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Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the 30th Meeting of the Standing Committee, (Geneva, 29 June - 1 July 2004)

Speeches and statements

Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the 30th Meeting of the Standing Committee, (Geneva, 29 June - 1 July 2004)

29 June 2004

As delivered

The June session of this Standing Committee has traditionally been the "protection" session. The Committee receives for initial discussion the Note on International Protection and considers, as well, several documents of a more specialized content which then serve as the basis for the conclusions on international protection to be adopted over the current year. The Agenda for Protection, endorsed by the Executive Committee in 2002, has given an additional focus to our mid-year discussions, serving as it does as the frame for the Note on International Protection and the subject of mandatory follow up reporting on its implementation, both by UNHCR and by States. I make this point to underline, from the outset, that this session is potentially significant in protection terms. The protection conclusions, while not hard law, are nevertheless indicative of an authoritative measure of state opinion or practice and, in this sense, serve protection well as persuasive guidelines on how to address a broad range of protection challenges. They are important tools for better protection. The Note is also a measure, albeit of a different sort. It brings to attention - for reflection, yes, but also remedy - problems and setbacks, as well as advances. As such it can serve both as a barometer of progress, and a measure of collective failure. It therefore deserves sufficient time and serious attention. There are, of course, other items for discussion in June. My concern here, as the Director of International Protection, is that your agenda continue to accord protection the priority place it is able to command only this one time in the busy schedule of the Executive Committee. We must remain vigilant not to allow it, somehow, to be "crowded out" by the ever burgeoning number of other issues on the June agenda.

This year's Note on International Protection [doc EC/54/SC/CRP.9] presents a mixed picture. The number of States committing themselves to protect refugees through multilateral efforts has increased, with the total of parties to the 1951 Convention, and/ or its 1967 Protocol now standing at 145. The most recent accession was that of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to the 1967 Protocol. I am also pleased to report that the number of States Parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons has increased to 56 through the most recent ratification by Uruguay. This year, in fact, coincides with the 50th anniversary of this Convention, and we intend to put focus on statelessness during the Executive Committee meeting in October.

The number of persons of concern to the High Commissioner has gone down, not least because the root causes of major displacement, from Afghanistan through to West Africa, have been ameliorated sufficiently to permit the voluntary return of large numbers of refugees. To take one example, some 240,000 persons have been able to return home to Sierra Leone as part of an ongoing operation we hope to complete this year. The Liberia repatriation, to benefit more than 320,000 refugees, as well as hundreds of thousands of IDPs, should begin in earnest in the coming months, while the prospects for voluntary repatriation to Sudan, to name one further example, have taken a leap forward with signature of a framework for peace and will, hopefully also shortly, further reduce the numbers of refugees requiring international protection and assistance in exile. As the Note points out, and as many of you are well aware through not least the High Commissioner's Convention Plus initiative, UNHCR is accompanying these and other operations with strengthened efforts to ensure the sustainability of return, just as the sustainability of continued stay, through self reliance initiatives and community-focused assistance measures. A number of Governments have also made a particularly positive and noteworthy contribution in this regard, which the Note also reports on. Zambia and Uganda are two which merit mention here.

Positive developments such as these are, however, only part of the story. It is important to remember that the outlook overall for millions of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR remains bleak. For many, durable solutions are simply out of reach. Physical insecurity is a perennial, even worsening, threat for both camp based and urban populations. The efforts of the international community to assist and protect the victims have been seriously compromised over the period by the direct targeting of humanitarian personnel through violence and assassination. Military attacks on camps, their misuse by combatants for "R and R" in disrespect of their civilian character, and forced recruitment of children remain serious problems. The Expert Roundtable on Maintaining the Civilian and Humanitarian Character of Asylum, held in Geneva 9-11 June, was a recent contribution on our part, in follow up to the request for it in ExCom Conclusion No. 94, to improving the international response to the problem of militarization of camps. Rape of women, arbitrary detention, refoulement and closure of borders, non-admission into asylum procedures, are also all still part of the downside of the picture which the Note brings to us. What I find as depressing, almost, as this list itself, is the fact that, year after year, I am obliged to bring these repeating problems to this Committee's attention. Some may, one year, be on the decline, others in the ascendancy, but the spirals of violence, human rights violations and displacement which produce refugees have shown themselves remarkably resistant to change. Darfur is the latest example of serious disrespect for human life and international norms of what constitutes acceptable conduct leading to a major new outflow of refugees. Is all this a fact inherent in the human condition, or is it something more down to earth, remediable as a function of political will and commitment, international solidarity and burden-sharing, better tools and imaginative effort.

