(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

PARIS, 26 April (UNESCO) — The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, in cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States, convened the International Conference on Palestine Refugees which opened today at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters. Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and President of the Palestinian Authority, attended the opening session. Participants included eminent political personalities, world-renowned experts on Palestine refugees, the Palestinian Authority, representatives of intergovernmental organizations, United Nations system organizations, non-governmental organizations and the media. Participants will discuss the present situation of Palestine refugees, examine the role of the United Nations in finding a just solution to the refugee issue, provide an in-depth analysis of the question of Palestine refugees in the context of the current Middle East peace process, and promote concerted political and other action in support of a lasting solution to the Palestine refugee problem in accordance with international legitimacy.

This International Conference on Palestine Refugees is the second event organized by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People in cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States.

KIERAN PRENDERGAST, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, delivered a message from Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The Secretary-General, he said, noted that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are at a delicate stage. Both sides wanted to bring them to fruition. Mr. Annan urged the parties to move the peace process forward in order to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, in accordance with the agreed timetable. The divisive issues that the parties would have to deal with were, inter alia: Jerusalem, borders, settlements and refugees. The issue of more than 3 million Palestinian refugees was central to the question of Palestine and a sustainable peace in the entire region.

The General Assembly had repeatedly stressed the need to resolve the refugee issue in accordance with resolution 194. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had been the principal source of humanitarian assistance for millions of Palestinians. It provided social services, schools and health care, but had been beset in recent years with financial problems. Mr. Annan called on donors to continue to support UNRWA, and thanked the Governments of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria who had hosted the refugees over the years.

Recently appointed by the Secretary-General, Terje Rod-Larsen of Norway, the United Nations Special Coordinator, was working closely with the various parties in an effort to ensure that the varied assistance provided by the United Nations was more effective and efficient. Though the peace process in the Middle East was reaching a dramatic point, much remained to be achieved. The present conference would no doubt make a valuable contribution by focusing on a key part of the picture.

BRUNO RODRIGUEZ PARRILLA, Vice-Chairman, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said that since the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the parties had travelled a long way. The future of some 3.6 million Palestine refugees scattered throughout the Middle East and beyond was among the issues being addressed in the context of the final settlement negotiations. A humanitarian problem of unprecedented proportions was the most complicated, painful and long-lived of all permanent status issues. If the problem was not approached with due care and patience, if it was not resolved fairly and in accordance with norms of international law, the potential for peace and stability in the region would be seriously jeopardized.

Throughout the years, the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council had addressed the question of Palestine refugees and displaced persons in scores of resolutions. The most important and specific among them were General Assembly resolutions 212 (III) of 19 November 1948 — the first resolution on providing assistance to Palestine refugees; 194 (III) of 11 December 1948 — establishing the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP); 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 — UNRWA; and Security Council resolutions 237 (1967) and 242 (1967).

The Committee strongly believed that the United Nations should continue to have permanent responsibility for all aspects of the question of Palestine, including the problem of Palestine refugees, until it was resolved in conformity with relevant United Nations resolutions and in accordance with international legitimacy. It was universally acknowledged that the right of return was the core of the refugee problem. On numerous occasions it had been discussed at international meetings and conferences organized under the auspices of the Committee. In 1997, the Division for Palestinian Rights, under the guidance of the Committee, began a project aimed at the preservation and modernization of the property records of the Palestine refugees, originally prepared by the UNCCP. That important project was now nearing completion.

Together with the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States, the Committee would like to bring that unresolved issue to the focus of international attention, and to reaffirm the determination of the world community to ensure a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement in accordance with international legitimacy and United Nations resolutions. It was also of great significance that the meeting hosted by UNESCO was being held in Paris — in the centre of Europe, whose countries had done so much, together with the co-sponsors of the peace process, to create a political and economic environment favourable and conducive to peace.

AZEDDINE LARAKI, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said that, in 1948, the Israeli authorities embarked on a series of massacres and expulsions that led to the dispersion of Palestinians all over the world. In 1967 the Palestinians experienced another series of mass deportations. The Palestinian Diaspora was now spread over Iraq, Egypt and the Gulf countries, with the majority in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The present geographical breakdown of Palestinian refugees was as follows: Jordan, 1,512,742; Lebanon, 370,144; Syria, 374,521; Gaza, 98,444; the West Bank, 69,741. Total: 3,625,592.

