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"Refugees: A Humanitarian Strategy" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Royal Institute for International Relations, Brussels, 25 November 1992

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"Refugees: A Humanitarian Strategy" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Royal Institute for International Relations, Brussels, 25 November 1992

25 November 1992

Mr. Foreign Minister, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great privilege to address you at this Institute which has an outstanding tradition for strategic thinking. It is a particular pleasure to be able to do so for the second time. I was last here fifteen years ago to speak on Japan's role in the United Nations. Today I would like to speak to you on the world refugee situation in my capacity as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is a very appropriate topic for a city which is the seat of the European Commission, always a strong supporter of my Office and now enjoying the distinction of being its number one financial donor. I make my statement therefore in the knowledge of the support which UNHCR and the refugee cause enjoys in the European Community, the Commission and, of course, Mr. Chairman, with the people and government of Belgium.

As a turbulent world grapples for a new order, we are confronted with one refugee crisis after another. In 1970 there were 2.5 million refugees, ten years ago it reached 11 million. Today the numbers exceed 18 million. No region, no continent seems immune from turbulent population displacements. The horror at the exodus of Iraqi Kurds eighteen months ago has already been overtaken by the brutal violence in former Yugoslavia and the massive suffering in Somalia.

When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1951, the problem was essentially one of individuals fleeing communist repression in Eastern Europe. UNHCR's work was mainly of a legal, technical nature to ease entry and integration, based on the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Despite its Cold War bias, the Convention has become the clearest symbol of international solidarity for the refugee cause and remains the only universal instrument of refugee protection. 116 States are parties to the Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the most recent, significantly, being the Russian Federation and the Republic of Korea.

The legal regime of the fifties was overtaken in the sixties and early seventies by what I would call the humanitarian regime, as the process of decolonisation in Africa led to flight of a different type, motivated by violence, rather than persecution, and characterised by large-scale displacement. The refugees were generously received in neighbouring countries and supported by the international community until they were able to return with UNHCR's help, to their newly independent countries. The different nature of the refugee problem faced by the Third World was acknowledged by the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, which broadened the refugee definition to include those fleeing war, violence and serious public disorder, and recognized the principle of voluntary repatriation of refugees.

This period of humanitarianism was replaced in the late seventies and eighties by what I would term the complex humanitarian regime, in which the numbers of refugees grew enormously as a result of wars, fuelled by the Super Powers and aggravated by the socio-economic challenges of the developing countries. In the bi-polar world of the time, the prospects for political solution to the refugee-producing conflicts, as in Afghanistan, Mozambique, Ethiopia or Cambodia, were virtually non-existent. UNHCR had no option but to embark on care and maintenance programmes for millions of refugees in over-crowded camps.

With the end of the Cold War, we have now entered a fourth phase, characterised by four main features.

Firstly, as the predictable universe of Cold War relations is replaced by a period of uncertainty and instability, ever larger numbers of people are on the move. This year alone more than 3 million refugees have been forced to flee.

Secondly, Super power rivalry and proxy wars have been replaced today by ethnic conflicts within nations. Resurgent nationalism, coupled with the serious economic and social consequences of the collapse of the world order, has led to a multiplication of such conflicts. Be it in the Horn of Africa and the Sudan, in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, the Middle East or parts of the Indian sub-continent, ethnic tensions have flared into violence. From Central and Eastern Europe through the Caucasus to Central Asia, new divisions are opening up along ethnic and national lines, endangering the architecture of a whole region, and rousing fears of large-scale population displacement. In some extreme cases, as in Somalia and Yugoslavia, they have led to the virtual destruction of a unified state structure. In every case, they have added to the magnitude and complexity of the problem of displacement.

As ever larger numbers of refugees seek to flee across their borders, questions have arisen to the extent of the burden that countries of asylum can reasonably be expected to sustain. These concerns are evident in western Europe, whether in the passionate debate on asylum in Germany, the harmonisation of asylum procedures in the European Community, the concern over illegal immigration and xenophobia in many European countries. Public acceptance of refugees has diminished, as has the political and strategic value of granting asylum.

