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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 (twenty-ninth session), 25 November 1974

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 (twenty-ninth session), 25 November 1974

26 November 1974

Madame Chairman,

Once again I have the privilege of reporting to this Committee. It is a discipline and responsibility that I value for the rigour it imposes. For even as I seek a reaffirmation of your understanding, so must I re-examine with clarity the purposes of my Office and the Actions that derive from them.

In recent years, both the purposes and the actions have adapted themselves to new situations. This is because member states, in the unanimity of their decisions, have acted not separately but in unison. What has resulted is a strengthening of the capacity of my Office and of the United Nations to help the international community solve problems as they arise today, rather than as they did in the past. i emphasize this at the outset, for the course that has been charted is of real value and relevance. It has bound together and consolidated the legislative strands on which the work of UNHCR should be bases: the statute adopted during the fifth session of the General Assembly, the numerous subsequent resolutions calling for the use of UNHCR's 'good offices' and, since the twenty-seventh session of the General Assembly, the participation of the Office in those essential humanitarian actions of the United Nations for which UNHCR has particular expertise and competence.

Madame Chairman, in a world that witnesses daily a race between tolerance and catastrophe, it would be naive not to admit that the problem of refugees and displaced persons arises from the most strenuous tensions. Till such time as we allay such tensions, and extinguish the unhappy fears and prejudices that feed them, we shall continue to generate the dispossessed, much as we might lament their dilemma.

In these circumstances, what is the aim of my Office on their behalf? I essence, we must promote lasting and just solutions and, where such solutions are not immediately possible, we must buy time for them. We must attempt to reduce complex political questions I the minds of nations into simple moral and humanitarian components for the heart to answer. It must be hoped that even in the process of providing such answers, political decisions will be facilitated that go to the roots of a problem.

With your permission, Madame Chairman, I should like to amplify through illustration.

As this Committee is aware, for over a decade my office has assisted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau in neighbouring countries in Africa. In seeking help, we stressed repeatedly, perhaps even to the weariness of governments, that the refugees constituted a valuable human resource, a group that needed every encouragement and facility to prepare them for their return home. To this end, as an act of faith in the future, we worked closely with the host countries, the Organization of African Unity, and the competent liberation movements to ensure that the dignity and potential of these refugees were nourished. Today, we trust that the exile of the refugees in ending. Theirs is not an apathetic end, but the vindication of an ideal. We are proud that our actions, in the borrowed time that was used to help them, will see them return to their homes trained and equipped to serve new nations. It is a principal duty of my Office to promote voluntary repatriation. To this end, in cooperation with the governments and the liberation movements concerned, I am studying the modalities for the repatriation of the refugees and the support that they will require to enable their resettlement in their countries of origin. As in other such situations, it is clear that the repatriation of the refugees must be dovetailed carefully with the creation of a minimum infrastructure to which they are to return. Failure to take such action would inhibit the repatriation itself and lead to entirely unnecessary and undesirable consequences. I believe it is reasonable to expect, therefore, that in 1975 a considerable effort would be necessary in this regard. Needless to say, any steps by UNHCR would be fully co-ordinated with the efforts of the United Nations system as a whole to provide economic assistance to these countries. In the meantime, we welcome the developments that have opened the way for the liquidation of this problem.

In another continent, Asia, the Secretary-General entrused the Office with the movement of stranded persons between Bangladesh and Pakistan. what resulted was the largest organized airlift of human beings in recent history: 247,300 persons in nearly 1,800 flights and movements by ship as well. A full account of this operation may be seen in document A/9612/Add.2. At this stage, I simply with to say again how grateful I am to those governments that contributed either multilaterally or bilaterally to this undertaking. As a model of coordinated international action, it was remarkable. In terms of the aims of the United Nations and the Office, however, the operation had a more profound meaning. As the Secretary-General noted, its successful outcome was an important factor in helping to create conditions in which the governments of the sub-continent could themselves make major progress towards a new era of cooperation and understanding.

