10 May 2006

UNESCWA Ministerial Session Kicks off under Auspices of Lebanese House Speaker

(Reissued as received.)

BEIRUT, 10 May (UN Information Service) -- Lebanese House Speaker Nabih Berri today praised the efforts of the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA), Mervat Tallawy, for having refused the pressure to close the doors of the Commission and other United Nations offices in Beirut following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  He also praised Ms. Tallawy for having been the first Executive Secretary of UNESCWA who headed to south Lebanon with a field project aiming at promoting technology, as well as for her role in awarding Lebanon the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) special citation in 2004.

Mr. Berri was speaking at the opening ceremony of the twenty-fourth ministerial session of UNESCWA at the UN House in Beirut, which was held under his auspices.  The opening ceremony was attended by a number of Lebanese ministers and Parliament members; ministerial delegations from UNESCWA member countries; representatives from non-member countries in an observer capacity; representatives of the United Nations organizations, regional and international governmental and non-governmental organizations, donor bodies, as well as the diplomatic corps accredited to Lebanon.

In addition to Mr. Berri, speakers were:  Saudi Minister of Economy and Planning Khaled bin Mohammed El-Kosaibi, representing his country, which is chairing the session; UNESCWA Executive Secretary Mervat Tallawy, who also delivered the message of the United Nations Secretary-General addressed to the session, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General Abdel-Rahman bin Hamad Al-Atiyah.

In his statement, Mr. El-Kosaibi said, "The rapid political, economic and social changes that have happened and which are taking place on the regional and global level pose such enormous challenges and unusual opportunities, that we must all work together on interacting with them through our countries' comprehensive development, nationally and regionally, and be an effective regional force."  He spoke of the globalization of trade and production, the need to intensify efforts to achieve social policy making and implementation tailored to the region's national and regional specificities; pressing economic issues that face the UNESCWA countries, and the need to diligently seek an end to the repercussions of conflicts in this and other neighbouring regions.  "Addressing these issues requires national and regional economic policies that are ambitious and practical.  In this regard, we can take UNESCWA to be an effective mechanism in helping efforts to formulate an integrated regional role for our countries that is more effective on the national and global level", he said.

Then the floor was given to Ms. Tallawy who addressed the message of Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the session.  The Secretary-General said, "Crises in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Iraq and other parts of the region tend to overshadow other pressing challenges.  But the rate of poverty in the Arab region did not undergo a significant change between 1990 and 2000.  The UNESCWA places the poverty rate at an alarming 16 per cent.  And the unemployment rate in the Middle East and North Africa is an estimated 13 per cent, the highest in the world.  We are also seeing a steady rise in the number of skilled workers and professionals leaving the region indefinitely."  Speaking of United Nations reform and renewal, the Secretary-General pointed out, "UNESCWA itself has also put reforms in place in recent years.  It is encouraging to know that UNESCWA has established a technology centre, which will seek to increase national and regional capacity to absorb technology, as well as a unit for emerging and conflict-related issues, which aims to reduce the impact of conflict and instability on socio-economic development in Western Asia."  The Secretary-General concluded by saying, "Western Asia does not lack for human and financial resources to succeed in addressing these vital issues.  I look forward to working with you to meet the region's needs and keep pace with the evolving challenges of our times."

In her own speech, Ms. Tallawy pointed out, "the region is subject to major economic and trade changes, including the reliance of countries on oil; the lack of diversification of sources of income; the risk of using returns from the new oil boom in non-productive sectors or investing them in outside the region instead of directing it towards building Arab societies; the lack of concentration on enhancing an economy based on knowledge and information; and not drawing up legal frameworks regulating Arab financial markets to stop financial fluctuations, and minimizing big losses that affect growth rates".  She noted that, on the social level, the Arab region has achieved notable gains in education.  "Despite these achievements", said Ms. Tallawy, "there remain a number of challenges such as: poverty, where 17 per cent of the region's citizens live under the national poverty line; unemployment, where youth unemployment constitutes the biggest share; and women's participation in the political and economic life."  After having said this, she indicated ways in which UNESCWA has responded to political, economic, and social conditions in the region.  "These include focusing on integrated social policies; mobilizing $8.7 million to support major projects in Iraq; formulating a development plan for Palestine in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority; and working on the consolidation of an integrated transport system in the region", she said.

