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Address by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Conference on Human Rights, Teheran, 25 April 1968

Speeches and statements

Address by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Conference on Human Rights, Teheran, 25 April 1968

25 April 1968

I am very grateful for the opportunity to address this distinguished world gathering assembled to study the furtherance of greater freedoms. This is an occasion of all the more significance to me personally because this international Conference is being held in Teheran, the capital of a country that in every domain seeks to follow the wise paths of progress. It offers me, in particular, the possibility of paying a public tribute to a person whose endeavours and initiatives have done so much to promote activities in favour of the defence of the basic rights and freedoms, not only in her own country but on the wider world scene. I refer to Her Imperial Highness the Princess Ashraf. Her Imperial Highness has always shown a particular humanitarian interest in the cause of refugees and I wish to recall her most important contribution as President of the Iranian National Committee for World Refugee Year.

Distinguished delegates, your debates will concern every man, woman and child, living or as yet unborn - for the future depends not only on the technological progress of our world but above all on the way the succeeding generations shall live with one another. It is just as important to translate the articles inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into everyday practice as it to spread science and knowledge or to build dams and create new sources of power. For what is wealth without wisdom, or development without freedom?

All nations desire peace, progress and justice - yet every day selfishness, intolerance, lack of understanding and discrimination continue to add tragic pages to the history of our time. Indeed, this century has been greatly guilty in its disrespect for the inalienable rights of man. None know this better than the millions of refugees, the unfortunate human beings who have been forced to seek safety outside their own country because of persecution and intolerance. How were they received? The nations were not always generous towards refugees, and in the past untold tragedies sometimes followed the arrival in countries of asylum. The situation has undoubtedly greatly improved - and I will return to this later - thanks to a better understanding of the problems and an increased respect for human rights. And what about the causes of refugee movements? Have they disappeared today? When asking myself this question I have in mind that persecution does not always take the extreme form of threatening life and liberty: it is also persecution when a person is hindered in the exercise of his economic activity because he belongs to a particular social groups or confesses to a particular religion or because of his ethnic origins; or when for the same reasons a group of individuals is segregated in crowded and unhealthy areas; or when parents are prevented from bringing up their children in accordance with their wishes.

Here one is forced to admit that the causes of refugee problems are not diminishing, particularly when we remember that people also become refugees because of enmity between groups of different ethnic origin, or different religions, living in the same land; intolerance and hatred which create such tensions and personal conflicts that normal life for members of one of the groups becomes almost impossible and causes them to seek safety elsewhere. We must also remember the refugees who flee the repression and disturbances which accompany struggles for civic rights or national independence in several parts of the world. The resulting picture is a dark and wide canvas of human suffering that covers nearly all continents of our planet.

There is no doubt that, if there were to be more tolerance and more justice and more respect for the basic rights of human beings everywhere, there would be fewer problems of refugees in the world. But the day when we shall not have to think of refugees, unfortunately, would still appear to be far off; we can only hope that gatherings such as this will bring the time nearer when Man will no longer have to fear what Aldous Huxley so well expressed as "Man's inhumanity to Man".

As realists we must therefore face the contingency that individuals and groups will continue to seek safety and asylum outside their own country. The Universal Declaration grants them this basic human rights in article 14, which states that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

Throughout history, all civilizations have considered it a moral duty for a community to offer asylum to persons who are in danger of life and liberty, in the same way as all civilizations have considered it a duty for the individual to lend assistance to a person who is ill or in physical danger. In other words the act of granting asylum is basically a humanitarian gesture, not a political one, even if in the past certain parties sometimes tended to see in it an unfriendly act towards the institutions or the policy of the country from where the refugees came. Today the true situation is better understood. Granting asylum does not mean the disapproval of the country from where the refugee comes, nor approval of the political convictions of the refugee. Yet, because of fear of possible misinterpretation, there existed until very recently no internationally approved text that expressed the principle that the individual seeking asylum should indeed be granted asylum. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration went no further than to state that a person has the right "to seek and to enjoy asylum ... ".

