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Closing Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-first Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 6 October 2000

Speeches and statements

Closing Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-first Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 6 October 2000

6 October 2000

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for participating in the 51st session of the Executive Committee. I would like once again to express my special gratitude to both the Secretary-General and Catherine Bertini for their inspiring statements at our opening session.

I would also like to thank you all for the many tributes offered to the UNHCR colleagues killed in West Timor and Guinea last month. I will share your words of condolence with their families. My colleagues and I were very encouraged by your support for strengthening security for all humanitarian workers. As the Secretary-General said, "Security is not a luxury or an option."

The convergence of UNHCR's 50th anniversary and the conclusion of my term as High Commissioner led us to reflect and reminisce. But the nature of UNHCR's work also demanded that we address the present challenges and those that lie ahead. Our deliberations reflected a focus on the future.

The linkage between conflict and refugees emerged as a common theme during our debate. As we met here in Geneva, new violence has broken out in the Middle East and armed conflict in West Africa has threatened to taken on new and broader regional dimensions. Although the popular uprising in Yugoslavia has taken a positive democratic turn, the implications for refugees remain to be seen. We are following each of these situations very carefully.

We must be ready to act quickly when lives are at stake. Many of you agreed with my call for UNHCR to strengthen and improve its emergency preparedness and response capacity for an increasingly complex and crowded humanitarian environment. I appreciated your recognition of UNHCR's efforts to learn from experience, as exemplified by our concrete Plan of Action responding to the recommendations of the independent Kosovo evaluation.

Our discussions also took us back to basics. Ensuring asylum - after saving lives - remains UNHCR's first priority. This year's debate placed a new emphasis on the complex linkages between asylum and broader issues, such as labour migration and human trafficking. The presence of so many Ministers of Immigration, Home Affairs and the Interior among us highlights the importance you place on addressing the nexus between asylum and migration

We hope that the Global Consultations we have launched will revitalise the international protection regime. The "Reach Out" process that I initiated in 1997 is winding up with considerable success. These consultations are the next logical step. Your reactions to the proposed Global Consultations have been overwhelmingly positive. We have taken note of the many constructive suggestions you have made regarding the format and scope of the consultations. In particular, I would agree that we must not enter into an open-ended process, without concrete objectives or a time frame in mind.

My opening statement set out the "balance sheet" on our shared successes and failures in securing solutions. All of us understand that voluntary repatriation is the best solution for most refugees. We need to make a concerted push now to capitalise upon "windows of opportunity" for returns, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, and for peace in Burundi, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.

Of course, voluntary repatriation is not the only durable solution. Many of you emphasised the important role of resettlement as part of an overall solutions strategy. During our discussions, I also detected a greater receptivity to local integration. Perhaps we are seeing a growing realisation that keeping refugees dependent, unproductive and in limbo - sometimes for a generation or more - serves no one's interests.

Many present expressed their preoccupation with the problem of security in refugee populated areas. While the killings in West Timor and Guinea provided the point of departure, our discussions revealed the broader dimensions of the security issue. Refugees must be protected and kept safe. Humanitarian workers should not have to pay with their lives. But neither should local people be jeopardised due to the presence of armed groups or the perpetrators of violence among refugees. The West Timor situation has brought home the consequences of failing to deal decisively with the causes of insecurity - in this case, the militias. UNHCR has paid dearly, but the refugees and local people have been paying a higher price, especially since our departure.

We all understand that conflicts produce refugees. But refugee situations, when allowed to fester, can help ignite and even spread conflicts across borders. The worrying situation in West Africa illustrates the full complexity of the security issue. We must all act together now to prevent a major humanitarian catastrophe. I wish to renew my plea for strengthened international peacekeeping efforts focused particularly on the border areas. We will also need your support to move forward with plans to relocate refugee camps away from the borders. Preventing the conflict from spreading is the immediate priority. Over the long term, the international community must back up our efforts with the sustained political, military and, eventually, economic engagement needed to bring stability.

Several of you urged that UNHCR should "stick to its mandate" and "focus on core activities." This is easily said, but creating opportunities for solutions and ensuring the sustainability of return depends upon factors that fall well beyond our mandate and expertise. UNHCR's operational activities are based fundamentally on our mandate for protection and solutions, but we must play a catalytic role in seeing that these broader needs are met. We must ensure that other actors provide security, promote the rule of law and good governance and finance and oversee reconstruction, development and economic revitalisation.

The roundtable discussion on promoting and building peace allowed us to explore the transition from humanitarian assistance to development more intensively. Mozambique Foreign Minister Simão, European Commissioner Poul Nielson, Michael Aronson from the Save the Children Fund and many of the interventions during the question and answer period brought fresh perspectives to the debate. I was particularly grateful for Commissioner Nielson's open and forward-leaning approach to deepening the partnership between the European Commission and UNHCR.

UNHCR's funding situation has been a key theme in our deliberations. Many of you have called for greater efforts to prioritise our activities. I assure you that we have done so repeatedly. The real needs of refugees place limits on how far we can go in reallocating our budgets and reducing our programmes. I feel that we have reached those limits.

I am very grateful for the new pledges of support announced during our meeting, as well as for the promises some have made to consider making further contributions this year. But this is not enough. UNHCR is still facing a severe funding shortfall as we enter the last quarter of the year. We must together find ways to make voluntary funding for UNHCR more stable and predictable.

Financial support is only one way that countries support the work of UNHCR. During my many visits to the field, I have seen the tremendous strains that large refugee populations impose on public services, land and the environment and - in some cases - social cohesion. But I have also seen a remarkable level of commitment to protecting and meeting the basic needs of refugees. You can encourage and recognise the generosity of host countries most tangibly by giving UNHCR the resources needed to alleviate these burdens.

Before concluding, I would like to touch briefly upon our efforts to make the Executive Committee a more dynamic forum. As we hoped, the annual theme provided a necessary focus for our debate. But I am sure that many of you found that the statements have become remarkably similar - and perhaps too much so. What we need are presentations of different perspectives and an exchange of diverse opinions though centered on a theme. We must explore further how to realise this objective.

We introduced several other innovations this year. The roundtable discussion was a welcome break from the formality of the proceedings in this room. By all accounts, the frank and refreshing exchange with refugee women was a highlight of this session, as the voices of refugees have been missing from our deliberations. I encourage you to retain and build upon these initiatives. UNHCR's NGO partners continue to make an increasingly important contribution, not least through the pre-ExCom consultations.

In closing, I wish to express my warm and heartfelt thanks for the many kind and generous statements you have made regarding my work. My advice to the new High Commissioner will be to value the Executive Committee process in its totality - including the Standing Committee and NGO consultations. ExCom is the most important global forum for mobilising interest and support for refugees and UNHCR's work.

Ten years ago, I accepted the position of High Commissioner for Refugees, conscious of the daunting challenges that lay ahead. I have done my best, but I could not have succeeded without the extraordinary support of many friends - especially from governments, the United Nations, international organisations and NGOs. And I wish to pay a very special and warm tribute to my colleagues all over the world, to whom I owe more than I can say for their dedication, energy, courage and passion.

I do hope that all of you will extend to my successor the same support, good advice and encouragement that you have offered to me over the past decade. With it, I am confident that the next High Commissioner will continue to uphold successfully the cause of refugees.

Thank you.