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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-eighth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 13 October 1997

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-eighth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 13 October 1997

13 October 1997

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to welcome you to the forty-eighth session of the Executive Committee. I would like to say a special word of welcome to the delegations of Poland and South Africa. Their election as members of the Committee further enlarges the scope of international support for the work of my Office.

Ambassador Mchumo, let me warmly thank you for having chaired the Committee in the past year - a year during which the problems of refugees and other uprooted populations have been confronted, in new and often difficult ways, not only by my Office, but also by your country, the United Republic of Tanzania. At the same time, I would like to congratulate the officers of the new Bureau on their election. Ambassador Skogmo, your country has always firmly supported UNHCR and I look forward to working with you in the coming months.

Mr Chairman, the trends which I outlined last year have by and large continued. Hopefully, we are entering a period of declining refugee emergencies, and we can focus our efforts on solving some long-time refugee situations, mainly through repatriation. At the beginning of this year, there were 22.7 million persons of concern to UNHCR. This represented a decrease of 1.3 million from early 1996.

Economic difficulties in regions with a tradition of long term asylum are making local integration of refugees in host countries less easy to achieve. Resettlement remains a valid option for smaller numbers of refugees, although I must stress its increasing importance as an essential tool for sensitive protection cases. I am becoming more than ever aware that repatriation is the main solution, but it is indeed a complex and difficult undertaking. It is appropriate that the Executive Committee has decided to devote this year's general debate to repatriation challenges. I look forward to listening to your statements.

Let me start by reporting on several positive developments, particularly in Africa. This continent still hosts the largest number of refugees. It is in Africa, though, that the number of returns has also been the highest. After eight years of almost continued civil conflict, elections were held in Liberia on 19 July. We hope that this will facilitate the repatriation of some 500,000 Liberian refugees, some of whom are already returning spontaneously. UNHCR is stepping up measures to assist returning refugees. I would like to commend once more several West African countries - particularly Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea - for the hospitality provided to Liberian refugees. I hope that the combination of generous asylum policies in host countries with the current trend towards peace in Liberia will result in an orderly repatriation, and enhance the hopes for a lasting peace, despite the fragility of the situation.

Meanwhile, the repatriation of Togolese refugees officially ended on 17 September: almost all of the approximately 300,000 refugees who fled in 1993 have now returned to their country. In Western Sahara, progress in peace negotiations led by the Secretary-General's Personal Envoy, opens up positive prospects - after 22 years - for the return of Sahraoui refugees from Algeria and Mauritania. If, by the end of the year, the return of 150,000 Malian refugees will be completed as planned, we shall be able to concentrate on reintegration activities to ensure the sustainability of this repatriation. In East Africa, the repatriation of Ethiopian refugees from Sudan is also expected to finish by the end of 1997 - thus far, almost 65,000 refugees have gone home. This is a very welcome development since some of these refugees had been hosted by Sudan for decades.

In Angola, recent positive political developments under the peace agreement between the Government and UNITA, such as partial demobilization and the extension of state administration, could result in organized repatriation becoming a reality in the coming months. In spite of the uncertain progress towards peace and stability until now, 114,000 of the 300,000 Angolan refugees have returned spontaneously. In the Horn of Africa, we conducted a successful pilot repatriation project from Ethiopia to north-western Somalia between February and July, assisting 10,000 Somalis to return home. This initiative has prompted thousands of others to return spontaneously and we hope that it will be followed by more returns to other parts of Somalia.

Elsewhere, the repatriation of Tajik refugees from Afghanistan restarted following the signature of a peace agreement in Moscow on 27 June. This led to the return of another 6,600 refugees to Tajikistan despite a difficult security situation in both countries. On the other hand, I am very concerned about the safety of 7,000 Tajik refugees remaining in Sakhi camp in Northern Afghanistan, whose repatriation is blocked by nearby fighting. I call upon the parties to the conflict to allow the refugees to return by the shortest route through Uzbekistan. In this regard, I welcome the decision of the Uzbek Government to cooperate fully with my Office in the repatriation of Tajik refugees.

