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"Refugees: Challenge of the 1990s" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the New School for Social Research, New York, 11 November 1992

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"Refugees: Challenge of the 1990s" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the New School for Social Research, New York, 11 November 1992

12 November 1992

As a turbulent world grapples for a new order, we are confronted with one humanitarian crisis after another. The horror at the exodus of 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds eighteen months ago has already been wiped out in the public mind by the massive human suffering in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. In 1970 there were 2.5 million refugees, ten years ago it reached 11 million. Today the numbers exceed 18 million. The refugee problem has become an issue of major political concern in the post Cold War era.

For forty years, refugee policies and practices were determined by the power struggle for global dominance that was the cold war. It was international sympathy for victims of communist persecution and repression which led to the creation of UNHCR in 1951 to protect and assist refugees. The coincidence of ideological belief and political interest helped millions of refugees to find asylum and integration in new lands. On the negative side, the cold war intensified regional and internal conflicts, producing some of the largest and protracted refugee flows in the poorest parts of the world.

Today the international political context within which the problems of refugees and the displaced have developed, is being radically transformed by the demise of the cold war. On the one hand, a new spirit of international cooperation has fostered opportunities for conflict resolution. On the other, new sources of tensions and conflicts are emerging. These changes have had a major impact on the refugee problem.

One of the distinctive and more positive changes, brought about by the end of the Cold War, has been the greater prospect for solutions to refugee problems. Renewed confidence in the United Nations and the new climate of international cooperation are leading to the resolution of many conflicts, not only between States but also within States, as far apart as Angola, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Cambodia and now in Mozambique. A new generation of peace-keeping operations has developed, combining ceasefire, demobilisation, voluntary return of refugees, monitoring of elections and the establishment of democracy. The opportunities for voluntary repatriation have rarely been better. In the course of 1992 alone almost 1.5 million refugees have returned home.

This optimism should, however, be tempered by the reality that return is often taking place in conditions far from ideal. In the Horn of Africa, war and food shortages in the countries of asylum are forcing people to return home prematurely to insecure areas, which lack infrastructure or resources to reabsorb them. Although over 60,000 refugees have returned to Angola, the country now faces a political and security crisis. The presence of large numbers of mines also continue to slow down returns. Hopes of rapid repatriation have been set back in Mozambique, Liberia and South Africa by widespread drought, food shortages, persistent conflict and political confrontation. In Afghanistan, over one million refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran but lack of adequate infrastructure and resources as well as widespread insecurity could lead to another humanitarian catastrophe with the onset of winter.

Secondly, the refugee problem today is largely the product of internal conflicts rooted in ethnic, religious and nationalistic hatred, which the demise of communism has revived. Indeed, ethnic conflict is a common denominator of many of today's refugee problems. Africa has long been the scene of ethnic strife, and the bloodshed in Somalia and Liberia continue to bear testimony to it. In parts of the former Soviet Union, ethnic tensions are causing large numbers of people to flee their homes. However, nowhere is the human cost of ethnic conflict more tragically illustrated today than in the former Yugoslavia, where "ethnic cleansing" has become the code for mass expulsion and persecution of minorities. Displacement is not so much the consequence as the objective of a tragic conflict which has uprooted or affected some 3 million persons. UNHCR finds itself caught in a terrible dilemma. By promoting asylum, we may be encouraging "ethnic cleansing". On the other hand, if we fail to help people reach safety, we may condemn them to persecution, detention and perhaps even death.

The third distinctive feature of the refugee problem today is that refugees are outnumbered by the internally displaced. Some of the internally displaced have no possibility of seeking asylum, while others do not wish to do so, while still others are denied it. Yet, their humanitarian needs are just as compelling as that of the refugees who have crossed the border. They represent the silent emergency of our times. There are no accurate figures for the total population, but estimates range from 15 to 20 million. The largest numbers are to be found in the Horn of Africa, where refugees have returned home only to find themselves displaced, along with civilians fleeing war and soldiers who have been demobilized. In Mozambique the long-drawn out civil war, now intensified by the drought, has produced 4 million internally displaced persons in addition to a 1.5 million refugees. A third of the 3 million people affected by the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina are displaced within the boundaries of their own countries. The violent dispute of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh has also resulted in substantial internal displacement, as has the conflict in Tajikistan in central Asia.

