Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-seventh session, Geneva, 4 October 1976

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-seventh session, Geneva, 4 October 1976

4 October 1976

Mr. Chairman,

I would like, first of all, to extend to you my warm congratulations on your election. I have no doubt that your guidance will be invaluable for the deliberations of this Committee. May I also express my sincere thanks to the outgoing office bearers, the distinguished Chairman, Ambassador Clark of Nigeria, the Vice-President, Mr. Rauscher of Austria, and the Rapporteur, Mr. Hostmark of Norway.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates,

Once again we meet in the calm and peaceful atmosphere of Geneva to discuss human problems which stand out in sharp contrast to the quiet environment. Before reporting to you on the over-all situation and the progress achieved in projects of material assistance which you approved last year, I would like to share with you my feelings regarding the plight of hundreds of thousands of homeless people around the globe whose bleak existence must be borne in mind by all of us in the course of our deliberations.

Let me illustrate through concrete examples: On 18 May, in a Latin American country, two refugees, who were both well known personalities in their country of origin, were abducted from their residence very early in the morning by a non-identified armed group. Three days later, their corpses were discovered along with those of two other refugees in an abandoned car.

On 1 June, a refugee, who had once been the President of his country of origin, was kidnapped and, on 3 June, his body was found outside the city. A few days later, a group of unidentified men broke into the office of a voluntary agency and stole dossiers of 2,000 refugees. Following this, a group of 50 armed men abducted 25 refugees from two hotels during the night. They were released on 12 June after having been tortured.

At the same time, another refugee in the same country was abducted in the street, pushed into a car and taken to an unknown place. He was released after his face had been burnt with acid.

Mr. Chairman, I could go on and give this Committee hundreds of concrete examples of this kind from different corners of the world. I do not need to dramatize because, in our experience, stark reality is more Poignant than fiction. I have given these few examples in order to bring into focus the problems of legal protection, which is one of the primary functions of my Office and which . more than ever, demands the attention of the world community and public opinion.

Incidents like those I have just cited inevitably create a great feeling of insecurity if not panic among the refugees. Of course, where necessary, I consistently intervene with the authorities at the highest level requesting appropriate measures on behalf of specific cases and, more generally, to ensure the safety of persons of concern to my Office. However, what makes the exercise of my protection role particularly difficult in cases of threats, abductions, torture or casualties, is the fact that these incidents are reportedly caused often by uncontrolled individuals or organizations. Thus, in many instances, legal protection becomes a synonym of "physical" protection which, in spite of the co-operation between my Office, Governments concerned, religious groups and non-governmental organizations, can hardly be fully achieved. Safe havens are created. Refugees are grouped together in centres. Appeals for resettlement opportunities are launched. But there are limits to what my Office can do unless it receives the fullest co-operation of the international community and Governments, at least in finding effective and timely remedies to the problem, if they cannot eradicate the root causes.

Mr. Chairman, I have alluded until now to only one aspect of the problem, that is, where refugees are victims of violence. There is another equally regrettable aspect, that of terrorism which, as a malignant disease, is continuing to grow around the globe. I am referring here to cases where persons who are the concern of my Office are sometimes themselves authors of acts of terrorism. There have been instances where such persons have not only committed acts of violence against fellow human beings for reasons whose validity remains in doubt, but also cases where staff members of UNHCR have themselves been targets of such senseless actions.

I wish to make absolutely clear that, on the basis of both the 1951 Convention and the Statute of my Office, persons acting against the purposes and principles of the United Nations are excluded from the benefits of refugee status. If such acts are committed by refugees, they constitute not only a challenge to human conscience, which condemns them, but also an affront to the humanitarian feelings which led their country of residence to grant them asylum and give them a chance to start a new life. Thus, these refugees not only violate the provisions of the international convention which protects them, but also run the serious risk of losing all benefits that the country of their adoption grants them. I would like, in this connexion, to reiterate that, according to the 1951 Convention, "every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order".[10]

Mr. Chairman, it seems fitting to start with protection matters in view of the increasing attention that this Committee is paying to this aspect of UNHCR's functions. Mindful of the debate last year, I am aware that you may wish to form a sub-committee to deal in greater detail with protection problems which my Office is now facing. This is important not because the vigilance of UNHCR has decreased, but because the number of violations of human rights and of the rights of refugees has increased immensely.

