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Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 20 November 1972

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 20 November 1972

20 November 1972

Mr. Chairman,

A year ago I had the privilege of speaking twice to this Committee. First, I introduced the report on the regular work of my Office, and then spoke of the additional effort made by the United Nations "focal point" on behalf of a large number of refugees in India - a responsibility initially entrusted to me by the Secretary-General and later endorsed by ECOSOC and the General Assembly. In a year of intense activity and in an atmosphere governed by the nature and swiftness of events, this Committee responded with unanimity and understanding to the humanitarian endeavours of my Office. I cannot value such understanding too highly, for we have all learnt the lesson that effective, non-political action on behalf of refugees should be postulated on an absence of acrimony as to the measures being undertaken. Indeed, it has been precisely this realisation that has, these past years, led to a widening acceptance of the twin role that my Office traditionally plays, namely, seeking durable and humane solutions for refugees and providing international protection for them.

But there have been other lessons too, and I trust you will forgive me if I recapitulate: rapid assistance to refugees and permanent solutions to their problems can strengthen the currents for peace. Conversely, failure in securing solutions can, in any part of the world, lead to the shattering of peace. In much of the world, peace and the possibility of unimpared progress themselves contribute to solutions for refugees problems.

If we were in need of being reminded of these lessons, 1971 and 1972 provided the reminders with absolute clarity. In the twenty-two years of the life of this Office, the past two have been among the most demanding in their challenges. So have they been in the response of the international community. First, the very dimensions of the problems we have faced and, in some measure, their uniqueness, have necessitated a new flexibility in approach in order to align multilateral response more closely to an international scene that changes and develops. Second, the United Nations has, itself, been required to make innovative arrangements in order to discharge the duties entrusted to it. Third, fresh challenges have had to be met without detriment to the quiet, continuing and no less essential work of the Office.

These consideration have been recognised by Governments, and by the United Nations system. On the one hand, the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly have adopted resolutions notable for the practical basis they have provided for multilateral action in matters of humanitarian concern. On the other hand, forums such as the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination and Ad Hoc Inter-Agency Consultative Units have enabled the United Nations to achieve rational and co-ordinated use of its potential. Is has been a privilege for my Office to help translate the resolutions into action, and to assist in the developing and co-ordinating of the response.

With your permission, Mr. Chairman, let me amplify. To begin with, the year under review has seen the voluntary repatriation of refugees on a vast scale. Over the years, the General Assembly has repeatedly stressed that voluntary repatriation, whenever possible, remains the most desirable solution to a refugee problem. This we have always kept in mind, even though an epilogue of this kind has generally proved elusive.

In the first two months of 1972, however, millions of refugees have returned home. I had occasion, orally and through document E/L.1502, to inform the Fifty-third Session of ECOSOC of the details of the "focal point" operation on behalf of these uprooted persons. Our work in their regard terminated in early summer. Following the phase when we co-ordinated the relief effort, we helped provide facilities for their repatriation. We concluded, by arranging transfers of outstanding funds and equipment for the re-integration of the repatriates in Bangladesh. They are now, like their compatriots, benefiting from a vast relief and rehabilitation effort under the aegis of the Secretary-General.

Another major repatriation movement has since begun, this time in the Sudan and, most importantly, in consequence of peace negotiations between the parties principally concerned, that brought to an end 17 years of civil strife through the Addis Ababa agreement. If I dwell on events in the Sudan, it is because they are of great consequence to all of us here, not only for the present, but for the future. The Sudanese experience shows that the repatriation of thousands of refugees to an area that has been disrupted by years of internal strife can necessitate preparatory work in the country of origin itself. Indeed, in the present case, the return of the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese from the countryside as well as from the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zaire - where we ourselves were helping to settle them - was inextricably dependent on a minimal reconstruction of the Southern Sudan itself. Without this, the possibility of large-scale repatriation would be in jeopardy and the peace, so patiently negotiated, would lose much of its meaning.

Further, following an appeal b the President of the Sudan to the Secretary-General, it was clear that the international community would need to assist the reconstruction effort of the Government as there was manifest need for such help. It was for this reason that, once again, and drawing on the experience of the "focal point" operation of 1971, the Secretary-General requested me to co-ordinate the first and immediate phase of the multilateral response. The procedure adopted by the Secretary-General was endorsed by ECOSOC through its Resolutions 1655 (LII) and 1705 (LIII). This phase should conclude by July 1972, whereafter it is anticipated that the United Nations Development Programme will co-ordinate the effort of the United Nations system in terms of long-term planning with a view to economic revival and reconstruction. Indeed the Governing Council of UNDP has already taken steps to increase the indicative planning figure for this country from $15 to $20 million, but further special measure may yet be needed. In the meantime, steady progress is being made: some 30,000 refugees and many more displaced persons within the three southern provinces have already returned home, in a phased programme linked to restoration of the most basic amenities. To date, we have received pledges totalling $8.6 million in kind and $5.5 million in cash. We still need substantial contributions and I take this opportunity to call on governments, once again, to help achieve this objective. I also wish to thank those governments that have already contributed either bilaterally or through the United Nations. The price paid is small for the consolidation of peace and for the resolving of the refugee problem in this area.

The repatriation of which I have spoken has, of course, been occasioned by major political developments. Unfortunately, however, there remain situations that do not, as yet, permit of similar solutions. Situations as, for instance, existing in non-self-governing territories in Africa, from where the exodus of refugees continues.

Indeed, such are the uncertainties of our work that, even while we conclude one refugee episode, we are confronted by another. Thus, the events of last summer in Burundi compelled some 50,000 refugees to pour over the frontiers to Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire. More recently, refugees have crossed from Malawi to Zambia. Provision had to be made to assist them immediately - and while, on the one hand, we had hoped to effect savings resulting from the scaling-down of projects for Sudanese refugees, we found it essential to budget large sums for these new groups.

