Statement by Filippo Grandi to the Special Political and Decolonisation Committee of the General Assembly

02 November 2010

New York, 1 November 2010

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

For the first time since my appointment as Commissioner-General, I have the honour to present to the General Assembly UNRWA’s Annual Report. While the report covers 2009, I will take this opportunity to highlight the main challenges that UNRWA continues to confront in 2010, as the Agency’s management and staff remain focused on seeking ever more effective ways to promote the well being of Palestine refugees and to advocate for their rights under United Nations resolutions and international law.

UNRWA’s mission continues to be of critical importance to refugees, to the Middle East and to the international community. It is regrettable that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict – and the refugee question that is one of its historical consequences – remains unresolved. On the other hand, sixty-one years after UNRWA’s establishment, the vital contributions of its work remain undiminished by the passage of time, by the persistence of conflict or by financial difficulties. UNRWA’s mission advances the principles and purposes of the UN Charter in ways that have an impact beyond the humanitarian and human development areas covered by the Agency’s operations. It stands to reason that supporting – and ensuring support – for UNRWA and its mission serves the common interests of Member States and the United Nations as a whole.

A number of developments have dominated our attention in the course of this year.

The last few months, as you are well aware, have seen a renewal of efforts to revive the search for peace. Notwithstanding the considerable complexities, we must continue to expect that political actors will make the difficult and courageous choices that are required. The international community cannot afford to relent in its pursuit of a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict; of a viable State of Palestine living in peace with its neighbours; of an end to the occupation; and, most relevant to our subject matter today, of a just and lasting solution to the plight of refugees, without which UNRWA’s work will continue to be indispensable. UNRWA is not a political actor, and I speak here, therefore, from the perspective of an organization that has served people caught in conflict for the past six decades. It is to those people, also, that peace is owed – and it is for those people that in spite of all the difficulties, efforts to find solutions must continue, and must be supported, lest we fail to fulfill one of the fundamental tenets of the existence of the United Nations.

Let me share with you some information regarding our specific challenges.

In Gaza, we continue to deal with the aftermath of destruction and human suffering engendered by the recent war. We welcome the positive measures taken by Israel to improve access for a variety of consumer goods and some construction materials for a number of internationally supervised projects. However, the overall situation of the civilian population continues to be extremely difficult. Restoring normal economic conditions and addressing the infrastructure needs are the key challenges.

Rehabilitation and construction requirements are enormous. In spite of this, crucial materials remain subject to severe restrictions, cumbersome import procedures and frequent delays. For example, in October only 24 percent of the scheduled imports for approved UNRWA projects were granted entry. On the broader issue of economic recovery, which is indispensable to move back from humanitarian assistance to much-needed development, little progress has occurred so far, though it is encouraging that discussions are ongoing in this respect. The United Nations, including UNRWA, recognizes Israel’s legitimate security needs and notes the continuing engagement of the Israeli authorities. However, I wish to join the Secretary-General and other international actors in urging a further increase in the range and quantity of goods actually imported into Gaza and the establishment of measures aimed at enabling normal trade to resume. At the same time we must call for the blockade to be lifted in full to enable Gaza to begin the process of recovery that its long-suffering people so urgently need.

Efforts made so far are important, and must continue. But the root causes of the blockade must also be addressed, because logistical measures taken in isolation from their wider context, will inevitably be insufficient to address the needs of civilians in Gaza. Without, a full opening of the borders for people and goods – both imports and exports – dependency on aid will continue to remain abnormally high for a population with skills, entrepreneurial spirit and desire to provide for themselves.

In the West Bank there are welcome signs of economic recovery that is driven, at least in part, by growth in the main urban areas. It is essential to note, however, that improved macro-economic indicators have yet to transform living standards for the majority of refugees, and have not alleviated the deficit of human rights that is inherent in a life under occupation. Many Palestinians – refugees and non-refugees alike – continue to endure the harsh effects of the regime of fragmentation and closures that are becoming permanent features of this part of the occupied Palestinian territory. Of special concern is the plight of refugees living under the shadow of the barrier and of rural communities that experience shocking restrictions on access to work, land, and services. I call attention to the special situation of refugees residing in East Jerusalem, a population approximately 70,000 strong, whose lives and livelihoods are particularly exposed to severe risks from house demolitions and forced evictions.

In just a few weeks UNRWA will join the rest of the United Nations family in appealing for emergency humanitarian assistance in the occupied Palestinian territory through a consolidated funding appeal. It is a sad reflection of the lack of progress on the political front that we are compelled to do so for the ninth time since the year 2000. Resources spent on food aid, cash grants and emergency jobs should be used to promote the institutional, human and economic development of Palestinians. The circumstances that I have just described, however, require that we do not lower our collective humanitarian guard and that we continue to address the special needs especially of those affected by the conflict. I am concerned by the decreasing response to appeals for humanitarian funding in the occupied Palestinian territory and trust that adequate resources will continue to be provided for these urgent needs, as long as necessary.