It was belief in the latter that drove UNHCR's Global Consultations process throughout 2001 and 2002 and led to the adoption of the Agenda for Protection. You have been receiving regular reports on how UNHCR is, for its part, implementing the Agenda. I regret I cannot add that reports from states on their own activities have been as regular! With apologies to those of you who do keep us informed, allow me to renew the invitation to all government and non-government delegations to advise this Committee about your own implementation strategies. The Agenda was a product of a multilateral process. It addresses those elements of protection which stand to benefit from strengthened multilateral cooperation. This cooperation is best built on the experiences, successful strategies and best practices of protection partners, about which, to come back to my point here, we need to be kept informed.

As regards UNHCR, the Agenda has brought a number of tangible benefits to our protection activities, notably in the field. It has helped to mainstream concepts and to improve ownership of and accountability for the performance of protection from the top management down. It has also served to promote more coherent and globally consistent policies, by offering a planning framework, which is not region or country specific, within which offices can develop their more locally tailored protection strategies. The Agenda suggests avenues for the doing of protection. It is not about the doctrine as such, although the law and principles are as much the starting points as the needs. The Agenda helps to establish equivalence here, to show the balance between the two, which is also an achievement not to be under-estimated in a climate of some skepticism. The Agenda brings home that protection is more than promotion of legal regimes - that too, but not only. It is a complex of activities, some of which involve outright defence of person and rights, and some of which are broader but link thereto. Registration and documentation is one example. The mechanics of registration, the techniques used for data collection, the practicalities of issuing documentation are all traditionally classified as programme activities. Being registered and documented serves however to confer a legal or quasi legal personality. This serves as a very important protection safeguard against the arbitrary behaviour of officialdom. The Agenda recognized the significance of the protection role, prompting this Committee to go into it in greater detail, through ExCom Conclusion No. 91 on Registration of Refugees and Asylum-seekers (2001).

The Agenda promotes partnerships for protection, built around burden-sharing. In this it recognizes the reality that protection is not the preserve of any one of its agents. States are primarily responsible. UNHCR is a catalyst and facilitator, acting on an obligatory, not discretionary mandate, with a statute and treaty based authority for a right of intervention, regardless of invitation. There are other agencies in and outside the UN system which also have, variously, an expertise to offer, deriving from their own experience of protection-based assistance to populations of concern to them. There is no monopoly here. Rather, collaboration on the ground, which respects relative advantages and pays due deference to differences of mandate and standing, is called for more than ever today. The Convention Plus process, tracing its origins to the Agenda, is one effort in train to promote more effective, predictable and reliable partnerships for protection, within a collaborative burden-sharing framework. Within UNHCR, the notion of "partnership" also has an internal manifestation. The Agenda called for and the office respects the need for partnerships in the doing of protection in-house, with each bureau, department and division re-examining its responsibilities and accountabilities and strengthening its cooperation here. This being said, criticism is also warranted. Clearly more progress is called for on mainstreaming a gender, age and community development approach into our programmes across the board. In this regard DIP is benefiting from the knowledge and experience of Ms. Joyce Mends-Cole who has temporarily joined us as Special Adviser on Gender Mainstreaming and is undertaking selected special assignments. This is a temporary measure while we review the appropriateness of our current structure. You will hear more about the mainstreaming of gender and age from the Director of the Division of Operational Support under item 5.

Beyond these reflections, I do not intend to take you much further, via my introduction, through all our efforts to implement the Agenda. I gave an oral update only three months ago, to the March Standing Committee. The Bureau Directors similarly spoke to the Agenda in their strategic presentations in March. The written texts have already been provided to delegations at that meeting and are still available to those who so require. A more comprehensive overview for the preceding period is presented in the Note, whose content, as I mentioned, is structured around the Agenda. There is not much more that is new to this point. I am assuming, unless I hear otherwise from you, that this meets the request for a periodic report to the Standing Committee on progress in implementation. The goal here must not become to tie up the whole process in a bureaucracy of ever more charts and speeches. Rather we need to find ways to maximize the benefit of the March reports and then the Note by having them impact - qualitatively and measurably - on our thinking and our subsequent efforts to achieve better protection. Less process and more substance would be our strong recommendation.

