Notes for Remarks by Marc Perron
Assistant Deputy Minister (Africa & Middle East)
Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East
John F. Kennedy School of Government
February 24, 1995
Professors Hausman and Thurow, ladies and gentlemen,
On behalf of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, I would like to thank you for this invitation to join you again at Harvard. [Editors note: Mr. Perron delivered an earlier speech at Harvard in February 1994.]February always seems to be a busy month in Ottawa; this year is no exception. Although I can't imagine why he would want to do it at this time of year, President Clinton arrived in Ottawa yesterday. This always gives rise to a bit of extra work. On Monday, our finance minister is expected to bring down one of the toughest budgets we've seen in a long time. I'm spending a good deal of effort trying to protect my parish. As you may know, we're also looking at another referendum on Quebec sovereignty later this year. This is a fundamental issue for Canada which preoccupies all of us.
Against this kind of background, I relish opportunities such as this to get away from the trees and take a look at the forest. It's been roughly a year since we last had the chance to talk about the Refugee Working Group, or "RWG". At that time, I tried to give you a bit of an RWG primer, explaining some of the new lingo of the multilaterals which brings us words such as "co-sponsor" and "gavel-holder" and underlining some of the challenges as we saw them at that time. Today, I would like to bring you up to date on what the RWG has done since we last met and share some of our ideas for the future. I also want to highlight the complementarity between what we are doing in the RWG and a growing range of "track two" initiatives such as the Harvard refugee project. The more that I look at this relationship; the more opportunity I see for mutually-beneficial linkages in our work. One possibility that I specifically want to explore while I am here is the opportunity for involving some of the Canadian specialists who have been working with us in Ottawa in the Harvard project. This is one of the reasons that I asked Professor Rex Brynen from McGill University to join me on this visit. Professor Brynen is one of a group of "brainstormers" that we convene from time to time for a critical look at where we are going with the RWG. He and other members of this group have been working in a range of areas which might very nicely complement your project.
The complementarity of the bilateral and multilateral tracks of the Middle East Peace Process is one of the distinguishing features of the Madrid framework. While our primary purpose here is to talk about one element of the multilateral track, we have to keep things in perspective. As engrossed as we may be in the multilaterals, the main event is the bilaterals and at this moment the main event is not going well. With their suicide bombers, the opponents of peace have taken a heavy toll. Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat will not have the political space they need to move the process forward unless and until the peace process begins to deliver what their respective constituencies want - enhanced security for the Israelis, expanded autonomy and better economic conditions for the Palestinians. Without movement on the Israeli/Palestinian track, the prospects for serious progress on the other bilateral tracks and in the multilaterals become very limited. The Cairo summit on February 2nd and President Clinton's follow-up meeting with foreign ministers in Washington on February 12th represent important beginnings towards the establishment of a "coalition for peace" against the rejectionist forces. As difficult as the situation may look at present, the parties are fundamentally convinced that there is no realistic alternative to the peace process. With determined support from the international community, they will be able to continue to take the risks required to make it work.
Let me now turn to the main part of my remarks today where I will try to answer four questions:
There is, of course, an important difference between being busy and being productive. To be sure, the RWG has been very busy since the last time I was at Harvard. But what have we achieved?
When I last spoke to you, I noted a number of problems that the RWG was facing. While some of these problems are still with us, we've made important progress in addressing others. Let me provide a few examples which I think will underline a fairly substantial record of RWG achievement over the last year.
One of the problems that I referred to the last time I was here was that of finding the right balance in the RWG between the Arab interest in dealing with questions of principle and the Israeli preference to concentrate on specifics.
The importance of this question of balance was highlighted during the "international mission" to refugee camps in April, 1994 that I mentioned earlier. I had the pleasure of leading this mission which brought senior-level officials from Egypt, the European Union, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland into direct contact with refugees and refugee representatives in 5 camps in Jordan and 6 camps in Lebanon. If there was one message that we consistently heard in each of these camps, it was that efforts to improve the refugees' living conditions do not absolve the international community of its responsibility to address their rights. As much as they appreciate the assistance they receive from UNRWA and other sources, above all else, the refugees want to live in dignity with a recognized identity.
Given the nature of the RWG's work, the challenge of finding the right balance between projects and principles is one that is likely to be always with us. I believe, however, that we are making some headway on this front. Let me provide three examples which I feel support this belief.
The last time that we were together, I came here almost directly from the first-ever informal meeting of the Multilateral Steering Group. Held in the thought-provoking environment of a Canadian winter at Montebello, Quebec, this meeting came up with a number of good ideas, including the notion of a set of overall guidelines for the multilateral peace process.
