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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 13 November 1978

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 13 November 1978

13 November 1978

Madam Chairman,

This is the first time that I report to this Committee on the work of UNHCR. It. is an opportunity that I greatly welcome.

As you know, though, I am no stranger to the General Assembly, having spoken for my country in earlier sessions.

There is both a difference, and a certain complementarity in speaking for a Member State, as did earlier, and in speaking, as I do now, for those whom my distinguished predecessor described as the "nation of the nationless" the vast and growing number of refugees and displaced persons in this world.

While it is ultimately in the power of Governments, not of my Office, to create the fundamental conditions in which existing problems are resolved, and new problems avoided, it is UNHCR's responsibility to advocate and implement policies that, being strictly humanitarian and non-political in character, meet with governmental understanding and support. It is also our responsibility to ensure that international protection is accorded to every refugee who needs our help.

The existence of my Office, however, cannot serve as a substitute for the will and determination of Governments to achieve durable and expeditious solutions. I emphasize this, because this is more often forgotten than we might suspect. Indeed, the choice of durable solutions is not, in the final analysis, dependent on UNHCR alone, or on the individual refugee, but on the decisions of Governments.

This is why, appearing before this Committee for the first time, I must start by thanking you for the consensus attending UNHCR's efforts these past years. Then, I must urge you to maintain the consensus. Further, I must request you, as the Representatives of individual Governments to translate the will of the international community into practical decisions that can indeed, help to resolve the suffering of refugees and displaced persons.

It is evident to me, after ten months in office that have included visits to twenty-five countries in four continents, that the refugee problem is universal in character. It must be viewed with equal gravity and concern wherever it occurs. We must not be selective in considering the suffering of some, more deserving of sympathy than the suffering of others. To err in this, would mean a descent into a cynicism unworthy of the humanitarian purpose of this Office. It is equally evident to me, therefore, hat our solution must be based on the widest possible understanding and support. We are the United Nations because our concerns, by definition, stem from our shared humanity, our shared predicament and hopes.

This is why UNHCR's work must always transcend the narrowly political and, instead, be guided by internationally accepted humanitarian principles and considerations. To say that we are non-political, is not in the least to say that we are politically insensitive. I am well aware that we must balance, national and regional perceptions and concerns with ideals and actions that are universally valid.

This is the essential challenge of multilateral endeavour. But we must always meet the challenge in ways that enhance human dignity, not diminish it.

Because human dignity has been so grotesquely injured in southern Africa, and because the number of refugees from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe has so seriously grown in consequence, I travelled first to that region on assuming office. I wanted the Governments and peoples of Africa to know that they could count on my support in their present difficulties and that I looked forward, as do they, to the early transformation the entire region into one of justice and harmony. That alone will cure the refugee problem.

In saying this, I cannot adequately express my sense of personal grief and revulsion at the armed assaults across the borders of Mozambique, Zambia and Angola, as a result of which refugees have died. Earlier this year, when I Visited and was welcome at various refugee sites in southern Africa, I Was deeply moved to see and hear thousands of young children singing with hope of the future, despite their present adversity. Some their voices have now been stilled, but not their aspiration.

We shall continue to help the refugees in this region to the utmost of our capacity through our many assistance projects. To this end, we have also been closely associated with successive missions of the United Nations to Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and, Zambia, that have beet I undertaken in response to resolutions of the Security Council, the General Assembly and ECOSOC. Additionally, I continue to co-ordinate multilateral assistance to South African student refugees. I should like to express my deep thanks for the support of the Organization of African Unity, and for the generosity of African Governments that have offered places their educational institutions for the refugees. I should also like to express my gratitude to the many Governments that have, contributed financially to our work in this region. Our efforts have, as in the past, been closely co-ordinated with the United Nations Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa and with others working in the area.

It goes without saying, Madam Chairman, that UNHCR has followed with the greatest attention developments relating to Namibia. Security Council resolution 431 envisaged a particular role for UNHCR in the return home of Namibians. Accordingly, we participated in the mission to Namibia led by Mr. Ahtisaari, the. Special Representative of the Secretary-General, in August this year. UNHCR remains ready to discharge its responsibility as the situation evolves.

The humanitarian efforts of UNHCR have also, I believe, been of real help in alleviating, the suffering of the many refugees and displaced sons in the Horn of Africa. In. consultation with the Secretary-General, I launched an appeal in April this year to assist those who seriously affected by the conflict in the region. I am grateful to ECOSOC for having adopted its resolution E/1978/39, requesting all States to respond generously to the programme I am co-ordinating. Funds have been received and assistance is being provided. I am glad that our efforts being conducted with the full understanding of all the Governments concerned, span the entire region. This is as it should be.

Of course, Madam Chairman, there can be no solution to the refugee problem more desirable than voluntary repatriation if this is conducted freely, and in the right spirit and manner. The Governments of Angola and Zaire have recently approached me to assist with the return of vast numbers of refugees between their two countries. We welcome this development, which could have the most positive consequences for the future. We have naturally assure the two Governments of our support and co operation, and we shall seek the resources appropriate to the purpose. I would appeal to Governments to contribute towards this endeavour, for indeed it can help to resolve, in a most satisfactory way, a problem that has persisted too long.

