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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 19 November 2001

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 19 November 2001

20 November 2001
Third Committee

(Check against delivery)

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to address the Third Committee of the General Assembly here in New York: one of the greatest cities in the world; a city that has suffered a terrible ordeal, but which will surely bounce back with its indomitable spirit.

The appalling events of 11 September have focused all our minds on dangers in the world today. Collectively, and through concerted action, we must take appropriate steps to rid this world of the scourge of terrorism, if we are to make it safe for our children, and our children's children. There must be no impunity.

My concern, however, is that in the current climate of understandable anxiety about national and individual security, innocent people - refugees and asylum seekers - may be unfairly victimized. They may even become convenient scapegoats.

As High Commissioner for Refugees, there are some 22 million people of concern to me - people who have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of persecution, conflict and human rights abuses. The majority of these people remain uprooted, with no immediate prospects of returning to their homes. These people - the world's dispossessed - need to be protected and assisted.

People feel unsafe, not only in the United States, but in many countries. It is not surprising, therefore, that they may be more concerned than before about the presence of so-called "foreigners" in their midst. Refugees and asylum seekers have for some years been the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are now particularly vulnerable.

The recent terrorist attacks have unleashed discriminatory assaults and provocations on people of Muslim origin. This is an extremely worrying development. We must continue to fight against xenophobia and intolerance. We must not allow a clash of cultures to destroy the fabric of our increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies. A war on terrorism must not become a war on Afghans. Neither must it become a war on Muslims. Above all, we must ensure that it does not deteriorate into a war against "foreigners", minority groups, refugees and asylum seekers.

I am aware that governments are now looking at security safeguards to prevent terrorists from gaining admission to their territory through asylum channels. UNHCR fully endorses these efforts. At the same time, I urge governments and politicians to avoid falling into the trap of making unwarranted linkages between refugees and terrorism. It would be a terrible irony if those who have themselves fled from terror were to become the unwitting victims of the war against terrorism. Genuine refugees are themselves the victims of terrorism and persecution, not its perpetrators.

I have a responsibility to ensure that the basic principles of refugee protection continue to be respected, and that the global fight against terrorism does not weaken the international refugee protection regime. Refugees and asylum seekers must not be discriminated against because their religion, ethnicity, national origin or political affiliation are somehow assumed to link them to terrorism. Governments should avoid resorting to the mandatory or arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, and to procedures that do not comply with the standards of due process. Detention of asylum seekers should remain the exception, not the rule. Resettlement programmes should be maintained, and should not discriminate against people of particular ethnic groups or nationalities.

States must continue to respect their obligations under the terms of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In particular, the Convention must not be misrepresented as an instrument that provides a safe haven for terrorists. The Convention, when properly applied, does not offer safe haven to criminals, nor does it extend any immunity from prosecution to those engaged in terrorist activities. On the contrary, it is carefully framed to exclude persons who have committed serious crimes. This is echoed in UN Security Council Resolution 1373 of 28 September, which calls on States to work together to prevent and suppress terrorist acts.

The challenge is to ensure resolute implementation of existing provisions of the Refugee Convention. Focus should be put on finding ways to ensure that the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of terrorist crimes, who might seek to abuse the asylum channel, are promptly identified and dealt with.

Mr. Chairman,

Let me now turn to Afghanistan. With the rapid demise of the Taliban regime, and with the active engagement of the international community, there are now new opportunities for restoring peace and stability in Afghanistan. UNHCR stands ready to work with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi. After 22 years of conflict in the country, we must seize these opportunities to rebuild Afghanistan by facilitating reconciliation efforts and ensuring the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country.

In doing so, it is essential to take into consideration not only the needs of refugees and displaced people, but also the positive contributions that returnees can make to the development of the country.

Even before 11 September, Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world, with over 3.5 million refugees in Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran alone, and many more spread out in some 70 countries from Europe to Australia and the United States. We need to ensure that conditions are created to make it possible for these refugees, as well as those from neighbouring countries and from the diaspora, to return if they so wish.

We have witnessed large-scale refugee returns to Afghanistan before. Indeed, since 1988 UNHCR has - together with its partners - facilitated the return of over 4.5 million refugees. But the obstacles to return should not be under-estimated. After so many years of conflict, the homes of many of the refugees have been totally destroyed and the land which they lived on and farmed is littered with landmines. Much of the infrastructure, most of the irrigation systems and many of the roads, schools and hospitals have been destroyed. Refugees who become returnees must play a role in reconstruction. They have an enormous productive capacity.

