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Refugees Magazine Issue 109 (1997 In Review) - Forward

Refugees Magazine Issue 109 (1997 In Review) - Forward
Refugees (109, III - 1997)

1 September 1997
Humanitarian action at the crossroads, by Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

1997 has been a difficult year for humanitarian work. It has been a year when the fact that solutions to refugee problems are possible has been repeatedly and painfully overshadowed by events in which humanitarian principles have been disregarded. The grave challenges to refugee protection which we witnessed in the Great Lakes region of Africa stayed in the limelight all year.

Meanwhile, the repatriation of 300,000 Togolese refugees was completed, the return home of Tajik refugees from Afghanistan resumed, and Mexico agreed to consider several thousand Guatemalan refugees for naturalization.

With bad news so often in the headlines, it was easy to lose sight of the good news.

Whether successfully resolved or not, every refugee crisis UNHCR was involved in during 1997 has served as a reminder that humanitarian action - however well-intentioned - cannot operate in a vacuum. From the Great Lakes region to Bosnia and Herzegovina, from Chechnya to Cambodia we have been reminded of the limits of humanitarian action: it can save lives and can win time for political solutions, but it cannot be a substitute for political action.

And it should never be used as an alibi for political inaction. I am afraid that if we leave humanitarian action alone and isolated for too long, with no effective parallel political initiatives, we will weaken and perhaps even undermine it.

I am reminded of the remarks of Fridtjof Nansen, the League of Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees.

Faced with the dramatic humanitarian challenges of the aftermath of the First World War, and intensely frustrated by the indifference of the delegates to the League of Nations at the time, he argued that alleviating human suffering should be a matter of state, not simply a matter of charity.

Refugee problems invariably affect key state interests. They are related to matters of national, regional and even international peace and security. Humanitarian crises in our times increasingly are strategic crises, although they are infrequently dealt with as such.

This became all too clear during 1997 in Central Africa. Between 1994 and 1996 UNHCR had assisted more than one and a half million Rwandans in camps in Tanzania and Zaire.

As High Commissioner, I repeatedly appealed to the Security Council and to governments to take action to separate those Rwandan refugees in need of international protection from the armed elements and political extremists in the camps.

The inability or unwillingness of governments to respond to my appeals was one of the factors which led to the dramatic events of 1996 and 1997, when thousands of Rwandans died in the forests of what was then Zaire.

They died of hunger, disease, and exhaustion, but they were also killed by military forces who perceived them as a threat to the stability of the region.

Some have argued that there is a contradiction between humanitarian principles, and in particular the principle of asylum, and the interests of states.

State security concerns are increasingly used to justify the disregard of humanitarian principles - not only in the Great Lakes region.

This is a very short-sighted approach, and should not lead us to conclude that basic humanitarian principles need to be revised.

Rather, we need to be even more vigilant in ensuring that these principles are properly implemented, while working with governments on practical ways to ensure that their legitimate security concerns are taken into account.

As I look toward 1998 and the new challenges which we will face, I am convinced more than ever that humanitarian action has to be part and parcel of an integrated approach to conflict management.

We have made considerable progress in our ability to respond rapidly and effectively to emergency situations.

At the political level, while there is growing awareness of the causes as well as of the consequences of massive population displacement, effective response mechanisms are on the whole still lacking.

Not only the Security Council, but also regional organizations will need to focus much more attention on the prevention and resolution of conflicts which generate massive refugee movements.

At the security level, I believe there are various options for co-operation between humanitarian agencies and military or police.

This co-operation can help us to improve the security of our own staff, many of whom now operate in areas where even military forces are reluctant to tread.

The physical and social rehabilitation of war-torn societies needs a much more concerted effort, with special attention being given to the reconciliation of hostile communities.

Such an integrated approach must be accompanied by recognition of the fact that a pattern of disregard, sometimes even of systematic violation of human rights, invariably lies at the core of humanitarian crises.

We need a stronger focus on human rights in our efforts to prevent and to resolve conflicts.

The year ahead will no doubt bring many new refugee problems. Time and again we will face the challenge of finding a balance between humanitarian principles and the concerns of states.

We are, I believe, at a crossroads.

If States turn their backs on the humanitarian principles which have been laboriously developed since the Second World War, they may temporarily alleviate or avoid problems.

But this will not bring the world any closer to the peace and stability it so badly needs.

We need to ensure that those principles are rigorously applied and that they continue to develop so that they will be able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century.