Although the guidelines exercise is still very much a work in progress, the current "working draft" specifically recognizes the broad nature of the RWG's role. While I must underline that this text is still very much subject to change, the guidelines' preamble on the purposes of the multilateral process states that the RWG is intended "to help realize the vision of a Middle East without refugees by improving the current living conditions of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons without prejudice to their rights and future status, by easing and expanding access to family reunification, and by supporting the process of achieving a viable and comprehensive solution to the refugee issue." If this reference stands, it will substantially assist the RWG in striking the right balance between projects and principles.
On the question of balance, the second example that I would like to note
is the "Quadripartite Committee" provided for in Article XII of the Israel/PLO
Declaration of Principles, or "D.O.P.". This Article calls for the establishment
of a Quadripartite Committee, with representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Israel
and the Palestinians, which would, inter alia, " decide by agreement on the
modalities of admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in
1967, together with necessary measures to prevent disruption and disorder."
With an immediate mandate to address the situation of the displaced, the Quadripartite Committee has a very important role to play. At its last plenary session in Antalya, the RWG noted the progress made towards convening the Quadripartite Committee and expressed its availability to assist. We understand that the potential support that the Quadripartite Committee might receive from the RWG is among the topics that may be discussed at the Committee's first meeting, which is scheduled to be held in Amman within the next few weeks.
The final example that I would like to refer to on the question of balance is the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. Article 8 of this treaty recognizes that the massive human problems that have been caused by the conflict in the Middle East cannot be fully resolved at the bilateral level. The treaty goes on to identify the RWG as one of the fora wherein the parties will seek to resolve problems related to the 1948 refugees. While the question of the 1948 refugees is, of course, reserved for final status negotiations; there is a great deal that can be done now to help prepare the ground for these negotiations. I will come back to this in the next part of my remarks.
Another problem that I referred to at our last meeting was a shortage of practical, immediately do-able projects. I am pleased to note that, at least for the short-term, this is a problem which has been largely overcome.
To their great credit, UNRWA was very quick off the mark in responding to the new circumstances brought about by the D.O.P. Within weeks of the famous handshake on the White House lawn, UNRWA had elaborated a comprehensive "Peace Implementation Programme", or "PIP", including a host of immediately-implementable projects for refugees and the displaced in the West Bank and Gaza and in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The PIP programme provided a very timely and effective framework within which the international community could provide tangible evidence to the refugees that their situation had not been forgotten.
The RWG has been an important source of support for the PIP programme. At our sixth plenary session in Cairo, the United States, Canada and others pledged over US$ 15 million for a range of schools, clinics and other PIP projects in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has committed US$ 20 million to UNRWA for PIP projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
Since we last met, the RWG has also undertaken a number of concrete projects of its own. To respond to priorities identified in their assessments of public health and child welfare needs among refugee communities in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, Italy and Sweden respectively have committed close to US$ 10 million in new funding.
As noted in a recently-compiled summary of RWG and RWG-related activities which I will be distributing, our other "shepherds" - Norway for data bases, France for family reunification, the United States for human resources development, job creation and vocational training and the European Union for economic and social infrastructure - have all been very active in moving their respective themes forward. At last count, the RWG was involved in over 100 specific activities ranging from workshops and seminars on the various themes, to the construction of schools and clinics in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and technical support for the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics.
To close this portion of my remarks on the RWG and concrete projects, I would like to bring you up to date on one more initiative. When Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1982, more than 5800 residents of an abandoned military base in the Rafah area of Egypt became separated from their families in Gaza. Known as "Canada Camp", this former UN Emergency Force base found itself on the Egyptian side of the new dividing-line between Israel and Egypt. Since this time, family members on one side of the fence in Canada Camp have had to shout across a no-man's land to relatives on the other side.
Under a 1989 agreement between Israel and Egypt, some 130 families were able to return to Gaza by 1991. Unfortunately, these transfers came to an end when the funds required to support them were no longer available. I am pleased to report that, in close cooperation with Israel and Egypt, this transfer process has now been resumed. With financial support from Canada, the first of 70 household heads from Canada Camp crossed into Gaza to begin construction of homes in a neighbourhood known as Tel-al-Sultan in July, 1994. In total, more than 1,000 former residents of Canada Camp will benefit from this initiative. With additional support to be made available by Canada and others, we are also hopeful that, in time, all of the residents of Canada camp will join their families and friends in Gaza.
A third problem that I referred to the last time that I was here was the RWG's need for a favourable political climate in order to move ahead with some of its more ambitious initiatives. On this score as well, the RWG has been relatively fortunate of late.
