Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Government of Guatemala's Medalla de la Paz, Guatemala City, 1 December 1997
Autoridades del Gobierno de Guatemala,
Estimados miembros del cuerpo diplomatico,
Colegas de las Naciones Unidas,
Señoras y Señores,
Es un gran honor y placer para mi recibir del Gobierno de Guatemala la Medalla de la Paz.
With this award you are honouring the efforts and commitment of all women and men who have worked in Guatemala for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 1987, assisting the return and reintegration of Guatemalan refugees from Mexico, Honduras and other countries, and providing protection to Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and other refugees who have been granted safety on Guatemalan soil.
There have been remarkable developments in the process of return of Guatemalan refugees. It is significant to compare the conditions prevailing in the country today, and the situation which I recall from my previous visit in 1991. At that time, the positions of the main actors were still far apart. Nevertheless, during that visit, I signed a Letter of Understanding with the Government. This paved the way for UNHCR to assume an expanded role in facilitating the return of refugees from Mexico.
Since then, close co-operation between the UNHCR, CEAR and other government institutions, and the support of several NGOs, have been the key components of an organised repatriation, allowing refugees to repatriate in safety and dignity.
In this context, I should mention that recently I had the honour of awarding UNHCR´s Nansen Medal to Sister Joannes Klas, of the Sisters of Saint Francis. She was selected for this award on the basis of her outstanding work with Guatemalan refugees in Honduras and her support for returnee communities in Guatemala during the last 15 years.
Mr. President, I am aware of your own personal commitment to the welfare of the refugees and to their return to their homeland. During my recent visit to Mexico, the authorities repeatedly mentioned your dedication to the return process and the visit you made to the refugees in 1996. Furthermore, I understand that in your periodic bilateral discussions with Mexico, refugees figure high on the agenda and I am grateful to you for this.
Over the last decade, more than 36,000 refugees have returned home. A few thousand more will come back in the coming months. UNHCR's reintegration strategy has been based on micro-projects which address the needs of returnees, internally displaced and those who have remained during the conflict. Building schools and clinics, drilling water points, and improving access roads have served whole communities, and have also contributed to reconciliation at the local level. Special attention has been paid to the needs of women and children. As a result of these activities, returnees are being received in an increasingly favourable environment.
A notable factor in the success of the repatriation of Guatemalan refugees has been the commitment of the Government and the insurgent forces to peace and reconciliation. This commitment provided an important ingredient in the transition from war to peace.
The direct participation of refugees in the planning and implementation of return and reintegration projects was another key element. In this regard, the Agreement signed between the Government and the refugees on the voluntary return of the refugees in October 1992 was an exemplary and courageous step, which captured the interest of the international community and afforded strong political and financial support throughout the period of transition to peace.
I wish also to commend the Government's decision to commit financial resources to facilitate repatriation by providing credits for purchasing land for returnees. This initiative was complemented by UNHCR´s efforts to provide personal documentation for returning refugees and their families in exile. In this connection, I welcome the Government's comprehensive solution for uprooted populations by promoting the issuance of a Special Law for personal documentation of this group.
In the context of rehabilitation and reintegration effort, the cooperation of a wide range of multilateral agencies such as UNDP, MINUGUA, WFP, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank has been essential to achieving an optimum result in the Peace Programme.
We hope that these activities, undertaken jointly, will provide an example for international responses to refugee challenges in post-conflict and peace-building situations in other regions of the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The 1996 Peace Agreement marks the beginning of a new era for reconstruction and reconciliation in Guatemalan. In post-conflict Guatemala, the Government has requested UNHCR to review its priorities in the context of the implementation of the Agreement. The majority of UNHCR's activities is therefore gradually shifting from emergency rehabilitation and assistance to an integrated comprehensive approach involving international and local actors. In this way, we hope to assist in building capacity to sustain the development effort in Guatemala.
Let me conclude by saying that my organisation will always be proud of having played a role, however modest, in the Guatemalan peace process.