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Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (The high cost of caring) - The view from Washington

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1995

Although the United Nations is not very popular with some Americans these days, UNHCR continues to enjoy strong support.

By Benjamin A. Gilman

Editor's Note: Benjamin A. Gilman, a New York Republican, is chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on International Relations. REFUGEES asked Congressman Gilman to comment on congressional and public attitudes in the United States toward UNHCR, and what the agency must do to continue to receive support from its single largest donor.

Imagine an organization funded at public expense, designed to solve a problem, given five years to do so and then go out of business. Now imagine that 44 years later that organization, instead of solving the problem, has experienced a hundredfold increase in its dimensions, has seen its budget requirements increase proportionately, and yet continued to enjoy the solid support and encouragement of the governments who provide its funding. UNHCR is that organization.

UNHCR was created in 1951 primarily to assume the task within the United Nations of looking after the remaining caseload of persons displaced during and immediately after World War II. Regrettably, those who envisioned that UNHCR could take care of the problem of refugees within its original five-year mandate could not foresee that instead of a period of international peace and understanding, the first 50 years of the United Nations would be marked by strife, bitter conflict and, instead of going away, the problem of displaced populations would unbelievably mushroom.

It is therefore a tribute to UNHCR that the international community continues to regard it as the preeminent humanitarian organization. In places like the former Yugoslavia, with its 3.3 million affected individuals, in Rwanda with its 2.2 million refugees and displaced, and in the former Soviet Union where there are 1.5 million persons of concern, the world's leaders understand that as horrifying as the harvest of man's inhumanity to man has been, it would be much, much worse but for the dedicated, courageous and effective work of UNHCR's staff.

In these times of diminishing public and Congressional support for much of the U.N. system, it is significant that UNHCR is so highly regarded. Basically, this is simply due in part to the fact that no matter how horrifying the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of gaunt, terrified people languishing in hellish camps our revulsion is always tempered by the knowledge that UNHCR and its many partners are attempting to cope, to do something, to reach out and assist.

Beyond our gratitude that someone is doing something about the world's horrible human disasters, is our knowledge that it is being done well, or at least as well as one could hope. Unlike many other parts of the U.N. system, UNHCR has been identified by many of my colleagues as part of a solution, rather than a part of the problem. Given the conditions under which UNHCR often must operate, its efficiency doing a great deal with limited resources and its effectiveness are highly impressive.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, as the world's refugees have doubled and quadrupled in numbers, and the causes of refugee situations have grown more complex, UNHCR has managed to keep pace through the flexibility and creative ingenuity of its staff. In the 1970s, when I first came to know about UNHCR, it was primarily concerned with refugee protection issues, mainly from a legalistic perspective. Its operational role in refugee situations was virtually non-existent other organizations, mostly private, and the International Committee of the Red Cross were involved in providing assistance and raising the funds necessary to address these situations.

Now, as the world faces such tragedies as Bosnia and Rwanda, UNHCR has become the lead agency in all aspects of refugee problems: prevention, assistance and searching for solutions. High Commissioner Sadako Ogata has skillfully and determinedly led her office into the 1990s and the new world disorder. In Bosnia, she has navigated the shoals of a complex humanitarian disaster fuelled by strong ethnic hatreds. UNHCR staff are the frontline of the international community's efforts to not only assist the victims of the conflict, but to help try to put Bosnia back together again by working with all the ethnic groups to find ways that they can be reconciled.

The conflict in former Yugoslavia has challenged UNHCR to meld its operations with a sizeable U.N. peacekeeping force. The Security Council's mandate to use all necessary measures to ensure that humanitarian aid reached its intended targets, while not always pressed as fully as I and many others believe it should have been, marked a distinct departure for UNHCR in the manner in which it was to conduct its operations. UNHCR staff in Bosnia have become like special forces whose mission is to keep people alive in the midst of a deadly conflict.

