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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Chairman of the Nansen Committee, on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1985 to His Eminence Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, Archbishop of São Paulo

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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Chairman of the Nansen Committee, on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1985 to His Eminence Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, Archbishop of São Paulo

7 October 1985
Nansen Medal Award Ceremony 1985

Mr. President,

It is a particular honour for me, on behalf of the Nansen Committee, to welcome in our midst His Eminence, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo ARNS, Archbishop of São Paulo, who has kindly agreed to come to Geneva to receive the Nansen Medal.

It strikes me as a significant coincidence that a man who, through his spirit and action, has made such a far-reaching impact on the defense of the rights of men should be honoured this year, in this very month of October, when the United Nations is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

As some of us may remember, it is also four decades, almost to the day, since the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations, of which Brazil was a member, agreed on action in the field of human rights and on the extreme urgency of the refugee problem. Subsequent deliberations led the first General Assembly to proclaim that the refugee problem was "international in scope and nature" - a concept which was to be maintained until this date.

Few would have believed in those days that the then prevailing problems of refugees and displaced persons - first regarded as a temporary phenomenon - would extend to so many countries in the course of years and that they would become a lasting responsibility of the international community. Alas, this is now a reality, with all its consequences.

The number of people uprooted through man-made disasters has swollen from hundreds of thousands to millions. The geographical scope of the problem has kept pace with the increasing number of states; consequently, more diversified forms of aid and protection must continually be devised. When new refugee situations arise, it is vitally important that the concept of asylum be steadfastly upheld and the work of protection fully understood. Adjustments in the legal system in force may be required. But what is wanted first and foremost is compassion and understanding for human suffering, combined with personal example and the ability, through inspiration and conviction, to persuade the powers that be and convey the plight of fellow human beings to the world at large. This then, has been achieved by Cardinal Arns in his years of staunch belief in mankind, hard work and relentless perseverance.

Well before the Second World War, his native country, Brazil, like other traditional immigration countries, accepted large numbers of refugees, mainly from Europe. They were treated as other immigrants and considered as prospective citizens.

A founding member of the United Nations, a member of the pre-war intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, of the IRO Council, of ICEM and of all UN Committees involved in refugee problems, also a party to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, Brazil continued to admit refugee-migrants. It appointed some of its most distinguished jurists to the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States and became a party to the Caracas Convention of 1954 on the right of asylum. Later, under more difficult circumstances, the principle of asylum was maintained in keeping with the very positive attitude of the population, the Church and numerous legal societies. Following an ancient tradition, diplomatic asylum could also be granted irrespective of origin or nationality. In recent years, refugees from South East Asia, rescued at sea by Brazilian ships, were also admitted to the country.

As from the sixties, Brazil, like other countries in the region, was confronted with a growing influx of asylum seekers from neighbouring countries, who by force of circumstances often had no alternative but to cross borders without the necessary papers. The problems arising form these new refugee situations were compounded by those resulting from other social upheavals inherent in industrial development and in the crowded conditions in huge urban centres such as São Paulo - São Paulo, where the young Bishop "Dom Paulo", as he was called in his local community, took up his functions in 1966 and where he carried out his pastoral work among the poor, the workers and those detained in penitentiaries.

The stage was thus set for innovative action by a man who was fully committed to the ideals of peace and justice and determined to combat the exploitation and oppression of those who might be called "the underdogs". Franciscan since boyhood, scholar, writer, and above all a humanist, Cardinal Arns had a deep understanding for the plight of refugees and became fully conversant with their complex problems. While in São Paulo he gave unabated support to UNHCR in its task of protection, which was calculated to legalise the position of those who had fled persecution from other countries in the Southern Cone. The Cardinal left no stone unturned to obtain the release of those still under detention and when there was an emergency he would himself take those in quest of refuge to a safe haven, in a church or a convent.