A third characteristic of the refugee problem today is that refugees are outnumbered by the internally displaced, who may exceed 20 million. Many of them are in the Horn of Africa, where refugees have returned home only to find themselves displaced, along with civilians fleeing war and soldiers who have been demobilized. In Mozambique the long-drawn out civil war, now intensified by the drought, has produced 4 million internally displaced persons in addition to a 1.5 million refugees. A third of the 3 million people affected by the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina are displaced within the boundaries of their own countries. The violent dispute of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh has also resulted in substantial internal displacement, as has the conflict in Tajikistan in central Asia. Yet there is no clear legal framework or institutional mandate for the protection and assistance of the internally displaced who are potential refugees.

Let me now turn to the fourth feature, this time on a more positive note. The prospect for solutions have greatly improved, allowing almost 1.5 million refugees to return home in the course of 1992 alone. The new climate of international cooperation is leading to the resolution of many conflicts, not only between States but also within States, as far apart as Angola, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Cambodia and now Mozambique. A revitalised United Nations has embarked on a new generation of peace-keeping operations, combining ceasefire, demobilisation and monitoring of elections with the return and rehabilitation of refugees. Namibia and Nicaragua are recent past examples. El Salvador and Cambodia are on-going examples. Mozambique could be a future one.

There is also a greater willingness on the part of the international community to collectively address the threat to international security posed by internal conflicts and large-scale population displacements, as in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia. Humanitarian issues are not an addendum to but an integral part of its political agenda, as clearly illustrated by the role given to UNHCR in the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia. It is no mere coincidence that the High Commissioner, for the first time in its 42 years of existence, was invited last week to address the Security Council.

The humanitarian regime of which I spoke earlier has entered a new phase of complexity in which refugees have become a part of the global agenda for security and peace. UNHCR has become the humanitarian component of UN's peace-keeping efforts in two ways: The first is in the context of refugee emergencies. Seeking to reduce or contain displacement, buying time and space in which the political process can continue: as in Somalia or former Yugoslavia. I would call it a "preventive" role. The second is a "solution" role, in which UNHCR assists the implementation of peace settlements, by helping refugees to return home, as for instance in Cambodia or Mozambique.

Thus, the humanitarian strategy of today does not concentrate only on asylum, but more and more also on the prevention and solutions in the country of origin. As the focus of our activities shifts gradually from the relatively stable conditions in the country of asylum to the more turbulent and often evolutionary process in the country of origin, our capacity to respond as well as our ability to innovate are being put to test. Existing dogmas and doctrine are being challenged. New dilemmas are being posed.

I would like to share with you this evening some of the major operational, legal and philosophical challenges we face, both in the context of our "prevention" role in refugee emergencies and in the context of our "solution" role in repatriation operations.

On refugee emergencies, the first and foremost challenge is rapid response capacity, which was tested severely and seriously in the Persian Gulf crisis. Within a fortnight in April 1991, 1.7 million Kurds had fled their homes. Equally rapidly, within 6 weeks, by June 1991 most of them had returned to northern Iraq. It was as a result of that crisis that UNHCR decided to strengthen its emergency response capacity. Today UNHCR is equipped with emergency teams, an emergency fund, relief stockpiles, and arrangements with NGOs and governments for rapid deployment of staff and goods, which we have put to good use in the past year in Bangladesh, Mauritania, Yemen, Nepal and of course, former Yugoslavia.

A new aspect of our emergency capacity has been our partnership with the military for logistical support. It has added a new dimension to humanitarian work as well as to the role of the military in the post-Cold war world. I am deeply grateful to the military teams provided by donor governments, including that of Belgium, which are helping to sustain UNHCR's airlift operation and land convoy system in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Working under UNHCR supervision, as part of a civilian humanitarian effort, they have made a crucial contribution to saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced and affected people. The airlift to Sarajevo has attained a symbolic value far beyond the distribution of mere relief.

If rapid response is our first challenge, then the second and much more controversial one is the military protection of humanitarian assistance. As international humanitarian assistance becomes a key factor in many internal conflict situations, concerns of national sovereignty are coming into conflict with the international desire to meet urgent human needs.

