Special Political and Decolonization Committee

02 November 2009

2 November 2009

Statement by Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, distinguished delegates:

I am happy to be here today to present to this Committee my annual report on the operations of UNRWA in 2008. Regretfully this will be my last report to the General Assembly, as my term of office expires at the end of December. Allow me, therefore, to take this opportunity to thank all of you for the support provided to UNRWA, and to me personally, over the nine years that I have served this Agency. I am deeply grateful.

As in previous years, this report pays particular attention to the difficult conditions prevailing in the occupied Palestinian territory and Lebanon, and their impact on UNRWA’s operations and Palestine refugees. The situation for refugees in Jordan and Syria remains secure and stable. The report details UNRWA’s operations as well as the organizational changes that have been underway since 2006 to modernize the agency and strengthen its management. It also describes some of our problems, including continuing access impediments to our daily work and the serious budgetary crisis in which we find ourselves.

Of the challenges we currently face, the most immediate is the funding shortfall for UNRWA’s regular budget in 2009, a deficit which looks likely to persist into 2010. The anticipated shortfall against the operational budget this year, a figure that represents the bare minimum UNRWA requires to continue operating, is $12 million. Barring a contribution in this amount, UNRWA will be unable to pay salaries for its staff before the end of the year, risking a suspension of some essential services. All stakeholders agree that this must be avoided.

I hasten to add that the funding we seek, to cover this deficit, will allow UNRWA merely to continue to carry out its basic services by paying salaries and office running costs. A much larger funding gap, of $84 million, remains in our approved regular budget. This covers the costs of other much needed activities, as in camp improvements, housing repairs, school furniture replacement and general maintenance. It is discouraging that three years into a strategic, results-based reform process to strengthen UNRWA’s management and programme effectiveness, we find ourselves again appealing for resources to avoid a crippling of vital Agency operations. Donors have generously contributed over $25 million for the reform process, yet we risk seeing its benefits negated for lack of a modest additional income.

I wish, however, to underscore the exceptional generosity of most of our donors. We appreciate that the global financial and economic crisis has increased the need for international assistance elsewhere, while reducing the revenue base of many donors and diminishing their capacity to maintain such assistance. Nevertheless, we remain concerned about the implications of the forecast decline in ODA in 2010 and thereafter. If necessary, to maintain planned programming, UNRWA will seek additional donor support, as we did earlier this year at an extraordinary meeting of our Advisory Commission.

The financial situation we face stands in sharp contrast to the reaffirmation of support for UNRWA and the Palestine refugees at the "High Level Event" at Headquarters here in New York, on 24 September this year. Commemorating the 60th anniversary of UNRWA’s establishment by the General Assembly, the event was a unique milestone for the Agency. Those with long institutional memory will be aware that it was the first Ministerial-level, General Assembly meeting dedicated solely to affirming UNRWA’s work on behalf of Palestine refugees. Commemorative events were also staged this year in Brussels, Cairo, Geneva, Ramallah, Vienna and Washington, DC. The participation of Heads of State, Ministers, and leading figures from the worlds of business, culture and the arts, testifies to the breadth of global concern for Palestine refugees and the respect UNRWA has earned for its service to them.

The High Level Event provided an opportunity to underscore the continuing relevance and validity of UNRWA’s role in preserving the dignity of Palestine refugees, in promoting their human development and in making a tangible contribution to stability in a conflict-prone region. I firmly hope that the strong support conveyed through the Ministerial-level participation of so many Member States will help galvanize the increased donor support that UNRWA so desperately needs to enhance its over-stretched management, programme and operational structures, enabling us to serve the refugees better.

Distinguished delegates:

While the High Level Event provides a basis for optimism, the explosion of violence in Gaza that ushered in the year has cast a shadow over the region, the Palestine refugees and UNRWA.

Launched on 27 December 2008, the scale and intensity of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza were unprecedented in the recent history of the conflict. By the time the Israeli government declared a ceasefire on 18 January, 1,387 Palestinians had lost their lives, among them 313 children, according to non-governmental sources. Thirteen Israelis were killed during this period. More than 5,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, leaving approximately 50,000 people homeless. Civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, UN schools and clinics, factories, farms and water and electrical systems also sustained damage.

