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Subject: John Rennie, led aid effort for Palestinians

August 12
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Date Posted: October 01, 2002 1:35:40 EDT

Sir John Rennie, a British administrator who struggled to keep the United Nations aid program for Palestinian refugees afloat in the 1960's and 70's, when the Middle East was scarred by war and civil conflict, died on Aug. 12 in London, the United Nations recently announced.

He was 85.

From 1968 to 1977, Sir John served first as deputy commissioner and then, after 1971, as commissioner general for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

The agency was set up in 1950 to take over from the Red Cross the task of caring for the thousands of Palestinians dispossessed by the creation of the State of Israel two years before.

Earlier, he had enjoyed a distinguished career in the British Colonial Service, ending up as governor of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, from 1962 to 1968. He guided Mauritius from British dependency to independence within the Commonwealth and was rewarded with an invitation from the island's prime minister to stay on for six months as governor general and personal representative of Queen Elizabeth II.

During Sir John's years at the refugee agency, there were serious political and financial upheavals within the agency and the region where it worked. When he joined the Beirut headquarters in 1968, the agency was still coping with the mass of refugees created by the war the previous year, exacerbated by the unending low-level conflict throughout the region and Lebanon's descent into civil war.

Sir John quickly made such an impression on the agency that the American commissioner general, Laurence Michelmore, persuaded the secretary general, U Thant, to give Sir John the top job after Mr. Michelmore retired in 1971, even though the post had traditionally gone to an American in recognition of the major contribution of the United States to the agency's budget.

Sir John then faced the daunting task of holding the agency together during the 1973 Middle East war and the outbreak of a full-scale civil war in Lebanon; its headquarters was right on the Green Line between the warring factions in Beirut.

With its freedom of movement increasingly curtailed and funds critically short, the agency found its situation so serious by 1975 that Kurt Waldheim, the new secretary general, moved the headquarters to the new United Nations building in Vienna. Sir John now found himself in perpetual motion, flying between Austria and his Middle East operations.

Worn out by the travel and discouraged by agency's perpetual financial difficulties and the intractable nature of the Palestinian problem, Sir John retired in 1977 at 60.

John Shaw Rennie was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on Jan. 12, 1917, and was educated at Glasgow and Oxford Universities. He is survived by his wife, the former Mary Winifred Macalpine Robertson, and their son, Neil.

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