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Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 26 November 1973

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 26 November 1973

27 November 1973

Mr. Chairman,

Twenty-five years ago in Paris, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eloquent words will no doubt be spoken a fortnight hence in commemoration of this extraordinary document. If I refer to it today, perhaps prematurely, it is to underline what this Committee, charged with humanitarian and social responsibilities, will be the first to recognize: it is not the words, but the continuing observance that counts.

This Committee will also recognize that the functions entrusted to my Office are, in a wider context, organically linked to the observance of the Declaration and, consequently, with the work that this Committee has undertaken on a variety of related issues: racial equality, political and religious tolerance, minority rights, to mention but a few. To the extent that the international community makes progress in harmony in such fields, the problem of refugees will be eclipsed, as it should. That the problem persists, and manifests itself in each hemisphere, is an indication of the facts as they are.

Indeed, Mr. Chairman, these facts point to the existence of what is, virtually, a Fourth World. A world without representation in this or any other Assembly, yet peopled by millions: refugees, the displaced and often stateless, and others in similar circumstances. It is of them and on their behalf that I have, annually, the privilege of reporting to you and of seeking your guidance.

I value these occasions. They have enabled me to hear the views of this Committee and to gauge afresh the priorities and preoccupations of governments. Looking back on the chain of resolutions and analysing the trend of comments made, this Committee will see in perspective some of the most acute tensions that have divided nations and peoples in the past quarter century. Conversely, and more happily, this Committee will also see the growing conviction amongst governments that refugee problems, a reflection of these tensions in devastating individual terms, must be solved speedily, humanely and in civilized consensus.

There has resulted, in consequence, through the annual deliberations in this forum, an exceptionally beneficial understanding and interaction - one that has enabled my Office to develop in the manner intended: as an instrument that is at once politically neutral yet morally robust, capable of swift service where needed, regardless of continent, or the race, religion or political persuasion of those who are uprooted. Equally significant, it has been through the resolutions adopted here that my Office has fount it possible, in accordance with the wishes of this Committee, to react with efficacy, widen the range of governments with whom it should have productive contacts, and chart relevant areas of endeavour.

Through illustrations, I should like to amplify on this interaction.

A year ago, by resolution 2956A, the General Assembly requested me to continue to participate, at the invitation of the Secretary-General, in those humanitarian endeavours of the United Nations for which my Office had particular expertise and competence. Translated from paper to practice this has meant, in 1973, our efforts on behalf of populations in the South Asian sub-continent and for those who were displaced from Uganda.

This Committee is not stranger to the efforts of the United Nations in the South Asian sub-continent. You will recall the massive crisis in 1971 when my Office was asked by the Secretary-General to serve as the "focal point" for the channelling of multilateral assistance to Bengali refugees. You are also aware of their return home from India in 1972 and the assistance that has been provided to Bangladesh in unprecedented measure through the United Nations Relief Operation in that country.

Today we witness the epilogue to the events of 1971. The New Delhi Agreement of 28 August 1973, welcomed for its statesmanship by the international community, opened the way to solutions being found for humanitarian issues that remained outstanding. Close upon the Agreement, the Governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan requested the Secretary-General to assist them to arrange the mass transfer of populations, numbering over 200,000 persons. Earlier, a start had been made through a limited operations, for which, too, the Secretary-General's assistance had been sought by the parties concerned and for which the Secretary-General had asked me to serve as his "executing agent." In May, I visited the area in order to help establish the modalities for the commencement of the limited operation. The issues were exceedingly complex. Nevertheless, in June-July the first lists were established and the airlift homeward started. Overflight and technical landing rights were accorded for the purpose by India. We continued with the limited operation till the Delhi Agreement rendered feasible the larger movement. I believe our efforts in early summer served a catalytic function, assuring the governments concerned of the capacity and willingness of the international community to help.

