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Closing Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fiftieth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 8 October 1999

Speeches and statements

Closing Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fiftieth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 8 October 1999

8 October 1999

Mr Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for participating in the 50th session of the Executive Committee. Thank you for contributing to our discussions, and thank you, in particular, for your many expressions of support. It is always tremendously encouraging to leave ExCom feeling that you have appreciated our work, and understood our difficulties. It is a welcome boost, for my colleagues and myself, as we continue our efforts to protect and assist refugees.

This year saw a further increase in the number of delegations participating in ExCom - 160, six more than last year, between members and observers, and many from capitals. I am particularly pleased that 40 African delegations were present, several at ministerial level. My Office and I are committed to keep focusing on Africa, and to raise awareness of the plight of a continent, whose crises are too often forgotten or ignored. I am also very pleased that the number of NGOs has substantially increased to 145, up from 90 last year, and that they found the pre-ExCom discussions rich and productive.

The yearly increase in the number of participants is an indication that the Executive Committee meeting is useful as the main humanitarian forum centered on refugees. However, it also means - I believe - that we must review the manner in which ExCom-related meetings are organized throughout the year. ExCom is the only forum where we can dialogue with all countries on refugee matters - be they countries of asylum or of origin, providers of opportunities, or contributors of resources. For many of you, I hope that it is an important occasion to make points that wouldn't be heard otherwise, and exchange your experiences. And because you made such extraordinary efforts to be present here, and to deliver thoughtful and important statements, I think you deserve the debate to be interesting, lively and interactive - more of a real debate! Together with our dynamic Bureau, and of course in consultation with you, we shall look into this matter.

In my opening statement, I made two essential points that I want to repeat: first, I stressed that in today's world, humanitarian action remains necessary, that its neutrality and independence must be preserved, and that the operating space of civilian humanitarian agencies - which is often threatened by diverse interventions - must be defended. Second, I emphasized that refugee protection is a specific function that encompasses a broad spectrum of activities, from rescue to asylum to solutions, on which UNHCR has a very specific, irreplaceable mandate - a mission which I have also asked this Committee to uphold. The Director of International Protection yesterday elaborated on this theme.

Let me take this opportunity to clarify an important point. Emphasizing the necessity and neutrality of multilateral humanitarian action, and the specificity of refugee protection, does not detract from the constant need for political backing and - at times - military support. As I have repeated many times, governments must address conflicts and seek solutions to refugee crises. The role of the military in highly complex emergencies, in special areas such as logistics and camp construction, will also continue to be indispensable, and highly appreciated by all humanitarian agencies. Let me be absolutely clear on this and repeat that what I have asked for, is that governments help us - the civilian humanitarian agencies - organize the space in which we operate; that they do not undermine it; and that whenever the support of the military is needed, we define together its precise role, and explain it publicly in clear, unambiguous terms.

There are three broad issues on which many speakers have insisted, and that I would like to mention before we close the meeting. They are crucial to our debate because in order to address them, we shall have to make existing partnerships work more effectively, and, even more so, we shall have to seek new, broader ones. They are security, post-conflict recovery and rehabilitation, and prevention.

Many of you made references to security - in various contexts: security of refugees and refugee operations; security of states, jeopardized by mass population movements of a mixed nature; and security of humanitarian staff. Today's refugee crises threaten all dimensions of security. Measures to address this problem have become an imperative necessity. They must, however, be concrete, and realistic.

As you know, we have been dealing with this issue for some time. Several statements mentioned our idea to resort to a "ladder" of options to address the "ladder" of insecure situations, in the context of conflict resolution efforts. I wish to assure you that we are continuing to work on this issue. Earlier this year we presented a paper to the Standing Committee, with some proposals. We now need your support in making them easily accessible and implementable. I would like to stress in particular the importance of "middle" options: equipping the local police, for example; or providing training; or deploying liaison officers. While "hard" options are essentially the responsibility of states, and "soft" ones that of humanitarian agencies, "medium" options must be implemented through a collaborative effort between states and agencies. I hope that we shall soon launch a few pilot projects. I count on your attention, advice and support. This is an area in which we - governments and UNHCR - must be especially creative in forging partnerships.

