems with its own staff, nearly all of them Palestinians, whose salaries have been frozen for a year already. And we may be forced to make painful cuts in the services we provide to refugees. The effect, I am afraid, will be dramatic.

The theme of the brochure I mentioned is "So much achieved together. . . . So much still to do". Indeed, a great deal has been achieved over the past 60 years. Many students educated in UNRWA schools and training centres have gone on to make valuable contributions to the economy and social life in the host countries, and further afield in Arab countries. Even today our schools and training centres are widely admired, notwithstanding the lack of finance to maintain them to their previous standard.

Politics compounds the financial difficulties

Lack of adequate funding, however, is only one of the problems faced by UNRWA and the refugees. The political situation compounds the financial difficulties. Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the resulting economic dislocation, UNRWA has been forced to seek ever increasing amounts of money from donors to alleviate the consequent suffering. This year saw two special appeals for Gaza as a result of the ferocious attack on the Strip which left thousands dead, injured and homeless, and the already battered economy torn to shreds.

I must pay tribute to Arab donors for responding in an unprecedentedly generous way to those appeals. Tomorrow, here at the Arab League, I shall be launching the Emergency Appeal for 2010 for the occupied Palestinian territory. I wish I could say that I am hopeful that this, the eleventh such Appeal, will be the last. For that to occur, however, there must be a radical change of policy on the part of the occupying power-and the international community. There must be a relaxation of the closure regime over Gaza, and a serious attempt to deal with the causes rather than the symptoms of deprivation on the West Bank, one of the former being the privileges given to settlers, including in East Jerusalem.

Attention must be paid to the absence of every single one of the rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose promulgation we celebrated three days ago. And most important, from an UNRWA point of view, the marginalization of the refugee issue in the peace process must be overcome for there to be a sustainable outcome of negotiations, and for there to be a real opportunity for an independent Palestinian state, living in peace with its neighbours, to emerge.

Conclusion on a personal note

My remarks today represent my next-to-the-last formal speech before I retire at the end of this month. In parting, therefore, I ask you to acknowledge the people whom we are commemorating here this evening, the refugees, who, for 60 years, have counted on UNRWA for protection and assistance. They have withstood six decades of exile, dispossession, conflict, tragedies and sorrow. They have done so with dignity and steadfastness which know no equal.

It has been my privilege to work with and for them-and with all of you.

I thank you.