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Program 9913
March 30, 1999


Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian movement for autonomy and independence

Alan Doss, Director, UN Development Group office

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.


JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground.

In the first half of this edition of Common Ground, a conversation with Hanan Ashrawi, a key figure in the Palestinian movement for autonomy and independence.

HANAN ASHRAWI: You may capture land, you may confiscate it, you may demolish homes, but, you may close down schools and universities, but at the same time you cannot really destroy the human mind nor the imagination of people nor the will to live. And this is very important. Fifty years ago we were slated for total national obliteration. We were told we didn’t exist.

MARTIN: And then later, details on an effort to make the United Nations more efficient and effective in delivering aid to the world’s poor people, an effort that is not always appreciated.

ALAN DOSS: I think one of our frustrations, I must say though, in the UN, is that we have undertaken quite a lot of reform, we’ve moved forward, we’ve tried to make changes, but we sometimes wonder, is this being fully recognized?

MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.

The 1993 Oslo Accords provided a framework for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But key provisions of the Accord will expire on May 4th, just one month from now. There is much speculation about what will happen on that day, including talk of a new Middle Eastern war. Common Ground Senior Producer Keith Porter recently discussed the impending deadline with a leading Palestinian spokesperson.

KEITH PORTER: Hanan Ashrawi became the first female spokesperson of the PLO in 1991. In 1996 she joined the cabinet of Yassar Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority as Minister of Education. She resigned that post in 1998 to protest PNA corruption, yet she still served as a key negotiator for the Palestinians at the Wye River peace talks. I asked Ashrawi to describe life today in the Palestinian controlled areas.

ASHRAWI: There is a sense of collective letdown, particularly because there were such high expectations when we launched the peace process back in `91—there was a sense of expectation, of enthusiasm, of hope, that finally, you know, we have managed to come to grips with reality and to make our pledge and our plea for peace. And somehow things began digressing. Particularly with the election of the Israeli government, the extremist right-wing government led by Netanyahu, the Likud coalition. Economic conditions got much worse. According to one economist, he says, “All indicators are down in Palestine except for unemployment.”

So that’s—collective punitive measures are still ongoing, in terms of a state of siege, lack of freedom of movement. Even between Gaza and the West Bank. And of course Jerusalem is totally isolated and closed off to Palestinians. And yet you have unilateral actions, like ongoing land confiscation, land theft, house demolitions, imprisonment—even killing of Palestinians daily—which is something you don’t hear about. Palestinians have been in many ways devalued in terms of human life.

PORTER: There must be something inside the Palestinian territory that you take much pleasure in changes over the last year or two years.

ASHRAWI: I am one of those, I’m not saying I’m skeptical, but I’m one of those who have been extremely saddened by the process of diminution. I think the sort of, sound bite and the photo op, and all these, you know, meetings and signings and so on, have in many ways misled people to replace reality with image. And they tend to think that the problems have been solved. The problems have not been solved. Of course you don’t see any of ?? conflict, you see only a reorganization of the occupation, you see the reservations, or what we call Bantustans, totally isolated from each other. Palestinian Authority has, let’s say, administrative rights but not sovereign rights. Israel controls the crossing points. The peace process has been put on hold. And this government in Israel in many ways has dissolved the partnership for peace and has undermined the discourse and the mentality of peace and has revived ancient hostilities and distrusts. And has resorted to extremism and ideology.

PORTER: You may have seen the story, just recently the Washington Post had a story about life in Ramallah.


PORTER: And they wrote, sort of comparing and contrasting life at this Flamingo’s night club in Ramallah with the scenes we used to see on the evening news from Ramallah, especially during the Intifidah. What do you think about that kind of coverage?

ASHRAWI: Well, I live in Ramallah, so I can tell you very frankly.

PORTER: In fact many of the ministries and council offices are in Ramallah. Is that correct?



ASHRAWI: They moved to Ramallah but unfortunately that’s at the expense of Jerusalem.

PORTER: Exactly.

ASHRAWI: We still maintain Jerusalem is our capital even though it is isolated. There are a few mistakes. I mean, of course I like the human aspect and the fact that Palestinians are just like everybody else. We like our Internet cafés and our nightclubs and dances and our restaurants and coffee shops. The thing is, these things did not start with the peace process or with recent exposure to the US. Palestine has always had the highest number of university graduates. We have always been the most liberal of Arab countries, and open to cultural interchange. Ramallah in itself has always been a center of education and learning, from the 19th Century.

And Flamingo’s, for example, has existed for a long time. He may have discovered it recently but it has been in existence, like Angelo’s, and like Boomers, and like….

PORTER: What did he say? The author said that on the night he was there, there were, the band had Israeli’s on keyboard, a trio of young Arabs playing drums, sax players from Australia and Ukraine, the music was Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington, and people were eating fajitas and onion rings. So, I mean it sounds…

ASHRAWI: Well, if you read my book….

