Waiting for solutions in uncertain times

16 November 2011

Palestine refugees in the Middle East context

2011 Barbara Harrell-Bond Lecture

Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General

16 November 2011   
Refugee Studies Centre
University of Oxford

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good evening. It is a great honour to be invited to deliver this year’s Barbara Harrell-Bond Lecture and an even greater honour to do so with Barbara here tonight, as well as to exchange views on one of the most trying questions the modern world confronts.

The honour is by no means a personal one. It belongs entirely to the Palestine refugees whom UNRWA is mandated to protect, assist and serve, and who stand at the centre of our title tonight. My presence here indicates your acknowledgement of the 4.8 million Palestinians registered as refugees with UNRWA in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territory. Your invitation also honours the millions of Palestinians contributing to life across the globe, who for reasons of personal choice and circumstance are not registered with UNRWA, yet nevertheless partake of the historic experience of exile triggered by the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948.

That conflict, with its roots reaching deep into history, is still with us today. Through events in 1956, in 1967, in 1973, and thereafter in countless armed confrontations in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, the Arab-Israeli conflict has acquired a self-fulfilling aura of intractability. It casts its dark and unyielding shadow across the Middle East, touching virtually every issue affecting the relationship between its people.

Palestine refugees live under that shadow as they have done for over six decades. They became refugees as a result of the 1948 conflict and they remain refugees because the conflict that triggered their plight lingers on. The persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the unresolved plight of Palestine refugees are two of the larger features that dominate the Middle East context and frame the “uncertain times” flagged in our topic. These features have a common origin – a single source – which is the tragic failure of political actors, national, regional and international, to fulfill their responsibilities arising from the history of the Middle East. This failure has borne bitter fruits over the years.

As you all know, wherever people are forced to flee and to remain in exile for any significant period, the responsibilities of political actors are engaged. Although refugee crises produce immediate effects in the humanitarian, economic and social spheres, they are essentially political in their causes and implications because they have an inevitable impact on the vital interests of States and on the conduct of international relations.

They also have complex implications for the countries and peoples that extend hospitality to refugees. Hosts grapple with the financial and economic consequences of their generosity towards refugees and in some instances, the refugee presence accentuates or sets in motion social and demographic forces which in their turn affect sensitive national and regional interests. Furthermore, international efforts to meet the challenges of refugee situations absorb substantial resources which might otherwise be utilized to achieve long-term development goals.

One could say that given the breadth of its ramifications, the Palestinian refugee question epitomizes the essentially political character of refugee crises. By the same token, it is a typical case in which the ultimate responsibility to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution and thus resolve the refugee situation rests with political actors.

Striking evidence of failure can be seen in the decades-long effort to achieve a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We recognize that difficulties have been staggering, and that efforts towards a negotiated settlement have been earnestly pursued – at least by some, and during certain periods of time. More importantly, and although this takes – increasingly – an effort of the will, we must not doubt the need for all parties to continue pressing forward, undaunted by the pitfalls inherent in seeking to address a conflict of such intricacy. Yet, after due allowances have been made, we would be hard pressed to avoid an assessment of the failure – thus far – of the political process.

The implications are many, and grave. Allow me to mention only a few, relevant to our discussion tonight.

A significant failing, of course, has been the inability, or one should say the unwillingness, to address the refugee question. In deciding what issues to confront in negotiations, the tendency is always to opt for a fragmented, selective approach which indefinitely defers tackling matters deemed too difficult or complicated, including the refugee question.

The facts are well known. Immediately following the events of 1948, the refugee question was at the forefront of global mediation efforts under the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine. Since the late 1980s the tide of attention has turned to other aspects of the conflict, through various incarnations of diplomatic activity centered on the worthy goal of two States living side by side in mutual peace and security, but without clarity as to the place of Palestine refugees in this vision.

The refugee issue was assigned to “permanent status negotiations” alongside questions related to “…Jerusalem, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbours, and other issues of common interest”. According to the 1993 Declaration of Principles, these issues were to be addressed by the parties at a later stage.

