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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 24 January 2006

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 24 January 2006

25 January 2006

(Check against delivery)

Mr. President, Excellencies,

The United Republic of Tanzania has been an extremely generous country, hosting hundreds of thousands refugees for decades. I thank you for the opportunity to be here today. The Security Council and its resolutions are key instruments to address forced population displacement and its impact on peace and security.

Seven years ago, as Prime Minister of Portugal, I worked closely with the Security Council in advocating for a strong international response to ensure respect for the rights of East Timorese. Those were the most compelling moments of my political life and your engagement on that occasion confirmed to me the power of this body as an agent for positive change.

With that in mind, I wish to express UNHCR's strong support for Resolution 1625 on strengthening the effectiveness of the Council's role in conflict prevention by addressing the root causes of conflict, promoting development and good governance, eradicating poverty, supporting national reconciliation, and protecting human rights.

My Office deals only with the symptoms of a disease. The Security Council may have the power to cure it. This is both a significant ability and a weighty responsibility.

I. - Operational Overview

Mr. President,

I would like to start by briefing you on two urgent challenges UNHCR faces today, Sudan and the Great Lakes region, where we are dealing with many of the cross-cutting issues on the Council's agenda.

Sudan-Chad is probably the largest and most complex humanitarian problem on the globe. Six months ago, during my visit to the region, the situation appeared to be moving in the right direction. The peace deal was reached in South Sudan. It held, even after John Garang's death, and had the potential for a positive impact in Darfur and the East. International scrutiny appeared to have a stabilizing effect in the former, with hopes that the Abuja talks would reach a peace agreement before the end of the year. Unfortunately and although I pay full tribute to the efforts of the AU, we did not have the positive outcome that some may have taken for granted. The situation has taken a turn for the worse and there is a risk the talks face an impasse.

Today, violence and impunity, never completely in check, are again everyday occurrences in Darfur. Humanitarian workers are regularly cut off from the displaced and those they are trying to help. This month we were forced to raise the threat level for staff in areas of West Darfur, even as staff observe the systematic destruction of crops and rising gender-based violence.

And the insecurity has now spread across the border into Chad. Just a few days ago, armed rebels took several government officials hostage and attacked the village of Guéréda, where UNHCR cares for over 25,000 Sudanese refugees. The increasingly unstable conditions in the border area, which is home to 200,000 refugees, have compelled us to relocate part of our staff.

The international community could face a catastrophe in Darfur. Averting it will require bold measures and the full involvement of the African Union and the UN. If we fail, if there is no physical protection for those in need of aid, the risk is a much greater calamity than what we have seen so far.

I appeal to this body today in the strongest terms. I am aware of the discussions underway on the evolution of a more robust security force, and the delicate question of its nature and composition. But preventing a disastrous human toll in Darfur requires a peace agreement, not as a solution to the problem but as the start to a complex process of reconciliation. To reach it we need the full commitment of the Council and all its Members working together in support of peace and putting pressure on all the parties involved. Who can defy you if you act together?

To the South, the voluntary repatriation of Sudanese refugees began last month with a first group of returnees from Kenya. Tripartite agreements for repatriation are being signed with the governments of Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Movements from Ethiopia and Uganda will begin in February and March and our aim is to return 50,000 Sudanese from refugee camps in neighbouring countries in the coming months. Given the dimensions of the operation, we estimate it will take three to four years to help all refugees return home to South Sudan.

Repatriation is strictly voluntary. But even with the fragile situation in areas of the south, we cannot overlook the courage and determination of the estimated 75,000 refugees who have already come home spontaneously. Tens of thousands of internally displaced persons have also returned to the South, mainly from Khartoum.

International assistance is crucial for the sustainability of returns to the South. When I spoke with Sudanese refugees in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, I saw how much they want to go back. I will never forget listening to people of all ages talk about their hopes - for a home of their own, for education, for peace. But in South Sudan there are only 14 kms of paved road, almost no schools, no hospitals, and a civil administration that is extremely thin on the ground. We cannot wait to answer the refugees' wish to return. Massive economic and political support to the transition is necessary now - not when everything is in place and all the rules of conditionality are met. By then it could be too late.

