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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), twenty-sixth session, Geneva, 6 October 1975

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), twenty-sixth session, Geneva, 6 October 1975

6 October 1975

Mr. Chairman,

The year 1975 has seen historic events, many of which have still to unfold all their consequences. The accession to independence of the Territories formerly under Portuguese administration and the recent developments in Indo-China have had a momentous impact on the activities of my Office. As far as the more traditional efforts of UNHCR are concerned, significant developments have equally occurred of which we need to take note. I would also like to share with the Executive Committee some of the impressions of my recent visit to Thailand, Laos and Viet-Nam. However, I would not like to tax your patience with an inordinately long speech. I would therefore propose in this introductory statement to confine myself to essential points on the international protection of refugees, and on the main trends in the field of assistance. Later in the course of our session, I shall endeavour to talk in greater detail about special operations, taking particularly Indo-China as a significant case in point.

Protection has always been regarded as one of the basic functions of this Office. Should we ever be in danger of losing sight of this fact, we would be reminded of it by the Governments themselves, as they constantly insist that the High Commissioner should exert to the full the protection responsibility vested in him by the General Assembly.

I am sorry to have to say that all is far from satisfactory. In insisting that the High Commissioner should actively protect and defend the status of refugees, many Governments, in many parts of the world, are less than consistent in enacting the principles to which lip service is paid so liberally., The question which arises is: how can the High Commissioner, relying solely on the moral authority of his Office, efficiently protect the refugees, when the States themselves, or more particularly the authorities within these States competent in domestic affairs, fail to recognize the basic humanitarian considerations in dealing with refugees? When, in an age of violence, refugees are regarded as an ever-present potential risk for internal security, or an embarrassment in the international relations of these countries, we, for our part, certainly continue to believe in the principle upheld by the General Assembly that the granting of asylum does not constitute an unfriendly act towards the country of origin.

With regard to basic international instruments which govern the status of refugees, namely the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, there has been over the past years a marked slow-down in the number of accessions. During the past 12 months, one country (Zaire) has acceded to the 1967 Protocol, which means that today still less than half the total membership of the United Nations are parties to the Convention. We believe that countries which express their satisfaction at the assistance which this Office succeeds in bringing to refugees should not hesitate to commit themselves to the principles which are the very basis of the existence of UNHCR. This situation must be redressed. We believe also that the newly independent countries which are now playing their rightful part in the concert of nations should give serious and prompt consideration to their accession to the Convention and the Protocol.

Even more disturbing is the fact that many States signatories to the Convention and Protocol do not appear to regard themselves bound in practice by the spirit and the provisions of these instruments. In flagrant violation of international legislation, refugees have sometimes been expelled, gaoled, and have even lost their lives, because Governments failed to afford them the protection to which they were entitled. We believe that, in countries which are parties to the Convention and Protocol, there is a need to establish a formal eligibility procedure to take the place of often questionable practical arrangements.

I would add that Governments more and more frequently insist that refugees to whom they grant first asylum should be speedily resettled elsewhere, sometimes across the seas and continents, and expect my Office to be the instrument in bringing about what is not always an adequate or practical solution. Solutions, whenever possible, should be sought on a regional basis, where the similarity of cultural and other equally important factors help speed up integration.

On the subject of territorial asylum, the Executive Committee at its twenty-fifth session recommended that a conference of plenipotentiaries should take place. At its twenty-ninth session, the General Assembly decided to establish a group of governmental experts, which met in Geneva from 28 April to 9 May 1975. Their discussions were constructive and led to a further development of the question of territorial asylum. I sincerely hope that, on the strength of their work, the Executive Committee will see fit to reiterate its recommendation to the General Assembly that this conference of plenipotentiaries now be convened, and that a positive step will thus have been taken towards what we hope will one day become effective legislation.

