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Keynote Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Opening Ceremony of the Partnership in Action (PARinAC) Global Conference, Oslo, 6 June 1994

Speeches and statements

Keynote Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Opening Ceremony of the Partnership in Action (PARinAC) Global Conference, Oslo, 6 June 1994

6 June 1994

Mr. Foreign Minister, Excellencies, and NGO friends:

It is a pleasure for me to address you at the opening of this Global PARinAC Conference in Oslo. I am delighted to be here and to participate in the exchange of ideas and proposals about the future course of our partnership in action. I have followed with deep interest the progress of the discussions over the past twelve months at the six regional PARinAC meetings. I am encouraged by the progress we have made so far in redefining and strengthening NGO/UNHCR cooperation and collaboration, and wish to assure you that my Office will work closely with you to ensure that the recommendations adopted here are properly followed up. The Conference is the high point of the PARinAC consultations to date, but the PARinAC spirit must live on beyond Oslo, particularly through implementation of the Plan of Action.

NGOs are the grass roots link for the international humanitarian structures. They are an important democratizing factor in the UN and international spectrum. They were largely responsible for the appointment of the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Fridtjof Nansen. They were instrumental in UNHCR's creation in 1950, and they are referred to in UNHCR's Statute as the proper channel for international assistance to refugees. Long-standing NGO interest and pressure was a key factor in the recent establishment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as it was in the appointment of the Secretary-General's Representative for Internally Displaced Persons.

UNHCR's cooperation with NGOs is not new. Over the past forty years, the UNHCR-NGO partnership has evolved with the changing nature of the global refugee problem and the new challenges facing those who work for the uprooted victims of persecution and violence. Today more than 1,000 NGOs are involved, worldwide, directly or indirectly, with refugees. UNHCR has formal agreements with more than 250 NGOs. One quarter of our global budget - more than $300 million a year - is channelled directly or indirectly through NGOs. Whether in the sphere of early warning, emergency response, or the search for durable solutions, NGOs play major and significant roles, both as the conscience of the world and as providers of rapid humanitarian relief and protection.

With one major emergency following another in rapid, sometimes overlapping succession, the capacity of the international community to mount adequate responses to humanitarian crises from civil war, ethnic and religious strife and economic collapse has been strained to the breaking point. It is obvious that UNHCR's three-pronged strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions can only be effected with the cooperation of the broadest possible partnership of actors, encompassing governments, UN agencies, intergovernmental bodies and, in particular, non-governmental organizations.

Our different but complementary capacities make us ideal partners. While UNHCR has the international and legal mandate for the protection of refugees, NGOs also have a significant role to play in supporting this mandate, especially at the national level. Your specific strengths and capacities make you the perfect foil to our own operations. Your presence in the field, knowledge of local conditions, and ability to mobilize quickly and effectively are key elements in emergency response. In recent years, and weeks, the ability of NGOs to reach the most vulnerable populations during some of the most dangerous of conflict situations in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, has been clearly demonstrated.

With all of us moving into the unchartered waters of the post-Cold War era, I felt that there was a particular need to map out, in close dialogue with NGOs, a strategy and plan of action for a reinvigorated NGO/UNHCR partnership. That is why UNHCR, together with the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), launched the PARinAC process. The regional conferences in Caracas, Kathmandu, Tunis, Bangkok, Addis Ababa and Budapest, have produced a wide ranging and comprehensive set of more than 120 separate recommendations. They will form the basis of your efforts over the next four days to agree upon a global Plan of Action.

During this process of frank exchanges and deliberations, we have all come to appreciate that partnership is not an abstract concept. It will not be effected easily nor immediately. It needs, like all true partnerships, continued investment of trust, effort, mutual respect and open communication.

Common concerns over global humanitarian problems form the foundations of our partnership. We are confronted by the suffering of the victims of conflict and human rights violations, and concerned about protecting them. We are living in a period without precedent, both in terms of the numbers of refugees and the complexities of the global humanitarian challenge. Twenty years ago, there were some two and a half million refugees in the world. Today that figure has grown tenfold to over 20 million.

In addition, an alarming dimension to the problem of uprootedness has emerged - that of internally displaced persons, whose numbers now outrank those of refugees. There are clear parallels between refugees and most internally displaced persons. Both have been forced to flee their homes because of human rights violations, ethnic violence or internal conflict, and both are in a need of assistance and a solution to their plight. Their protection needs are equally compelling. Indeed, the recent bloodshed in Rwanda and the trail of human suffering it has left has once more highlighted the limits of international response and the deep frustration of humanitarian organisations. As former Yugoslavia has so well illustrated, humanitarian operations can buy time and space for political action, and can help create an environment conducive to political negotiations, but it cannot be a substitute for political action which alone can bring durable solution to the problem of refugees and the displaced.

