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Closing address of Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (sixteenth session), 6 December 1961

Speeches and statements

Closing address of Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (sixteenth session), 6 December 1961

6 December 1961

Mr. Chairman, I am grateful to you for the opportunity briefly to thank the Committee for the keen interest it has shown during the discussion on the problems which concern my Office.

The views expressed by many representatives are most valuable in that they give me a clear idea of the way in which the International Community expects the High Commissioner to fulfil the task assigned to him by the General Assembly. This mutual understanding is all the more necessary since my Office has to face constantly changing problems and to make appropriate adjustments in keeping with the wishes of the International Community which it is called upon to serve. Action by UNHCR can only be of value if it reflects the interests and concern of the various countries and more particularly of the countries of residence of the refugees, and if it can count on the voluntary support from governments which is essential to meet its objectives.

To these general considerations I would like, with your permission, Mr. Chairman, to add a few remarks in response to some of the questions raised, particularly by the representatives of Mali, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

As regards the refugees from Ruanda Urundi who were mentioned by the distinguished representative of Mali, I would like to quote what I said in my opening statement; this passage is not to be found in the distributed text of my statement because the request for the assistance of my Office has only just been received:

"To illustrate the variety of new problems to which my attention has been drawn, I would like to mention that of refugees from Ruanda Urundi in Tanganyika and Uganda. At the request of the authorities concerned, an official of my Office will go to the area shortly to make an on the spot investigation of the situation."

In fact, the official designated to visit these countries left Geneva last Friday. As just mentioned by the representative of Belgium, he may perhaps visit Ruanda Urundi also. I would add further that my representative in the Congo (Leopoldville) is due to visit the Kivu region where there are also refugees from Ruanda Urundi about whom he has already forwarded some information.

The representative of the Netherlands has asked for clarification of some of the figures given in my report to the General Assembly and in introduction first whether the figure of 20,000 naturalised refugees given in Annex I, Table 2 of the report covers all the refugees who have been integrated.

The answer, Mr. Chairman, is in the negative; this figure refers only to refugees who, as a result of naturalization, are no longer within the mandate of my Office. As regards the 11,000 migrants also mentioned in Table 2 of Annex I, may I just stress that, as explained in the Table itself, this figure relates only to refugees in certain European countries, namely, the five where a material assistance programme has been put into effect. Thus, the figure of 11,000 in no way conflicts with the figure of 30,000 mentioned elsewhere. As may be seen from Annex III to the report, a total of approximately 30,000 refugees migrated in the course of 1960 from various countries, 11,000 of them from these five countries and 19,000 from others.

Finally, with regard to the approximately 8,000 refugees mentioned in my opening statement as still in camps, there are various reasons why they are still there but the main reason is that though all are included in the camp clearance programme, this can only be carried out at a given pace which is determined by purely technical or economic factors which we cannot change. For example, the housing programme, on which completion of the overall programme largely depends, takes time. Agreements have to be concluded with the implementing agencies and they in turn have to sign contracts with the builders. The next step is the actual building, with all its complications, and the unavoidable hold up during the winter. The Committee may rest assured that every effort is being made to see that the programme, for which the necessary funds are generally speaking available, is carried out as quickly as circumstances permit.

To revert to observations of a more general character, I would like to point out that the extension of the High Commissioner's mandate depends on the General Assembly which, as you know, will be called upon to take a decision on this subject next year. Now while it is not for me to anticipate the Assembly's decision, I consider that it is my duty to give the Assembly as full a picture as possible both of what has been achieved and of what could still I be achieved by my Office, merely continuing on the same principles as hitherto.

As I said at the opening of the debate, in order that the Assembly may have all the facts before taking a decision, I intend to submit for the consideration of the Executive Committee at its next spring session an overall plan for the completion of the major programmes of material assistance to "old" refugees while at the same time defining the more current tasks which my Office would have to continue to perform under its mandate, assuming that it is extended. A similar plan is not possible for the new refugee problems because no one can say exactly what these problems will be. My office must be at the disposal of the International Community to help to meet them. To my mind, it is fairly certain that they will come under the good offices resolutions which, like the mandate, are not limited in their application to a specific area and so are universal in scope.

It is clear nevertheless that some limit must be set to the action to be taken by my Office, as regards both the evaluation of situations in which it may be called upon to intervene and the nature of its intervention under the good offices resolutions.

Experience has shown that those limits are imposed by the countries themselves for which the Office of the High Commissioner acts as an intermediary; these countries have clearly given to understand that they mean to retain complete freedom of action as regards both their requests and the support they are prepared to give to the High Commissioner. UNHCR clearly could not intervene automatically whenever there is any mention of refugees. It has to intervene whenever such action is justified by both the nature and the scope of the problem, particularly when the problem imposes on the country of asylum a burden which, without adequate support from the international community, would be intolerable. No general rule therefore can be laid down defining the cases in which UNHCR may be called upon to intervene. As I have already said, everything depends on the attitude of governments.

I would also like to underline again the so to speak marginal character of the action which my Office can take in view of the terms of its mandate and of the limited resources at its disposal. The essential role, as I already stated, is to induce governments and private institutions to provide the necessary support, and to act as a stimulant, a catalyst and a coordinator rather than to undertake operations which are the responsibility of other national or international bodies.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I would simply say that no one is more conscious than I am myself of the need for the utmost caution and circumspection on the part of my Office in its approach to the new problems with which it is now called on to deal and which it cannot, I think, ignore without betraying the humanitarian and social mission entrusted to it by the General Assembly. For its duty is indeed first and foremost to keep constantly alert the spirit of international cooperation which is a sine qua non for the solution of refugee problems - that same spirit which was made into a concrete and living reality by Fridtjof Nansen, the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose centenary has so recently been commemorated all over the world.