"Averting Forced Displacement: Humanitarian Contributions" - Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Kyrgyz Slavic University, Bishkek, 28 May 1997

Let me start by saying how pleased I am to visit Central Asia and the Kyrgyz Republic in particular. It is the first time for me to be in this region which throughout the ages has been such an important bridge between different peoples and cultures, between East and the West and between North and the South. I feel also immensely honoured by the honorary degree which the Kyrgyz Slavic University has bestowed on me. Having myself a background in academia, I always appreciate the company of university teachers and students. When universities and research institutions show an interest in refugee issues, as they increasingly do across the world, I am even more delighted.

If we are to effectively manage and resolve existing refugee problems and to prevent new ones from arising, we need to combine the concrete experience of political and humanitarian practitioners with the multidisciplinary analysis and insight of researchers.

My Office was established by the General Assembly in 1950, to provide international protection to refugees and to promote solutions to their plight. Let me briefly explain. Protection of refugees means not only making sure that people fleeing persecution, human rights violations or war are allowed to enter other countries to seek asylum or are not forcibly returned to a country where their life or freedom is threatened. It also requires looking after their physical and material well being, by co-ordinating emergency relief in the form of shelter, water, food, health care, education and community services. Over the years, and especially as a result of the large scale crises of the nineties - northern Iraq, Somalia, the Caucasus, Tajikistan, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and most recently Zaire - the work of UNHCR has expanded enormously.

In 1990, 15 million persons were under my mandate. Today UNHCR is responsible for 26 million refugees, people displaced within their own countries and former refugees who are re-integrating into their own societies.

Forced displacement has also become far more complex to manage and to solve. Often it is the very objective of a conflict, not just a by-product. Although domestic disputes are at the origin of most contemporary conflicts, many have regional dimensions. Today's conflicts pit one group against another. Those fleeing are often an explosive mix of the defeated party and its military as well as innocent women and children. In such situations, solutions become more difficult to reach.

Refugee issues have increased in political importance. That they may cause tension in inter-state relations is not new. What has become especially manifest in the Great Lakes region of Africa is that politicised and militarized refugee populations, in this case from Rwanda, are likely to threaten - and to be threatened by - their home countries. They may moreover exacerbate tensions among rival groups of nationals in the asylum country. The political and security dimension of refugee issues is also apparent when refugees are prevented from returning home for political reasons by one or more parties to a conflict. Insufficient progress toward solutions for forcibly displaced persons undermines efforts of peace making, as in the Caucasus, or worse even frustrates the implementation of peace settlements, as we experience daily in post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The conclusion is that displacement issues should be addressed as humanitarian as well as potential security issues. As I argued during a recent meeting at the UN Security Council in New York, the interface between human security on the one hand, and national and international security on the other, must be fully recognized. The traditional focus on the security of states should be complemented by far more attention to the security of people, as both concepts of security are increasingly indivisible.

I am therefore advocating an integrated approach to crisis management in which all dimensions - humanitarian, developmental and above all political - are addressed in a mutually reinforcing manner. We can no longer afford to treat only the humanitarian consequences of involuntary displacement. We can no longer afford to remain passive until disputes and tensions turn into open conflict. The international community must be prepared to invest far more energy and resources in helping governments to build stable societies based on the peaceful co-existence and advancement of their entire citizenry. There is all the more reason for such efforts in newly independent states, such as those in the vast region of the former USSR, where governments must manage outstanding minority and language questions alongside economic, migratory and ecological challenges.

In Central Asia, the break-up of the USSR has led to major population movements. In this region alone, some 4.2 million people have been moving within, between or from the five Central Asian Republics since 1989 - an astounding one in twelve of the region's inhabitants. Countries such as Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and yours are best placed to know the severe economic impact of the departure of large numbers of skilled ethnic Russians and Germans. The region has experienced refugee flows from Tajikistan and from Afghanistan. Although with the exception of Tajikistan there have been no major conflicts in the region, I am probably not exaggerating to note that the potential for serious instability does exist. In your own country, the Osh events of 1990 provided a frightening example of the ease with which violence can break out.

I am therefore pleased that the governments of Central Asia have put issues of migration and refugees higher on their political agenda. In the same vein I am pleased with the active participation of almost all countries of the region in the Conference on Involuntary Displacement in the C.I.S. which my Office organized last year in Geneva together with the OSCE and the IOM. A major function of that Conference was to focus international attention on and mobilize resources for the humane management of various forms of displacement, while engaging all concerned in a concerted effort to avert future involuntary displacements. All Central Asian states are meanwhile participating in a new process, this time with the countries from the Middle East and Southwest Asia, which I initiated in March of this year in Amman. In addition to reinforcing refugee protection, the main aim of this diplomatic attempt is to encourage progress towards solving some long-standing refugee problems by promoting dialogue among the countries concerned.

