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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 53rd Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 1 April 1997

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 53rd Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 1 April 1997

1 April 1997

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted again to address the Commission on Human Rights, an opportunity I have enjoyed since I was first elected as High Commissioner for Refugees in 1991. Before going further, I wish to extend my congratulations to you, Mr. Chairman, and to the Bureau on your election.

I also want to take this chance to pay tribute to Mr. Jose Ayala-Lasso, the first High Commissioner for Human Rights, who recently departed that post to take up important challenges as a member of the government of his country. Under his tenure, the establishment of human rights field operations in a number of locations, such as Rwanda, has been a welcome and much-needed step. Concrete efforts of restoring human rights institutions and justice systems, and our complementary work in monitoring the treatment of returning refugees dovetail with finding comprehensive solutions to refugee problems. We all hope to see these initiatives continue as an effective and growing area of support to countries striving to promote respect for human rights. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the succeeding High Commissioner.

Because human rights field activities are so important for supporting the solution of refugee problems, I spoke here last year at some length about their linkages with our work. I described the efforts of my Office to enhance and support return, normalization after conflict and reconciliation. Events of the past year have confirmed that we must continue to work together to uphold respect for human rights and tackle the root causes of displacement. I pledge to continue the activities of my Office toward that goal.

This year, however, I would like to revert to the basic principles upon which my Office is founded, and to focus on the institution of asylum and the refugee protection regime. And particularly before this Commission, I would like to place these standards in their true context, i.e. the global human rights regime, which is your domain. The humanitarian and operational dimensions of ensuring asylum are of course debated in UNHCR's own Executive Committee which guides my work. But by drawing attention to the subject here today, I wish to emphasize how the system of refugee protection fits into, supports and is indeed an indispensable part of the global human rights regime. Any weakening of the institution of asylum is a weakening of the world's evolving system of human rights protection, and is therefore a matter of concern for this Commission.

While I am extremely grateful to governments across the globe for offering sanctuary to millions of victims of persecution and conflict, I wish to underscore the growing threat to asylum in this august forum today. When I speak of asylum and refugee protection, I speak inclusively. That is, the refugee protection regime includes all three phases in the refugee paradigm: flight, asylum, and durable solutions, whether the preferable and most durable solution be return, as it is in the vast majority of cases, integration in the country of asylum, or resettlement elsewhere.

Why do I perceive this threat to asylum? The indicators, unfortunately, are all around us. Access to territory is becoming more and more difficult, as we continue to see outright denial of access, through rejections at the border, and the erection of more subtle barriers, such as legislative restrictions. Safety during asylum is also seriously threatened, through deadly attacks on refugee camps; violence, sexual and otherwise, against refugee women and children; forced recruitment of refugees, even sometimes of children; abusive detention and intimidation against return. And finally, we cannot ignore the fact that the voluntary nature of repatriation is increasingly being undermined by a mounting number of forcible returns in situations which are far from safe.

But to understand the dangers which jeopardize asylum we need to do more than to merely name the hazards it faces. We must analyse why these threats exist in the present climate. Even as I ask you all for a renewed commitment to the institution of asylum, I acknowledge the often serious problems faced in receiving refugees.

First and foremost, the sheer numbers have been staggering. In the last half of the twentieth century the number of refugees mushroomed from a mere 1.5 million in 1951, when my Office was established, to the total of 13.2 million in 1996. Rapid mass exoduses in recent years from countries such as Afghanistan, Mozambique, Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq, Liberia and Rwanda have taken on large proportions. Asylum states understandably fear the economic, environmental and even security problems caused by such movements, which also by virtue of the speed with which they occur are often difficult to control. The refugee burden continues to be unevenly divided, and international burden-sharing is insufficient. The problem is compounded by an equally large increase in the number of internally displaced persons. Currently my Office is responsible for 26 million refugees, IDPs and returnees.

