Beirut, 14-17 April 2003

Your Excellency General Emile Lahoud, President of Lebanon,
Your Excellency Mr. Nabih Berri, President of the National Assembly,
Your Excellency Mr. Rafiq Hariri, Prime Minister,
Your Excellencies Ministers, Deputies, Ambassadors and Heads of Delegation,
Representatives of international organizations,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are gathered together here today on the occasion of the twenty-second session of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), at a time when a dark cloud is covering the whole world, and the Arab region in particular.

The fact that you are attending this meeting, despite the difficult circumstances, is an indication of your concern for the issues at stake in this region; your commitment to the principles of international legitimacy; and of your belief in the need to confront the difficulties in order to ensure a better future, a future which you will play a part in building, and in strengthening the will and determination to achieve such a future.

Permit me, first of all, to express my deep gratitude to His Excellency the President of Lebanon for honouring ESCWA with his presence at a session for the first time since 1997, when the Commission once again began to enjoy the generous hospitality offered by this gracious country.

We at ESCWA greatly appreciate this kind attention on the part of His Excellency the President, because his presence here today is a sign of both his support and his belief in the importance of commitment to the principles of international legitimacy. We therefore most warmly salute His Excellency the President. Similarly, we salute Lebanon for its political maturity and awareness and its national commitment. We further salute the responsible spirit demonstrated by community leaders under these difficult circumstances.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The wars and disputes that have prevailed in the Arab region for more than 50 years, affecting Palestine, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, Egypt, Kuwait, and now Iraq, have had an obvious impact on the peoples of the region and on the development processes of their countries.

The countries of the Arab region lie at the heart of the ancient world. They have historical links with and have contributed to the cultures of other geographical regions and, in particular, Europe. It is therefore in the interests of all that stability should reign in this region.

It is for that reason that the issue of the impact on the region of lack of stability has been chosen as one of the main focuses of this session. It will be considered at the meeting to be held after this inauguration.

Here, with a view to appreciating the losses that are likely to ensue from the current war against Iraq, we should pause to review very briefly the figures relating to some of the losses in the 1990s, namely, from 1990 to 2002, that resulted from the second Gulf War.

In the past decade, that War may be held directly responsible for losses amounting to some US$ 600 billion from the gross domestic product of the countries of the region. It is expected that, as a result of the war against Iraq, those losses will increase to $1,000 billion. In terms of lost employment opportunities, those losses represent between 4 and 5 million job opportunities, a figure that is expected to rise from 6 to 7 million as a result of the war against Iraq.

In the past 10 years, average per capita income in the Arab region has been the lowest in the world, largely because of the fall in the price of oil.

The situation has been exacerbated by falling levels of investment; increased military expenditure to the point where it is twice the world average; decreasing returns from tourism and transport; increases in the cost of insurance and re-insurance; a decline in the trade between Arab countries; losses resulting from the cessation of bilateral commercial agreements between Iraq and a number of Arab countries during the war against Iraq; the environmental degradation caused by the military confrontations and the use of highly destructive weapons, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, mines and the igniting of oil wells; the military and civilian human losses; the increased number of disabilities caused by mines and other types of deadly weapon; the reverse in inter-Arab relations; the rise in levels of unemployment; worsening levels of poverty; increased population density; increasing sectarianism and intolerance; the destruction of buildings, installations and infrastructure; and the migration of citizens and consequent loss of human resources.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Concurrent with those difficult regional circumstances are international changes and challenges, including economic globalization and the technological revolution, which affect the social situation. What, then, is the solution, and what is the role of ESCWA, faced with the current regional and international changes?

Given this situation, ESCWA was forced to reconsider its orientations and programme of work. It was you, the member countries, who at the last session took the decision that the work of ESCWA should focus on one main objective, namely, regional integration, and that its activities should accordingly focus on a limited number of priorities in order to serve that objective. Pursuant to that decision, the following four fields were chosen as being of central importance for the countries of the region: water, globalization, social policies and technology.

There is a scarcity of water in most countries of the region. Globalization and stiff international competition pose challenges that the countries of the region must make preparations to meet. Social policies must be interconnected and cohesive.

Technology is a field in which a revolution is taking place at the global level, particularly with respect to information and communications. If we ask where the region stands with regard to that revolution, the figures do not provide a favourable response. The number of personal computers in Arab countries is seven times lower than the world average, while Internet use is 80 times lower.

In the light of the foregoing, it was necessary to restructure the Commission and its programme of work. As a result of that restructuring, one new division was established in order to consider globalization and regional integration-related issues; another to deal with economic analysis and consideration of the future; and a third for information and communication technologies.

Accordingly, activities have been added to the ESCWA programme of work that are concerned with post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation. Such activities are being undertaken by ESCWA, in a very modest fashion, in certain villages in southern Lebanon and Palestine. The first steps have been taken pursuant to the resolution adopted at the twenty-first session concerning the rehabilitation of economic sectors in Palestine. Furthermore, the Commission prepares an annual report on the economic and social repercussions of the Israeli occupation on the living conditions of the Palestinian people. Recent events have demonstrated the severity of the confrontation with the forces of the Israeli occupation, during which the human tragedy has reached proportions rarely witnessed in the age of the modern technology that has been used to oppress man and challenge all the principles of international law.

A further activity has been added to the programme of work, concerning local communities. An example of that is the work undertaken by ESCWA with Beirut Municipality in order to make the Beirut central area accessible to the disabled and in the town of Aley, where the Commission has worked to preserve the heritage. In Jordan and Lebanon, educational centres for the blind have been built.

The Commission has also inaugurated work with, inter alia, civil society, non-governmental organizations and unions.

For the first time, ESCWA is working with the private sector, with funding from individuals, in order to assist them in building their societies. Considerable sums of money have been contributed to ESCWA by Lebanese individuals and companies in order to help disadvantaged areas and groups. We are grateful for such magnanimous gestures, and hope that they will continue and increase. Pursuant to the resolution adopted by member countries at the twenty-first session concerning the designation of the sessions of the Commission as the forum for a biennial pledging conference, ESCWA hopes that the initiation of such a conference will make available additional funding that will permit the Commission to confront major and unexpected events under its regular, previously prepared budget. It is therefore important to make pledges at this session.

In order to promote regional integration in our region, ESCWA has taken action to develop the integrated transport system in the Arab Mashreq. At the last session, the Agreement on International Roads in the Arab Mashreq was adopted; during the current session, the Agreement on International Railways in the Arab Mashreq will be adopted. At the twenty-third session, an agreement on maritime routes will be adopted.

The preparation and coordination of the positions of member countries at global conferences is a manifestation of regional integration at international level. The Commission therefore made preparations for the Second World Assembly on Ageing, that was held in Madrid, the World Summit on Sustainable Development that was held in Johannesburg, and the World Summit on the Information Society, to be held in Geneva.

Your Excellency the President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Once again, I am deeply grateful to His Excellency General Emile Lahoud, President of Lebanon, for his sponsorship of the session and his support for the Commissionís endeavours to achieve regional integration and Arab cooperation. I should also like to thank all those who have so graciously attended for their interest in ESCWA and their commitment to international principles, in the face of all the difficulties. This will strengthen the will of the people, the desire for steadfastness and the commitment to right and justice.

Permit me, therefore, to salute those who are calling for peace, who embody the determination of the international community to adhere to international rules and laws, and who are making every possible effort to bring peace on all fronts. I salute the people of this region who have endured these difficulties for the past 50 years and have remained steadfast in the hope of a better future.

Thank you for your kind attention.