Another major concern of Cardinal Arns was the fate of the "desaparecidos", these persons who, having been arrested on so-called grounds of state security. subsequently disappeared and were never heard of again. He specially created an Ecumenic Commission for the Southern Cone, known as "CLAMOR", to deal with this dramatic question, as well as the problems of refugees and the illicit traffic of children. In keeping with the humanitarian approach of the Church, the Episcopal Conference also took a firm stand on these problems and made its influence felt among its constituencies.

In honouring Cardinal Arns, the Nansen Committee also wished to pay tribute to the other dignitaries of the Church in Brazil, each one of whom plays his part in seeking to alleviate the plight of refugees. Recognition is also due to the voluntary agencies, which often in their capacity as operational partners of UNHCR performed vital tasks in the field and last, but not least, to the Legal Institutes which further the protection of refugees.

All the way through, the Cardinal sensed the need for concrete legal measures to achieve lasting improvements in the position of new refugees in the area. As early as 1972, he set up the São Paulo Commission of Justice and Peace and similar Commissions in other countries of Latin America, which became instrumental, together with the Church of Our Lady of Peace, in promoting the defence of victims of oppression.

The results achieved have been most rewarding. In Brazil, refugees admitted on a provisional basis are able to legalize their status. In conjunction with the Law Society of São Paulo, the Commission on Justice and Peace promoted the adoption of amnesty legislation in Bolivia and Uruguay. This has facilitated the return of thousands of refugees to their former homes, as has also happened in Argentina. In Central America, where a large number of people have been uprooted in social and political upheavals, great uncertainty remains, however, as to their future. It is my hope that in that area too a general relaxation of tensions will, in due course, permit voluntary repatriation.

It should also be a source of satisfaction for all of us that the Brazilian Government has announced its intention to accede to several United Nations Covenants in the humanitarian and social field and that it has just adhered to the United Nations Convention against torture - a subject on which Cardinal Arns has recently published an impressive bookwork.

Throughout these last two decades, Cardinal Arns not only pursued direct action in the field and promoted the protection of the great masses of underprivileged; he was also, as is evidenced by his writings and public statements, always firmly determined to strike at the root cause of their problems. He attributed them to the flouting of fundamental human rights and to the lack of respect for man's most precious attribute, "human dignity". In a recent compilation of views on the observance of human rights, I found this striking statement by a well-known international expert on the In addressing the root causes of the problems of refugees - a very basic question which does not lie within UNHCR's competence but in which we have a very legitimate interest - you, Cardinal Arns, are rendering an immense service to the cause of refugees and to the community of nations; also in your capacity as Chairman for Latin America of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues. Your Eminence will, I trust, have many further opportunities to contribute towards the solution, and perhaps also the prevention, of humanitarian problems like those of refugees, and to continue to put into practice this motto of Fridtjof Nansen, which is engraved on the Medal and reads: "LOVE OF MAN IS A PRACTICAL POLICY".

On behalf of all of us, I should like to express our deep-felt gratitude to you for all that you have done to support our work and to wish you well-deserved success in the accomplishment of your further tasks. Let me, before concluding, quote the title of another remarkable book by Cardinal Arns: "DE ESPERANCA EM ESPERANCA NA SOCIEDADE, HOJE" meaning "From hope to hope in today's world", a hope which I should like to share with hundreds of thousands of refugees who are striving for a better future.

I will now read out the Nansen Medal Certificate:


CONSIDERING the primary importance of the international protection refugees:

AWARE that thousands of refugees have found a haven in Latin America where the granting of asylum is an ancient tradition;

STRUCK by the dramatic situation which refugees and other victims of persecution have been facing in recent years in certain countries in Latin America and of the severe difficulties still confronting them in some countries in the area;

RECOGNIZING the outstanding contribution made by Cardinal Arns to the protection of refugees and of other underprivileged groups in his Archdiocese, São Paulo, in his native Brazil, and elsewhere in the region;

WISHING to highlight the exceptional role Cardinal Arns is playing in creating awareness of the plight of refugees and of the root causes to their problems;

DESIRING TO PAY A HIGHLY DESERVED TRIBUTE to Cardinal Arns for his firm and determined stand on the defence of Human Rights and of the rights of refugees,