THE REFUGEE WORKING GROUP :
CONSTRAINTS AND CHALLENGES OF THE SITUATION IN LEBANON
Gavel Holder of the Refugee Working Group,
Special Coordinator, Middle East Peace Process,
Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade,
PALESTINIANS IN LEBANON CONFERENCE
Minister Lovell, Oxfordshire,
27 - 30 September, 1996
27 - 30 September, 1996
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to participate in this Conference on the Palestinians in Lebanon. I congratulate the co-chairs in organizing such a fine representation of experience and knowledge in one room.
Such "third track" conferences are particularly vital in exploring where the other tracks, the bilateral and the multilateral, are unable to tread. I am sure I speak not just for myself but for the few other government officials privileged to attend this gathering when I say that we benefit enormously from such an event. I hope to leave here with new perspectives and ideas, as well as with new friendships.
I would like to begin tonight by speaking a little about the work of the refugee Working Group in the Multilateral track of the Middle East Peace Process, of which Canada serves as the Gavel-holder. I will then go on to identify very briefly what some of our problems and challenges are, and to exchange ideas with you on how we might go about addressing them in the most productive way.
Then, I would really welcome the opportunity to hear your views, either now or at some other point during the conference.
As most of you know, the Refugee Working Group, like the other Working Groups in the Multilateral Process, was set up in Moscow in January, 1992, to complement the bilateral negotiation process begun at Madrid, and to address broad regional issues whose solutions require coordinated actions and the support of the international community. Forty one countries participate in our Plenary meetings.
At early meetings of the RWG we agreed that we should address our purpose in three ways:: improving the current living conditions of refugees and displaced persons without prejudice to their rights and future status; easing and extending access to family reunification; and supporting the process of achieving a viable and comprehensive solution to the refugee issue.
We also agreed that the best way to do this would be to divide our work into various themes, for which certain countries would act as "Shepherds".
These shepherds and the respective themes are Norway - Data Bases, Sweden -Child Welfare, Italy - Public Health, the USA Human Resource Development and Vocational Training, and Job Creation, the EU - Social and Economic Infrastructure, and France - Family Reunification. In addition, as you have heard Switzerland has subsequently taken on the theme of the "human dimension" generally with respect to all five working groups. I am very happy that representatives of three of these shepherds, Sweden, the EU and Switzerland, have been able to join in our deliberations at this conference.
We held our eighth Plenary meeting last December. It was a constructive and productive meeting, at which we took stock of developments since the preceding meeting, and developed a quite ambitious program of activities for the following period.
I am glad to be able to report that despite the politically difficult character of the nine months that have passed since then, we have been able to carry out some of the mandate given to us. For example, in May there was a Gavel's mission to Jordan, where an international team of representative countries participating in the peace process visited a number of camps in Jordan, and met with inhabitants of the camps as well as the government of Jordan and officials of UNRWA. The purpose of this mission was to increase our dialogue with the persons and authorities most affected about what the RWG should be doing with respect to the Palestinian refugees in Jordan. A report is being prepared for submission to the Plenary.
Some of you may recall that my predecessor as RWG Gavel led a similar international mission to Lebanon as well as Jordan in 1994. That mission drew significant international attention to the plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The last plenary meeting decided that it was time for another similar mission to Lebanon, and one to the West Bank and Gaza. I believe the next mission to Lebanon could be a very important one in developing the agenda of the group.
Other activities agreed upon in Geneva have gone ahead or are going to do so. An intersessional meeting on Data Bases was organized by the Norwegian shepherd in Oslo in June, and plans are underway for an intersessional conference on Public Health, which the Italian shepherd for that theme is organizing.
Regrettably, progress in the important area of Family Reunification has been slow. In the context of the RWG, Israel agreed some time ago to increase the quota from 2000 to 6,000 individuals per year. The Palestinian and other participants have been contending that there should be a further increase in the quota as well as a relaxation of the criteria, and greater transparency in their application. These subjects were to have been addressed in an intersessional meeting sometime this year, which however has not yet been held.
The mixed success we have had in implementing the mandate approved in Geneva points to several very important constraints, which I want to share with you very openly.