In Gaza during the first week of the conflict, I witnessed first-hand some of the attacks and their effects on the civilian population. Throughout, UNRWA led the international community’s coordinated response. We sheltered and fed more than 50,000 displaced people, and offered critical medical care to wounded civilians at our clinics as well as medical supplies to clinics and hospitals suffering critical shortages. At significant risk to their own safety, UNRWA staff extended a humanitarian lifeline to affected communities. I commend them and their colleagues in the Palestinian Red Crescent, the International Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations for their remarkable commitment and professionalism during the conflict.

Following the ceasefire, UNRWA moved rapidly to restore its regular services in an effort to bring a semblance of normalcy to a traumatized population. Once the displaced people sheltering in our school buildings were relocated, we opened UNRWA’s classrooms to our 200,000 pupils six days after the ceasefire. By that time, our clinics and food distribution centers were again fully operational.

UNRWA’s key role as the lead responder and its speedy transition to a post-conflict recovery and rehabilitation mode triggered strong political and financial support from the international community. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza 20 January, two days after the ceasefire was declared. This was the first visit by a Secretary-General to Gaza in nine years. Earlier, UN Security Council Resolution 1860 of 8 January 2009 recognized UNRWA’s "vital role" in providing assistance in Gaza, and called on donors to make additional contributions to our efforts to alleviate the humanitarian situation. I thank the members of the Security Council for their invitation for me to brief the Council on 27 January about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. I also thank the membership of the General Assembly for the appreciation and support shown to UNRWA throughout this difficult period.

UNRWA’s Quick Response Plan for Gaza, launched in January, has received pledges amounting to almost $250 million, of the $371 million requested, a record amount for an UNRWA appeal in the occupied territory. Support for the Plan has been truly global, attracting a number of new donors, both governmental and non-governmental. The solidarity shown by civil society in the Middle East has been particularly gratifying. Our largest traditional donors, the United States and the European Commission, have also been exceptionally generous, contributing a combined total of over $110 million.

Of grave concern, however, to UNRWA and the UN family, is the continuing blockade of Gaza’s borders, a blockade that limits humanitarian access, restricts the import of virtually all construction materials needed to re-build a shattered infrastructure, and has effectively shut down the Gazan private sector. Prior to the imposition of the blockade in mid 2007, Gaza’s 1.5 million population received a monthly average of 12,350 truckloads of supplies. Now, only 20 percent of this volume is allowed in, confined mainly to food and medicine. Only 70 percent of the industrial fuel needed for Gaza’s power plant, a quarter of the cooking gas, and a trickle of petrol and diesel fuel is made available. A recent survey shows that the number of refugees in Gaza classified as "abject poor" has tripled in the last year to 300,000. Childhood stunting, a consequence of chronic malnutrition, is now making an appearance.

Thanks to good liaison with the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, with which UNRWA maintains a positive and productive working relationship, we are now able to import items such as paper for textbooks and supplies required for our Summer Games activities, benefiting some 250,000 youth. We also welcome more recent COGAT approval of monthly currency transfers into Gaza to cover salaries of UNRWA staff, Special Hardship Case allowances and our school feeding program. Other badly needed items however remain subject to delays – when not banned entirely.

There were indications early this year that the unprecedented severity of the conflict had triggered pressures to modify the policy of isolating Gaza, of which the blockade is the most concrete manifestation. At the March International Conference in Support of the Palestinian Economy for the Reconstruction of Gaza, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, donors pledged $4.5 billion on the understanding that agreement on opening Gaza’s borders would be pursued with new vigor. Seven months later, there has been no progress towards an agreement. Homes, schools, farms, businesses and other civilian infrastructure destroyed in the conflict will remain in ruins until closure is lifted.

UNRWA continues to call for the opening of Gaza’s crossings, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1860 and the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access. Guarantees on security measures for the Israelis, and guarantees of operational stability of the crossing points for Palestinians will be required.

The longer the blockade of Gaza is maintained, the harsher will be the suffering of its people, the deeper will be their grievances and the more radicalized some will become.

