Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Opening 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, 2 October 2000

Speeches and statements

Opening 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, 2 October 2000

2 October 2000
UNHCR ExComLooking BackThe Balance SheetLooking to the FutureModernising UNHCR and obtaining adequate resourcesConclusion

Mr. Chairman,
Mr. Secretary-General,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to the 51st session of the Executive Committee. I am pleased and honoured to introduce a very special guest, Kofi Annan - the first Secretary-General of the United Nations to address the Committee. All of us at UNHCR view this as a homecoming for our most illustrious former colleague. His wise counsel and friendship have been a tremendous source of support for me over the years. I propose that we greet him with a warm round of applause.

I am pleased to welcome Chile, Côte d'Ivoire and the Republic of Korea as new Committee members, and to congratulate the incoming Bureau and its Chairman, Ambassador Khorram of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He brings broad experience from multilateral forums that will help the Committee navigate the coming year of transition. Finally, I would like to offer special thanks to the outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Pérez-Hernández y Torra of Spain: his commitment, initiative, and good humour will be long remembered at UNHCR.

Twice in the past month, we gathered in this very room to mark our sorrow and outrage at the brutal murders of our colleagues Samson Aregahegn, Carlos Caceres, Pero Simundza in West Timor, and Mensah Kpognon in Guinea. Fortunately, Laurence Djeya, who was missing after the Guinea attack, is now back home, safe, in Côte d'Ivoire. These crimes have shattered the lives of four families, of our Office, and of the entire humanitarian community. I have decided that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Office, at Headquarters, we shall dedicate a memorial honouring our colleagues, and all UNHCR staff who have lost their lives serving the refugee cause.

Looking Back

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since I will leave office at the end of year, I hope you will allow me to speak a little longer - and to start doing so with a brief reflection on the past ten years.

When I became High Commissioner in 1991, the Cold War had just ended and people spoke of a new world order. The changes for the better were extraordinary. Democracy spread across Central and Eastern Europe and nearly all of Latin America. Apartheid in South Africa was defeated.

History did not end, as one scholar had predicted. Indeed, the times became very complicated, not least in our field of work. In 1991, within weeks of my arrival as High Commissioner, almost two million Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran and Turkey. Soon we moved into Northern Iraq, working closely with international military forces for the first time. And in the following years, especially in the former Yugoslavia, and Central Africa, we were constantly challenged to rethink our protection, assistance and solutions strategies.

The foundation of protection remained legal, but ensuring protection increasingly became an operational, practical, hands-on activity. UNHCR was on the frontlines, often in war situations. We became much more active in countries of origin, particularly when helping returnees reintegrate. The times also demanded innovative approaches to asylum. We broke new ground - and together saved many lives - by promoting temporary protection for refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At the same time, new patterns in conflicts made forced population movements more fluid and complex than ever before. We faced terrible ambiguities and dilemmas, frequently alone. In Bosnia and Kosovo, real international engagement came too late and only after human suffering had reached dramatic proportions. Since 1994, in the Great Lakes region, there has not been any meaningful international engagement, except for humanitarian work.

Some of the conflicts unresolved by political and diplomatic initiatives eventually triggered a military reaction by the international community. This led us into a confusing new era of so-called "humanitarian wars" - a term that troubles me greatly - and a more crowded humanitarian space.

The Balance Sheet

A new decade - a new era - is now beginning for UNHCR. In accepting my last mandate, I said that I did not want to leave a legacy, but a future. Today, I would like to elaborate on my perception of that future - but before I do so, let me draw a short balance sheet of the period that is coming to a close.

We have had successes. The most important one is that millions of refugees, over the past ten years, have repatriated. Starting with the return of the African National Congress exiles to post-apartheid South Africa, the most significant case that followed was that of Mozambique, where a twenty-year war had uprooted more than a third of the population. We worked hard and by 1995 all 1.7 million refugees were back home and, more importantly, they stayed home.

There were successes in Asia and Latin America, too. In Cambodia, we helped close to 400,000 refugees return home. The completion of repatriation from Thailand to Laos and the closure of the Pillar Point centre in Hong Kong earlier this year signalled the end of the 25-year-old Indochinese refugee saga. I travelled to Mexico last year to witness the formal closure of UNHCR's repatriation operation, which put an end to decades of refugee crises in Central America.