PORTER: …like a great place.

ASHRAWI: It is, actually. If you read my book you noticed I met my husband, he had his own band and that’s how we met.

PORTER: Wonderful!

ASHRAWI: He had his own pop group. So, no, it’s always been a place for culture. The problem is that our reality in a sense has been destructed by the occupation. And by exile of course. More than half the Palestinians live in exile as refugees at the mercy of host countries. And the other half lived under occupation. Neither of which is a normal reality. However, despite all the pain and all the militarization, all the conflict, there were real attempts at creating a normal life. Or at, not capturing your, not imprisoning the imagination or the mind. This is very important. We actually established eight universities, even under occupation. But, with a sense of will and commitment to the nation building process. So you may capture land, you may confiscate it, you may demolish homes, but, you may close down schools and universities, but at the same time you cannot really destroy the human mind nor the imagination of people nor the will to live. And this is very important. Fifty years ago we were slated for total national obliteration. We were told we didn’t exist.

PORTER: Around the world people are worried about the Y2K problem.


PORTER: But for people who follow the Middle East peace process there is another date, the May 4th, 1999 problem.


PORTER: A date that key provisions of the Oslo Accord expire. What do you think will happen on May 4th, 1999?

ASHRAWI: Well, I don’t know if it will be a bang or a whimper, but I’ll tell you frankly, May 4th, 1999 is a date which we did not invent. It is significant. I don’t want to be, to overburden it with symbolism but at the same time overload it. But it is a significant date because it’s the date on which the interim phase comes to an end and supposedly permanent status talks will have come to an end. So we are faced with a legal vacuum. And we are faced with a real dilemma. Do you allow the interim phase to extend itself de facto, which means that we are in danger of having 1) an open-ended peace process, 2) having the features of the interim phase, which are entirely unjust, turn into permanent status issues and become a permanent reality: the fragmentation, the division of the land, the lack of freedoms. Or do we intervene in a constructive way. To us the outcome of negotiations has always been devolution of occupation, evolution of statehood.

And so with the end of that date, the Israelis may not have withdrawn, the occupation may not have come to an end, but least we can interject with the establishment of statehood. In November 1998 we, the PNC, the Palestine National Council, our Parliament in exile, declared statehood. So we’re going to re-declare statehood. We’re going to exercise—what we call exercise—sovereignty, or the establishment of the state, and declare that those territories still under Israeli control are under occupation, but they are within the legal boundaries of the state of Palestine. And Jerusalem is our capital.

Now there are many scenarios of course. There are many alternatives. People are looking at the various possibilities including outright occupation and war. Which I don’t think any Israeli government is that irresponsible or stupid. Others talk of a state of siege, cutting off of electricity, power, water, even import-export food, things like that. Cause they control our crossing points still.

And yet others still talk about the possibility of, some wise had sort of an understanding that a Palestinian is a sine qua non for genuine peace and that it is one essential factor or component of a just peace that will have any claim to permanence and durability.

So, many possibilities. My problem is that we need ourselves to work on embodying statehood. First of all I don’t believe that statehood is just a political slogan or an empty cliché or something that you use for maneuvers in the peace process. It is a right. It’s a basic right. An exercise of the right of self-determination. We do have a legal basis, UN Resolution 181, which gave rise to the establishment of the state of Israel on more than half of Palestine. So at least, you know, the Palestinian state should emerge from that basis. It is not subject to negotiations. National rights are not determined by others, neither your enemies nor your allies. There is a sort of global consensus on national rights.

PORTER: There is a poll, it was commissioned by the Arab American Institute, done by Zogby International, that says that 54.5% of Americans would support recognizing a Palestinian state if one were declared. And that just leads me to my, really my final question and that is, what is America’s role in this? For our American audience what is it that we should be doing?

ASHRAWI: The US actually did launch the peace process. With a lot of help from people like me, of course. But, in `91, the Middle East peace process was launched by the Bush-Baker administration at that time. And in a sense they gave us assurances and guarantees. They formulated the terms of reference. And I told Baker in our first meetings, and President Bush then—that the best thing would be if you want to meddle in this, if you want to start stirring up a hornet’s nest, you should have the courage and the will and the even-handedness to see it through. But, and to have a system of 1) protection for the Palestinians; 2) accountability for the Israelis. Unfortunately this did not happen. The US brought to bear its strategic alliance with Israel on the peace process itself. The letter of assurance we could not cash in as we say, because they said that it cannot have an impact on the peace process. It’s only the American position.

The peace process was subjected to domestic concerns and self-interest. And of course who can deliver more votes or campaign funds? And Palestinians can deliver neither. We can deliver a few votes, but we don’t have fuel oil, we have olive oil in Palestine. So we can’t deliver campaign funds.

