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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 11 November 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 11 November 1998

12 November 1998
Third CommitteeMain displacement crisesGlobal solidarityThe challenge of protectionThe challenges of post-conflict situationsFuture priorities

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking the General Assembly for re-electing me, just over a month ago, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At my request, this third mandate will allow me to lead UNHCR until 31 December 2000, when I shall have completed ten years in the service of refugees. I would like to reiterate my gratitude today to Governments, and to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, for their trust and confidence.

More than ever, I realize the challenge of accepting the responsibility to protect refugees today. Looking at the world at large, I see many, serious reasons for concern. Conflicts plague many parts of the world, Africa in particular. Some key peace processes are slowing down. Financial turmoil has introduced a new element of uncertainty and fuelled widespread social crises. On the other hand, globalization is bringing about major changes in the economics, technology and information. This has of course a bearing on international organizations, including the United Nations, and the manner in which governments and my Office carry out their responsibilities towards refugees and other uprooted people. The political resolve shown in tackling the crisis in Kosovo, however seek, gives me hope that there is a possibility to carry out our global responsibilities together.

Main displacement crises

In previous years, an increased trend towards repatriation had given rise to the hope that refugee problems would be reduced. This year, however, the overall figure of people of concern to UNHCR has only marginally decreased. Grave human displacement crises have in fact occurred, although their pattern differs from the humanitarian catastrophes of the early 1990s. We now have scattered emergencies, more limited in size but more complex in nature. UNHCR has had to reinforce its field presence many times, by deploying up to one hundred staff on emergency missions.

There is no doubt that this trend is due mainly to the increase in the number and frequency of conflicts. Solutions to refugee problems are slowed down or even completely blocked. If political settlements are reached, displaced people often return to what I have called a "fragile", uncertain peace.

Nowhere in the last few months has my Office had to deal with the direct relationship between conflict and displacement more than in Kosovo. It is worth focusing on this situation because I believe many of its features provide a good example of the complexity of displacement crises today.

Yesterday, in a briefing to the Security Council, I said that while international efforts could not prevent a major refugee crisis, in the last few weeks such efforts have at least resulted in the containment of the conflict, the definition of minimum conditions to restore the security of civilians and the establishment of a framework aimed at verifying compliance with such conditions.

This has indeed encouraged almost all people displaced within Kosovo to return, often to find their homes destroyed and their property looted. I should add that it is not likely, however, that any significant return will occur from other countries before the spring of 1999. Security remains an overriding concern. It is essential that further progress be made in the withdrawal of police and military forces. I stressed to the Security Council that monitoring the security and treatment of civilians must not be limited to returnees, but apply to all those affected by the conflict. I also stressed the importance of an early deployment to the most critical locations of the verifiers of the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission and then of the Kosovo Verification Mission. This is vital.

The size and complexity of the international involvement in Kosovo means that - as the lead humanitarian agency - UNHCR must work in close coordination with a number of actors. At the same time, our role must remain distinct from that of the verifiers. Theirs is a political mission. We concentrate on humanitarian tasks, and in particular on the rehabilitation of houses, which we consider the priority need in Kosovo. We are nevertheless fully committed to ensure our cooperation with the verifiers and have established close liaison with the Organizaton for Security and Cooperation in Europe as well as with the NATO mission.

The efforts made by the international community to resolve the Kosovo crisis should not weaken its commitment to achieve the objectives set by the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in particular minority returns. Political energy and material resources are still desperately needed to advance - if not complete - this essential task. Both continue to be required to overcome the political and administrative obstacles to large-scale minority returns. The targets for minority returns to Bosnia have not been met this year - they must be in 1999, and I welcome the commitment of the international community, expressed by the High Representative, to achieve substantial progress in this area. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Croatia - where some refugees have started returning, but still in relatively limited numbers - we must help create an environment in which minority returns are not enforced on other communities, but are accepted by them. This will be our challenge if we want to bring to an end the displacement of 1.8 million people in this region.

Let me turn to Africa, where the disturbing patterns of displacement in the Great Lakes region have had far reaching consequences, gravely affecting security and socio-economic development. In February I visited nine countries in this region. In May, a meeting at ministerial level was held in Kampala to discuss regional refugee problems. Eight governments participated in this meeting, which was convened by the OAU and UNHCR. They reaffirmed their support for refugee protection principles embodied in the 1969 OAU Convention. They also clearly indicated, however, that to restore humanitarian values in the region and perhaps in Africa it was necessary to address the problem of insecurity in situations of displacement and to sustain returnee reintegration as a vital component of post-conflict reconstruction.

We set to work in these two directions. Following a recommendation in the United Nations Secretary-General's report on Africa, UNHCR is cooperating closely with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations on proposals to establish various stand-by arrangements to address insecure refugee situations. To do this, we should not only rely on traditional multinational peacekeeping forces. We must pay more attention to other support solutions such as capacity building for the local police and judiciary, training, provision of equipment, and monitoring through international police contingents.

West Africa is another region which has recently experienced dramatic refugee movements. Fighting in Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee. The Sierra Leonean conflict was particularly violent - and I regret to say that among the target of the most appalling acts of violence, including mutilations and killings, were women and children. I should add that the situation inside Sierra Leone remains very fragile, and fighting continues in some border areas.

