Opening words by Under-Secretary of State Ms Ritva Koukku-Ronde in the UN Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People

Opening words by Under-Secretary of State Ms Ritva Koukku-Ronde
in the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People

Helsinki, 28 April 2011

Your Excellencies, Minister,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great privilege for me to participate in the opening of this seminar today: A United Nations seminar dedicated to assessing and mobilizing international efforts in support of the Palestinian Government’s state-building programme.

We are gathered here at a time when across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond, many rapid developments are taking place. People are standing up for core human aspirations: to be able to shape their own lives, politically and economically and to live in freedom and with dignity. Democratic reforms are already underway in some countries, while in other countries future directions still remain unknown. The role of the international community, including the United Nations and the European Union, is to support these countries in the realization of their aspirations in order to ensure socially sustainable and stable development in the region.

However, despite rapid regional developments the Middle East peace process has remained stagnated and the immediate prospects of reviving it remain gloomy. The legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people towards their own state remain unfulfilled. Nonetheless, I would like to see the new regional dynamics as an opportunity which could have a positive impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Israeli and the Palestinian side, as well as the international community, should try to seek and capitalize on the concrete possibilities these historic developments bring along. Here, I would also like to highlight once more the continuing significance of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

Regarding the Palestinian statehood, at the recent Ad Hoc Liaison Committee meeting on 13 April, the European Union along with the assessments of the UN and the International Financial Institutions, stated that the Palestinian institutions have reached the maturity level required of a state. So, we should not let the momentum pass – a speedy resumption of serious negotiations with clear timelines is crucial for ensuring the final goal of a two state solution. The European Union has repeatedly stressed the urgency of a negotiated solution and the Government of Finland stands firm behind it.

This brings me to the core issues for the negotiations. The EU positions regarding for example borders, refugees, status of Jerusalem and the legitimate security needs of both sides are outlined in the December 2009 Council Conclusions on the Middle East Peace process. These were most recently reaffirmed by the EU in the Security Council’s open debate on the Middle East last week. The EU Statement, in addition to reiterating our well-known positions, outlined also the parameters that we believe could serve as a basis for negotiations. Finding a negotiated solution between the parties to these issues is of crucial importance.

The last months have been frustrating for both parties, and the international community, due to the continuing impasse of the peace process as well as the instability of the region. We wish to see the parties make the most of all possible means to overcome the current obstacles. Moreover, in order to achieve a sustainable solution, the national Palestinian reconciliation process has to move forward.

We also highlight the role of the Quartet and the need for a strong message from the Quartet, which could bring a valuable contribution to this process.

In addition, I would also like to stress the important role of the United Nations. The UN through its agencies, funds and political missions, through the General Assembly and the Security Council, has always exercised a key role in assisting Palestinians and in trying to promote peace between the parties. I have to note here, that my Government was disappointed when the Resolution on the settlement activities, which also Finland had co-sponsored, was not passed in the Security Council in February.

As stated earlier, the Palestinian Authority has done a remarkable job in accelerating progress in improving its governmental function. I would like to congratulate the Palestinian Authority for this progress. Prime Minister Fayyad’s ambitious reform policy has delivered stronger institutions, more disciplined fiscal policy, and a steady decrease in dependence on external budget support. The delivery of essential services to the Palestinian people has improved. The World Bank noted that while there are further steps to be taken, the challenges are not more significant than in many other middle income countries.

We also note in particular the positive steps taken by the Ministry of Social Affairs, which has improved the social welfare services to better answer the needs of the most vulnerable. This has happened in close cooperation with the European Union. This year Finland will join the supporters of this social safety net by a contribution through the EU’s Pegase mechanism, and its "Vulnerable Palestinian families” programme.

The European Union is committed to a two-state solution, which is also reflected in the fact that it has long been the largest financial contributor to Palestinian state building efforts and humanitarian programmes. As a member of the EU, the Government of Finland has increased its own bilateral support to the Palestinian territory, so that this year our assistance will reach around 13 million Euros.

The main goal of Finland’s development policy – as stated in the Government’s development policy programme (2007) - is to reduce poverty and to ensure socially, economically and ecologically sustainable development. Social stability and comprehensive security, emphasing the interlinkages between security, development and human rights, are prerequisites for all development. Democratic governance, the rule of law, respect for human rights, gender equality and a participative civil society form the building blocks of socially sustainable development.

The overall objective of Finland’s bilateral co-operation in the Palestinian territory is to support the Middle East peace process by assisting the Palestinian Authority in building Palestinian institutions and helping the Palestinian people meet their basic needs.

Finland has been active in the Palestinian education sector for well over a decade and it is particularly gratifying for us to see that the education related indicators show such promising signs. Today almost a hundred percent of Palestinian boys and girls enroll in school. And again, the figures are impressive when comparing to peer nations: Participation in secondary education is 20 percent higher than the average in middle income countries. Despite the success in participation, the education sector still faces challenges, particularly in ensuring quality of education across the Palestinian territories including Gaza. Finland together with other donors continues to support the education sector through joint funding arrangement led by the Ministry of Education.

In addition to education, the Government of Finland supports Palestinian state building efforts in three other strategic sectors. We support access to water and sanitation; we help building the capacity of a modern land administration system; and we assist the development of a competent civil police. In addition, we also give humanitarian aid and support to UNRWA and various civil society initiatives.

Nonetheless, despite all the efforts and progress in the field of development, the sustainable development of the Palestinian society can only be achieved with a lasting solution to the protracted conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Observers have noted that economic growth will continue only if driven by a vibrant private sector that is able to flourish without conflict and outside political interference. This is why we urge all parties to support a revival of Palestinian trade. In this regard, the EU has recently signed an agreement with the PA, opening up its markets for agricultural products for the West Bank and Gaza.

It is however clear that the most basic prerequisite for trade is the easing of restrictions to movement of people and goods. Together with our EU partners we continue to call for an immediate opening of Gaza crossings to allow the flow of exports, people and aid. We also urge Israel to further accelerate its measures to remove obstacles to Palestinian trade by facilitating movement and access in the West Bank. Without these steps, the benefits of reform will soon reach its limit.

Finally, I would like to emphasize the issue of good governance for building trust in the government amongst the population. Transparency, fight against corruption and democratic accountability are crucial ingredients of well-functioning institutions and state structures.

During the next two days we will assess the current socio-economic situation of the occupied Palestinian territory. We will discuss the urgency of enabling the reconstruction of the Gaza strip. This group will also consider approaches to advancing the Palestinian State-building programme, including ways of addressing political challenges.

In my brief overview I have tried to touch on some of these issues from the viewpoint of the European Union and the Government of Finland. I hope that we can explore emerging ideas on how to better meet the challenges, how to begin overcoming obstacles, and pave the way towards a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
To conclude, I’d like to reiterate Finland’s commitment to the state-building efforts of the Government of Prime Minister Fayyad and to the peace process also as a member of the European Union. The political and financial support of our Government to the Palestinian Authority is a concrete sign of our commitment in these efforts.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish you all a fruitful seminar.