Second, we all know the problems posed by mixed movements of genuine asylum-seekers and of people escaping from economic hardship. In other situations, such as Zaire, refugees have been mixed with armed elements and people who committed crimes against humanity. These people are exploiting the asylum system for political purposes, causing risks for national stability and international security. The recent exodus from Albania shows yet another combination: people seeking protection from violence, people fleeing from poverty and even a small number of people escaping from prisons. All these mixed patterns pose enormous challenges for receiving states, which are under increasing pressure from domestic public opinion.

Faced with these problems, my Office has tried over the past few years to help develop innovative and new opportunities for solutions to refugee problems and their prevention. The international community, too, through the United Nations and regional organizations, thankfully has shown increased willingness to back humanitarian operations in countries of origin to protect and assist populations in need, such as internally displaced persons. Attempts to tackle the root causes of refugee flows are indispensable if we are to truly solve refugee crises. But despite these efforts, which are on-going and must continue, displacement and suffering also continue, and must be dealt with. As long as people cannot have their basic human rights protected in their own country, as long as their "right to remain" cannot be guaranteed, asylum remains the most effective means for protection, and therefore its door must be opened.

Having identified the threats to asylum and some of the reasons for them, let me therefore now turn to the advantages of preserving the long and honoured tradition of asylum. Most fundamentally, during conflict or at the height of persecution, asylum is frequently the only way for lives to be saved and safety ensured in the short term. In the longer term, asylum provides the indispensable "breathing space" to begin the search for solutions to the conflict and to build viable and comprehensive approaches to reconciliation, reintegration and rebuilding of institutions guaranteeing observance of human rights.

Asylum deserves to be preserved because, in short, despite all the difficulties encountered, it works. Asylum has a proven track record. Part of the reason is because it is an inherently fair and balanced system.

Asylum is balanced because it effectively links protection of human rights to solutions to refugee problems. The asylum regime, as codified in the 1951 Convention, its 1967 Protocol, the 1969 OAU Convention, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration and other instruments, is undeniably solution-oriented. The same applies to the Statute of my Office. By their very terms these instruments envisage that a durable solution will be found for refugees by talking about cessation of refugee status, voluntary repatriation and even naturalization of refugees.

Another "balancing" benefit of asylum is that it provides not only a sound legal basis for the recognition of refugees and the protection of their rights, but also for exclusion of those who do not need or deserve international protection. The refugee instruments make clear that those who have committed abhorrent crimes do not deserve international support and protection. This gives states and UNHCR the responsibility to assess asylum seekers from both perspectives. My Office has taken the step, announced last fall, of excluding from refugee status those Rwandans who have been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This is in my view an aspect of the system which, while it must be carefully applied, should receive much greater attention, although the identification for and implementation of exclusion is often very difficult.

The refugee protection regime is also balanced in that it provides crucial roles to be played by all actors in the process. The country of asylum has the obligation to provide international protection to refugees. The country of origin has the obligation to welcome back returning refugees and ensure the protection of their rights, as it must do for all its citizens. The international community is required to support these efforts and share the burden, both financial and moral, of caring for refugees. And refugees themselves have a role to play in obeying the laws of their country of asylum and in contributing to the eventual solution to their situation.

Asylum adjusts to the times. The 1951 Convention has proven itself, over the forty-five years since it came into existence, to be a flexible instrument which has been successfully adapted to provide protection in a variety of circumstances, including large-scale influxes of asylum-seekers. Ever more restrictive interpretations of the Convention in some respects have not prevented it from being applied to new protection needs. For example, gender is nowhere mentioned in the 1951 Convention, yet countries have found innovative, practical and justifiable means to protect women whose claims are of the same nature as those explicitly covered by the terms of the criteria. And this development has not, as was feared by some, resulted in a flood of claims or recognitions which are not warranted.