The distinction between refugees and internally displaced is based on the notion of the border. However, in some situations, the intensity of the conflict has led to the break-up of the state, as in Yugoslavia, or to the breakdown of meaningful government into systems of warlords, as in Somalia. Assertions of sovereignty and disputed borders blur the distinction between refugees and displaced persons in such cases.

The threat to international security posed by such internal conflicts and large-scale population displacements, combined with the stronger willingness of the international community to collectively address global concerns, is leading to a greater involvement of the United Nations in peace-keeping and peace-making, not only between states but also within them. The ONUSAL operation is one example. Mozambique is another. Cambodia is a third. Yugoslavia is perhaps the most complex and challenging one.

In each of these operations, the humanitarian aspect, and UNHCR's role and responsibilities within it, are a key component of the peace process, whether in ensuring the safe reintegration of returning refugees, as in Cambodia or in meeting the needs of the displaced population as in Yugoslavia. We are, more and more, operating as the humanitarian arm of the UN peace-keeping operations.

This has brought a major transformation of our principles, policies and practices. Traditionally, UNHCR's activities have concentrated on the country of asylum. Today, the growing scale and complexity of the refugee problem makes clear the inadequacy of asylum as the whole response. We need to concentrate not only on the middle stage of the refugee flow, but also on the two ends of prevention and solutions. The entire continuum of refugee flows from its root causes and prevention, to emergency response, protection and eventual solution deserves our attention. Consequently, the focus of our activities is shifting gradually from the relatively stable conditions in the country of asylum to the more turbulent and often evolutionary process in the country of origin of refugees. We are moving into security situations from which we would have evacuated in the past. We are having to call upon military logistics more frequently. The inviolable nature of national sovereignty is being questioned. Existing dogmas and doctrine are being challenged. New dilemmas are being posed in our search for a humanitarian strategy to meet the protection and assistance needs of uprooted people in their own country.

I would like to share with you some of these challenges and dilemmas. In particular I would like to concentrate on the challenge of protecting refugees and the displaced persons and ensuring access to humanitarian assistance during internal conflict and insecurity. The issue of national sovereignty must be addressed, while the principle of the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action must be preserved.

Traditionally international protection and assistance have assiduously respected the bounds of national sovereignty. A refugee did not become the object of international concern until after he had crossed his national boundaries. Concomitantly, the interest of the international community in his well-being was supposed to cease as soon as he returned to his country of origin or became a naturalised citizen of his country of asylum. Although it is widely recognised today that UNHCR retains a responsibility for refugees even after they return, until they are properly reintegrated in their own countries, we clearly have no general mandate for internally displaced who have never crossed a national frontier. In such cases we can only act - and have acted - at the specific request of the General Assembly or the Secretary General, as in northern Iraq and Yugoslavia. A clear legal framework for protecting and assisting displaced persons in their own country is therefore lacking.

There are of course provisions in humanitarian law, in particular the Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions for the protection of civilians in internal armed conflicts, as well as the mandate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but their effect is limited. The need to protect returning refugees and the displaced usually arises in situations of internal disturbances and tensions, which cause gross and consistent violations of human rights, but which do not amount to armed conflict, thus precluding the application of humanitarian law instruments.

Of course, the law of human rights is applicable in these situations. However, it is considerably weakened by the fact that governments are allowed to derogate from many human rights during a state of emergency, exactly at a time when the need for protecting the individual is the greatest. There is no effective international mechanism to question the necessity of governments to resort to emergency powers, nor any means of preventing human rights violations when the State abuses its powers.

Thus, ironically, the level of protection is highest for refugees in their country of asylum, and falls dramatically once they are back over the border. Similarly, protection is high in international armed conflict situations, but significantly lower during non-international armed conflict, and virtually non-existent in situations of internal disturbances and gross violations of human rights, although the protection needs of those displaced in such situations may be acute. This lacuna in the law needs to be addressed urgently if the problem of displacement is to be reduced or resolved. Admittedly, development of the law itself will not resolve the problem if the political will to observe legal obligations is lacking.

