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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 107th Inter-Parliamentary Conference, Marrakech, Morocco, 17 March 2002

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 107th Inter-Parliamentary Conference, Marrakech, Morocco, 17 March 2002

17 March 2002

(Check against delivery)

Let me begin with the following message from the Secretary-General:

It gives me great pleasure to send my greetings to this Inter-Parliamentary Conference. His Majesty Mohammed VI and the people of Morocco merit gratitude for generously hosting this important event.

You meet on the eve of the Monterrey conference, which aims to mobilize the resources so desperately needed for development. You gather as we seek to build on the decisions taken by the World Trade Organization last year at Doha, so that men and women in the developing world can compete on fair terms in the global market. And you come together as we look ahead to the Johannesburg Summit to restore momentum to the global quest for sustainable development. Parliamentarians are well placed to advance this entire agenda, and I hope you will do so - for example by committing funds, promoting investment, opening markets, removing unfair subsidies, and putting in place the policies and incentives that will encourage actions that are truly sustainable - economically, socially and environmentally. In our collective efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, your unique powers - including the power of the purse - can make a real difference.

Parliamentarians also have a role to play in the struggle against terrorism. Security Council resolution 1373, adopted shortly after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, is aimed at terrorists and those who harbour, aid or support them, and calls on Member states to co-operate in suppressing the financing of terrorism, in criminal investigations and in exchanging information on possible terrorist acts. Parliamentarians will be responsible for enacting the legislation to give force to this resolution on the national level. Moreover, many Member States will require both technical expertise to implement this resolution and help in implementing the 12 conventions and protocols on international terrorism that have already been drafted and adopted under United Nations auspices. I encourage those of you in a position to provide such assistance to do so promptly and generously.

On these and other issues of common concern, I am committed to strengthening the parliamentary dimension in the work of the United Nations. The cooperation agreement between our two organizations signed in 1996 has enabled us to make good progress. As you know, in an effort to go further than this I recommended that the General Assembly grant the IPU observer status. The majority of Member States share my views on this question and I hope that when the Assembly considers the matter, it will codify our relationship and usher in a new era in our already long-standing cooperation.

In that spirit of partnership, please accept my best wishes for a successful conference.

* * *

Allow me now to add a few words of my own, in my capacity as High Commissioner for Refugees.

Responsibility for protecting and helping refugees does not lie only with the States hosting them. It is a collective responsibility. States on the front line need the full support of the community of nations to help them fulfil their obligations, especially the obligation of non-refoulement, which protects refugees from being driven back into the arms of their persecutors.

Last year we marked the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, and the year before that we commemorated the 50th anniversary of UNHCR. These two occasions provided UNHCR with an important opportunity to reflect on its work and on the continuing challenges of protecting refugees and finding solutions to their plight.

At the end of 2000, my Office launched the Global Consultations on International Protection, to reflect on how to revitalize the international framework for refugee protection set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and to assist States to address humanitarian challenges through cooperation and burden sharing. This unique consultative process has brought together representatives of States from all regions of the world, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, academics and refugees themselves. The Global Consultations process will generate an Agenda for Protection for the years to come.

As part of this process, on 12-13 December last year, a Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the Convention and Protocol took place in Geneva. It was the first such gathering of States Parties in five decades. Attended by 162 States, including 76 represented at Ministerial level, the gathering adopted a landmark Declaration of States Parties which breaks new ground in a number of areas. The Declaration specifically emphasizes the need to ensure respect for the rights and freedoms of refugees, international co-operation to resolve their plight, and action to address the causes of refugee movements and to prevent them from becoming a source of tension between States. I am convinced that in your capacity as Parliamentarians, you can contribute to the fulfilment of many of the provisions of this Declaration.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union has a long history of concern for the fate of refugees. Its resolutions have persistently urged States to accede to and implement the refugee instruments. In addition, it has never ceased to encourage all Parliaments to contribute to the consolidation of the international refugee protection regime through strengthened and more effective implementation of the Convention. I would like to pay tribute to the constant support provided by Dr. Najma Heptulla, Chairperson of the Inter-Parliamentary Council.

The latest example of close IPU/UNHCR co-operation on refugee matters is the Handbook on International Refugee Law that we are jointly launching here today. This Handbook is the outcome of co-operation between the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UNHCR. It was developed by two experts from my Office, with close input from three parliamentarians whom I would like to thank personally today: Ms. Beth Mugo of Kenya, Mr. Jim McKiernan of Australia, and Mr. Ricardo Vázquez of Argentina. It aims to help you, as Parliamentarians, to become familiar with the principles of international refugee law and its implementation, so that you can fully discharge your responsibilities.

As lawmakers, I hope that you will encourage accession to the Refugee Convention and other instruments of refugee protection. I hope that you will also strive to ensure the adoption of appropriate national legislation for the protection of refugees, and that you will ensure its effective implementation.

The recent reports of sexual exploitation of refugee children in West Africa provide but one example of the vulnerability of refugee populations and the need to put in place specific measures to protect them. Like all of you, I was shocked to learn that humanitarian workers may have been involved in the sexual exploitation of the very people they are there to help. The scale of involvement of individual humanitarian workers is not yet clear, and the list of allegations may be exaggerated, but even one case would be one too many. There is absolutely no place in the humanitarian world for those who would prey on the most innocent and vulnerable of the world's refugees - the children. There must be zero tolerance. We are currently implementing a plan of action to enhance the protection of refugee children in West Africa, and we are also in the process of carrying out a thorough investigation to verify the allegations. Where the investigation leads to proof against individuals, swift disciplinary action will be taken.

Another major concern to me is the unacceptably low level of funding which is made available by governments for humanitarian programmes. Far too many refugees live in appalling conditions in camps, where humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR are unable to provide them with adequate assistance because of insufficient funding. We need to do better.

Protection of refugees begins with respect. Asylum-seekers have become something of a campaign issue in elections recently, with governments and opposition parties vying with each other to appear toughest on what they perceive as "bogus asylum-seekers" and "potential terrorists" entering their countries. I would urge you to take the lead in promoting respect and tolerance for refugees and in encouraging local populations to see refugees not only as people needing and deserving international protection, but also as people who have a real and enduring contribution to make to the betterment and diversification of our communities. You have a major role to play in ensuring that national debates take proper account of the many positive experiences that countries have had in the past in welcoming and integrating refugees into their societies.

Let me end with a few words about UN Security Council Resolution 1373, which calls on States to work together to prevent and suppress terrorist acts. In this resolution, there is a call for States to prevent terrorists from gaining admission to countries by illegally abusing the asylum system. This is entirely consistent with the 1951 Refugee Convention, which specifically excludes persons who have committed serious crimes.

The perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of terrorist crimes, who might seek to abuse the asylum channel, must be promptly identified and dealt with. At the same time, let me add words of caution. In taking new counter-terrorism measures, we must ensure that governments avoid making unwarranted linkages between refugees and terrorism. Genuine refugees are themselves the victims of persecution and terrorism, not its perpetrators. This resolution should not be used, therefore, to deprive innocent people of their basic rights.

In the current climate, there is a risk that refugees and asylum seekers may become convenient scapegoats and may be unfairly victimized. We must not allow this to happen. I count on the support of Parliamentarians across the world in fighting xenophobia and intolerance in our societies, and in ensuring that refugees and asylum seekers receive the protection and assistance that they deserve.

Thank you.