This example shows how the dynamic nature of asylum allows for pragmatic, creative and realistic approaches in fashioning responses to refugee problems. There is another lesson to be drawn from this. As we are all well aware, refugee problems are undeniably political problems and require political action to contribute to their solution. But they are not only or solely political problems. They have fundamentally humanitarian and human rights dimensions, and these dimensions can be useful in their resolution. The regime is flexible, but it should not be used so flexibly that it loses its substance and is no longer recognizable as a human rights based legal framework. The fundamental principles upon which the regime is based must continue to be respected. Only then will the grant of asylum and the vital work toward solutions be objectively defensible in the often sensitive political arena, both in inter-state relations and before critical domestic audiences.

Asylum also offers the opportunity for human rights education. Refugees take home the lessons they learn during their asylum. Recent initiatives by my Office include projects to develop the teaching of human rights, education for peace and conflict resolution in refugee camps and settlements. We will work with refugee children, youth and adults to raise awareness of human rights norms and to improve both the skills and attitudes of refugees to live together in a pluralistic environment respectful of the rights of all.

This brings me back to the issue I stressed at the beginning, that some of the most important aspects of our work in protecting refugees come in preparing the ground for repatriation, in consolidating the situation in countries of origin after return, and in supporting lasting returnee reintegration. Repatriation and reintegration are indispensable for reconciliation, and reconciliation is indispensable for viable peace. This work is part and parcel of the asylum regime itself. All of this helps to demonstrate the place of asylum and refugee protection in the full human rights paradigm.

In addition to upholding asylum, and indeed to prevent its further decline, I believe that much greater emphasis must be placed on the right to remain and to return, the two "ends" of which asylum forms the middle. During the conflict in former Yugoslavia I propagated the "right to remain" or not to be displaced as a simple conceptual response to the ethnic cleansers of this world. It is by no means a clearly delineated right, but I firmly believe that we must develop the law in that direction to help in averting forced displacement.

As to the "right to return", new ways must be found to effectively implement it in the face of political obstructions. The Dayton Peace Agreement has many exemplary aspects in relation to respect of human rights. In reality, however, with respect to return, it simply is not being adequately implemented. Whereas 250,000 people have returned to areas where their group is in the majority - and far more refugees are expected to follow them in the coming months, only very few refugees and internally displaced persons have been able to return to their homes in areas where they would now be in a minority. They are blocked by unacceptable political obstruction, by distrust and by house occupation and destruction. Together with its partners, my Office is committed to tangible progress on return, but we need the concerted political and economic backing of the international community. Human rights as well as peace are at stake, Bosnia being a vivid example of the broader link between these two and refugee return. In this context, I welcome the joint commitment to the implementation of minority returns by the refugee officials from the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina which we just brokered last week. In making refugee return possible, the institution of asylum itself will be supported.

Before I finish I would like to use this opportunity to appeal for action by the international community on the most pressing asylum issue currently facing my Office. The ordeal of Zairian civilians and of the large number of Rwandan refugees caught in the war in eastern Zaire must be ended. I repeat my appeal to the Alliance forces not to attack the refugees who have emerged in several locations south of Kisangani. I am pleased that we have finally obtained access to several locations south of Kisangani where refugees have emerged, to provide food and basic medical care, and to help those wishing to repatriate to Rwanda to do so. We are making progress toward establishing humanitarian corridors. Together with UNICEF we managed in the last two weeks to save and evacuate 301 unaccompanied children from Eastern Zaire. But insecurity, politics and enormous logistical constraints continue to make our work more difficult than it has been in any other refugee situation during my tenure. This drama has not received the international attention it deserves. Let me also support the requests for the investigation of allegations of serious human rights violations in eastern Zaire. My Office will assist Mr. Garretón, the Special Rapporteur, to the best of its abilities.

I would like to conclude my statement today by seeking the active support of states who are members of this Commission and concerned with human rights to support our efforts to uphold and strengthen the institution of asylum and the refugee protection regime. A strong and principled approach by states to continue the dynamic implementation of the refugee protection regime will not only promote the human rights observance system in its entirety, but will also serve international peace and security. In committing ourselves to such a course of action, the founding principles of the United Nations will be ever more strongly upheld.

Thank you.