In the same vein, we greatly welcome the talks between the Governments of Bangladesh and Burma that have resulted in the start of voluntary repatriation to Burma. At the request of both Governments, we are seeking to facilitate this process. In the meantime, there is obviously need for us to continue to co-ordinate the provision of humanitarian assistance to the refugees.

Madam Chairman, in September I visited Thailand, Laos, Viet Nam and Malaysia, a region of infinitely complex and inter-related problems where we have major programmes of assistance. Each of the Government at the highest level, expressed appreciation and understand in of our role, the initiatives we have taken and must take. Each stated that UNHCR's efforts contribute towards peace, stability and understanding in the region and each wishes us to continue to assist, in every possible way, to ease the humanitarian problems that are being faced. We shall do so, in the spirit of trust that they conveyed to us, and in a manner fully in consonance with the non-political character of the Office.

When assisting in South East Asia, it appears essential to me that we should take an over-all view of the region as a whole, not only of its individual parts. We must seek to help refugees and displaced person wherever they are, in all parts of the region, not merely selectively. If we do not do so, there will be additional reason for problems to spill across frontiers. As the situation in the region is developing day by day, it is imperative that we stay abreast of its demands. Whether we think of the continuing, And, most tragic odyssey of the "boat people", or of the many who have crossed land frontiers in various direction, it is essential that we continually align and co-ordinate international humanitarian efforts if we are to be of real help. I believe that the need of the situation require a continuing process of consultation between UNHCR and all interested Governments. To this and, and in accordance with the wishes of my Executive Committee, I intend to call further such consultations, in Geneva, before the end of this year.

It would be my hope that these consultations would result in countries pooling their efforts, and in devising, n detailed and practical measures to help resolve the problem, by giving appropriate assistance to programmes in countries of the region and by intensifying action to promote swifter resettlement of the refugees and displaced persons in a wider range of countries. I feel it is necessary to stress this, as it is evident that the pace of resettlement has an influence on the capacity of countries in the region to receive new arrivals and on the development of local possibilities for self-sufficiency I am most grateful in this connexion that, during my discussions in Thailand, it was agreed to elaborate a pilot-project for a self-sufficiency programme to benefit both the displaced persons and the Thai rural people are ready to do all that we can to assist.

I cannot but seek your understanding on the grave humanitarian challenge that we face in regard to the "boat people", who still search for permission to disembark on various shores and whose signals of distress are still, too often, ignored by ships at sea. It was on their behalf that: last year, UNHCR and the Inter-Government Maritime Consultative Organization appealed to ship-masters to observe the traditional rules of rescue at sea. Many have responded) but not all. I would request Governments to instruct ships flying their flags to observe e humane traditions of the maritime community and all coastal States to provide disembarkation permission to those coming to their shores, or otherwise in jeopardy. I would also hope that Governments will apply accelerated procedures for the examination of requests for the resettlement of those who are rescued at sea by ships flying flags other than their own. We must not be party to the acceptance of tragedy, nor set such conditions as compound human misery. To do so, would be to demean humanity.

In the past year, Madam Chairman, we have made steady progress in resolving the refugee problem in Argentina, Peru and certain other American count. Despite every effort to find resettlement opportunities within the region, however, resettlement elsewhere remains an urgent need for some 3,000 refugees and their relatives, the legal and social situation of whom demands this as the only viable solution. I would concerted and conclusive effort, particularly in regard to those who cannot stay in Argentina, and would seek your understanding to that end.

Such is the unpredictability of our work, however, that recently we have been requested to assist with now refugee influxes in Central America. We have assured the Governments seeking our help that it will be available. Allocations have been made, in consultation with the Governments concerned, and with others assisting this area.

Madam Chairman, in these opening comments, I have sketched no more than a profile of our principal assistance programmes. I have already seen, in my visits to many areas where we work, that UNHCR is widely respected for its record of integrity and effectiveness. For this, I am truly grateful to Governments end to my distinguished predecessors. It is also clear to me that thrust of this Office to promote permanent solution, swiftly and humanely contributes to peace and the easing of tensions between nations and peoples, no less than it serves to save lives and preserve human dignity. It therefore becomes all the more important that the Office itself, never becomes hostage, anywhere in the world, to situations where it seeks to be of help but where reasoned political agreements between the parties involved can alone resolve existing problems.

In Cyprus, after four years of valuable work, we maintain our presence there at the request of the parties concerns We are deeply affected by the vast problems confronting: the displaced persons in Lebanon, My Executive Committee recently urged me to continue our humanitarian efforts on their behalf and called upon Governments to contribute urgent through UNHCR or bilaterally. As hither to, we shall naturally work in the closest co-ordination with the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Beirut. Our involvement with the Sahrawis remains entirely humanitarian and non-political. In keeping with the wishes of my Executive Committee, as recently summed up by its Chairman, I shall continue my efforts to co-ordinate assistance and promote durable solutions including voluntary repatriation, But the decisions that will fundamentally determine the future must obviously be made by those directly concerned.