Rebuilding the country will be a daunting task, but the international community must not turn its back on the Afghan people. We must invest in finding durable solutions for the millions of refugees and internally displaced Afghans, for to invest in them is to invest in the future peace and stability of the region.

Pakistan and Iran have maintained their positions that, for security reasons and due to the large number of refugees already in their countries, the borders are officially closed. While I understand their concerns, I believe it is possible to devise an approach which minimizes the security risks while enabling both Pakistan and Iran to remain true to their praiseworthy and longstanding traditions of offering refuge to the endangered and oppressed. I will continue, therefore, to call on all neighbouring countries to provide temporary protection for Afghans who have no other choice but to flee across borders to find safety and protection.

UNHCR will maintain a two-pronged approach in the region, focusing both on assistance inside Afghanistan and on the needs of refugees in neighbouring countries. UNHCR will continue to assist the host governments in meeting the needs of the large refugee populations that were already present before the recent crisis, as well as those who have managed to filter into their countries through unofficial border crossings. As far as conditions permit, UNHCR will also actively work to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugees, ensuring that this is carried out with safety and dignity.

Things move fast in Afghanistan. UNHCR offices in Afghanistan were never closed, although our international staff were evacuated in September for security reasons. We have now asked our staff to resume their work inside Afghanistan, including our female staff. We have found many of our warehouses looted. Afghanistan has to be made more secure to ensure effective humanitarian assistance and voluntary repatriation.

UNHCR will reinforce its participation in the inter-agency effort led by UNOCHA, to assist up to 500,000 existing internally displaced people and returnees together with the local community. In doing so, we will build on our bond with the Afghan people, on our precious local staff, and on our links with numerous Afghan non-governmental organizations which have been implementing small projects for returnees with UNHCR.

Mr. Chairman,

Africa continues to require the greatest share of UNHCR's resources and attention. The situation in the Great Lakes region is of particular concern. The failure thus far of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue and the lack of implementation of the Lusaka Cease-fire Agreement have dampened hopes for the return of refugees to their homes. Ongoing fighting between the Angolan Government and UNITA forces continues to produce new waves of refugees and internally displaced people. In Burundi, the recent inauguration of a new power-sharing transitional government is a positive step forward, but in the absence of a cease-fire the situation remains volatile and a failure of the new political arrangement could lead to further conflict and displacement. Already there are some 600,000 people who are internally displaced while another 600,000 Burundians are refugees in various countries in East, Central and Southern Africa.

In West Africa, UNHCR has facilitated the voluntary return of some Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea, but the country continues to host a large population of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees. While progress has been made in ensuring the civilian character of refugee camps, our staff continue to closely monitor the presence of armed elements on the ground. The good news, however, is that demilitarization and demobilization in Sierra Leone are moving forward. I will remain in close contact with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Oluyemi Adeniji, to facilitate and monitor the voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons so they can participate in the elections and reconstruction.

Efforts to protect refugees are of limited value if durable solutions are not found. Voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement: these are, as you know, the three durable solutions. We must focus more on these, together with governments and our partners. I see this as the heart of my mission: not 'protection' alone, but 'protection and solutions'.

Too many refugees have been languishing for too many years in camps, with few solutions in sight. We need to put an end to this. The ongoing repatriation of Eritrean refugees from the Sudan, is an important example of what can be achieved. So far this year, some 21,000 have returned from the Sudan to Eritrea. While most of these are refugees who fled Eritrea during the conflict with Ethiopia last year, some of them are refugees who have been in camps since the 1960s and 1970s. In another successful ongoing repatriation operation, so far this year some 44,000 refugees have returned from Ethiopia to Somalia.

The New Partnership for Africa's Development, adopted by African Heads of State in Abuja on 23 October is an important and timely initiative. As President Obasanjo of Nigeria has stated, African leaders have launched their own initiative "in order to be the principal architects of their own future" and in order to "put the continent back on the path of peace, political stability, economic prosperity and sustainable development". I welcome this new initiative; it deserves full support.

Mr. Chairman,

Another region of particular concern to UNHCR is the Balkans. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, UNHCR continues to work alongside European monitors and NATO in conflict-affected areas to help build confidence between communities. Though almost half of the 170,000 people who were displaced earlier this year have now returned to their homes, the recent violence near Tetovo led hundreds of villagers to flee their homes. Unless significant progress is made in implementing the 13 August peace agreement, particularly concerning the amnesty which must include deserters and draft evaders, there is a serious risk of further population displacement.

