Commissioner-General’s Statement at the Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the League of Arab States

16 September 2010

16 September 2010
League of Arab States HQ, Cairo

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Your Highnesses, Your Excellencies:

As always, I am grateful to Secretary-General Amr Moussa, one of UNRWA’s best friends, for the opportunity to speak to this distinguished gathering. I am also grateful to countries hosting refugees, especially Jordan, for encouraging my presence here. By inviting me, you acknowledged the significance of the 4.7 million Palestine refugees whose well-being is the reason for UNRWA’s existence.   You have also recognized that the concerns of these refugees are linked to the interests of States in this region and beyond, including the current search for peace in the Middle East.
 
To the governments and people you represent, I offer a word of sincere gratitude for the support you have provided to UNRWA and Palestine refugees since 1948.   I commend in particular Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority for continuing over sixty-two years to offer refugees temporary refuge on their soil, often at great sacrifice. I also warmly thank the individual members of the League of Arab States, for the significant financial and political backing they provide, particularly in the form of contributions to UNRWA’s emergency response and reconstruction efforts.     

The most fraught conditions refugees face are in the occupied Palestinian territory.   The years since 1967 have demonstrated that the occupation of Palestinian land - and the policies and actions that sustain the occupation – constitute the greatest impediment to the realization of human rights, human dignity and statehood for Palestinians.   It is also a source of inspiration for those who reject compromise and prefer violent methods over a negotiated path for peace.   Putting an end to the occupation will provide a solid foundation to the comprehensive and equitable resolution of this conflict which we are all hoping for, especially at this time of renewed peace efforts, of which a just and lasting solution to the plight of refugees must be a part.  

In Gaza, the easing of restrictions on the importation of consumer goods is a welcome development, even if the boost to the formal economy is limited to a few sectors and falls short of the free flow of goods and people envisaged in the November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.   In spite of some improvements, many Palestinians still face harsh conditions of isolation. Few, if any, can avoid the effects of paralyzed public services, a collapsed formal economy, and the physical and psychological threats from the conflict. But while UNRWA and others try to address the effects of the crisis, let us not forget that its causes must be addressed by political actors. We appreciate efforts being made in the past few months. The need for further, bolder measures to allow for the movement of people and goods, and – if I may add – for restoring Palestinian unity are self-evident amidst these circumstances,

The closure of Gaza’s borders is the direct cause of widespread poverty.   With over sixty percent of Gazans living below the poverty line, some forty percent unemployed, and eighty percent relying on food handouts, deteriorating conditions are draining the life-blood from the civilians of Gaza – the children, women and men who have no political affiliations and yet are bearing the brunt of this tragedy.  

The United Nations, and UNRWA in particular, stand ready to play an active role In the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.   In order for this to happen, however, the current easing of the blockade must be accelerated significantly.   As I said, there has been progress – and we are negotiating more effective procedures to import materials – but at the current pace it will take a long time to rebuild houses, schools, health centres, and the deteriorating infrastructure of Gaza – too long for its suffering people to wait.  

In the West Bank, restrictions of many kinds continue to be imposed on Palestinian communities, and will be worsened with any further settlement construction.   The situation in and around East Jerusalem, home – I remind you – to some 70,000 refugees, is of particular concern.   Revocation of Palestinian residency rights has increased significantly.   I met recently with some refugee families forced, over a year ago, from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.   Their stories of dispossession were distressing; UNRWA will continue advocating for their rights. Widespread denial of freedom of movement is another standard feature of the situation in the West Bank.

Significant development have occurred in Lebanon.   Over recent months, the government and people of Lebanon have taken historic first steps towards broadening Palestine refugees’ access to employment.   Lebanon’s efforts testify to what can be achieved when political actors generate the will necessary to overcome traditional fears and preconceptions.   We have in that example, yet another reaffirmation of a fact that has long been recognized in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere, namely, that promoting sustainable economic self-reliance for refugees is in the interest of host countries and in no way contradicts the temporary character of their status as refugees.  

UNRWA is deeply grateful to the government and people of Lebanon. Living standards must now be rapidly raised across the refugee camps, not least, because of broader implications for security and stability.   The same must be said for the re-building of Nahr El Bared camp.   UNRWA requires 46 million US dollars to complete on schedule the third and fourth stages of a reconstruction plan.   An additional 164 million US dollars are needed to reconstruct the entire camp.   We promised refugees, the government, and the Lebanese community that Nahr El Bared will be re-built. We simply cannot afford to fail to keep that promise, without risking extreme disillusionment and social upheaval with potentially serious consequences for law and order in Northern Lebanon.  