National sovereignty is a major constraint in addressing this problem. Article 2(7) of the United Nations Charter forbids intervention in matters "essentially within the domestic jurisdiction" of states. On numerous occasions, governments have hidden behind this veil to evade responsibility for gross violations of human rights within their borders. However, human rights violations have increasingly entered the realm of legitimate international concern, through the adoption of human rights treaties and use of fact-finding and reporting mechanisms. A further step was taken on 5 April 1991, when the UN Security Council created a precedent by adopting resolution 688, linking human rights violations to threats to international peace and security. I believe that the resolution is indicative of the rising international interest and responsibility on human rights and humanitarian issues, and the corollary erosion of national sovereignty.

The issue of humanitarian access has also challenged the traditional inviolability of national sovereignty. You will recall that through resolution 688, the Security Council insisted that Iraq allow immediate access by international humanitarian organisations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq. The government of Iraq never explicitly accepted the resolution. Nevertheless the resolution encouraged the Coalition Forces to intervene to create a "safety zone" in northern Iraq to provide relief to those who could not obtain asylum in Turkey.

Within weeks of the creation of the safety zone, almost all of the Iraqi Kurds along the Turkish border and in Iran were back in northern Iraq, though many were unable to return to their old homes which had been destroyed or were in insecure areas.

It would be fair to say however that the swift return was conditioned as much by the intervention of the coalition forces, as by the humanitarian assistance provided by the UNHCR. Our action, interestingly enough, was not based on resolution 688, but on a memorandum of understanding negotiated with the Government of Iraq by Sadruddin Aga Khan, the Secretary General's Executive Delegate for Iraq. The adoption of resolution 688 and the apparent determination of the international community to enforce it undoubtedly influenced the course of negotiations. Nevertheless, it was with the consent of the Iraqi government that UNHCR and its voluntary agency partners established a massive international presence in the north of the country, and that the UN deployed some 500 guards, ostensibly to guard UN property but in reality as a confidence building measure to enhance security. Thus, intervention, combined with consent, provided the framework for humanitarian action in northern Iraq. It also gave UNHCR its first taste of working with the military when we took over the relief activities from the Coalition Forces.

Another noteworthy aspect of our activities in northern Iraq was our decision at an early stage to make no distinction in our relief between returning refugees and those internally displaced. Through our "winterisation" project we rebuilt as many as 1,700 hamlets. Having achieved our goal of providing shelter for all those in need, we were able to withdraw almost all our 180 staff by July 1992.

To what extent our action has succeeded in stabilising the situation remains to be seen. In the meantime, questions continue to be raised on the limits of national sovereignty in relation to human rights and humanitarian action. Should there be a right of humanitarian intervention when there is gross violation of human rights? Is there a duty to intervene? The rejuvenation of the UN has reopened the debate on a UN military force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Could or should such a force be used for intervention when mass repression of civilian populations amount to threat to international peace and security, or for humanitarian relief in domestic conflicts? Some argue that national sovereignty should not be allowed to block humanitarian action. Others say that the right to intervene is an euphemism for the right to wage war, and often creates more problems than it solves.

Many of these questions have surfaced in the context of humanitarian aid to the victims of conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

UNHCR's involvement with refugees and displaced persons in Yugoslavia predates the deployment of the UN peace-keepers. In fact, it was almost exactly one year ago, that UNHCR, at the request of the Secretary-General, began assisting those displaced by the conflict in Croatia, in an effort to prevent and contain further displacement. In January 1992 the UN Security Council approved a plan of action, including the deployment of peace-keeping forces (UNPROFOR) in sectors along the Croatian border. It was not until later in spring, however, when the fighting spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina that ensuring humanitarian access to Sarajevo became a major issue. The Security Council adopted a resolution, extending UNPROFOR's responsibilities to the protection of Sarajevo airport and access to the city, so that UNHCR could continue to protect and assist those in need.