“Permanent status negotiations”, as we all know, have been slow to progress, proceeding erratically at best with little to show by way of concrete achievements. The refugee question (so existential for both parties to the conflict) is thus held perennially in suspense, and - perhaps even more importantly - the views of refugees are unaccounted for and their concerns remain undiscovered.

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of endless cycles of high-level diplomacy, interspersed with long periods when the parties do not speak to each other, but at each other and to their respective constituencies, the absence of results has eroded public confidence in the peace process, and (dangerously so) in the international institutions - that are associated with it. And even more dangerously, extended periods of inertia or fruitless discussions have also provided license for recourse to solutions by military means and militant action, helping to maintain the fallacy that a solution to this most political of conflicts can be imposed by force of arms – and this, whenever it has occurred (as exemplified by the cycle of Israeli incursions and militant rocket launching in Gaza), has set back even further any possibility of success in negotiations.

Trust in the process is a major problem. Peace negotiations inevitably, are often conducted away from the limelight. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process however, has lasted for much longer than any other similar negotiations: many of its key actors, including the parties, have played unilaterally, and often aggressively, to their domestic constituencies; and progress has been almost absent. A pronounced disconnect has therefore developed. On the one hand are the parties conducting negotiations and their agenda being pursued. On the other, are the increasingly skeptical perceptions and declining trust of the majority of Israelis and Palestinians - and, among the latter, and most particularly, of Palestine refugees. There are times when the peace process, to ordinary people, seems to exist in its own universe. This is a world in which discussion and debate and the processes thereof appear to be deemed worthy replacements for substantive outcomes. And for one of the great constituencies of the Middle East conflict, the Palestine refugees, it is a world entirely set apart from the urgency and harsh realties of their lives.

The United Nations Secretary General has affirmed that the status quo is “unsustainable”. He is right. I would even venture to say that there is no more a status quo. We observe that on many of the issues in dispute - such as the size and integrity of Palestinian territory, the location of borders, sovereignty over resources and fundamental Palestinian human rights – there is regression. The situation on the ground is being materially, constantly and in some cases irrevocably transformed in ways that complicate and preclude a fair resolution of the conflict. I trust that all understand and I regret to say, that with every day that passes, the two state solution moves closer to its death.

One of the largest casualties of the continuing failure of politics has been the credibility of international law, including human rights law and the laws governing armed conflict. Given the non-hierarchical, diffuse nature of the society of states, many aspects of international law are not self-enforcing. Its effectiveness depends on the extent to which the collective political will can be mobilized by consensus to impose costs and consequences on violators, and to do so rapidly and in principled and consistent ways. International law can only be as effective as the political resolve of the international community can make it. From this standpoint, the failure of politics brings international law into disrepute. Many of us struggle to reconcile the clear obligations of the law with the breaches perpetrated in the course of the conflict, or with the severe conditions Palestinians including Palestine refugees endure on account of those breaches, especially those living under occupation since 1967, many of whom are refugees.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Recent events across the Middle East give a sharp edge to the many questions raised by the failure of politics. What has been hailed as “the Arab Spring” is a remarkable phenomenon of potentially far-reaching repercussions. Surely, there can be no easy assumptions or predictions about how far this movement might progress, and what its eventual geo-political outcomes might be. However, events across the Middle East are clearly the outpouring of a deeply held desire for more meaningful freedom, liberty and individual rights; an appeal to the international community to assume in more principled ways its custodianship of international law; and the rejection of political and socio-economic oppression in all its forms, whether emanating from the apparatus of States or from external forces.

From this perspective, the “Arab Spring” brings into sharp focus - by contrast, one must sadly say - the Palestinian situation, the condition of Palestine refugees and the failure of politics that has created and aggravated them. This contrast and the sense of Palestinians being left behind cannot be overstated. The region is reverberating with demands for an end to oppression, for political leaders to be held accountable and for the proper establishment of true social justice and political freedoms. Ordinary people are laying down their lives in the struggle for their voices to be heard. Yet somehow, in the midst of these revolutionary developments, the Palestinian cry for justice remains unheard, their right to self-determination is unfulfilled, their land remains under occupation, and their fundamental human rights continue to be trampled.