And unfortunately there has been again a diminution of the American position, including American standing in the region. It was very clear that treating Israel as a country above the law led to the erosion of the credibility and the standing of the US in the region. The fact that it allows, you know, the tail to wag the dog—Israel constantly formulates US American policy in the region. And they are seen to be helpless before Israel. And so Israel is trying to refashion the peace process. I describe it as a reinvention of the peace process in its own image. And the more the US accommodates Israeli extremism the more it undermines its interests and its credibility and loses the integrity of its role as an even-handed peace broker.

PORTER: That is key Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

MARTIN: We’ll break for a moment here and when Common Ground continues, take a look at an effort to modernize the United Nations’ delivery of services to the poor.

ALAN DOSS: But today with technology we can also have something called the “Virtual UN House.” If we can’t be physically all in the same place at leastly we can be connected electronically.


MARTIN: Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities that provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

In 1997 the UN Secretary General introduced a series of reforms aimed at cutting costs and delivering services more effectively. He organized the wide-ranging activities of the UN system into five areas: Peace and Security, Economic and Social Affairs, Development Cooperation, Humanitarian Affairs, and Human Rights. The UN Development Group was a new coordinating body created as part of the reorganization. Alan Doss is the Director of the UN Development Group office. He says the Secretary General’s plan of organizing the bureaucracy around five program areas was the central part of the plan.

DOSS: Yes, it’s a key feature of the reform. The Secretary General felt it was essential that the different part of the UN come together around the core missions of the UN, one of which is supporting development around the world. And we have many different parts of the UN involved in that. Some of them are very well known in the United States, like UNICEF, some less well known. Others, World Food Program, the UN Development Program, all working around the world doing very good work, but perhaps not realizing their full potential, working together. So the Secretary General was very concerned to ensure there was greater cohesiveness, greater impact, from the combined operations of these development programs and development organizations within the UN. The ones that report to him. So they’ve come together in something called the UN Development Group. Which is designed to promote collaboration between these organizations. And to focus on some big issues that the UN is concerned about in development. Concerned about poverty, concerned about women, concerned about the environment, and its concerned about good government and human rights.

And if it’s to work in those areas it needs to work more efficiently, more effectively, especially on the ground in the developing countries where it really matters. So that’s the genesis if you will of the Development Group.

MARTIN: A lot of these groups are, have been quite autonomous. A number of them have their own governing bodies. What kinds of things are you going, are you doing to try to bring about better coordination among these sometimes strong-willed and autonomous groups?

DOSS: Yes, I think that we’ve grown up separately. We were created for different reasons. And I think that’s a strength. I mean I think that the UN Development Program, UNDP, does things that UNICEF doesn’t do and vice-versa. The World Food Program specializes in food security and helping particularly in areas of emergency. So they all bring some strengths. But bring them together and I think you have a much stronger organization. And this is why we wanted to move in that direction.

Some initiatives, important initiatives, have already been taken. For example, at the request of the Secretary General we are now coming together to have one development assistance framework as we call it, at the country level. So we come together in a country, work with the country, the government, the civil society, NGO’s, to define what can we best do in that country together. And we often find that working together we produce a much better, much stronger support for national development plans, programs. Whereas if we work separately in our own individual corner we don’t really get full value out of what we can do together. So we want to strengthen our, create a unity of purpose, unity of direction, but at the same time keep the diversity of the system, which is one of its strongest features.

MARTIN: I wanted to pursue that Development Assistance framework a little bit further. What’s happening there actually? You’re actually meeting and with people on the ground in the country to talk about the needs of the country and how you coordinate these things better?

DOSS: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: And are there some examples of places where that’s working?

DOSS: We’ve started with 18 so-called pilot countries, because we wanted to test it out, learn from experience, modify, adjust it, and then go forward and do it on a much broader scale. So we started with 18 around the world, 2 or 3 in each region. Some of the poorest countries and some not so poor. But in each case our UN Country Team, which comprises the representatives of the different UN agencies, funds and programs, come together on the ground to try to work out what, “well, what is it that the UN can best do to help that country? And how can we work together to do that?” So identify some areas for common action, common priorities, so as that we can see “Right. In this country this is what the UN is about, this is how the UN is working with the national authorities.

We also see this as a vehicle as bringing to bear at the country level some of the global concerns that have come out of the recent UN global conferences: the rights of the child; the Rio Conference; the social summit in Copenhagen, which dealt extensively with poverty; Beijing with women; and Cairo with issues with dealing with health and family life.

So all of these things need to be put together at the country level in a country context. Because so often countries vary enormously. So we have to apply the local, the global agenda in a local context. So that’s what we’re doing.