Distinguished delegates:

In the West Bank, the separation barrier and its associated obstacles and administrative restrictions prevent the flourishing of a sustainable Palestinian economy. Construction continues in Israeli settlements. House demolitions and confiscations, notably in East Jerusalem, are regular features of Palestinian life. Notwithstanding recent improvements in economic and security indicators, the West Bank remains splintered – ‘a shattered economic space’ in the words of the World Bank – to a point where its integrity as a viable socio-economic and political unit is deeply compromised. The intricate web of Israeli measures whittles away the living space and resources available to Palestinians. Forty per cent of West Bank land is effectively off-limits to them.

These measures constrain UNRWA activities by creating obstacles to the movement of staff and goods essential to meet refugee needs. The quadrupling of humanitarian access incidents, from 231 in 2007 to 918 in 2008, is a sign of these constraints, which are contradictory to efforts to re-kindle the peace process. They have persisted this year, despite improved security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel, reaching 455 by end September.

Faced with prolonged hardship, limitations on access to certain service providers and to employment, refugees in the West Bank continue to turn to UNRWA for emergency assistance. UNRWA’s emergency activities in the West Bank, now in their tenth year, remain focused on providing temporary employment, along with food and cash assistance for those in need, directly benefiting over 300,000 refugees. While protecting refugees from some of the worst effects of poverty, and providing a modest basis for socio-economic recovery should a peace process gain traction, sadly the need for intervention reflects the aid dependency thrust upon Palestinian society. We hope this unhealthy level of dependency on foreign assistance will soon begin to ease. Palestinian society has traditionally been self-reliant, while Palestinian enterprise and capacity for hard work are celebrated throughout the region.

In Lebanon, UNRWA grapples with a level of socio-economic hardship among the refugees that, after Gaza, is the highest in our areas of operation. Our most pressing concern, however, is the reconstruction of Nahr El Bared camp, which was destroyed in the summer of 2007, and the care of 27,000 refugees who were displaced as a consequence. Given the direct relevance to refugees’ rights and to the stability of northern Lebanon, it is critical that recovery and reconstruction of the camp move forward, with due consideration for Lebanese law and the archeological ruins discovered under parts of the camp, and that the international community fully responds to the $328.4 million appeal, only $92.2 million of which has been pledged so far. In this regard, UNRWA welcomes the recent resumption of reconstruction work after a temporary suspension following the discovery of archaeological ruins. 

We are pleased by indications that a new Government intends to build upon the initiatives to improve Palestinian living conditions, first launched by Prime Minister Siniora and his cabinet in 2005.  Consultations continue with the Government on subjects of special concern to UNRWA, namely the right to work and access to employment for Palestinians, respect for human rights of Palestine refugees, in particular the 421,000 registered refugees, and improvement of living conditions in the 12 refugee camps.

By contrast, in Jordan and the Syrian Arab Republic the refugees live in stable and conflict-free environments.

Distinguished delegates,

Notwithstanding the continued emergency in the occupied Palestinian territory and the major challenge of reconstructing Nahr el-Bared, in 2008 we made solid progress in the delivery of UNRWA’s regular services to registered refugees in our five fields of operation. Services are organized in five programme departments covering education, health, relief and social services, microfinance, and infrastructure and camp improvement.

The education of 481,000 pupils in 684 schools, as well as almost 6,000 trainees in vocational and technical training centers, consumed 53 percent of UNRWA’s regular budget. Major developments during the year were the launch of ‘a Respect and Discipline in Violence-Free Schools’ initiative; renewed attention to academic standards through achievement testing in Jordan and the Syrian Arab Republic and a remedial education drive in the Gaza Strip; and the production of enhanced materials for our human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance programme. Improvements were also introduced in our job placement and career guidance system.

In the area of health, medical consultations provided to refugees rose to 9.6 million, while the number of those who received hospital treatment was up by 14 percent, to almost 85,000, in 2008. Emphasis was placed on new guidelines, standards and data gathering, to enable UNRWA to better monitor health conditions in the refugee population, and deliver more effective responses to changing needs. Health absorbs 20 percent of the regular budget.

