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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 8 January 2009

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 8 January 2009

9 January 2009

(Check against delivery)

Monsieur le Président, Excellences,

Je voudrais tout d'abord exprimer ma gratitude pour cette opportunité de m'addresser au Conseil de Sécurité.

Monsieur le Président, à titre personnel, permettez-moi de vous féliciter à l'occasion de votre prise de fonction de la Présidence du Conseil en ce début d'année. L'excellente coopération qui existe entre la France et le Haut Commissariat des Nations Unies pour les réfugiés est solide, et elle s'est révélée particulièrement fructueuse pendant la récente présidence Française de l'Union Européenne.

Please also allow me to salute the presence of the five newly-elected Security Council members - Austria, Japan, Mexico, Turkey and Uganda. UNHCR enjoys a longstanding and positive relationship with all of these countries. I would particularly like to express my appreciation to Uganda for agreeing to host a Special Summit on forced displacement in Africa. At that Summit next April, African Heads of State will consider a new African Union Convention on Protection and Assistance for Internally Displaced Persons.

If adopted, as we all hope, the Convention will be the first legally binding international instrument specifically related to internal displacement. It will also signify African leadership on a matter of truly global concern.

Mr. President,

In January 2006, I informed the Council that the number of refugees was at its lowest level in almost a quarter of a century. Unfortunately, and despite large-scale repatriation movements, the following two years saw a significant increase in refugee numbers, due primarily to the situations in Iraq and Somalia. Whilst we are still compiling the latest statistics, our current estimate is that the total number of refugees under the mandate of my Office currently exceeds 11 million. This does not include the 4.6 million Palestinians for whom UNRWA has responsibility.

The number of conflict-induced internally displaced persons has also grown, and is now more than 26 million worldwide. While states have primary responsibility for the protection and welfare of displaced citizens, some lack the capacity or will to exercise it. Wherever possible, UNHCR therefore works in collaboration with the broader humanitarian community in the context of the so-called Cluster Approach to support states in providing the internally displaced with protection, assistance and solutions.

Another issue high on the UNHCR agenda is statelessness. In countries with reliable data, at least three million women, children and men are known to be stateless. However, the global number may be as high as 12 million.

Mr. President,

In my briefing today, I will first comment on recent trends in forced displacement. I will then outline three important challenges encountered by my office for which the role of the Security Council is highly relevant. And in conclusion, I will address the issue of resolving situations of forced displacement.

In as much as forced displacement arises from persecution and serious human rights violations, it is also often the result of threats to or breaches of international peace and security. At the same time, neglected displacement scenarios can represent a threat to peace and security. As such, situations of which the Security Council is seized, are often those where UNHCR is deeply engaged.

In today's world, I can perceive two groups of conflicts. The first extends from South and Southwest Asia, through the Middle East to Sudan and Chad, and into the Horn of Africa. From Peshawar to Kandahar, from Mosul to Gaza, and from El Geneina to Mogadishu, we are confronted with a series of distinct crises, each with its own historical roots. Even so, these conflicts are now increasingly interrelated and together have major implications for global peace and security, drawing the serious attention of the international community.

These conflicts are at the centre of many of today's humanitarian disasters, and have generated around two-thirds of the total number of refugees worldwide. They require a strong humanitarian response. While it is absolutely vital that the victims of armed conflict be provided with essential protection and assistance, we must also acknowledge the limitations of humanitarian action and its inability to resolve deep-rooted conflicts within and between states. The solution, as always, can only be political. And the contribution of the UN to resolving these conflicts in an effective and equitable manner is crucial to the credibility of the organisation, in particular amongst certain segments of international public opinion.

Mr. President,

Let me now go into a little more detail. In Afghanistan, intensified conflict, coupled with the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers, has limited humanitarian access to around half of the country's territory. Even so, in 2008, 278,000 Afghans returned to their homeland with our support, mainly from Pakistan.

This significant number of returns was in no way due to a meaningful improvement of the situation in Afghanistan. On the contrary, most of those who repatriated did so because of growing insecurity in the neighbouring areas of Pakistan and because of declining living standards for refugees in urban centres. In fact, violence, weak governance and development gaps in Afghanistan contribute to a situation in which three million of the country's citizens remain in exile in Pakistan and Iran.