Solutions to refugee problems take time. This is a lesson I have learned over the years. But the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Vietnamese refugees, like the CIREFCA process in Central America, demonstrated that complex refugee problems can be solved when governments are committed and resources are available - and often, they are solved not only through voluntary repatriation, but also through a combination of solutions which may include local integration and the granting of citizenship, or resettlement to third countries.

Let me also speak about the unresolved refugee situations. There are many, and I will only elaborate on some. I wish to start with the crises in places where there are encouraging signs of progress, concrete in some cases and more embryonic elsewhere.

For example, minority returns are finally becoming a reality both in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Croatia. Refugees are returning to Croatia from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which hosts the largest number of refugees in Europe. Displaced people in Bosnia are even returning to towns that were virtually synonymous with ethnic cleansing. Tensions have subsided, security is better and the obstacles to return are now often more practical than political. But these welcome trends are not irreversible. More money is needed now to build houses and create jobs that will anchor returns.

Rwanda has also made progress, but it needs new development investments to consolidate returns and foster reconciliation. UNHCR's reintegration activities are winding down. Development actors must step forward. The government must have the political will to resolve the fundamental problems of power sharing and democratisation.

Burundi too is at a crossroads. The choice is between peace and renewed conflict. The latter would certainly cause massive displacement. President Mandela has given new momentum to the Arusha process. The failure of several key parties to sign on to the 28 August agreement was a disappointment, but efforts must continue. If peace comes, UNHCR is ready to help more than half a million refugees go home from Tanzania. Meanwhile, we must help the Tanzanian government maintain its generous asylum policies. Refugees are receiving only 60 per cent of the required daily food ration. Tension is building, and decreasing assistance may send the unintended message that refugees are expected to go home prematurely.

In the Horn of Africa, fighting earlier this year uprooted nearly 1.5 million people in Eritrea (including 90,000 who sought refuge in Sudan, which I visited in June). Determined international efforts, however, resulted in a cease-fire and helped address the worst consequences of the latest drought. Deployment of a UN observer mission is getting underway. People are returning home. We have now repatriated more than a quarter of those who fled to Sudan. A final peace settlement would open the way to solutions, both for people displaced recently and for the refugees from previous outflows. It would be an important stabilising factor in a region where there are other encouraging signs, for example in Somalia.

The situations where progress is evident are perhaps the most important for us, because UNHCR can make a difference. We play an important role by facilitating return and meeting humanitarian needs, while peace is built.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, solutions to refugee problems remain elusive. Let me mention a few situations that worry me most deeply.

Africa, where I have been 31 times since 1991, continues to be of the greatest concern to UNHCR. Central Africa is perhaps the most worrying area, with on-going conflicts and massive displacement in Southern Sudan, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Congo, theatre of a complex clash of political, military and economic interests, people are suffering. I want to repeat this loud and clear: millions of people are suffering, and little is done to address their plight. It is a paradox that whereas Congolese continue to seek refuge outside the country, and 1.8 million are displaced internally, over 300,000 people from neighbouring countries have sought refuge in the Congo itself! This shows the regional dimension of the crisis, but also the profound despair of people seeking safety.

As we speak, refugees are crossing into Congo Brazzaville by the hundreds - in one of the most inhospitable and inaccessible regions in the world. For how long is the international community going to ignore their plight? The Lusaka Agreement may be the only existing framework for peace - but it is stalled. Shouldn't more pressure be put on belligerents, and their supporters? I have told President Kabila, and the RCD in Goma, that the price being paid by their own people is intolerable - and I have told them, as well as President Museveni and President Kagame: don't forget the people, don't ignore the human cost of this war, when you negotiate.

The other very worrying region is West Africa. The repeated setbacks in implementing the Lomé agreement keep half a million Sierra Leonean refugees from coming home. Thousands more are displaced within the country and receive little aid. More decisive international support is needed for the further deployment of UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone.

But I have even broader concerns. On Saturday, there have been two more attacks in border areas of Guinea. We face a severe risk that instability will escalate, causing massive displacement in the region - and refugee flows may become one of the "vehicles" for the conflict to spread. For years, people fleeing Liberia and Sierra Leone found a secure refuge in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea. We must give these two countries increased support in order to help refugees while preventing armed groups from infiltrating refugee-hosting areas.

Humanitarian assistance will have to be coupled with security support - President Conté of Guinea has asked help to monitor the borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia. This is a legitimate request. Peacekeeping should focus on border areas, too, if we are to prevent the conflict from spreading and a humanitarian catastrophe from unfolding.