On the positive side, I should like to report the entry into force, since we last met, of the two International Covenants on Human Rights and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This development is as gratifying as it is ironical in view of the increasing violation around the world of the very principles which these Covenants propound.

Similarly, there have been further accessions during the year to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol and I would like in this connexion to cite Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Portugal and Uganda. Here again let me stress that the respect by Governments of the principles which these instruments defend is as important as their adhesion to them. Efforts must be made to eliminate any discrepancy between external attitudes of States and their internal practices.

Finally, special mention should be made of the forthcoming Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Question of a Convention on Territorial Asylum. This gathering on 10 January next year will be the culmination of arduous efforts over several years to codify the basic humanitarian principles relating to territorial asylum. I am gratified that, at the meetings of bodies such as the Organization of African Unity and the Asian-African Legal Consultative Committee, at which my Office was represented, positive recommendations were unanimously adopted in support of the proposed Conference. It is my earnest hope that the work of the Conference will constitute a hallmark in the development of international humanitarian law relating to territorial asylum. May I also refer in this connexion to General Assembly resolution 3456 (XXX), under which I was required to seek voluntary contributions to cover the cost of the Conference. In view of the inadequate response hitherto received, I would appreciate it if Governments could give an early indication of their contribution to the total requirements amounting to $300,000.

Mr. Chairman, with your permission, I should now like to comment briefly on some situations of concern to UNHCR in various parts of the world. Having just referred to protection, it may be appropriate to turn to Latin America, where these questions are of greatest relevance today. Because of political and socioeconomic instability in certain countries, the situation of refugees has continued to be more than precarious. Although the number of registered Latin American refugees is not high, they represent a very complex problem in terms of effective protection and permanent solutions. Most of the Latin American countries which acceded to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol have maintained the geographic limitation while many have still not acceded. This constitutes a serious handicap for UNHCR in dealing with problems relating to the rights of refugees. Similarly, only a part of the caseload was absorbed within the continent for permanent settlement. Hence the need to seek resettlement opportunities elsewhere, which has given the problem a worldwide dimension. In Argentina, of 10,000 registered refugees, 80 per cent are Chileans while 20 per cent are Uruguayans, Bolivians and Brazilians, in that order. Of these, some 6,000 continue to live on subsistence allowances, pending permanent settlement, and thereby constitute a heavy financial burden on the limited resources of my Office. In addition to these refugees, some 4,500 Latin American refugees, mainly Chileans, have left Argentina since the events of September 1973, while many others, who are not registered, have chosen to live clandestinely. In view of problems of public order and security, many of the registered refugees, living in a state of constant fear, are eager to leave Argentina. In response to the appeal for resettlement that I made on 22 June, nine countries have responded positively, while others have kept doors open.

Consequently, movement from Argentina at the rate of 200 per month is continuing. It is important and urgent that traditional countries of resettlement, as well as other countries, come forward generously to alleviate the plight of these refugees.

As for Chile, some 6,600 persons have left the country under UNHCR auspices. The movement of Chilean nationals joining heads of family abroad is still continuing. The last safe haven was closed on 31 March this year.

Similarly, some 2,350 refugees left Peru under UNHCR auspices, while about 1,000 refugees are still in the country, mainly on a temporary-asylum basis. In addition to refugees of European origin, there are also groups of Latin American refugees in various other countries of the continent. Our efforts to strengthen further the presence of UNHCR in the area are continuing with a view to meeting more adequately the increasing requirements of humanitarian aid and protection.

The developments in North America have been encouraging during the period under review. Both Canada and the United States have not only continued their financial support of various activities of the Office, but have also accepted large numbers of persons of concern to UNHCR for resettlement. In close consultation with the Government of Canada, a branch office has been opened in Ottawa, while in the United States an effort is being made to streamline eligibility procedures with UNHCR playing an advisory role.

As for Europe, UNHCR's activities remained at the level of last year's programme except in Yugoslavia, where, following a visit I paid there, need for further assistance projects was identified.

My Office has continued its efforts to promote family reunion from several East European countries. This initiative, taken in the context of intentions expressed by States at the Conference on Co-operation and Security in Europe, held in Helsinki, has met with a measure of success. Hitherto, more than half the cases submitted by UNHCR to the authorities in various East European countries have been resolved, and it is my earnest hope that further progress will be made in this domain.