I have just returned from a further visit to Bangladesh and Pakistan and have had the honour and benefit of conversations with their Prime Ministers. Both attached the utmost importance to the smooth and successful implementation of this movement and expressed the hope that the present operation will be completed expeditiously. I believe that the discussion contributed to a further resolution of operational questions which, in some ways, are of the essence in transforming an agreement to reality. As of today, nearly 70,000 persons have been moved from the two countries. Simultaneously, the Government of India has ensured the concurrent repatriation of prisoners-of-war and civilian internees. Additionally, my Office has so far assisted with the airlift of over 6,00 Pakistanis home from Nepal.

Mr. Chairman, we count on the continuing support of governments for this vital effort, so far-reaching in its consequences. We had estimated the costs of the repatriation to be in the order of $14.3 million. To date, we have received cash pledges totalling $6.2 million. Additionally, four aircraft and a ship have been made available. I wish to express my deep gratitude for these contributions. Whether provided, initially, on a multilateral or bilateral basis, they have been woven into an integrated operation with the concurrence of the governments concerned. This development should be applauded: it has broken new ground in the working relationships of my Office with governments and made an international effort more cohesive. I should also like to thank the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Secretary-General's Representative in Dacca, Ambassador Lacoste, and members of the United Nations system in the area for their invaluable co-operation.

Let me turn now to the illustration of the Asians of undetermined nationality who had to leave Uganda. The Committee will recall that the Secretary-General was requested by the Government of Uganda to arrange their departure by 7 November 1972. Clearly, whilst in Uganda - the country of their habitual residence - they could not be assisted by my Office. Initially, therefore, the Secretary-General had arrangements made for their transportation with the co-operation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration. However, since places of transit and permanent resettlement had to be found, the Secretary-General asked me to assist and over $3 million were raised to help this group. In brief, Mr. Chairman, here was a responsibility entrusted to met in keeping with the spirit of resolution 2956A. You will note, nevertheless, that is was necessary for me to proceed with circumspection, after certain steps had been taken by others, in order to ensure that I worked within the terms of reference approved for my Office by governments. The line is delicate and must be observed unerringly.

I am happy to state today that of approximately 8,000 Asians of undetermined nationality who left Uganda, and of whom 4,457 were brought to transit camps in Europe, only 111 still await firm resettlement opportunities. The others have been resettled in 19 different countries. I owe a debt of gratitude to each of their governments and to the voluntary agencies that assisted. Yet the problem is not over: scattered through the world there are still more than 1,500 Asians from Uganda, their families divided, some of then hardship cases, seeking once again to be reunited. Is it too much to hope that governments will interpret their immigration laws compassionately? The answer in a forum such as this is always positive. But the road does not end here.

Mr. Chairman, two sessions ago, the distinguished representative of the Sudan spoke with quiet fervour of the aspirations of his Government to heal the wounds of seventeen years of civil strife. He urged this Committee and my Office to facilitate the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees from four neighbouring countries, by helping to create material conditions at home as would encourage the refugees, and others who had scattered in the bush, to return. Clearly, my Office was meant to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugee. Yet, it was not usual for us to do so by assisting within a country of origin. The situation was remedied by the appeal of the Government of the Sudan to the Secretary-General, by his decision that UNHCR respond through an emergency operation in the southern region, by successive resolutions of ECOSOC endorsing this decision and by the General Assembly's resolution 2958. Here again, the understanding of this Committee was crucial. The international community need have no afterthoughts: it has helped the Sudanese Government nurse a miracle. Today, some 150,000 refugees are back from the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zaire. Many more are back home from the bush. About $20 million, channelled through UNHCR, have been well spent. At the end of October 1973, we concluded our emergency phase of the operation through an orderly transfer of responsibilities to UNDP. It remains for me to thank, once again, those governments who assisted multilaterally or bilaterally. If we could point, in modesty, to a successful international operation, we would point to this. The occasion, the purpose, the will and the resources met in confluence to serve a Member State and to further the Charter. I am delighted to report that, in incidental benefit, we have been able to close our office in Bangui - there being no Sudanese refugees left in the Central African Republic.