We had to wait from 1948 to 1967 before the nations could agree on a new declaration which would give article 14 a new dimension. I am referring to the Declaration on Territorial Asylum which was universally adopted by the General Assembly last year. This Declaration sets out a number of principles that are of basic importance. "Firstly, that asylum is a peaceful and humanitarian act and that as such it cannot be regarded as unfriendly by any other State. Secondly, that asylum granted by a State in the exercise of its sovereignty shall be respected by all other States. Thirdly, that the situation of persons seeking asylum is of concern to the international community. Where a State has difficulties in granting or continuing to grant asylum, other States, in a spirit of international solidarity, individually or through the United Nations, shall consider measures that can lighten the burden. The basic principle regarding asylum is, of course, the principle of non-refoulement which states that no person seeking asylum shall be subjected to measures such as rejection at the frontier, expulsion or compulsory return to a country where he may be subjected to persecution."

However, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration on Territorial Asylum is not a binding legal instrument. Of course, quite a number of States have in their legislation provisions relating to asylum similar to those contained in the Declaration on Territorial Asylum, but many others have not.

Here, therefore, is an important field for action open to governments and parliaments of all nations during the International Year for Human Rights. Since all governments have voted the text in the United Nations, I hope they will in their own countries bring their legislation into line with these generally accepted humanitarian principles. I am aware of the fact that various regional organizations are already elaborating legally-binding instruments on asylum and I sincerely hope that these efforts too will materialize in the near future. At the same time I would draw attention to the existence of an international instrument which has force of law and which has been acceded to by fifty-three countries - I refer to the 1951 Refugee Convention which, by incorporating the principle of non-refoulement, ensures that no refugee will be returned to a country where he may fear persecution. The Convention is based on the principle that human beings shall enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination. It contains provisions against refoulement, it spells out who has the right to be granted the status of 'refugee' and it outlines a standard of treatment that guarantees to the refugees fundamental freedoms and furthermore offers him possibilities of taking part in the economic and social life of the country of asylum. Experience has shown that we have in this international instrument a basis of humanitarian action applicable everywhere, and this notwithstanding the fact that the 1951 Convention refers to events occurring before a given date and in a given region of the world.

Until recently this reference limited the scope and application of the Convention, but by virtue of a Protocol brought before the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1967, and which so far has been acceded to by eleven countries, these limitations have now been removed so that the terms of the Convention can be applied to all refugee situations throughout the world.

I believe that the international community could achieve a most important and tangible step forward in the field of human rights if all governments were to acceded to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, or at least to the 1967 Protocol and the various other international instruments to which reference has been made in the report submitted by my Office to this Conference. This would not only be of particular advantage to the refugee, but also to governments, as then there would exist as a basis for action a generally accepted and approved standard of practice in dealing with refugee problems. I have in mind also the moral and psychological repercussions on the behaviour of nations regarding refugee problems. It would certainly tend to remove the political aspects and contribute to reducing tensions and creating more favourable conditions for peace and understanding.

This has been notably recognized in Africa, where over 800,000 refugees within the High Commissioner's mandate have left their countries to seek asylum in neighbouring territories. This is a formidable population movement, the impact of which should not be underestimated in a continent which is grappling with serious economic and social problems related to development. I should like to pay tribute to the feeling of human solidarity of the African people in accepting so generously the refugees in their midst, and to the African leaders who have been ready to meet the challenge of the additional burdens imposed upon the resources of their countries. The African nations view the solution of refugee problems basically as a humanitarian and practical action, so much so that on several occasions the countries of origin themselves have expressed gratitude and satisfaction with the measures of assistance given to the African refugees by the neighbouring countries and by the international community.

As a result, we have been able to undertake a most challenging task of resettlement. We have not only supplied emergency assistance, but brought real permanent solutions that give the refugees the possibilities of becoming self-supporting. If I may express myself in terms of human resources, we have made it possible for them to take part in the great work of development on which depends the future of the African continent. This has been the constant policy of my Office in every part of the world whenever it was called upon to provide assistance.