The new Government of the Federal Republic Yugoslavia has committed itself to constructively address the huge displacement problem and has taken steps to facilitate the local integration of refugees. In southern Serbia, together with the Serbian Government, it has taken a pro-active approach in facilitating the return of thousands of displaced people. Through the Stability Pact Initiative many of the obstacles preventing the return of refugees to Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina will be overcome.

In Kosovo, the continued displacement and isolation of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Roma, and other minority groups remains a real concern. But there has been some progress recently. In September, UNHCR facilitated the first return of Serbs to Kosovo, after more than two years of displacement. The numbers of those who have returned may be small, but the significance is not. I hope that following the elections last week, further progress will be made in enabling minorities to return.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, six years after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, 'minority returns' have finally become a reality. Under the Property Law implementation, out of some 260,000 claims, almost 90,000 re-possessions have been made possible. Security is improving and people have almost total freedom of movement around the country. UNHCR will continue to facilitate the return of all those who opt to start new lives in their places of origin, and I call on Member States to make the required additional reconstruction assistance available.

Turning briefly to Timor, some 190,000 refugees have returned to East Timor since 1999. Repatriation has picked up since the peaceful elections in August. Based on our assessment in September, we have decided to postpone the planned phase-down of activities and to establish up to three mobile teams in East Timor. The Government of Indonesia has recently demonstrated an increased commitment to resolving the refugee situation in West Timor. The number of refugees remaining in West Timor has now fallen to about 75,000, and we hope that the majority of these will return in the coming months.

To summarize, long-term durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced people are without doubt the best investment that we can make in peace and stability. Adequate funding and strong and effective partnerships are crucial for UNHCR to fulfil its mission, which includes providing assistance to the most vulnerable. We must ensure respect for refugees and we must find ways to empower them. Above all, we must acknowledge the important role of women.

The links between poverty, conflict and forced displacement are evident. Yet in spite of this, most development assistance excludes refugees. As I reported to ECOSOC in July, I see this as a big mistake. I do not believe that refugees can be dismissed as an issue peripheral to development. Refugees are not simply the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. They are potential contributors to development - both in their countries of asylum and upon their return home. We therefore need to rethink the relationship of refugees to development. I repeat my call for donors to earmark a proportion of their development assistance funds for the inter-related issues of refugees, internally displaced people and affected local populations.

Mr. Chairman,

This year we mark the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, while last year we commemorated the 50th anniversary of UNHCR. These two occasions have provided an important opportunity to reflect on the work of UNHCR and on the continuing challenges of protecting refugees and finding solutions to their plight.

A particular concern is the issue of human trafficking and smuggling. This is on the rise. With regular arrival routes closed, many refugees turn to smugglers to reach safety, in spite of the dangers and the financial costs involved. Other migrants portray themselves as refugees to overcome immigration barriers. The result is that refugees are often stigmatized in the public mind as people trying to break the law.

Against this backdrop, and as a way of marking the 50th anniversary of the Convention, a year ago UNHCR initiated a process of Global Consultations on International Protection. The purpose of this process, on the one hand, is to seek to promote the full and effective implementation of the 1951 Convention, and on the other, to develop complementary new approaches, tools and standards to ensure international protection and durable solutions based on fair burden-sharing. We need solutions based on the law. We cannot allow the law of the jungle.

The 1951 Convention, together with its 1967 Protocol, remains the foundation of the international refugee protection regime. Indeed, the fundamental principles and rights embodied in these instruments have provided a resilient protection regime within which millions of refugees have been able to find safety from armed conflicts and persecution. Let me encourage States that have not yet done so, to join the 141 States that have already ratified either the Convention or its Protocol. I welcome recent accessions and I hope that there will be more before the end of this year. I would also like to renew UNHCR's offer of supporting States Parties in their full and inclusive implementation of these international instruments.

Mr. Chairman,

As from this year, UNHCR's Annual Pledging Conference will take place at Geneva, the Headquarters of my Office. I urge all Governments to make use of this opportunity on 3 December to announce their contributions to our programme budget for 2002.

Finally, allow me to use this opportunity to renew my invitation to the Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the Convention, being jointly organized by UNHCR and the Swiss government, in Geneva on 12 - 13 December. This will be the first ever Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the 1951 Convention and it will be a real milestone.

Thank you.