While the ceasefire in Guinea Bissau may mean that problems are being resolved there, almost half a million Sierra Leonean refugees have put an enormous additional burden on countries such as Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, and even Liberia, itself emerging from war. These countries have generously given asylum to refugees for years in spite of their limited resources.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that West Africa has been able to develop a remarkable conflict resolution capacity at the regional level. The efforts of countries in the region, and by ECOWAS, were instrumental in bringing about the end or the containment of conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau. International support, however, both to the peace-making efforts of ECOWAS and ECOMOG, and to the peace building, rehabilitation and development programmes, has not been sufficient, and needs to be increased and strengthened if peace is to finally prevail in a region that has had too large a share of violence and refugee flows in the past decade.

Global solidarity

Mr. Chairman, the international community should not lose its commitment to resolve conflicts - and to seek solutions to refugee problems. This resolve must be based on a universal spirit and shared effort, which I have called global solidarity.

Although our means are limited and we cannot redress all the imbalances that will continue to exist, UNHCR can assist in trying to improve the sharing of responsibilities towards refugees. This can be achieved in many different ways. The right of people threatened by persecution or violence to seek and enjoy asylum remains of course the fundamental expression of solidarity towards refugees. UNHCR will continue to uphold this right, and to help governments fulfil their responsibilities. Resettlement of refugees to third countries is another, important expression of global solidarity, and I wish to thank those countries devoting substantial resources to it. However, we must further improve our ability to offer better and safer lives to vulnerable and threatened people through resettlement, which is not a channel for economic migration, but a unique protection instrument.

Upholding asylum and strengthening resettlement, however, will address only a fraction of refugee problems. Support to protection and assistance programmes, particularly in developing countries, continues to be a key element of solidarity towards refugees - and towards communities hosting them, often with very meagre resources. At the recent Executive Committee session, most delegations strongly reaffirmed their commitment to refugee protection but clearly stated that sharing the "burden" of refugees means first and foremost sharing responsibilities towards them. Many delegations also said that the cost of carrying out such responsibilities was a factor to which the international community pays insufficient attention. I subscribe to this view.

The political, social and environmental consequences of the successive refugee crises in West Africa, the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa, or the Afghan refugee influx in Pakistan and Iran, for example, have been as substantial as their economic costs. We must counter the inward-looking trends which I observe almost everywhere, particularly in the industrialized countries. In a world being profoundly changed by globalization, forced human displacement is everybody's problem - not just the problem of countries receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees or returnees. We must do more to help these countries shoulder their responsibilities.

This fundamental expression of global solidarity can take many forms: not only financial and material assistance - which remain of course essential - but also support in the areas of legislation, training, education, environmental rehabilitation and public awareness. In all these areas, UNHCR, directly or acting as catalyst for more specialized inputs, can be instrumental in helping the international community address and hopefully resolve through a solidarity-based approach the global problem of forced human displacement.

The challenge of protection

Global solidarity must also be firmly based on refugee protection principles. I think it is clear that the refugee protection regime has proven its ability to ensure that refugees be granted asylum and that solutions to their problems can be identified. On a broad range of protection issues, we have therefore made efforts to reach out and promote a dialogue with governments. The protection "reach out" project offers us an opportunity to exchange views on protection principles, and provides us with inspiration on how to reinvigorate international protection and make it more effective in the current geopolitical context. To underline the central importance of refugee protection to our mandate and work, we are promoting a campaign of universal accession to refugee conventions and of implementation of refugee law in national legislations by the year 2000.

It is widely recognized, Mr Chairman, that UNHCR has a unique protection role. Protection is not purely a legal undertaking. Material assistance itself is not an additional, or complementary function of international protection - it is an indispensable support to this function. Anybody who has visited a refugee camp knows, for example, the protection value of a food distribution system in which women play an active role. Giving out plastic sheeting in Bosnia or the former Zaire, and today in Kosovo or Guinea, helps people survive the cold and the rain, but it also enables UNHCR,and its partners, including NGOs, to have direct access to refugees and displaced persons. Above all, protecting refugees requires being with them, in the field. Ensuring protection in the full sense of the word is certainly very difficult, but without such access, it would be impossible. I wish to assure you that all our activities, without any exception, will continue to have as their foremost objective ensuring the protection of refugees, returnees, and, whenever necessary, other victims of forced displacement.

The often dramatic increase in the physical and psychological violence waged against civilians, which I have mentioned, adds even more significance to our field presence. It allows us to be closer to those whose voice cannot be heard otherwise, for example the refugee and returnee women and children who are often, sadly, among those most affected by violence. UNHCR will continue to pay special attention to the needs of these and other vulnerable groups, with a strong focus on their protection problems, particularly in conflict and post-conflict situations.

I would like to highlight another protection challenge, closely linked to the changing nature of war. In cases such as the Kosovo crisis, for example, the plights of refugees, internally displaced and other war-affected persons are indeed very similar - and so are their needs, and the causes of displacement. In these instances, it is of course unthinkable to provide protection and assistance to refugees alone. For this reason, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General have often authorised my Office to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons on an ad hoc basis, and subject to some criteria.

