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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the OAU/UNHCR Symposium, Addis Ababa, 8 September 1994

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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the OAU/UNHCR Symposium, Addis Ababa, 8 September 1994

8 September 1994

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellency Dr. Kebede, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to address this distinguished gathering. May I join His Excellency, the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity and co-organizer of this symposium, Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, in welcoming you all to Addis Ababa. This impressive gathering of representatives of African Governments, member states of the Executive Committee of the Programme of UNHCR, the NGO community and the academic world is a telling testimony of the concern and urgency we all feel for the refugee problem in Africa today.

Twenty five years ago, 41 Heads of African States and Governments gathered here in Addis Ababa to elaborate a regional instrument, which, while complementing the universal refugee instruments, sought to resolve Africa's refugee problems in the spirit of the Charter of the Organization of African Unity and the African context. The entry into force of the Convention five years later, on 20 June 1974, was a milestone in the protection of refugees in Africa. This day has since been designated throughout the continent as Africa Refugee Day.

For more than two decades the OAU Convention has provided a legal framework for African countries to receive and host refugees. Underlining traditional African hospitality, it has strengthened the institution of asylum and the spirit of international solidarity, despite difficult political, security and socio-economic conditions. Its provisions on voluntary repatriation have been instrumental in encouraging the OAU member states, the OAU Secretariat and UNHCR to find solutions for several million refugees. Beyond the shores of this continent, the Convention has provided a model for my Office to promote refugee protection and solutions in other parts of the world, and inspired the Latin American region to adopt a similar refugee definition.

Anniversaries, however, are not only times to remember the achievements of the past. They are also occasions to look at the challenges of the future. These challenges are both numerous and complex. I hasten to add they are not peculiar to Africa, but it is here in Africa that they have manifested themselves most dramatically and tragically.

Mr. Chairman, when the Convention was adopted in 1969, there were about 700,000 refugees in Africa. Today the figure exceeds seven million, or approximately one third of the total world refugee population. Over twice that number are internally displaced in a refugee-like situations in various parts of the continent. The recent crises in Rwanda and Burundi alone have generated over 2.4 million refugees.

In the 1960s, Africa's refugees were mainly the product of the decolonization process and were able to return home when their countries became independent. Today's refugees are mostly victims of internal conflict, whose return home is complicated by insecurity and uncertainty.

The proliferation of internal conflicts rooted in ethnic tensions and political violence, aggravated by poverty and social inequities, rising population and environmental degradation, are matters of great concern to me as they are forcing hundreds of thousands of persons in Africa and around the world to flee their homes.

The very factors which force people into flight also complicate their return. Despite the growing opportunities for return, the conditions to which refugees are returning are far from ideal. They are often going back to uncertainty and instability, sometimes even open conflict, to villages which have been devastated, and homes which have been destroyed, with little hope of reconstruction or economic development.

Sometimes, as in Rwanda, the lack of confidence and trust among deeply divided communities serves to destroy, or at least, delay the prospects for return.

The prolonged exile of many refugees continues to pose challenges and demands to the hosting countries, who in most cases do not have enough resources to cope with the needs of ever growing numbers of forcibly displaced persons.

In the absence of early solutions, large-scale population displacements pose a serious threat to regional peace and security. That is the lesson of Rwanda. It is also the lesson of Somalia, Bosnia, Georgia and many other humanitarian crises around the world.

Clearly, today's refugee problems cannot be treated in isolation from the political, social and economic causes which give rise to them. Refugee policies and strategies must therefore address the problems of refugees in both the countries of origin and asylum, thus balancing their protection with the prevention and solution to their problems.

I believe the OAU Convention provides a valid legal framework for such a comprehensive approach. Let me expand by underlining two aspects: firstly, on protection and secondly, on solutions.

On protection, the drafters of the 1969 Convention had recognized more than two decades ago that the need for protection is not limited to those fleeing persecution but must encompass also the victims of war and generalized violence. That need has never been greater. Therefore, the right to seek asylum must continue to be upheld, as must the obligation which the OAU Convention places on states to receive refugees.

