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"Addressing Humanitarian Crises Through Global Solidarity: Is It Possible? Is It Effective?" - Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 17 May 1999

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"Addressing Humanitarian Crises Through Global Solidarity: Is It Possible? Is It Effective?" - Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 17 May 1999

17 May 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very grateful to the Officers, Directors and members of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia for inviting me here today. It is a privilege to join your distinguished list of guest speakers, particularly this year as the Council commemorates its 50th Anniversary.

I am also excited to return to Philadelphia, a city whose history so vividly symbolises the ideals of freedom, equality and justice. These ideals formed the core of the American spirit of independence and provide the basis for people to live in dignity and safety. I felt that spirit in Philadelphia four years ago standing in front of Independence Hall to accept the Philadelphia Liberty Medal.

But millions of people in some countries throughout the world have been denied these basic rights and forced to flee their homes in search of a safer place. On the Fourth of July 1995, when I accepted the Liberty Medal I observed that we could not "celebrate the independence of one nation without condemning in the strongest possible terms the strangulation of another." I was speaking of the terrible conflict raging in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Today's pre-eminent example is also in the Balkans. Kosovo is being systematically and brutally emptied of its ethnic Albanian population. Ethnic cleansing and mass forced expulsions have caused more than 750,000 men, women and children to be driven from their homes. Most of them have fled to Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. These fragile and unprepared countries are bearing the brunt of one of the largest refugee flows Europe has seen in the 20th century.

Sadly, these refugees comprise only a portion of the almost 23 million refugees and others driven from their homes throughout the world in places such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All 23 million refugees are of concern to my Office - the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - usually known as UNHCR. UNHCR was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1951 to lead and coordinate international action for the world-wide protection of refugees and the solution of refugee problems.

Over the years, with forced population movements becoming more complex, UNHCR has been asked to become involved with other groups, for example internally displaced people, returnees (refugees returning to their own country) and stateless persons. The numbers of concern to us increased sharply in the early 1990s, due, among other factors, to massive displacement caused by the Kurdish crisis in Northern Iraq, (this was the first large crisis I had to deal with) by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and by events in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. On the other hand, the end of some long-standing conflicts - in Mozambique, Mali and Guatemala - has allowed millions of refugees to return home voluntarily. The overall number of people of concern to UNHCR has therefore slightly declined in the last two years.

Ensuring the protection of all these groups of people, including the provision of material assistance whenever necessary, is the core mandate of UNHCR. The search for solutions to refugee problems is the other fundamental aspect of our work. Traditionally, we promote three types of solutions: the preferred solution is voluntary repatriation to their own country, when circumstances allow. Other alternatives are local integration in the country where they have sought asylum or resettlement to a third country.

* * *

UNHCR works in partnership with governments, international and regional organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Throughout the history of my Office, our relations with civil society have been very important - not only because of our key partnership with NGOs, and increasing cooperation with the private sector, but also because we need the help of communities in asylum countries to receive and integrate refugees.

The response by international players - including governments, international organizations, and the private sector - to the Kosovo Emergency, for instance has been remarkable. UNHCR is leading the humanitarian effort with support from our traditional partners, including UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation, and national and international NGOs. We have established a solid partnership with the OSCE which has become more and more operational in both Western and Eastern Europe. In Kosovo, the OSCE Verification Mission played an essential role, in monitoring and reporting on the security situation, that was indispensable for our humanitarian assistance mission during the growing conflict from the winter of 1998 through the first quarter of 1999.

NATO also offered to support our humanitarian activities. It is helping us in four basic areas: the management of air traffic control; offloading and handling of aid materials in airports; logistic and engineering support in building refugee camps; and onward movement of refugees from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

With the dynamic and massive outflow of refugees from Kosovo over the last several weeks, countries in Europe and outside the region have offered to receive refugees who fled from Kosovo to Macedonia. Some 107,000 places have been offered by European countries, of which some 42,000 have been utilised so far from Kosovo. In other words 42,000 Kosovo refugees have been flown from Macedonia to Europe and other parts of the world. The U.S. will take up to 20,000 persons and already close to 2,400 have arrived. This humanitarian evacuation programme is essentially one of burden-sharing and is intended to relieve the pressure on the Government of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. They simply can not cope with all the people who came into their country.