I share your concerns regarding the current deficiencies in the legal and institutional frameworks for the internally displaced. There is an urgent need to improve the implementation of existing principles of humanitarian law. We must examine the ways and means of strengthening respect for the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, which, if properly observed, would go a long way towards reducing human suffering and the uprooting of civilian populations.

Although UNHCR has no general mandate for internally displaced persons, we are prepared, at the request of the Secretary-General or the General Assembly, and with the consent of the government concerned, to intervene on behalf of the internally displaced when there is a link with refugee problems. Obviously, UNHCR's activities on behalf of the internally displaced must be also premised on the necessary funds being available from the international community and on our capacity to cope with the problem. It is obvious that the size and scope of the problem goes beyond the competence of any single agency and requires an inter-agency response, including the involvement of NGOs. In these situations, UN agencies and governments depend heavily on the continued presence, knowledge of local conditions, and capacity of NGOs to respond quickly. From our discussions at the regional conferences, the benefits for UNHCR and other UN agencies of the involvement of NGOs in the assessment of responses to the situations giving rise to internal displacement have become even clearer.

Coping with such humanitarian crises demands timely responses and actions, complemented by energetic and decisive efforts to address the causes of flight and to prevent the spread of conflict. International presence, including UNHCR staff, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations has been of critical importance in protecting and assisting affected populations in such places as northern Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia, El Salvador, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. Although there is increasing acceptance of the value of international presence by all parties to a conflict, it is based on pragmatic and political considerations, rather than a legal framework. If further refugee flows are to be averted, the international community must ensure respect for basic human rights and international humanitarian norms in conflict situations. Free and safe access of humanitarian personnel and supplies to refugees and displaced persons must be guaranteed, as must safe passage for those fleeing from conflict areas, including where necessary, to asylum countries.

We are equally concerned about the need for prompt and effective emergency preparedness and response to potential or developing humanitarian crises. In a period of less than six months, the region around Burundi and Rwanda has witnessed two massive refugee movements. The scale of these displacements, as well as the atrocities provoking them, have few recent precedents. UNHCR is now protecting and assisting almost one million victims of these atrocities, in close cooperation with NGOs on the ground.

Critical to the ability to respond to humanitarian emergencies and prevent their recurrence is the building of local capacity. UNHCR, other UN agencies and international NGOs must strengthen their links with local NGOs. Training and capacity-building activities for local NGOs are essential for an effective humanitarian response. This has been a major theme at every regional Conference and is one to which I am strongly committed. Some of you have requested that my Office increase training courses for local NGOs which would address particular problems with regard to the handling of UNHCR's budgeting and reporting requirements. We shall do that.

Any comprehensive approach to refugee emergencies must take account of the need for relief assistance to lay the foundations for, and be compatible with, general development programmes if the so-called continuum, between emergency relief and long-term development, is to be realised. The international community has, in my view, been too slow in promoting and implementing the transition from relief to development. As you have all stressed, there is a need to address the gap between initial relief assistance and full reintegration, and the gap between the end of UNHCR's active involvement and the full establishment of development programmes to integrate refugees into local communities. The key to bridging these gaps lies in building up the capacity of local NGOs to respond to emergency needs and to link their programmes to those of national development counterparts. But their involvement in such continuum programmes requires extensive capacity-building. This task clearly goes beyond the responsibility of UNHCR alone. I would welcome the assistance of other financial and development institutions in this area, who may already have strategies and resources for this purpose. From Oslo I shall be going to Washington D.C. to meet with senior officials of the World Bank. Let me assure you that this issue will be high on my agenda. I also hope we will see the large international NGOs more active in this area in the future.

We are gathered here in Oslo to agree upon a blueprint to redefine and strengthen the UNHCR-NGO partnership in all aspects affecting refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons, emergency assistance and the continuum from relief to development. Our recommendations should have a positive impact on our relationship, and contribute to the achievement of our common goal of providing viable solutions. The real success of the PARinAC process will lie in the way in which the numerous proposals are implemented. It will require substantive efforts by both UNHCR and NGOs, including changes in both thinking and approach, and a willingness on both sides to meet our respective responsibilities.

For my part, let me assure you that my Office is committed to making every effort, within its mandate and subject to available resources, to strengthen our partnership through concrete measures, both internal and external, in the field and at Headquarters.

