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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Substantive Session of 2001 (General Segment), Geneva, 24 July 2001

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Substantive Session of 2001 (General Segment), Geneva, 24 July 2001

24 July 2001

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to join you for the Council's General Segment. My formal tasks today are to introduce my Office's annual report and to provide an oral briefing on refugees, returnees and displaced persons in Africa, as requested in General Assembly Resolution 55/77.

The document before you covers the period 1 January 2000 through 31 March 2001, which includes the final year of Mrs. Sadako Ogata's remarkable decade at the helm of UNHCR. I invite you to see the report as yet another tribute to her energy, creativity and dedication.

I will also use my time with you this afternoon to update you regarding more recent developments not covered in the report. But please allow me to begin with a few observations based upon my first months on the job, particularly in relation to the financial situation of my Office.

UNHCR has a rich history, a highly motivated staff and an enormous capacity for humanitarian action. It is a uniquely mandated international organisation charged with protecting and finding solutions for refugees - people who cannot turn to their own government for protection. My Office earned its reputation by responding to dramatic, high profile emergencies, notably in the Balkans and the Great Lakes. But I see our role in broader terms. UNHCR is an essential multilateral partner for governments in meeting the governance challenges posed by the world's refugees.

The governance of refugees is a global responsibility that demands multilateral action and support. It includes dealing with the strains that huge refugee populations impose on social stability, security and the environment, particularly in less developed countries. Good governance also means managing effective asylum systems, providing a decent quality of protection and offering people real solutions. Refugees given respect and real options are less likely to fall prey to criminal trafficking and smuggling networks in a desperate bid to improve their lot.

Since becoming High Commissioner, I have been struck by the great gap between these profound global responsibilities and the funding UNHCR receives to carrying them out. By focusing on funding, I do not mean to discount the costs of national asylum systems or resettlement programmes, or the enormous contribution made by countries hosting large refugee populations. But financial contributions to UNHCR's programmes are an essential way to share the burden for this global responsibility.

UNHCR has for several years faced chronic, serious funding shortfalls. They impact on refugees, the quality of our work and relations with governments and our partners. By the time I took office in January - based on projections of inadequate funding - UNHCR had already decided to freeze 20% of its budget for 2001 although that was the budget approved by our Executive Committee only two months before. To be frank, I found this state of affairs both puzzling and unacceptable.

During my first weeks in office, I initiated an exercise, referred to as Actions 1, 2 and 3. My aims were, first, to define UNHCR's core activities and the capacities it needs; second, to determine how we can best operate within the projected income for 2001; and third, to secure adequate funding for this global multilateral organisation.

Through this exercise, we have reduced the budget for 2001 by more than 10 percent and will discontinue 760 posts between now and the middle of next year. Efforts to strengthen staffing in certain key operations will offset these reductions somewhat, but the net decrease will also exceed 10 percent. The review process has been difficult and its consequences are painful. But I am convinced that these measures are needed to make UNHCR stronger and that they will ultimately translate into positive impacts for refugees and other people of concern to my Office.

Our next challenge was to prepare a budget for 2002 that strikes a balance what UNHCR needs to operate in a credible manner and what realistically is fundable. I consider the proposed budget of US$ 828 million for 2002 to be an absolute minimum. Even at this level, important needs will go unmet. Some governments will want - will expect - us to do more, but this will only be possible with greater funding.

I am working intensively to convince our major donors to maintain their generous contribution levels, while encouraging the others to strive toward levels of support more commensurate with their economic possibilities, moral obligations and interest in our work. I have suggested one Dollar or one Euro per citizen as a benchmark minimum. I should note that a number of countries - notably the Nordic nations, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland - already far exceed this level of support. In 2000, Norway's contributions equalled US$ 11.60 per citizen.

Timely, adequate and reliable funding is essential for us to fulfil the important responsibilities that you - the international community - have entrusted to my Office. My ambition is to build truly multilateral support for UNHCR that goes beyond the small club - the limited "coalition of the willing" - that currently funds our activities.

Mr. President, let me review some of the major operational challenges we are facing.

More than 21 million people world-wide fell under UNHCR's mandate at the beginning of 2001. They included some 12.1 million refugees, as well as asylum-seekers, returnees, the internally displaced, stateless individuals and others.