I wish I could report with equal levity of what is, without doubt, the essence of our function. For two decade the General Assembly has urged, through its resolutions, that Member States accord to refugees the minimal consideration spelt out in the 1951 Convention and its Protocol of 1967. Unfortunately, in many parts of the globe, we continue to learn of their travesty: of arbitrary arrest and deportation, of refoulement, of gainful employment proving elusive and of opportunities to legalize status being denied. It is more than passingly ironical that it is sometimes easier to raise funds by the million than to accord protection to those who may, at times, appear to be a handful of not very consequential individuals. But my Office cannot, and must not, be hypnotized by mass operations, no matter how successful. And I would hope that governments would appreciate the reasons why, from time to time, I must - at the risk of earning odium - draw their attention to situations needing redress. Today, we seem to have reached a plateau in accessions to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, with 64 governments having ratified the former and 55 the latter. It would appear to me that there is need to view the great value of these instruments afresh, no longer through the divisive prism of the 1950s, but with the clearer and more international vision of the 1970s. likewise, we need to take more seriously the possibilities for international action through the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the 1954 Convention on Stateless Persons. They might well hold a key to the avoidance of unnecessary human suffering in the future. It is not enough to foresee problems; wisdom would lie in avoiding them.

I am happy to report, however, that the OAU Convention, adopted by the Heads of State in 1967, is likely very soon to come into force. Only one more accession is required. Once in force, it will be of inestimable value not only to the governments of Africa in their mutual relations, but to more than a million beleaguered refugees in that continent.

The Committee will recall that, last year, there was a discussion on the Draft Convention on Territorial Asylum elaborated by a group of jurists in Bellagio. In summing up the discussion, the Chairman stated that the Committee felt it was desirable that a convention should be adopted under the aegis of the United Nations. It was therefore agreed that I would consult with governments on the matter and report to the twenty-eighth session of the General Assembly, with a view to paving the way for convening by the Assembly of a conference of plenipotentiaries. Mr. Chairman, my report on these consultation is contained in Addendum 2 to document A/9012. So far, 62 States have communicated their views to me. I would propose to continue my contacts with governments with a view to ascertaining the widest spectrum of opinion on this matter.

I referred a moment ago, Mr. Chairman, to over a million refugees in Africa. It is towards their assistance - legal and material - that the largest concentration of UNHCR manpower and resources from my regular programme continue to be directed. In 1974, this programme amounts to $8.7 million, of which some $5 million will be channelled for their assistance. Unhappily, we continue to witness fresh movements of refugees out of Burundi. In the last two years, they have come to number over 85,000 persons seeking shelter in three neighbouring countries. Obvious tensions result from such a vast and repeated movement. For this reason, I have maintained the closest contacts with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the governments of the area, and their regional organization - the OAU. I have felt for some time that a solution to this problem, in all its complexity, must be worked out essentially within the framework of African unity. That is why I attended the summit meeting in Addis Ababa in May 1973 and followed with great care the deliberations and efforts of the Heads of State under the Presidency this year of General Gowon.

I cannot speak of the African situation without pointing out that the overwhelming majority of refugees of concern to my Office came from territories under colonial administration. It is only natural that, for over a decade, a very substantial share of the UNHCR annual programme has been allocated to assist groups essentially from Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. In addition to the allocations from the annual programme, a large proportion of the refugee Education Account and other Trust Funds administered by UNHCR are made available for their assistance. My Office has for years maintained close contacts with the OAU in regard to this problem. I would like to assure the Committee that, in accordance with the various resolutions of the General Assembly, my Office will continue, within its means, to give the maximum possible help to these refugees. I am sure all Members of this Committee would like to see the day when they can return home and, with the benefit of the assistance that we have provided, face the future with confidence.

Last year, this Committee noted more in apprehension than in search of an answer that none of us knew the dimensions of the next problem, where it would arise or whom it would affect. But I am afraid that an unsolicited answer has been provided. Recent events in Chile have given rise to grave concern as to the well-being, legal protection and future of the refugees in that country. Since 13 September, I have been in continuous contact with the Government of Chile, stressing that refugees be treated in accordance with the provisions of the conventions and legal instruments that Chile has ratified. The Government of Chile has indicated that it will honour these commitments. As always, however, in situations such as these, there is need for the utmost and continuing vigilance on the part of all concerned. To this end, modalities have been established to interview refugees, seek ways of having their status regularized and to assist their departure from Chile should they be unable or unwilling to stay in that country. A National Committee for Aid to Refugees has been created, as also a number of safe-havens for the refugees. It is of paramount importance that these safe-havens continue to be respected. In consultation with the Government, a panel of lawyers has been established to facilitate the work of my staff in according legal protection to the refugees. I am deeply indebted to the church groups and voluntary agencies that have come forward to assist in this work. As before, and as in other parts of the world, their deep compassion has been a source of strength. I am also greatly indebted to the Secretary-General, other colleagues of the United Nations system and members of the diplomatic corps in Santiago, for the initiatives taken by them in this crisis and the help extended to my reinforced staff in that country.