We have identified a number of specific actions which we feel could help to ensure proper follow-up and implementation of some of the major proposals. My Office is willing:

  • To further engage our NGO partners at the local level in operational and programming discussions, as well as implementation of programmes for refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons.
  • To provide short-term in-service training programmes, both before and during emergency situations, to strengthen the capacity of local agencies to respond. UNHCR looks forward to greater participation of other UN agencies and international NGOs in this area, particularly in providing human and financial resources and sharing experience, in order to strengthen local NGO skills and capacities.
  • To revamp and expand the overall training for our own staff, and, in conjunction with this exercise, to initiate a region-by-region needs assessment of local NGO training requirements in the coming months by UNHCR/NGO teams. Subject to the reports, UNHCR will be prepared to approach donors for the funds to implement the training.
  • To seek funding from international financial and development institutions for capacity-building of local NGOs to devise and implement continuum programmes.
  • To consult more closely and more regularly with NGOs, particularly at the local level, and to involve them as far as possible in the formulation of programmes in all relevant areas, including emergency response, repatriation, protection and the internally displaced. We are sharing with you a draft Programme and Project Management Handbook for UNHCR implementing partners, for your views and for discussion.
  • To examine, through closer consultation, issues regarding private sector fund-raising by UNHCR and NGOs, to avoid unnecessary competitiveness and to facilitate coordinated and complementary strategies.
  • To strengthen the sharing of early warning information between UNHCR and NGOs and give access to existing electronic mail systems and documentation. In particular, UNHCR wants to pursue the idea of a database of expertise and resources, providing a global and regional "relief map" of available material and human means to respond to emergencies.
  • To incorporate more fully, in cooperation with NGOs, issues concerning refugee women and refugee children in all programmes concerning protection, emergency response and preparedness, and the continuum from relief to development. May I add here that UNHCR has already taken steps to enhance its protection and assistance actions in line with the Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women and the Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Children. However, much remains to be done. I would like to be able to work towards a situation which would allow us to measure the impact of each of our programmes and projects on refugee women and children.
  • To maximize the use of the media to increase public awareness of and support for the refugee cause and combat racism and xenophobia. We will make every effort to make public information materials readily available in appropriate languages and to ensure their widest possible distribution. We will look to you to maximise the impact of our public information campaigns at the national level. It has been suggested that the international community might consider adopting an International Refugee Day, to draw greater attention to the global refugee problem, although I should add that in my view every day is refugee day.

I realise this is an ambitious agenda. To put it into effect, UNHCR will be reviewing its own structures for liaison with NGOs. We will designate senior officials within each of the Regional Bureaux at UNHCR Headquarters to act as a focal point for liaison and coordination with NGOs. They will in turn relate to UNHCR and NGO focal points at the field level in each region. An NGO Co-ordinator will also be placed in the Office of the Director of External Relations, to improve overall liaison. I hope this will substantially improve our channels of communication. I hope that on your side, you will also undertake all necessary measures to translate our jointly agreed Plan of Action from rhetoric to reality.

After we leave Oslo, I hope the UNHCR and NGO regional focal points will assess the practical and substantive measures needed to implement the various PARinAC proposals in each region, over the coming two to three months. The initial results of these comprehensive regional assessments would be reported back to our Headquarters, and made available for discussion at the annual pre-ExCom NGO Consultations in September.

Crucially, the success of our future partnership requires the understanding and support of governments. In this connection, I am delighted that the Chairman of the Executive Committee Ambassador J.F. Boddens-Hosang will be with us during this meeting. Together, UNHCR, NGOs, other UN agencies and governments, form the key to a more effective global response to today's humanitarian challenges. Thus, UNHCR will report on PARinAC to its Executive Committee, and will organise, for the first time, a meeting between NGOs and our Executive Committee members to review the implications and implementation of the PARinAC proposals.

The humanitarian agenda we set for ourselves here should be inspired by our commitment to continue to harness and mobilize each other's skills, while contributing to the build-up of respective capacities for the benefit of refugees and displaced persons. Over the past few years, I have visited refugee camps around the world. These visits have made me painfully aware of the often very real gap between the displaced people in a local village, the local network, the local NGOs, and a fairly big bureaucracy such as UNHCR in Geneva. When we first introduced the PARinAC idea, it was my personal hope that through this process we could somehow bridge the gap. Indeed, during this process of the last twelve months, I believe that our partnership has become more meaningful not only to ourselves but, primarily, to those we serve, that is, those who need our protection and assistance.

The partnership with NGOs is an essential element in our ambition to map out a humanitarian strategy for the coming years. PARinAC is merely the start - albeit a very successful one - of this process. But its positive spirit must live on. I thank you all for your commitment and contributions to this cause. I salute your often unrecognized efforts in every region of the world, and I assure you that UNHCR will remain your long-term partner in all respects.