Turning to other continents, Afghans were the world's largest refugee caseload when I became High Commissioner. Two and a half million Afghan refugees remain in exile today - even after the repatriation of more than four million people since 1992, including 166,000 from Iran and Pakistan so far this year. I have just returned from the region. Many more refugees would like to repatriate, but there are obstacles: the on-going conflict; the lack of economic opportunities, basic services, respect for human rights - and I stressed this to the Taliban authorities - particularly for the rights of women; the drought; and, last but not least, the lack of resources for humanitarian operations. At the same time, asylum fatigue creates pressure for return, and donor fatigue has left UNHCR unable to meet basic needs. Allocating more resources to this operation, both in countries of asylum and especially in Afghanistan itself, is a priority. But resources alone will not solve this problem. There has to be resolute international engagement in finding a political solution to Afghanistan's tragedy.

In Kosovo, the massive international relief operation is winding down. No one died of exposure or starvation last winter. This was no small achievement. UNHCR's focus must now be on protecting and assisting non-Albanians. Minorities in Kosovo live in a virtual state of siege in mono-ethnic enclaves under heavy KFOR guard, sustained by UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. We must overcome the cycle of violence and revenge and the climate of impunity. Enabling the few remaining non-Albanians to stay in Kosovo will be the first step toward return as a solution for those who have left.

In the Russian Federation, the fighting that flared up in Chechnya in September 1999 uprooted a quarter of a million people and left many others living in misery. Some 170,000 displaced people and returnees face a second harsh winter in Chechnya, as are another 170,000 displaced people in Ingushetia. UNHCR provides limited cross-border assistance in Chechnya whenever and wherever possible, but we can make little impact since insecurity and the risk of kidnapping prevent us from working inside Chechnya and restricts our operations in the neighbouring republics.

The problem of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal has also been difficult to resolve. I visited Bhutan and Nepal in April. My impression is that we could be close to a solution for some 100,000 refugees who have been languishing in camps in Nepal for seven years. They are emphatic in their desire to go home, without preconditions. In this case, the obstacle to a solution is not a conflict - but rather, different interpretations on how to screen the refugees for return. I urged both governments to bridge the remaining differences. I suggested a formula and made UNHCR data available. Nepal accepted. Bhutan has not. Until this happens, people will continue to be deprived of their legitimate right to return.

I am deeply worried about the Timor situation, too. UNHCR worked throughout the year trying to find solutions for the East Timorese refugees in West Timor. My colleagues worked in harrowing conditions, extracting 170,000 refugees from the camps and helping them repatriate in the face of harassment, intimidation and violence from the pro-integration militias. After the murder of our three colleagues, we were forced to abandon some 125,000 refugees. Many of them would choose repatriation. All need a solution. We are committed to helping them and to supporting the Indonesian government. But that support comes with conditions. We cannot go back until the authorities disarm and disband the militias, and arrest and prosecute the killers of our colleagues.

The list of situations where a solution remains elusive is frustratingly long - I should also mention the more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees spread across several African nations, the ever-pending return of refugees from Western Sahara, the 100,000 refugees in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, the many people displaced by the still "frozen" conflicts of the South Caucasus, the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Colombia, and over half a million displaced people in Sri Lanka. In most of these situations, a combination of secessionist or rebel movements and weak conflict resolution processes - as well as a lack of international engagement and resources - have created a dangerous spiral that makes solutions very difficult to achieve.

Looking to the Future

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Saving lives, ensuring protection and finding solutions have been and will continue to be our common objectives. The balance sheet of these ten years is not too bad. We made progress in some areas, we raised the right issues in others. At times, we were accused of betraying our mandate. At times, we were told we were changing too fast. But UNHCR has to confront a dynamic environment - to evolve and improve, in order to meet the constantly changing challenges. This must continue.

It is therefore to the future that I wish to look. I see five important areas where we must reflect, plan and take concrete action - emergencies, security, complex population flows, peace building, and coexistence.

First, we must to continue strengthen UNHCR's emergency preparedness and response capacity, which lies at the heart of our ability to save lives.

Emergency mechanisms established in 1992 dramatically improved our ability to respond to refugee crises. We created effective stand-by arrangements, particularly for staff. We raised the level of preparedness of our government and NGO partners through training and support with contingency planning.