Also in Asia, with the concurrence of the Secretary-General and guided by his view that United Nations assistance should be made available to all parties in Indo-China on a purely humanitarian basis, I have instituted an important programme to assist displaced persons in Laos and Vietnam. This effort, which initially covers projects valued at dollars 12 million in 1974-75, has been most carefully elaborated through field visits and discussions on the spot. I would urge governments to respond to this programme through contributions to the Office. I need hardly add that the measures that we envisage have been coordinated with other international agencies and programmes so as to avoid any semblance of duplication. I am sure that the projects will help alleviate widespread suffering. I would hope, too, that they would be a factor on the side of peace and humanity in this troubled region.

I should now like to speak of the United Nations humanitarian assistance programme for Cyprus, which the Secretary-General has asked me to coordinate. Clearly, the primary purpose of the operation is to provide timely and efficient emergency relief to the large number of persons presently displaced in the Island. Eventually clearly, however, the relief operation, like the United Nations peace-keeping effort, cannot be a substitute for a settlement of underlying problems. It therefore becomes critical that a humanitarian operation that is being backed generously by the international community, should strengthen the political will of the parties to reach a swift and appropriate settlement. In brief, the time being bought through such an operation must be used productively to achieve an agreed solution. I underline this precisely because the humanitarian operation has, to date, been successful. Ironically, the greater the success, the greater the hazard.

On 6 September, the Secretary-General appealed for $22 million in kind or cash to meet emergency needs between 1 September - 31 December 1974. We have now reached this figure, taking into account the multilateral and bilateral response to the appeal. I would like here to express our deepest gratitude to all who have contributed: once again, we witness an affirmation of the spirit of the United Nations in a joint effort that transcends political variance. I should like to add that, throughout the operation, we have been privileged to work closely with the Secretary-General's special representative, the Commander of UNFICYP, WFP, WHO, UNIDEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Reports on the operation have been issued for the Security Council as document S/11488, together with its Addenda 1 and 2.

Through the illustrations just provided, I have attempted to sketch a composite picture of the assistance activities of UNHCR and to relate these activities to the aims of the Office as it endeavours to be of service to a changing world. I have referred to actions undertaken both within my regular programme and to special humanitarian tasks that we have been requested to undertake. Together with other aspects of the work of my Office, these activities are bound together by the discipline of programme budgeting. I therefore welcome the recent decision of my executive Committee that, within the framework of programme budgeting, I should report to it on the special humanitarian tasks in the same manner as I report on other activities financed from trust funds under the regular programme of my Office. I believe that such a procedure would ensure that governments are advised comprehensively and systematically of the totality of our efforts.

There are certain other matters, arising from the twenty-fifth session of the Executive Committee on which I should like to comment. The first relates to my regular programme for 1975, the second to the UNHCR Emergency Fund and the third to a widely different issue, the Draft Convention on Territorial Asylum.

The regular programme of UNHCR for 1975, that is financed entirely from voluntary funds, has been approved n an amount of $12,656,000, as against $11,808,000 for 1974. Apart from the need to budget additional resources for refugees in Africa, a principal factor contributing to this increase is the impact of events in Chile on our work in Latin America. Thanks to the cooperation of a wide spectrum of governments, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, about 3,000 foreign refugees in Chile were resettled in over 30 countries. There remain however a few cases in Santiago and the important problem of family reunion. Additionally, a profound and careful effort will be required on behalf of the substantial number of Chileans who have crossed into Peru, and in even larger numbers into Argentina. I am greatly concerned as to their future.

A further refugee situation, for which material assistance has not as yet been sought from UNHCR, concerns the Kurdish refugees in Iran who are estimated by the Iranian Government to number over 100,000 persons. At the invitation of that Government, I asked a representative of my Office to visit Iran in August 1974. He held discussions with the Prime Minister, other senior officials and was provided every facility to visit the refugee camps. He also had an opportunity to assess the considerable and very efficient effort of Iran's Red Lion and Sun Society o behalf of these refugees. Substantial funds have been made available by the Government to meet the varied emergency needs of this group and, in view of this considerable effort, no formal request for material assistance has been addressed to my Office. I wish to state, however, that I continue to follow the situation very closely and am in touch with the parties concerned. I wish to add that UNHCR's expertise and competence is available here as elsewhere, and if we can be of help, we shall certainly endeavour - to the best of our capacity and in a totally non-political way - to contribute towards a humanitarian solution.

