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"Half a Century on the Humanitarian Frontlines" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Graduate Institute for International Studies, Geneva, 25 November 1999

Speeches and statements

"Half a Century on the Humanitarian Frontlines" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Graduate Institute for International Studies, Geneva, 25 November 1999

25 November 1999
Half a century of humanitarian workIncreasing complexity of war and humanitarian problemsRefugee protection: a unique, irreplaceable mandate

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to an event linked to such an important date as the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. This is a turn of the century marked by important birthdays. Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As you may know, in a year's time we shall observe the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, and, a few months later, in July 2001, that of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees.

First of all, therefore, it is only fitting to remember - with awe and respect - the postwar generation, who 50 years ago saw very clearly that reconstruction was more than a material undertaking;that to repair the immense damage of tyranny and war, a collective conscience had to be forged, and expressed in words that everybody should know, speak and understand.

Those were bold endeavours. I often wonder whether today, in our more prudent and disillusioned world, we would be able to achieve that much - to project ourselves into the future with the same courage and vision.

Half a century of humanitarian work

The complex ethical and juridical framework developed in those extraordinary postwar days forms the basis of humanitarian, human rights and refugee protection work in its modern sense. We should be proud that, 50 years later, that framework remains our main moral, doctrinal, and political reference.

The body of international law developed half a century ago to protect what, with a contemporary term, we could call "human security", was a wise combination of universal values and operational tools. This has allowed us - the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations, the Red Cross movement, the NGOs - to work effectively on behalf of people. It has allowed us to try to ensure the protection of the lives and rights of the disadvantaged in times of peace and in times of war. Let me therefore briefly look back at the "humanitarian history" of the past 50 years. To start, I will do so combining the broader perspective of humanitarianism, with that of refugee protection, which is specific to my Office.

These perspectives are complementary. Refugee movements are indicative of a world in turmoil - rife with humanitarian crises. Indeed, the first High Commissioner for Refugees was appointed more than seventy years ago by the League of Nations at a time when Europe was still reeling from the destruction of the First World War, the disintegration of empires and the effects of the Russian revolution. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations was confronted with a similar tragedy of uprootedness and exile in a Europe divided by the iron curtain. This led to the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951. Most refugees at that time were fleeing from totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Viewed as victims of persecution, they were readily accepted and integrated in the Western democracies. This comfortable convergence between humanitarian traditions and political objectives eased UNHCR's task of developing adequate legal structures for the protection and integration of refugees in countries of asylum.

By the early 1960s, refugee movements had changed in nature. The prevailing pattern started to be the large-scale exodus as the process of decolonisation took its human toll, mainly on the African continent. There was strong solidarity for those fleeing the effects of national liberation wars and the large numbers of refugees who poured out of Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for instance, were hospitably received in neighbouring countries. International assistance was provided through UNHCR, and eventually UNHCR helped refugees return home when their countries gained independence.

The situation worsened dramatically in the following two decades as Cold War rivalries were transmitted into a polarised and heavily armed Third World, exacerbating tensions and leading to regional or internal conflicts. These wars produced displacement on an unprecedented scale in and out of Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Indochina, Central America and Afghanistan. The refugee population which was around eight million at the end of the 1970s had reached 17 million by 1991. Most of the refugees were not fleeing political persecution as much as violence, conflict and insecurity, fuelled by political repression, poverty, recurrent famine and environmental degradation. The paralysis of international relations which marked the Cold War impeded any resolution of these conflicts. Consequently, millions of refugees continued to stagnate in over-crowded camps in countries which had no capacity to absorb these growing numbers. As for the international community, with little scope for pursuing either repatriation or integration of refugees, the best that could be done in most cases was to provide humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs.