Turning now to the activities of my Office in the field of assistance, delegates will recall that last year the Executive Committee had expressed the wish to be kept informed on the special operations, as it is informed on the other aspects of our activities. Members of the Committee will see that action has been taken, and that a special note on this subject has been submitted as an addendum to the annual report. My colleagues will deal with this in a more detailed way in the course of our debate. I would simply, for the moment, draw your attention to a few salient features, starting with the yearly Programme.

In Africa, while the developments in former Portuguese Territories are bringing to a conclusion many of the refugee situations which have concerned us in the past, important problems will still require our attention in 1976. Some of these have emerged during the past months. In the United Republic of Tanzania, for instance, assistance towards the local settlement of nearly 100,000 refugees from Burundi continues to entail a major UNHCR effort in 1975. In the Sudan, our attention has been called to a fresh influx of refugees from Ethiopia. As regards our assistance in the field of decolonization, UNHCR has continued to administer funds on behalf of the United Nations Trust Fund for South Africa and of the United Nations Council for Namibia. This assistance is expected to continue as long as help from my Office will be required.

In Latin America, although some encouraging progress has been made since our ad hoc meeting in June, problems are far from solved. Considerable allocations of funds will still be necessary in 1976. Contrary to our previous hopes, UNHCR will have to maintain an Office in Lima. The presence of many refugees from Chile in Costa Rica,, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela will require the opening of an Office in Central America. While Argentina and Peru are in a special position because of their geographical situation, I would like to pay tribute to the many countries which have opened their doors for permanent resettlement to sizeable numbers of Chilean refugees: among others, Algeria, Australia, Canada, Cuba, France, the German Democratic Republic, Federal Republic of Germany, Hungary, Mexico, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. However, the need for additional resettlement opportunities, especially for refugees at present in Argentina and Peru, remains acute. Refugees from Chile, together with an increase in the rate of annuities as approved by your Committee, also account largely for the allocations requested for the Middle East and North Africa in 1976.

To sum up, I would mention that the proposed increases in the 1975 Programme which are now submitted to you for approval and which result mainly from the developments I have just alluded to, amount to approximately $1.5 million, bringing the financial target from $12,656,000 to $14,117,000. You will note that the proposed target for 1976 is $13,848,000, a slightly lower total, therefore, than the revised figure for 1975. This, of course, taking into account the current rates of inflation, amounts to a considerably lower target in real terms.

I would now like to turn to the various special humanitarian operations which my Office is being called upon to perform. Many significant developments have taken place since the fall of 1974.

With reference to my role as Co-ordinator of United Nations Humanitarian Assistance in Cyprus, I have kept the Committee informed of the activities of my Office. The two appeals launched in September 1974 and January 1975, amounting respectively to $22 million and $9.3 million, have been fully covered, partly multilaterally through my Office and partly in the form of bilateral contributions. In addition, the Government of the United States made another contribution of $9.9 million, through UNHCR, a decision which I already announced in June. However, relief in itself is no permanent answer. The solution, as we all know, lies elsewhere ... Meanwhile, the United Nations may well have to continue to discharge the function which has been entrusted to my Office.

As regards Territories formerly under Portuguese administration, you will recall that, in anticipation of independence, both the Executive Committee and indeed the General Assembly had last year requested my Office to assist with the return and settlement of the refugees from these countries. UNHCR took part in the United Nations interagency mission to Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. Plans were formulated for the return of the refugees and for assistance urgently required for populations which had been displaced within the Territories during the struggle for independence.

Appeals for funds were launched in March for Guinea-Bissau and in April for Mozambique, amounting respectively to $4,025,000 and $7,150,000. These sums are far from having been collected and there is still a financial shortfall of over $ 3 million for these two operations. However, activities on the spot have started immediately; in Guinea-Bissau in particular, it is estimated that more than half of the Guineans who had found refuge in Senegal have returned with the assistance of my Office and are now being helped to resettle in agriculture.