As we encourage the people of the Middle East to give voice to their demands, we must work with greater urgency to bring closer to realization the Palestinian entitlements so long denied, in a context of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect between Israelis and Palestinians. We owe this to peace-loving people, Israelis and Palestinians alike, and must do so before others exploit this failure with destructive goals. And if we are eager to point to the failings of governments to empower their people and to equitably share national resources, then we must also recognize our own failure to restore the rights and dignity of Palestinians, a failure which has left Palestine refugees in particular in a fraught, uncertain state.

This is an appropriate juncture to take a look at the state of Palestine refugees in the Near East. It is useful to bear in mind a fundamental point. Like refugees elsewhere, Palestine refugees remain refugees until their situation of exile is resolved at its roots through a just political solution. The passage of time alone cannot by itself erase the fact and implications of refugee status.

It is true that decades have elapsed since the events of 1948, and that there is now only a relatively small and dwindling number of individuals who experienced first-hand the travails of those years. Nevertheless, it is also true that Palestine refugees still grapple individually and collectively with the classic human emotions associated with dispossession and forced exile. They are estranged from the anchor of home and bereft of a fundamental sense of security and belonging. They live with a lingering awareness of historic injury, with the psyche of dislocation and with an unfulfilled longing for things lost. They survive precariously, without inalienable guarantees of state protection or inclusive citizenship. They struggle with a perpetual sense of being out of place and out of time.

In addition to being set apart by their sense of loss, Palestine refugees define themselves - and are defined by others - by reference to the historical experience of exile. There is a shared understanding that the refugees are no more than temporary residents whose sojourn is bound to come to an end, however long it may take. A strong “refugee consciousness” prevails among Palestinians, including the younger generation. The passing years have left intact an awareness of historic wrongs and discrimination, a readiness to demand from the world recognition of the legitimacy of Palestinian claims, and a desire for justice.

Jordan provides the most stable environment to Palestine refugees. For decades they have been spared the trauma of armed conflict and have enjoyed a wide range of rights and freedoms mitigating the hardships of displacement. Significant numbers of refugees enjoy economic rights and access to the employment market. These conditions have created a class of businessmen and skilled professionals whose success and affluence serve as an illustration of the Palestinians’ immense potential for high achievement.

However, poverty, unemployment and poor living conditions are common, particularly in and around the camps where 17.5 % of Jordan’s nearly two million registered refugees reside. Particularly impoverished and disadvantaged are the Palestinians from Gaza who fled to Jordan in 1967 and who lack access to public services or to the range of rights accorded to other categories of Palestine refugees.

The majority of refugees in Jordan however enjoy the privileges of special categories of Jordanian nationality. The government and people of Jordan must be commended for granting this privilege to refugees, affording them a measure of security and helping to advance their well-being. It is a matter of concern, therefore, that on recent occasions, the threat to withdraw Jordanian citizenship from Palestine refugee holders has been raised, at least in some media reports. True, these statements appear to respond to provocative and irresponsible remarks suggesting that a lasting solution to the plight of refugees should be found exclusively on Jordanian soil. Even so, they were a reminder of the vulnerabilities inherent in the label of “refugee” even in a very stable situation, and especially at a time when Jordan is not spared some of the tensions and unrest affecting the region as a whole.

The vulnerability of Palestine refugees is even more tangible in the other major host countries, Syria and Lebanon.

Since mid-March this year, developments in Syria have offered evidence of the volatility of the Middle East while also illustrating that refugees hosted in this region can always be exposed to insecurity. Syria, like Jordan, has offered Palestine refugees for decades an exemplary range of rights and freedoms, including access to socio-economic opportunities. In spite of the onset of violent unrest in mid-March, these benefits continue to be available and thankfully, Palestine refugees have not been direct targets of hostile action.

However there have been episodes where Palestine refugees were seriously affected by the situation. In Yarmouk in June, Hama in July and Latakia in August, the violence extended into the camps with tragic consequences for Palestine refugees. Our own assessment is that these were incidents, and not a pattern. UNRWA hopes that refugees will continue to be spared the worst.