Madam Chairman, since assuming my post, it has become evident to me that it is the protection function that gives UNHCR its real personality, its imperative to speak and to act in de fence of those who are, too often, silent or defenceless. Our assistance programmes benefit vast numbers of refugees, in many troubled areas of the globe. But Office must never be hypnotized by numbers alone, for it is the fate of the individual refugee that serves as the measure of our achievement or failure. We cannot acquiesce in violations of international ms of humanitarian conduct, nor be silent when indifference or political expendiency hurt our principles and those, whom we are, In duty and conscience, bound to serve. I am well aware of the delicacy of this function, but between the sensitivities of States, and the very life of a refugee, there can be only one choice for UNHCR. This, I am sure, is as this Committee would for you are the au the ors of our Statute, and the principal instruments that guide our work, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugee and the 1967 Protocol on this subject.

In this, the year when we observe the thirtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has inspired so much of international humanitarian law in recent years, I would like to express my deep gratitude to those States that, have opened their doors to refugees and would urge all States to save refugees from the terror of refoulement the denial of asylum, from prolonged and arbitrary incarceration. Too often, such practices serve as ready substitutes for humane values and policies.

Nor is the Acceptance of such values, in principle, enough. I would appeal to the 77 States now party to the Convention and Protocol to match implementation with their obligations, by making appropriate changes in their municipal law and practice as required. I would also urge States, particularly those confronted with major refugee problems, to consider accession to our instruments. Building the edifice of international humanitarian law is a slow process. But it is one in which we must all persevere. It is an effort in which, above all, the work of this Committee over the years has provided the blueprint and the muscle.

Because we recognize the great value of disseminating the principles of refugee law, we are working closely with governmental intergovernmental and other organizations interested in humanitarian question. There are many who think deeply on these matters, from whom our efforts can gamin. I am particularly happy that we are co-operating closely with the various regional organizations. We intend to support, in every possible way, the Pan African Conference the Situation of Refugees in Africa, due to be held in Arusha in. the United Republic of Tanzania, in May 1979. Further, my Office has recently prepared a Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status. We hope that it will contribute to clarifying the issues involved in this, help to harmonize the practice of States.

As the Committee will recall a decision is still required on the question of convening, at an appropriate time, a further session of the Conference of Plenipotentiaries to consider a draft Convention on Territorial Asylum. In the course of this year, we continued our consultations with Governments on this matter, but it is clear that in order for there to be careful and detailed preparation, more time is required. I will, therefore, have to inform the Secretary-General and this Committee further on the progress of consultations.

Madam Chairman, the refugees and displaced persons of this world do not live by law, or by bread alone. It is essential that our efforts provide both. It certainly would help these efforts if we could start each year with a sense of greater security on the financial front. Each year, the resources at the disposal of UNHCR on 1 January, constitute only a small fraction of the total requirements of the year. On the one hand, Governments have not had, sufficiently in advance, adequate and timely information on UNHCR's needs in the forthcoming year. On the other hand, UNHCR, faced with a serious shortage of funds, has often had to recourse to special appeals, embarrassing alike to us and to Governments wishing, but sometimes unable for fiscal reasons, to contribute.

With a view to overcoming this predicament, I presented to my Executive Committee last month, a planning figure averaging It 120 million per year, for the next three years, as the likely level of our over-all needs, both for our "General" and "Special" Programmes. I am glad that this manner of proceeding was welcomed by my Executive Committee and I hope it will help Governments in making adequate budgetary provision for our work. I must underline, however, that the yardstick I ventured can only be based on existing refugee groups, possible new influxes in known areas, and a minimal margin for totally new situations. It. is the latter that are beyond our prediction or calculation, for in our work uncertainty is the rule, and special appeals might therefore still be required on occasion. Given the urgency of our work and the impossibility of denying or postponing assistance to those who have little or nothing, I would urge your generosity our Pledging Conference on 17 November, and thereafter. The problems confronting us, being universal, I would earnestly hope that widest range of Government will contribute to our activities. I am most keen that the work of UNHCR meet with universal understanding.

In this same vein, I welcome the development in COSOC this summer when, through its resolution E/1978/36 recommended to the General Assembly that the membership of my Executive Committee be increased by up to nine additional members be elected from those States with a "demonstrated interest in, and devotion to, the solution of the refugee problem". Subject to the General Assembly acting on this recommendation, the election would be due at the first regular session of ECOSOC in 1979.

In concluding, Madam Chairman, I should like to say that my first ten months in office have been profoundly challenging. The work of UNHCR is real, It has real consequence for those we must help. It also has meaning for all of us who must further the purposes of the Charter. Our joint efforts, based on a recognition of the dignity and worth of the human person, bind us together in a unique humanitarian commitment We speak, and rightly, of the interdependence of nations. The work of UNHCR requires this. It also requires an acceptance of our inter dependence as individual human beings.