Ms. Tallawy sought the support of the participants in:  establishing a regional centre for water resources to harmonize between the development process and water management; creating a regional technology centre aimed at bridging the digital divide; and remobilizing resources for the UNESCWA Trust Fund.  In that regard, the Executive Secretary thanked Oman for donating $100,000 to the Fund. She noted that GCC contributions to the international development endeavours reached $7 billion between 2000 and 2003.  She said, "It is our hope that a share of these funds can find its way to UNESCWA's Trust Fund.  This would allow the Commission to face urgent and outstanding issues, and respond to the demands and needs of member countries that cannot be met through the regular budget."  She also turned the attention of attendees to the recommendations of the Expert Group Meeting held by UNESCWA in January 2006.  She said that those recommendations deserved attention and must be adopted, as they were what leading experts have recommended for facing the challenges in the Arab region.  Ms. Tallawy reiterated UNESCWA's commitment to the issues of the Arab region, saying UNESCWA would continue its efforts to achieve progress, sustainable development, and progress for the countries of the region whatever the challenges it would face.

The GCC Secretary-General, Mr. Al-Atiya, spoke of the vision of the Council that was formulated through group work.  "This vision concerns issues raised at this meeting", he said.  On achieving the Millennium Development Goals, he pointed out that the UNESCWA report presented at the meeting says it is doubtful that all the countries of the region can achieve them by 2015 given the current political, economic and environmental conditions.  He enumerated several aspects of the integration sought by the GCC countries.  They are: beginning economic integration in the GCC through a free trade area in 1983, as well as unified customs in 2003 that boosted trade exchange between Council members by 43 per cent in its first two years, and liberalized trade with the outside world by unifying tariff and custom laws, as well as import-export procedures.  "Most of the needs of the Gulf market were met", said Mr. Al-Atiya, "since GCC citizens and goods move freely between member countries."  Another factor cited by the GCC Secretary-General was the establishment of a monetary union and launching of a unified currency by January 2010, making the countries of GCC a single economic entity.

The last speaker was Mr. Berri who said that holding the UNESCWA session in Beirut was an expression of confidence in Lebanon's stability and in Lebanon as a model of "national industry" particularly in the making of democracy, dialogue and freedom.  The Lebanese senior official, who turned the attention of the participants to the ongoing national dialogue in Lebanon, asked the ministerial delegates to help Lebanon reproduce the reform paper and the economic reform plan so that they include an understanding of sustainable development and of the Millennium Development Goals, whether at the level of environment and its relation with the economy and tourism or at the level of evaluating governmental policies and their impact over environment.  Mr. Berri also asked them to help in linking governmental reform measures with the Millennium Development Goals in order to give Lebanon the opportunities of receiving aids and grants from the United Nations and its specialized agencies.

Speaking of Palestine and Iraq, Mr. Berri said that the Palestinian people are pushed to be wounded, killed and detained as a result of their democratic choices.  "This matter is not outside the UNESCWA concern.  On the contrary, it is a challenge facing the Commission", he added.  He also pointed out that the Iraqi facts, which expressed an organized crime against that country's people, territory and institutions, were another challenge facing UNESCWA.

Following the opening ceremony, a ministerial round table was held.  It was dedicated to discussing policy issues in the UNESCWA region, namely:  New Challenges in the Region and Their Impact on the Work of UNESCWA; Facing Youth Unemployment Problems in the UNESCWA Region; Achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in the UNESCWA Region.  Tomorrow's session will include a closed meeting for delegates before adopting the session's recommendations.

On the sidelines of the opening, House Speaker Berri inaugurated a painting exhibition.  Paintings by rising Arab talents were on display for the media and a large crowd of interested participants.  The signing of a memorandum of understanding between UNESCWA, represented by Executive Secretary Mervat Tallawy, and the Arab Women Organization, represented by Director General Wadouda Badran, followed this activity.  The signed document states that there will be consultation and exchange of information between the two parties, including documents supporting the efforts of both parties, setting up joint projects, programmes, and workshops within their fields of expertise.

* *** *