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Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 17 November 1975

Speeches and statements

Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 17 November 1975

18 November 1975

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for giving me the floor. In this thirtieth year of the United Nations, a special importance has been given to the concept of "interdependence". Whether in debates on peace or security, the law of the sea or outer space, the environment or economic relations between States, we have heard this refrain and come in some measure to act on it.

I have asked myself what this concept, interdependence, means to Human Rights and, more specifically, to refugees and the displaced. Permit me to reflect on this from the experience of my Office in these past months.

Mr. Chairman, the refugee is the product of our errors, his predicament an indictment of our conduct as peoples and nations. In too real a sense, the conflicts of our time have compiled and encyclopaedia of his suffering. He exists for our education, and as a warning.

In the United Nations, and in the actions of States, conflicts are frequently dealt with as public events, as international crises. It is sometimes forgotten that there is a human, an individual dimension to them. Yet the essence of interdependence lies in recognizing the consequences of our actions on each other, as individual human beings. When we fail to take these consequences adequately into account, we precipitate refugee situations, destroying in the process precisely that interdependence to which we pay homage. There is a special poignancy in this, for we then proceed to grieve for these refugees and, once again jointly, seek remedies for their plight.

It is this dichotomy, between what we profess and our actions, that is disturbing. Lest I sound negative, let me say at the outset that we progress, perhaps even survive, by the universality of our aspirations. Jointly, much has been accomplished - but not enough.

To know where we fall short, is at least to know the direction in which to proceed.

Where, in the work of my Office, have we fallen short, whereas our allegiance to mankind and to our interdependence as human beings proven most fragile? Undoubtedly in the legal protection of refugees. To our great dismay, we have continued to witness acts of refoulement, kidnapping and even assassination. It has long been an axiom of my Office, stressed by Governments, that the protection function is the most central to our values. Yet between politics and expediency, the voice of the refugee is too often stifled, or manipulated. We all realize, of course, that States must be guided by interests of national security and foreign policy. But none of us should accept that these interests serve as an alibi to deny asylum when justifiably sought, or to subvert the principles contained in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of refugees and the 1967 Protocol. And it is precisely for this reason that this Assembly has itself declared: "The granting of asylum being a peaceful and humanitarian act, it cannot be regarded as unfriendly by any other State". If I revert to this concern time and again, it is because there is no escape from it. Violations, if not protested, become the norm. Neither Member States, nor I in any conscience, can acquiesce in such a norm. The dilemma for my Office has been that we can use only two weapons: persuasion, and the protest. Clearly, if the principles that we jointly profess are to be served with fidelity, we need the fullest support of States themselves. Only this will lead to a deeper understanding of the issues at stake.

But we also need a wider acceptance of the Convention and Protocol. Here, we seem trapped in a paradox. While our assistance activities have circled the globe, and been welcomed in States where we have never before worked, there has been only one new accession to the Protocol since I last spoke to this Committee. This, despite individual appeals that I have addressed to each non-signatory State and repeated pleas by this Committee. I would urge Governments to look again at these instruments. I cannot over-emphasize the need to harmonize our actions through universally acceptable humanitarian law. These instruments would then be doubly valuable: to the refugee, of course, but no less to the acceding States.

It is in the same spirit that I refer again to the draft Convention on territorial Asylum, which was examined in accordance with resolution 3272 (XXIX) by a group of governmental experts who met in Geneva in April - May 1975. The report of the Secretary-General in this nonnexion is contained in document A/10177. More recently, my Executive Committee has reiterated its view that a Conference of Plenipotentiaries should be convened to consider the draft Convention. It recommended that the costs involved in this Conference be borne from the regular budget of the United Nations.

Mr. Chairman, there are other areas of our activity in which the concept of interdependence needs examination. It has always been understood that a country of first asylum carries a particularly onerous responsibility when victims of strife enter en masse into its territory. Whenever practical, we have sought to ease the problem, either through voluntary repatriation or through resettlement in other countries. But the High Commissioner, as is only too evident, is no miracle-worker. There is a point beyond which sovereign States can neither be persuaded nor cajoled. Failure to recognize this, breeds a frustration that infects both Governments and refugees. And there is but one step from frustration to disorder.

I mention this because, in recent months, and more frequently than is always feasible, I have been asked to relocate thousands of refugees and displaced persons from one continent to another. Important elements in each situation vary, yet the scenario follows a pattern: the country of first asylum is deeply concerned by the size and circumstances of the influx and disturbed by its overtones, both internal and external. Even while permitting thousands to stay on its soil, it hopes that a maximum number will go elsewhere. Thousands therefore have no more than transient status - without work or residence permits. I do recognize the profound predicament of countries of first asylum and I should like here to stress my deep gratitude to them and to countries of resettlement. But I would also urge, as evidence of our interdependence, far greater accommodation on a regional basis - to resolve such problems, and a far greater swiftness - universally - to open doors. In a sense, and as an example to which there are unfortunately other parallels, it is cold comfort that over 9,000 refugees from Chile have, laboriously, been flown to over forty countries. Or that thousands of such persons remain, waiting desperately to be moved. Surely, both policy and prudence would suggest that human beings not be treated like contaminated cargo, to be kept packaged for shipment by UNHCR serving as a removal agency.

Mr. Chairman, if I have spoken of our difficulties at some length, it is, paradoxically, because there are few areas of United Nations endeavour where the record of international understanding, unanimity and cohesion has been as impressive, or as truly moving - despite the sensitivities of the issues involved. And I view it as a special privilege to pay tribute to this Committee, which over the years has guided and supported our actions, and provided the imagination that our work so clearly requires.