The climate of violence and insecurity is nevertheless of great concern, particularly with regard to the degree of estimated and reported civilian deaths, injuries, detentions and disappearances. We hope that the calls for restraint, for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for an end to violations, made by the United Nations Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Secretary-General of the Arab League will be heeded. The intensity and nation-wide incidence of violence is such that the quality of life, the quality of human security, and the quality of protection are impaired for virtually all who reside in Syria, including Palestine refugees. We hope that the authorities will take the steps required to move away from the present path of grave disorder towards stability and human rights for all.

Palestine refugees in Lebanon confront a truly intricate combination of challenges. Over the years, they have been through much armed conflict and displacement, compelling them to re-live in exile the trauma of their original flight. The refugees straddle – and often find themselves hostages to - the confessional and factional fault lines that define Lebanese politics, while at the same time having to navigate the often tense inter-play between Palestinian factions.

Against this complex backdrop, the human rights of Palestine refugees have historically been given short shrift, notably in the areas of access to employment, including the liberal professions, property ownership, freedom of movement, and entitlement to decent living conditions. As these denials of fundamental rights have been institutionalized over a substantial period of time, they have taken on the quality of systemic discrimination. Poverty has acquired a chronic, endemic character, which, in turn, strangles life opportunities and basic dignity for many refugees, half of whom are young people of up to 25 years of age.

A 2010 UNRWA-commissioned report found that 56% of the refugees were unemployed; that those with jobs were “often in low status, casual and precarious employment”; that only 7% of those employed had a contract; and that only 6% of the Palestinian labour force had university training. The survey found that two-thirds of Palestine refugees in Lebanon were poor, and that compared with the Lebanese population, the occurrence of extreme poverty was four times higher among refugees.

With nowhere else to turn, Palestine refugees rely almost exclusively on UNRWA for their education, health care and poverty relief. Unfortunately, however, UNRWA’s scarce resources mean that the Agency’s capacity to respond to the needs of refugees falls short of their requirements. This gap has generated tensions in the refugee camps, further destabilizing an already edgy environment. UNRWA has found itself a target of protests as dissatisfaction with the levels of services combines with long-held socio-economic frustrations to create an explosive mix.

In August 2010, the Lebanese Parliament took a bold and welcome decision to amend labour laws to grant Palestinians access to formal employment in the private sector. This milestone was an initial but significant step towards helping refugees lift themselves out of poverty, without prejudice to other refugee rights and UN resolutions. Those amendments however, have not yet been implemented. And while UNRWA continues to encourage the government to expedite the next steps, we are aware that formal access to employment alone, significant and appreciated as it is, will address only one dimension of the harsh conditions faced by refugees in Lebanon. Much more must be done to address the range of vulnerabilities associated with being a refugee in this country.

The most complex and dramatic situation for Palestine refugees, however, continues to prevail in the occupied Palestinian territory – in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. I am actually always struck by how difficult it is to convey an accurate and meaningful impression of those circumstances. There will always be limits to the ability of those of us who are not Palestinians and who are not refugees to fully appreciate the depths of the Palestine refugee experience and to convey the full measure of its urgency. It is impossible to assume the perceptions of refugees, to put ourselves in their shoes, and to feel, as they do, what it really means to know no other life than one submerged under 44 years of military occupation and over 60 years of exile.

So, how does one communicate the effects of the illegal blockade on Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, 70% of whom are refugees registered with UNRWA? The question is pertinent because these effects are not immediately apparent. The inflow of commodities through the underground tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt ensures that consumer goods are available, at least to those who can afford them. The partial but welcome easing of restrictions announced by Israel last year, and gradually implemented since then, has allowed UNRWA and other UN agencies to restart projects to improve and rebuild houses and other infrastructure destroyed or damaged during years of conflict.

However, those of you who have recently visited Gaza would agree that superficial impressions are misleading. If we were to rely solely on the absence of conspicuous starvation or if we dwelt only on the outward appearance of bustling, crowded streets and shops, we would come to the conclusion that the effects of the blockade are negligible because all is well in Gaza.

