Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 15 November 1976

Mr. Chairman,

As I report to the Committee this year, UNHCR completes a quarter century of service to those worst served by the antagonisms and intolerance of our age.

While it is frequent in international relations to adulate power, I must seek your continuing respect for the powerless and otherwise abandoned. My Office must, in a sense, live by different criteria, for to live otherwise would be to deny its purpose, a purpose endorsed by this Committee.

For 25 years, the concerns of the Office have mirrored reality: destructiveness on the one hand, the imperative to create and to preserve on the other. Rarely have we witnessed such strife within and between nations, human rights degraded and persons uprooted in such prodigious number. To counter this, never before has so conscious an effort been made to create a system of international humanitarian law. Seldom as now has it been so insistently demanded that assistance to the uprooted and the preservation of their lives take precedence over other considerations.

There is little my Office can do to curb destruction. It can, however, help to create a respect for human life and assist in preserving it. It is in this context that UNHCR's work must be viewed within the United Nations.

As does this Committee, so do we derive our inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenants and Conventions that flow from it. To us, in UNHCR, it is not academic that the International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol to the latter, have come into force this year. Nor does it go unnoticed that it has required three decades to reach this stage. Add the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol and we now have a body of law, still nascent in condition but nevertheless in existence, that it is our responsibility to nurture. Humanitarian law is in its infancy, easily neglected and injured. The greater the need to protect it.

I mention this, for in my work I am increasingly appalled by the levity with which international humanitarian principles are transgressed. Instead of our Covenants and Conventions providing the articles for a new order, their ridicule too frequently is a satire on law itself. In 1976, we have regrettably continued to witness the "refoulement", kidnapping and assassination of refugees. It is a difference of circumstance, but not of kind, if

  • Zimbabwean refugees are killed, as a consequence of armed intrusion into a UNHCR camp in Africa;
  • refugees are torn from their families at gun-point in Latin America;
  • small and leaking boats are denied entry to port, or spurned by the masters of ships passing by in South-East Asia;
  • or indeed a solitary figure, anywhere in the world, is rejected at the frontier or denied asylum.

I would once again appeal to governments, as the authors of our Covenants and Conventions, that these instruments be respected.

I am increasingly convinced, as I am sure you are, that it is wrong to compromise in the defence of carefully elaborated, internationally adopted humanitarian principles. In the legal and, at times, even physical protection of refugees, we must remain inflexible: for in this, the most sensitive of our functions, human life itself is at stake and your understanding essential.

In saying what I have, Mr. Chairman, I am not unaware that, on occasion, persons of concern to my Office have acted contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. I do not hold a brief for such persons. On the other hand, we must be careful to weigh each case on its own, for to smear entire categories of persons would be a travesty of law.

In this process of creating new law, a lacuna still exists in regard to the question of Territorial Asylum. Each day, in our work, we face the consequences. I am happy to report that, as required by General Assembly Resolution 3456 (XXX), my Office will be able to cover the costs of the Conference of Plenipotentiaries scheduled in Geneva from 10 January 1977. I am also deeply gratified to say that the Asian-African Legal Consultative Committee, the Council of Europe and the Organization of African Unity have adopted positive recommendations in support of the Conference.

Of course, Mr. Chairman, the refugees and displaced of this world do not live by law alone. The preservation of their lives and hopes demands that their physical needs be met urgently. If I have counselled inflexibility in legal protection, I have equally sought the utmost flexibility and speed in responding to material requirements.

I cannot adequately express my gratitude to governments for this. Through the unanimity and clarity of the resolutions adopted by this Committee and ECOSOC, UNHCR has been enabled to develop its potential as an instrument of humanitarian policy and action. The legislative base that you have provided has permitted the Office to evolve with the times, to solve problems as they arise today, rather than remain embedded in past attitudes and limitations.

Where, today, are our assistance programmes and special operations helping to preserve the lives of refugees and the displaced? Where are their needs most demanding of your continuing support?

In southern Africa, as the struggle gains strength against racism and arrogant injustice, our efforts continue to be closely co-ordinated with the Organization of African Unity, and with the competent committees and programmes of the United Nations. Thus, we identify with the 30,000 Zimbabweans who have crossed into Mozambique, pending the inevitable advent of majority rule.

In 1976, we happily brought to a conclusion our $4 million programme in Guinea-Bissau, repatriating the refugees and helping them, together with the displaced persons, to face the future with confidence. A similar programme, of some $7 million, is nearing completion in Mozambique. In Angola, following a United Nations inter-agency mission in June/July this year, the Secretary-General asked me to co-ordinate - on behalf of the United Nations system - a humanitarian assistance programme for one year. On 23 August, I appealed for 48,000 tons of food and $32.5 million for other essential items. At stake is the future of some 1 million desperately needy Angolans, displaced within their country or due to repatriate. It is essential for UNHCR to bind your generosity to their requirement.

