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Opening Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, thirty-seventh session, Geneva, 6 October 1986

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, thirty-seventh session, Geneva, 6 October 1986

30 October 1986

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you today on this, my first opportunity to address a regular session of the Executive Committee. I have greatly enjoyed our informal exchanges in January and June with Permanent Representatives of member States, and look forward with anticipation to our discussions in this more formal setting.

During my first nine months in office, I have come to value the constructive role of the Executive Committee in UNHCR'S work. This has been a period characterized by close co-operation and frequent contact with member States, a process which I intend to continue and reinforce. A regular interchange of ideas with Governments is, I am convinced, essential for my Office - both in order to develop the confidence that is essential for the smooth progress o our work, and to promote a common search for solutions at a time when refugee problems are acquiring an unprecedented degree of magnitude and complexity. I have therefore sought to maintain close ongoing relations throughout the year, not only with Executive Committee members as a whole, but also - through bilateral contacts and group meetings - with all Governments that have an interest in refugee issues, including many that are not members of this Committee but are present as observers today. My senior colleagues and myself have complemented these contacts by extensive visits to the field where we have met with the authorities of countries dealing directly and tangibly with the problems of refugees.

In the course of such efforts, I have arrived at an understanding of the nature of UNHCR's role and responsibility to the Executive Committee, which I should like to share with you. I see UNHCR as fundamentally an operational agency that is accountable to the international community through you for the effective implementation of solution-oriented assistance programmes on behalf of refugees in the field. The Executive Committee sets the High Commissioner's overall programme objectives within the mandate conferred upon him by the United Nations General Assembly, approves the financial targets of the Office and reviews UNHCR's programmes with a view to ensuring that the funds placed at the disposal of the Office are wisely and correctly spent. In addition, in areas touching upon the statute of the Office, it has, in Bagehot's famous words about the English Crown, "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn". Within the general limits set by the decisions and the advice of the Committee, it is the High Commissioner's task to define the methods and the means by which he seeks to attain his objectives, and to take humanitarian initiatives to further these objectives in an effective, neutral and efficient manner.

I use these adjectives advisedly, for it is my view that UNHCR must be judged by them. Whether the Office is effective must be measured by our results; neutral, by our refusal to participate in any controversy of a political nature; efficient, by the costs of our personnel and programmes and the result-oriented use of the resources placed at our disposal by the international community. It is my understanding that the Executive Committee will let me know if the Office diverges from these standards, while leaving it to me, as High Commissioner, to define the principles and the processes that would best attain the desired results.

It is 35 years since UNHCR was founded. The nature of the High Commissioner's function has changed remarkably in the 3 2 decades since the Office came into existence: in the number of refugees, in their origin, in the geography and character of the refugee problem itself. When UNHCR was established, refugees were largely a European concern - a legacy of the Second World War and of the political transformations that followed it on the continent. Today, refugees are a major global phenomenon of our times, often inseparable from the range of problems affecting the political, social, cultural and economic development of the third world. These problems have all too frequently erupted into violence and contributed to a number of mass migrations within and between developing States, and from these States to the developed world. But the problem of refugees remains a specific and distinctive aspect of such mass movements. Out of a total of 11,613,300 refugees in the world as at the end of 1985, 9,467,400 - or 82 per cent of the global figure, an overwhelming majority of refugees - have found asylum in developing countries. Their problems are added to those already existing in these countries. Yet they receive an exemplary welcome from some of the world's least prosperous States, which extend hospitality from an empty table. Assisting these refugees to achieve a modest degree of self-reliance is an economic, infrastructural and human challenge for the international community as a whole and calls for the appropriate participation of each member of that community.

At the same time, the mass movement of asylum-seekers from developing nations to the industrialized world has jolted existing refugee law and practice, and created a situation in which Governments that traditionally have upheld refugee rights are now reacting with policies largely defensive in nature and determined by the imperatives of deterrence. The concept of individual persecution, which underpins the refugee definition in the Statute of the Office and in the Convention and Protocol on the status of refugees, has been overtaken by situations of forced mass exodus across frontiers, oceans and continents. In the eyes of the world at large, the "land people" of the 1950s have been succeeded by the "boat people" of the 1970s and the "Jet people" of the 1980s.