We are now witnessing a new dimension to the crisis in the region, namely the displacement of some 300,000 people in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. As in Afghanistan, UNHCR has very limited access, with serious constraints on the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

These developments have confirmed that the Afghan situation cannot be understood or addressed in isolation. Accordingly, just two months ago, the government of Afghanistan and UNHCR organized an international conference in Kabul to consolidate a comprehensive strategy for the sustainable return and reintegration of the country's refugees and displaced persons.

This was cited as a positive expression of regional cooperation in the recent Security Council report on its mission to Afghanistan. However, the success of the conference will depend on a resolute follow-up process by all stakeholders, based on a strengthened national and international commitment to security, governance, and economic and social development.

Mr. President,

In Iraq, with the improved security situation, UNHCR is working hard to help the government create appropriate conditions for the voluntary return and sustainable reintegration of refugees and the internally displaced. However, there is a long way to go. Voluntary return must take place in safety and dignity. It is therefore imperative that states preserve the asylum space that they have made available to Iraqi refugees throughout the past five years in the region and beyond. More than two million Iraqis are still hosted mainly by Jordan and Syria in a very generous way and a similar number remains displaced inside the country.

I call on the world's more prosperous states to offer full support to those countries and organizations that are bearing the brunt of the Iraqi exodus, both by means of material assistance and through the expanded provision of resettlement opportunities to those vulnerable Iraqis for whom voluntary repatriation will not be a viable option.

To prepare for returns, we re-deployed our Representative in Iraq from Amman to Baghdad in March this year, and we also established an international presence in Erbil, Mosul and Basra. We have national staff in eleven of the country's governerates and plan to further expand our presence and activities in Iraq as the evolving security environment permits. Beyond security, sustainable return to Iraq will require effective action in the areas of property restitution, or property compensation for those unable to go back to their places of origin, and full and equitable access to welfare services and public distribution systems.

Mr. President,

In Darfur, an appalling humanitarian and human rights disaster persists. More than two million persons remain displaced internally and, just in Chad, nearly a quarter of a million Sudanese have sought refuge.

Without a political agreement that involves both the government in Khartoum and the different rebel movements, there is a risk that the UN-AU mission will be unable to meet the security expectations of the affected populations. This would represent a terrible blow to the people first of all, but also to the credibility of those organisations and the international community as a whole. Even if a comprehensive peace agreement can be established, the international force strengthened, and impunity ended, a massive investment will be needed to re-establish the social, economic and environmental equilibrium of the area, ensuring harmony between different ethnic groups, farmers and herders, and overcoming the tensions created by dwindling water resources and high population growth rates.

In Somalia, the hardships endured by its people are well known to the Council. With more than a million Somalis already dependent on food aid, any further limitations on humanitarian access could lead to additional population displacements of a daunting magnitude. The burden placed on neighbouring states, including Kenya, Yemen and Djibouti is already enormous. Any further deterioration would stretch regional capacities beyond breaking point and could generate a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.

Mr. President,

UNHCR is not present in Gaza. A sister agency, UNRWA, was created before UNHCR existed to address the needs of Palestinian refugees in the area. While we may not be directly involved, it is impossible for me not to make reference to the current political and humanitarian crisis. In Gaza, the civilian population is not even allowed to flee to safety elsewhere. I want to express UNHCR's firm solidarity with UNRWA and restate the call that I made three days ago for a strict adherence to humanitarian principles in and around Gaza, including respect for the universal right to seek and enjoy asylum.

Mr. President,

Beyond this first group of inter-related conflicts, others have been multiplying and deepening around the world. Contrary to the situations I have just examined, they generally lack international attention, largely because their impact is local or at best regional. They are not perceived as having implications for global security. The Central African Republic is a typical example. Although it is on the agenda of the Security Council, few are aware that some 100,000 refugees have been forced to flee to Chad and Cameroon, and that more than 200,000 of its citizens are internally displaced, in conditions of grave deprivation.

We might discuss many other crises, but I will focus on one particular situation because of its importance to the work of both the Security Council and my office - the Democratic Republic of Congo. The attention of the media and the international community has recently been concentrated on North Kivu.