After the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, UNRWA was established following a December 1949 United Nations General Assembly resolution, and went into operation in May 1950. The UNRWA had been providing essential services to the refugees in the areas of education, health, relief and social care. The UNRWA was different from other international organization because, despite its 50 years in operation UNRWA's mandate still has to be reviewed every three years; 95 per cent of UNRWA's budget was in the form of voluntary contributions from donor States; and its mandate was that of a humanitarian agency. The UNRWA financial crisis called for the provision of additional resources to the Agency. It would not be appropriate to transfer the responsibility for the refugees to any other Agency until the refugee issue was resolved in accordance with resolution 194.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference wished to stress the following facts: the Palestinian people's right to return to their homeland was inalienable, supported by General Assembly resolution 194, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, other human rights agreements, the Nuremberg Charter and the fourth Geneva Convention. There was an organic link between the right of return and the Palestinian right to self-determination. International law experts were aware that the honouring of the right to return was a sine qua none condition for the founding of the State of Israel, as its admission to the United Nations was conditional on its agreement to implement resolution 194. It was necessary to compel Israel to admit its historical and political responsibility to implement resolution 194. It was also necessary to implement Security Council resolution 237 regarding the Palestinians displaced in 1967. The Organization of the Islamic Conference considered the right of return non-negotiable; changes in sovereignty or actions of representatives could not annul it. Compensation was not a substitute for return. Rather, in addition to the right of return, refugees were entitled to compensation, namely moral compensation to individuals and communities, compensation for war crimes, compensation for the crimes against humanity and compensation for crimes committed against peace.

SAID KAMAL, Under-Secretary-General for Palestine Affairs, representative of the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, stated that permanent status negotiations had reached the issue of Palestine refugees — one of the basic root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians had to seek refuge to escape the horrors of war and sometimes deliberate Israeli expulsions, which were increasingly acknowledged by historians and politicians in Israel today.

Mr. Kamal said that General Assembly resolution 194 affirmed the Palestine refugees' right of return. That right had been reiterated 110 times by the United Nations. The Arab States had continued to assist the Palestine refugees over the years, including the provision of employment opportunities in their labour markets. The Arab States provided contributions the Peace Implementation Programme and to UNRWA, which was playing an important role in granting social services to the Palestine refugees. The League of Arab States' support was further evidenced by making the Palestine refugee issue a permanent agenda item at the meetings of the Arab League. A Conference on Palestine refugees met twice a year in the host countries.

In the view of the Arab League, a permanent solution to the Palestine refugees issue must acknowledge their right of return. Attempts to circumvent United Nations resolutions and international legitimacy through resettlement were not practical. Genuine peace and stability for Israel could not be achieved without solving the Palestine refugee issue, otherwise revolutions and intifadas would follow for generations to come.

AHMED SAYYAD, Assistant Director-General, representative of the Director-General of UNESCO, said that UNESCO had been cooperating with UNRWA in the field of education for Palestine refugee children. It would support the preservation of the Palestinian cultural heritage for as long as the refugee problem persisted. In the wake of Oslo, UNESCO made a proposal to UNRWA and to the Palestinian Authority to consider the eventual integration of all schools into the Palestinian education system. Though that proposal might have been misinterpreted, it was dictated solely by concern for the interests of Palestinian children. The UNESCO would continue to support Palestine refugees within its educational and cultural mandate.

AS'AD ABDUL RAHMAN, Member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Head of the Refugees Department, stated that the 5 million Palestine refugees had not forgotten that they had a homeland. The condition for Israeli recognition was its acceptance of resolution 194 and the refugees' right of return. However, resolution 181 on the Partition of Palestine, which was still relevant, as well as resolution 194 and subsequent resolutions, had been flouted by Israel. Resolution 194 was the only solution acceptable to the Palestine refugees and the PLO. The right of return was enshrined in human rights laws and Geneva conventions, and has been acknowledged repeatedly by United Nations bodies. However, the Palestinian Authority found itself still struggling with the last withdrawal. In spite of the existing agreements for Israel to vacate 91 per cent of the Palestinian territory, Israel was trying to reopen the territorial issue. While no progress had been achieved in the permanent status talks, several suspect trial balloons had been floated (proposing withdrawal from 65, 70 or 80 per cent of the territory). Israel would supposedly withdraw from a certain percentage of the occupied territories in return for concessions on the permanent status issues. Israel was pursuing a policy of stalling in the negotiations while delaying withdrawals. Proposals were being made to postpone the issues of Jerusalem and refugees until after permanent status talks. Despite optimistic media reports, there was little positive happening in the negotiations. The international community had taken quick action to redress the refugee situation in Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere. The Palestine refugee issue should be treated with equal seriousness; without a solution to the refugee problem the dream of peace in the Middle East could turn into a nightmare.

