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Notes for Remarks by Andrew Robinson
Director-General, MEPP Coordination Bureau
Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada
and Gavel-Holder Refugee Working Group

New York, June 25, 1996
check against delivery

Madam Chairman, Distinguished Delegates and Guests, Ladies and Gentleman,

I am indeed honoured to accept your kind invitation to take part in the deliberations of this symposium. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the NGO community has a critical role to play in advancing the peace process, and it is therefore essential that we who are involved in the so-called official part of the process keep in close touch with what you are doing on the ground. I believe that there are synergies, of which we have not taken full advantage, that need to be developed with respect to the work of the Refugee Working Group and the work of NGOs in the region. I will return to that in more detail later in my remarks.

Given Canada's responsibility as gavel-holder of the Refugee Working Group, I would like to bring you up to date on the activity of the RWG in recent months and to talk a little about some of the future directions of the group. As most of you know, the Refugee Working Group, like the other Working Groups in the Multilateral Process, was set up to complement the bilateral negotiations and to address broad regional issues whose solutions require coordinated actions and the support of the international community. We do this by 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.

For some time we have organized the work of the RWG according to various themes which were identified at our early meetings, and respecting which certain countries have agreed to take responsibility as "shepherds" for the work of the Group. These themes are Data Bases, for which Norway acts as shepherd, Child Welfare, for which Sweden is the shepherd, Human Resource Development, Job Creation and Vocational Training - the USA , Social and Economic Infrastructure, for which the EU is shepherd, and Family Reunification, for which France acts as shepherd. In addition, at the steering committee of the multilaterals held last year, Switzerland was assigned the responsibility of acting as advisor to the co-sponsors for the human dimension in all five working groups, including the RWG - a sort of super shepherd.

The RWG held an important and successful plenary meeting last December in Geneva. It was a constructive and productive meeting, which enabled us to take stock of developments since the preceding meeting, to establish a wide measure of agreement among the parties, and to plan future activities for the RWG. I think it is clear that the RWG has played an important role in establishing a greater level of confidence among the parties who have participated in the bilateral negotiations. This has led to a growing recognition of the real possibility of us working together to identify win-win activities which benefit everyone. We are now on the road to developing one such initiative, about which I will speak a little later.

A number of activities were mandated by last December's plenary meeting. These included a Gavel's mission to Jordan, a Gavel's mission to West Bank and Gaza, an Intersessional workshop on adaptation in the West Bank and Gaza, intersessional meetings on Data Bases, Family Reunification, and Public Health, and a Gavel's mission to Lebanon.

One of the first formal activities of the group since the Plenary was the Gavel's mission to the refugee camps in Jordan which I led last month. The purpose of this mission was to consult with the refugees in Jordan and to discuss the issues with Jordanian officials. This mission reflected the importance the international community attaches to dialogue and transparency.

Bearing in mind that the role of the multilateral process is to complement and support the bilateral negotiations, not substitute for them, we were sent to listen to the views of the refugees, and to enter into a dialogue with them, and with the Jordanian government, about the work of the RWG and about what the RWG should be doing about both the present humanitarian situation and about preparing for the future.

This was particularly timely in the context of the opening of the permanent status talks between the PLO and Israel. Among the Palestinians, we met with residents of five of the camps in Jordan, as well as other Palestinians. On the Jordanian side we met with Crown Prince Hassan and with officials of the Department of Palestinian Affairs. Naturally, we also had meetings with and briefings by UNRWA. The mission included representatives from the EU, Morocco, Switzerland Japan and the USA, as well as Canada. We are now preparing a report for submission to the next plenary meeting of the RWG. I think it will prove to be a valuable basis to guide our project development strategies with regard to Palestinian refugees in Jordan and the activities of the group respecting Jordan.

Let me move now to West Bank and Gaza. You will be aware that the Refugee Working Group has traditionally put emphasis on the situation of the refugees who are outside the West Bank and Gaza. I can assure you that this emphasis has not changed. At the same time, we are very conscious of the fact that things have been moving very quickly in West Bank and Gaza. The RWG plenary meeting last December agreed that we should develop a focus to address that process of rapid change. We have been pursuing that mandate in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority and in consultation with other main players in the RWG. The term chosen, and chosen with a great deal of care, to describe that focus is "adaptation".

The choice was important because we wanted to formulate our approach in a way which was acceptable to the parties and which could in no sense be perceived as prejudicing Palestinian rights. The RWG plenary was very clear about that and indeed that has been an underlying principle for all our work. The approach also needed to be constructed in a way which allowed us to provide the most useful support we could to the Palestinian Authority as it consolidated and exercised its powers of self-government.

The concept of adaptation is meant to be a framework within which we can formulate strategies to assist Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as they confront change. "Adaptation" does not define the nature or direction of that change; it simply sets out to devise approaches which will assist in meeting the challenges of change, whatever they may turn out to be.

The speed and nature of change within the West Bank and Gaza will be primarily influenced by decisions which must be reached by the parties in their continuing negotiations in the bilateral framework. The Refugee Working Group stands ready to assist the parties in those negotiations in any way we can, at any time the parties would find our contribution to be a helpful one. This was one clear conclusion emerging from a co-ordination meeting which we held in Rome early in May.