To echo my earlier remarks, there is no humanitarian solution to that conflict. The solution must be political and involve the DRC, Rwanda, other regional actors and the international community as a whole. The current tragedy in North Kivu has a complex historical heritage coming from the colonial rule and exacerbated more recently by the Rwanda genocide and two Congolese civil wars. The solution must also address the FDLR presence in the area, the persistence of which threatens to undermine any peace agreement. And peace will be short-lived if the underlying problems of access to land, property, citizenship, inter-ethnic relations and the representation of minorities are not resolved.

But the DRC is not just North Kivu. We have recently witnessed some significant population displacements in Ituri and Province Orientale. Serious human rights violations persist in South Kivu, targeted predominantly at women and girls. Every six months, the number of people who die unnecessarily in the country as a result of armed conflict and material deprivation is equivalent to the number of people killed by the 2004 Asian tsunami. Only the Security Council has the legitimacy to lead the efforts of the international community to bring this wholly unacceptable situation to an end. UNHCR is prepared to play its part within its limited role and capacities.

Mr. President,

Just as patterns of conflict are becoming more complex, so too are contemporary forms of displacement. While the relationship between forced displacement and armed conflict is longstanding and well understood, its links with other phenomena, such as climate change, extreme poverty and poor governance, are not.

As a result of climate change, natural disasters are on the increase. They have become more frequent, intense and devastating in their human impact, reinforcing the potential for displacement. The same applies to drought and the rising level of oceans. The full impact of the current financial meltdown and economic recession, following the recent food and energy crises, will strongly hit the developing world. It seems inevitable that more and more people will be on the move. Conflict, climate change and extreme deprivation will inter-relate, strengthening each other as a cause of displacement. UNHCR is striving to analyse and respond to these developments, an objective that I believe we share with the Security Council.

Refugees are people who have left their country because of persecution or armed conflict. They benefit from the specific protection regime established by international law. No such legal framework exists for other people who have been displaced, other than the general human rights instruments that are applicable to all. In drawing attention to this issue, UNHCR is not seeking any expansion of its mandate or to broaden the established definition of a refugee. I believe we have a duty, however, to promote a serious discussion on new forms of forced displacement, the protection gaps that are emerging and possible forms of collective response.

Mr. President,

I turn now to three particular challenges for the international community in responding to humanitarian crises. All three centre on the work of the Security Council but also have important implications for my Office. And all three exemplify the complex relationship that exists between the imperative of maintaining peace and security and that of ensuring the effective delivery of protection and humanitarian assistance.

First, the challenge of peacekeeping in situations where there is no peace to keep, and its relation to the protection of civilians. Security Council Resolutions 1296 and 1674 reiterate that the deliberate targeting of civilians in situations of armed conflict remains a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. While the protection of civilians is primarily a responsibility of states, the Security Council is increasingly called upon to pursue this goal where states are unable or unwilling to discharge their responsibilities.

As a humanitarian agency, UNHCR has limited capacity to provide physical security for its beneficiaries. In some situations, ensuring the security of camps and maintaining their civilian and humanitarian character is only possible with the support of peacekeepers. In eastern Chad, for example, we anticipate that MINURCAT will play a crucial role in dissuading attacks on camps, preventing the recruitment of children and reducing the threat of banditry and sexual violence.

UNHCR welcomes the recent Security Council resolutions reinforcing MONUC's capacity and role in the protection of civilians in the DRC, and the opportunity they provide to give effect to Security Council Resolution 1820 on combating sexual violence against civilians, particularly women and girls.

But in situations where there is no peace to keep, mandates for the protection of civilians must be sufficiently clear and strong, and supported by appropriate levels of political and material support. Many peacekeeping operations start in a situation of relative tranquillity, only to be affected later by a deteriorating security environment. It is not my intention to opine on peacekeeping doctrines, but I am glad to know that these issues will be at the centre of the Security Council's forthcoming debates.

A second challenge in today's environment is that posed by the concurrent need to ensure staff security and to deliver humanitarian protection and assistance. Humanitarian personnel are deployed in the most dangerous places in the world. Many risk their own lives in the effort to help vulnerable populations to preserve theirs. Ensuring staff safety must be a top priority of every humanitarian organization and the UN as a whole. That is non-negotiable.