The target for the Regular Programme of my Office has, therefore, remained in the order of $7.8 million for 1973. We must remember that this modest budget - based entirely on voluntary contributions - provides both the impetus and the nucleus for an annual effort far wider in scope, attracting as it does supporting contributions from UNHCR's operational partners, technical assistance and programme resources from other United Nations agencies and, above all, supplementing in significant manner the hard-pressed budgetary resources of host countries, particularly in Africa, that have responded generously in granting asylum and land. I hardly need to recall that, not many years ago, it was extremely difficult to cover even this modest budget. I am grateful that this is no longer the case - each year, the number of contributing governments has grown and many have increase their contributions. This is as it should be, for in a very tangible sense the regular budget of the Office is the most sensitive indicator of the continuing concern of nations for what is, in fact, a problem linking mankind.

Indeed, it is essential for my Office, and for the international community, to keep in mind at all times that the dimension of scale, of numbers, is not the heart of the matter. Above all, the refugee is an individual - and, frequently, finding a worthwhile solution for an individual can be as demanding in effort, and sometimes more so in ingenuity, than providing relief to many thousands. Thus, in Africa, we continue to work very closely with the OAU Bureau for the Placement and Education of Refugees. We have also found it necessary to establish and strengthen facilities for individual counselling, where none existed formerly. I am happy to report this development, to which I should add that, by and large, the land settlements that we have started, are progressing on the right line. In the same vein, I can say that our work in Europe and Latin America has also continued satisfactorily.

This leads me to another consideration - suppleness in response. The issue has two aspects.

First, it implies that UNHCR must not get bogged down in endless relief. It must always seek permanent solutions. In practical terms, this means that the Office must remain ready to assist swiftly, where there is need, and to redeploy its small staff and resources once this need diminishes or once it can be assumed adequately by the host country. Thus, our Branch Offices are opened only at the request of governments and they remain only as long as there is a real and justifiable need for them. We would be guided by similar consideration in the future. Each year there are some changes in the constellation of our Offices.

Second, the need for suppleness requires a comment on the use of my Emergency Fund, which has a ceiling of $500,000. In view of frequent demands on this Fund, the Executive Committee of my Programme has endorsed the principle that while there appears no need at present to increase the ceiling of this fund, my Office should be enabled, within a given calendar year, to spend up to $1 million from it. I should, in this connection, like to refer this Committee to paragraph 169 of my Report (document A/8712) which contains the recommendation of my Executive Committee.

I have spoken earlier of the refugee as an individual and not just a member of a mass of displaced humanity. In no aspect of our work is it more important to remember this than in the field of international protection. Perhaps it is inevitable that the problems of mass relief and settlement should sometimes overshadow the patient and steady work involved in the implementation and improvement of international humanitarian law relating to refugees and persons in analogous situations.

Yet this work must be pursued unobtrusively and without respite. Since the twenty-sixth session of the General Assembly, the number of States party to the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees has increased to 63; likewise, the number of States party to the 1967 Protocol now stands at 53. However, there are still a great number of countries, representing large areas of the world, that are yet to accede to these instruments. Likewise, we would hope that the OAU Convention, which was unanimously adopted by the Heads of State in 1967, will soon fulfil the fervour with which it was greeted - it is yet to come into force, still being short in the number of ratifications. The same, unfortunately, applies to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which only four States have so far acceded, whilst only 26 States have ratified the 1954 Convention on Stateless Persons. It is essential for us to continue our effort for wider acceptance.

If I dwell on these instruments, it is because of a profound belief that they represent a body of law of great value to the building of a humane international order. Only too often are we reminded of the perils, both to the fabric of society and to individuals, resulting from the incomplete acceptance or implementation of these conventions.

Whilst on this subject, Mr. Chairman, I should like to add a few thoughts on the principle of asylum. As you know, many governments as well as my Office are interested in the strengthening and developing of the law relating to asylum. It is for this reason that, annexed to document A/8712, you will find a draft Convention elaborated by a group of jurists who met in Bellagio last year. I am only too aware of the sensitivities of the subject, given its complexities and the climate obtaining today. However, I would greatly appreciate the thinking of this Committee on whether I should establish contacts with governments with a view to ascertaining a spectrum of opinion on this matter. I believe such contacts would be helpful in determining the course of action then to be followed.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, let me say again that it is a privilege to share with this Committee each year the preoccupations of my Office. The guidance and authority that this Committee has given have been most valuable. It has confirmed and encouraged measures that have furthered the humanitarian objectives of the Charter, measures that have alleviated the worst excesses of suffering and displacement. As your can see, in the past year, my Office has not known repose. Most recently, and once again at the request of the Secretary-General, we have been closely associated with arrangements on behalf of Asians of undetermined nationality who have now left Uganda. We have appealed for funds for their travel and care in transit areas. More resources may well be needed. Above all, we shall require places for permanent settlement and for the reuniting of tragically scattered families. I would urge governments to consider our approaches sympathetically and I would like to express gratitude to those in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere, who have already offered either funds, staging facilities or permanent places. It is essential to help this group overcome the hardship and suffering to which they have been exposed.

Mr. Chairman and distinguished delegates, none of us knows the dimensions of the next problem, where it will arise or whom it will affect. It is the particular anguish of my function that the greater the demands on my Office, the more cruel the comment on our times. Certainly the United Nations now has a proven capacity to heal. But must we make a virtue of catastrophe? Surely, the greater virtue lies in an altogether different direction.