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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 63rd Session, New York, 4 November 2008

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 63rd Session, New York, 4 November 2008

5 November 2008

(As delivered)

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates,

When the Cold War came to an end, some anticipated that the triumph of liberal democracy and economics would lead to, and I quote, "the limitless accumulation of wealth, and the satisfaction of an ever-expanding set of human desires." But instead, we are now confronted with an accumulation of adverse trends.

Globalization has lifted millions out of poverty, but has also increased the gap between rich and poor - a source of social tensions and political instability. The process of climate change and the increased incidence of natural disasters are threatening the lives of many. Consequently, growing numbers of people are leaving their homes to look for greater security and better opportunities.

Populations are growing and urbanization is accelerating in the developing world. Cities are becoming bigger and more densely populated. High food and energy prices recently added to the resulting tensions.

These adverse trends are compounded by disturbing developments in the political arena. Competition for scarce resources is an increasingly important factor in provoking and perpetuating violence. We are confronted with a series of deepening conflicts, some of which are interlinked, and with important implications for global security.

Climate change, extreme poverty and conflict are becoming more and more interrelated. As a result, forced displacement is increasing. In 2008, and in Africa alone, we have seen the flight of thousands of people, coming into countries such as Botswana, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.

These developments have had important implications for UNHCR. In the last 18 months, we have provided emergency support to over 40 situations. Spending on emergencies increased from $34 million in 2006 to over $87 million in 2007, and the figure for 2008 will be somewhat under $150 million. We estimate that in 2008 our global expenditure will increase to $1.6 billion, compared to $1.1 billion in 2006. These figures highlight the dramatic pressure that is being placed on our capacity and our resources.

* * *

Mr. Chairman,

At the core of UNHCR's activities are our beneficiaries. By the end of 2007, there were 11.4 million refugees, and the number is rising. Eighty per cent of them are in their regions of origin. We cannot overestimate the generosity of those developing countries which continue to extend hospitality to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees.

The number of internally displaced persons by armed conflict is also on the rise. They are now 26 million, of whom we are supporting some 14 million in 28 countries, more than double the number in 2005.

The proportion of the world's refugees living in urban centres is growing very rapidly. And it is a challenge that we will have to adapt to: refugee life in urban areas is very different from life in camps.

But beneficiaries are not just numbers. They are people who have rights and needs. This is why another of my key objectives has been to make efficiency savings in order to release additional resources to meet the basic needs of the people we care for.

In 2007, of the savings due to reform measures adopted one year before, $15 million were directed to address crucial gaps in the areas of malaria, malnutrition and reproductive health, as well as prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in 19 countries. This year, we allocated further $7 million to initiate those projects in other countries. We are now focusing the same efforts on addressing gaps in water and sanitation and the scourge of anaemia in protracted situations. Operations in our field presence and activities have been insufficient to meet beneficiary needs, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and so they have also been strengthened with additional resources generated by UNHCR internal reform.

Although we are already seeing results, these efforts cannot fully address the needs of the people we care for. This is why as part of the 2009 planning process, offices in eight pilot countries were asked to plan based on the estimated total needs of each population of concern, rather than on the support we expect to receive from donors. The 2009 revised Annual Programme Budget partially reflects the findings of this exercise.

Mr. Chairman,

Protection is the foundation of everything we do. We work with many different groups of people, but they all have one thing in common: their rights have been violated and must be restored. As I mentioned to this Committee last year, we are working particularly hard on the asylum-migration nexus, operationalizing the 10 Point Plan of Action we have developed in a number of locations. I am pleased to report that the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which met in Manila last week, agreed that a comprehensive approach to international migration must include measures to address the protection needs of refugees and stateless persons.

We have also been engaged in a constant struggle to preserve protection space by promoting positive developments in asylum legislation and procedures. But this is a challenging task, as state concerns about security and irregular migration have led to the introduction of measures that represent a threat to refugee protection.

Another increasingly central aspect of our protection work is, as I mentioned, SGBV prevention and response, with particular attention to the protection of women and girls. We have no illusions about the difficulty of this task. Forced displacement, extreme poverty, the breakdown of family structures and cultural prejudice all create the conditions in which SGBV becomes rampant.