As some of you may know, the RWG had the distinction of being the first multilateral plenary session to be held in an Arab state. Coming just weeks after the breakthrough on the Oslo channel, this meeting in Tunis in October, 1993 proved to be one of the best the RWG had ever had. We got lucky again in Cairo in May, 1994 when the RWG's sixth plenary session was convened within days of the signing of the Gaza/Jericho implementation agreement. Clearly, the multilaterals can do a bit of surfing when the bilaterals are going well. Unfortunately, the converse is also true.
To provide just one example of how an unfavourable political climate can frustrate the best humanitarian intentions, I would like to share with you a recent experience we had in Lebanon.
One of the main recommendations of the report of the International Mission to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon was that the RWG should set up an Emergency Housing Fund for up to 6,000 Palestinian refugee families displaced by reconstruction works in Lebanon. In response to this recommendation, Canada announced a contribution of C$ 1 million to an emergency fund set up by UNRWA. The Canadian contribution was seen as seed money towards a much larger project which would provide decent housing for refugee families on land to be made available by the Lebanese government. Like any other RWG initiative, the emergency housing project was considered to be without prejudice to the refugees' future status.
For reasons which are not entirely clear, the Lebanese government's plans to acquire a plot of land on which to begin constructing the emergency housing became public in August. Within hours of this "leak", the Lebanese press was full of stories of international plots to permanently settle Palestinian refugees. As Gavel-Holder for the RWG, I was deemed to be the ringleader of this dastardly scheme.
To quell the uproar caused by inaccurate reports, the Lebanese government referred the emergency housing project to a "special committee". During a visit to Beirut in December, I was told that -in the current political circumstances - the project had to be indefinitely "postponed". Canada's C$ 1 million contribution to UNRWA is being returned.
The good news is that Canada is no longer being accused of trying to resettle Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. To the contrary, the latest rumour going around Beirut is that the reason we recently re-opened our Embassy was to grant the refugees immigrant visas! The bad news is that as Lebanon's reconstruction programs continue, more Palestinian refugees are finding themselves on the street.
Despite this disappointment on the emergency housing project, I am more than satisfied that the RWG has made significant progress towards resolving some of the problems that I noted last time. Before moving on to our plans for the future, however, I would like to highlight a new problem which is facing the RWG and the multilaterals in general. In a way, this problem is a product of our own success.
As I mentioned earlier, the RWG and the other multilateral working groups were able to ride the wave in the heady days after the D.O.P. and the parallel progress on the Jordan/Israel track. With this fresh impetus from the bilateral track, our plans became more ambitious and our calendars more full. With several new countries added to the process, plenary sessions became increasingly unwieldy (we had 43 delegations in Cairo) and more and more work was channelled to intersessional activities. For the Palestinians in particular, human and financial resources became very thinly stretched and the overall system approached overload.
This new problem was one of the "structural issues" considered at the Steering Group's informal meeting in Cairo last month. While a number of options are under consideration, possible reactions include "clustering" working group plenaries in consecutive sessions at a single site and stretching out the period between plenary sessions in favour of more frequent, and smaller, intersessional meetings. The Regional Economic Development Working Group has set up a "Monitoring Committee", including the "core regional parties" and the shepherds, which will effectively act as an Executive Committee to direct the group's work in the period between much less frequent plenary sessions. On the basis of the Cairo Steering Group meeting, it would appear that we are moving towards annual Working Group plenary sessions with other mechanisms such as the REDWG Monitoring Committee - affectionately known as McREDWG - coordinating the effort between plenaries.
From an RWG perspective, we haven't really thought the overload problem through. While I don't see the RWG as part of a "cluster" of the more economically-oriented working groups, we also need to make sure that these working groups take the needs of the refugee community into account. I would be interested in your ideas on this score.
I would now like to turn to the third of the four questions I wanted to address today. That is, where do we see the RWG going in the future?
When I was going over the things that the RWG had done since we last met, I mentioned a mission to the region to receive the regional parties' comments on a "vision paper" for the RWG. As another of the bright ideas born in Montebello, the vision paper in fact goes well beyond the RWG. From the RWG perspective, what we are looking at is one component of a much broader exercise intended to take a long-term view of the region ten years into the future. As part of this exercise, each of the multilateral working groups has been asked to prepare a paper setting out both a vision and a set of priorities to pursue as they move towards realization of the vision. Together with an introduction and a chapter on financing to be prepared by the co-sponsors, the papers prepared by each working group would constitute an overall vision for the Middle East which the parties could work towards achieving.