Let me therefore proceed to illustrate, from our varied assistance programmes, where and how we are discharging the responsibilities entrusted to us by this Committee, responsibilities that include our annual programme, which now stands at $13.8 million, and the appropriate use of UNHCR's "good offices", including the participation of the Office in those essential humanitarian actions of the United Nations for which UNHCR has particular expertise and competence.

In Africa, as required by resolution 3271 of the twenty-ninth session, we are deeply engaged in facilitating the repatriation of tens of thousands of refugees now returning in freedom to Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. We are helping their rehabilitation in conjunctio with that of the internally displaced. Our programme for these two countries amount to some $7 million and $4 million respectively. Work is proceeding with the fullest cooperation of the Governments concerned, and with the clearest inter-agency understandings within the United Nations system. I value the latter, for I share the concern of Governments that scarce resources must not be wasted through duplication of efforts.

I wish I could state that our work on behalf of displaced Ango were proceeding equally satisfactorily. For reasons that are well known, this has not been possible. My Office remains ready to ass in all parts of the national territory. I would hope that ways can be found to meet the grave humanitarian needs of the situation without a paralyzing entanglement in political issues. I remain in continuing touch with the Secretary-General in this regard. In consultation with him, and at the request of the Governments of Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe I have, in recent weeks, arrange an emergency airlift of a limited number of their citizens from Luanda and Nova Lisba. Both Governments have requested further help from the international community to cope with the needs of repatriates.

Elsewhere in Africa, we continue our traditional activities on behalf of refugees who are being assisted in many parts of the continent.

In Asia, we see again a blending of the traditional functions of the Office with the newer responsibilities encouraged and endorsed by the General Assembly and my Executive Committee. Our efforts to assist Indo-Chinese, displaced as a result of events in the Peninsula, must be seen in totality - a distinct yet inter-related humanitarian actions, designed to assist those who have been most seriously uprooted by war and its consequences.

As this Committee is aware, in the summer of 1974, we launched an important programme to assist displaced persons in Laos and Vietnam. The purpose of the programme was to facilitate the return of the displaced to their villages, long abandoned by strife, and to help them gain once more a measure of self-sufficiency.

The impact of this programme is now manifest. Thus, in Laos, some 120,000 such persons were assisted to return to their villages, many thousands being airlifted by UNHCR principally from the Vientiane region to the Plain of Jars - a name that still evokes memories of decades of suffering, now happily fading. Likewise, in Vietnam, both in the North and in the South, the results of our work will not be ephemeral - they will endure in the lives of the displaced whom we are, modestly, assisting to reconstitute their splintered existence.

I have, recently, launched an appeal for $20 million to further our programme in the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. The projects to be implemented are in the rural areas, their elaboration follows close consultation with the national authorities and visits to the sites where the projects will be located. I would urge the international community to contribute to this programme. It is vital, yet touche only a segment of the vast needs that must be met. Earlier this year, under the aegis of the Secretary-General, and working in the closest cooperation with the Coordinator appointed by him, UNICEF and my Office jointly engaged in an emergency assistance programme. Contributions, in cash or kind, channelled through UNHCR, amounted during that phase to some $17.6 million.

In addition to our work inside the Peninsula, UNHCR has been called upon to assist with the voluntary repatriation and the resettlement of thousands of displaced persons from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Our activities in this connexion have extended to numerous countries in each continent, where Indo-Chinese have found themselves at the conclusion of the war. Members of this Committee will constant principle: UNHCR's actions must remain entirely humanitarian and non-political. I would earnestly count on the understanding of all Governments as we deal with these delicate matters. May I thank those whose generosity and understanding have already been forthcoming.

Particularly complicated is the situation in Thailand, where some 60,000 displaced persons have been granted temporary asylum. Over the coming twelve months, we shall require $12.4 million to attend to their needs. I would urge Governments to contribute. In that time. Hopefully, the situation will be further clarified and durable, humane and totally non-political solutions advanced for these uprooted persons.

My deep gratitude is here reiterated to the Governments of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand for the arrangements made during my visit to their countries in September. The most positive and thoughtful exchange of views immeasureably strengthened our hands and resolve to find constructive answers to the varied needs of the displaced persons. At the invitation of the Government, I now look forward to visiting Saigon shortly.

Mr. Chairman, when reporting to this Committee a year ago, it was noted that my Office "bought time" for the international community time, during which, solutions must rapidly be fund for deep underlying problems. The irony often continues to be that the greater the success in providing relief, the greater the elusiveness in finding fundamental solutions. For Cyprus, as you know, I was asked by the Secretary-General to coordinate the United Nations humanitarian assistance programme. This I continue to do. In the past year, appeals for $22 million and $9.3 million respectively have been fully met. Further sizeable contributions continue to be channelled through my Office. I am grateful for the confidence of the parties concerned, and of the donors. Our working relations with them, with the Secretary-General's Special Representative, the Commander of UNFICYP and other elements in the United Nations system, remain excellent. But above all we look forward to our early redundancy, for that would signal the kind of solution that Cyprus really needs.

Mr. Chairman, I have deliberately restricted myself to a few illustrations of our work. A full report is, of course, contained in document A/10012 and its addendum. Further, with your permission and that of the Committee, we should like to screen a short film entitled, perhaps somewhat laconically, the "Fourth World" - in fact, the rather complex world of the refugee and the displaced. From it you will see that the international mechanism devised over the years to assist refugees is a delicate one, combining in balance the capabilities of governments, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations.

You will also see, I trust, that the refugee is no oddity, caught in strange and impossible situations, but a universal citizen who writes a story that - but for fortuitous circumstances - could be true for any of us. As he reminds us of our interdependence. So I would hope that this Committee proceeds again in unison, and that the concern that we shall hear voiced in this forum will not grow faint and inaudible outside.