Providing security, however, is not enough. Security must be durable. This is particularly true in situations of divided communities to which refugees return after conflicts have ended; or in long-term refugee situations. In the absence of development, situations that we have often called of "fragile peace" deteriorate, and cause new insecurity and human displacement. Many of you - especially from developing countries, or countries hosting large refugee groups - have mentioned the need for greater support to post-conflict recovery, or to the rehabilitation of areas affected by refugee flows. The approach, I believe, must be as comprehensive as possible. Some innovative attempts are being made. In Kosovo, for example, all major aspects of a society's reconstruction have been brought together in one integrated structure for the first time. Here again, partnerships are essential. In the process, new ones are being forged - Kosovo's UN interim administration is based on a joint effort by OSCE, the European Union and the United Nations.

Some of the experiences being made in Kosovo can provide a useful model to tackle other situations in which the gap between humanitarian and reconstruction activities is very wide, and where refugees or returnees are an important element - like in Rwanda, Liberia, or the Horn of Africa, just to mention a few examples. East Timor may be soon another case in point. Some of you have expressed legitimate concerns about the international community's apparent lack of interest in addressing this problem. On our side, I can assure you that together with the World Bank and UNDP, and a number of concerned governments, we have promoted discussions on how to implement coordinating and funding mechanisms to facilitate the transition from humanitarian to development aid. . These discussions, the so-called "Brookings" process that many of you have mentioned, have yielded some interesting ideas, which we plan to implement in selected countries in support of existing transition arrangements.

Stabilization and post-conflict recovery are essential, today, to address the consequences of many conflicts, including situations in which people remain displaced, or return in precarious conditions. The Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe - if swiftly implemented - may provide a valid model of regional cooperation in tackling reconstruction comprehensively. A similar approach could be very useful in other regions trying to emerge from a spiral of conflict, poverty and human displacement. I noted positive signals, in this respect, in several statements by countries in West Africa.

A third "area of partnership" that many speakers have highlighted is that of prevention. Preventing refugee flows means essentially avoiding conflicts, and reducing poverty. Reinforcing security and strengthening post-conflict recovery are both - also - prevention activities, since they reduce the risk of further fighting and population outflows. Another area of prevention which has been abundantly mentioned is that of upholding human rights. Monitoring their respect and helping states build capacity in this area are key activities that may prevent refugee movements - especially, as I said on Monday, where there are specific problems linked to ethnic minorities, or to various social groups. Here, too, partnership is a key element. I am happy that both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Executive Director of UNICEF, stressed this point. We shall continue to cooperate very closely with them.

A few words, before concluding, on reconciliation - an issue which sums up the three points I have just raised. Many have joined their voices to ours in calling for more support - and, may I add - more creative thinking, in designing and implementing projects aimed at reconciling divided communities. In a world in which a majority of refugees and displaced people are victims of communal conflicts, a systematic and professional approach to reconciliation - devising concrete projects - may well be one of the directions we must pursue to prevent refugee flows.

Mr Chairman,

It has been a very inspiring session of the Executive Committee, fit to bring us into 2000, and to prepare us for new challenges as we enter UNHCR's fiftieth anniversary year. In spite of many specific, contingent crises - or perhaps precisely because of them - a wide range of fundamental themes have been put on the table: the threats to the independence and effectiveness of humanitarian work, the erosion of refugee protection, the linkages between insecurity and refugee flows, the importance of bringing together divided communities, just to mention a few. This does not only show that the Executive Committee meeting remains central to the refugee debate, but also that refugee issues themselves occupy a very central place in today's world.

To address them properly, we must make the best use of our respective strengths, resources, mandates and responsibilities. This - in a nutshell - is the objective of being "partners". As the Permanent Representative of Brazil said in his eloquent statement, it is a matter of "mutually reinforcing dynamics". Through this kind of "partnership", even in a turbulent time of transition, we shall serve in the best possible way all refugees, all over the world. If we are to ensure protection, we must work together. Refugees, for sure, count on us all.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.