Then the Berlin Wall came down. In humanitarian terms, the crisis in Northern Iraq, less than two years later, was a turning point. The Iraqi Kurds brought a new dimension to the concept of displacement. They did not cross an ideological line - they fled an internal conflict, and they fled massively. A majority took refuge in Iran. Another large group fled to a volatile area in Turkey, where their presence was seen as a potential trigger for further conflict. The interest of the international community was to bring this group back. This coincided with the restrictions and limitations imposed upon Iraq following the Gulf War. An international military intervention to protect returnees, their host communities, and humanitarian agencies, was made possible. Operation Provide Comfort gave rise to the illusion that in the New World Order there would be space for what we hoped would become, so to speak, a new "humanitarian order".

This illusion was short lived. In the early 1990s, the end of Cold War polarization resulted in countless internal conflicts, confused and violent. In Somalia, the international community thought it would rapidly replicate the relative success of Northern Iraq. Troops sent in to support humanitarian agencies found themselves mired in a civil conflict of unforeseen complexity. Rightly or wrongly, they were perceived as taking sides. Casualties among the soldiers not only made the humanitarian mission unsustainable, but also created resistance in the public opinion of western States - particularly in the United States - against further military interventions in crisis situations.

The failure in Somalia affected all subsequent attempts to mobilize more decisive support to humanitarian action. In the former Yugoslavia, it was only its proximity to the West, and the horrors of Srebrenica, which convinced western countries to compel the warring parties to discuss peace at Dayton - and this, three years after the conflict started.

The successive crises in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa are an example of this failure to implement any kind of humanitarian order: the withdrawal of UN troops from Rwanda in April 1994, at the very time when a multinational force was most needed, coincided with an explosion of genocidal violence, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. In refugee camps in Eastern Zaire, armed elements and political extremists could not be separated from genuine refugees, because the few troops the international community was willing to send for a short period, provided only logistical support to relief operations. In November 1996, a Security Council resolution supporting the dispatch of troops to help protect refugees in the embattled areas of Eastern Zaire was not implemented - the flight and death in the rain forest of thousands of unprotected refugees was the result of that failed intervention.

True, the situations in the former Yugoslavia and in the Great Lakes region may have been exceptional. However, they indicated in a dramatic manner that humanitarian action alone could not resolve fundamental social, economic and political problems. Like all of us, I hope that in due course, from the turmoil of this transition period, a new balance of forces will arise, resulting in renewed stability and in the establishment of effective conflict resolution mechanisms. The crux of the matter, however, is that such mechanisms are eminently political processes, and that the humanitarian response is meant to cure the symptoms of conflicts, but cannot alone remove their root causes.

In the meantime, I regret to say that we must be realistic, and prepare ourselves for several years of conflicts similar to those which we have seen in the last decade. More civilians will be targeted by warring parties. There will be more refugee outflows. After half a century spent on the frontlines, humanitarian agencies will continue to need the indispensable reference provided by international humanitarian law and the international refugee protection regime.

Increasing complexity of war and humanitarian problems

There is a crucial problem, though. Although humanitarian and refugee protection principles remain relevant and necessary, the relative "straightforwardness" of the Cold War, in which they were developed, has ended. Situations have become incredibly complex.

I have just returned from Russia, for example, where I visited areas in the North Caucasus in which displaced people from Chechnya have taken refuge from the conflict raging in their small autonomous republic. The federal government says it is waging a legitimate war against terrorists. Nobody disputes this legitimity - what is of great concern is the "collateral damage" inflicted on civilians. The West has been telling Russia to use force in a "proportionate" manner in Chechnya. Russia has replied by asking whether the massive NATO air bombardment of Serbia, that caused damage and loss of lives among civilians, was "proportionate" to its objective - which ostensibly was, by the way, the protection of civilians. Civilians fleeing bombardments in Chechnya are seeking and obtaining refuge within their own country, the Russian Federation, although they consider the action of Russian military forces as the main cause for their flight. And there are many other complex, contradictory factors.

In this context, is humanitarian law still valid? Does the international refugee protection regime still make sense?

The truth is, war inevitably implies violence against other human beings - it may be "just" in its purpose (although, who decides?), but it can never be just in its effects, since it will always destroy and kill, or force people to flee. This is why, even if both humanitarian law and the international refugee protection regime today are more challenged than ever before, they have never been as necessary.