That meeting in Rome was a first. It was the first time we had expanded our coordination meetings beyond the traditional format of "Shepherds' meetings" to include as well the four regional parties and the co-sponsors. It was devoted to coordinating the very heavy workload mandated by our Geneva plenary, as well to looking forward at possible directions of activity of the RWG over the next two to three years.

The coordination meeting in May 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, indeed that was not the intention, but some fundamental points emerged.

  • a high degree of consensus on the need for complementarity between the RWG and the bilateral negotiations,

  • a recognition that the subjects being addressed in the RWG, the Quadripartite committee and final status negotiations were moving closer together;

  • a similar recognition that if we were to seek consensus on future plans we would have to be realistic as to what was possible,

  • a need to keep in mind that the RWG should complement and support the bilateral negotiations,

  • and a recognition that the start of the permanent status stage of the Israel-PLO negotiations opened up a variety of ways for the RWG to be of assistance

At the Canadian initiative there was also a session of discussion of the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and 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 brief the Governments of Syria and Lebanon on developments in the RWG.
At the coordination meeting, we had agreed a date for holding the mandated intersessional workshop on "Adaptation" which should have taken place early in June. Unfortunately, as a result of difficulties experienced by a number of delegations either in identifying suitable experts on adaptation to participate in the meeting, or indeed in being able to participate at all with delegations from headquarters, we decided to postpone that meeting.

However, we are not losing sight of the concept of adaptation, which we believe will prove to be a very useful concept which can inform the project development and policy formulation process with respect to West Bank and Gaza in all the themes of the RWG. Management of the adaptation to change will be important to the Palestinian authority and for all the residents of the area as they deal with the consequences of the changing circumstances. This applies whether we are talking about long-time residents, those newly returned, former detainees, people moving into and out of camps, parents concerned with new overcrowding problems in schools, or young people setting up house in environments which require moving away from their relatives. All these people are at the same time both agents of change and victims of change. The RWG, looking to the future not the past, must be in a position to assist in respect of the refugee component of this adaptation.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to report that another RWG activity - an intersessional on Data Bases - took place in Oslo the week before last. This meeting took place in a very positive and constructive environment, and achieved its purpose of enabling the Norwegian shepherd to report on work in progress and helping to identify directions in which the data base activity should be proceeding.

I want to say a few words about the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria. I think it is fair to say that the RWG plenary in December was more concerned about the plight of refugees in Lebanon than about any other group. Unfortunately, the governments of Syria and Lebanon do not participate in the work of the RWG, thereby limiting our ability to address the issues in a comprehensive manner. Nonetheless, the Working Group plenary reiterated our commitment to maintaining a dialogue with the governments of both Syria and Lebanon---I am pleased to say we have been able to do that---and also with the Palestinian communities there, which we have also done.

At the request of the plenary, I visited both Syria and Lebanon almost immediately after our December meeting, to meet with government officials and to visit refugee camps. In Lebanon, I was particularly concerned about the situation of the Palestinians both from the perspective of their humanitarian and economic circumstances as well as their civil situation. I relayed their concerns to the Government of Lebanon. I hope the Lebanese government will find a way to relieve the hardships of the Palestinians despite the many burdens imposed on Lebanon itself, and the Lebanese people, by recent events.

While the RWG will remain engaged in Lebanon and Syria, there is no question of secret agendas or of prejudicing the results of negotiations between the parties. It is our wish to be supportive and helpful to the Lebanese and Syrian authorities as well as Palestinian refugees in addressing the issues and in providing humanitarian assistance.

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. With respect to Lebanon as well as the other UNRWA fields of operation, UNRWA and the RWG cooperate closely on all aspects of our work, particularly project development and implementation.

The vitality of the NGO community will be essential to the successful development of a vibrant civil society for Palestinian refugees in West Bank/Gaza as well as in the host countries. In the RWG we have had good cooperation with regional NGOs as well as NGOs from outside the region. Along with UNRWA, NGOs have been critical to the delivery of services and to project implementation in Lebanon.

Over the past several months, as we have been working on the adaptation focus for West Bank and Gaza, we have found ourselves consulting with NGOs on an ever more frequent basis. Over the next year I will be looking for opportunities to involve NGO representatives more directly in some of these discussions.

I would like today to invite you to give some thought to that adaptation focus and consider how it should be developed from your perspective. In the context of the RWG themes - data base studies, family reunification, public health, child welfare, human resource development, social and economic infrastructure - I would welcome your comments on how we can ensure that our efforts help the refugees and the responsible authorities to address the challenges of change.

Finally, I want to say a few words about the peace process more generally. The process has been characterized by a lot of hard work which has culminated in some unprecedented and irreversible breakthroughs. It has also, to be sure, sustained some discouraging setbacks. We have moved through some times of great hope and optimism but have also had to deal with tragedy and with periods of frustration and disappointment. It seems clear however that the regional parties, like the rest of the international community, have always been able to draw strength from a realization that has weathered all the ups and downs of the process, the realization that there is in the final analysis no alternative to peace, that a lasting peace must be the common goal.

On a variety of occasions the multilateral process has shown its ability to maintain the momentum of the peace process when the bilateral process has temporarily slowed down. I believe that the Refugee Working Group, in particular, because of the sensitive and human nature of its mandate, and its close connection with the issues of the final status negotiations, will continue to have a vital and challenging role.

Once again, I would like to say how happy I am to be here with you today, and how much I am looking forward to our discussions.

En français

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