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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the ICRC / UNHCR meeting, Geneva, 19 February 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the ICRC / UNHCR meeting, Geneva, 19 February 1992

19 February 1992

Let me begin by thanking you for your invitation to my colleagues and I this evening. Your hospitality is symbolic of the close cooperation our two organisations have always enjoyed. I believe this is the first time that the senior management of ICRC and UNHCR have met in this way. So, it is not only an important event - it may even be an historic one!

I think it is very appropriate that ICRC and UNHCR should get together at a time when the issue of refugees and the displaced have been placed high on the international political agenda. I hope we can engage in an informal and frank dialogue on how to meet the challenges which a fundamentally changed and changing world has confronted us with. As far as UNHCR is concerned, prospects for solutions to many long-standing refugee problems in countries such as Cambodia, Angola, Afghanistan, El Salvador and South Africa have been paralleled by new threats of displacement resulting from resurgent nationalism and fragmentation of States. Faced with these contradictory trends, UNHCR is concentrating on a three-pronged strategy: firstly, preventive action to reduce the root causes of displacement; secondly, better preparedness to respond to new emergencies and thirdly, vigorous pursuit of voluntary repatriation as the most desirable solution.

I feel it is extremely important for UNHCR and ICRC to understand each other's mandates and concerns so that we can better cooperate to further our humanitarian principles. After all, our organisations both have a mandate to protect individuals. ICRC protects victims of war, while UNHCR protects refugees. Our respective mandates have developed in the course of time bringing us closer together in our work. As ICRC's work has expanded from victims of international conflicts to those of non-international ones, UNHCR's has moved from refugees fleeing persecution to those escaping violence and conflict. The vast majority of today's refugees fall into this latter category. UNHCR and ICRC have worked and continue to work together in many parts of the world to help those seeking refuge from war and violence. While we share the same objective, we have also learnt to appreciate the difference in our approaches. I believe ICRC is basically relief-oriented, while UNHCR's assistance is more longer-term in keeping with its mandate to find lasting solutions for refugee problems. I feel that the similarity of our protection objective, balanced with the divergency of our approach on assistance and solution, enhances the complementarity of our mandates and strengthens the scope for cooperation.

The need for such cooperation has never been greater than now as the United Nations moves into a new chapter of peace-keeping within States rather than between them. Refugees and the displaced form an important component of these conflict situations, so that UNHCR appears increasingly to become the humanitarian arm of such peace-keeping operations. UNHCR's role in UN Plans for Cambodia, Yugoslavia and El Salvador could be blueprints for UN action in the future.

UNHCR's involvement in conflict situations or where security is fragile - what ICRC calls internal disturbances and tensions - increasingly relates to two categories of persons. The first group are refugees who return to areas which are conflict-ridden or where security is fragile and find themselves displaced in their own country, as in northern Iraq, El Salvador or Sri Lanka. Although there is now general acceptance that UNHCR retains a residual responsibility for returning refugees until they are reintegrated, we face serious legal and practical difficulties in trying to protect nationals in their own country.

The second group are persons who have never crossed any frontier but who are displaced in a refugee - like situation. This is an area where ICRC's mandate and position are much clearer than UNHCR's. To put it simply, UNHCR has no mandate as such for those who have not left their country and usually we have become involved only at the request of the UN General Assembly, the Security Council or the Secretary General, as for instance right now in Yugoslavia. UNHCR's ability to complement ICRC's activities and effectively address the plight of the internally displaced would therefore depend very much on the clarity of the legal and political framework within which such action is undertaken. In this context I see Yugoslavia as an interesting experiment, with ICRC exercising its mandate for protecting civilians and UNHCR complementing that task by its humanitarian presence and also adding a new dimension on repatriation under the UN plan.(As you may know, we are being asked by the UN to assist people to return to their homes in "United Nations protected areas").

When I look at UNHCR activities around the world, I feel we are at the threshold of new forms of humanitarian action. We are moving into virgin territory in so many directions, not least in internal wars and disturbances where ICRC has long been present. We need to tread carefully to avoid stepping on mines and on each other's toes - figuratively and literally! We need to coordinate our activities with ICRC and other UN agencies, taking account of existing legal principles as well as political realities. It may be useful to make a comparative analysis of our joint experience as it unfolds in Yugoslavia with what we are doing in northern Iraq and Sri Lanka. All three are conflict areas with large numbers of displaced and ICRC and UNHCR presence. In one, UN peace keeping forces are being deployed, in another UN presence is experimental, UN guards having been deployed in an unconventional role, and in the third there is no UN presence except for UNHCR. What kind of lessons can we draw from these operations on UNHCR/ICRC cooperation in meeting the needs of the displaced? What relevance could these lessons have for other situations, for example in Somalia?

In another part of the world a new kind of experiment has been launched with ONUSAL human rights observers in El Salvador. What impact will it have on the protection of returning refugees and displaced persons in a fragile security situation? How can we use what we learn in Central America to merge the principles of humanitarian law and human rights in a more effective response to preventing and solving problems of displacement? The strength of organisations like ICRC and UNHCR lie in our ability not only to observe violations but to intervene on behalf of the individuals. How can these means be extended to precisely those situations when States disappear or disintegrate, when there is no clear governmental authority, when the protection of both humanitarian law and human rights is reduced during internal disturbances, tension and states of emergency which fall outside the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols and are inadequately addressed by human rights machinery? I know there are no clear or easy answers but perhaps we can get a better understanding of the issues by sharing our knowledge and our experiences.

Obviously, there are real constraints as to what humanitarian organisations can do. The institutional and procedural framework for ensuring compliance with humanitarian norms depend on the consent and political will of the parties concerned. At a minimum, we need the acquiescence of the government concerned to operate. We can be effective only if our humanitarian mandate is respected by all parties and supported by the international community. In the context of northern Iraq, I have said publicly that international organisations cannot substitute for what is actually governmental responsibility for a population at risk. As ICRC has often said there are sufficient legal provisions in existence for the assistance and protection of displaced populations. What we need is ways and means of ensuring better respect of principles by all parties concerned. How can that be achieved? At the same time, UNHCR, ICRC and other organisations must also improve their coordination and cooperation, revitalizing and reinforcing existing systems, rather than recreating new ones. This is the key to more effective humanitarian action.

I know we have an evening of fruitful dialogue ahead of us to consider these and many other issues of mutual interest. Let me therefore end with the hope that there will be other such evenings and that we in UNHCR will also have the opportunity soon to reciprocate with a similar occasion of food for the body and the mind.

Thank you.