Angola is, unfortunately, an altogether different case. As soon as the transitional Government was established following the Alvor Agreement, my Office examined ways and means of assisting the returning refugees through the institutions specifically provided by the Agreement, in particular the Government Tripartite Commission. This has failed. The similar arrangement foreseen more recently in the Agreement reached at Nakuru between the three liberation movements has also not been implemented. In attempting to bring assistance to the displaced groups of the population who urgently need it, my Office was confronted with the collapse of governmental administration, the difficulty of launching humanitarian programmes in a climate of political unrest, the disruption of normal communications and security. UNHCR has maintained an Office in Luanda since March, but I regret to have to say that no concrete progress under the circumstances has been achieved so far. In a situation where many human lives are at stake, it is my earnest hope that it will still be possible to dissociate strictly humanitarian from political issues.

One of the sad consequences of the present events in Angola is the uprooting and displacement of groups of Cape Verdians and citizens of Sao Tome and Principe, mostly farmers, who were for a long time established in the country. The Governments of Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe have requested help from the United Nations, and particularly from my Office, with the transportation and settlement on the Islands of several thousands of their citizens who are now stranded in Luanda and Nova Lisboa. From funds outside the programme, I have already approved small allocations for assistance in Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe. After consultation with the Secretary-General, and a visit to Cape Verde by one of my senior collaborators, I have been able to arrange for a limited emergency airlift, thanks to which groups of Cape Verdians are being evacuated from Nova Lisboa. Needless to say, my Office does not possess any ready resources for the larger effort involved in repatriating the whole group. This, including transportation, reception arrangements and initial settlement on the Islands, will involve expenditures of well over $2 million. I am pursuing consultations with my colleagues in New York to examine how the necessary resources can be mobilized and what contributions the agencies concerned can bring to bear.

I should now like to turn to another sector of our activities where considerable efforts have been deployed since 1973, namely, the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. I have had occasion to report on these last year and again in June following the significant developments in the over-all situation in the area.

I have just returned from a visit to Laos and the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam. Earlier, I also paid an official visit to Thailand. At the invitation of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Viet-Nam, I intend to visit South Viet-Nam some time after my return from the General Assembly in New York.

The purpose of my recent visits was to review the progress of the work of my Office with the authorities, and to discuss other subjects of mutual interest relating to their collaboration with UNHCR. I also undertook extensive field trips in order to see the displaced persons myself, and to get a first-hand picture of their needs. I intend to revert to the question of UNHCR's efforts for the Indo-Chinese displaced populations when the Committee discusses the assistance programme. I would therefore limit myself at this stage to some brief comments on various aspects of our work.

In the first place, I should like to record my sincere gratitude to the Governments concerned for the excellent arrangements made for my visits - and my deep appreciation of the cordial and constructive discussions which took place.

All parties concerned in Laos and Viet-Nam attach great importance to the contribution of this Office and consider UNHCR's role a significant and integral component of the national effort to deal with one of the major problems inherited from the past, i.e., the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of uprooted persons.

In Thailand we have started a substantial relief operation for various groups of displaced persons for whom lasting solutions remain to be sought.

As the Committee is aware, following the events in April this year in South Viet-Nam, the Secretary-General asked UNHCR to undertake jointly with UNICEF an emergency assistance programme. Contributions in cash and kind amounting to some $17.6 million have been channelled through my Office. In agreement with the authorities concerned, this is now being phased out and integrated into our regular programme in South Viet-Nam.

As for the projects for assistance to be financed by UNHCR in all parts of Laos and Viet-Nam during the coming year, which I had occasion to discuss in detail on the spot, I intend to comment on them later this week, when we come to that part of the report.

In addition to our work inside the Peninsula, my Office has also been called upon to assist in the repatriation and, where necessary, the resettlement of displaced persons from Cambodia, Laos and Viet-Nam. In view of the inherent complexities of the situation, this aspect of our work is, to say the least, not an easy one. Appropriate solutions suitable for each group have to be promoted and in order to be successful my Office needs not only the goodwill of the parties directly involved but also the active support of other Governments.