For the first time ever, in resolution 688 in April 1991, the Security Council insisted that Iraq allow immediate access by international humanitarian organisations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq. It was rapidly followed by the creation of a "safety zone" in northern Iraq by the Coalition Forces. Shortly afterwards the Coalition Forces handed over their humanitarian effort to UNHCR. Our action, however, was not based on resolution 688, but on a Memorandum of Understanding negotiated between the United Nations and the Government of Iraq. No doubt, the adoption of resolution 688 and the apparent determination of the international community to enforce it influenced the course of negotiations. Nevertheless, it was with the consent of the Iraqi government that UNHCR and its voluntary agency partners operated in northern Iraq.

In the context of humanitarian aid to the victims of conflict in the former Yugoslavia, questions have again arisen as to the use of military intervention to ensure the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian relief.

UNHCR's involvement with refugees and displaced persons in Yugoslavia predates the deployment of the UN peace-keepers (UNPROFOR). In fact, it was almost exactly one year ago, that UNHCR, at the request of the Secretary-General, began assisting those displaced by the conflict in Croatia, in an effort to prevent and contain further displacement. UNPROFOR was deployed along the Croatian border in early 1992. When the fighting spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Security Council adopted resolution 752 on 15 May 1992 which emphasised the urgent need for humanitarian assistance and fully supported the efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to all victims of the conflict. As fighting intensified, this was followed by resolution 758 which extended UNPROFOR's responsibilities to the protection of Sarajevo airport and access to the city, so that UNHCR could organise an airlift operation into the besieged city.

On 13 August 1992 the Security Council adopted resolution 770 which allowed the possibility of invoking military force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, either collectively or individually, to ensure unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance. While this resolution was not implemented, the Security Council adopted resolution 776 which extended UNPROFOR's mandate to the rest of Bosnia, both to ensure peacekeeping and also to support UNHCR's humanitarian activities. As a result, six thousand troops are being deployed throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, in line with the normal consensual arrangements of UN peace-keeping operations.

The resort to military cover for humanitarian activities caused a lot of soul-searching in UNHCR. There are understandable and obvious differences between the humanitarian aims of UNHCR and the political objectives of the Security Council. Directly linking the two could at least potentially jeopardise our neutrality and impartiality and affect our ability to work in security and confidence on both sides of a frontline. But the security conditions on the ground left us with little choice. Indeed, even the International Committee for the Red Cross has requested - and received - the protection of the UN peacekeeping force for its convoys of released prisoners. Such is the ferocity of conflicts today and the disregard for humanitarian principles.

Similar breakdown of law and order has led the humanitarian operation in Somalia to seek cover from the UN peace-keepers. UNHCR's camps for Somali refugees along the border in northern Kenya are objects of nightly raids by bandits, endangering the security of staff and refugees alike. Humanitarian action is affected as deeply by the vacuum of state power as it is by the traditional notions of national sovereignty.

Responsible humanitarian action requires a minimum of order and acquiescence. The consensus of international opinion therefore has shied away from military intervention which could undermine that sense of order. It appears to be pointing towards a more pragmatic approach, as reflected in General Assembly resolution 46/182 of 19 December 1991, which reaffirms respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of all States, and allows humanitarian assistance to be provided with the consent, but not necessarily the request of, the affected country. From a practical point of view, it is only by obtaining the agreement of those directly concerned on the ground that a humanitarian operation can be carried out effectively and safely.

The third challenge of humanitarian emergencies is how to protect internally displaced persons in the midst of war and violence. This is the traditional role of the International Committee of the Red Cross. UNHCR has no mandate for internally displaced persons. We can only act at the specific request of the General Assembly or the Secretary General, and are increasingly being asked to do so, as the UN undertakes a more active role in internal conflict situations.

In the absence of adequate legal principles or an effective mechanism for their enforcement, international presence has become the most effective practical tool of protection in internal conflict situations. UNHCR is moving into security situations from which in the past we would have evacuated our staff. In northern Iraq, UNHCR assigned 180 staff members, augmented by the presence of international NGOs. In an innovative move, the UN deployed some 500 guards, ostensibly to guard UN property but in reality as a confidence building measure to enhance security. In former Yugoslavia we have posted more than 330 staff members. The deployment of UNPROFOR in Bosnia-Herzegovina will give us additional strength.