In turn, this has contributed to peace and stability since large groups of unsettled refugees invariably cause political, social and economic tensions.

But the solutions of refugee problems are not only the act of granting asylum, guaranteeing the basic freedoms of the refugees in the country where they live, providing material assistance towards resettlement, or arranging for migration. The most satisfactory solution of all is the voluntary return of the refugee to his own country.

This in many ways is a delicate matter. It is not only a question of the individual decision on the part of the refugee. It is also a question whether the government of his country is willing or able to accept him. There may be reasons - material and political - that stand in the way of his return. There now exist no legally-binding and universally recognized rules governing the modalities of the voluntary repatriation of refugees. Furthermore, there is no international set of rules that will guarantee the refugee full security from threats to his life or liberty once he has voluntarily returned home. Likewise, there is no internationally accepted principle on which governments, anxious to welcome back the refugees but who find the material problems of their establishment a burden too great to carry alone, can have a moral claim for assistance on the part of the international community. Regarding the safety of the returning refugee, one must rely on governments and authorities concerned to consider every possible measure they may be able to take to ensure his security. As for material assistance, I would like to appeal to all governments, and particularly to the specialized agencies of the United Nations and to governments who have bilateral programmes of assistance, to take into consideration with sympathy and understanding any appeals that might be addressed to them by governments who need outside help to re-establish their returning populations.

There is one further problem I should like to bring to the attention of this Assembly. I am referring to the most tragic problem of families who have been separated as a consequence of the events of the last decades and who wish to be reunited. We are touching here indeed the most sacred and ancient of all rights: that of the family unit, that of the mother and child to receive the father's protection, that of the parents to be with their children. Here we are perhaps less in the domain of rights than with the dictates of the heart. Can governments help? In some of these cases families may be reunited in their home country; in others, where the head of the family has been integrated into new communities, his wife or his children should be allowed to join him abroad. I should like to think that as a result of Human Rights Year some individual cases may be solved. Let us not forget the words of Emanuel Kant - "we further the cause of the whole of mankind when we help one man".

I referred to voluntary repatriation as the most desirable and most satisfactory solution to all refugee problems. For indeed by returning, the refugee ceases to be a refugee. But I think that a refugee who freely elects to stay in another country should not be condemned to remain a refugee all his life. I believe that a family which is firmly settled, which is participating fully in the economic and social life of the country of election, which benefits from the protection of this country, should have the possibility to become a full member of their new community. In other words, cease to be refugees by becoming nationals of their country of election. This presupposes that the government of the country will make this possible for the refugee and even make it easier for him than for other aliens. This is already being done in a limited number of countries, but certainly not yet in all. Here, too, then, is a field of practical action on the part of governments and parliaments during this International Year for Human Rights.

Madame President, I should like to join those who are placing high hopes on the work of this distinguished group. May the examination of many facets of Human Rights lead to recommendations that will inspire people, organizations and governments to act with realism and courage and not only with words alone for the implementation of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I believe that this Year offers a unique occasion for furthering practical action to help human beings. Among those are the refugees - the victims of the non-observance of human rights, the victims of human wrongs. That is why my Executive Committee at its last session hoped that governments and organizations during the observance of the International Year for Human Rights would bear in mind the refugee problem with special emphasis on asylum, the principles of non-refoulement and further accession to legal instruments of benefit to refugees.

That is why my Office has co-operated with the other organs of the United Nations, particularly the Commission on Human Rights, and with non-governmental organizations, the Council of Europe and the ad hoc Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations in Geneva. The recommendations prepared by the non-governmental organizations for this Conference are in this respect particularly important to the work of my Office.

Madam President, all those who are deeply concerned with the situation of the refugees in the world sincerely hope that this Conference will not forget the special problems of the refugees when it reaches the stage of making recommendations for future action. For this is an opportunity we cannot miss for realistic progress in a vital field of human rights.