In this context I want to put to you, for any comment you care to offer, one additional reflection to which I believe the material in the Note gives rise. Refugee policy and Asylum policy are clearly two different things in the strategies and actions of states. What the Note illustrates is a growing divergence and inconsistency as between the two in the current practice of many states. What do I mean by this? Refugee policy is the umbrella. It is normally the term which subsumes the gamut of activities states engage in to manage the refugee problem globally and meet their own responsibilities in this regard. Refugee policy has traditionally had both external and internal dimensions. External policy embraced normative work, with ExCom not least, capacity building and burden-sharing with countries of asylum, promotion of solutions and broader peace building and post conflict efforts in countries of origin. The internal dimension included the range of policies and processes that govern asylum in a state - access to its territory, protection possibilities and responsibilities in situ, and removal of rejected asylum-seekers. Asylum policy, formerly this internal dimension of global refugee policy, is now going through a divorce. What the Note, among other things, illustrates is that many states are placing their asylum policies now within a framework of migration management - with its emphasis on control and policing mechanisms - rather than in the refugee policy framework which emphasizes the broader goals of protection and international solidarity. However, if what we all preach overseas is to be realizable and sustainable over the longer term, we need to practice consistent and compatible policies at home.

We agree, and the Agenda recognizes, that there are areas where, of necessity even, refugee protection and migration management have to intersect. The return of asylum seekers found not to be in need of international protection is one among several. In an effort to promote better handling of the so-called asylum/migration nexus, UNHCR is cooperating with efforts directed at preserving the integrity of the asylum concept and its proper use. It is, though, one step too far here to structure asylum policy through a migration control lens. It is increasingly being shown to be counter-productive to try and manage unauthorized movement of people, with all its complex manifestations between voluntariness and compulsion, solely or even primarily at the receiving end, through national control strategies. People do keep coming, in ever more resourceful ways, including through people smugglers. What is required is a far more holistic and comprehensive approach which focuses first and foremost on the push factors at the beginning of the movement, to obviate its necessity. We need multi-dimensional refugee policies which integrate asylum and refugee strategies in an even handed, consistent and resourceful manner. This is in fact the essence of the Convention Plus concept.

Let me conclude, Mr. Chairman, on a different note, with an observation about UNHCR's protection mandate. Based on a number of recent exchanges with Governments over protection issues, I believe it might help to offer some clarifications. The Note on International Protection serves, as one of its purposes, to turn attention to activities which either produce refugees or seriously jeopardize their security and well being. In this it makes its contribution to sensitization and, hopefully, some preventative strategies. It also comments on actions - of States and other parties - which are inconsistent with protection parameters contained, in part, in the international instruments which apply, notably the 1951 Convention and its Protocol. Here one purpose is to promote a more tolerant and supportive regime of laws which impact refugee protection, as well as a more resolute respect generally of protection principles. These purposes flow directly from the duty conferred upon the High Commissioner, by States, to supervise the application of provisions of the 1951 Convention [Art 35] and to make reports which look at the condition of refugees, the implementation of the Convention, and laws, regulations and decrees in force relating to refugees. The Agenda for Protection makes a number of very specific and related requests of UNHCR, including that the office "act as a catalyst in mitigating circumstances which might lead to refugee flows" [G1, O12]. To ensure more harmonized interpretation of the Convention, UNHCR is asked by the Agenda, among other things, "to produce complementary guidelines" to its Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status. [G1,O6]. In addition the Office is requested to work to "foster a positive and respectful attitude towards refugees, including through encouraging political leaders to uphold the basic values underpinning the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol". These requests are complementary, one with another, and stem from widespread concern that UNHCR play a catalytic role globally - without fear or favour - to ensure refugees can access their rights.

Our role is to inform, advise, monitor and operationally assist. This is what States tell us they expect us to do, with many activities necessarily flowing directly from our treaty-based duty to supervise the application of the provisions of the refugee Convention. We are obliged to make every effort to keep ourselves abreast of all developments that impact negatively on refugee protection and it logically follows that we must endeavour to encourage government policies and decision making in positive ways to work to the benefit of better refugee protection. If we are asked, for example, as we regularly are by many governments, to inform or resource refugee status determination bodies so that they may apply the refugee definition appropriately, we do provide a service in this regard, including through collating objective and publicly available information on conditions in countries of origin from which significant numbers of asylum seekers are coming. Where UNHCR offers advice or views on matters going to the heart of Convention issues, be it in the context of refugee status determination, or as regards changes in the policy, legislation or practice of governments, it is not a discretionary act but the exercise of our duty to do so.