One distinctive feature of our protection role in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that we are not only protecting refugees and displaced persons, but also those who have not yet moved. In the context of a conflict which has as its very objective the displacement of people, we find ourselves confronted with a major dilemma. To what extent do we persuade people to remain where they are, when that could well jeopardise their lives and liberties? On the other hand, if we help them to move do we not become an accomplice to "ethnic cleansing"?

The answer is not an easy one, but I believe that it lies in the kind of comprehensive approach we have sought to promote on former Yugoslavia, combining preventive protection in areas of origin, together with temporary protection elsewhere when people can no longer remain at home in safety. Thus, asylum, at least on a temporary basis, must remain an important component of today's humanitarian strategy in a world where persecution, massive human rights violations and armed strife remain an every day reality.

Let me now move to the challenges which confront us in our solution role in repatriation operations. Just as humanitarian action has become an integral aspect of peace-keeping, so too, it has become an essential component of peace-making and peace-building efforts, linking security with stability and relief with development.

First and foremost is the challenge of protecting those who return. Normally, returning refugees should be reabsorbed in the national protection system, but unfortunately, despite the multilateral efforts at comprehensive peace settlements around the globe, return does not always take place in ideal conditions. Many of the Kurdish refugees who returned to northern Iraq remained displaced inside Iraq for months in insecure and unsafe conditions. In the Horn of Africa, war and food shortages in the country of asylum have forced people to return home prematurely to areas still subject to political, economical and environmental instability. Two years ago, 30,000 Salvadorean refugees decided to return home despite the on-going war between the government and the FMLN. Whether in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Angola or South Africa, refugees are returning to volatile security situations, if not open conflict. How can UNHCR ensure that those who return in the midst of conflict and insecurity are not only protected but can also reintegrate into their home communities?

In almost every case of organised repatriation UNHCR negotiates legal guarantees of safety for the returnees, and a monitoring role for itself. (In the case of South Africa it took 501 days of negotiations!) What is in question thus is not so much the legal framework but operational effectiveness of such assurances. As in emergencies, it is our physical presence which is the most effective tool of protection, whether in Afghanistan, Ethiopia or Cambodia. The presence of UN peace-keepers in the context of a peace settlement can also boost the degree of protection. The most innovative effort for protecting nationals in their own country has been taken by the UN in El Salvador where UN observer missions (ONUSAL) have been deployed to verify the human rights undertakings of the government as well as the FMLN. ONUSAL has helped to support UNHCR's own monitoring role with regard to the returnees. In Cambodia UNHCR has augmented its own monitoring role with the presence of the civilian police component of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia. Although the uncertainties of the political process continue to be preoccupying, the situation of returnees and that of the rest of the civilian population can only benefit from the inclusion of human rights in the mandate of UN peace-keeping operation in Cambodia.

The protection challenge of repatriation is paralleled by the socio-economic challenge. Just as political settlement stabilises repatriation, economic development sustains it. The countries to which refugees are returning or will return are almost without exception devastated by war, littered with mines, and bereft of any infrastructure, expertise or resources. In such situations repatriation is a difficult undertaking, often of greater political and operational complexity than emergency response. The potential for solution can easily become the seed for disaster in the face of premature return of refugees to insecure and unsatisfactory conditions.

I believe large scale repatriation can only succeed if there is a concerted and comprehensive effort to create proper conditions of return - politically as well as economically. A multi-dimensional concept of peace must include not only freedom from war but also from want. Without that, people may come home, but for how long? - and at what cost to the peace process itself? UN political settlements which promote peace must also lay the foundations of sustainable development without which peace itself cannot be sustained.

This requires in my view a comprehensive approach. The first aspect of this comprehensive approach must aim at the reintegration not only of refugees but also other vulnerable populations, particularly those affected by internal displacement, demobilization and drought. Unless this is done, the durability of any solution for refugees could be undermined. Therefore, one of the early decisions of UNHCR in the Kurdish crisis was to provide protection and assistance to anyone displaced by the insurrection, irrespective of whether or not he or she had crossed an international boundary. We rebuilt 1,700 villages in the course of last winter and spring, and by July 1992, when everyone had been provided with shelter, we were able to withdraw all 180 of our staff and hand over to other UN agencies.

