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Consultations on Strengthening Collaboration Between UNHCR and Humanitarian and Human Rights NGOs in Support of the International Refugee Protection System, New York | Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Speeches and statements

Consultations on Strengthening Collaboration Between UNHCR and Humanitarian and Human Rights NGOs in Support of the International Refugee Protection System, New York | Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

11 March 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased that you could join us for these consultations here in New York and would like to thank you for your participation. Let me particularly extend my appreciation to Leslie Gelb and his colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this event. I am equally grateful to the Ford Foundation for making this meeting possible, as well as the governments who have helped UNHCR's efforts to strengthen support for the international refugee protection system. While I regret that my schedule prevented me from opening the session this morning, I am glad to be attending these important consultations in order to share my views with you personally.

The presence of all of us here today indicates a group acknowledgement that, now more than ever, we must find ways to jointly fortify the refugee protection system. It is a system with a solid legal foundation, but that finds itself being severely tested by the changing environment in which we all work.

UNHCR has been collaborating with many of you and other NGO partners now for decades. However, the humanitarian and human rights milieu has been completely transformed following the end of the Cold War. During my first weeks as United Nations High Commissioner in 1991, I witnessed first hand the sudden and dramatic exodus of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees from their homes in Iraq to Turkey and Iran. Since then, my Office and its NGO partners have addressed other massive displacement tragedies that have marked the post Cold War period, such as the succession of crises in the Great Lakes region of Africa, as well as in the former Yugoslavia.

What has emerged after the collapse of the Cold War's relatively simple geopolitical schemes, is a complex web of ethnic and religious conflicts, grave social inequalities, and competition over scarce resources, all of which are fuelling violent conflicts in many regions of the world. These increasingly internal and localized conflicts are the most frequent cause of displacement today.

Civilians have become the targets of outright violence aimed at terrorising and subjugating them, and compelling them to flee their homes. Mass human rights abuses gravely affect civilian populations and complicate solutions to their plights. I have just completed a mission to West Africa. In Sierra Leone I saw horrific examples of the flagrant victimization of people by the warring parties. Rebels fighting the democratically elected government have committed gruesome attacks against civilians, including the rape and mutilation of women and young girls. My visit to the victims of mutilations in Conakry and Freetown was one of the most shocking experiences of my eight years as High Commissioner. Other atrocities against civilians are occurring even as we speak in West Africa, including deplorable incidents of child recruitment, expulsions, security risks for women, and rebel attacks on refugee camps across borders.

By directly targeting civilians, the current environment of localized conflicts has also threatened protection activities for people of concern to UNHCR. The very foundations of the international refugee protection system have been challenged in an unprecedented way, as has the core responsibility of my Office to uphold this system. Political support for the protection system and for UNHCR's protection role has been seriously deficient - regrettably, even states who have traditionally been our strongest supporters have too often been silent or absent in the face of these challenges.

The Great Lakes crises, and in particular the experience in the former Zaire between 1994 and 1997, perhaps demonstrated the high water mark of what many have called "the protection crisis." Humanitarian agencies were essentially left alone to address problems which required political and military responses - in particular, the separation of bona fide refugees from armed elements, génocidaires and other people not deserving international protection. The dilemmas that UNHCR and humanitarian agencies were left to face in the Great Lakes region put them in the position of having to choose between the evil of staying, at the risk of supporting génocidaires, and the evil of leaving, thus abandoning innocent refugees. This is why, on some occasions, humanitarian agencies may have even unwittingly compounded the problem. The international community never acted, leaving humanitarian agencies facing such dilemmas alone - a clearly unacceptable situation that should not occur again.

While the protection framework and regime to deal with these problems clearly exists, the international response to emerging internal and localized crises is mostly selective, ad hoc and improvised. Too often, it has been implemented according to the degree of strategic interests of major powers and the countries adjacent to the zone of conflict.

There is a "protection gap" between the dominion of international refugee law and its implementation under actual state practice. This gap has widened with the increase of internal, localized conflicts and, to be reversed, it demands new coalitions and mechanisms. This is why we decided to launch a special programme to "reach out" to you and others to forge new strategies.

Let me briefly summarize here the actions we have taken so far under UNHCR's "Reach Out" initiative, which we inaugurated in 1997, and of which these consultations in New York form a part. The project was designed to bring UNHCR together with states and key non-state actors to identify and analyze the major protection challenges and obstacles we face, and how we could undertake joint efforts to overcome them. Under this initiative towards strengthened support for refugee protection principles, we are consulting with states, NGOs, the corporate sector and our UN partners, and hope to solidify protection partnerships at the field level. The first phase of the initiative - in which we had bilateral consultations with key member states of UNHCR's Executive Committee - began in January 1998. These initial efforts have already led several states to take concrete steps demonstrating their renewed commitment to the international refugee law framework.

