Speech by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Information Meeting of the Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees, 5 October 1990

Statements by High Commissioner, 5 October 1990

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you all for accepting our invitation to attend this information meeting of the Steering Committee. I felt that your presence in Geneva for the annual session of this year's Executive Committee would be a useful occasion and in accordance with paragraph 18 (c) of the Comprehensive Plan of Action for us to report to you on some of the developments which have taken place since the last information meeting on 13 March this year.

As you know, the formal meeting of the Steering Committee took place on 23 and 24 January of this year. Since nine months have now elapsed, the convening of a fourth Steering Committee meeting would normally have been considered long overdue. However, I think all of us would agree that to convene a formal meeting of the Steering Committee at this time, without firm prospects for a substantial breakthrough on the most crucial of the unresolved issues, i.e. the future of those Vietnamese determined not to be refugees, could undermine confidence in the Comprehensive Plan of Action, if the Committee were once again to conclude its deliberations without reaching a consensus.

What we would like to do today is to bring you up-to-date on the results of the numerous consultations which have taken place since the last informal meeting in Manila, to say a few words about where the CPA stands today and to give a brief assessment about prospects for the future.

As many of you know, following the Manila informal meeting on 17 and 18 May, I personally undertook to hold consultations with all the main parties at the highest level. I travelled to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom and had intensive discussions with the Heads to States and the senior officials in each of these countries. Further consultations were also held by my colleagues with senior government officials of Hong Kong and Vietnam in June and with those of the first asylum countries of South East Asia at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Jakarta in July.

When the Vietnamese Government contacted the United Kingdom in late August with new suggestions and both Governments invited my Office to join them in Hanoi, I immediately asked the Chairman of the Steering Committee, together with the Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and Oceania and my Representatives in Hanoi and Hong Kong, to participate in these discussions. The result was the Joint Statement and the Aide-Mémoires of 21 September 1990 which you have before you.

While this Joint Statement can be considered an encouraging step forward, it can by no means be said in itself to ensure the continued viability of the Comprehensive Plan of Action. It is frankly an attempt to expand the number of returnees to include those who do not object, the so-called "grey area" cases. Whether this will result in a sizeable increase in the number of returnees remains to be seen. Intensive counselling of potential returnees will have to be undertaken by my Office, starting with Hong Kong, but it will take several months before we can determine whether this agreement will have the desired results. Through this process, and in accordance with the letter and spirit of the CPA, we intend to counsel those who have been found to be non-refugees that, as stated in the CPA, they must return to their own to be non-refugees that, as stated in the CPA, they must return to their own country and their options in this respect are very limited. They can either wait in the camps for eventual mandatory return, without involvement of UNHCR in the process, or they can return to Viet Nam now in safety and dignity under UNHCR's auspices and with the necessary guarantees.

In the long run, however, I must stress that despite these encouraging steps, we cannot move on with the full implementation of the CPA unless there is a political will on the part of all parties to implement the Plan in all its aspects. The erosion of first asylum since the CPA was adopted is a fact which cannot bee denied, particularly through the redirection of asylum-seekers. Rescue at sea had dropped dramatically due to the difficulties of disembarkation and the enormous burden put on shipping companies by protracted negotiations when ships come into port. Undoubtedly, lives are being lost unnecessarily at sea. For UNHCR, it is a matter for concern, for, as you know, we have agreed to a number of functions the CPA, which are clearly of an exceptional nature for the Office, only because we felt that they were necessary in order to preserve first asylum in the region and to protect and assist refugees falling under our mandate.

This is the darker side of the story. On the brighter side, however, one can point to real progress in other essential CPA areas, such as refugees status determination, resettlement and, not least, with regard to the promotion of voluntary repatriation. My colleagues will be reporting to you on these aspects in greater detail this afternoon.

As you may recall, at the last information meeting on 13 March, I offered, if requested, to assist and monitor all returnees in Viet Nam. Since then, of 14 September 1990, I have been asked by the Secretary-General to be his Special Representative to co-ordinate and monitor the returnee programme. I have agreed to accept this additional mandate, which is, of course, clearly outside UNHCR's traditional activities. As requested by the Secretary-General, my Office will, subject to adequate resources being made available, co-ordinate efforts with all the parties concerned "to promote the phased and orderly return of non-refugees in a manner which is fully compatible with the humanitarian mandate of my Office and under conditions of safety and dignity". I think it is important for me to stress this since, as you may well understand, my monitoring role cannot be discharged in circumstances in which the use of physical force occurs or is contemplated.

But let us hope that point is never reached. Let us hope that non-refugees will recognize that they have no other option than to return home in an orderly, safe and dignified manner. However, for this hope to materialize something must be done to reverse the economic decline of their home country. There is no doubt that the economic and social causes of the problem, which has gone unaddressed for many years, has to be simultaneously tackled if we are to see the CPA continue as a viable programme. I am especially thankful to the EEC for the very constructive role it is playing in this regard. My appreciation also goes to Japan which pioneered the new type of assistance we have been advocating through a half-million dollar vocational training project in Haiphong, to be implemented by a Japanese NGO.

As I already stated in no uncertain terms on 13 March, I would only hope that other counties and international institutions would also address the much larger and fundamental issue of development assistance which goes well beyond the traditional pattern of humanitarian assistance envisaged by the CPA. Unless persons, regardless of their legal status, can be assure of the basic right to an adequate standard of living of living for themselves and for their families, no amount of counselling and no amount of monitoring by my Office will persuade people to return.