Statement to the UN Security Council
by UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl
Distinguished Members of the United Nations Security Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me to thank you for the invitation to address your esteemed Council. It is a particular honor to do so from Gaza.
I wish to begin with a heartfelt expression of appreciation to the member states of the United Nations - both countries hosting Palestine refugees and donors - for their extraordinary trust in and support to UNRWA since its operations began in 1950.
Together we have significantly advanced several key sustainable development goals for Palestine refugees, notably in education, health and beyond, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight.
Never was your support more remarkable than in 2018, when our Agency was confronted with its most severe funding crisis ever. A truly existential crisis. 42 different countries and institutions from all corners of the world - including Indonesia Madam President - increased their contributions to UNRWA last year and we, on our side, took a number of difficult internal measures and reduced expenditures by US $92 M. Through these combined efforts, we last year successfully overcame an unprecedented deficit of US $446 M.
We are particularly indebted to the leadership of Secretary-General António Guterres and the wider United Nations family, who resolutely stood with UNRWA every step of the way during these most challenging times.
The European Union became the Agency’s single largest contributor in 2018 and I wish to pay special tribute also to Germany, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Norway and many others, including permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council for their very generous contributions last year.
These actions were vital to keeping open the 715 schools that UNRWA runs for over half a million female and male students in the West Bank - including East Jerusalem - Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Since 1950, over 2 Million students have graduated from UNRWA schools, where gender-parity has long been achieved and we have included a Human-Rights, Conflict-Resolution and Tolerance program, unique in the region.
The generous support of donors also preserved the primary-health care services for 3 Million patients through our network of 140 health centres and - despite severe pressures - our emergency services to 1.5 Million refugees, mainly in Gaza, the West Bank and Syria.
At a time when Palestine Refugees face a near complete absence of a political horizon, I am strongly convinced that preserving UNRWA’s services is a crucial contribution in terms of human dignity and regional stability.
Speaking from Gaza, I must draw the urgent and renewed attention of the Council to the increasingly desperate situation faced by the inhabitants of the Strip - of which at least 1.3 M are Palestine refugees.
My current visit has once again exposed me to the extreme hardship created by successive armed confrontations, blockade and violence. UNRWA is working alongside our UN and civil society partners to address this humanitarian crisis.
I think here of issues like the lack of freedom of movement or employment opportunities, as well as the deep trauma created by the many casualties and injured from repeated wars and also from what became known as the “Great Marches of Return”. Thousands of young people were wounded and hundreds killed since March 2018, including 14 boys and girls aged 11 to 16 who were students in UNRWA schools.
As I have done in the past, I reiterate here my call for respect of international humanitarian law and my condemnation of the targeting of civilians. This includes rocket firing from Gaza that has led to civilian loss of life and injuries in Israel.
Every family in Gaza has been impacted and people speak of a level of despair that surpasses anything previously known to them, in particular in terms of what our health teams call an “epidemic deterioration of mental-health conditions”. After hearing many concrete examples during my visit today, it seems particularly important that UNRWA and other relevant actors are enabled to strengthen critically needed mental health capacities.
Poverty levels among Palestine refugees continue to rise and they rely on UNRWA to in particular meet essential food needs. For their sake and the stability of Gaza, we must ensure that our food distributions for 1 Million people do not face any interruption.
As we speak, UNRWA has only enough money to run its operations until mid June. Then we will hit negative figures and a funding gap. It is absolutely crucial to avoid a break-down of our food pipeline-line and I call on our partners to actively mobilize in support of our efforts to secure the needed funding.
It is similarly essential that UNRWA can open the next school year on time in August and September. We are currently rehabilitating a large number of schools but we need the funding to ensure that the education itself can be provided.
Nothing sustains hope and opportunities more effectively than the education provided in our classrooms. I am deeply impressed by the courage shown by our students in overcoming the adversity they face and pursuing their studies. We need to match that courage with our ability to mobilize the necessary financial support.
In Gaza alone, 280’000 girls and boys study in our schools. In light of all the discussions on leaving no one behind, on safeguarding refugee education and preserving regional stability, we need to work together to keep UNRWA schools open and safe.
UNRWA faces important needs in the West Bank as well, including in East Jerusalem. Palestine refugees in the West Bank are confronted with multiple consequences of the ongoing occupation, such as home demolitions and evictions, with numbers significantly on the rise since early 2019, as well as movement restrictions and settler violence.
There are also frequent military incursions where live ammunition is fired, at times resulting in fatalities, but often in injuries and property damage in densely populated areas like Palestine refugee camps, where entire communities can be impacted by the live fire and the use of tear gas.
I must in particular draw the attention of the Council to the growing pressures UNRWA itself has faced in East Jerusalem, with threats to interfere with our operations.
The current developments in the West Bank including East Jerusalem will not only further unsettle Palestine refugees, but also their hope and aspirations with regard to a two-State solution and their rights under international law.
Madam President, in addition to strong political backing, in 2019, we require US $ 1.2 Billion for all our operations throughout the Near East. This is the exact amount we mobilized last year. In other words, if every donor managed to maintain its level of funding in 2019, we should be able to cover our budget.
I therefore humbly call on all our partners to repeat their generous support and preserve the successful dynamic created in 2018. The upcoming pledging conference - to be held in New York on June 25 - will be an important opportunity to that effect. For its part, UNRWA will continue to manage its operations with strong financial discipline and a determination to achieve further efficiencies.
Members of the Council,
Wars, armed conflicts and violence, persist in the absence of effective political action to resolve them. It is political inaction - not the action of humanitarian organizations - that perpetuates conflicts. Nothing today would be more important than a renewed genuine and inclusive effort to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
I say this not because UNRWA was mandated to deal with the politics of the region. We were not. But rather because every single day, we deal with increasingly severe humanitarian and human consequences of this enduring conflict.
We do not believe that the future of Palestine refugees should be framed by another ten, twenty, thirty or forty years of UNRWA. They need and deserve a just and lasting solution, a political solution. Until then, we are determined to live up to the mandate that the UN General Assembly bestowed upon us.
When meeting with young students here in Gaza, I was again reminded that our efforts, with your support, are worth it every single day. In another remarkable example of talent and dedication, 15-year old UNRWA student Jameela Abu Jom’a, was declared the winner of the “2019 Inspirational Messages of Peace Contest” by the US National Park Service and International World Peace Rose Gardens.
The competition celebrates messages of peace written by youth throughout the world. I yesterday congratulated Jameela and we are very proud that her message of peace will be on display in the gardens of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta, Georgia for one year.
This is what you, as members of the Council and the General Assembly, have allowed us to achieve and preserve. For this you deserve the highest recognition. From here in Gaza, I call upon you to protect this vital effort and sustain your collective mobilization, in support of dignity, stability and robust multilateralism.
I thank you Madam President.