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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, seventh session, Geneva, 14 May 1962

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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, seventh session, Geneva, 14 May 1962

14 May 1962

The documents now before the Executive Committee provide, I think, a fairly full and accurate general picture of the present activities of the High Commissioner's Office.

As you will have noted, the material is both varied and of topical interest. We are, in fact, passing through an eventful period; and these events are, of course, reflected in the activities of UNHCR, to which they impart their character and rhythm, bringing about a significant change in the working methods of the Office.

Last year I described for you in brief outline the situation as I saw it, with its basic elements and its two main features: the end of the major programmes of assistance to the refugees in Europe and the new problems of refugees outside Europe, which entail the introduction of some measure of flexibility into our usual working methods. From a theoretical assessment of the needs and the measures required for meeting those needs, we have now turned to the facts of the situation as set forth in the documents before you. As I promised, we have endeavoured to determine, on the one hand, what actually remains to be done and, on the other hand, the implications of this for the international community, in terms both of time and of money. The proposals in the programme for 1963 are, of course, based on the directives we have received from the Committee: they make no claim to provide a complete solution for every problem, but are designed to bring the assistance of the international community to bear on specific problems, in accordance with the ideas and methods worked out by the Committee and the Office of the High Commissioner during ten years of international co-operation.

As regards the new refugee problems, the General Assembly has, as you are aware, provided us with the means for limited but concrete action suited to the circumstances, With this end in view, it has made such minor alterations as were necessary in our administrative machinery. The "good offices" procedure, now part of UNHCR's normal activities, has introduced into the already long-established structure of the mandate an element of flexibility and dynamism which meets the requirements of the present situation. Being concerned solely with the refugees' needs, the "good offices" procedure has at the same time once again drawn attention to and stressed the specifically humanitarian nature of UNHCR's work. But these adjustments have in to sense extended the competence of the Office in any anarchical or unrestricted way, and UNHCR's essential task remains unchanged - to apply international protection, combined where necessary with adequate assistance as a means of contributing to the final solution of refugee problems by facilitating either the repatriation of the refugees in cases where they have freely agreed to this, or their admission to and complete assimilation in a new community. Thus, far from modifying the traditional functions of the Office, the purpose and effect of the Assembly's recent decisions has been to adapt the Office to the needs which it is now called upon to meet. Fundamentally, what is involved is a change in outlook, a more direct and pragmatic approach to the problems, so that they can be tackled from a new angle which is more in accordance with present realities. UNHCR's work is thus increasingly assuming the form of a continuous creative effort, the framework for which has been laid down by the various General Assembly resolutions, but the practical modalities of which have in some cases still to be determined, and will be determined in accordance with the conditions in which the work of the Office may have to develop.

The Executive Committee is and will continue to be our counsellor and guide both in making these progressive adjustments and in carrying out the Office's traditional tasks. That is what the General Assembly wished to reaffirm when it defined the part which the Committee will henceforth be called upon to play in carrying the good offices into effect. I for my part, Madam, cannot overstress the importance which we attach to thus having the constant benefit of the views of governments which have steadily maintained a direct and assiduous interest in the work of UNHCR.

We shall no doubt have to modify our methods of work somewhat in the light of these changes in order to adapt them to more fluid situations, in which, to be effective, action by UNHCR must in most cases be prompt. If, as is usually the case, the new refugee problems arise in economically underdeveloped countries, they are of greater urgency, and call for different, and certainly more rapid, action then was required in Europe. Our task is not merely to prevent these problems from coming to a head or getting out of hand, but, by prompt action, to save human lives which are in danger.

The procedure for the submission of projects and their approval by the Executive Committee has been evolving continuously since UNHCR was established. It is, I believe, in the evolutionary process thus dictated by experience that we should seek procedures flexible enough to reconcile our concern for efficiency with the Committee's function of direction and control. As regards more particularly such temporary emergencies as call for prompt but limited action by UNHCR, this objective could, it would seem, be achieved if the Committee were to lay down general directives in advance, to establish the limits, as it were, within which the Office would be authorized to act, and thereafter to check the application of those directives in the various sectors in which UNHCR is impelled by circumstances to act. I shall have occasion to revert to this subject, however, when the programme proposed for 1963 is discussed.

Last year, the Committee expressed its assent to the main features of the programme for 1963, as I outlined them at the time. As I have said, the aim was to take stock of the situation as it affected the "old refugees", to institute a plan for winding up the major programmes of assistance to those refugees, and to define the functions which the Office might have to continue discharging in respect of both old and new refugees. This meant that the problems first had to be arranged according to their nature, magnitude and duration, and according to the resources which would have to be applied for dealing with them. These considerations led us, in preparing plans for the coming year, to distinguish between, on the one hand, the final programme for the old refugees and, on the other hand, current needs in respect both of European or assimilated refugees (old or new) and of the refugees with whom the High Commissioner's Office has had to concern itself more recently, in Africa and Asia.

The effect of classification we have thus had to make was motivated by a concern both for clear presentation and for effective action adapted wherever possible to the special circumstances and needs of the particular refugee groups. When the General Assembly has to decide on the future of the High Commissioner's Office, it should be able, by means of this classification, to form as accurate as possible an idea of the tasks which still devolve upon the Office, as well as of the part which the Office might possibly play, in its own special field, if the international community decided to extend the mandate now entrusted to it. Such a decision can only be made with a full knowledge of the facts, that is to say, taking into account both present or foreseeable requirements and the services which the international community might reasonably expect from UNHCR should it decide to prolong its existence. Hence the programme proposed for 1963, in which an effort has been made to define the tasks which this Office might consider assuming in the near future, is of particular significance.

I have already had occasion, Mr. Chairman, to tell the Executive committee how much importance I attach to the maintenance of the spirit of international solidarity on which the success of UNHCR's humanitarian work depends. But in order that its enthusiasm may not flag, it must be presented with clear and reasonable objectives. This was what we had in mind when drawing up our plans for 1963. We were thinking, not only of the hardships to be relieved but of the limits assigned to the work of our Office. For you will agree, I am sure, that the international solidarity of which UNHCR is the instrument draws its strength from the search for a difficult but constant balance between the sacrifices imposed on certain countries by their admittance of refugees and the fair share in these sacrifices which the international community considers that it should assume.

Before concluding this brief preliminary statement, I should like to say a few words about the important work in which we have for some short time past been engaged: I refer to the repatriation of Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco. This is a particularly exalting task since its purpose is, in this one instance at least, to dispose in a single action of one of the most difficult and distressing problems with which UNHCR has had to deal in recent years. The Tripartite Commissions, in which, as you know, I was invited to take part by the negotiators at Evian, are now at work, and a first group of refugees has already been brought from Morocco. All our efforts, combined with those of the League, which is working by our side, are of assistance to the Governments concerned and to the local authorities in carrying out their task of enabling these refugees to be returned to their homes in as orderly a way and as speedily as possible. I firmly hope that with the co-operation of all and the goodwill of the international community these operations can be successfully completed within the time-limits prescribed.