No major new emergencies erupted last year with the speed and intensity of the 1999 Kosovo crisis. But persecution, armed conflicts and political upheavals in many parts of the world uprooted millions, both internally and across borders as refugees. UNHCR was asked to meet these new demands in the face of continuing funding problems in many operations.

The managing safety and security - both for refugees and our own staff - is of critical importance to my Office. Since last September, five UNHCR colleagues have been brutally murdered in the field. I spoke about security during the Council's humanitarian segment, but let me insist again here upon the need for resources to protect our staff. I very much hope that the General Assembly will decide this year to bring the costs of UNSECOORD system-wide security measures within the UN regular budget, where they clearly belong. As long as this is not the case, however, we will need separate, additional funding from our donors.

At the same time, let me say how much I appreciate the General Assembly's recent efforts to focus international attention on the scourge of HIV/AIDS. The Secretary-General has also personally invested himself in this fight. No one is immune or isolated from the impact of the HIV/AIDS, but refugees are especially vulnerable. Conflict and displacement weaken traditional networks for support, protection and education. Refugee women and children are too commonly the victims of sexual and gender-based violence - which too often also leads to HIV infection. We fear that the mortality rate in refugee camps could soar in the coming years, but the consequences of HIV/AIDS are still under-recognised.

National AIDS control programmes typically do not cover refugees, because they are not nationals. UNHCR, along with UNAIDS, must work hard to counterbalance these risks. We can contribute by ensuring that refugees receive good basic medical care and, perhaps more importantly, are educated about AIDS prevention. In this way, my Office is an important building block in the global fight against this deadly disease. Protecting refugees, I believe, also means protecting them against HIV/AIDS.

Mr. President, nowhere is the impact of HIV/AIDS more devastating than in Africa, and I would now like to begin my review of regional developments on that continent.

Since becoming High Commissioner, I have travelled three times to Africa. My aim during these initial trips has been to draw international attention to the plight of the continent's 5.3 million refugees and displaced people and to promote solidarity with generous - but beleaguered - host communities.

In Lusaka earlier this month, I attended the final summit of the Organisation of African Unity before the new African Union is launched. In my talks with African leaders, I urged them to maintain the open asylum policies that have been Africa's pride and to work for peace so that people can go home again.

When I took office in January, a potential humanitarian catastrophe was looming in West Africa. Violence and insecurity along Guinea's border with Sierra Leone had raised fears of a broader regional war. UNHCR had no access to hundreds of thousands of refugees in these areas. I travelled to the region in February carrying a simple message for politicians and warlords alike: prioritise refugees and guarantee "safe access" to and "safe passage" for them. Since that time, we have successfully relocated 57,700 Sierra Leonean refugees to new and more secure sites further from the border. UNHCR, with IOM, has also facilitated the repatriation of another 27,000 refugees by boat. Others have returned spontaneously to Sierra Leone.

West Africa remains a complex and insecure environment for humanitarian operations, with the proliferation of small arms and militia groups - both freely moving across borders. I am guardedly optimistic about Guinea and Sierra Leone - where less violence has opened up new opportunities for humanitarian activities and for reconciliation, reintegration and reconstruction efforts to take root. More worrying is the ongoing conflict in northern Liberia, particularly in Lofa County. Several thousand refugees have been trickling into neighbouring countries, the risk is real that the situation could deteriorate dramatically.

The outlook is more positive in the Horn of Africa. Renewed fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea displaced nearly 1.5 million people last year, but intensive international efforts led to a cease-fire and the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission. Some people were able to return home by the year's end. UNHCR is working with the Governments of Eritrea and Sudan to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Eritrean refugees - both those who fled last year and others who left before independence in the early 1980s and 1990s.

A final peace settlement between Eritrea and Ethiopia would hopefully presage a broader trend toward durable solutions in the sub-region. UNHCR continues to facilitate the repatriation of Somali refugees from Ethiopia to northwest Somalia - 150,000 have returned since 1997. Despite progress last year toward a political settlement in Somalia, violence and instability continue to hinder humanitarian access and block repatriation to the southern parts of the country.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, war has displaced a staggering 1.8 million people internally and forced another 350,000 refugees to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. So I can only welcome the evident, progressive stabilisation of the situations since January. Implementation of the Lusaka cease-fire agreement has finally begun. The conflicting parties are slowly disengaging, MONUC is deploying and the Facilitator is struggling to get the inter-Congolese dialogue moving. But we need to see much faster progress on all of these fronts, in order to seize the moment.   