Let me now concentrate on the challenge of how future involuntary displacement may be averted. Needless to say, humanitarian organizations like mine are incapable of preventing conflict as such. On the other hand, I firmly believe that we can at least assist in developing an environment which lessens the potential for future trouble. Let me explain to you some of the contributions we try to make.

First, through presence. At the request of the governments of Central Asia we have opened offices in all five Republics. Through our presence we try to promote cooperation among the governments and local authorities in the region, an important aspect of regional stability. Our presence in places such as Osh in your own country allows us to gain a better understanding of the dynamics in the area, may provide confidence to the population and may attract other agencies to join us in providing support.

Second, capacity building. We concentrate on strengthening government structures as well as NGOs dealing with migration and refugee issues. Around the world, NGOs tackle problems for which governments lack time or resources. NGOs are moreover crucial vectors of civil society. They are close to the local population, allowing them to assess and address needs and to bring them to the attention of the authorities. Together with our partners, we have developed NGO Support Centres. We also assist in the drafting of relevant legislation, a process now under way in all countries of the region. We are creating legal library centres and organizing training in refugee and human rights law. The recently created Bishkek Migration Management Centre, which has been given a regional status, is, we believe, a promising initiative to expand training possibilities. We hope that it will also develop into a regional centre for research on ethnic tension and migration that could help provide the analysis necessary for designing effective preventive strategies.

Third, tolerance education. In the Kyrgyz Republic my Office developed an innovative Tolerance Education Project, designed to develop methodologies of non-violent problem solving through teacher training. During my visit to a school in Osh I was impressed by the numerous initiatives students and teachers had developed in their school and community. Such projects should have a positive potential in building inter-community understanding.

Everyday we must indeed ask ourselves - what difference do these activities make, what is their impact, do we really deliver? I believe that there are already some positive signs. As I mentioned earlier, there is growing attention for migration and refugees issues and their possible cross border impact on national and regional stability. There is also an increasing understanding that refugee and migration issues do not stand alone, but are inextricably linked with other priority concerns such as unemployment, health, the social safety-net or education. Structures are being created to deal with refugees, there is more national and regional dialogue and accession to relevant international instruments. In the area of conflict prevention, various countries are either preparing or have developed mediation structures.

At the same time there are impressive examples of the positive role played by political and cultural leaders. That role is crucial, as we realize from our experiences across the globe. You may recall the joint visit of the famous Kyrgyz writer and diplomat, Chingiz Aitmatov, and his colleague, Adil Yakubov, a well-known writer from Uzbekistan, to the Osh region at the height of the problems there in 1990. Together they talked to the Kyrgyz and Uzbek populations and helped lessen tension. I should also mention that the Osh events would not have been resolved without the personal involvement of President Akaev and President Karimov. Other examples include a group of lecturers in Kazakhstan who travelled to Ust-Kamenagorsk in Kazakhstan, as a result of which social protection was enhanced and ethnic relations improved. This July, the second Issyk Kul Forum will be held, assembling writers and important figures from different countries. It is another opportunity to build bridges and understanding.

Central Asia is an area where mechanisms of conflict prevention have historical roots in societies made up of many different ethnic groups who lived together for hundreds of years. You had traditional structures such as Aksakal (elders) courts, which played an important part in reconciliation processes. Tolerance, the ability to forgive and to avoid revenge are part of this tradition. For hundreds of years, peoples in Central Asia, be it as nomads or settlers, led disparate lifestyles but interacted and often depended on each other's goods. Respect for the other in a region marked by the movement of peoples and cultures throughout history is still deeply rooted in the Central Asian societies. A strong, ancient tradition of hospitality has laid the basis for the reception of people in need of protection.

Let me therefore say in conclusion how proud we are in UNHCR to be active in this region and to tap these rich human traditions, as we work to assist victims of war and persecution and to avert unnecessary displacement in future. Our contributions would be fruitless without the support we receive from the leadership in the countries of Central Asia. I am extremely grateful for this. Much work still lies ahead. Let me also thank you once again for the visit to the Kyrgyz Slavic University. Here people from different cultural backgrounds study together to invest in a bright future for your country. At this time of transition there are many challenges for all of you. But I am confident that together you will build a society that can serve as an example elsewhere. Not a closed, narrow-minded, nationalistic one, but an open, creative and pluralistic society. I wish you all the best. Thank you.