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"Humanitarian Action: Charity or Realpolitik?" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Nobel Institute, Oslo, 21 October 1997

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"Humanitarian Action: Charity or Realpolitik?" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Nobel Institute, Oslo, 21 October 1997

21 October 1997

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to address you today at the prestigious Nobel Institute. Although my visit to Norway is a brief one, I did not want to miss this opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts on the complex challenges facing humanitarian action and my Office in particular.

On Monday last week, I attended the opening of the Fridtjof Nansen exhibition at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. I was struck by a comment from Fridtjof Nansen quoted by Jan Egeland in his opening remarks: "Charity is Realpolitik."

Immediately following the First World War, the challenges facing Fridtjof Nansen were tremendous: organizing the repatriation of more than 400,000 prisoners of war from Russia; providing relief aid to the starving in Russia; negotiating the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey; and seeking solutions for refugees fleeing Russia and Armenia. His ability to overcome bureaucratic inertia and red tape, and mobilize the voluntary relief sector, in particular the International Red Cross, were legendary. Out of frustration about the indifferent and amoral attitude of the delegates of the League of Nations, he argued that alleviating human suffering is indeed a matter of state, not simply charity.

I could not agree more with Nansen. Since becoming High Commissioner in 1991, my Office has faced several massive humanitarian crises, each resulting in the forced displacement of more than 1 million people. In 1991, UNHCR was responsible for nearly 17 million people. This number increased to 26 million people in 1996. I am pleased to say that this year the number has declined to some 23 million refugees, displaced persons and others of concern to my Office following the reintegration of returning refugees to Mozambique, war affected civilians to the former Yugoslavia, etc. Today, more than 5,400 UNHCR staff in 120 countries work in often tough and dangerous conditions to help refugees.

However, on too many occasions humanitarian action on behalf of refugees has been viewed as charity: as a way of easing a bad conscience about human suffering, without engagement to address the underlying causes or plan for a better future.

I believe that the refugee problem is a strategic issue, affecting key state interests and is closely related to questions of national, regional, and even international peace and security.

Given these strategic linkages, ad-hoc approaches and responses to massive forced human displacement fall short. Therefore, I would like to advocate an integrated approach to crisis management. Humanitarian action within a principled framework, far from being solely a question of international charity, can be used to support peace efforts. It depends on political and military action if it were to reach solutions.

Such an integrated approach is essential when fundamental security issues affecting the country hosting large numbers of refugees or the country to which the refugees are returning are at stake. The difficulty is, however, how to strike a balance between the principles of refugee protection, which are at the core of my Office's mandate, and the legitimate concerns of states?

To illustrate my point, I shall discuss the major challenges that the refugee problem has undergone in recent years, and the evolving role of my Office and challenges we face.

Before the political changes in the former communist bloc, refugee protection was often a political and humanitarian corollary of the ideological divide between the two super-powers. Refugees fleeing communist regimes, proxy wars and decolonization struggles were granted asylum over long periods of time. Voluntary repatriation was not an option in many instances and UNHCR operated predominantly in countries of asylum.

In response to the changing nature and increasing complexity of conflicts, the role of UNHCR has expanded and diversified. Since 1991, three major humanitarian crises have fundamentally altered the response of states and humanitarian agencies to massive forced population movements.

In many respects, the 1991 refugee crisis in northern Iraq proved to be a watershed. Within a matter of days, nearly two million Kurds fled to the mountains along the borders with Turkey and Iran. Turkey did not allow the refugees to enter its territory on the grounds of national security concerns and many people subsequently perished on the snow-covered mountains during the initial days of the crisis. We therefore decided to focus our operational attempts at an early return to their homes in Northern Iraq in safety and dignitiy. Recognizing the unstable situation and the need to organize an immense relief operation, the Security Council authorized a multinational force to provide a security umbrella and to support the humanitarian efforts in northern Iraq. It was the first time that a refugee flow was viewed as a potential threat to regional peace and security that necessitated action under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Security Council resolution 688 also marked an increasing willingness by the international community to intervene in conflict situations for humanitarian reasons.