The representative of Oman, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, stated that without a solution to the Palestine refugee issue there could be no peace. Arab States had made a strategic choice in favour of the peace process based on the principle of land for peace. The international community was asked to set up a mechanism to find a solution to the refugee problem through resolution 194 and the UNCCP. He called on Israel to implement its commitments and comply with relevant United Nations resolutions. The Palestinian right of return was enshrined in human rights covenants and had been reaffirmed by the General Assembly over 110 times.

The representative of South Africa, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, said that as early as 1961 the Movement had called for the full restoration of Palestinian rights, including the right of return, and the right to its own State with Jerusalem as its capital. The Non-Aligned Movement continued to emphasize the need for UNRWA to have the fullest financial support. The Cartagena Ministerial Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement reaffirmed the need to fulfil agreements reached, support for resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace. The United Nations retained a permanent responsibility for the Palestine refugee issue until it was resolved.

The representative of France noted that the refugee issue continued to be one of the main components for a lasting solution to the conflict in the Middle East. France continued to support UNRWA, and he announced that his Government would increase its contribution by 50 per cent. He indicated that there were four principles that guided the solution to the refugee question. One: international legality: United Nations resolutions constituted an abiding reference to the negotiations. Two: the new realities in the Middle East regarding political, demographic and socio-economic factors. Those new realities had to be taken into account and required political compromises. The right of return would depend on the prospects for absorption. The right to compensation, which did not substitute for the right of return, would depend on financial arrangements and distribution modalities. Three: the wishes of the refugees should be taken into account and consultations should allow the refugees to express their preferences. Four: the international community had to play a role and coordinate the modalities for the implementation.

The representative of Indonesia stated that no other refugee issue had been this challenging. Generations of Palestinians had grown up facing hardship. The right of return stipulated in resolution 194 had been reiterated time and time again. It did not diminish with the passage of time. Security Council resolution 237 was unequivocal in calling for the return of refugees.

The representative of China welcomed the decision of the Palestinian people to chose peace and to adopt a flexible and gradual approach to the realization of their rights. Respect for United Nations resolutions and agreements reached was needed, but such respect should also be anchored in realities. Since 1965, China had supported schools for Palestine refugees. This year his Government is providing 30 million yuan to the Palestinian Authority for economic rehabilitation.

The representative of Ukraine stressed the importance of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. He also underlined the significance of implementing the Oslo Agreement, the Wye River Memorandum and the Sharm el Sheikh Agreement. The transfer of territories and release of prisoners should be accelerated. He also worked out the role of the United Nations as the guarantor of international law. Ukraine stood ready to develop economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. The representative of Italy stated that Italy was committed to a just and lasting solution in the framework of the peace process. Its Government had contributed specifically to the multilateral track. Palestinians were the main beneficiary of Italian development assistance in the Middle East. Italy contributed $4 million a year to UNRWA. It would further contribute $1 million for hospitals for the refugees in Lebanon and another $900,000 to the Palestinian Red Crescent for training needs. His Government was the main contributor to UNESCO programmes for Palestine refugees.

The representative of Egypt stated that new hopes for peace had arisen after the defeat of the Likud government. However, the Israeli negotiators were mistaken if they believed that the Palestine refugee issue could be circumvented through tactical manoeuvres. Arab negotiators could not bargain away the right of return. That right was inalienable, and therefore was not for Israel to grant or take away. He deplored the continuing Israeli settlement activity, which undermined the negotiations.

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Document symbol: GA/PAL/829
Document Type: Press Release
Document Sources: Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP)
Subject: Refugees and displaced persons
Publication Date: 28/04/2000