The point for emphasis is that in Gaza, the wretchedness of human suffering lies concealed beneath a thin veil of normality. The blockade, in spite of easing measures, has not been lifted. Exports from Gaza, for example, are severely limited, thus preventing a normal economy from functioning. Livelihoods are currently supported either by international aid or by the tunnels, and access procedures for people and goods mean that services and the infrastructure continue to be substandard, not to mention the almost complete inability of Gazans to move freely in and out of the Strip.

Through our work with refugees we at UNRWA are well placed to assess how the situation continues to impact the lives of ordinary people. A mother from Gaza has to face a crisis that is often ill-defined as humanitarian, but which is in fact much greater. It encompasses all aspects of life – her savings, her family relations, her education and health and those of her children, her drinking water, her sanity, and every other aspect of life as she is constrained in one of the world’s most densely populated areas with 1.5 million others.

Occupation in the West Bank takes other and even more complex forms. One aspect is a range of movement restrictions. These are enforced through a byzantine permit and security apparatus that applies only to Palestinian people and goods, and which includes the West Bank separation barrier and the regime associated with it. The restrictions ensure that all Palestinian movement occurs only with the permission of the occupying authority. For Palestinians, including three quarters of a million registered refugees, the controls are ubiquitous and stifling. They tie up Palestinians’ movement within the West Bank itself; between the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and between the West Bank and the extended zone designated by the Israeli authorities as encompassing Jerusalem. Without the liberty to move freely, Palestinians are systematically denied a prerequisite for a normal life.

Another manifestation of the occupation is the continuous cycle of home demolitions, evictions and building permit denials to which Palestinians and their homes and properties are being subjected, particularly in East Jerusalem. This practice is linked to the continuous expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land – land which by international agreement should be spared to form the foundations of a Palestinian state. It causes profound suffering. For many refugees, aggravated poverty and personal trauma are added to fresh displacement, which renews their experience of exile.

It is estimated that some three thousand demolition orders targeting Palestinian homes and properties are awaiting implementation in the coming months. The quickening pace and increasing number of demolitions leave no doubt as to their systematic and deliberate nature. Regrettably, unless the international community is able to demand accountability from the Israeli authorities and to stop these practices, the worst is yet to come.

Ladies and gentlemen:

One theme runs through this brief update on the situation of Palestine refugees in the Near East. It is their vulnerability, individually and as a community. While this reflects the experience of refugees everywhere, Palestine refugees struggle with multiple layers of exposure. They are vulnerable as Palestinians, with all the complex ramifications of that identity. Additionally, they are vulnerable as refugees, readily identifiable as such across the Middle East. This will remain until a just and lasting solution to their plight is realized. However, clearly, it is our responsibility to ensure that – as long as their situation prevails – their well-being and dignity are safeguarded and promoted. And this is why UNRWA exists.

A refugee in Jordan once told me, “UNRWA is our homeland”. Of course it is not, but this provocative statement signifies the extent of both the dispossession of Palestine refugees, and of the importance they attach to UNRWA.

During and after episodes of violence, UNRWA offers the first line of humanitarian support. Our emergency response includes a reconstruction and recovery role that continues after guns fall silent. Our key work however lies in human development: almost 500,000 children attend our schools, and 6,000 students graduate every year from our ten vocational training centres. Our health staff provide services through dozens of centres across the region. We manage a modest social safety net programme supporting the poorest through food and cash aid, and we offer credit and advice to small entrepreneurs through a successful microfinance programme.

We also bear witness to the many areas where refugee rights are violated, and we call upon States and other political actors to discharge their obligations to bring to an end the habit of flagrant impunity and disobedience to international law which is so much a part of the Palestinian reality in the Middle East.

UNRWA’s services are thus essential and of the indispensable kind that governments provide to their people. We have offered these services consistently and reliably, from year to year, from decade to decade and from generation to generation. We have done this – not from a comfortable distance – but by drawing on refugees to form the body of our staff, and through maintaining an operational field presence within refugee communities.

With time, the Agency has become integrated into the world-view of Palestinians in exile. Our work has come to represent the fulfillment of a part – not the whole, but certainly of a part - of the international community’s obligations towards the Palestinian people.

Three factors are key in understanding both our challenges and our approaches.

