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Opening Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, fortieth session, Geneva, 5 October 1989

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, fortieth session, Geneva, 5 October 1989

5 October 1989

A challenge confronts the Executive Committee at this fortieth session - an immediate and compelling challenge which is of direct concern to all of us. And, in the coming year, our response to that challenge will have far-reaching effects on refugees and asylum-seekers. It will determine whether they are able to harvest the fruits of the efforts that they themselves, the international community of asylum and donor countries, and we at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have so painstakingly made over the years in the promotion of durable solutions, or whether the foundations that we have laid together will be jeopardized and, perhaps, irrevocably undermined for want of the resources to consolidate them.

In recent years, the members of this Executive Committee have advised and accompanied my Office over much difficult and uncharted ground. Together we have sought an orientation for our humanitarian efforts that best addresses the fundamental needs of refugees and asylum-seekers. And, several years ago, we reached together the conclusion that the first-aid of emergency assistance, however essential it may be in sustaining life, is too meagre and too inconclusive a response to the fundamental problems that confront us. Nothing less than real, humane and durable solutions are enough. Only they are humanly worthy both of the refugees we are mandated to assist and of ourselves, the representatives and servants of the international community. It is through durable solutions and solution-oriented assistance alone that refugees can cease to be refugees and can assume their rightful place as members of the international community that we represent. It is through such assistance alone that we can acquit ourselves of our responsibilities towards them.

But, even if durable solutions are relatively easy to conceptualize, it has required several years of systematic effort and energetic action to ensure that UNHCR has a real institutional capacity, duly reflected at the levels of policy and implementation, to give a new, solution-oriented emphasis to the work it undertakes in collaboration with its governmental and non-governmental partners. We have gone through a period of apprenticeship and growth. And out of that apprenticeship have come innovations and proposals concerning not only policy, but also organizational responsibilities and divisions of labour. Those have been fully reflected in the decisions adopted by the Executive Committee in recent years and are further exemplified in the document on the important question of refugee aid and development which has been submitted at this present session.

The apprenticeship that we have undergone together in new conceptual approaches and operational modalities, and its subsequent translation into humanitarian action, have necessitated a parallel process of deep reflection in the area of international protection; a process encompassing the very causes of refugee exoduses, the risks - so often tragic - run in the course of flight, the conditions encountered upon arrival, and the range of problems linked to voluntary repatriation and reintegration. In each situation, UNHCR has attempted to identify, as systematically as possible, the factors which reinforce or, conversely, jeopardize the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers, with a view to defining appropriate policies and actions that take full account of existing rules and principles and guide us and our partners at the level of concrete implementation.

Those efforts by my Office have not been, and are still not, without their problems and set-backs. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that the complex reasons which today compel people to leave their countries of origin and seek asylum elsewhere have triggered negative reflexes or outright rejection on the part of the public in many parts of the world, and those have, in turn, been reflected in official attitudes. But the complexity of the problem we face does not justify our resorting to perfunctory solutions. If we are to maintain the humanitarian standards that have been so hard won by the international community, it is essential that we ensure that Governments make every effort to identify, in any more widespread movement, those persons who are often desperately in need of protection, be it temporary or longer term, and to ensure that it is fully extended to them. In our justifiable emphasis on durable solutions, it is of vital importance to ensure that solutions are not implemented at the expense of long-established principles of refugee protection. In the case of voluntary repatriation, the durable solution of preference includes the verification of voluntariness, full access to all returnees and the removal of any reprisals or discrimination following return. Those principles are not always readily agreed to by the parties concerned, but they remain a fundamental prerequisite for involvement of the UNHCR in the repatriation process. Although the going is not easy and ground gained one day may sometimes be lost the next, it is only through the continuation of determined efforts by UNHCR and the international community that our approach to questions of international protection and its relationship to solutions can stay abreast of increasingly complex needs.