Also remarkable has been the outpouring of assistance from the private sector. The Italian public has been very generous in responding to the crisis by raising some US $9 million through various fund-raising events. The Italian based United Colours of Benetton launched an advertising campaign several weeks ago to raise funds for UNHCR. There are also examples in the U.S. of generosity within the private sector. and I would like to mention Microsoft. Microsoft has offered to extend its technical and financial assistance for the registration and tracing of refugees that will help the reunification of separated families. This programme is particularly essential given that a significant number of the over 700,000 refugees in Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia were stripped of their identity documents upon leaving Kosovo. Other companies have also joined in, providing computer hardware for this operation.

While I am pleased to see such an international outpouring in response to the Kosovo emergency, I would urge that other refugee crises around the world receive similar attention. As I have already mentioned, unresolved conflicts continue to force people to flee their homes in many African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Angola and Sudan. The situation in Liberia is fragile and the return of refugees at times is uncertain. Burundi refugees are still hosted in Tanzanian camps. Hostilities persist between rival clans in Somalia, while thousands of Somalis risk their lives by crossing the Gulf of Aden to Yemen in overcrowded boats supplied by human traffickers. Beyond Africa, Afghanistan remains extremely worrying, with the largest number of refugees in the world - more than three times as many as those from Kosovo - in Iran and Pakistan since 1979.

* * *

Can this same humanitarian concern for the Kosovo emergency be harnessed to address other refugee crises? I would hope the answer is "yes," if governments and civil societies can overcome powerful trends of self-centered localisation. I notice in affluent societies a growing tendency of inward-lookingness and isolationism. Governments find little political incentive to commit themselves to an internationalist course. In certain Western European countries, for example, refugee problems have been politicised and even turned into campaign issues, justifying, at times, the most xenophobic excesses.

The focus of refugee policies in many industrialized countries has shifted from protecting asylum-seekers to limiting and controlling potential abuses. This is true even in a country like the United States. Despite traditional generosity to asylum-seekers and refugees, its reactions have become much more defensive and control-oriented. I hope very much that the current generous response to the Kosovo refugees will turn public attention and government policy to a more humane and open approach to victims of war and persecution.

This restrictive trend is seen not only in the industrialised world, but also in developing countries. The former President of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, told me last year that when he was in office, in the 1970s and 80s, his country could not only provide asylum, but could also give land and grant citizenship to thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries. Democracy has made significant progress in many parts of Africa since then. This is of course a very positive development. One of the consequences of this progress, however, has been that the refugee issue has become politically charged. People have become more protective of their local and sectoral interests.

Those governing Africa 20 years later tend to oppose receiving refugees, whom they used to embrace as brothers and sisters from across the border. Besides, many refugees today are accompanied by serious security problems as they tend to carry their internal conflicts into the neighbouring countries where they are seeking asylum. Problems connected to sharing of meagre economic resources and assurances of local security affect refugee protection in many developing countries.

The time is ripe to reverse this trend toward localization and exclusion. It is important to recall that whether caught in civil conflict or forced to flee ethnic persecution, refugees are those who suffer exclusion from their society and state. Moreover, for them exclusion is not an abstract notion, and it is easy to see why. Imagine that you have to abandon suddenly all that gives meaning to your life - family, friends, education, work - and flee from your home to another country.

In refugee camps, I am always struck and moved by young people whose hopes and aspirations have been destroyed by discrimination and violence in their home countries. As refugees, they have little or no access to education and employment. Their most formative years are wasted. You sense their despair. They cannot hope for, nor envisage, their future. It is an oppressive feeling which is particularly acute in situations of prolonged displacement. I recall a short encounter with a young boy at Stenkovec camp in Macedonia a few weeks ago. He asked me whether he would be able to go back to Kosovo. "Will you take me home?" he asked. I had to answer with an emphatic "Yes!", and I feel I must live up to my promise.