I should also like to express my deep appreciation to European countries which have not only continued, but have further strengthened their support of our various activities. A number of countries have accepted for resettlement large numbers of persons of concern to UNHCR. Special mention may be made of France, which has accepted a substantial number of Indo-Chinese displaced persons.

We hope that the trend set by West European countries will be followed by others.

In the context of the annual programme, Africa continued to be the focus of attention. During the year under review, more than 60 per cent of the total UNHCR budget was allocated to refugees in that continent. The caseload increased through further influxes in countries such as those in the Central African region, Mozambique, the Sudan and Zaire. The over-all situation in southern Africa, especially in the light of recent events, continues to cause concern and we are closely watching developments in that area. Meanwhile, special assistance measures are under study for over 26,000 refugees from Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in Mozambique. A special allocation of $75,000 had to be made on an emergency basis when one of the settlements financed by UNHCR was destroyed under circumstances which are well known and which I hardly need to repeat. Clearly until justice and fundamental human rights are fully restored in that part of the world, continuous suffering and uprooting of large numbers of people will inevitably continue.

As in the case of Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, a large programme of assistance to refugees and displaced persons is required in Angola. Following an interagency mission undertaken during June and July of this year, the Secretary-General asked me to assume the role of coordinator of assistance from the United Nations system to Angola for a period of one year. Subsequently, on 23 August, I launched an appeal on behalf of the Secretary-General, covering the total requirements of the displaced populations. In addition to 48,000 tons of food, other relief items would require a total input of some $32.5 million. I hope that, with the close co-operation' of UNDP, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, and the support of Governments and non-governmental bodies, it would be possible to implement fully this direly-needed programme of assistance.

Besides the continuing concern in southern Africa, my Office is also faced with a serious problem in northern Africa resulting from the situation in Western Sahara. The Government of Algeria has requested the assistance of my Office for thousands of Sahrawis at present living in precarious conditions in camps in the Tindouf area in south-west Algeria. On the other hand, the Governments of Mauritania and Morocco have launched appeals for the return of these Sahrawis to their homes and requested the assistance of my Office to promote their voluntary repatriation. Naturally, in this case as in others elsewhere in tie world, UNHCR is following its traditional policy, which is not to perpetuate a problem, but rather to seek speedy and permanent solutions which include, inter alia, voluntary repatriation and permanent settlement. However, pending a durable solution, there is urgent need for humanitarian assistance. I sincerely hope that Governments will contribute generously in order to meet the relief requirements.

Similarly, Mr. Chairman, who can ignore the tragic plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in Cyprus and Lebanon? It is clear that, while satisfactory solutions are sought to the problems faced by these countries, there is again continuing need for humanitarian assistance.

Turning now to Asia, let me first briefly comment on the programme in the Indo Chinese peninsula. The implementation of the projects, both in the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam and in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, continued to progress satisfactorily. In Viet Nam, after the reunification of the country, the two UNHCR programmes in the North and the South were, with minor modifications, amalgamated into one consolidated programme. While massive needs in both countries continue to exist, UNHCR is concentrating only in predefined geographical areas with the majority of displaced persons and in specific sectors of assistance with a view to avoiding duplication. As elsewhere in the world, my Office expects gradually to phase out its programme as the beneficiaries achieve a measure of self-sufficiency. Thus, as compared to the on-going programmes, which foresaw an input of $20 million, it is expected that the 1977 programme may be less than 50 per cent of the present one.

In Thailand, regrettably, the influx continues and the UNHCR programme at this stage is still one of containment. Recently, in the course of a regional meeting held in Bangkok, some of my senior colleagues were able to visit various camps and assess the over-all situation. Discussions were also held with the Thai authorities to promote permanent solutions. For the displaced persons from Laos, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the caseload, the most suitable solution would naturally be, as elsewhere in the world, voluntary repatriation. Until this materializes, the relief projects will have to continue, although we hope that next year the UNHCR programme would be much more oriented towards self-sufficiency than is the case at present.

As for the countries east of Thailand, which are covered by the regional office in Kuala Lumpur, the pattern of UNHCR involvement has remained more or less uniform. In addition to resettlement projects, such as in Malaysia, the main activities consist of temporary assistance or care and maintenance of a fluctuating caseload of Indo-Chinese displaced persons. This applies, in particular, to Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore. UNHCR is also continuing its efforts in the field of resettlement of these persons, mainly from Thailand, but also from other countries of the region.