I also wish to underline that the mechanism by which UNHCR has co-ordinated the efforts of the United Nations system in situations such as this, is now thoroughly established. This Committee will recall that these methods served efficiently in South-Asia in 1971, in the Sudan in 1972-73, in Cyprus since 1974. Together with our colleagues in UNDP, UNICEF, WEP and WHO amongst others, we have - in each such situation - demonstrated the capacity of the system to work together speedily and meticulously. We have done so with a minimum of duplication and an absence of mindless bureaucracy.

Guided by the Charter, the United Nations must seek to harmonize relations between States. We are therefore particularly saddened by the difficulties of thousands of Sahrawis presently in the Tindouf area in Algeria. As always, we must walk the fine line that is entirely humanitarian and non-political. The Government of Algeria has requested my Office to assist in providing relief to this group. The Governments of Mauritania and Morocco have appealed for their voluntary return and have sought the help of my Office to that end. As in other such situations, a durable and just solution must be sought as rapidly as possible, in the interest of the persons themselves. Till the way to such a solution is open, we must preserve life: I would therefore hope that governments will contribute generously to facilitate our current relief effort.

Whether we "buy time" in this instance, or in Cyprus, the essential problem is the same. Our actions must never be viewed as a substitute for reasoned political agreements. I would hope that such agreements come soon, for this Office has always contributed towards rapid permanent solutions - it has never permitted itself to become a hostage to political impasse. In Cyprus, since the Secretary-General asked me to serve as the Co-ordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Programme, the volume of multilateral assistance has totalled some $78.7 million.

I am grateful for the continuing confidence of the parties concerned, and of the donors.

In Asia, in accordance with the unanimously adopted General Assembly Resolution 3455 (XXX), we continue our efforts on behalf of displaced Indochinese - whether in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand or adjacent areas. There is, to my mind, a unique significance to these actions. First, they illustrate that even in this fluid and volatile world, while political passions can strain relationships, they need not necessarily break the bonds of our shared humanity. Second, this actions blends - in a truly humanitarian way - our traditional functions and the newer responsibilities which this Committee has encouraged and endorsed.

Both in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, our on-going projects - in the amount of some $20 million - serve an essential purpose. In full co-operation with the Governments, our efforts are concentrated in geographical areas, and in sectors, where the needs of displaced persons are most acute. As a measure of self-sufficiency is attained by such groups, we shall, here as elsewhere, phase out our programmes. In the meantime, we count on your continuing support.

In Thailand, we remain greatly concerned at the fate of those who have arrived in the past months. Through a programme of $12.4 million, we have, working with the Government, been able to stave off the worst excesses of deprivation. However, there is compelling need for lasting solutions. More than once, we have felt that conditions for voluntary repatriation were propitious and we hope that this might yet prove possible. Till this is so, however, a measure of self-sufficiency must rapidly be brought to the lives of the displaced persons. For those who, for compelling reasons must settle elsewhere, we would appeal that doors remain open. I should like to thank governments for contributing both to the costs of the programme in Thailand and for receiving those needing to be resettled in third countries. The impermanence and poignancy of the human condition is tragically illustrated by those still arriving in small boats in various South-East Asian ports. I should like to reiterate my request to the countries of the area to let these persons disembark until more durable arrangements can be made, and to countries elsewhere to grant them resettlement opportunities.

The situation of refugees in Latin America has never been more precarious. From Chile, we have relocated some 7,000 persons in over 40 different countries. While the movement of Chilean nationals joining heads of family abroad continues, we have closed the last safe haven at the end of March this year. From Argentina, we have already relocated some 4,500 refugees of difference origins, and from Peru some 2,400 such persons. But, for reasons to which this Committee is not stranger, local integration is proving elusive for many thousands more in these countries. Over 6,000 refugees in Argentina are daily living on minimal allowances, straining the limited resources of my Office. Many of them wish to live elsewhere. While resettlement from Argentina continues, at the rate of 200 persons per month, I cannot appeal too strongly or too urgently for continuing generosity in admitting the refugees presently there. That would help ease the problem locally for the Argentine authorities and facilitate the integration of those who can remain. I would like to express my gratitude to the voluntary agencies that, once again, in this situation as in other, have proved their devotion to those in extremity.

Mr. Chairman, these introductory comments necessarily sketch no more than a profile of our preoccupations. They do not touch on numerous other concerns - the grievous fate of the displaced in Lebanon, whom we stand ready to assist in accordance with arrangements made by the Secretary-General, the difficulties of student and urban refugees in Africa, the serious problems facing the uprooted from other continents who are increasingly arriving in Europe. A full report on the work of my Office is contained in document A/31/12 and its addenda, one of which also provides the opinion requested of me under General Assembly resolution 3274 (XXX) dealing with the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. As you will see, we have performed the functions provisionally entrusted to us without any financial implications for the United Nations.

Mr. Chairman, in the United Nations I sometimes fear we have stripped so man ideas of their emotional energy that we do not adequately respond to them anymore. We have, and quite rightly, enunciated a new international economic order, yet the Universal Declaration and our Covenants already provide the basis of a new human order - which, equally, we should elaborate and build upon. For while indeed reordered economic arrangements within and between nations will promote the "advancement and social progress of all peoples", no less will our values dictate the quality of our lives and our relations with each other.