The outbreak of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia posed the second major challenge to my Office. Early on in the crisis, I was requested to lead the humanitarian efforts inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ethnic cleansing, massacres, shelling, sniping, denial of access to civilian populations and threats to staff were our daily bread for nearly three long years until the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in December 1995. Without the support of the UN Protection Forces, UNPROFOR, my Office would have been unable to continue its work during the height of the fighting in Bosnia. Under the Dayton Agreement, SFOR provides a security umbrella, the IPTF maintains law and order, and UNHCR helps the refugees and the displaced persons to return home. But the continuous obstructions by political leaders; the opposition to minority returns, especially by the Bosnian Serbs; and the lack of housing and employment opportunities seriously hamper our efforts. Nevertheless, some 183,000 refugees and 200,000 displaced persons have returned, although mainly to areas controlled by their own ethnic group. We are encouraging minority returns by promoting the concept of "Open Cities", linking preferential access to rehabilitation assistance to allowing minority groups to return to their homes.

Despite the hurdles, post-Dayton Bosnia is an example of the strategic relationship among political, military and humanitarian action leading to a solution of refugee problems and working toward sustainable peace and security. The refugee crisis in the Great Lakes of Africa, on the other hand, is an example of the failure of the international community to establish such an integrated approach.

The exodus of Rwandan refugees in 1994 severely tested the response capacity of UNHCR and our partners. During the ensuing two years, UNHCR assisted over one and a half million Rwandans in Zaire and Tanzania. The presence of the refugees, and in particular of the former Rwandan military and the militias and Interahamwe, contributed substantially toward the conflict and fighting in the eastern part of Zaire. At the heart of the problem was the inability or - shall I say - unwillingness of the host country and the international community to separate those deserving international protection from those who did not, to move the camps away from the borders and to ensure their civilian character. Despite the appeals of the Secretary-General and myself, the Security Council and states failed to respond.

The outbreak of the civil war in eastern Zaire radically changed the situation. Approximately 600,000 Rwandans in Zaire returned to their county within a few days in November 1996. Some weeks later, almost all Rwandans from Tanzania also returned. When the Security Council approved the dispatch of a multinational force we had high hopes that it could be of assistance in rescuing the refugees. We were deeply disappointed when the forces departed and we were left alone attempting to rescue some 400,000 Rwandans dispersed in the Zairean forests. Some 250,000 Rwandans were evacuated and returned to Rwanda. Thousand of others, however, died in the forests of exhaustion, hunger, disease, and at the hands of military forces. The surviving Rwandan refugees are now scattered over eleven Central African countries and their presence has fuelled regional tensions.

These three examples demonstrate that humanitarian agencies are increasingly forced to operate in a conflict environment. Population displacement has often become not only the result but the very objective of the fighting. It is clear that large-scale refugee movements may threaten regional security by fuelling existing tensions in countries of asylum. Warring factions often purposely scorn the principles of impartiality and neutrality under which humanitarian agencies operate, drawing them into the conflict. Since 1992, 36 UNHCR staff have been killed in security incidents worldwide. For the Red Cross movement the toll has been much higher: 23 staff in the Great Lakes region alone since 1996. The United Nations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols no longer provide the protection they once did.

Among my greatest concerns is that humanitarian action often appears to be the only available and desired response in the absence of political will among states and the international community. In many instances, humanitarian action is in fact only a stop-gap measure. What I object to is that humanitarian workers are at times accused of prolonging conflict and people's suffering by providing humanitarian relief, by failing to separate military elements from the civilian refugee population and consequently assisting armed elements to divert relief materials. These are political and security issues which fall beyond the control of humanitarian agencies.

As I said earlier, I wish to advocate an integrated approach toward crisis management, linking humanitarian, political, security and development policies in a coherent framework.