Security constraints also affected operations in the North Caucasus, but over 20,000 internally displaced Chechens were assisted to return during the course of 1997 from the surrounding Republics in the Russian Federation. In Northern Iraq, internal conflict caused the flight of about 100,000 persons at the end of 1996, within and across the Iraqi borders. This displacement was quickly resolved, while the situation of Turkish refugees of Kurdish origin, previously in the Atroush camp and now partly dispersed, still awaits a solution. I am also seriously concerned by military attacks on humanitarian convoys, which hamper the delivery of assistance in Northern Iraq. The repatriation from Bangladesh of refugees from Myanmar has continued - 24,000 more refugees have returned to the Rakhine State since I reported to you about this operation last year; we are now discussing with the Government of Bangladesh what solutions may be possible for the remaining 21,000 refugees who do not wish to return to Myanmar. The number of Vietnamese refugees had dropped to under 2,000, from a peak of 214,000, by the time of Hong Kong's return to China at the end of June. I felt honoured to be invited to witness this historic event.

In Central America, there has been progress on the repatriation of Guatemalan refugees from Mexico. Returns have picked up again in the last few months and at the end of the year the organized operation should end. Some 2,500 Guatemalan refugees are meanwhile being considered for naturalization in Mexico. I look forward to visiting both countries later this year.

I wished to highlight these positive developments because they underscore the fact that solutions to refugee problems - and voluntary repatriation in particular - are possible, and do occur. We must not lose sight of this even when we turn to some difficult challenges which confront us in other parts of the world. The situation in Afghanistan, for example, is particularly worrying. Continued civil conflict and measures restricting human rights and particularly the rights of women, have all but stopped the repatriation of Afghans from the Islamic Republic of Iran and from Pakistan, still the single biggest group of refugees worldwide. I should also mention the deadlock over organized repatriation which we have been facing in Eritrea during the past few months; continuing threats to the security of Sudanese refugees in camps in Northern Uganda; and the interruption imposed to the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees - indeed, the renewed outflow of persons from Sierra Leone - after the elected government of that country was deposed. Political stalemates continue to block the search for solutions in other countries - for example, in the case of over 90,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal.

I must also report at least two situations of new refugee influxes. Over 40,000 Cambodians have crossed the border into Thailand in recent weeks, fleeing renewed unrest in some provinces. On-going internal fighting in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) is causing the flight of thousands of refugees, particularly to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. More people will be uprooted and displaced if this conflict is not brought very quickly to an end.

The greatest and gravest challenges to protection, however, have occurred in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Between 1994 and 1996, UNHCR assisted well over one and a half million Rwandans in camps in Tanzania and the former Zaire. At the heart of the challenges has been the inability or unwillingness of the international community to separate those who deserved international protection from those who did not, to ensure the physical security of the former, and indeed to prevent the latter from violent acts threatening refugees and nationals alike.

You will recall that at the time of last year's Executive Committee meeting, with the support of some governments, we initiated efforts to try to prevent the impending conflict from engulfing the Kivu provinces and the refugee camps. But it was too late and the outbreak of civil war radically changed the situation. Approximately 600,000 Rwandans in former Zaire returned to their country over a period of a few days in November 1996, after the camps had been destroyed. Some weeks later, almost all Rwandans in Tanzania also returned to their country. Those left in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) fled westwards and dispersed in the forests. We requested an international military force to assist in rescuing refugees. The request was not met and rescue operations were conducted - often within conflict zones - by UNHCR in close cooperation with other UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOs. This allowed another 250,000 Rwandans to return - of whom over 65,000 in a major airlift operation between May and September. Thousands of others, however, died in the forests: of hunger, exhaustion, disease, but also, violently, at the hand of military forces. Surviving Rwandans are now scattered in 11 Central African countries, including the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), where fighting makes rescue operations increasingly arduous.