As regards the emergency fund, crises in the past two years have shown that the $1 million that can be allocated annually from it, are simply not enough. The Executive Committee has therefore recommended that the General Assembly authorize the High commissioner to allocate up to $2 million annually from this fund, it being understood that the amount to be made available for any single emergency shall, as heretofore, nor exceed $500,000 in any one year. I would hope that this proposal which is contained in paragraph 80 of document A/9612/Add.1, is acceptable to this Committee. I should like to point out here that the financing of expenditure form the emergency fund is reasonably assured up to the proposed level through existing sources of income feeding the working capital and guarantee fund which serves as its principal basis. Therefore, the proposal of the Executive Committee imposes no new budgetary demands on Governments, but merely strengthens the internal financial arrangements of my Office to respond swiftly, and as it should, in desperate situations.

As regards the Draft Convention on Territorial Asylum, members will recall the discussion in this forum last year. In keeping with the summation by the Chair, I have continued to consult with governments with a view to seeking their advice. To date, 91 States have made known their views, of which 76 have indicated that they are in favour of strengthening the law on Territorial Asylum by the elaboration of a Convention within the framework of the United Nations. When this matter was discussed before my Executive Committee, it was its view that a Conference of Plenipotentiaries should take place as son as possible, and be preceded by a meeting of a group of governmental experts to review the present text of the Draft Convention.

Madame Chairman, if I have not, as yet, spoken of the protection function of my Office, it has been in order to focus more firmly on it now. Of all the duties of the High Commissioner this is, without doubt, the most central to his values. It is the least understood, the most difficult and the most demanding. It is also a function that, seemingly, places the High Commissioner in a adversary role vis-à-vis governments. But is it really an adversary role? The answer depends on whether there is a real community of civilized interest in upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the conventions and practices that owe their inspiration to the Declaration; two such instruments are the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and the 1967 Protocol on this subject to which 65 and 58 states respectively are now party. Because I am convinced that there is an encompassing interest in states acting in accord with these instruments, I have urged individually the 73 governments that are not party to either, to consider again the question of accession. Of course, accession is not enough. The relevant municipal laws of each land must develop in consonance. Above all, it is the manner of implementing these laws that gives them meaning.

To follow their implementation and to intervene where necessary, requires tenacity and realism on the par of my Office. But never a realism that acquiesces in the violation of the rights of a refugee. Between such rights, and the sensitivities of states, there can be no choice for the Office. I am therefore appalled, and say so, when indifference, or political expediency or complicity lead to refoulement, kidnapping or even the assassination of refugees. Indeed, it is the fate of the individual refugee that is the measure of my Office, no less than it is of the civility of states. And here, without mentioning individual violations that have arisen in widely differing circumstances, let me underline again what this Assembly has recognized and must hold to: "the granting of asylum being a peaceful and humanitarian act, it cannot be regarded as unfriendly by any other state". I might add that I am deeply disturbed by evidence of the erosion of this concept. I am also concerned at the tendency, which I have raised individually with certain states, to treat refugees as eternal transients, undeserving of the opportunity to strike permanent roots in countries that by culture and contiguity would clearly be the most appropriate for them.

Madame Chairman, as I conclude these comments on the work of my Office, I cannot but observe that it is often easier t destroy for professed principles, than live by them. Certainly the world's refugees and displaced are painful witness to this. In attending to their concerns each year, this Committee uniquely exalts humanity. And in the consensus of our discussions, I have found with gratitude an evocation of the charter: "to reaffirm our faith in the dignity and worth of the human person and to practice tolerance to this end".