Substantial though the difficulties we face may be, the will that the international community continues to demonstrate in its efforts to find rapid and peaceful solutions to long-standing conflicts in numerous regions of the world is a continuing source of encouragement and hope. It is, indeed, in those efforts, which provide the larger context for much of our insistence on durable solutions, that lies our real hope of seeing refugee numbers decrease substantially in the coming years. Of course, important successes have already been recorded and the past 12 months have both yielded positive results and offered the promise of more. Most notable perhaps has been the repatriation of over 41,000 Namibian exiles who have at last been able to return home under the terms of Security Council resolution 435 (1978). In the short space of three months, the return process has been successfully completed and the returnees will be able to participate in the election of their Government and the birth of their independence. Also on the African continent, the difficult operation of repatriating some 320,000 Ugandan refugees from the Sudan was brought to a successful conclusion in March 1989, while, further south, all but 1,000 of the 55,000 Burundi refugees who fled their country in 1988 have now returned home. In Central America, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan and Salvadorian refugees continue to return to their countries of origin, while in South-East Asia the number of those returning home, while still limited, continues to grow. World wide, some 350,000 refugees have returned to their countries of origin over the last 12 months.

I would like to think that progress in the political arena will continue to lead to similar solutions elsewhere. In fact, progress towards solutions is already discernible in a number of ongoing refugee situations. Within the framework of the Tripartite Commission, which brings together the two concerned Governments and UNHCR, the prospects for durable solutions for Ethiopian refugees in Somalia have, for example, improved significantly of late - irrespective of the recent events in Somalia. In other situations in the Horn of Africa or the troubled south of that continent, hundreds of thousands of persons could rapidly return home should the perceptible impetus towards dialogue and reconciliation be maintained, and its important, if still tentative, results be further consolidated.

The fruition of those and other prospects depends above all on the strength of the political will of the community of States. This is not a time for complacency in any form. Great determination is still required of both Governments and UNHCR if conditions fully conducive to the implementation of durable solutions, above all voluntary repatriation, are to be created and exploited to the full benefit of those concerned. Little can be achieved by my Office without the unreserved endorsement of the international community and its full political and financial support. Nor, where voluntary repatriation is concerned, can that support be confined to the simple mechanism of return. For, unless repatriating refugees and the communities they rejoin are able to survive economically, the root of the problem has not been solved. It is for this reason that in Africa, Central America and elsewhere, we have been seeking to co-operate with development agencies to ensure that assistance is given not just to the areas affected by the burden of refugees, but also to areas of return. The International Conference on the Plight of Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons in Southern Africa and the International Conference on Central American Refugees have played a crucial role in developing that approach and in showing the path to be followed in years to come. By any objective standards of analysis, the investment involved in that approach is a sound and, indeed, essential one.

Of course, any approach to durable solutions can only acquire meaning in a context in which asylum is fully assured. And, as you know, we continue to have grave preoccupations in that regard. It is meaningless to speak of durable solutions if asylum-seekers are shunted from one country to the other without being accorded refuge. In that respect, countries of first asylum have a key responsibility and role which is fundamental and through which they can contribute not only to the immediate protection of those who seek asylum, but also by rendering possible an orderly approach to the implementation of solutions, to a progressive reduction of the burden on the international community.

But now allow me to look towards the future in more general terms. In moving ahead, the challenge faced by my Office will be to maintain and reinforce its traditional activities, while responding flexibly and creatively to the complex new needs that have emerged in recent years. First, we must, of course, maintain and strengthen our capacity to intervene promptly and expeditiously in favour of any individual or group that is threatened and is in need of our assistance and protection. Over the last 12 months, my Office has been called upon to provide emergency, life-sustaining assistance to some 700,000 new refugees in Ethiopia, Malawi, South-East Asia and other regions. And, in the last two years, no less than 1.5 million additional refugees have required urgent assistance. It is of the utmost importance that we maintain our capacity to react rapidly and effectively to crises so as to avert large-scale human tragedy through the timely provision of assistance and protection.