The return of about two million Rwandans since 1994 poses serious challenges, and their reintegration must be supported if we wish peace to be restored in the region. In Rwanda itself, my Office is actively engaged in reintegration activities and particularly in the shelter programme. UNHCR and UNDP have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, and a joint unit has been established between the two organizations, and the Government of Rwanda, to facilitate the integration of UNHCR activities into broader rehabilitation and development programmes. In asylum countries, especially Tanzania, but also to a certain extent the Democratic Republic of Congo, we have launched environmental and other rehabilitation programmes in areas where refugee camps had been located.

In Burundi, there has been very little progress towards peace and reconciliation, although it is essential to pursue negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict. In this context, UNHCR has not promoted repatriation, but has assisted refugees returning spontaneously, particularly to provinces considered relatively safe. A large number of refugees returned from former Zaire after the outbreak of war. Others followed the dispersed Rwandans, while Tanzania continues to host Burundi refugees in camps along the border - 230,000 according to a census carried out by UNHCR. The Government of Tanzania and UNHCR have recently conducted a joint mission to the border, to assess the implications of the presence of refugee camps for the security and stability of the area. The measures recommended by the mission to improve law and order in the camps must be given all possible support if events similar to those which occurred in former Zaire a year ago are to be avoided. Tanzania also hosts over 70,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo: a few weeks ago, UNHCR in cooperation with the two Governments began repatriating them by boat across Lake Tanganyika.

In the midst of this complex situation, UNHCR has tried to protect and assist refugees and returnees. The obstacles we faced and still face, however, seriously undermine our ability to carry out our protection mandate. My Office, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was confronted with the excruciating dilemma of repatriating Rwandans to some unsafe areas in the west of Rwanda, or leaving them in the forests, where death was almost a certainty. No other choice could be offered to refugees. Moreover, access to refugees was frequently limited or denied. There were military attacks on refugee sites, and reports on gross human rights abuses and violence against refugees are still emerging. Proposals by UNHCR to identify and protect those with valid reasons for not returning, and to exclude those who do not qualify for international protection, have been thus far implemented only in Malawi and the Central African Republic, where eligibility determination was carried out by Governments. In Rwanda, the massive return from Tanzania and former Zaire contributed to tension and violence, particularly in western prefectures. Monitoring returnees has become increasingly difficult, and practically impossible in areas in the west since last February. Several national and expatriate staff of humanitarian agencies have been killed while attempting to work in these areas.

These developments should not lead us to the conclusion that it is necessary to revise or reform basic principles. The rights of refugees - asylum and non-refoulement - are the foundation of my mandate and I wish to reaffirm our non-negotiable commitment to defend and promote them. However, we must seek to apply the implementation of these principles in constructive, realistic and creative ways, in cooperation with states. Respecting principles in a manner which takes into account the legitimate concerns of states is possible, and can eventually foster solutions to refugee problems.

I realize that the balance between principles and interests is a complex one, especially in a situation of mass displacement across conflict lines. Even so, lessons can be drawn from our experiences. Had States fulfilled their responsibilities as stipulated by this very Committee, and supported our actions more firmly and decisively, I believe some of the problems we encountered could have been avoided. I shall give you concrete examples. Refugee camps should have been located well away from border areas. The civilian character of refugee settlements should have been preserved by not allowing armed elements and political extremists to live with, and control refugees. Those who had committed crimes against humanity should have been brought to justice. Our repeated proposals to implement such measures in a manner consistent with the exigencies of security and stability went unanswered - these failures, not the principles themselves, have contributed to further insecurity and conflict.

I am concerned that if we do not attempt to resolve the apparent contradictions between humanitarian principles and state interest, countless more innocent persons will suffer. I therefore wish to propose to States and to regional organizations, and primarily the Organization of African Unity, a two-way effort: my Office is ready to discuss with governments practical measures which must be adopted to facilitate the respect for humanitarian principles and which take into account their concerns. I hope that States will put forward concrete proposals in this respect, but, more importantly, that they will reconfirm their commitment to these principles.