While continuing on with these efforts, with today's meeting, we are entering a second phase of the programme: - to focus on non-state actors. During these consultations, we must explore ways to go beyond our current partnerships. We must strengthen them and more effectively collaborate in order to ensure that states implement the existing protection system to the full extent possible.

As we continue to develop strategies in this regard, I would like to emphasize some key points. First, ad hoc responses to today's displacement crises require public mobilization for political action. NGOs have always played a unique role in mobilizing public opinion and instigating political support in defense of humanitarian and human rights principles, and refugee protection. You have extensive networks and influence at the national level that international agencies do not have. I would encourage that these networks continue to be used and further developed.

Second, UNHCR would like to see NGOs increasingly play a role in supporting a full range of protection activities, which should not be limited to mobilizing public support. Your activities can be expanded to monitoring and information sharing, and to public and private interventions on behalf of displaced populations. I would like to emphasize here that to UNHCR, implementing protection also means presence in the field, right next to those whose protection we wish to ensure. Your presence, the presence of NGO staff, can also be very important and reassuring for people in need of protection. Security permitting, we must all increase our presence to the extent possible in areas to which displaced persons have fled or have returned. This often means, in the current environment, being in areas of ongoing conflict or fragile peace.

Third, UNHCR together with humanitarian and human rights NGOs, must forge a three-way partnership to concretely strengthen coordination at the field level for protection issues. We should build upon the solid coordination that together we have fostered in the field for providing humanitarian assistance. For example, while we welcome the efforts of human rights NGOs as advocates for protection issues, we need a more comprehensive working arrangement in which your critiques are complemented with tangible efforts to address human rights violations. We must find ways to infuse your field operations with protection concerns. Jointly and through our individual mandates, we must react strongly wherever and whenever the refugee protection system is attacked.

And fourth, for our part, my colleagues and I recognize that you are sometimes UNHCR's critics. We must strengthen our channels of communication and consultation to hear and consider the valid concerns you raise. We are planning to revisit the "Partnership in Action" programme - the so-called PARinAC - with this purpose in mind, and are working towards an enhanced role for NGOs in our Executive Committee deliberations. If we are to make this three-way partnership work, we need open and constant dialogue.

Now I would like to turn to the agenda we are considering today and tomorrow. This morning you already looked at the current state of our joint efforts on protection, and areas where this might be improved. We will be considering the possibility of joint advocacy and promotional initiatives, and how we might work together more effectively on specific cases of refugees with protection problems. We will also consider questions of information exchange, training, guidelines and consultation mechanisms.

I hope that we will be able to arrive at some agreement on priority areas for our collaboration. With this in mind, I would like to suggest areas on which we may focus.

First, UNHCR has begun a global campaign to promote universal accession to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The campaign coincides with the commemoration of UNHCR's 50th anniversary in the years 2000 and 2001 and it offers an opportunity for us to work together in encouraging states to strengthen their commitments to the international refugee protection system. It aims of course not only at expanding accession to conventions, but also at promoting the implementation of their principles and provisions in national legislations.

Second, protection issues are complex and difficult to explain in this world of "thirty second" sound bites. As we consider ways to keep the protection of displaced populations on global view, we must address how to get the message across effectively in the modern mass media and telecommunications world.

Third, the internal and localized nature of conflict is causing complex movements of people. They flee their homes to neighbouring villages, to other areas within the same country, as well as across international frontiers to bordering countries and beyond. Many of these displaced people then return home, only to be forced to flee again under the gunfire of renewed fighting between the warring factions. Complicating the issue even further is that governments must increasingly cope with the arrival of mixed population movements that include genuine asylum seekers together with economic migrants who present themselves as asylum seekers. We must persistently stress to all governments that anyone who has fled persecution and violence must be given "open access" to safety, whether it be within the country of their origin, or in third countries in which they are seeking asylum. Together, we must also find ways to effectively explain to the public at large who are refugees and asylum seekers, what are their legal rights, and what risks they face if they are refused asylum and compelled to return home.

I hope that these consultations mark a watershed in strengthening the international refugee protection system. One that will begin to reverse the "protection gap" that we see widening; and also, one that will reinforce the ongoing partnership UNHCR and NGOs have worked so hard to establish. Through our concrete collaboration, we can work towards putting refugee protection principles back on the international agenda. We must find ways to garner the political support needed to achieve this. Strengthening our partnership to meet these goals will require time, money and great efforts. UNHCR is eager to make the investment needed, and I trust all of you join us in this regard.

Let us continue and strengthen our partnership for the benefit of those that we serve.

Thank you.