UNRWA’s role in a changing context

25 September 2009

UNRWA Commissioner-General’s Statement

25 September 2009

Columbia University, New York

Excellencies, distinguished guests, friends of UNRWA,

Thank you all for joining us on this special occasion. At the end of this year, I shall retire from UNRWA to join the ranks of venerable former Commissioners-General. I mention this to contrast my ability to do so with the sad and sobering fact that for peoples forcibly alienated from their ancestral lands and homes, there is no option of "retirement" from refugee status. However prolonged the march of time following the events triggering flight, and no matter how extended the period of exile, refugees remain in a state of dispossession, forcibly estranged and often prevented from reaching their full potential. For refugees in Palestine as elsewhere, true security and peace will flow only from a just and lasting resolution of the causes of their flight.

These thoughts impart a sobering quality to the commemoration of UNRWA’s sixtieth anniversary, following last year’s sixtieth anniversary of the Naqba, which provoked Palestinian exile. As we mark our milestone, the painful reality of the refugees’ expectations for peace and justice, so long unfulfilled, must remain at the forefront of our minds.

But mark our anniversary we must. UNRWA’s establishment, the progressive development of its mission over the years and the weight of its presence in the Middle East affirm the humanitarian values underpinning the United Nations Charter, a significant element of which is the objective of ensuring that those in need receive assistance and protection. UNRWA’s sixtieth anniversary is an opportune occasion to consider the evolution of our Agency’s character and functions over the years and to reflect on the enduring value of its work.

Since 1949, various factors have converged to give UNRWA the institutional attributes that define it and set it apart from other agencies. One of these is an adaptable, flexible quality to its operations – the ability to reform programmes and activities in response to emerging refugee needs, thus providing the impetus for innovation and problem-solving.

Another key aspect of UNRWA’s approach is our harmonious cooperation with external interlocutors - host countries, donors and UN partners. The "collaboration with local governments" expressly stated in UNRWA’s founding resolution has proved indispensable to the Agency’s effectiveness over the years. This cooperation, coupled with our commitment to principle, enabled UNRWA to pioneer in the 1950s gender parity in primary school enrolment. In the field of entitlement to assistance, however, it took until 2006 to make progress in ensuring equal access for refugee women married to non-refugees and their offspring.

As regards relations with our partners, UNRWA’s Advisory Commission has long been the forum in which the Agency’s relationship with host countries, the Palestinian Authority and the donor community was framed. Over the last three years, the Commission’s role to "advise and assist" the Commissioner-General has been given fresh impetus. We have fostered a climate for discussion that is open and vibrant, creating opportunities for the Commission and its members to engage in critical policy and management issues, while performing a variety of valuable oversight functions. The Commission evaluates and oversees financial and programme management, reforms and policy development, thus reinforcing UNRWA’s efforts to become more efficient and effective.

UNRWA’s relationship with NGOs and sister UN agencies, notably UNESCO, ILO, WHO and UNICEF also has deep roots in the early years. Our Medium Term Strategy for the coming six years builds on this tradition by incorporating the theme of strengthening existing partnerships and cultivating new ones. UNRWA is now more determined than ever to embrace cooperation with other agencies as a means towards the goal of serving refugees better.

In considering the factors that have helped forge UNRWA’s operational profile, we must mention the volatile environment of the Middle East and, in particular, the pressures of responding to the effects of recurrent armed conflict. The extraordinary degree of unrest and turmoil in UNRWA’s operations and the impact on the refugees we serve are eloquently conveyed in a passage taken from the concluding part of a publication titled, UNRWA: A Brief History 1950 to 1982. This was an internal study prepared at the behest of Olof Rydbeck, the Commissioner-General of the day. I quote:

    The foregoing chronicle of events will amply demonstrate the problems faced by this international body of 32 years standing. Of those years, no fewer than 23 included turbulent events involving the refugees - and therefore UNRWA, which is their main provider of help and relief – in violence, military attack or major disturbance. The remaining nine years were still not peaceful as that term is understood by more fortunate communities, and very few of them, if any, were free of threat, bullying, civil disorder, the presence of dominant strangers, or the endless task of rebuilding. None, for the refugee in his camp or his shelter, passed without fear.