It has been frequently argued that dealing with non-refugee displaced persons dilutes and undermines UNHCR's core mandate. True, this mandate is based on the defense of the right of refugees to seek and obtain safe asylum and not to be subjected to refoulement. These rights cannot be invoked in the case of internally displaced persons, who do not seek asylum abroad. As I have frequently said, however, "protection" involves other aspects of what is sometimes defined, with a rather broad term, "human security": the physical safety of those who are uprooted, first of all - but also, for example, their possibility to have access to basic welfare, or their right to be informed about the situation in their place of origin (so as to make informed choices about returning home), or ensuring their safe and dignified return, and so on.

Millions of internally displaced people - undergoing, to all intents and purposes, the same suffering and hardship as refugees - do not have access today to these basic elements of human security. UNHCR, in close cooperation with other agencies - particularly the United Nations operational agencies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross in situations of conflict - can make available its own expertise and resources to address the plight of all categories of displaced persons and - most importantly - to seek comprehensive solutions to the problems of displacement.

The challenges of post-conflict situations

Much as it has been increasingly involved in conflicts, in the past few years UNHCR has had to work in post-conflict situations, particularly in the context of large-scale return of refugees to their home countries. UNHCR's involvement in this crucial phase of the displacement cycle has been requested and recognized in the past by the Executive Committee and this Committee. Stabilizing returnees in the phase immediately following large repatriation movements is an indispensable contribution to the reconciliation of divided communities, and, as such, to post-conflict peace-building. Although limited in scope and time, it can also have a preventive value in avoiding further displacement.

Our efforts in this area have been hampered by what I consider a growing gap between humanitarian and development assistance. A good example is provided by Rwanda, where 25% of the population are recent returnees. War, genocide and displacement have created a situation in which needs are still of a survival nature. Just to give one example, 400,000 children, many of them returnees, are believed to be without parents. Yet, while humanitarian assistance recedes for lack of funds, development activities are slow to start, due to insecurity, and the still limited implementing capacity of the government.

This happens in other countries emerging from conflict. Much has been said about this issue. I believe, however, that we should move the focus of the discussion from the rather abstract definition of respective mandates to the concrete identification and creation of realistic linkages. UNHCR does not want to do development work and has limited expertise in this area. Our objective is to ensure that immediate humanitarian needs are covered, so that the reintegration process has a solid basis. We also hope that development partners can intervene quickly and effectively, something which is often made difficult by the fact that they are not present on the ground during the conflict and lack resources during the post-conflict phase. The early involvement of development agencies would also allow us, and other humanitarian partners, to focus on our area of expertise - the return and reintegration of refugees, and the support to their communities during a very crucial phase in which people who have sometimes fought each other for years start living together again.

UNHCR is becoming increasingly involved in situations where the humanitarian/development gap is a major problem. I wish, therefore, to confirm the commitment of my Office to promote efforts aimed at bridging this gap. We must use all available channels and tools in ways adapted to the great variety of post-conflict situations. This contribution to achieving sustainable peace should be one of our priorities.

Future priorities

Mr. Chairman, let me conclude by looking briefly at the future.

A first priority is to maintain, and if possible strengthen, our capacity to prepare for, and respond to refugee emergencies. It is this capacity that has allowed us to deploy more than 70 staff to Kosovo in a matter of a few days after hostilities were suspended. When unrest broke out in Indonesia in May I dispatched specialized staff to train governments and non-governmental organizations in countries which may have been prone to refugee influxes. The increase in the number and intensity of conflicts, and the uncertain nature of peace, make new refugee outflows possible, if not likely. We must therefore remain prepared.

A second priority is to ensure that my Office can work with a more solid funding base. By "solid" I mean essentially the following: that contributions be made on a timely basis; that they are relatively predictable; and that earmarking be kept to reasonable levels, not to jeopardize our ability to address changing refugee situations in a flexible manner. Given the voluntary character of our funding, this all the more important. Only a timely, predictable and flexible funding basis will allow us to respond promptly and effectively to the many challenges I have described earlier. In this area in particular, I count on your strong support. On my side, I remain committed to continuously improve the ways we manage the resources given to us, and I will be particularly mindful to refine mechanisms to monitor, inspect and evaluate our activities.

A third priority to which I will devote particular attention is to maintain and promote a human approach in our work. The biggest challenge and the greatest privilege in working with UNHCR is that we deal not only with issues, concepts, policies and figures but also, and much more importantly, with people. The best guarantee of good management is our awareness that the lives and welfare of thousands of men, women and children depend on the quality of our work and the effective use of our resources.

Let me conclude by mentioning what I consider a fourth, significant priority: the need to make humanitarian operations more secure, and to improve the safety and security of refugees and staff working on their behalf. In this context, I wish to thank all those who work with refugees every day, especially in difficult and dangerous field locations: our government counterparts, regional organizations, our partner agencies and my own colleagues in UNHCR. Their contributions help all of us share the responsibility for the well-being, and often the very lives, of more than 22 million of the most vulnerable and exposed human beings in the world.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.