10th Conference of International Investigators, Amman – UNRWA Commissioner-General’s opening remarks

Commissioner-General’s Opening Remarks

10th Conference of International Investigators

Kempinski Hotel, Dead Sea Amman, 10 June 2009

Your Royal Highness Prince Hassan, Conference Chair, Paul Roberts, Under Secretary-General Inga-Britt Ahlenuis, members of the Conference of International Investigators, distinguished guests and colleagues:

On my own behalf and on behalf of UNRWA, I am pleased to extend to you a warm welcome to this 10th Conference of International Investigators. For UNRWA, it is a special honour to host this Conference for the first time and to do so in a year in which we commemorate our sixtieth year of operations. It is as well a privilege to welcome you as our guests. By choosing to hold your deliberations in the heart of UNRWA’s area of operations, you have demonstrated your recognition of the importance of this region and signaled your awareness of its global significance. The presence here of his Royal Highness is indeed an extraordinary tribute.

My staff and I see this conference as a valuable learning opportunity, a chance to obtain insights from you, the international experts, and to acquire new ideas on ways to develop the investigation function further within UNRWA. Accordingly, my remarks will briefly introduce UNRWA and share some reflections on how features of our work affirm the current importance of the investigation function.

UNRWA has come a long way since it was established in 1949 to respond to the emergency needs of some 800,000 refugees who had fled their homes in British mandate Palestine to seek sanctuary from the 1948 Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a very real sense, the United Nations family of agencies is the means for giving tangible expression to the UN Charter’s commitments to provide people in need with the assistance and protection required to safeguard their human dignity. UNRWA serves that purpose for Palestine refugees.

Today, we assist and protect a population of some 4.6 million Palestine refugees residing in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. Most UN agencies work alongside national authorities, providing capacity-building support to them, or utilizing non-governmental agencies as implementing partners. UNRWA, however, is unique among UN agencies in that it offers its services directly to refugees. In and around the 58 refugee camps in the region, our programmes in primary education, primary health care, relief and social services, infrastructure and microfinance are implemented by UNRWA’s own staff – some 29,000 of them – almost all of whom are Palestine refugees themselves. While providing public services to refugees, we ensure that our services are coordinated – and to the extent possible harmonized – with those of host countries and authorities.

Several implications flow from UNRWA’s modus operandi of providing directly services that are public in nature and essential to human development. Some of these touch on the growing significance of the investigation function. In operational terms, direct service provision necessitates high frequency and intensity of contacts with the refugee communities we serve. There are many positive aspects to this close interface. Through our extensive field presence, we obtain a keen sense of refugee needs, which informs our programme planning. We also benefit from a relationship of trust and confidence with refugees and host authorities across the region.

There are, however, challenges and risks as well. Consider, for example, that we have some 16,000 teachers in 683 elementary and preparatory schools; 138 health clinics receiving several million patient visits a year; 65 community-run women’s centers; and 10 vocational and technical training centers across the region.

UNRWA’s unique features notwithstanding, we are a United Nations Agency obligated to uphold principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality that are central to the UN Charter. Indeed we take the view that these principles apply with particular force in our volatile and politically sensitive operational environment and that scrupulous adherence to them is indispensable to UNRWA’s ability to function effectively. We strive to observe these principles not only internally, but also to cultivate and disseminate them through our staff rules and through specially developed curricula in our primary education programme.

The importance of the investigation function is underlined by the intersection of the factors I have outlined – the scale of our operations, the precarious nature of our operating environment and the imperatives of compliance with UN principles and donor conditions. These factors place a premium on high standards of staff conduct. In the eyes of our stakeholders, including our major donors, any allegations of serious wrong-doing potentially incur high reputational and credibility costs for UNRWA. Establishing investigation functions that meet international standards is a vital component of responding to the heightened scrutiny that comes with UNRWA’s field of operations.

UNRWA’s three-year programme of comprehensive management reforms offers another perspective on the value of the investigation function. Launched in 2006, the organizational development process – or "OD" as we call it, focuses on the areas of leadership and management, programme management, human resources management, and organizational processes and systems. In each of these areas, working level initiatives are in place to streamline, modernize and decentralize UNRWA’s management practice.

We are reforming our processes to allow broad functional delegation of authority from headquarters to the fields, while ensuring that staff, particularly those with management responsibilities, are accountable for the decisions they make. We seek to reinforce accountability through monitoring and evaluation, which are being developed as a central component in programme cycle management.

In this environment of dynamic change, it can be a challenge to strike the right balance between maintaining effective controls and allowing managers the freedom to be responsive, creative and innovative. The investigative function comes into its own on the occasions when the balance is skewed and probity suffers. Recognition of this risk was one of the considerations for the establishment of UNRWA’s first ever Senior Investigator post, which has only recently been filled.

I will mention one more dimension in which the investigation function holds value for UNRWA and the Palestine refugees we serve. I refer to the role of fact-finding in a context where, in circumstances of armed conflict, alleged violations of international law apparently lead to death or injury of United Nations staff or to damage or destruction of United Nations property. As we have seen from the most recent Gaza conflict, one cannot overstate the complexities of this category of investigations. All stages of the fact-finding process, from evidence-gathering through ensuring confidentiality to managing external interference, are fraught with pitfalls requiring careful management.

Equally, however, investigations of this genre are of profound significance to Palestinian civilians in the occupied Palestinian territory – men, women and children – who have no militant or political affiliation, but who nevertheless bear the brunt of armed conflict, mainly in the occupied Palestinian territory. For them, an authoritative investigation which establishes the facts is an important step on the path towards determining culpability and ultimately to accountability and justice under international law. Given the complexities and the depth of this significance, UNRWA is of the view that expanding the regional pool of investigators with skills in this area would be to the advantage of the international community.

Your Royal Highness, distinguished chair, distinguished guests:

I will conclude with the hope that your discussions will be stimulating and productive. In spite of the demanding agenda ahead of you, and having chosen a location such as this, I hope you find time to enjoy some moments of relaxation, particularly the unique delights of the Dead Sea.

My staff and I, particularly Mukesh Arya our Director of Internal Oversight, who has been instrumental in organizing this event, look forward to reviewing the conference discussions and outcomes. Most importantly, we look forward to sustaining in the years to come UNRWA’s relationship with the community of international investigators. I wish you all a very successful 10th conference.


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