In Lebanon, UNRWA was greatly encouraged by the courageous decision of Parliament last August to amend labour laws and grant Palestinians access to formal employment in the private sector. This represents an important first step, which will contribute to the ability of refugees to lift themselves out of poverty, without prejudice to other refugee rights and UN resolutions. Thus, as I have pointed out in recent meetings with the Lebanese authorities, the full implementation of these amendments is urgent and crucial. In northern Lebanon, the reconstruction of Nahr el-Bared Camp continues. Approximately 27,000 refugees fled from the camp in June 2007 and – regrettably – they are still displaced and living in hardship. UNRWA is working with Lebanese civilian and military institutions to expedite rebuilding and to ease access for refugees to the camp and surrounding communities, with due regard for Lebanon’s security concerns. In this regard, UNRWA is pleased to report that it will soon be possible for a group of refugees to return to the first reconstructed area of the camp, with the rest of the displaced population to be gradually re-housed in seven subsequent phases of reconstruction. Five of those next phases require urgent funding to be implemented – an issue that I would like to bring to the attention of those donors who pledged support to this project at the conference held in Vienna in 2008.

In Jordan and the Syrian Arab Republic, the situation of the refugees during the reporting period and over the course of this year was, by contrast, stable and conducive to a focus on our human development programming, thanks also to the invaluable support of host governments. Financial challenges and the need to continue our reform process were, however, common to all our fields of operation. I wish now to turn to them.

The precarious financial situation of UNRWA’s core budget – the fund which allows the Agency to provide education, health and social services to millions of refugees – was of serious concern throughout 2009 and 2010 and will remain a grave issue for the immediate future. As late as August, we were confronted by an $85 million shortfall against our $541.5 million operational budget, which would have prevented UNRWA from maintaining existing services as of October. In recent weeks, however, we have been informed of exceptional additional contributions by our three largest donors, notably, the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom. This, in addition to increased contributions by other donors, has substantially helped to narrow the funding gap to approximately $30 million. With some anticipated additional resources expected to be made available both from traditional and non-traditional donors, and the prudent utilization of resources, we hope that this year’s remaining gap will be bridged. This is greatly appreciated, especially at a time when States’ budgets are under enormous pressure. But a greater challenge confronts us in the years ahead. UNRWA must work with its Advisory Commission and with you, Member States of the General Assembly, our parent body, to find ways to tackle the structural roots of the Agency’s recurrent financial crises. Budget shortfalls of such magnitude threaten the continuation of quality services to refugees, prevent sound planning, place at risk the groundbreaking reforms of recent years and are at odds with the support Member States express for UNRWA, its mission and the refugees it serves.

The Agency is doing its part to help address the root causes of its financial difficulties. Very early in my tenure as Commissioner-General, I made it a priority to revise our strategy for resource mobilization. This will be presented to the next meeting of the Advisory Commission as part of the second phase of the Agency’s reforms, which I will address shortly. We also undertook an enhanced fundraising campaign, while ensuring in parallel that internal financial and operations management remain on a footing of austerity and stringent fiscal prudence.

While continuing to count on our core donors, we are extending our appeal to Member States in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and redoubling outreach to partners in the Arab world. This included an appeal for greater support to Arab States at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Cairo in September, in which I participated thanks to the good offices of the Government of Jordan and the support of the League of Arab States – an appeal which I wish to reiterate today. We are also actively seeking new partnerships with foundations and the private sector, with a view to tapping not only into resources, but also the technical expertise, management support and networks that can help strengthen UNRWA’s advocacy for Palestine refugees and broaden the Agency’s global visibility.

Forty years ago, in response to an earlier financial crisis at UNRWA caused by shortfalls in voluntary funding, the General Assembly took the bold decision to partially relieve the Agency‘s budget by providing for international staff salary costs from the UN‘s assessed contributions budget. Today we are at a similar juncture, one where additional assistance is required from the regular budget to help cover new and increased management-related expenditure we are obliged to incur, so as to enable donors‘ voluntary contributions to be devoted to direct service delivery for the refugees. I thus join the Secretary-General in the suggestion he made last year, during the commemoration of UNRWA‘s 60th anniversary, in recommending that the General Assembly use this session to look again at the adequacy of the level and scope of its current funding for UNRWA.

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

As was previously reported, UNRWA has set in motion an important process of institutional transformation through the Organisational Development plan, which started in 2006. Most related initiatives were completed on time and on budget at the end of 2009. This comprehensive effort laid the foundations for the introduction of modern management systems and vital improvements in the quality and effectiveness of services provided to the refugees. The effort entailed close consultation with donors and hosts in the region – in particular through the Advisory Commission – and engagement with United Nations Headquarters in New York, where delegations were kept informed throughout the process.