Rwanda has also posed a unique challenge to UNHCR during the 90s. The beginning of the decade saw UNHCR focus upon the right of return for refugees from Rwanda's Tutsi ethnic minority. As civil war between the Tutsis and the majority Hutus erupted, UNHCR anticipated the displacement of large numbers of Rwanda's population and tried to alert other parts of the U.N. system, the Security Council in particular, that a peacekeeping force might be needed to protect the Rwandans from each other. Regrettably, despite UNHCR's efforts, the international community responded with too little, too late to avert the calamity which occurred in 1994, when half a million or more Rwandans were slaughtered in an orgy of ethnic violence, and millions more fled to seek protection wherever it could be found.

The aftermath of the violence in 1994 left UNHCR facing the unusual situation of the government in Rwanda evacuating its own citizens as part of a deliberate strategy. This unusual political strategy left a million Rwandan citizens in squalid camps around Rwanda's borders. Many of these camps came under the control of Hutu government officials who were responsible for much of the violence that had ensued earlier. It is now UNHCR's difficult task to wrest control of the camps and of the Rwandan refugees from these thugs. UNHCR's perseverance in this task is impressive, and deserving of our support.

In dealing with the Rwandan emergency, UNHCR has been forced to walk a fine line between upholding the principle of non-refoulement in dealing with neighbouring governments' attempts to rid themselves of Rwandan refugees in asylum, and upholding the right of return for those refugees who are willing to risk going back to their own country. The central problem faced by the agency is providing assistance to innocent victims of the violence that has wracked Rwanda while avoiding helping those guilty of atrocities to maintain political control in the camps. In the end, the best way to ensure this is to have the refugees return home in safety.

The implications of the situations in both Bosnia and Rwanda are clearly that UNHCR will continue to have a major role to play in the post-Cold War world. Moreover, it is likely that the agency's mandate will continue to have to be adapted so that it continues to be able to meet complex humanitarian emergencies in a flexible manner.

What steps will High Commissioner Ogata and her staff have to take to make sure that the agency continues to be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead and to retain the support of its key donors like the U.S. government? In the Congress, we are concerned about justifying to the U.S. taxpayers the funds we authorize. In general, Americans respond generously to suffering persons wherever they may be. But we also want to make certain that situations which bring about this suffering are being addressed and resolved. Therefore, it is extremely important that UNHCR continues to make known its solution-seeking mandate and its many successes in this regard. Recent successes in Mozambique, Cambodia, Central America and Southern Africa need to be publicized as refugee problems that have been solved.

Another concern of many of my colleagues and myself is that as programmes to return refugees to their countries of origin are implemented, adequate safeguards are in place with regard to the treatment of these persons on their return to their homes. For instance, persons returned under the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese refugees in South-East Asia need to be monitored more carefully by fully independent international monitors. We are concerned that UNHCR may not have full and confidential follow-up interviews with individuals returned to Viet Nam and Laos, and that local staff working with international UNHCR officials in these countries may be subject to some form of governmental control and pressure. To address these kinds of concerns, I suggest that UNHCR adopt the standards of an organization like the ICRC which insists upon full confidentiality of the interviewing process when investigating the treatment of individuals of concern.

The 1995 edition of UNHCR's "State of the World's Refugees" is informative, thoughtful and forward-looking. I believe that Mrs. Ogata's plea for the international community to head off potential humanitarian disasters by timely intervention and development assistance is worthy of consideration by all donor governments. However, I would urge UNHCR to continue to pursue its own mandate, which is not development, but assistance to refugees and not to become involved in purely development-related projects in the name of refugee prevention. UNHCR can play an important role by continuing its excellent early warning and monitoring work in order to provide information to the international community that can alert it to work in advance of the development of critical refugee situations.

I believe that UNHCR can continue to count on the support of those of us in the Congress who have grown to respect and appreciate the significant efforts of its staff in coping with extremely difficult and often dangerous humanitarian disasters around the world. We hope that we will continue to have the excellent relationship that we have come to enjoy over the past 44 years.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 102 (1996)

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