Former President Mandela has kept the Arusha process for Burundi moving forward, with his determination, tireless efforts and tremendous moral stature. But many obstacles to peace remain. When conditions are right - and they are not yet - UNHCR will help facilitate voluntary repatriation together with the Governments of Burundi and Tanzania, which hosts most of the 567,000 Burundian refugees.

Mr. President, I regret to report that several of Africa's most vexing conflicts show no similar signs of progress. The civil war in Sudan drags on endlessly - leaving some 443,000 refugees in exile and huge numbers internally displaced.

Angola may now be the continent's most acute humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 4 million displaced and war affected people. Close to 350,000 Angolans refugees are outside of their country, mainly in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last year - after the Security Council called for greater attention to their needs - UNHCR launched a limited assistance programme for up to 300,000 internally displaced people on the outskirts of Luanda and in two northern provinces. Given current financial constraints, however, continuation of this programme will depend upon specific, additional funding from our donors.

In North Africa, political negotiations over the Western Sahara remain blocked. For several years, UNHCR has maintained its preparedness for a voluntary repatriation exercise that has never come. We lack the funding needed to meet basic needs. Last month, food rations were cut to half the normal level. Some 165,000 refugees remain in limbo after twenty-five years in exile. We must not overlook their need for a solution in renewed efforts to overcome the political impasse.

Mr. President, I will turn now to Southwest Asia and perhaps the largest, most complex and intractable humanitarian situation in the world today - Afghanistan. More than twenty years after they first fled to Iran and Pakistan - and even after the repatriation of more than 4 million people, Afghans remain the world's largest refugees population. Some 700,000 people are also displaced within the country.

More Afghans are on the move today, uprooted by the cumulative pressures of an endless war, the lack of respect for basic human rights - particularly for women, the most severe drought in decades and other factors, such as the loss of income from the eradication of poppy cultivation. Those who seek to enter Pakistan and Iran face an uncertain welcome. The asylum door is closing to new arrivals. Acute asylum fatigue and donor fatigue are colliding with huge and growing humanitarian needs to precipitate a crisis.

In May, I travelled to the region to see how UNHCR could help carry forward the Secretary-General's two-pronged strategy for Afghanistan. UNHCR's dual aims are to strengthen protection and improve the quality of asylum in Iran and Pakistan, while also enhancing the possibilities for voluntary repatriation. We must also - as the international community - do more to stabilise the population inside Afghanistan. The ongoing fighting and shrinking humanitarian space continue to compromise and undermine these efforts. Progress on the humanitarian front ultimately will depend upon a real political process getting underway, with determined international support.

Mr. President, moving on to East Asia, my Office has completed its shelter programme in East Timor and will begin phasing down activities during the second half of 2001. In Indonesia, West Timor has remained in security Phase V since our UNHCR colleagues were murdered last September, precluding any permanent UN presence. We have facilitated a limited number of ad hoc repatriation movements since that time, but most of the 90,000 East Timorese refugees are still in need of durable solutions. We are looking now for the early return of those who have clearly indicated their wish to repatriate. UNHCR also remains ready to facilitate the planning and implementation of local settlement schemes for those who freely decide to stay in Indonesia. After the upcoming elections in East Timor, these local settlement efforts must be speeded up.

Elsewhere in Asia, UNHCR's protection and assistance activities for internally displaced people in Sri Lanka continue, with an increasing emphasis on promoting self-reliance. We are also pursuing our stabilisation and reintegration efforts for returnees and local residents in Myanmar's Northern Rakhine State, while waiting for the UNDP-led Basic Needs Assistance Programme to get underway. In Nepal, the Joint Verification Team fielded by the Governments of Nepal and Bhutan has begun to identify refugees eligible for return to Bhutan. UNHCR is supporting its work in practical ways, and we look forward to facilitating voluntary repatriation in the future.

Mr. President, I would now like to brief the Council regarding UNHCR's activities in Europe, where the Balkans continue to be our main preoccupation. The news here is mixed.