In addition, we must refine our capacity to manage the all too numerous, ongoing refugee situations where no immediate solutions are within reach. In so doing, we must take every precaution to ensure that the assistance given promotes to the fullest possible extent the ability of refugees to take charge of their own lives, thus minimizing the growth of dependency on aid, which at one and the same time devalues human dignity and so greatly complicates the eventual implementation of durable solutions. We must also ensure that the needs of particular categories of refugees, especially refugee women and children, who are both the most numerous and the most vulnerable of refugee groups, are fully taken into account and enter the mainstream of our programme activities. In this respect, may I recall that UNHCR has already issued a number of guidelines, notably those on refugee children, and is taking further specific measures, including training and intensified inter-agency co-operation, to ensure that the issue of refugee women is systematically addressed as an integral part of all aspects of programme planning and execution.

But, beyond the needs of ongoing programmes of assistance, my Office must also tirelessly explore and promote durable solutions and ensure that it is in a position to implement them at the first possible opportunity. This will require that we not only maintain and increase our capacity to plan, deliver and co-ordinate assistance, but also enhance our capabilities in the field of protection. For it is only through a combination of protection and assistance measures, simultaneously applied, that true durable solutions are possible. Our efforts to identify solutions must go hand-in-hand with equally determined efforts to ensure the effective implementation of our protection mandate. The document submitted to the Executive Committee at this session on the concept and practice of protection in relation to the search for durable solutions, entitled "Solution to the refugee problem and the protection of refugees" (EC/SCP/55), leaves no doubt about all the ground we still have to cover on this crucial subject. I have noted with deep satisfaction the wish expressed by the Sub-Committee on International Protection that further study of that area be undertaken without delay in an effort to reach conclusions by next year.

If UNHCR is to measure up to the justifiably exacting expectations of the international community in the respects that I have outlined, it must be provided with the necessary support. Our capacity to promote and implement durable solutions is dependent on our being given the means to fulfil our mandate and to address the real needs of refugees in accordance with clearly defined goals and policies that have the full acceptance and support of the international community. We can work effectively on no other basis. Indeed, it is my profound conviction that an approach based on anything other than the properly assessed needs of refugees is illusory and even counterproductive; it leads only to a dead-end, away from durable solutions and away from the international community's own desire to see refugee problems resolved. In this respect, therefore, the requirements of my Office and the legitimate interests of Governments are in harmony. It is only by striving to create and maintain this coincidence between the humanitarian objectives that we pursue and the legitimate political interests of States that durable solutions can be attained.

Nevertheless, other compelling realities cannot be ignored. In the present climate of financial crisis, a concerted effort is required from concerned organizations and Governments to strike a tenable balance between identified needs and available resources, a balance that does as little violence as possible either to the present well-being and future prospects of refugees or to the capabilities of host and donor Governments. The necessity of making such an effort has been reflected in the deliberations of the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters, the results of which are demonstrated in the comprehensive range of measures proposed to this plenary session.

Like all organizations that depend for their activities on voluntary contributions, UNHCR is fully aware that the establishment of the kind of essential balance to which I have referred depends, in large measure, on the efforts of the institution itself and on its capacity to demonstrate needs and to execute, monitor and evaluate programmes. To that end, my Office has, in recent years, made strenuous, well-documented and widely recognized efforts to increase its level of professionalism in both action and management. Noteworthy improvements have been instituted in areas such as financial and programme control and delivery. More specifically, these have concerned the assessment of needs, the quality of financial planning and budgeting and the rationalization of our personnel structure. Recent auditors' reports, as well as those of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions are encouraging in the references they make to progress achieved and deficiencies redressed, remaining weaknesses and the need for further consolidation notwithstanding. It is our firm determination to continue to build on what has already been achieved.

In that context, I would be remiss not to draw attention to the fact that the considerable progress made in recent years has only been possible as a result of the dedicated efforts of competent and highly motivated colleagues both in the field and at headquarters. They have given much convincing evidence of their devotion and professional abilities, often under the most exacting of circumstances. Such achievements should not be masked or diminished by the rare instances in which difficulties have arisen. In assessing our progress and charting our future path, it is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of the human factor, which alone can guarantee the effective utilization of resources and the overall quality of our programmes. Vital though their role may be, technical innovations remain secondary to the extensive human talent and dedication that we have at our disposal, not only among our own colleagues, but, equally important, among our many devoted counterparts from the community of non-governmental agencies.