First, consensus: As you know, the multilateral process works by consensus, and therefore we must ensure that all the parties see some advantage to what we do, or at least have no objection to it. This means that we must try to find "win-win" projects or activities which can be seen as productive and not prejudicing the interests of the parties in the bilateral negotiations. This is also one of our strengths, however, as I will mention later.
Second, unlike the other working groups, the RWG is not only intensely political but it has to do with the fundamental problem which lies at the heart of the Palestinian question - the incontrovertible existence of the Palestinian refugees. Because the issue is so central it also overlaps to a great extent with the bilateral negotiations. Unfortunately this sometimes leads the parties principally concerned to view the multilateral group as a forum for making points or reinforcing their negotiating agenda in the bilateral tracks. When however one is already operating by the first constraint I mentioned, consensus, it is clear that such tactics can render agreement more difficult, and we have suffered somewhat from this at earlier stages of the process.
Thirdly, because the multilaterals are intended to support and complement the bilateral track, our work is also directly affected by the political atmosphere surrounding the peace process in general. When things are not going well on the bilateral tracks, the multilateral process is often affected. Sometimes, however, it has also served as a means of helping to overcome the problems parties are having in the bilaterals. Certainly the Oslo process for example received a helpful start by contacts which were made at the RWG meetings in Ottawa.
Fourth, we are of course hindered by the absence of the governments of Lebanon and Syria from this multilateral group, with regard to which one should assume that they would have a considerable interest.
Ironic and paradoxical though it may seem, however, the first two of these "constraints" are also potential strengths, while the other two relate to the behaviour of parties - and one can hope that behaviour can be changed.
The work that we have been able to accomplish in the Refugee Working Group has reflected these various factors. At the initial stages, we went for agreement where it could be most easily established - the need for increased attention to the humanitarian situation of the Palestinian refugees in the camps, without prejudice to their rights or future status. Through the work of the shepherds, and to a large extent in collaboration with UNRWA, the RWG has succeeded in mobilizing millions of dollars of support for projects in the camps, whether in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or in the West Bank and Gaza. The work in this field continues, and it is important that it should continue.
At the same time, the RWG has recognized that we must be more than just an adjunct to or cheerleader for UNRWA. The role of the multilateral track is to support and complement the bilateral track and, as I said above, to address broad regional issues whose solutions require coordinated actions and the support of the international community.
It is in addressing such issues that our constraints can become our strengths, and particularly the first two factors that I mentioned, the role of consensus and the political importance of the issue with which we must deal. I think there is widespread agreement within the region, which includes even some of those who do not support the Madrid peace process, that if a peace is to be durable it must also be generally acceptable to all those involved. So when we start off with the rule of consensus, we avoid the risk that we could marginalize our political relevance by adopting positions or pursuing activities which are nonstarters because they are unacceptable to the participants.
The second constraint I mentioned, the political centrality of the refugee issue, at least provides us with the benefit that it maintains the interest of the parties concerned, as well as of the international community. It underlines to everyone, in fact, the importance of continuing serious efforts to address this most complex of issues, despite substantial obstacles related to the other factors I mentioned above.
Beyond the humanitarian aspect, however, the RWG has played an important role in establishing a greater level of confidence among the core regional parties who are participating in it. Over the past year there has been a growing recognition of the real possibility of us working together to identify win-win activities which benefit everyone. This was apparent both in the constructive attitude of the parties at the Plenary meeting last Geneva, and a "coordination" meeting of the parties most active in the RWG, which we held in Rome in May.
The Rome Coordination meeting enabled us to look forward at possible directions of activity of the RWG over the next two to three years. It provided an opportunity for some imaginative yet realistic thinking about the future work of the Group. No binding decisions about the future were taken at this meeting, but some fundamental points emerged, including a recognition that the subjects being addressed in the RWG and in the bilateral negotiations were drawing closer together as the permanent status negotiations approached, and that this might open up a variety of ways for the RWG to be of assistance to the parties concerned.
The situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was also discussed at the Rome meeting. There was recognition of the need for donors to find ways to support those refugees either through dedicated donations to UNRWA or through other channels. There was also consensus support for the continuation of the practice that the gavel-holder should continue to brief the Governments of Syria and Lebanon on developments in the RWG.