The crisis in the application of fundamental principles is not limited to any geographical area, although it is in the Great Lakes region that it has recently manifested itself most visibly. I am seriously concerned by an increasing trend towards restrictive asylum policies in many Western countries, including rejection of asylum seekers at borders, interdiction at sea and the narrow interpretation of the refugee definition, including limiting to persecution by State actors. The distinction between refugees and economic migrants in Western countries is sometimes difficult to establish in practical terms. This distinction, however, must be maintained. States must respect refugees' rights while they seek solutions to the problem of irregular migration. My Office will continue to cooperate with these efforts, within agreed parameters.

In this context, it is important to mention the concept of temporary protection, which has been successfully applied to refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina in many Western countries. I would like to recall that last December I acknowledged that Bosnian refugees originating from "majority areas" could repatriate as from the spring of 1997. On the other hand, we are not yet in a position to advocate the return of refugees to "minority areas". This example shows the usefulness of the concept of temporary protection as a flexible tool to apply humanitarian principles taking into due consideration the legitimate concerns of States, while, at the same time, respecting the rights of refugees. I therefore welcome the initiative of the European Commission towards the adoption of common standards on temporary protection in Europe.

Mr Chairman, our concentrated efforts to carry out repatriation under diverse circumstances has led us to face more squarely the challenge of reintegration. My Office during the past year has grappled with the need to develop a comprehensive approach to the requirements of the transition from war to peace. We are part of the UN system-wide search for a strategy known as post-conflict peace-building. In this effort, UNHCR's role will be in the return and reintegration of uprooted populations.

UNHCR has had to resort to emergency response measures to deal with sudden, massive returns, as we have seen in the Great Lakes region. Due to deliberate efforts to reinforce our emergency preparedness and response capacity in the last few years, we have also acquired expertise and ability to deal both with organized and massive, spontaneous returns. It is important to remember, however, that repatriation is not just a logistical operation. It also involves more than physical reconstruction. Returnees must become part of a wider integration process including the restoration of basic human rights and the judicial system. I would like to put greater emphasis on the links between refugee and returnee protection and human rights, and I wish to strengthen our cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, particularly at the operational level.

Where flight has previously occurred in a situation of conflict, returning refugees must indeed overcome the problems of coexistence which caused their exodus in the first place. Dealing with reintegration thus implies a comprehensive package of approaches that range from physical reconstruction to various political, social, educational, psychological and protection measures. In certain situations, it is essential that such measures include the clearance of landmines, and I wish to take this opportunity to welcome the award of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina exemplifies the variety of reintegration challenges that UNHCR has been tackling to make repatriation successful and sustainable. Since the signature of the Dayton Agreement, close to 183,000 refugees (90,000 in 1996, 93,000 so far in 1997) are estimated to have returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Furthermore, approximately 200,000 internally displaced persons have returned to their home areas. This has considerably reduced the problem of displacement caused by the war. For example, the number of refugees in Germany, the principal asylum country in Western Europe, has decreased by one third. But the prevailing pattern, as I mentioned earlier, has been one of return to so-called majority areas where the main challenge has been to accelerate physical reconstruction.

Returns to minority areas have not progressed sufficiently. In order to promote them, we have launched a varied package of initiatives. We have focused on promoting freedom of movement by running inter-entity bus lines. We have designated "Open Cities", as a means of encouraging grass-root acceptance of minority returns. Finally, we have appealed to the solidarity of host communities in countries of asylum through "Twin City" arrangements. I would also like to mention the recent, more positive measures announced by the Government of Croatia to favour return and reconciliation amongst all Croats. UNHCR stands ready to continue its work on behalf of Croatian refugees and internally displaced persons.

Several additional conditions, however, must be met if minority returns are to occur. First, physical safety must be ensured. The contributions of SFOR and UN-IPTF remain essential to the work of my Office and SFOR's security umbrella will be required beyond the current deadline of June 1998. Second, authorities and political parties must accept the results of elections and respect the voice of the legitimate electorate. Third, the right to housing and other social amenities must be guaranteed - given the enormous difficulties caused by the link between displacement and house occupation. Fourth, the problem of employment must be addressed. Our own efforts in these areas can be only modest and complementary, but they provide a useful indication of the directions in which my Office must move - more boldly and decisively than in the past - in promoting the necessary transition from return to reintegration.