MARTIN: There’s a concept called “UN Houses” which comes involved in this. And what is that about?

DOSS: Well the Secretary General has been struck in his travels around the world that, Look we have all these UN organizations, they’re physically often not in the same location. This doesn’t help us to work together. So wherever possible, wherever it makes sense economically, financially, we’re trying to pull the teams together so they’re in the same place. But today with technology we can also have something called the “Virtual UN House.” If we can’t be physically all in the same place at leastly we can be connected electronically, and share information, documents, ideas, people even. So that’s the notion of the UN House. Bringing the UN together at the country level to work with local people, local institutions, local governments.

MARTIN: Mozambique provides an example of where the UN’s development assistance framework has been partially implemented. Through an inter-agency process three strategic objectives were agreed upon. Those objectives are: increasing access to and quality of basic social services; promoting good governance and capacity of civil institutions; and promoting the sustainable management of natural resources. Alan Dawes says that is one example of how the process work.

DOSS: Well, indeed, I mean we’re working on, say in these pilots, everywhere from Vietnam to Morocco, each one is different because the needs of each country are different. But there are some common threads that run through all of them: attention, for example, as I mentioned, to issues of poverty and equity; what are we doing to help poor people? Gender; women’s rights. These are some of the themes. The rights of children. These are some of the themes and issues that we’re dealing with in an individual country context. So we’re trying to think globally and act locally, as I think a former Dean of the Harvard Business School was said, mentioned.

MARTIN: I was struck by the fact that human rights plays a role in all of four of the groups that have been formed. What special status does human have rights have in this?

DOSS: Well, I, in the Secretary General’s reform initiative human rights he identifies as being the theme that underlines all the UN’s core missions. Be it in Peace and Security, be it in Humanitarian, be it in Development; human rights is a fundamental issue for the UN. So we’re expected to reflect that in the work we do, both as individual organizations as well as our work together. So a number of the UN Development Assistance Framework documents are dealing with rights issues. But rights in a fairly broad sense. Not just only civil, political rights, but also rights—the right to development; the rights of children; the rights of minorities; the rights of the poor. So we’re trying to approach the issue of rights through a fairly holistic approach, if I can use that awful jargon, and to look at what this means for people on the ground.

And I think bringing the great instruments that have been developed—and today is the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration—but since then there are many other instruments that have been negotiated. We have to see how those work on the ground for people: rights of children, rights of workers, rights of migrants. So this is clearly a major—a growing feature I might say, of our work.

Let me just add that increasingly governments are coming to us and saying they want to improve their administrations in these areas: justice, elections, and so on. And they’re coming to the UN and in particular to organizations like the UN Development Program, UNDP, for assistance in this area. And I think the UN is able to respond now.

MARTIN: This total effort, to what extent has this been driven, do you think, by the push to make the United Nations more efficient?

DOSS: Well, very much. I think, like all great international—or any institution—we’re not immune to the broader currents underway in the economy at large. And as we know in the United States over recent years many venerable corporations and institutions have gone through changes, structural changes, downsizing, and course we’re not immune to this. Nor should we be. We have to be efficient. We are financed by taxpayers, here and around the world. And we should be, consider ourselves, through the appropriate channels obviously, accountable to those taxpayers. We have to show that we can deliver value for money.

And I hope that in doing so that we will get recognition. I think one of our frustrations, I must say though, in the UN, is that we have undertaken quite a lot of reform, we’ve moved forward, we’ve tried to make changes, but we sometimes wonder, is this being fully recognized?

MARTIN: All these initiatives seem eminently sensible. You know, why hasn’t this happened before? Or has it been thought of before?

DOSS: Well, I think in part because the geopolitical context has changed. We don’t have a Cold War. The Berlin Wall came down. That made it possible for the UN to move forward in a number of areas that previously were blocked. I think that’s very important.

I think also the climate has changed. Let’s face it. We have a new generation coming to the UN, which has trained, grew up in a different world, trained with different skills, and I think that in turn is also helping to push things forward.

Plus, very real problems. We have had difficulties of management and inefficiencies that we have to address very openly and candidly, just like national administrations are. Our great and concern though is that this, especially for the development institutions, we’re doing this against a backdrop of rapidly declining resources, available money, funds, for development. And that is very sad. Because we are now at a time when I think we’re probably more effective than we’ve been. We know what works and what doesn’t work. We’re learning from that experience. But at the same time our resources continue to decline: through the UN, through multilateral, but also bilaterally. And I think that’s very sad. I think we’re missing a historic opportunity.

MARTIN: Our guest in this portion of Common Ground has been Alan Dawes, Director of the UN Development Group, a body that coordinates the work of many United Nations agencies working on development issues. For Common Ground, I‘m Jeff Martin.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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