Eastern Sudan is less noticed by international observers. But its security situation is deteriorating steadily. A peace agreement is also imperative, even if we know that stability in the region is closely tied to developments in Eritrea and Ethiopia. More than 100,000 Eritreans remain as refugees in Sudan, one of the oldest refugee groups UNHCR cares for. Tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia last year have already driven several thousand new Eritrean refugees into Sudan and Ethiopia. Any deterioration in relations between the two clearly threatens sizeable population displacement.

The Great Lakes region features similarly complex challenges for humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR. Two situations which the Council is following closely are of particular importance to my Office: Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Last year, 66,000 people went home to Burundi with our help. But the rate of refugee return has slowed significantly over the past few months and the movement may stop altogether unless every measure is taken to build the confidence of prospective returnees in their reintegration. And let us be honest, those conditions are not present yet. Economic support to Burundi and to the humanitarian agencies is crucial for security and consolidation of the peace process.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo finds itself in a similar situation after years of unrest. Repatriation continues from several neighbouring states. The DRC has also been selected as one of three countries to pilot the new, inter-agency cluster approach to internal displacement, through which UNHCR has been asked to assume the lead in the areas of protection and shelter. A pioneering approach is being used in protection, which UNHCR is leading in close cooperation with MONUC.

Stability and international support are paramount to the success of these humanitarian efforts. But just last week up to 20,000 people, mostly women and children, fled conflict in the DRC and crossed into Uganda. Different displacement movements are still ongoing in every direction. This scene is the type of recurrent insecurity that has made humanitarian interventions next to impossible. UNHCR has sent relief aid and staff to the border area - assistance, in fact, that was destined for repatriating Sudanese. The tragic killing of the peacekeepers in Garamba Park, by elements of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, is a clear demonstration of the complexity of the problems we face.

As with Sudan, threats to peace and development in the Great Lakes region do not end with a single country, or two or even three. Security and solutions cannot be parcelled out one nation at a time. Both Sudan and the DRC underline how crucial it is to employ, and for this body to support, a regional approach to peacekeeping and political missions. Your forthcoming debate on peace and security in the Great Lakes is very timely in this regard.

These two situations are also a good reminder of the importance of and the problems associated with the conceptual framework of the Responsibility to Protect.

II. - Refugee Returns and Sustainability

Mr. President,

The number of refugees worldwide is at its lowest level in almost a quarter century. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to internal displacement. Several sizeable repatriation operations have contributed to the decrease in refugees, led by Afghanistan where more than 4 million people have returned home since 2002. Returns to African nations like Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and countries of the former Yugoslavia have also been or are becoming very successful. Refugees and internally displaced are among the most obvious beneficiaries of the end of conflict. As the gunfire stopped and wars faded, millions of them have seized the opportunity to begin life over.

But that picture is incomplete. What the past decade has demonstrated is that refugees must not be seen as uninvolved beneficiaries of a peace and recovery process, or simply as an afterthought. Refugees return with schooling and new skills, in itself a critical factor in any post-conflict situation. Over and over, we see that their participation is necessary for the consolidation of both peace and post-conflict economic recovery.

Sustainable peace and recovery are necessary to allow refugee returns. Yes. But refugee returns are every bit as essential to sustained peace and recovery.

Sustainable peace and recovery are necessary to allow refugee returns. Yes. But refugee returns are every bit as essential to sustained peace and recovery.

This is also our objective in Iraq. UNHCR remains engaged in close coordination with UNAMI to find durable solutions, through return and reintegration as soon as conditions permit, for some 1.3 million internally displaced persons in Iraq and another estimated one million Iraqi refugees in the region. Resolving land and property issues is one of the priorities that will help this process. UNHCR hopes, circumstances permitting, to enhance its presence and capacity inside Iraq.

III. - Relief to Development Gap: the Peacebuilding Process

Mr. President,

Given the unbroken line between population displacement, peace, and recovery, the failure to follow it steadily from relief to development ranks as one of the international community's most consistent failures. Links between humanitarian aid and development efforts are simply not working in most cases.

Humanitarian aid is not a guarantee against the recurrence of violence or of displacement. The absence of an effective transition from short- to longer-term assistance reduces the life expectancy of solutions. Large-scale population returns are difficult to sustain if development stalls and instability grows. Without adequate resources for development, institution-building and reconciliation, societies can unravel again, dormant conflicts can reignite, and civilians can be forcibly displaced once more.