    The temptation is to consider what a body like UNRWA should do in normal years, but the sad commentary is that UNRWA’s is not a normal job, and so far there have been no normal years. Physical deprivation, constant re-migration, political uncertainty, and in the main, an absence of welcome dominate the lives of the Palestine refugee, and it is these constant factors which UNRWA has to confront and relieve."

Excellencies, distinguished colleagues,

Those were days when no field was spared the scourge of instability and conflict. Today, Palestine refugees in Jordan and Syria are fortunate to reside in politically stable, secure States. For refugees and UNRWA operations in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territory, however, this 27 year-old description still rings true.

UNRWA’s intimate acquaintance with emergency contexts tests – and often proves - our capacity to respond effectively to refugee needs under extreme conditions. UNRWA’s regional role is underscored as the last line of defence for the protection of Palestine refugee civilians, including in times of armed conflict. The pragmatic approach to operations, which I mentioned earlier, is also in evidence in emergency situations.

As well, emergencies are occasions when the dedication and courage of UNRWA staff, the overwhelming majority of whom are Palestine refugees themselves, are demonstrated on a grand stage, illuminating the humanitarian dimension of UNRWA’s brand and contributing to the global credentials of the United Nations.

The environment of persistent conflict and its impact on civilians – especially in the occupied Palestinian territory - have brought to the fore UNRWA’s protection role. Since the 2004 Geneva Conference, we have adopted a more forthright posture on protection issues, taking as our cue the duty to advance respect for the human rights of Palestine refugees which is implicit in UNRWA’s mandate.

UNRWA’s protection responsibilities also include a role in international advocacy. This entails highlighting publicly - and privately with our interlocutors - the rights and entitlements of Palestine refugees under international law. It involves assembling current information on the Palestine refugee condition and sharing this information in responsible ways. It also requires seizing every appropriate opportunity to remind States and political actors of their international legal obligations towards Palestinians and Palestine refugees, including under human rights instruments and international humanitarian law.

UNRWA’s operational environment is politically charged to a degree few other contexts match. This exacerbates the obstacles and risks normally inherent in discharging protection and international advocacy functions. Experience shows that all sides exhibit an indifference to the restraints and limits that international law imposes on the conduct of armed conflict. Too often, they see considerations of compassion and human rights obligations as an inconvenience to be subordinated to the pursuit of security and military objectives. The result is a chronic intolerance of censure. UNRWA’s voice on behalf of Palestine refugees has on occasion been met with calls for our silence and the argument that we are straying from our mandate.

On the contrary, UNRWA has always been - and will continue to be - conscious of the boundaries of its humanitarian and human development role. We know that remaining within those bounds and scrupulously abiding by the United Nations principles of neutrality and impartiality are indispensable to maintaining the credibility and trust that UNRWA enjoys with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, host countries, the international community and with refugees. This global consensus of confidence in UNRWA is the key to our ability to function.

A discussion on UNRWA’s work over the years must address current trends towards a negotiated solution to this conflict. We live in times when new possibilities - generated by positive signals from the US President and others – appear to be within our grasp. UNRWA welcomes the atmosphere of renewed hope, trusting that the present momentum will be maintained and carried through to a just conclusion that commands acceptance from all sides.

At the same time, we call the attention of political actors to the refugee imperative that is central to any successful process of resolving conflict. The international community must recognize that Palestine refugees are a formidable, distinct constituency within the Palestinian body politic, not only in numerical terms, but also in the weight of their opinion and the strength of their stake in a just and durable negotiated outcome.

For these reasons, the refugee voice should be heard. We must seek refugee views, ascertain their interests and concerns and establish a niche for their choices to be reflected in any emerging dispensation. In these and in other related tasks, UNRWA stands ready to play its part with the same devotion to duty that has characterized our work over the past sixty years.

Distinguished guests, friends of UNRWA,

In spite of the burden of six decades of exile, and notwithstanding the wretched conditions Palestinians and Palestine refugees continue to experience, a dogged, determined hope still lives. This hope is founded on the rightness of the refugee cause and the quest for a State of Palestine. It is a hope that draws its vigour from the legitimacy of the refugee entitlement to a solution that delivers not only a lasting end to their plight, but also the human dignity and justice they have been so long denied.

Until these aspirations are realized, UNRWA will continue to stand with the Palestine refugees we serve, steadfast in our dedication to the role we play on their behalf, and in the interests of the international community.

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.

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