Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on accepting the Liberal International Prize for Freedom 1994, Bern, 19 May 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on accepting the Liberal International Prize for Freedom 1994, Bern, 19 May 1995

19 May 1995

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am greatly honoured to receive the Liberal International Prize for Freedom 1994 today. I would like to thank the Liberal International for bestowing this tribute to me. I see it as a recognition of the courage and devotion of more than 5,000 staff of my Office, who are working in dangerous and difficult situations to protect and assist some 27 million persons falling under the responsibility of my Office.

The liberal movement has long upheld the fundamental liberal values of freedom, tolerance, democracy and international understanding. Through your extensive network your members make an active contribution for the protection of human rights worldwide.

It is particularly satisfying that an award to commemorate human freedom should be bestowed on an organization committed to the protection of those who fled their homes because their life and freedom were threatened.

Freedom is a complex concept and it is interpreted differently around the world. A fundamental element however, which is common to all cultures and people is the freedom from persecution for reasons of race, religion, political opinion or membership of a social group. All civilizations have upheld this notion of freedom and the concomitant right of asylum, which is at the heart of the work of my office.

UNHCR was created in 1951 to deal with refugees and displaced persons. In its early years, it was confronted with refugees fleeing communist regimes of eastern Europe. Subsequently UNHCR's work moved to Africa and Asia, first to deal with the large number of people fleeing anti-colonial wars and then with those fleeing internal strife fuelled by super-power rivalry, aggravated by poverty and other socio-economic problems.

While the end of the Cold War has solved many of these longstanding conflicts, for example in Mozambique, Cambodia, Namibia, and South Africa, ironically it has also unleashed a new spate of refugee problems in Europe. This continent has once again become the scene of conflict and persecution. As you pointed out in your opening remarks, the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the former Soviet Union led to a mistaken belief that many of the ongoing conflicts would be resolved, that super-power rivalry would be replaced by peace and freedom for all. In a world of that kind, there would be freedom from fear.Instead, the number of persons falling under the responsibility of my Office has increased from 17 million in 1991, the year I became High Commissioner, to more than 23 million in 1993 and over 27 million at the end of 1994. These numbers include refugees who have fled their country, people who have been displaced in their own country by war, and refugees who have returned home, and still require our care.The conflict in former Yugoslavia has brought home dramatically the threat to freedom which we have to face. It is a striking fact that Europe today ranks second, after Africa, as the continent both producing and hosting the largest number of persons falling under UNHCR's responsibility. Ethnic conflicts, religious intolerance, economic and political rivalry have resulted in conflicts or war, whether in the Balkans, in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, republic of the Russian Federation, Georgia, and Tajikistan.

Elsewhere, too, internal conflict and ethnic tensions are causing new emergencies. The brutal killings in Rwanda have shocked the conscience of the world. More than 2 million Rwandan refugees are hosted by Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. The recent events surrounding the forced closing of the internally displaced persons camps in Rwanda have shocked the world. The crises in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Liberia continue with little hope for a peaceful solution in the immediate future.

The end of the Cold War however, has not only opened up a pandora box of humanitarian disasters, but has also offered new opportunities. Over the last five years more than 9 million refugees returned home voluntarily to Cambodia, Iraq, Somalia, Mozambique and some parts of Afghanistan. My fondest memories are of the last train leaving Swaziland carrying Mozambican refugees home, and of the Cambodian refugees leaving Thailand after living in squalid refugee camps for more than 15 years. These repatriations would have been unlikely without the changes in the international political system. Furthermore, I hope that very soon we can drop the curtain on the south-east Asian refugee crisis.

One of the questions asked most often is whether we can prevent refugee movements from happening. Early warning, preventive diplomacy, and stand-by peace-keeping forces are all concepts which attract considerable attention. I do not believe however that there is a magic formula with which to heal mankind's ills. Many of the answers depend upon the political decisions of governments and people themselves to promote peace, but the international community can contribute in their search for solutions. Increasingly, there is greater recognition that large scale forced population movements are a threat to national or regional security. The threat to freedom, even when it is a consequence of internal war, is not only a matter of domestic jurisdiction but also of international concern. Consequently, the United Nations is moving into areas where it would have stayed away or from where it would have evacuated its staff in the past. UNHCR is no longer acting solely as a refugee agency, but as a humanitarian organization, increasingly responding to the plight of the internally displaced and other victims of war and violence. Humanitarian assistance is not just relief, but includes protection of victims. Through our assistance and protection role inside countries of origin or conflict zones, we contribute to creating conditions which in turn can buy time for political solutions.Against this background of contrasting risks and opportunities, it is more important than ever that the principles of refugee protection are respected and that asylum is granted to those who need it. I am deeply disturbed by incidents of racism and xenophobia against refugees and asylum seekers in many parts of Europe. If we do not show courage and political leadership in resisting these dangerous trends, the victims will not just be the refugees but also the democratic values of our society. The answer lies not in building barriers to stop people moving - but in reducing, removing or resolving the factors which force people to move.

My Office stands for the same fundamental values as the Liberal International. Therefore, I appeal to your courage, vision and political will to build a world in which refugees can return home safely, in which those who cannot return can live in a tolerant society, and that others will not be forced to flee. We need courage to face the challenge and vision to build a strategy which goes beyond national interests. Today we need to ensure not simply the security of states but also the security of people.

Thank you.