Unlike northern Iraq, military intervention does not seem to be a realistic option, even though on 13 August 1992 the Security Council adopted resolution 770 which allowed the possibility of invoking military force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, either collectively or individually, to ensure unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance. This resolution was not implemented and appeared to have been superseded shortly afterwards by Security Council resolution 776, which has extended UNPROFOR's mandate to the rest of Bosnia, both to ensure peacekeeping and also to support UNHCR's humanitarian activities. As a result, six thousand troops are being deployed throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, in line with the normal consensual arrangements of UN peace-keeping operations.

The resort to military cover for humanitarian activities caused a lot of soul-searching in UNHCR. There are understandable and obvious differences between the humanitarian aims of UNHCR and the political objectives of the Security Council. Linking the two could at least potentially jeopardise our neutrality and impartiality and affect our ability to work in security and confidence on both sides of a frontline. But the security conditions on the ground left us with little choice. Indeed, even the International Committee for the Red Cross has requested - and received - the protection of the UN peacekeeping force for its convoys of released prisoners. Such is the ferocity of conflicts today and the disregard for humanitarian principles.

Much of it results from the total breakdown of discipline and absence of order, of the kind we are witnessing in Somalia and parts of the former Yugoslavia. When countries break up into republics, and republics into territories ruled by warlords, who is there to bear responsibility for the safe passage of humanitarian aid or the protection of civilians? Humanitarian action is affected as deeply by the vacuum of state power as it is by the traditional notions of national sovereignty.

Without a minimum of order and acquiescence, responsible humanitarian action is paralysed. The consensus of international opinion therefore has shied away from humanitarian intervention which could destroy that sense of order. It appears to be pointing towards a more pragmatic approach, as reflected in General Assembly resolution 46/182 of 19 December 1991, which reaffirms respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of all States, and allows humanitarian assistance to be provided with the consent, but not necessarily the request, of the affected country. From a practical point of view, it is only by obtaining the agreement of those directly concerned on the ground that a humanitarian operation can be carried out effectively and safely. Ignoring this reality may lead to serious consequences both in the short and the long term. As the debate continues on the creation of a safety zone in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I believe it would be prudent of us to recognise the limitations of delivering protection and assistance without some, if not the fullest of cooperation of all parties concerned.

The links between the military and humanitarian organisations are not limited to providing security. Logistical support given by the military in humanitarian emergencies is adding a new dimension to humanitarian work as well as to the role of the military in the post-Cold war world. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, military teams provided by donor governments are helping to sustain UNHCR's airlift operation and land convoy system. Working under UNHCR supervision, as part of a civilian humanitarian effort, they have made a crucial contribution to saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced and affected people. The airlift to Sarajevo has attained a symbolic value far beyond the distribution of mere relief.

In conclusion, I hope this review has highlighted the challenges of protecting and assisting refugees and the displaced in conflict situations. As we examine these challenges, it is clear that a turbulent world situation would continue to hold a great many uncertainties and inconsistencies. Assertions of ethnic and national groups are weakening existing state systems and attempting to create new power structures. The global flow of money, markets and media is challenging the inviolability of national frontiers. At the same time the relationship between the individual and the State is in flux. Principles of human rights are placing growing emphasis on the obligations of governments towards their own citizens. Greater emphasis is being placed on the notion that sovereignty and legitimacy carry with them certain responsibilities

Declining state authority is paralleled by growing international concern on human rights and humanitarian issues. This is reflected in the great willingness of governments to collectively address the issue of internal conflict and displacement, and to provide international protection and humanitarian aid to those displaced in their own countries. Slowly and uneasily the various determinants are shifting to create a new equilibrium between these contradictory factors.

In that process of uncertainty and turbulence, humanitarian action becomes a major tool for the prevention and resolution of conflicts, Humanitarian issues have become an integral part of the peace negotiation of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia, co-chaired by Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen. By protecting humanitarian assistance to refugees and the displaced, the international community is buying time and space for the peace process. Thus, the refugee issue has found its place on the international political agenda.

I welcome this development. It is through political initiatives that root cause of displacement can be addressed. It is through political agreement that durable solutions to refugee problems can be attained. As humanitarian action becomes dynamically linked to peace-keeping and peace-making, the challenge is to develop a strategy which maintains the issue of refugees and displacement on the political agenda, while at the same time preserving the non-political and impartial nature of humanitarian work. It is a formidable challenge, but I am prepared to meet it.