While the schedule for completing the vision paper has slipped somewhat, the Cairo Steering Group meeting confirmed that this remained an important priority and set late March as a deadline for completing an initial draft. Based on comments received from the regional parties during the mission I mentioned earlier, a draft of the RWG chapter has been submitted to the co-sponsors and will shortly be circulated to the regional parties.
As you will appreciate, I am not at liberty to go into the details of the draft paper. I can, however, share with you some of the basic elements of our approach. For anyone who has followed the RWG closely, these points will come as no great surprise.
Unlike most of the other working groups whose long-term vision relates to opportunities that will be created once comprehensive peace is achieved; the RWG is dealing with a challenge that must be resolved as a precondition to peace. The RWG's vision of a new Middle East is straightforward - in ten years' time, we would like to see a Middle East without refugees. The challenge is not in defining the vision. It is, rather, in determining how this vision will be realized.
What can we say about the process by which this vision of a refugee-free Middle East might be realized? From my perspective - and I hasten to add that not all RWG members would necessarily share this perspective - a number of points would seem to be commonly accepted.
First, I think it is recognized that a lasting solution to the refugee issue cannot be imposed. Rather, such a solution would have to provide the refugees with options from which they could make a free and informed choice in accordance with the requirements of international law.
Second, it seems clear that the process of developing these options will require a free and open dialogue between the parties involved - a dialogue that addresses and tries to demystify "taboo" words and concepts like the right of return, compensation, resettlement and the future international status of a Palestinian entity.
Third, there is no doubt that some of the options which are developed in the course of this process will not appeal to some of the parties. If the refugee issue was easy, it wouldn't have been reserved for final status negotiations! Like the other final status questions, the refugee issue will be resolved through a process of give and take, where none of the parties get 100 per cent of what they want. This process will be fundamentally political, with the final solution part of an inter-related package of agreements on all outstanding issues.
Finally, it's clear that the international community will have an important role to play in supporting the options which emerge from the process. Whatever the final settlement, it's difficult to imagine outcomes that will not require significant financial support from the international community.
For the most part, the process of arriving at a political solution to the refugee issue will take place within the bilateral track of the peace process - through direct negotiations between regional parties and/or trilateral or quadripartite mechanisms established under the various agreements. As I said earlier, however, there is a great deal of work that can be done now to prepare the ground for these negotiations. For some of this work, the RWG is in a position to lend valuable support.
In the course of preparing the vision paper, we have done a great deal of soul-searching about the RWG's work to date and how that work supports our goal of achieving a refugee-free Middle East in 10 years time. While it is not up to Canada to draw conclusions in this regard, we do have a number of impressions which we will be reviewing with the co-sponsors, the regional parties, and others in the context of the vision paper exercise. I would like to share some of these impressions with you.
First, it seems clear that the task of mobilizing the resources required to improve the refugees' current living conditions without prejudice to their rights or future status remains a fundamentally important role for the RWG. At precisely the time when the refugees need to be reassured that their situation has not been overlooked, there are disturbing signs that the resources available to UNRWA and other refugee support agencies could shrink. We cannot allow this to happen.
Second, there would appear to be a continuing need for the other two functions that the RWG has performed - defining the scope of the refugee problem and encouraging a dialogue on the issues involved. As circumstances change, however, and particularly as the time period for final status negotiations nears, we may need to take a more focussed approach to these functions - an approach that gives greater emphasis to strategic policy support.
In my opening remarks, I referred to the complementarity between the RWG and a growing range of "track two" initiatives such as the Harvard project. Unfortunately, other pressures prevent us from participating in these initiatives to the extent that we would like. We do, however, closely follow the proceedings of track two activities and try to pick up ideas from these activities. Not so long ago, I received a summary report from a conference on refugees held in Greece in November. Reading through this report, I was genuinely struck by the unfettered range of the conference's discussions and the inventiveness of some of the ideas that came out of it. I'm sure that the Harvard project has facilitated the same kind of discussions that came out of the conference in Greece and look forward to receiving an update on your work. At the same time, I can tell you quite frankly that I'm a bit envious of the kinds of debates that you are able to have on track two. I also wonder to what extent we can transfer elements of these debates to "track one".
As the multilateral process matures and groups such as the RWG gain in confidence, there should be greater scope for us to get involved in areas that we have thus far tended to avoid. Given the progress that has been achieved on the bilateral track - and if you stop and think about it a great deal has been achieved - we should be able to tackle head-on issues and concepts that we have only danced around in the past. What are these issues and concepts? What would a more strategic approach to the RWG's work involve?