This is occurring when the dimensions of the problem have also moved my Office beyond the classic verities of the past into an increasingly broad and ill-defined role vis-à-vis large numbers of persons whom I am bound to consider to be of my, concern on the basis of the universal humanitarian principles underlying the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Assisting these persons in the countries of first asylum in the developing world is essential, but it is not enough. The industrialized world must also share the burden of accepting those among them who seek asylum outside their regions, at least long enough to gain time pending the attainment of natural solutions to their plight. It is no longer sufficient for States to consider they have fulfilled their obligations by contributing generously to UNHCR programmes. UNHCR needs more than just your humanitarian support. We need your collective political will to explore solutions to refugee problems.

In our earlier informal meetings, I have spoken of the need for action and law to interact in practice, and for States to resist the temptation to entrench themselves behind the existing texts. In the same breath, I have reaffirmed the vital importance of preserving and defending the universal humanitarian principles behind the High Commissioner's mandate. I accept the need for States to identify genuine refugees and to distinguish them from those leaving for socioeconomic reasons or reasons of personal convenience; but they should not take steps that could affect both groups indiscriminately. Refugees and asylum-seekers who are the concern of my Office should not be the victims of measures taken by Governments against illegal immigration or threats to their domestic security, however justifiable these may be in themselves. A look at our daily newspapers reveals the extent to which such problems are increasingly acquiring prominence. Governments must react to the preoccupations of their publics; but humanitarian issues must not be imprisoned by narrow political walls. While acknowledging the legitimate Concerns of Governments in these areas, their responses should not threaten their long-standing humanitarian traditions in defence of refugees.

The High Commissioner's competence is, of course, considered to be universal, and the concept of his mandate has been extended of necessity in recent years by successive General Assembly resolutions, expanded regional definitions such as that adopted by OAU and applied by UNHCR in Africa, and a variety of other regional initiatives. While these have the merit of responding to varying social and political realities across the globe, they give rise to a tendency to apply different definitions and standards in different areas, which increasingly complicates the Office's international protection function. I have clearly stated in our earlier encounters that the 1951 definition, while still so usefully applicable in a number of situations, no longer fully matches the realities of the present everywhere. But it is this definition that lays down the basic humanitarian rules of action for the international community. This does not mean that we should attempt to rewrite the law, or to reconcile the irreconcilable. It means instead that we should interpret the law humanely and responsibly. I would suggest that this was already the case when the principles of 1951 were first applied, for after all, European refugees in the Second World War and the first turbulent decade after it were recognized as refugees and resettled even though they were victims of violence and conflict and not just individual persecution.

We must be humane, but we must also be responsible. It is not, and it will not be, UNHCR's intention to assume responsibility for all the transfrontier movements of the present day. But when conflict and violence can be identified as being an important factor in the decision to flee, when human beings are made outcasts by their societies, when to become a refugee is the only way to avoid death or injury, UNHCR cannot stand back and cite the Convention. The High Commissioner's basic task of providing international protection and upholding fundamental principles of international law would mean nothing if he could not consider such persons to be of his concern.

Concern, yes; indefinite aid programmes, no. It is vital that UNHCR assistance does not become an end in itself; that humanitarian problems are not exploited for political purposes; that refugee aid is not used to anaesthetize the consequences of conflicts and to deflect or avoid the obligation to address the root causes of refugee flows. Instead, UNHCR assistance and the breathing-space it provides should be used constructively to pursue fundamental solutions to the problems themselves. It is a major challenge for UNHCR and the international community to look beyond simple palliatives to an overall global strategy that is both humanitarian and politically responsible. The international community must re-examine all mass movements and go beyond mere assistance to real solutions through tackling the root causes of these movements. The fundamental responsibility here is that of States. But UNHCR's humanitarian action in the field, by achieving even partial solutions for specific portions of major caseloads, can contribute to the creation of a favourable climate for the resolution of more fundamental differences. In this vital search for real and lasting solutions, UNHCR stands ready, without compromising its non-political stance, to play an appropriate role.

In many of today's large-scale influxes, where entire communities of groups have fled, voluntary repatriation is the only realistic alternative to indefinite subsistence on charity. To my mind, UNHCR must place the highest priority on voluntary repatriation, which remains the natural solution to any refugee problem. I welcome the reiteration of this principle in the conclusions of the thirty-sixth session of this Committee, and pledge that UNHCR will play its part by promoting conditions which could permit voluntary repatriation by keeping alive the will of the refugees to return. This emphasis is reflected, for instance, in our revised approach to programme planning, whereby UNHCR projects will no longer be designed in a manner that might discourage eventual repatriation. Where repatriation is not possible, or not voluntary, UNHCR must and will defend the refugees' right to remain in exile. If asylum-seekers have valid reasons for not wanting to return to their countries of origin, they must receive humanitarian treatment. Here UNHCR must attach equal importance to the three other solutions possible in these situations: local integration in the country of first asylum (the solution which has been applied in so exemplary a fashion in Africa), resettlement (the solution which has benefited from so many remarkable humanitarian efforts for Indo-Chinese in the last decade) and, until one of these is viable, a degree of self-reliance in the countries of first asylum.