I would now like to touch a little more explicitly on the issue of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and what the RWG can do to be helpful.
To begin with, I applaud once again the holding of this conference, which can help us to promote dialogue in the search for solutions. Indeed it is because of this that the Government of Canada decided to lend its financial support, along with several other concerned governments.
Second, I would like to emphasize the concern of the international community about the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is hardly for me to describe their plight to you, but I would underline that at every meeting of the RWG their situation is discussed. The shepherds in particular make efforts to find ways to address the humanitarian aspects of the situation. Individual donor countries are also somewhat frustrated by the considerable limits on the available mechanisms for delivering aid. While the government of Lebanon has made it clear that UNRWA is the acceptable channel for humanitarian aid, many donors are anxious to use the whole panoply of humanitarian mechanisms, including NGO cooperation and so forth.
I am sure that the Lebanese government, and the Lebanese people, already recognize that the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon remains a minus sign against the international image of Lebanon, despite other efforts to reestablish its reputation. I must emphasize that there is significant unhappiness in the international community about the treatment of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and particularly Lebanon's non-application of international standards respecting human rights in so far as the situation of the refugees is concerned. The question which I believe is not yet clearly answered is whether Lebanon cares enough about its international image to look for ways to do something about this, and, if so, whether the RWG can be helpful to Lebanon in that regard..
Another challenge for the RWG that is particularly relevant respecting Lebanon is that the purely humanitarian approach which is mostly what has been possible until now, does not really allow us to get to the heart of the issue. There is, after all broad recognition that the Palestinian refugee issue is not going to be resolved though negotiations on the bilateral track alone.
If the international community, through the Refugee Working Group, is to help with respect to the multilateral and regional elements of the Palestinian refugee problem, we will have to engage all the governments of the region more directly in discussing existing and future conditions for Palestinians in the region, including some of the questions we have already been hearing about at this conference. Of course, this requires at some stage that the governments of Lebanon and Syria associate themselves more directly with our work.
I also believe that we must take into account more clearly the unique geographic and historic situation in Lebanon. We need to recognize the important social and psychological as well as political factors respecting a country just emerging from 20 years of civil strife and foreign aggression, an experience which I shared during the years 1980-82. I believe we must remain conscious of what Lebanon and the Lebanese have suffered, and why the situation is as it is.
For my part I believe it would be desirable to find ways to make an immediate and substantial improvement in the humanitarian situation of the Palestinian refugees, including a much more extensive access to the labour market. But this should not be done in a way which prejudices their rights or which favours some particular outcomes over others. An international mission as I mentioned above may be a good way to explore these questions with the Government of Lebanon, especially now after the successful holding of the elections.
While the RWG will remain engaged in Lebanon and Syria, I feel I must reassure you yet again that there is no question of secret agendas or of prejudicing the results of negotiations between the parties. It is a shame that there is no-one form the Lebanese side, participating in the work of the RWG, to assure the Lebanese of this.
Finally, I cannot refer to the issue of providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees without paying tribute to the work of UNRWA. Nowhere has that work been more critical than in Lebanon, and perhaps nowhere have the staff of UNRWA had to work in more difficult conditions. I have just come from a meeting of UNRWA donors in Amman called to deal with an on-going financing crisis, and I am glad to be able to say that donors responded with generosity to address the immediate situation. Also I can assure you that there was very clear consensus there on the importance of the UNRWA role with respect to the Palestinian refugees in all of the UNRWA fields of operation. While it is true that last year there was a decision to adopt a three year horizon for financial planning purposes, I know that there is a widespread rumour in Lebanon to the effect that UNRWA is going to be wound up before the year 2000. That rumour is baseless. Moreover both the Lebanese and Palestinian sides know that it is baseless.
I would like to close by encouraging all of you to be imaginative in your approach to what must inevitably be a multifaceted solution to the problems posed by the presence of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. There is much work to be done as well on the broader and more future looking multilateral aspects of a solution. I encourage more research into how the regional environment could be adapted to facilitate a solution to the Palestinian question. I welcome your suggestions or questions, and look forward to a most constructive and informative dialogue not just here but in the months ahead.
Rex Brynen * firstname.lastname@example.org * 3 June 1997