Let me mention a few encouraging examples where we are already engaged actively in this transition. In Rwanda and Bosnia, the two societies where the wounds of conflict and hatred are deepest, we have expanded our special initiatives for women returnees, which include income-generating projects and economic empowerment programmes. We believe that supporting women's self-sufficiency and their active role in society is key to promoting tolerance and overcoming community divisions. In Georgia, UNHCR's efforts to assist returning refugees and displaced persons provide a practical response - through the reconstruction of destroyed houses and the rehabilitation of social infrastructure - to the confidence building process fostered by the renewed momentum in the negotiations on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. In Ukraine - a country which I recently visited - some 250,000 formerly deported people have now returned to Crimea, where my Office is assisting the authorities to address questions of citizenship in order to avert a potential statelessness situation.

The scope and complexity of this comprehensive approach to the reintegration of returnees require closer cooperation with a wide range of partners. Unless our work is part of an integrated strategy for rehabilitation and reconciliation, its impact is likely to be insufficient and short-lived. UNHCR, by virtue of its role in accompanying and monitoring returnees, and of its capacity to rapidly mobilize resources needed to support their initial reintegration, is often at the forefront of this effort. In this context, we usually assume that our role should be limited to the initial phase of reconstruction, and that our multilateral partners, and sometimes development-oriented NGOs, will build on activities initiated by us. We have tended to plan and implement our reintegration work for the short term, establishing quick exit strategies and time limits. This approach has proved inadequate in a number of operations. If we are to prevent the recurrence of conflict-based population displacements, UNHCR must invest more in reintegration activities on behalf of returnees, for as long as it is necessary to ensure their sustainability, and in the wider context of the returnees' communities.

In disengaging itself from reintegration activities, my Office must take into account the specific requirements of each situation, as well as the capacity and willingness of other partners to intervene with the returnees clearly in focus. I wish to commit my Office to a better understanding of its multilateral partners, and, wherever possible, to working with them from the earliest stages of our reintegration activities. By developing common approaches and frameworks, we can best ensure an orderly and timely phase out of the humanitarian assistance of my Office. In addition to our traditional collaboration with other UN agencies, particularly the World Food Programme and UNICEF, we have entered into a phase of close operational cooperation, at the country level, with UNDP, the World Bank, and, since last July, the International Monetary Fund. We have also strengthened our cooperation with the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

But the most difficult and challenging task which ultimately completes any repatriation, is the achievement of reconciliation. Allow me to state the obvious and to remind ourselves that in the absence of a reconciliation process - as the successive crises in Rwanda and Burundi have shown for the past 35 years - returnees will remain in divided communities, in which conflict can erupt again. I therefore believe that my Office, along with its partners, must contribute to developing more comprehensive reintegration programmes. Likewise, I would like UNHCR, which already supports activities fostering reconciliation in various countries, to help mainstream these activities.

Efforts towards inter-communal dialogue are not abstract goals. Concrete examples can be mentioned. Women's Initiatives, which I have already referred to, are aimed at a category of population able to play a fundamental role in reconciliation. In Liberia, we are working with UNICEF on a joint Child and Adolescent Initiative, which will attempt to bring back to normal life children who have been utilized as combatants by warring factions. The "Open Cities" initiative in Bosnia, the re-establishment and strengthening of judicial systems in Rwanda, are concrete attempts at fostering reconciliation.

We shall also continue to cooperate with inter-governmental and regional bodies - such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Southern Africa Development Community, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought and Desertification in the Horn of Africa - in order to promote reconciliation through the establishment of legal and administrative frameworks for the management of refugee and returnee flows.

Despite funding constraints, we remain committed to the process of follow-up to the CIS conference, through which considerable progress has been made in developing legal structures to address refugee flows and migratory movements, and in building awareness regarding mass population displacement in the region. Meanwhile, steps have been taken to develop a forum for regional consultations on the problems of refugees and displaced persons in Central Asia, South West Asia and the Middle East. The first such consultations took place last March in Amman, Jordan, with the participation of 13 governments.