I have already shared with you in June my belief that UNHCR must react to existing and new refugee crises with a three-pronged approach that combines effective emergency response, the prompt establishment of basic services (health, sanitation, education), and early action to establish income-generating activities which will promote refugee self-reliance. These measures have to be initiated as rapidly as possible and, to the extent practicable, simultaneously, in the interests of both refugees and host countries. For emergency survival assistance alone contributes little of durable value to the country of asylum and barely alleviates the strains imposed by the presence of refugees - yet it remains the most expensive kind of assistance. This approach is entirely consistent with the concerns about infrastructure and related development in asylum countries which have been voiced in recent years, most notably at the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa. My Office will seek to reaffirm and reinforce the connection between refugee aid and development. One means of doing so is to further develop our co-operation with UNDP - with which we are involved, for instance, in joint efforts in Uganda - and with the World Bank, which has recently extended its refugee income generation project in Pakistan. We are engaged in discussions with both these agencies as well as with bilateral development agencies regarding possible co-operation in a number of additional projects for developing countries affected by the presence of large numbers of refugees. Such co-operation would also help UNHCR to plan its programmes more rationally.

I do not want to move from the topic of lasting solutions without taking heart from the noteworthy progress we have witnessed lately in this area. One hears so much these days about the ever-increasing phenomenon of refugee flows and the apparently perpetually mounting numbers. Yet not enough is said about the spontaneous repatriations from the Sudan both to Uganda and to the Ethiopian province of Tigray, nor about the beginnings of repatriation from Somalia to Ethiopia, nor indeed about the return of Latin Americans from their exile to Argentina, Uruguay and, even to some extent, to Chile. I myself have just returned from a visit to East Asia, and I could not help being struck by the remarkable fact that though some 150,000 refugees remain on our hands in that region, over 1 million others have found new lives.

It is of course a tribute to the international community that it placed the means and the resources at UNHCR's disposal to achieve such solutions. I can only urge you, and Governments in general, to continue to extend assistance to UNHCR in relation to the needs of refugees and the demonstrated efficacity of our functioning. The Office must not be deprived of the means to implement the approaches I have defined to you today - whose objective is, after all, to solve problems rather than to sustain them. I believe that the confidence of Governments has to be earned, but I also believe that good performance must be backed by contributions. Let us - UNHCR, Governments and beneficiaries - embark on a continuing dialogue on our needs and on what has been achieved in each programme. We shall not ask you to pour funds in indefinitely; we shall ask you to finance action. Contributions to solutions now will help avoid stagnation later.

The reorganization of the Office has been a major theme of our contacts in recent months, and I know you have paid some attention to this in the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters. The primacy of the regional bureaux in the new UNHCR structure is a reflection of the Office's reorientation to the field. The support services have been regrouped under the Deputy High Commissioner and have been, or are being, considerably reinforced. The task of improving the relations between the bureaux and the support services remains our next priority. An expert team of management consultants has been examining UNHCR's methods of work and procedures in order to improve delivery of our programmes and services to the field. we have concentrated on what I consider essential to obtain concrete results: the assessment of refugee needs, the establishment of budgets, the control of programme implementation and the preparation of reports for internal and external use. As I have stated in the past, I have embarked upon this reorganization in an attempt to equip the Office with the administrative and managerial tools to achieve our objectives. The reforms proposed will enable administrators to have the necessary information to follow, on a daily and monthly basis, the progress of our operations - and to make the necessary corrections when problems occur. A number of refinements are still being introduced. This is a process that will take time, but early in 1987, I expect to be able to present you with a plan of action, linked to a concrete calendar. I look forward to a more exhaustive discussion of this plan when I meet with representatives of members of this Committee more informally in January 1987.