I am glad to be able to say that we continue to make progress. It is my earnest hope that patience and tenacity coupled with humanitarian understanding on the part of all concerned will bear fruit. It is in this spirit that I would sincerely like to reiterate to the international community my appeal for a generous response to the efforts of UNHCR.

I would now like to share with you some reflections on the various operations which my Office has been called upon to undertake and, in so doing, perhaps also meet some of the Committee's own preoccupations.

One would be justified in giving some thought to the "special operations". By their diversity and volume they carry UNHCR far beyond the realm of the regular programme which was practically the only assistance activity with which we had to concern ourselves as recently as five years ago.

It would be simplistic to ascribe this evolution to a single cause. May I mention at least two, though I recognize the danger of generalizations.

First, the constraints inherent in the annual system of programming and financing of the Regular Programme. Although this system does embody some elements of flexibility such as the Reserve, the Emergency Fund, the Working Capital and Guarantee Fund, these resources are insufficient to enable UNHCR to meet speedily sudden and considerable new requirements. This remark applies in particular this year to the special operations in favour of Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. These two programmes are intended mainly to facilitate the return and settlement of refugees whom UNHCR already assisted in their exile, in accordance with the directives given to my Office by the Executive Committee and reiterated by the General Assembly.

Secondly, the altogether different reasons which led UNHCR increasingly, within the United Nations system, to participate, according to the pertinent General Assembly resolutions, in "those humanitarian endeavours for which (my) Office has particular expertise and experience". For countries which are confronted, even in normal and stable circumstances, with major problems of development and a low standard of living, the economic impact of social convulsions and readjustments, or of natural disasters, can be crippling and altogether catastrophic. Neither the United Nations itself, nor the various intergovernmental organizations now in existence, are equipped, institutionally, to meet this type of challenge. The choice was to do nothing, or to improvise, and in this need for reacting to emergencies lies the source of the variegated appeals for humanitarian assistance. In certain instances, an effort was made to create the institution required, without necessarily endowing it with the required means! In other instances, an ad hoc and temporary body was established, as in Bangladesh, to fill the institutional gap. In the majority of other cases, the United Nations, and through them their Member States, turned towards existing institutions, which had over the years accumulated experience which equipped them to act swiftly and efficiently in the crisis at hand. This is how UNHCR was called upon, inter alia, to intervene in the Asian subcontinent, in southern Sudan, in Cyprus and in Indo-China.

We recognize that this state of affairs is a source of financial and operational difficulties for Governments as well as for UNHCR. For instance, I am fully aware that appeals had to be launched in the middle of the fiscal year, making orderly financial planning impossible for contributors. Under the circumstances, Governments have made a remarkable effort, both directly and through such intergovernmental organizations as the European Economic Community, and so, to a lesser degree, has the private sector. Still, the basic technical difficulty is not solved, either for Governments which are unexpectedly confronted with big appeals, nor for UNHCR which does not have the built-in financial flexibility for new, large-scale operations. A solution to this problem might well be found in the Swedish formula of incorporating in the Government's yearly budget provisions to meet the requirements of special humanitarian tasks. I would hope that this will commend itself to other Governments.

Another difficulty which UNHCR has to face concerns its own capacity to deliver the services expected of it. I already alluded to this problem when I addressed the representatives assembled in June. The matter has lost nothing of its acuteness - on the contrary. As promised, a concrete proposal has now been placed before the Executive Committee which should at least provide a partial solution to the problem.

Having said this, the fact remains that, by launching these special' operations, the United Nations, with the support and understanding of its members, has been able and is able today to alleviate suffering and to defuse many political tensions throughout the world. It has enabled the Organization to play, I dare say with some degree of efficiency, an essential role for which the proper institutional framework was lacking. This is an achievement from which we should all derive satisfaction, rather than doubts or anxiety.

I would add that these operations do not last forever, and when launched never lead to permanent commitments. UNHCR, for its part, likes to withdraw when it has accomplished its mission. This can only be assured in the future, as in the past, through the continuous understanding and generous support of your Executive Committee.