Efforts continue to exercise our protection mandate more effectively in relation to statelessness, a largely unrecognized scourge which damages the life of millions of people. I am pleased to report that in addition to what I shared with you last year, encouraging developments are now taking place in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

We have continued to strengthen our commitment to the protection of the internally displaced within the so-called Cluster Approach. We are also very encouraged by the preparation of an African Union Convention on Internally Displaced Persons, and hope that it will be ready for adoption at the AU Special Summit in Kampala next year. A very important moment indeed. The first legally binding instrument specifically addressed to the internally displaced in the world.

Mr. Chairman,

Important progress is also being made in solutions, and involved member States should receive a great deal of the credit.

In 2007, more than 700,000 refugees were able to go back home voluntarily, the large majority with UNHCR support, to countries such as Afghanistan, Burundi, the DRC, Liberia and Sudan. A much larger number of internally displaced persons, some two million in total, were able to do the same. We did our best, sometimes against all odds, to make sure that returns took place in safety and dignity.

On the surface, return and reintegration as a scenario look good. But let us take a hard look at the realities of return. In some cases, repatriation takes place because of security difficulties, of economic problems or even of restrictive refugee policies in countries of asylum. And in very few cases can we feel that conditions in the country of origin are entirely conducive to effective reintegration. UNHCR, moreover, will never have the capacity and resources to provide all the elements of a successful reintegration process: shelter, water, health, education, livelihoods and access to the rights of citizenship.

We remain actively engaged in advocacy efforts on this matter, bringing partners together in an attempt to create the conditions for sustainable reintegration. These partners include first of all the States concerned whose role is absolutely essential, but also the Peacebuilding Commission, the World Bank, other international financial institutions, as well as UN agencies, namely through the Delivering as One initiative. But to be frank, these are areas in which the international community is struggling to offer effective support.

Concerning local integration, I would like to single out the generosity of the United Republic of Tanzania, which has offered the prospect of naturalization to more than 170,000 refugees who fled Burundi in '72. In Latin America, local integration projects have benefited over 160,000 refugees, internally displaced persons and local residents. Positive developments are also going on as I referred to last year in the ECOWAS region in Africa. A number of States may continue to have doubts about local integration. But it is also fair to recognize the efforts that many refugee-hosting countries have made, even when local integration as such is not envisaged, to ensure that refugees can live meaningful and productive lives during their time in exile.

In addition, the number of resettlement submissions to third committee made by UNHCR in 2007 rose to almost 100,000, including some 6,000 women and girls at risk. The 2007 submissions represent an increase of more than 80 per cent when compared to 2006, and the global number of resettlement departures in the first half of 2008 was 50 per cent higher than in the same period of the previous year. This is indeed a sustained development (movement). New resettlement countries are also emerging. These include Brazil, Chile, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Portugal, Paraguay and Uruguay and the list goes on. And a new emergency transit facility has been established in Romania.

But we all need to do more, and we need to do better. In many parts of the world, continued armed conflict and human rights violations are obstructing the preferred solution of voluntary repatriation. Too few countries of asylum give refugees a fully secure legal status and allow them to make use of their full productive potential. Too many people find themselves trapped in protracted refugee situations, in conditions of extreme poverty and insecurity. Our second "Dialogue on Protection Challenges" in December this year will examine the different instruments that could unlock protracted refugee situations, looking specifically at Southwest Asia, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Eastern Sudan and the Balkans.

Mr. Chairman,

The centre of gravity of UNHCR's work is in the field. This reality is the basis of our structural and management change process. We need to become more effective, more efficient and more agile as an organization, responding to the needs of our beneficiaries. Let me identify some key actions we have taken in this area.

First, we have been determined to streamline our Headquarters functions to direct our resources and energy more and more to the field. At the beginning of 2006, we had 1,047 staff members based in Geneva. Last month we were 747, 300 less. As a result, there has been a reduction in the Headquarters budget in relative terms. In 2006, it stood at 13.9 per cent of total expenditure. This year, it will be in the region of nine per cent. The creation of the global learning centre n Budapest gave our important contribution for their future.

Despite these achievements, 26 per cent of UNHCR's international professional staff members are still based in Geneva. That is why we are continuing the Headquarters Review to reconfigure those divisions which provide support to the field in protection and in operations.

Second area, decentralization and regionalization. By locating decision-making closer to the field, we are strengthening management accountability and ensuring that guidance is more closely related to operational realities. Following the previous establishment of regional offices in Europe, we have extended the same approach to locations such as Bangkok, Dakar and Pretoria. Parts of the Americas and Europe Bureaux will move shortly to Panama and Brussels.