What I wish to advocate is the recreation of a sense of global solidarity. Solidarity is not just a moral value. "Charity," said Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, "is realpolitik." Because the progress of technology is indeed making the interface between distant societies a daily reality, it is also essential to promote a concept of solidarity which goes beyond the boundaries of our own societies, of our own countries. Humanitarianism knows no borders - it has always been global, and just as importantly, a defining element of civil society.

* * *

This is why I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks that the relations of my Office with civil society are extremely important. In order to promote global solidarity, international organizations, including United Nations agencies such as my Office, cannot limit themselves to seeking support from governments, important as their role may be. Today, no effort towards solidarity can be effective without the active involvement of civil society. And I would like to insist on another point: business, as an essential, leading constituent of civil society, can make a crucial contribution in this area. To quote United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "The business of the United Nations involves the businesses of the world".

As seen in the response to the Kosovo emergency, the private sector can play a central role in global solidarity cultivation. Business is contributing directly to the welfare of the disadvantaged in other societies by providing material or financial assistance to aid activities. I hope that this joint business-humanitarian effort will serve as an example for mobilizing private sector support for refugees and displaced persons, not only in Kosovo, but also throughout the world. This is important because business is needed to make a fundamental contribution to economic development, and hence to the stability of troubled regions - for example in many post-conflict situations - by creating economic opportunities in these areas.

Civil society can furthermore play an essential role in creating a more positive image of refugees. In my country, Japan, for example, the concept of receiving and integrating refugees is comparatively new. If the public sector has been relatively prudent, the business community has on the contrary been instrumental in promoting and facilitating the integration of 10,000 Indochinese refugees in the last few years. And the same is true in countries with a longer, more solid tradition of refugee asylum, such as the United States and Western European countries. Small and medium scale enterprises in particular have been, and remain, key players in providing refugees with opportunities for work and thereby with chances for self-reliance. These experiences will ultimately give back to the refugees the dignity and respect which derive from being full members of a community - the dignity and respect that they lost when they fled their countries.

But even more important, civil society - and I mean this in its broadest sense, including NGOs, academia, business, and so on - should work together with international organizations in countering inward-looking trends in governments and among citizens. My Office, as the United Nations refugee agency, is already facing some of the immediate consequences of these trends. On the one hand, it has become much more difficult to raise funds for our activities, which are financed through voluntary contributions by governments. This is true for most humanitarian organizations. On the other hand, the political vision and energy that governments require to address crises threatening global peace and stability become weaker and narrower. This means that the humanitarian consequences of such crises will linger and perhaps worsen.

There is an obvious link between unresolved conflicts, the instability which they cause, humanitarian problems, underdevelopment, and finally renewed conflict. This spiral of recurrent instability almost inevitably has humanitarian implications - most frequently, the forced movement of populations. It also results in poverty, encourages abuse and corruption, and discourages enterpreneurship and investment. The link between the global impact of crises, and their humanitarian and economic consequences, is clear. Today, more than ever, no conflict is too remote not to be of concern to all of us - be it in Kosovo, Sierra Leone or Afghanistan.

Far from being purely a moral necessity, global solidarity therefore also has a political dimension. And I think that it is very appropriate to add, especially in this part of the world, that civil society is also on the front-line of creative, innovative progress in the fields of management, information and technology. I hope you will agree that such progress will be meaningful only if it is made in a spirit of solidarity. The refugees, whom we represent, long to be part of your vision and efforts.

Let me conclude by saying that we - international humanitarian organizations - and you - the civil society of one of the most prosperous regions in the world, the civil society of today and tomorrow and a society that has adopted tolerance and understanding as its key values - have a common goal in creating and maintaining open and stable societies. We always ask ourselves this question: can civil society and international organizations work together towards prosperity and wealth, and at the same time towards greater equality and global solidarity? I think the answer is clear. Yes, it is possible - and, in fact, vital - to find a balance between the pursuit of our own progress and prosperity, and solidarity toward others. We must work together to build societies which are both competitive and compassionate.

Thank you.