UNHCR is not a development agency and does not intend to become one. But we are raising awareness of the need to include refugees and the displaced in national development programmes. We will be a reliable partner in the UN Development Group. Afghanistan has shown us both the need and the possibility to engage in new ways with recovery actors. If we do not work from both sides to create the links, relief and development will never sustain each other.

Mr. President,

This is why the decision to create a Peacebuilding Commission is one of the most significant events of 2005. Too little of the international community's attention and resources traditionally go to rebuild societies that have been torn apart by war and violence.

I look forward to working closely with the Peacebuilding Commission to address not only the relief-to-development gap, but the complex needs of societies emerging from conflict. UNHCR will appreciate being seen by the future Commission as a relevant partner. We also intend to play an active part in its Support Office.

This is an appropriate moment to recall the vital role women have in peacebuilding. More than five years after the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325, it is also time to note that we have a long way to go to reach the goal of equal participation of women.

I strongly hope the Peacebuilding Commission will also ensure that recovery processes continue long after international media attention has moved elsewhere. Humanitarian relief and development support must follow the real needs of the people, not the agenda of television networks.

IV. - The importance of prevention

Mr. President,

The best remedy is prevention. Vigilance is essential in all parts of the world.

UNHCR is closely watching developments in the Central African Republic, where the spread of armed gangs and general lawlessness in the north have forced thousands of people to flee to Chad and Cameroon. There is still time to act and with limited resources prevent another major crisis in the near future.

Prevention is not an easy job - the situation in Côte d'Ivoire proves that. The outrageous attacks on UN offices in Guiglo are a clear demonstration of the crucial need to find an effective solution to the four-year old crisis. The population displacement that would result from open conflict in Côte d'Ivoire is unpredictable in scale and impact.

The Security Council actions on the protection of civilians and displaced persons in particular are of great importance to our Office. The mandates of peacekeeping operations and peacebuilding strategies must include solutions for displaced populations. The safety of humanitarian workers must be ensured too, and I take this occasion to welcome the adoption by the General Assembly of the Optional Protocol to the 1994 UN Convention on Staff Safety.

V. - Asylum and Intolerance

Mr. President,

As a protection agency, we face two major protection challenges today: preserving asylum in an age of mixed population flows; and stopping the rise of intolerance in modern societies.

The reasons for many migratory movements are complex but can be dramatic, like the serious socio-economic decline in many countries of Sub-Saharan Africa that leaves no other alternative for survival. Preserving asylum requires that we be able to find those in genuine need of protection when they are concealed by mixed flows. The challenge of identifying such individuals grows with their numbers and the risks they are willing to take, as we have seen in the Mediterranean and tragically again, this last weekend, in the Gulf of Aden.

Credible protection must incorporate measures against fraud and abuse to safeguard the credibility of the asylum system. UNHCR stands ready to work with all governments to support their efforts to improve legislation and asylum procedures. And I appeal strongly for a concerted crackdown on human trafficking and smuggling. Protecting refugees also requires tough punishment for the profiteers of these irregular movements.

Credible protection must incorporate measures against fraud and abuse to safeguard the credibility of the asylum system.

UNHCR fully recognizes the right of countries to responsibly manage their borders and define migration policies. But it is essential that such measures do not preclude the right of those in need of international protection to physical access to asylum procedures and adequate refugee status determination, in accordance with international law.

Addressing intolerance is perhaps an even greater challenge.

Intolerance is a rejection of strangers, of people from elsewhere, of those who are different. Intolerance is fostered by populism, both in politics and the media. As a result, the public is often led to view terrorism, security problems and asylum and migration issues as shades of the same motif.

Terrorism must be fought with total determination. We need to make certain that terrorists are not granted asylum. But we need to make just as certain that asking for asylum is not a crime.

Mr. President,

Racism, xenophobia, ethnic conflict, violent nationalism and religious fundamentalism are unfortunately still very much alive and a serious threat both to social cohesion in societies and to peace and security in the world. Preserving peace and security means fighting the ills rooted in populism and intolerance. I appeal to all of you to join together in confronting them.

Thank you.