Conflicts have increasingly become the main cause of forced human displacement. Furthermore, following the end of the Cold War, the changing nature of conflicts is having considerable implications on the nature of displacement itself. UNHCR used to deal mostly with people fleeing persecution and violence across international borders. ICRC, on its part, is responsible for victims of war. Today, however, definitions are becoming blurred, morally and technically speaking: refugees in the Zairean camps were both victims and perpetrators of crimes;some of ethnic Albanians who returned to Kosovo after having been expelled by Serbian forces have become the oppressors of ethnic Serbs;the distinction between fighters and civilians in Chechnya, at closer analysis, is unclear.

Refugee movements per se have acquired new dimensions. This is because refugees - and, in general, all those affected by fighting, have moved from the periphery to the centre stage of wars. Forced human displacement is without any doubt one of the factors complicating the outcome of conflicts and the stability of peace. Forcing people to abandon their homes has become one of the objectives of war, with a view to re-engineering the ethnic composition of entire areas, and thus serving long-term political objectives even after conflicts have ended.

The successive crises in the former Yugoslavia, from the war in Croatia, in 1991, to the recent events in Kosovo, provide a good example of how displacement is becoming increasingly complex. Ethnic cleansing, coupled with population movements caused by the conflict itself, and with the break-up of the Yugoslav federation into five states, created different and simultaneous kinds of displacement.

Some people have taken refuge outside the former Yugoslavia, mostly in Western European countries. Others have left their homes and have become refugees in the region, by crossing one of the new borders created by the collapse of the federation. Others are internally displaced in different parts of their own country. But those who have been displaced in some cases have been less affected than those who have remained in their homes, and who have often been besieged in their towns and villages - such as the citizens of Sarajevo - and have undergone horrific violence. From the humanitarian viewpoint, the complex political, military and ethnic pattern of the Yugoslav conflicts has created victims across the entire spectrum of the civilian population.

And the former Yugoslavia is not the only example. The same, by and large, can be said of forced population movements in East Timor, which were caused and manipulated by anti-independence militias and resulted in a variety of displacement patterns, and the victimization of most of the civilian population.

In recent crises, refugee work has thus often been hostage to conflictual politics. Humanitarian agencies operating in Bosnia during the war, or in refugee camps in the former Zaire, had very bitter experiences in this respect. But because of the ambiguity of these and other "humanitarian" situations, innocent civilians, including women, children and elderly people, continue to undergo tremendous suffering. The contradictions between the imperatives of politics and war on one side, and humanitarian needs on the other, do not negate the necessity to uphold humanitarian law and refugee protection. If anything, they prove their relevance. My recent visit to Russia, once more, has indicated it very clearly.

To say that humanitarian law and refugee protection are relevant, however, is not enough. Humanitarian agencies cannot limit themselves to stating principles. Their task is eminently practical: they must save lives, or protect refugees while seeking solutions to their problems. To make principles effective is the real challenge. We must devise new approaches to protect and assist those who suffer in a context in which war and peace are changing dramatically, and very fast.

Needless to say, it is a tall order.

Refugee protection: a unique, irreplaceable mandate

I have spoken of the past and current challenges of the last fifty years from the combined viewpoints of humanitarianism, and of refugee protection. What I have said clearly shows the complementarity of the two approaches - a complementarity that is translated in UNHCR's close cooperation with the ICRC in many situations.

However, in seeking ways to maintain the effectiveness of the principles which protect "human security", it is equally important to stress the distinct specificity of each aspect of these principles. I would like to do so from the point of view of my Office. UNHCR's work is of course humanitarian - saving and bringing basic support to people's lives. But its core mandate is much more specific, since it concerns the protection of refugees and the search for solutions to their problems.

Protection is primarily identifying, defining, standing for and advocating refugees' rights - in this sense, it is above all the granting of asylum to those fleeing persecution or conflict. Kosovo has shown once more the absolute necessity of asylum as a key, life-saving instrument of refugee protection.