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is on a razor's edge between peace and civil war. The conflict has already displaced more than 100,000 people, including some 70,000 to neighbouring Kosovo. Departures have recently slowed and several thousand people have even returned home, encouraged by the ongoing political negotiations. During my visit to Skopje in June, I urged restraint on all sides and offered UNHCR's support for confidence-building measures, particularly in relation to citizenship and documentation issues. While still hoping to avoid a worst case scenario, we must be - and are - prepared for the possibility of new large-scale displacement.

On the other hand, the process of democratic change in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Croatia have raised new hopes of achieving durable solutions for the 1.2 million people still displaced from their homes in those countries and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Belgrade, I found agreement with UNHCR's assessment that most of the 700,000 refugees and displaced people are likely to stay in Serbia and not return home. National reconstruction and development programmes must include - even give priority to - the integration needs of these people. In Zagreb and Sarajevo, I urged decisive action and practical action to remove the obstacles blocking return. Making return a real option is both morally important and politically essential to consolidate peace in the region.

The return of displaced people to Kosovo is a different - and much more problematic - question. Tensions remain extremely high between ethnic Albanians and non-Albanians - particularly with the small remaining Serb community. UNHCR must strike a balance between the fundamental right of people to go home and the need to ensure their safety. Forcing the process will serve no one's interest. Nonetheless, we are prepared to facilitate - and see the political need for - limited, symbolic Serb returns to safe areas in Kosovo.

Elsewhere in Europe, UNHCR continues to assist refugees and displaced people from Chechnya in the Russian Federation and is exploring the possibilities for temporary local integration, until the conditions are present for safe and sustainable return. While hoping for a breakthrough in the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, we are proceeding with temporary local integration efforts in those countries and the hand-over of our activities to development actors. In Georgia, however, deteriorating security conditions are hindering safe return and our access to refugees and displaced people.

We have as an overall objective in Europe the development of high-quality asylum systems. My Office is working closely with the European Commission and the EU Member States to support the development of a harmonised asylum system. In Central and Eastern Europe, UNHCR's is fostering the development of refugee legislation, effective institutions and, more broadly, a "culture" of respect for refugees and awareness of their need for protection.

Mr. President, I shall now turn briefly to the Americas. As in Europe, UNHCR's main objective throughout the region is to strengthen the framework for refugee protection. We are engaged at the national level - supporting the development of legislation and relevant institutions - while also working through regional bodies and forums, such as the Puebla process. UNHCR is also working to open up new opportunities for durable solutions through resettlement in Chile, Brazil and other Latin American countries.

Our major concern in the Americas, of course, is the intensifying internal conflict in Colombia, which has triggered increased internal displacement and also refugee flows over the past eighteen months. The arrival of Colombian asylum seekers in North America and Europe is also on the rise. Last year, UNHCR mounted an emergency operation in the border regions of Ecuador to respond to the needs of some 12,000 Colombians, most of whom have since returned spontaneously. UNHCR's two-track strategy is to strengthen protection for Colombian refugees and asylum seekers, while at the same time building the capacity of national institutions caring for displaced people in Colombia.

Finally, Mr. President, I would like to note that my appearance before the Council comes during a very special year for refugees and my Office. Last December, we marked UNHCR's 50th anniversary and - thanks to the General Assembly's decision last year - celebrated the first World Refugee Day recently on June 20th. Next Saturday, July 28th, is the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which remains today the cornerstone of international refugee protection.

We do not see the 50th anniversaries of UNHCR and the Refugee Convention as a cause for celebration. Rather they provide an occasion for serious reflection, not on past achievements, but on the work needed to ensure the integrity and relevance of the international refugee protection regime for today's needs and the future.

To this end, UNHCR has launched Global Consultations to revitalise international protection. Through the Consultations, UNHCR aims to develop greater global consistency in the interpretation of refugee law. We also hope the process will provide the impetus for practical new approaches to address gaps in the current system. To be truly successful, however, I believe that the Consultations must go beyond a debate over legal texts and inspire a renewed commitment by States to refugee protection - both as an international responsibility and a fundamental human value.

We have been very pleased by the positive response and active engagement of governments and our partners in the Global Consultations process. And we look forward very much to your participation - at the ministerial level - in the first ever Meeting of States Parties to the Refugee Convention and its Protocol, to be held in Geneva on December 12th this year.

Thank you.