Our presence in the region was recently strengthened particularly with a view to handling more adequately what has come to be known as the problem of the "boat people", on which I now would like to comment. Since last year, there has been a steady influx of persons from the Indo-Chinese peninsula into various countries of South-East Asia. Most of these persons arrive in their own small vessels. However, a number of them are in such fragile boats that, to save them from drowning, they have to be rescued on the high seas. This aspect adds a dramatic dimension to the problem, which has recently received considerable attention in the media.

I have already had occasion to draw the attention of the Committee to this problem at the informal meeting held on 25 June. Since then, I have issued an appeal in order to obtain resettlement opportunities for these "boat people". Details of the present situation concerning them are contained in an "Information note", which is being made available to the Committee. For my part, I would like, on purely humanitarian grounds, to bring to the attention of Governments the essential aspects of this phenomenon.

Firstly, in accordance with existing international instruments concerning rules of law relating to assistance at sea, the masters of ships must, in a spirit of human solidarity, come to the rescue of boats in distress on the high seas. Secondly, the countries of first asylum must adopt a generous attitude and at least grant those people temporary asylum. UNHCR would naturally be prepared, where necessary, to finance their care and maintenance pending a permanent solution. Thirdly, it is my earnest hope that Governments, particularly those of traditional countries of resettlement, would respond both favourably and generously to my request of 28 July and grant special quotas for these people on humanitarian grounds, following the pattern of the "Ten or More Plan", which is already familiar to Governments and well known to this Committee.

Mr. Chairman, the diversity and scale of situations requiring action by UNHCR has, inevitably, resulted in greater demands on the financial and human resources of my Office. As for the financial aspects, I am gratified at the confidence in UNHCR shown by Governments, of which the most concrete proof is that they have never failed to provide my Office with adequate financial means to carry out its various tasks. This is a source of encouragement to us, particularly in the atmosphere of over-all financial crises that the United Nations system generally is facing. However, I am fully aware of the danger underlying a proliferation of appeals for funds and, as the Secretary-General has aptly pointed out in his annual report, this is clearly bringing into effect the law of diminishing returns. UNHCR has had to face this situation in the context of special humanitarian operations which it has been called upon to carry out. The unforeseeable nature of the crises which lead to situations requiring such operations and the unpredictability of their evolution in terms of permanent solutions, make it particularly difficult for my Office to hazard advance budgets or to forewarn donors. This is why there is need for ingenuity and for imaginative solutions to the technical problems of national budgetary allocations. I would, therefore, greatly welcome any suggestions that members of this Committee might have.

In connexion with the financing of the Annual Programme, I wish to remind the Committee that the 1977 programme target of some $US 16.7 million is based on the very minimum requirements foreseen at this time. Consequently, it cannot be excluded that an upward revision of this target may be necessary in the course of next year. The Annual Programme requirements have, unfortunately, continued to increase in recent years, while government contributions announced at the annual Pledging Conference are lagging considerably behind. This situation made it necessary for me in June this year to issue a special appeal for additional contributions to the Programme and in this connexion, I wish to pay a special tribute to the Governments of the Netherlands and of the Nordic countries, which responded so generously that I am able today to announce that the full financing of the 1976 Programme with its revised target of $US 14.8 million is secured.

As for 1977, it is extremely important that major increases in government contributions are announced at this year's Pledging Conference, in order to avoid special programme appeals for additional contributions in the course of next year.

Mr. Chairman, the objective of UNHCR is to achieve the maximum results with minimum input both in terms of money and manpower. Thus, in terms of staff, I am glad to be able to say that, despite the considerable increase in our workload, UNHCR has managed to remain a relatively small team. Regarding the regular budget of UNHCR, which forms part of the United Nations budget, an understanding was reached with the Secretary-General that it would remain constant in real terms for a period of four years. It gives me satisfaction to report that we have been able to abide fully by this understanding. The extra costs required by the increase in workload were covered from voluntary funds. As for special operations, in accordance with established United Nations practice, a small programme support component is included in the budget of each special operation. This enables UNHCR to hire temporary staff, particularly for field service, where it is most needed. With time and experience, the Office has come to draw from a pool of human resources which enables the regular staff to share the strain of increased workload. Once the specific special operation is over, the Office automatically reverts to its original size thus safeguarding its inherent flexibility and adaptability.