We are still, however, living through the crisis. Already there are indications that some 2,600 foreign refugees who were living in Chile will need to be resettled elsewhere and that their number may increase as registrations continue. Some 1,500 places have so far been offered for their reinstallation in Eastern and Western Europe, in the Americas and in the Caribbean. We have helped to organize all essential aspects of this resettlement operation and have assigned specialized staff for this purpose. Sadly, and despite the great and time-honoured humanitarian traditions of Latin America in matters relating to asylum, we note that Latin American refugees are having to find places and be re-located outside their home continent. You will see, therefore, that we are once again in the unenviable position of appealing to Member States for additional help that is urgently needed. Once again, we cannot be satisfied only with transit facilities, for we shall need more places for permanent resettlement. Simultaneously, we would hope that the maximum number of refugees who wish to remain in Chile would find it possible to do so; we would be prepared to assist as needed.

Mr. Chairman, in spite of differences of language and custom, ideology and belief, we must bind together by law and tolerance the vast empire of human society. We know in our work, only too well, how men in exile feed on dreams of hope. We have been privileged, wit the understanding of governments, to meet some hopes. But many in the Fourth World - that of the uprooted - feel that they deserve more of us. I have no doubt, Mr. Chairman, that he distinguished Members of this Committee will, under your guidance, sponsor international action that will take us a step further towards meeting their needs.


Resolution on the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as adopted by the Third Committee on 27 November 1973[1]

The General Assembly,

Having considered the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees concerning the activities of his Office[2] and having heard his statement,

Noting with appreciation the manner in which the High Commissioner has, in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and the directives of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, carried out essential humanitarian actions,

Bearing in mind the importance of the increasingly useful co-operation between the High Commissioner and other members of the United Nations system, resulting in better co-ordination of action and greater efficiency in fields of common interest,

Recognizing the importance of voluntary repatriation as a permanent solution to the problem of refugees and the useful role played by the High Commissioner in co-operation with other members of the United Nations system and non-governmental agencies in assisting them.

Noting with satisfaction the increasing number of Governments contributing to the High Commissioner's programme and the generous attitude adopted by Governments in supporting various activities of the High Commissioner,

Commending accessions to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967 and other relevant instruments,

1. Expresses its deep satisfaction at the efficient manner in which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and his staff continue to accomplish their humanitarian task, and appeals to him to consider favourably his re-election on account of the unflagging dedication which he has manifested since he assumed the responsibilities of his present post;

2. Requests the High Commissioner to continue his assistance and protection activities in favour of refugees within his mandate as well as for those to whom he extends his good offices or is called upon to assist in accordance with relevant resolutions of the General Assembly;

3. Requests the High Commissioner to continue his efforts, in co-operation with Governments, United Nations bodies and voluntary agencies to promote permanent and speedy solutions through voluntary repatriation, assistance in rehabilitation where necessary, integration in countries of asylum or resettlement in other countries;

4. Urges Governments to continue to lend their support to the High Commissioner's humanitarian action by:

(a) Facilitating the accomplishment of his task in the field of international protection;

(b) Co-operating in the promotion of permanent solutions to refugee problems;

(c) Providing the necessary means to attain the financial targets established with the approval of the Executive Committee.

[1] This text was subsequently endorsed by the General Assembly and issued as Resolution 3143 (XXVIII).

[2] Official Records of the General Assembly, Twenty-eighth Session, Supplement No. 12 (A/9012 and Add.1 and Add.2).