I am proud of these achievements. But the humanitarian environment has changed since 1992. UNHCR's initial response during the Kosovo refugee crisis revealed a critical need to review our emergency mechanisms. Drawing from the recommendations of the independent Kosovo evaluation, we are implementing - within the constraints of available resources - a Plan of Action to increase our "surge capacity" through expanded stand-by arrangements, rosters of people trained and ready for rapid deployment, and the development of "kits" and "packages" to meet the immediate needs for security, logistics, telecommunications and accommodation in the field. The Head of the new Emergency Service reports directly to me and will also be responsible for security and military liaison.

This brings me to the second area where intensified efforts are needed - creating a secure environment for refugee-populated areas and humanitarian operations.

In Eastern Congo and more recently in West Timor, we have learned painful lessons about the tragic consequences that follow when refugees and perpetrators of violence are left together. Similar trends are emerging in West Africa.

Since 1997, I have advocated looking to a "ladder of options" between the extremes of fully fledged peacekeeping on the one hand, and the absence of any security measures on the other. The concept remains valid, but we must move forward with implementation. Our objective is to operationalise "medium" options, such as the deployment of international civilian monitors or police, with a view to strengthen local law enforcement mechanisms.

The recent publication of the Brahimi Panel's report on UN peace operations is a welcome step. We look forward to working with the Secretary-General in implementing its recommendations. I believe that UNHCR can bring a valuable perspective to these discussions, along with our humanitarian partners that are operating in the field and facing the same risks - WFP, UNICEF, OCHA, the Red Cross Movement, IOM and many, many NGOs .

In parallel, we must forward decisively on staff safety. As we speak, UNHCR and other humanitarian staff are exposed to danger in many places around the world. It is essential to balance the need to be next to the refugees - often in very dangerous areas - with the requirement that staff be kept safe. I have initiated separate inquiries into the Atambua and Macenta killings, led by the Inspector General. An examination of our current security arrangements, under the co-ordination of the Assistant High Commissioner, includes a re-assessment of our benchmarks for suspending operations, evacuating staff and the eventual resumption of activities. UNHCR will also contribute to the Secretary-General's ongoing review of the UN system-wide security arrangements.

We must work closely together, especially with the humanitarian community. I am grateful to Catherine Bertini, Executive Director of WFP, for being here today to address this Committee on security issues. And whilst we appreciated the sympathy and support that governments expressed last month, we now have to see your support translated in concrete measures. Staff safety costs money and should not compete with existing, under-funded programmes. We need your help, and we need it urgently.

We require political support, too. The Secretary-General has invited the General Assembly to develop a protocol to the 1994 Convention on the Safety of United Nations and associated personnel that would extend legal protection to all United Nations staff engaged in humanitarian operations. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court would - with some limitations - make attacks on humanitarian workers a war crime. Urgent action is needed to make these principles international law. Refugee lives depend upon us, but we can only help them if we are alive and safe.

The third area where we have to think creatively and act concretely is in developing new approaches to complex forced population movements.

I see the issue as having two key aspects - ensuring asylum for refugees and meeting the requirements of internally displaced people more effectively. UNHCR's is fully engaged in efforts to strengthening the UN's inter-agency collaborative approach. The new Special Co-ordinator of the Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement is seconded from UNHCR. I have spoken on the issue of internal displacement recently. Let me focus here on asylum.

We face an extraordinary challenge responding to the globalisation of migration and forced displacement. Asylum seekers fleeing persecution, human rights violations and violence tend to travel with people seeking better economic opportunities, and those uprooted by environmental and other disasters. They often come from the same countries, travel the same routes, hold the same false documents and use the services of the same criminal trafficking and smuggling networks. As a consequence, asylum and irregular migration have become seriously confused in the public mind. People in many countries are also increasingly troubled by perceived abuse of the system and the cost of giving asylum. Governments have responded by making it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach their territory, detaining them upon arrival, interpreting their protection obligations restrictively and creating new and lesser forms of protection.

We cannot ignore valid concerns. But I remain firmly convinced that governments, UNHCR and refugees share a fundamental common interest in having an effective, universal international protection regime. I am heartened that the European Union, at last October's Tampere Summit, committed itself to the full and inclusive application of the 1951 Convention.

As announced in July, UNHCR is launching special consultations with governments. Our purpose is not to renegotiate the 1951 Convention. Rather, we hope to promote its full implementation and to develop the new approaches, tools and standards needed to ensure its continuing vitality and relevance. We plan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Convention in 2001 in a variety of ways, including support to a major intergovernmental event.