The situations I have just described remind us that the Palestine refugee issue and UNRWA’s work are linked to the most vital concerns you share as Middle Eastern States.   UNRWA’s presence and its work contribute to creating opportunities, and to promoting stability.   Our education programme, from Gaza to Lebanon, exemplifies UNRWA’s approach to recognizing the potential of individual refugees and nurturing that potential in directions consistent with United Nations values: tolerance for diversity and opposing views; peaceful resolution of disputes; respect for the human rights and dignity for all without any distinction; and respect for the rule of law.     

Your Highnesses, your Excellencies:

Your agenda today includes a review of UNRWA’s financial situation.   Let me remind you, therefore, that UNRWA is experiencing a serious financial crisis which threatens its ability to maintain services through the end of this year and into 2011.   I appeal to you to help us address it.   We are now at a point where available resources will support our 2010 operations only until November.   The outlook for 2011 is so dire that for the first time in years we project commencing the new year with a deficit, instead of a reserve, as we usually do.

This situation has come about through a combination of factors. These include: the natural increase in the refugee population over time; greater numbers affected by poverty and therefore compelled to seek UNRWA’s services; inflation, currency fluctuations and the global economic recession, which strains the aid budgets of the United States and European countries, UNRWA’s biggest contributors.   I must stress that in spite of the recession, Western governments remain strong donors. So far this year, they have contributed 95% of the funds we have received for our regular programmes, and some are making additional and extraordinary efforts to support UNRWA.

Based on the latest estimates, UNRWA needs $80 million to maintain its operations at present levels until the end of 2010.   As I acknowledged at the outset of my statement, Arab donors have been commendably generous in supporting construction projects and emergency appeals. We ask, however, that your contributions go a step further and that you make a special effort to raise the level of your contributions to our core activities, especially health, education and poverty relief – not only this year, but also in subsequent years - so that UNRWA can fulfill the mandate that the international community – that you – have given to the Agency.  

Without sufficient funds to keep   691 schools and 137 health centres open, or to provide cash and food support to over a quarter of a million very poor refugees, there may well be dire consequences that will adversely affect not only refugees, but also the communities and countries that host them.   Already there are 40,000 refugee children in Gaza whom we are compelled to turn away from our schools because we lack the funds to build and run enough facilities.   If UNRWA schools are overcrowded, where will the refugee children go?   If standards decline in our health centres, who will prevent diseases amongst millions of people in the region? If thousands of very poor refugee families, from Aleppo to Aqaba, will be deprived of UNRWA’s small but regular financial contribution, who will deal with their anger and frustration?   We would fail in our humanitarian duty.   But also, the consequences for peace and stability would not be difficult to imagine.  

A weakened UNRWA is bad not only for the refugee families but also for host authorities on whom more burdens are being pushed. It also removes one of the props of stability at a time of great uncertainty over the future of the Palestinians, and it leaves a point of vulnerability for enemies of stability to exploit.   Therefore increased support for UNRWA is a matter in which you, as political actors, share a major stake.   We ask that your governments assume their appropriate place as financial supporters of UNRWA services, and that your support to Palestine refugees be raised to levels that more accurately reflect the prominent role that Arab countries are playing on the regional and international stage.  

Responding to my appeal will be particularly appropriate this year because the Advisory Commission - the group of States which advises me and supports UNRWA - is currently chaired by Saudi Arabia. This is the first time an Arab donor has held this position. And as it happens, the Vice-Chair is another Arab country, Jordan. As both countries have been extraordinarily supportive of UNRWA over the years, I am confident that under their fresh leadership, the Advisory Commission will help restore UNRWA to financial health.

Your Highnesses, Your Excellencies,
 
Time and again, Arab states have made their yearning for peace clear to the international community, most recently in the form of the Arab Peace Initiative, and the current direct talks in which some of you are playing a key facilitating role.   Successful peace talks will have to address the Palestine refugee question, and I encourage all parties to take the needs and hopes of the refugees into account.   I also encourage all parties to continue providing for their support to refugees and to UNRWA until the realization of a peace agreement which is accepted by the international community and the refugees themselves.   At this difficult time, when stability and well-being are so vital to peace, and to avert a return to bloodshed – of which there has been far too much in the Middle East – I hope the Members of the League of Arab States will continue, and where possible increase, their support to refugees and UNRWA.   I hope that later today when you have had your discussion about UNRWA there will be good news which I can take back to the refugees.  

Thank you.

Background Information

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$ 56 million.

For more information, please contact:

Christopher Gunness
UNRWA Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 240 2659
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0267
Sami Mshasha
UNRWA Arabic Spokesperson
Mobile: 
+972 (0)54 216 8295
Office: 
+972 (0)2 589 0724

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