First, the importance of what I would like to call our operative space. One result of the failure of politics is, regrettably, the narrowing of this space. I use the term “operative” in the broadest sense to denote the mix of considerations that influence the effectiveness and efficiency of our work. These include the quality of our access to those we serve, our liberty to pursue public advocacy on protection and human rights issues, and our ability to impact the long-term well-being of individuals and communities. All too often these areas are constricted by adverse political obstacles. Classic impediments include the blockade of Gaza, movement restrictions in the West Bank and the constraints to granting greater freedoms to refugees in Lebanon.

The point I wish to emphasize is that in the absence of results from political actors and in the face of increasing refugee numbers, rising human needs and chronic funding crises, UNRWA (although as necessary as ever!) is often left alone in confronting these challenges. But we refuse to be daunted. Our Agency’s history holds many examples of our ability to adapt to the demands of our context and to respond to the refugees’ changing needs.

Second, an important feature of our work is to focus on individuals. Ever so often in public discourse, the collective, demographic aspect of the growing refugee population is highlighted. By contrast, UNRWA’s approach is to keep in view the individuality of Palestine refugees.

This approach finds its broadest description in the paradigm of human development which underpins the Agency’s strategy. It is expressed in the emphasis of our education programme on the refugee children, and the skills and knowledge we can offer for their enhanced, holistic development. It is the centerpiece of our health programme’s emphasis on long and healthy lives for refugee families. It is evident also in our efforts to ensure that our social safety-net interventions individually address the personal requirements of the most vulnerable. Focusing on the refugee as an individual is a powerful way to remind ourselves that in spite of the extraordinary circumstances they endure, Palestine refugees are first and foremost human beings. Their situation may be politically intractable – this must not prevent us from giving them, the chance to lead normal and – if possible – better lives.

Third, we hold a strong belief in the Palestinians’ ability to utilize any available chance to rise above their circumstances. Palestinian potential is neither myth nor fantasy. It is founded on countless examples of children who excel in our classrooms despite the trauma of repeated, first-hand experiences with armed conflict; and despite having to do their homework by candlelight, on empty stomachs, in crowded, unsanitary surroundings. 

We remain conscious that our efforts are not – and never will be – a substitute for fundamental refugee rights and entitlements under UN resolutions and international law. However, we believe that placing greater emphasis on seeking and seizing opportunities is the best way to promote self-reliance among refugees, maximize their potential for learning and self-improvement, and expand the life choices open to them. Paramount in this effort is our investment in refugee children through primary education. This is an expression of our determination to cultivate the talents that would otherwise lie concealed beneath the gloom of the refugee condition. Our schools are also places where the possibilities that Palestinian children represent are supported and fostered in directions consistent with United Nations values: tolerance for diversity and opposing views; peaceful resolution of disputes; respect for human rights, dignity for all.

Ladies and gentlemen:
 
Let me say it again: it is difficult to fully communicate the layered pain of the Palestinian experience. To refer to our title, for Palestinians and for Palestine refugees, the times have always been uncertain.

Humanitarian and human development action can only alleviate the conditions they face. The work of UNRWA and other governmental and non-governmental agencies is critical and indispensable, yet our ability to effect long-term transformation in Palestinian lives is inherently constrained. It is time those who hold the cure stepped forward to discharge their obligation to confront and resolve the injustices of a status quo which, for many Palestinians, is not static at all, but brings – every day – a worsening of their situation.

Each dimension of the Middle East’s great unfinished business partakes of its own geo-political dynamic and must be addressed on its own terms. The ultimate path to a durable peace can only be by way of a comprehensive, multi-lateral effort that recognizes and respects the distinctions and (simultaneously or in compact sequence) addresses each set of issues and the intersections between them. By contrast, little can be expected from an approach which isolates fragments from the whole, which disavows the distinctions, or which conflates one dimension into another.

The current pending application for UN membership for a Palestinian State must be seen in light of these circumstances. The United Nations is the only truly global forum for addressing fundamental issues of self-determination and international peace and security. From that standpoint, the address chosen for the Palestinian effort was the appropriate one. It would be improper for me to comment on the legal and political complexities underpinning Palestinian statehood. However, the standing ovation which met President Abbas’ public announcement of the statehood bid on 23 September was a testimony to the breadth and depth of support which the legitimate aspiration of Palestinians to self-determination, and a state of their own, command in the international community.