At the same time, we must also recognize the protection needs of returning refugees and internally displaced persons who find themselves in the midst of insecurity or conflict without any effective national protection. I believe this symposium can make a valuable contribution in the debate to strengthen the protection of returnees and the internally displaced through legal and practical measures.

Let me add in this context that UNHCR's responsibility to seek permanent solutions to refugee problems gives it a legitimate interest in the protection and welfare of returning refugees until they have been reintegrated. In the case of the internally displaced, my Office is increasingly involved with this category at the request of the UN General Assembly and the Secretary-General. The 48th session of the UN General Assembly endorsed and encouraged our activities on behalf of the internally displaced, giving us a mandate for this group of persons when there is a link to an existing or potential refugee problem.

Turning to solutions, I believe one of the most interesting features of the OAU Convention is the relationship between protection and solutions. The Convention not only endorses the principle of asylum and settlement abroad, it imposes obligation on the country of origin as well as the country of asylum to facilitate voluntary repatriation. Thus, it highlights the critical responsibilities of states in promoting solutions to refugee problems.

While recognizing the contribution of the OAU Convention to refugee solutions, I believe it is essential to recognize that in today's world the pursuit of voluntary repatriation requires more than a humanitarian response. Finding solutions to refugee problems is closely linked to other measures aimed at achieving peace and promoting national reconciliation. The initiatives taken by the OAU Secretariat on conflict resolution in Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia, Angola, Somalia and Mozambique include proposals to deal with the refugee problems of these countries. Rarely has a political solution been found to a conflict, which has not also included a resolution of the connected refugee problem. For instance, in Mozambique the peace process is encouraging some 1.5 million refugees to return home from neighbouring countries, hopefully by the end of this year.

For UNHCR, continued close cooperation with the political leadership is essential to solve the refugee problem. It is in this context that I fully support the increasing role of the OAU in conflict prevention, resolution, peace-keeping and observer missions.

Peace, however, should be seen not only as freedom from war but also from want. UNHCR has sought to play its own limited role in this context by promoting community-based micro-projects, or what we call QIPs (quick-impact projects) to help reintegrate returnees and bridge the gap between relief and development. The overall task, however, is much greater. As South Africa has so visibly demonstrated, returning refugees form an important component of the confidence building exercise essential for reconciliation. But in order to be effective, they must be made part of the national rehabilitation and reconstruction effort through the cross mandate approach among all international organizations which implies putting together the available resources of all concerned. The process of rehabilitation must extend beyond economic development to include the building of democratic and civic institutions which are essential to good governance and social harmony. In this way not only are current problems solved but future ones averted.

There is no doubt that rehabilitation and development will require enormous commitment of resources. But investments which seem large now may prove to be money well spent in the future, and certainly less costly than prolonged instability and conflicts. Properly planned and funded repatriation can help bring national and regional stability, which is in the interests of both the countries concerned and the international community.

Mr. Chairman, in conclusion, let me sum up the twin challenges of the refugee problem: the first is to continue to provide protection and assistance to those who are forced to flee persecution, war and violence, the second is to insist that States are responsible for safeguarding human rights and the welfare of their people, so that those who have fled can return in safety, and that others will not be uprooted.

Determined and decisive leadership is needed today more than ever to turn the tide in Africa's crises. We must invest in peace and reconciliation, human rights and tolerance for minorities, social progress and economic development.

We must do so, Mr. Chairman, because people have a right to remain in safety in their homes. They have a right not to be forced into exile. We must do so because the problem of refugees and displacement has far-reaching implications for peace and prosperity in this region, this continent, indeed in this world.

This symposium provides an invaluable opportunity for us to examine the combination of humanitarian responses, political initiatives and economic action through which can emerge a new regional strategy for refugees in Africa.

In this regard, I would like to recommend the establishment of a committee to follow up on the key recommendations of this symposium. I wish you well in your deliberations.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.