Mr. Chairman,

I have referred to some of the major challenges facing UNRWA’s services, many stemming from decades of inadequate resourcing, resulting in adverse effects on UNRWA’s management capacity.  To address these challenges, in 2006 UNRWA began implementing an Organizational Development – or "OD" – process, the most ambitious initiative to date to reform and strengthen management structures and processes. With strong stakeholder support, I am pleased to report that the OD is showing positive results.

Perhaps the most significant outcome to date is the six-year Medium Term Strategy, or MTS, a major new document which is the blueprint for programmes and field operations set to begin in January 2010.  Based on four human development goals for the Palestine refugees - a long and healthy life, the acquisition of knowledge and skills, a decent standard of living and human rights enjoyed to the fullest - the MTS will re-focus UNRWA’s work in important ways. UNRWA will do more to assess where needs are greatest in refugee communities, and prioritize services to meet those needs more effectively.  In future, budget allocations will be made on the basis of forecast outcomes, not on programme-based inputs, an approach that should raise the quality of services. Strengthening service quality is not a luxury. It is a refugee right, a donor request and an expectation of the General Assembly.

Improvements are not possible, however, without reforms of UNRWA’s managerial structures and functions. At the management level, the OD has strengthened needs-based planning, monitoring and evaluation and put in place decentralized models of individual accountability. Under the OD, UNRWA’s oversight function has been restructured and upgraded to ensure that audit, inspection and investigations are streamlined and strengthened.  The positive impact of change is already felt across our fields and operations.

At present, 14 critical international posts are funded by bilateral donors from the OD budget. As dedicated funds for the OD expire at the end of 2009, UNRWA seeks inclusion of these posts in the UN programme budget for 2010-2011.  We appeal to Member States to help fulfill this expectation by ensuring that adequate resources are made available to embed these reforms in UNRWA.  Failure to do so will set back our concerted, three-year effort to strengthen our management and programmes, and negatively affect the refugees themselves.

In this connection, I draw attention to the report of an extraordinary meeting of the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA (A/64/115) adopted in June, and submitted to this Committee. The most important recommendations from the Working Group are, first, a request to the Secretary-General to commission a report on ways to strengthen the management capacity of UNRWA and present the report to relevant bodies of the United Nations. Secondly, the Working Group has proposed that the Fifth Committee reconsider the nature and level of funding provided to UNRWA from the UN regular budget, to enable us to fulfill the General Assembly’s many requirements of UN operational agencies working in the field. I join the Secretary-General in urging Member States to revisit the funding arrangements made 35 years ago – in an era different from today.

Distinguished delegates:

After nine years of service with UNRWA, and twenty eight altogether with the United Nations, I retire at the end of 2009. Over the course of my UN career I have witnessed the resolution of a number of protracted refugee situations, participating in the joyful repatriation of Namibian and South African refugees. I witnessed frightful ethnic conflict in former Yugoslavia, brought to a halt in large part thanks to the firm and united resolve of the international community. In tragic contrast, the Israeli – Palestinian conflict remains resistant to solution, despite the clarity of what must be involved: an end to occupation, Palestinian self-determination and security guarantees for both Palestinians and Israelis. Given my institutional responsibilities, I would only urge that, in the interests of ensuring a sustainable settlement, all those directly affected be consulted, and their views taken into account. The views of refugees cannot – and should not – be taken for granted. That path will lead only to disappointment, frustration and ultimately, perhaps, rejection of the agreement.

UNRWA remains acutely conscious that, 60 years on, it is still a temporary agency. One day, when a negotiated settlement has been reached, we shall hand over the tasks we currently undertake to others. Together with that handover will come a professional cadre of tens of thousands of Palestinians, well-trained and committed to the values of the United Nations. Millions more will be equipped to cope with the exigencies of daily life in the Middle East, thanks to their exposure to an UNRWA doctor, teacher, social worker, engineer or micro-finance specialist.

Their experience will be UNRWA’s finest legacy.  

Background Information

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA Programme Budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s Programme Budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals.

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.

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Two UNRWA students from Gaza enjoy recess in their first day of school. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Rushdi Al-Saraj
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