But as we await the outcome of the application for UN membership we must bear in mind the points I made earlier. If we wish to make international negotiations credible, and if we seek to enhance the chances for a durable, just and comprehensive peace, then we must observe the distinctions between (and yet pursue with equal vigour) the solutions for all dimensions of the conflict, including a just and durable solution to the plight of Palestine refugees.

We take the firm view that there can be no just and durable peace in the Middle East unless Palestine refugees are brought out of their state of dispossession and exile. The UN bid does not in and of itself tackle the plight of the refugees. Therefore, UNRWA will continue to advocate that the refugees’ legitimate rights and aspirations must be achieved in the context of discussions between political actors, including the parties - discussions that must be based on international law and UN resolutions and reflect the informed views and choices of the refugees.

When we insist that Palestine refugees are entitled to a broad range of rights, we do not however make specific prescriptions regarding how those rights are to be realized. We decline to be specific because our insistence on refugee rights is not made lightly or naively as some might suggest, but with full awareness of the practical complications that will have to be addressed and resolved in the course of forging a negotiated settlement.

Peacemaking through negotiations is inevitably a complex process. There is a strong political aspect to the processes and outcomes and as always, political deals are hard deals that require mutual accommodation and the balancing of various interests. However, to be successful, the existing framework for negotiations must win the approval of all stakeholders. If any of them doubt the process and the framework, then it is almost certain that the outcomes will also be questioned. This real possibility is a source of grave concern to UNRWA.

We therefore maintain our insistence that any strategy to resolve the conflict and specifically to address the refugee issue must include as a central frame of reference the realization of the rights and entitlements of the Palestine refugees. Any genuine efforts to wrest peace from the prevailing gloom must recognize the pivotal importance of the refugee constituency, and take the bold and principled steps required to harness its potential. This will advance the refugees’ own interests, and serve the regional and universal good. It also makes eminent sense, I may add, in a context where “Arab Spring” movements have at their heart the aspiration of all people to justice and rights.

We therefore support the initiation of steps that could help ascertain refugee interests, articulate their concerns and assist with clarifying the range of varying Palestinian expectations regarding a future dispensation. We acknowledge that it would be no mean feat, particularly in the charged atmosphere of today, to devise a system to solicit, record, and address the views of Palestine refugees. Yet we believe that the challenge can be met, provided we maintain a principled approach and draw on the lessons of initiatives such as Oxford’s Civitas Project of 2004 and 2005. Some of you will recall that this was civic needs assessment for Palestine refugees implemented by Palestinian activists and local leaders employing participatory methods. Civitas gave us a glimpse of the wealth of insights that come to light when we give free rein to Palestinian voices and seek direction from those whose interests are most immediately at stake.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a universally accepted view that wherever a wrong is perpetrated or a loss is sustained, there arises an entitlement to redress. By that token, the legitimacy of Palestinian claims emanates from the very fact of Palestinian exile with its consequences of rights violated, properties expropriated, trauma suffered and deprivations imposed. We believe that the chances for securing lasting peace will be bolstered by genuine efforts to reverse wrongs, remedy violations, and address injustices and perceptions thereof. It also stands to reason that the language and concepts of rights remain the appropriate and most effective vehicle for defining and pursuing Palestinian entitlements.
 
Palestine refugees, their human rights, aspirations and concerns, are bound to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and to the resolution of that conflict - in profound and inextricable ways. They hold a substantial stake in a just, stable future for the Middle East - a stake on which hangs their and their children’s destiny. Given their numbers and propensity for high achievement, refugees constitute a substantial reservoir of human capital capable of contributing to the strength and stability of the region and beyond.

We owe it to them to contribute to improving their lives. The refugees have a crucial role and position in the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict. Given the centrality of the Middle East in our history, past and present, providing them with real reasons for hope will contribute to improve the chances that our shared future will be a better one.

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$ 69 million.

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