Looking first at the RWG's "defining the scope of the refugee problem" function, I think there are several areas that we could get involved in which would provide the kind of strategic policy support that the parties will require as we move towards final status negotiations. To provide just a few examples, the RWG could support:
In addition to the three major functions that the RWG has performed to date, developments in the process generally might give rise to a fourth function - one that we might refer to as "monitoring and support". As I noted earlier, at its last plenary session in Antalya, the RWG offered its support to the Quadripartite Committee. While I don't want to speculate as to how, or even whether, the Quadripartite Committee might take up this offer, it strikes me that one of the first things that the Committee will have to do is come up with a mutually-acceptable data set on the number of persons displaced in 1967, their current locations and intentions with regard to return to the West Bank and Gaza. This may be an area in which the RWG could be of assistance. Once decisions on the repatriation program have been taken, the RWG might be able to play a role in mobilizing the expertise and financial resources required and monitoring the program's implementation. In the longer-term, the RWG could perform similar monitoring and support functions with respect to decisions taken on the 1948 refugees.
As our time is running short, I would now like to turn to the last of the four questions that I set out to answer today - What does all of this mean for your work at Harvard?
As I said in my opening remarks, I see a great deal of potential complementarity between the RWG and the whole range of track two refugee initiatives. Looking specifically at the Harvard project, I see several opportunities for mutually-beneficial cooperation in each of the three major current functions of the RWG.
First, in terms of defining the scope of the refugee problem, the RWG has neither the time nor the resources to start reinventing wheels. While there may still be some original work that needs to be done - particularly in the realm of strategic policy research as I mentioned earlier - most of the basic information is out there. What we need is a little help in finding where it is and in making sure that we are kept abreast of the latest writings. As soon as I finish speaking, I intend to go into serious listening mode to hear your perspectives on the refugee issue and your views on priority areas for strategic research.
Second, with respect to mobilizing the resources required to improve the refugees' current living conditions, I would welcome any ideas you may have as to new sources of support. While the business people that I spoke to at the Casablanca summit listened very politely to my presentation on the RWG, they were not exactly digging into their wallets to help us out! Particularly for the refugees outside the West Bank and Gaza, there is a pressing need to demonstrate that the peace process can deliver tangible benefits.
Third, I think there is incredible scope for the Harvard project and other track two initiatives to complement the RWG's work in encouraging a dialogue on the underlying issues. In the past three years, the RWG has gained a lot of confidence. At the intersessional meeting on family reunification meeting held in Paris last November, Israelis and Palestinians talked freely and frankly about an issue that, not so long ago, we struggled to get on our agenda. Through the vision paper exercise, I hope to develop a consensus that the RWG can take on other tough issues and explore sensitive questions in greater depth.
When the RWG talks about strategic policy support, however, the key word here is support. As the RWG matures, we should be able to tackle more difficult issues. At the same time, however, we need to be careful not to bite off more than we can chew. We need to temper our ambitions with reality and remember that the multilaterals are intended as a complement to the bilaterals, not a substitute. There are still a lot of red lines with regard to what gets discussed where and when.
This is where track two comes in. You have the luxury of being able to talk out loud about things that we can only whisper. You have things on your agenda today that we won't be able to discuss in the RWG this year. As the Institute's economic project demonstrated so well, track two initiatives give people the kind of space they need to re-examine basic positions and think creatively. With the right kinds of communications channels, there is the same scope for complementarity between the Harvard Project and other track two initiatives and the RWG as there is between the RWG and the bilateral peace process. One can imagine a progression whereby ideas get kicked around on track two until the time is ripe for them to move into the RWG, where they get kicked around some more until the bilateral parties are ready to discuss them. I know that this places the onus on Harvard to do most of the thinking but if you can't come to Harvard for original thinking, where do you go?
Let me close with one final thought on the topic of communications channels. If we are going to achieve the kind of synergy that I think is possible between the RWG and the Harvard project, we're going to need to find better and more frequent ways of staying in touch. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, we have a group of brainstormers at various universities in Canada with whom we stay in quite close contact on matters related to the RWG. One of these brainstormers, Professor Rex Brynen of McGill University, happens to be spending part of a sabbatical year at the Department so it was fairly easy to liberate him to join me here today. Some of our other brainstormers include Janice Stein from the University of Toronto, John Sigler at Carleton, Howard Adelman from York, Atif Kubursi from McMaster and Elia Zureik from Queen's. With a bit more effort than it took to get Rex here, we may also be able to convince some of our other brainstormers' universities to free up some of their time to work with the Harvard project. This would make the expertise of some of Canada's best Middle East specialists available to the project while at the same time further developing the links between this project and the RWG.
I look forward to discussing this and other ideas with you today. Thank you.
Rex Brynen * firstname.lastname@example.org * 30 July 1996