The question of savings is one to which we all attach importance. It is too early to speak with any precision of the savings that may result from the reorganization as a whole, but it is worth noting that the savings already identified in the fields of procurement, public information and telecommunications are of the order of $2.4 million, an amount which covers several times over the cost of the study. Similarly, we have established that we could reinforce the obvious weaknesses in the support structure within the existing staffing levels of the Office. As a consequence of the changes at headquarters and in the field, a total of 101 posts at all levels have been discontinued, of which four fifths have been redeployed to compensate for evident weaknesses. The remaining posts will be redeployed shortly to further reinforce the bureaux and in particular the field. A number of the new posts of specialists created at Headquarters will in fact be occupied by officers spending the bulk of their time in the field. I am making every effort to ensure that these changes take place within the context of zero growth in staffing levels, but it is clear that to create a new, dynamic UNHCR we shall need adequate - and that may mean additional - resources. Resources, may I add, which may be required just to respond to new and increasing refugee crises which have arisen in the three years since the concept of zero growth was accepted.

The thrust towards acquiring specialist skills does not mean that UNHCR will henceforth do everything itself. In attempting to enhance our technical competence, we do not seek to substitute ourselves for other agencies with a longer history of experience and involvement in specialized assistance to refugees in the areas of, for instance, health or agricultural settlement. Indeed, I would go further and reassert my commitment to improving - in very concrete terms - our co-operation with other agencies and the United Nations system as a whole. You are aware of the exemplary co-operation between UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP), which I intend to maintain and develop. I also believe that UNHCR's collaboration with the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa (OEOA) was mutually beneficial. My Office has contributed actively to the conclusions of a Working Group that has made specific recommendations to ensure that the gains of the OEOA experience are retained and re-used in the United Nations system. We will make every effort to ensure that UNHCR benefits from a greater rationalization and co-ordination of the resources of the United Nations system in our activities, particularly at the two ends of the assistance spectrum - emergencies and development.

This is, of course, in keeping with the spirit of partnership that already governs the participation of Governments and non-governmental organizations in UNHCR's work. The non-governmental organizations are our vital partners, in the field and in asylum and donor countries, in implementing programmes, raising funds, persuading Governments and sensitizing public opinion. I greatly value their role and fully intend to strengthen UNHCR's collaboration with them. At the same time, one must take note of the rather astonishing proliferation of non-governmental organizations in the refugee field. There are over 1,000 organizations on UNHCR's rosters and we have worked with over 250 of them. I do not think this can lead to particularly meaningful co-operation. UNHCR must identify a reasonable number of non-governmental organizations that share our humanitarian principles and possess the vision and the know-how to help UNHCR meet its objectives in the interests of refugees. These non-governmental organizations would be our obvious - but not our only - partners in our common endeavours on behalf of refugees.

This partnership, so vital to our success, would, of course, be impossible without the support and involvement of ordinary people across the world who express their solidarity with the refugee cause. And when I speak of solidarity I do not think only of dollars and cents, but of hearts and minds. I think, for instance, of ordinary people who have welcomed refugees into their homes and communities - a concrete gesture that does more to reinforce the political will of Governments than a hundred speeches. It is in recognition of this kind of human solidarity that the Nansen Committee has made the unusual decision of awarding this year's Nansen Medal to an entire people rather than to an individual or organization. In tribute to their outstanding contribution to the refugee cause, the Nansen Medal for 1986 will be awarded to the people of Canada, whose Governor-General, Mrs. Jeanne Sauve, will receive it on their behalf in a ceremony to be held in Ottawa on 13 November. I am sorry that delegates here have thus been deprived of the pleasure of participating in the ceremony, but I am sure you will all join me in congratulating the Nansen Committee on their excellent choice.

May I conclude, Mr. Chairman, with a reiteration of the importance I attach to this, our first formal dialogue on UNHCR's new orientations. What I have stated today is nothing more than an introduction to the themes that will animate your debate and on which I hope we can all agree. I am greatly looking forward to the next six days of intensive and productive discussion and decisions. However difficult the subject before you - and you have at least two on which agreement has proved elusive, military attacks and detention - I hope you will come to a constructive understanding And not postpone your conclusions year after year. The gravity of the problems before this Committee and the real human suffering that motivates our efforts demand that the Executive Committee of UNHCR not fall prey to what may be acceptable practice in political forums. All of us here have an obligation to work for humanitarian solutions to the tragic problems of refugees across the world. My colleagues and I join you in pledging our best efforts in this endeavour. More than 11 million refugees are entitled to expect that from us.

Your outgoing Chairman, Mr. Chiba, who has been such a pillar of strength and wisdom to the Office in the last year - and to me personally in my first nine months in office - expressed the hope last week that I would find this session stimulating and worth while. I am confident that, with your co-operation, and under the leadership of our new Chairman, Mr. Charry-Samper, this Committee will indeed meet my expectations.