Organisational Development represented a first – if very important – step towards improving UNRWA’s work. Much as this will represent a challenge to us all, we must not allow the Agency’s resource deficit to prevent it from pursuing its reform efforts. We will therefore maintain the momentum of reforms through a range of initiatives under the headline of “Sustaining Change”. This phase of reforms is being led, with energy and vision, by the Deputy Commissioner-General, Margot Ellis, who took up her post early this year. Under her able leadership, the “Sustaining Change” package of initiatives is concentrating on enhancing service delivery to refugees and on improving our approach to resource mobilization and strategic partnerships. We are scrutinizing in detail the structures and methods of our education, health and social safety net programmes. And, based on the outcomes of independent, expert reviews, we are identifying areas where rigorous modernizing changes will be introduced to ensure that refugees are better served. In tandem with our Medium Term Strategy for 2010-2015, the continuation of reforms into the near future will therefore gradually help bring the process of management and programme development to fruition.

The Agency is committed to sustaining the achievements built up over six decades, including contributing to the growth of a skilled Palestinian middle class. I see this work as one of UNRWA’s key priorities, one which cannot be achieved, however, unless the services we offer are innovative and of good quality. We are therefore determined to overcome the constraints that stand in the way of fulfilling our dynamic role as the largest investor in the substantial human capital that Palestine refugees represent.

Our vision and focus are clear: UNRWA’s mission is to help refugees realize their potential in spite of the constraints of protracted exile. This remains at the core of what “human development” means for UNRWA. It is exemplified particularly by the attention we give to refugee children through primary education, our largest programme and one that symbolizes what UNRWA has represented - and continues to represent - for generations of Palestinians. Improving education is at the heart of our current reforms, emphasizing the need to develop the educational system around children and to form a body of teachers who do not simply impart knowledge but are able to help children build skills for life – a challenging goal, especially in situations of occupation and conflict, but one worth pursuing per se, because refugee children have an intrinsic right to a better future - even more so if we believe that peace, Palestinian statehood and a just solution to the question of refugees are eventually possible. We thus want our schools and vocational training centres to be an expression of UNRWA’s instinct for developing the potential of – and opportunities for – individual refugees. In the environment of extraordinary stress that they experience, we seek to nurture students in directions consistent with United Nations values: tolerance for diversity and opposing views; peaceful resolution of disputes; respect for human rights, dignity for all.

Our protection work is, in a very real sense, a good example of UNRWA deploying every available programmatic, normative and advocacy tool to safeguard and advance the rights of Palestine refugees. We are achieving our protection goals by embracing more explicitly the duty of care we owe to the refugees in four major dimensions, namely: in planning and implementing programmes; in the actual delivery of services; in monitoring and interventions to promote respect for aspects of international law; and in advocacy for a just and durable solution for the refugees.

UNRWA’s work can only speak to a portion of the refugees’ concerns and expectations, many of which are the responsibility of states and international political actors to address. However, UNRWA’s role requires us to encourage concerned parties to respect and implement their human rights and international law obligations as these pertain to the situation of Palestine refugees, and to remind political actors that they – and they alone – can and must solve the refugee question in a principled manner.

UNRWA invites the international community to recognize Palestine refugees as a sizeable constituency for peace that represents a significant body of interests in the future of the Middle East. This is a community whose aspirations and concerns deserve to be – and must be – addressed in the search for a negotiated solution to the conflict. Ensuring that their voice is heard and that their choices are sought and recognized will be in the interest of all.

Before concluding, allow me to express UNRWA‘s profound gratitude to the States whose financial contributions sustain our work with refugees, as well as to the host authorities: Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria - and their peoples - for their continued, substantial and diverse contributions in hosting refugees. UNRWA would simply be unable to function without the consistency of host country and donor support and the readiness of all partners to make sacrifices for the sake of Palestine refugees.

I wish to extend from this podium a word of heartfelt thanks to the staff of UNRWA – those serving in the particularly testing fields of Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, and those carrying out their important duties in more stable situations in Jordan and the Syrian Arab Republic – for their hard work and dedication to duty over the years. They are the unsung heroes of our long history and it is important that we recognise their contribution. I note here with regret that UNRWA’s area staff are the only United Nations employees who do not receive compensation for the life-threatening risks they encounter in conflict areas and I renew our appeal to the General Assembly to remedy this anomaly.

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates:

The future of Palestine refugees and their quest for a just and lasting solution are political issues for which the parties to the conflict and international community are responsible. Refugees crave normal lives of freedom, dignity and opportunity as described in international instruments. They look to Member States and the organs of the United Nations – as international actors and joint custodians of international law – to deliver on the promises of the United Nations Charter as they apply to refugees.

They expect from the international community much more than lip service. As long as their plight remains unresolved, they will demand understanding, compassion, and principled and courageous political action.

Until the goals of peace are achieved, UNRWA will continue to require - and deserve – your active support. In that regard, I trust that Member States will support renewal of UNRWA‘s mandate as they have regularly seen fit to do, before it expires at the end of June 2011. For its part, the Agency will maintain its unflinching commitment to the protection and well-being of Palestine refugees and continue to seek more efficient and effective ways to serve them.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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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