As you are undoubtedly aware, the achievement of a balance between demonstrated needs and available resources has been a major preoccupation of my Office throughout 1989 and will evidently be so again in 1990. Elements of many programmes have been eliminated or postponed this year, while other activities have been pared down to the bare bone. Further economies are not possible without seriously endangering the fate - or even the very survival - of those in our charge. The operation undertaken this year has starkly highlighted the dilemmas involved in sharply reducing the scope of our programmes, while attempting nevertheless to meet the needs of refugees and the expectations of host and donor countries and to fulfil the mandate entrusted to my Office. The exercise has been a painful one for UNHCR. It would be misleading to pretend that it has not been even more so for refugees.

In the context of our common search for a formula that strikes an acceptable balance between needs and resources, much discussion has already taken place in the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters with a view to devising an approach to guide us through the difficult time which lies immediately ahead. It is indispensable that the implementation of the formula devised be accompanied by a shared determination that my Office be provided with the resources to fulfil its mandatory obligations in 1990 and that a new and sustainable balance between needs and resources be achieved by the end of that period. And may I say of what imperative importance it is that the desired balance should take full account of the protection and assistance requirements, including durable solutions, so as not to waste the extensive investment made in recent years by the international community as a whole and thus imperil the prospects for durable solutions in various parts of the world. Any more negative approach would drastically increase the already heavy burden on those countries that host the great majority of the world's refugee population.

We are aware that UNHCR is by no means the only organization in need of the scarce resources of the international community, and it is not our intention to deprive others of the support that is their due. We know that, outside the scope of our mandate, lies a wide range of other human needs just as legitimate and pressing as those of refugees. There are many who desperately require, within the boundaries of their own countries, urgent assistance with reconstruction or development. We do not seek to deprive them of any share of the international community's generosity. Not only would this be contrary to the humanitarian principles that guide our work, but it would also sow the seeds of future outflows of refugees. Nevertheless, we do emphatically seek to ensure that the universally applauded peace process and its widespread impact on the international climate today do not lead to a diminution of the resources available for the protection and assistance required by the victims of violence and persecution, particularly refugees. Solutions to refugee problems require long and careful gestation and any hesitation or drawing back by the international community will inevitably undercut the possibility of attaining them in either the immediate or more distant future.

With that in mind, may I make an urgent appeal to traditional donor countries and all other States or groups of States that may be in a position to contribute to the funding of our programmes to do so as a matter of the utmost urgency, in a spirit of international solidarity with both refugees and Governments of host countries. It is only through an intensification and widening of donor support that a true and equitable balance between the needs of refugees and the resources of the international community will be reached.

I cannot conclude my remarks without paying a proper and heartfelt tribute to our outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Jamal of the United Republic of Tanzania. Ambassador Jamal, a renowned friend of my Office and a tireless advocate of its goals, has been an invaluable source of guidance and inspiration during this last, and often difficult year. My staff and I are indebted to him for his leadership and unfailing co-operation. At the same time, it is with the greatest satisfaction that we congratulate you, Ambassador Dannenbring, on your election and welcome you to your office as Chairman of the fortieth session of the Executive Committee, a position in which your vast diplomatic and leadership skills will be deployed for the benefit of the world's refugees. I also extend my warmest congratulations to the other newly elected members of the Bureau in the knowledge that, as the Executive Committee embarks on its fifth decade of deliberations, a collective effort to support us in the execution of our humanitarian mandate is indispensable. What is now at stake, more than ever before, is the very ability of UNHCR and of the international community to take advantage of the opportunities offered to us by a new spirit of peace and reconciliation and to guarantee that, when the moment comes, long-awaited solutions will be both feasible and durable. What is required of us is a considerable investment not only in financial resources, but also in hope, solidarity and dedication. To turn away from the challenge that faces us is to squander the past investment all of us have made in our combined efforts to address the plight of refugees and steer the tragic situations of which they are the victims towards solutions. It is in the best interest of all of us to avoid such waste and retrogression by ensuring that the humanitarian principles enshrined in the 1951 Convention and all that has developed therefrom in terms of our common approach to the protection and assistance of refugees are strictly observed and further consolidated. Political wisdom, common sense and human generosity forbid us from taking any other course.