Following is Secretary-General Kofi Annan's message to the Conference in Support of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, being held in Brussels, 24 to 25 February, delivered on his behalf by the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Kieran Prendergast:

It is an honour for me to convey a message to this conference on the question of Palestine being held under the joint auspices of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the League of Arab States, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

I wish to express gratitude both for the hospitality offered by the Government of Belgium and for the assistance provided to the United Nations Secretariat in organizing this meeting. Belgium's strong support for the objectives and work of the United Nations is well-known. The country's location at the heart of Europe and its role as a seat of European institutions add an important dimension to this event. The United Nations is also grateful for the personal interest in this meeting demonstrated by His Excellency the Foreign Minister of Belgium.

I would also like to congratulate the League of Arab States and the Organization of the Islamic Conference for their cooperation with the Committee on Palestinian Rights and the Division for Palestinian Rights, and for their generosity in shouldering part of the costs.  Working together in this manner is yet another example of the ongoing productive cooperation between our respective organizations, as called for in General Assembly resolutions.

Like each of my predecessors, I attach high priority to the search for a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and its core question, the question of Palestine. The current, prolonged stalemate between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization is a source of great concern. Indeed, there is fear that, without renewed momentum in the peace process and without tangible signs of progress, the situation may deteriorate further, with unforeseeable consequences. Regrettably, however, the positions of the parties remain far apart.

At such a time, it is important to remember the many historic achievements of recent years: mutual recognition by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization; the signing of the Declaration of Principles and subsequent agreements; the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; and the beginning of a process of reconciliation and economic cooperation among the countries of the region.

These developments were welcomed worldwide and gave rise to hope that an irreversible turning point had been reached. The parties must not turn back now; they must find it in themselves to persevere. I call on all sides to take the difficult decisions needed to build on their impressive achievements and move towards a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement based on the principles enshrined in Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) and reflected in the Oslo accords.

It is now 50 years since the General Assembly decided to partition Palestine. The history of the conflict since then and the advances made since the Madrid conference of 1991 have shown that the road to peace requires an end to exclusive claims, respect for the legitimate rights and needs of all the parties, mutual accommodation, and the establishment of cooperative relationships between the peoples of the region.

The road to peace requires the parties to respect and implement fully the agreements they have signed, and to refrain from unilateral acts that undermine trust and exacerbate tensions. The road to peace also makes it essential to put an end to terrorism and violence among Palestinians and Israelis — acts by extremists aimed not only at innocent civilians, but also at the peace process itself.

The creation of economic and social conditions conducive to peace is also of fundamental importance. The United Nations has long played a crucial role in this regard, especially the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The United Nations presence also includes United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People and the Office of the Special Coordinator in the Occupied Territories. Donor countries, for their part, and in particular those of the European Union, have provided critical assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

These efforts must continue unhindered, particularly in light of worsening economic conditions in the occupied territories and the great challenges that remain.

As you know, I had planned to visit the Middle East this month, in order to listen to the concerns of the leaders and peoples of the region. Unfortunately, owing to circumstances beyond my control, the trip was postponed. But I will reschedule at the earliest possible opportunity.

Today, as you mobilize international support for the Palestinian people, I would like to reaffirm that the United Nations, and I personally as its Secretary-General, will continue to do our utmost to help the parties find a peaceful resolution to the complex issues they face. Too many decades have passed without peace. We must do all we can to realize that long-held aspiration.

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