In line with this approach, we have launched a new initiative in south-eastern Ethiopia, which abandons the traditional distinctions between refugees, returnees and affected population. In a cooperative effort with other UN and non-governmental organisations, UNHCR has "crossed" its mandate to assess and address the needs of the entire community with the goal of stabilizing the population. It is a drastic and desperate measure to break the vicious cycle of exile, return, internal displacement and exile again in an area of chronic under-development, drought and instability. It is prevention and solution at the same time.

Obviously, the capacity and mandate to deal with entire communities exceeds that of any one organisation and requires a comprehensive and concerted effort by the international community. I am convinced that the success of the peace agreement in Mozambique will be greatly determined by the willingness and ability of the international community to deal with problem of the internally displaced, demobilised soldiers and drought victims as well as returning refugees in such a comprehensive way.

The second aspect of the comprehensive approach is to bridge the gap between relief and development so as to ensure effective reintegration. Returning refugees cannot afford to await the lengthy time-frame and planning process of development assistance. This is why UNHCR embarked in Nicaragua on "Quick Impact Projects", or QIPs. Ideally designed with the participation of the communities which they are meant to benefit and implemented by NGOs, QIPs have become a major tool in repatriation operations to span the bridge between relief and development. The experience gained in Nicaragua is being translated in Cambodia, where close to 200,000 refugees have gone back home in the less than ten months. In Afghanistan, too, QIPs are becoming a part of our response to the reintegration of over a million refugees who have returned during 1992.

The ultimate test of course is the dovetailing of such immediate assistance into the overall development plans of the country. While some progress has been achieved in the context of the International Conference on Refugees and Exiles in Central America and in Cambodia, much remains to be done to give greater priority to incorporate returnees and their communities into national reconstruction and development efforts. The respective roles and responsibilities of the agencies at the various stages of the relief-to-development continuum need to be further clarified and dovetailed. Just as in the protection of returning refugees there is a legal lacuna, in their assistance there appears to be an institutional lacuna between the short-term reintegration activities of organisations like UNHCR and the long-term development planning approach of agencies like UNDP. Caught in this gap, perceived as a minor segment of the larger problem of poverty and underdevelopment, the needs of returnees are often overlooked.

I wish to stress that the extent to which the international community is able to meet the development challenge will affect our ability to maintain the impetus on repatriation and to provide genuine and lasting solutions to refugee crises. Therefore, I believe greater emphasis needs to be put on comprehensive approaches to solutions of the kind promoted by the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), and the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA). In both cases, UNHCR has played a central role in developing a multilateral strategy, involving countries of origin and asylum, as well as donors and other international agencies. CIREFCA, which has grown out of a political commitment to improve regional stability, has sought to incorporate solutions for the uprooted into a more durable plan for peace and development in the region. In the case of CPA, we have welcomed the parallel effort of the European Community to provide economic assistance to areas from which people have left and to which they are now returning. Similarly, the Conference on the Rehabilitation of Cambodia, hosted by the Japanese government in July this year has highlighted the essential economic dimension of peace-making efforts.

There is no doubt that rehabilitation and reconstruction will require enormous commitment of funds. But investments which seem large now may prove to be money well spent in the future, and certainly less costly than prolonged instability and conflict. Properly planned and resourced repatriation can help bring national and regional stability, which is in the interests of the country concerned as well as the donors, lending institutions and development agencies.

In conclusion, let me summarise that as population movements impact on global security, peace-keeping as well as development are becoming of direct relevance to a humanitarian strategy for refugees. As peace becomes a multi-dimensional concept we must ensure the continuum from relief to development. As humanitarianism becomes dynamically linked to peace-keeping and peace-making, we must endeavour to seek political support for our activities, while preserving the neutrality and impartiality of our humanitarian work. I am convinced humanitarianism can create space and time for political action and can further its implementation, but it can never be a substitute for it.