And yet, with the evolving nature of armed conflict, the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers has increased, establishing a tension between the imperatives of staff safety and effective humanitarian action. This is an issue which continues to generate acute dilemmas. In Somalia last year, UNHCR staff were bombed in Bossaso, shot at in Garowe and taken hostage in Mogadishu. The security risks could hardly be greater, and yet the nature of UNHCR's work requires us to be close to those we seek to help. And the way we are perceived by local populations and the relevant actors is usually more important to our security than the armoured cars at our disposal or the barbed wire fences we may erect.

We will never be able to eliminate risk entirely, but I believe that we can collectively do better to manage it.

The third challenge I wish to address is that of preserving humanitarian space in the context of an integrated UN presence. In UNHCR's experience, once a peace consolidation process is under way, an integrated presence can provide an effective framework for collaboration between humanitarian agencies and the political and security components of the UN system. For UNHCR, such partnerships are particularly valuable in pursuing solutions to displacement in transitional contexts. We currently enjoy constructive partnerships with UNMIL in Liberia, BINUB in Burundi and UNMIS in southern Sudan, to give just three examples.

But where conflict is still ongoing, there must be a balance between ensuring a coherent approach across the UN system and preserving the autonomy of humanitarian action, rooted in the fundamental principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. This is particularly crucial in situations where humanitarian agencies are operating in highly politicized and militarized environments.

That will not always be easy. We rely on the wisdom of the Security Council to support the establishment of arrangements that are pragmatic, flexible, based on solid common sense and tailored to the specifics of each situation.

Mr. President,

As I have observed already, solutions to armed conflicts must of necessity be political in nature. But once peace is achieved, it needs to be supported in a variety of different ways. This is a shared responsibility, and the peacebuilding architecture established by the United Nations provides a vital resource in this effort, as do the peacebuilding missions mandated by the Security Council.

These efforts complement and facilitate the work of my Office, most notably by supporting the voluntary return and sustainable reintegration of refugees and displaced persons. Indeed, the scale of return and success of reintegration are two of the most tangible indicators of progress in any peacebuilding process.

Such processes have in many instances been obstructed by a failure to resolve outstanding land and property issues in an effective and equitable manner, especially in situations where refugees, displaced persons and ex-combatants return simultaneously to communities where land tenure has never been formalized or where the land registration system has broken down. A collaborative approach to addressing these challenges is crucial. The experience of the Peace-Building Commission in Burundi is particularly relevant in this regard.

The involvement of refugees and internally displaced persons in peace processes can provide critical perspectives on the causes of conflict and contribute to a sense of shared ownership in peacemaking and peacebuilding. The engagement of women, as envisaged in Security Council Resolution 1325, is of particular importance. UNHCR has recently facilitated the participation of Sudanese refugees in Chad in peace discussions, and a similar approach is being explored in CAR.

I value the impetus provided to such efforts by the Security Council in its Presidential Statement of May 2008 on Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, as well as the reference in Security Council Resolution 1830 to the need to create conditions conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees and internally displaced persons in Iraq.

The international community has struggled for many years to ensure that conflict is followed by lasting peace and effective governance, and that the destruction of livelihoods and provision of emergency relief is succeeded by a process of sustainable development. There is still a long way to go, but I am nonetheless encouraged by the recent attention to this issue, and am confident that it will remain among the permanent concerns of the Security Council.

Mr. President,

It goes without saying that the search for solutions to which I have just referred is essentially reactive in nature, dealing with the effects rather than the causes of crisis. The most effective means of addressing the issue of forced displacement is by means of preventive activities that anticipate and avert the conflicts that oblige people to abandon their homes and seek safety elsewhere. Prevention is in my view the most important element of the responsibility to protect. And while some aspects of the 'R2P' concept remain controversial, I do not believe that prevention is among them. Indeed, the notion of 'preventing and removing threats to peace' is to be found at the beginning of the very first Article of the UN Charter.

Effective prevention will require a carefully balanced, coordinated and targeted combination of measures in the political, diplomatic, developmental, environmental and humanitarian domains. Effective prevention will require action to be taken by a wide range of different stakeholders, including states, UN entities, regional bodies, international financial organisations and non-state actors. And in our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, effective prevention will require new networks and coalitions to be formed, linking those who are working to promote Human Security at the level of the local community to those who are striving to attain the same objective on a national, regional and global basis.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

Thank you again for this opportunity to brief you today.