But asylum, indispensable as it is to protection, is only its first step. Implementing protection entails a broad spectrum of activities. UNHCR's role is not only to advocate and insist on refugees' rights. Ensuring that they are actually respected often requires difficult discussions - not over principles, that cannot be negotiated, but over the modalities of their application. Protection also takes the form of relieving the refugees' plight: taking measures so that their material needs are met, counselling and alleviating their traumas, helping them become self-sufficient, making sure that communities hosting them do not become hostile, creating awareness worldwide. It means paying special attention to the most vulnerable, like women and children, and also the elderly, a group which is often forgotten, in spite of its growing presence.

Asylum gives safety to refugees. But this literally vital action demands that the search for solutions to their plight begins as early as possible. The search for solutions is also about carving out, from very difficult situations, realistic choices to offer to refugees, and finding ways to make them fully informed of these choices. This effort forms, together with protection, the core and specificity of UNHCR's mission. It is a difficult task, which makes refugee work different - I would like to stress - from human rights advocacy.

Seeking viable solutions often compels my Office to face excruciating dilemmas. For example, we are frequently requested by people belonging to minorities threatened by ethnic cleansing, to help them flee to safer areas. This is happening with increasing, worrying frequency: in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Congo, just to mention a few situations. What do we do in such cases? Can we ignore the plea of those in danger, because by helping them not only we stray outside our "mandate", but - more importantly - we may unwittingly endorse ethnic cleansing practices? Or should we save their lives, while working on broader solutions, by promoting the rights of minorities and ethnic coexistence? These questions prove the enormous problems encountered in applying concretely the principles of humanitarian law and refugee protection, in the confused situations of conflict and displacement that prevail today.

And there are other dilemmas. During the 1996-1997 civil war in Congo, for example, we were under considerable pressure to publicly denounce the killing of thousands of Rwandan refugees dispersed in the rain forest, and withdraw from the area where we were struggling to rescue them. It was a tough choice, but we decided to stay on. To do so - to be allowed by the rebel authorities to work in the area controlled by them, in a hostile, dangerous environment, without any security guarantee - we had to maintain a balanced course. We denounced grave violations when it was absolutely necessary, and when it was the most effective means to build pressure on those committing those abuses. We negotiated more discreetly, day after day, painful as that was, when we felt that we could gain more access through dialogue, and by gaining access we would save refugees' lives. True, the only choice we could offer to those whom we reached - repatriation to their own country - was far from being the most secure. However, if tens of thousands of people today live in relative tranquillity in Rwanda, it is also thanks to the efforts of those humanitarian agencies who - caught between the rock of international criticism and the hard place of ruthless violence and ethnic hatred - did not give up, and made extraordinary efforts to rescue the dispersed refugees.

An essential pre-condition for the success of this work - the point, so to speak, in which all the protection and solution efforts converge - is to be present on the ground with refugees, which requires that we have full and free access to them. This is why refugee protection is the raison d'être of UNHCR's presence, for example, in West Timor. This is why situations where we have little or no presence, such as Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or certain areas of Liberia and Sierra Leone, are so worrying. Sometimes options are very limited, but some other times we manage to negotiate with governments a broader range of choices. The ideal objective for any refugee situation is to foster conditions for refugees to make a free and informed choice about their future. There is no better way to restore dignity to a refugee's life than to offer her or him the possibility to make this choice between different solutions.

All the activities I have described - from defending asylum to helping refugees in exile and searching for solutions - require specific expertise. They are not simply "humanitarian". Rather they are rooted in the more specific nature of refugee work. UNHCR'smandate has therefore a very precise identity, which - I wish to stress once more - cannot be substituted by other, more generic forms of humanitarianism, and cannot be simply identified with human rights work. Whenever international crises have a refugee component, the mode of response must be based on the principles of refugee protection. UNHCR's mandate as custodian of these principles, and as the Office charged by the international community with seeking solutions to refugee problems, must be respected.

Today, the operating space of UNHCR and of its partners in ensuring protection is at times threatened. Not on our behalf, since we are here to serve, but on behalf of the millions of people of our concern, I would like to ask you to help us better define and defend it.

Thank you.