The fourth area I wish to highlight is the need to bridge the "gap" between humanitarian and development assistance in the transition from war to peace.

Many post-conflict situations today are chronically under-funded. Resources come readily for high-profile humanitarian emergencies. When development investments are required to consolidate fragile returns, we have a much more difficult time getting the world's attention. Sometimes, scenes of misery and death seem to be a prerequisite for donor interest.

UNHCR, the World Bank and UNDP will convene a meeting in Washington in November. Under the leadership of the Deputy High Commissioner, we will resume the consultations initiated at the Brookings Institution in 1999 with the aim of moving forward with existing concrete proposals and strengthening links with parallel initiatives. In 1999, donors called for greater co-ordination on the agencies' part. We made efforts. I am disappointed, however, that this has not led to more backing, and more financial support, for the transition phase.

The fifth challenge also arises in post-conflict situations. It is promoting co-existence in divided communities.

When fighting ends and repatriation begins, refugees often return to live alongside the very people they fought with. From Bosnia to Rwanda and from Liberia to East Timor, this pattern prevails. In many places, UNHCR no longer struggles with a refugee crisis, but rather a returnee crisis. Kosovo is perhaps the starkest example. During my last visit in May, I was dismayed to see children going to school under NATO military escort.

UNHCR has launched an initiative that we call "Imagine Co-Existence". We are starting with pilot projects in Bosnia and Rwanda. We face two challenges. The first is devising ways to bring people back together. The second is to make humanitarian and development actors aware of the "co-existence potential", or the lack of it, in their activities in divided communities. We have learned in many places the unifying, or dividing, power of a well, of a school, of a playground. When planning or implementing projects, we must ask ourselves: does it promote or undermine co-existence? This - I believe - is one of the fundamental humanitarian questions of the next decade.

Modernising UNHCR and obtaining adequate resources

In order to meet these five challenges, the Office must make further efforts to adapt. As for any international public organisation, change is a painful and laborious process for UNHCR. Since 1996, we have made progress. But, clearly, UNHCR must become a much more modern organisation if it wishes to remain relevant and effective.

The Office has to be managed, trained and equipped for a faster, technologically advanced and globalised environment. In Kosovo, we saw hundreds of thousands of people flee for their lives and then return home within a few weeks. Rapid emergencies - and the increasing pressures for quick solutions - put new demands on our capacity to manage staff and resources. But the revolution in communications and information technology is also a tremendous boon, allowing us to operate more effectively in some of the world's most remote and insecure areas.

Decentralisation is crucial. We started with Africa - and, I believe, in spite of all difficulties, we made the right decision. I hope other regions will follow, perhaps next in Asia. There have been difficult technical problems to resolve, but they have been compensated by the increased proximity of senior managers to the field. We must accelerate the decentralisation of financial and human resources management. The rollout of the Integrated Systems Project, in 2001, will provide managers with a comprehensive view of their activities - from protection and programme to finance and budget, human resources and the supply chain.

The other key area is of course human resources. UNHCR introduced new policies on postings, promotions and contracts in January. The guiding principles are performance and accountability at both the individual and organisational levels. The end result should be much greater transparency, objectivity and fairness in the UNHCR's personnel practices.

We are on the right track. But the implementation process has been accompanied by significant growing pains, and I am not yet entirely satisfied with the results. We have now identified the inevitable stumbling blocks of a new system, and we are reviewing them - but we must move forward. We cannot be too slow in making postings decision, compared to the fast-changing needs in the field.

We must also examine staff rotation policies. Rotation is a very sensitive aspect of UNHCR's human resources policies, as it is entwined with the very values and "soul" of the organisation. We have to find ways to be fairer to staff who have spent long years in difficult duty stations. We must also give staff better choices at critical stages of their personal and professional lives. Better management of rotation is particularly crucial, if we are to consolidate recent progress in gender equity and increase the representation of women among UNHCR's senior staff.

Improving the management of resources requires of course the establishment of rigorous systems. This is the legitimate demand of donors. After ten years of managing incredibly complex and difficult field operations, however, I would make one appeal to you and to my own staff. Be creative. Be flexible. We must be the owners - not the prisoners - of the systems we create. We at UNHCR have always been proud of being dynamic and field-oriented. We must avoid becoming a bureaucratic, timid organisation - therefore, when necessary, we must have the clarity, courage and determination to change and adapt.

