American nun receives 1997 Nansen Medal

Press Releases, 13 October 1997

An American nun received Monday the 1997 Nansen Medal for her outstanding work for the past 15 years with Guatemalan refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, presented the medal to Sister Joannes Klas, 63, of Belgium, Wisconsin, at a ceremony at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In selecting Klas, Ogata cited the work of thousands of humanitarian workers struggling in 125 countries to meet the needs of refugees. She said without these aid workers helping millions of refugees and other displaced persons UNHCR could not meet its protection and relief mandate.

The High Commissioner paid tribute to all aid workers who have died in the last few years. She called on governments to take every possible measure to ensure the safety of aid workers. "The United Nations or Red Cross and Crescent symbols no longer provide the protection we all thought they did," she said, calling this a "worrying trend."

"Not only humanitarian workers but also humanitarian principles are no longer respected in many parts of the world today. Refugees are being denied asylum in many countries and are being forcibly returned by many countries. Massacres, armed attacks, starvation, ethnic cleansing have resulted in countless loss of human life." She specifically mentioned the refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

"The application of refugee protection principles is undergoing a crisis in many parts of the world. Much of it is caused by the unwillingness of states to live up to their international obligations," she said.

A member of the Sisters of Saint Francis, Klas came to El Tesoro camp for Guatemalan refugees in Honduras in 1982 after almost three decades of teaching in primary and secondary schools and working with children with psychological and emotional problems in the United States. In 1991, she was asked by refugees to go back with them to Guatemala, where she has since been involved in community programmes to improve the lives of the returnees.

The Nansen Medal is named after the Norwegian diplomat and explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees under the League of Nations. It was created to focus attention on refugees and to rally international support for forcibly displaced people.

The Nansen Committee, which is chaired by Ogata, is composed of members designated by the Governments of Norway and Switzerland, and of representatives from the Council of Europe and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies as well as last year's recipient of the award, Handicap International, a non-governmental agency.

The award ceremony will be followed by the opening of a Nansen Exhibition at the UN Library. It has been 76 years since Nansen became the first High Commissioner for Refugees and 75 years since he introduced the Nansen passport the first travel document for refugees and stateless people.