High Commissioner describes 2003 as "good year in a bad world"
GENEVA, Dec 31 (UNHCR) - Looking back at UNHCR's global refugee work over the past 12 months, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers has called 2003 "a good year in a bad world."
In a year-end message to staff and in an interview with UNHCR's "Refugees" magazine, Lubbers said significant progress was made during the year toward finding lasting solutions for some of the 20 million people currently of concern to the agency worldwide.
"We continued both repatriation and reintegration operations in Afghanistan despite the problems which persist there," he said, noting that some 3 million Afghan refugees and displaced people had returned home over the past two years. "In Africa, a major repatriation operation began in Angola, a similar programme continued in Eritrea, there were continuing discussions to solve the Congo crisis and in Liberia we saw the departure of (President) Charles Taylor and renewed hope for that country."
But those positive developments came against a worrisome backdrop of increasing insecurity for humanitarian workers in many parts of the world. Citing the August 19 attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad that left 22 people dead and the November murder in Afghanistan of UNHCR staff member Bettina Goislard, Lubbers said "the external environment in which we operate has become increasingly dangerous and polarised."
"There was the personal tragedy of losing so many colleagues," he said. "But there were also the broader security ramifications going forward and how to deal with all these new dilemmas and pressures - the increasing anti-Americanism in the region, the anti-UN feeling, the overall security concerns for an agency like UNHCR, which does the bulk of its work in the field. All in all, however, it was a good year in a bad world."
Declaring that "security is foremost in our minds," Lubbers said UNHCR would continue to work closely with the overall UN security apparatus, but also needed to forge a distinct identity of its own in dealing with a variety of refugee situations in the field.
"We need our own eyes and ears on the ground and to do our own homework," he said. "We must show our face and be 'out there' for everyone.... We are an operational field agency, but we must have the field intelligence to be able to judge not only when to go into operational zones, but also when not to go."
Looking ahead to 2004, the High Commissioner said UNHCR had reached a crossroads in which it would now focus on implementing a number of initiatives developed over the first three years of his five-year term, which ends in December 2005. These include the "UNHCR 2004" process, which over the past three years carried out a sweeping re-examination of the agency's mandate, work, funding and governance, and proposed numerous actions to strengthen the overall capacity of the office to carry out its mandate. In what Lubbers described as a "significant milestone," the UN General Assembly recently adopted a resolution endorsing several key proposals:
- The removal of the time limitation on UNHCR's previous five-year renewable mandate and its continuation "until the refugee problem is solved."
- Recognition and reaffirmation of UNHCR's lead role in international protection of refugees and the promotion of durable solutions to refugee problems.
- Support for UNHCR's efforts to promote new accessions to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions on stateless persons and statelessness, and the extension of UNHCR's activities in relation to stateless persons to all parts of the world where statelessness is a problem.
- Encouragement for the promotion of predictable and timely UN strategies that integrate durable solutions for refugees with those for internally displaced persons.
- Acknowledgement of UNHCR's recent membership in the UN Development Group (UNDG) and an invitation to its member organisations to take into consideration the needs of persons of concern to UNHCR in the formulation and implementation of development programmes. UNHCR's Framework for Durable Solutions is noted as an important and complementary tool in this regard.
- Recognition of the importance for UNHCR to contribute to ensuring that the needs of refugees and asylum seekers are properly met within the broader context of migration management.
- Endorsement of the proposal to give greater attention and a higher profile to refugee problems through the convening ministerial meetings of States Parties to the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol every five years, in conjunction with the meetings of ExCom.
- Encouragement to States to contribute their share to fully fund UNHCR's budget.
Lubbers said UNHCR would also focus on furthering the "Agenda for Protection" endorsed by its governing Executive Committee in 2002 to revitalise the international refugee protection regime.
He also introduced the "Convention Plus" initiative aimed at building on the foundation of the 1951 Refugee Convention through development of special tools that can address some of today's new challenges through multilateral special agreements. While the 1951 Convention remains the basic foundation of refugee rights, it alone does not suffice. Finding lasting solutions for the world's refugees requires more equitable burden-sharing by the international community. Convention Plus promotes this through a more multilateral approach that includes negotiated commitments by a number of States to address specific situations.
UNHCR and its partners are currently focusing on three generic segments of Convention Plus: making more strategic use of resettlement; ensuring more effective targeting of development assistance to support durable solutions for refugees; and clarifying the responsibilities of States in relation to secondary movements of refugees and asylum seekers.
Internally, Lubbers is overseeing implementation of new human resources policies and a strict financial management system that is restoring predictability and balance in UNHCR's income and expenditures.
Lubbers also thanked outgoing Deputy High Commissioner Mary Ann Wyrsch for her many contributions to UNHCR over the past two years and eight months. Wyrsch will be succeeded in 2004 by Wendy Chamberlin, a veteran US Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Laos and Pakistan.