Third, a firm commitment to achieving and demonstrating results. We have adopted a new budget structure and a new resource allocation framework, the latter positively tested by the rapid response to the South Ossetia crisis. We are now in piloting a results-based management software called FOCUS.

Fourth, we are embarking on a comprehensive set of human resources reforms. These will cover recruitment, contractual conditions, performance evaluation, promotions, rotation, career counselling, and training. The creation of a global training centre in Budapest was decided by me last Friday. I have to say that it is not easy to reform the management of human resources within the UN system. But I will not give up the struggle for fairness and efficacy to the benefit of the staff and the organization.

In parallel with our internal reform efforts, UNHCR is deeply engaged in the wider UN reform process.

In our view, Delivering as One presents an opportunity to work with the UN system towards durable solutions and support to countries of asylum. We have been actively involved in the pilots and have played a catalytic role in the development of joint UN programmes targeting refugee-populated areas in Tanzania and in Pakistan. Indeed, the Delivering as One principles have great potential in many of our operations, including countries that were not pilot countries, a recent example being shown in Bangladesh.

UNHCR also remains fully supportive of the Humanitarian Reform process. The Cluster Approach represents a major step forward in terms of humanitarian response and we are deeply committed to its improvement, respecting the integrity and specificity of institutional mandates.

Mr. Chairman,

We recognize the important role of integrated missions and continue to work closely with them, particularly in the context of reintegration, such as with UNMIL in Liberia and UNMIS in Southern Sudan. UNHCR is also working in theatres where peacekeeping troops are contributing to the security of displaced people and humanitarians.

Having said this, I want to stress the need to preserve the autonomy of the humanitarian space and to safeguard the key humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence, particularly in countries where a durable peace settlement has not yet been reached. We must take a hard look at the meaning of 'peacekeeping' in situations where there is no peace to keep. We have been working closely together with OCHA and DPKO on this issue and are fully engaged in its discussion in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Mr. Le Roy and myself have also decided last month to strengthen the dialogue and co-operation between DPKO and UNHCR.

Mr. Chairman,

Our staff is our most valuable resource. Maintaining a deep field presence exposes many of them to significant risks and places huge demands on their resilience. Some have paid with their lives.

We continue to look for ways of minimizing the risks to which our staff are exposed, while trying to ensure that the management of security enables, and does not restrict, the delivery of protection and assistance. But while reinforced security is a regrettable necessity, it is impossible to protect our staff by means of barbed wire and barricades alone. We must work hard to ensure that humanitarian action and humanitarian organizations are perceived by the actors to be neutral and impartial. This is a very important challenge for the UN today.

* * *

Mr. Chairman,

Allow me to end with two pressing concerns that I feel obliged to bring to your attention.

First, while we are doing our best to minimize our costs, it is also true that our budget does not allow us to meet fully the needs of our beneficiaries. The recent impact of changes in the food and energy markets has dramatically affected their welfare. At the same time, we are asked to do more and more and to respond to greater and greater demands. We depend on Member States to continue to provide UNHCR with appropriate levels of support. And the recent evolution of exchange rates represents for UNHCR's income a loss of about $100 million in our forecast in 2009 when compared with the moment in which the budget was prepared.

I fully recognize the challenges posed by the current financial situation on national budgets. But I must also point out that the resources needed to support the 31 million people we care for are very modest when compared for instance with the sums being spent to bring stability to the international financial system. It would be tragic if the funds available to the humanitarian community as a whole, and to UNHCR in particular, were to decline at the very time when the demands made upon us are increasing so dramatically.

Second concern, we must use the next year to promote a serious and systematic debate about the international community's response to the growing scale and complexity of forced displacement. And in doing so, let us ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

How will the issue of climate change and other adverse trends impact on patterns of forced displacement?

Are new norms, standards or instruments needed to govern the way in which forced displacement is addressed in tomorrow's world?

Are the traditional principles of humanitarian action still relevant, and how do they relate to newer concepts such as 'human security' or 'the responsibility to protect'?

Is the current architecture of humanitarian action adequate, or are new institutions, coalitions and partnerships required?

These questions form the basis of an important and necessary debate, in which the leadership can only come from Member States.

* * *

Mr. Chairman,

If we fail to meet the basic needs of the world's poor, then we can only expect more social and political turmoil in the years to come. I count on the collective wisdom of Member States and I am sure that you will go on investing in protection, assistance and solutions for the people we care for, the most vulnerable of the poor. It is not only a matter of generosity; it is a matter of enlightened self-interest and we cannot afford not to address it.

I thank you very much.