I cannot conclude my remarks on repatriation and reintegration challenges without a special mention of our cooperation with the European Union. We regularly consult with the European Commission on a wide range of issues with a view to further building and strengthening our partnership in standard setting, policy making and operational cooperation.

Mr Chairman, let me add a few remarks on the resources required to carry out the mandate of my Office, and on issues related to its management.

Human resources are the mainstay of our mission and operations. We often say that staff are our primary resource. We must re-emphasize this through close cooperation between staff and management. In this connection, I would like to highlight some of the initiatives which have been taken throughout the past year. On 1 September we launched the Career Management System, which attempts to optimize the utilization of available staff resources while at the same time enhance the Office's support to career planning, individual objective setting and performance evaluation.

The introduction of the Career Management System is closely linked to the change management exercise, which we initiated two years ago and continues to be one of my priorities. We have introduced a number of changes in the areas of new technologies and of human resources and financial management tools. More are being developed, and follow up of the various processes will continue in 1998 and beyond. I have appointed a Director for Change, who reports directly to me, with the task to ensure that all actions grouped under what we have defined as Delphi project are prioritized and well coordinated. There is also a need, after two years of this complex exercise, to mobilize the staff of my Office to increase ownership of the process, and to bring this phase of the exercise to conclusion.

Concerning financial resources, I am grateful for the support of donor governments to most of the special operations in which the Office is engaged, including the Great Lakes and the former Yugoslavia. It is important, however, also to provide increased financial support to other, less visible special programmes, in particular the Angolan, Liberian and Tajikistan operations. If repatriation challenges are to be met, UNHCR must be given the necessary means to confront them. Furthermore, I would like to stress the need to support core activities covered by the General Programme, which remains seriously underfunded this year, with a shortfall of approximately 50 million dollars. I must request you also to make greater efforts to support the General Programme in 1998 adequately and in a timely way. My Office is fully aware of the many demands placed on government funding. I am pleased to report that the decreasing large scale emergencies and the trend towards solutions will allow a substantial decrease in our overall budget. It is a good sign that the 1998 budget is likely to be lower than one billion US dollars for the first time since 1991. However, it is important to emphasize that repatriation is resource intensive, especially in staff terms, as, of course, is protection, especially if we are to be present on the ground to monitor the welfare of returnees. In this regard, I welcome the move to re-examine how UNHCR classifies its staff costs and to ensure that those essential to the discharge of my mandate are properly recognized.

I have to share with you my very deep concern for the safety and security of staff working in conflict areas. In many countries, national and international staff have been exposed to threats, criminal acts, military tensions, actual conflict, and to the stress which inevitably arises in such dangerous situations. There have been casualties, and I wish to remember here all staff of UNHCR and other agencies - especially the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many NGOs - who have lost their life or suffered grave injuries in the service of refugees and displaced persons. Mr Chairman, there will be more casualties, particularly among the very vulnerable national staff, if unarmed, civilian aid workers continue to work alone in the forefront of humanitarian disasters. They are without adequate protection, often in situations where the international community believes it may be too dangerous to send even military forces. On our side, we have conducted in-depth reviews of staff safety issues and we have established an internal committee tasked with making proposals to improve existing measures. Staff security also has resource implications and I wish to ask governments for understanding, and increased support.

Finally, let me bring your attention to the fact that my Office has been closely involved in the debate concerning the UN reform process led by the Secretary-General. We have participated in discussions concerning decision-making and information sharing, with respect to coordinated management of humanitarian issues. We hope that the transformation of the present Department of Humanitarian Affairs into a more streamlined, focused and efficient Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator will become effective as soon as possible. We are also prepared to become part of the development of efficient common services as it takes more concrete shape.

In the forthcoming year, the challenges facing our Office will be both daunting and formidable. I wish to renew the firm commitment of my Office, and of myself personally as High Commissioner for Refugees, to respond in an effective, timely and creative manner. Together, we must prepare ourselves for a more humane twenty-first century.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.