At the humanitarian level, significant progress has been made toward an effective and rapid emergency response capacity. We must continue to enhance our effectiveness through strengthening the links with our NGO partners. I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to the many Norwegian staff who have been seconded to UNHCR in the past. The Norwegian Refugee Council has done exemplary work and we hope to build on this experience.

At the political level, growing awareness exists of the causes and consequences of massive refugee movements. On almost a daily basis, the Security Council discusses issues with humanitarian implications. As regional organizations - such as the European Union, the OSCE, NATO and the OAU - also seek to define their role in the changing world order, they are focusing more and more on conflict prevention and resolution. In this respect, I wonder whether our existing conflict resolution negotiation models are adequate to meet today's complex challenges. What lessons can we learn from Norway's successful peace negotiations in, for example, the Middle East? I understand that a part of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs aid budget supports conflict management efforts through, for example, non-governmental organisations.

At the economic, social and developmental level, I believe that humanitarian efforts must be part of larger peace-building endeavours in the transition from war to peace. We may jump-start rehabilitation efforts at the community level hosting returning refugees, but on a much larger scale there is a need for the physical and social rehabilitation of societies, as demonstrated in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In an ideal arrangement, humanitarian and development actors should attempt to develop a common operational framework from the outset of a crisis. Due attention should also be given to policies which contribute toward reconciling communities, rather than prolonging the status quo or giving rise to new tensions.

Finally at the security level, I wish to strengthen our relationship with the military. Humanitarian agencies are sometimes reluctant to closely cooperate with military forces, but positive experiences, as in the former Yugoslavia, have contributed toward a better understanding of each other's respective roles. At the same time, I am, however, frustrated by the lack of response to our appeals for military or police support to protect staff and relief materials, or to gain access to refugees and evacuate them to safety.

I believe that there should be a range of options - from military engaging in peace-keeping operations to civilian police or UN Guards maintaining law and order. What we need is the availability of a rapidly deployable force to support and protect, as appropriate, humanitarian efforts. Therefore, I look forward to the efforts by Norway and other countries to set-up a Multinational Stand-by High Readiness Brigade as announced by the Secretary-General.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the years to come, the question of finding a balance between humanitarian principles and legitimate state interests will be at the forefront of our concerns. To an extent, the balance will depend upon the particular circumstances surrounding each humanitarian crisis. I want, however, to underline two points:

First, security or domestic concerns should not prompt states to abdicate humanitarian and refugee principles to which they have agreed under the international instruments. Doing so may alleviate or shift the burden, but will not resolve the underlying issues, thus only temporarily postpone the problem. Only resolute action by states and the international community will give any credibility to the call "never again."

Second, I am very concerned about the apparent erosion of humanitarian principles and refugee protection. This trend is evident not only in regions such as the Great Lakes region, but in various European countries as well. Increasing calls are being heard to review the refugee protection principles, to reject the "old" and call for a "new" regime. I fear that this could lead to a consensus at a much lower level than currently is the case. Rather, I believe that the problem lies with the failure to properly apply the existing principles. Sufficient scope exists to adopt innovative approaches to address state concerns, as has been the case in Europe by granting temporary protection to Bosnians fleeing the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Norway in this respect has played a leading role by allowing more than 11,000 Bosnians to reside in the country.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In many respects, Fridtjof Nansen laid the foundations of the present refugee protection regime. Today, these foundations are as relevant as when millions of refugees and displaced persons sought to muster a new future for their children after the First World War. They have proven their relevance time and time again.

Justice and human rights concerns are at the core of refugee protection. From an individual's perspective, asylum is often the only protection available following the failure of all human rights guarantees in his own country. In turn, it is the respect for human rights and the rule of law in the home country that will allow people to return in safety and dignity.

Instead of focusing only on concerns of states, we should examine a security concept or, in other words, a Realpolitik that puts people at its centre. This I believe will be the fundamental challenge in the years to come.

Thank you.