I wish to emphasize on this occasion the essential nature of co-operation with other organizations in the United Nations system. As a matter of principle, and in terms of financial and material support, various organizations directly related have continued their effort, which has become an essential component of assistance to refugees and displaced persons. Thus, technical agencies have continued to provide specialists for the planning and appraisal of complex settlement projects. Donor agencies have made available resources complementing those of UNHCR. Their material inputs have often covered requirements which my Office would have been unable to finance. Elsewhere, particularly where UNHCR is not represented, the UNDP resident representatives ensure liaison with Governments. UNICEF provides, wherever possible, material aid to populations and particularly to vulnerable groups. In a number of cases when large groups are provided with immediate relief and integration assistance in rural areas, food supplies made available by the World Food Programme exceed in value the total UNHCR inputs to the same groups and often run into millions of dollars. It goes without saying that every effort is made to avoid duplication and I am glad to be able to say that, with the guidance of the Secretary-General and the co-operation of agencies concerned, those efforts have hitherto been successful. I should like to thank these organizations very warmly for all their efforts through their representatives who are with us today.

I should also like to pay tribute on this occasion to the non-governmental organizations, many of which are represented here. As we all know, these organizations have an intimate awareness of the problems faced by individual refugees with whom they are in daily contact through their staff in the field.

My Office depends in many situations on the voluntary agencies. In some cases they serve as operational partners in the implementation of our programmes. In other instances, they constitute important sources for raising funds for UNHCR and also for the dissemination of information about refugee work. Finally several agencies co-operate closely with my Office in the field of protection where they represent the vigilance of community conscience in preserving the fundamental human rights of refugees.

Mr. Chairman, co-operation with other governmental and non-governmental organizations is essential if we are to pursue successfully our main objective of promoting permanent solutions to the problems confronting us. We are aware that at no cost should international assistance in any way serve to perpetuate a problem. In view of the increasing demands on the generosity of Governments, it is more necessary than ever that the planning process take fully into account the eventual phasing-out aspect. In the case of refugees covered by the UNHCR statute, the phasing-out is visible only when one of the permanent solutions enumerated in the statute is virtually achieved, that is, voluntary repatriation, resettlement or integration with eventual prospect of naturalization of refugees.

In the case of special operations, however, my Office adopts a more accelerated process of phasing out in order that they do not become too taxing for the international community. Special operations are by their very nature of short duration. Either the length of the UNHCR action is already predetermined, as in the case of Angola (one year), or the planning is done in such a way that the programme automatically phases out, as in the case of Indo-China. In all cases, our effort is geared to enabling displaced persons to achieve a measure of self-sufficiency as rapidly as possible.

Mr. Chairman, there is nothing new or original about the criterion of self-sufficiency that I have just mentioned. Two thirds of the world's population is today striving to achieve it and encountering seemingly endless difficulties in reaching this goal. Serious efforts are being made inside and outside the United Nations to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots, between the North and the South. Every day, we read or hear about the "new economic order", which all nations are, in varying degree, trying to promote. In this context, the world of refugees and displaced persons, who are the concern of my Office, deserves, I believe, special attention. They are the poorest of the poor, not just in material terms, but also because they are often without hope. Victims of events beyond their control, they are obliged to sever their links with their past and are required to plunge, willy-nilly, from a grim present into an unknown future. I believe that parallel to the efforts for a new economic order, there is an imperative need to strive for a "new human order" in the hope that greater attention might be paid to humanitarian principles so often preached but so seldom practised.

Talking of the uprooted of our times who are victims of violations of fundamental human rights, I am reminded of the story told of a child in refugee camp who was asked by a well-meaning investigator if he had a home: "Oh, yes", the child replied, "but we don't have a house to put it in".

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, there is no better way to conclude this statement than to repeat what was said by a colleague who worked for UNHCR at the time I joined the Office, more than 15 years ago:

"Statistics are only reference points for reality. We can summarize a million lives on a sheet of paper, but eventually we must deal with individual human beings. As soon as I went into my first refugee camp, I learned the difference between statistics and people - and I could not turn my back on what I found."