And last but not least, modernising the Office will cost money. It may be obvious, but unfortunately the financial situation of UNHCR is not encouraging.

Raising funds has been a major activity for me in the past ten years, and I am deeply grateful for the strong backing that governments have extended to UNHCR. Since this is my last speech to the Executive Committee, allow me to single out and warmly thank the United States, Japan, the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, which have been most consistent in their support.

In spite of their efforts, and the significant contributions of a few others, however, UNHCR has become an under-funded organisation. By early this year, we could already project that contributions would not match our budget - the budget approved by this very Committee last October. Meanwhile, new emergencies added nearly 100 million dollars to our requirements. The shortfall is greater than in past years.

Difficult as it may be, try to imagine the impact caused on real situations. We delayed camp maintenance work and cancelled QIP programmes in Tanzania. We put on hold the planned distribution of shelter packages to returnees living under plastic sheeting in Rwanda. We can only meet two-thirds of the housing needs in the Guéckédou refugee camp in Guinea. The lack of funds in Côte d'Ivoire slowed repatriation to Liberia. We reduced shelter support in Armenia by half. We have been unable to fully fund repatriation and rehabilitation programmes in Afghanistan.

The cutbacks have extended to activities that impact directly upon UNHCR's policy priorities - women, children and the environment. Education and training programmes in several countries suffered reductions. We also cancelled or put on hold reforestation and other environmental activities in Africa. These are just examples. When I go to the field, it pains me to see my colleagues unable to meet some of the basic needs of those they are out there to serve.

We have made great efforts. The Global Appeal, Mid-Year Report and Unified Budget aim at making our needs clearer and our operations more transparent. We are also firmly reaching out to a new, wider circle of potential supporters among the private sector, the corporate world and the public at large. To support these efforts, we are building a more professional media relations network.

We have also, repeatedly, prioritised and reduced our budget - several times this year. This has hampered the entire process of management decentralisation and made long-term planning impossible. It has diminished UNHCR's credibility and strained relations with refugees, governments and our NGO implementing partners.

The Office will be critically weakened if urgent action is not taken. Let me therefore make a personal appeal to donors - especially to the European Commission, some of the European governments and other countries whose support has recently declined or has never been commensurate with their economic possibilities: unless fresh contributions are forthcoming, UNHCR will face a severe funding shortfall; and unless commitments for next year's budget are honoured, we will face the same situation in 2001. I deeply regret that this may happen as a new High Commissioner takes the leadership of the Office.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

UNHCR marks its fiftieth anniversary in December this year. But our longevity is no cause for celebration. UNHCR remains necessary because persecution and conflict force an ever greater number of people to flee their homes. So in our anniversary year, we are not celebrating UNHCR but rather refugees - their courage, their determination and their capacity for survival against all odds.

On December 14th, the independent Refugee Education Trust will be launched as the lasting legacy of UNHCR's 50th anniversary. The Trust will give refugee adolescents in developing countries opportunities for post-primary education. The focus will be on providing quality education to the largest number of refugees where the needs are greatest. I hope that you will all find ways to support this important initiative.

I also hope - and trust - that you will continue to support this organisation. After ten years, I can tell you confidently that UNHCR's staff - to whom I am so indebted for all its support and its often heroic efforts - is remarkable. And UNHCR's cause is crucial - and will remain so for long.

I am often asked: what has been the greatest success, and the greatest failure, of these ten years?

It is a difficult question, and I can think of only one way to answer. It is to think back to the many images - sometimes happy, sometimes terrifying - that haunt my memory: images of refugees returning, clapping their hands; images of children dying, of old women crying for help. The faces of refugees have been the clearest mirrors of our failures, and of our successes. Positive results gave me strength to continue. Seeing the suffering of people made me sad and angry - and convinced me, every time, that our work was needed.

The suffering of refugees - with which my colleagues and myself deal every day throughout the world - is immense. So is the joy of people who return to their home after years of exile. Both are much greater and deeper than words can describe. They speak to us, and I will say no more - except, perhaps, to exhort you in the words of the song that we have chosen as slogan for UNHCR's 50th anniversary: respect. Respect your own commitment to protect the poorest of the poor, those who have lost their homes. Respect humanitarian workers, who are with them on the frontlines.

And above all, respect refugees.

Thank you.