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Remarks by Mr. Gerald Walzer, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 2 February 1998

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mr. Gerald Walzer, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 2 February 1998

2 February 1998

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates,

Let me begin by joining the Chairman in welcoming you to this first meeting of the Standing Committee in 1998 and by extending very best wishes to all for the new year. The High Commissioner has asked me to convey her personal welcome to all delegations represented here today - both governmental and non-governmental alike, and here a warm welcome to NGO delegations who are with us for the first time - and her appreciation for your support, in particular in the critical area of international protection. Mrs. Ogata has just returned from participating in the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she has actively sought to place humanitarian concerns high on the agenda of world leaders, and she is presently preparing for an extensive visit to Africa, scheduled to take her to Burundi, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

For the UN in general and UNHCR in particular, the year 1997 began and finished on bright notes. I am referring first, of course, to the commencement of the term of office of Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January of last year. The Secretary-General's direct experience with the problems of refugees and the work of the Office has created, already during his first year in Office, important new opportunities for improving coordination between the UN Secretariat and UNHCR, and for strengthening our joint efforts on behalf of refugees and humanitarian issues. Then, in December 1997, the former Assistant High Commissioner, Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, after 28 years of distinguished and varied service to the Office, was appointed Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Sergio left in the middle of last month to take up his new responsibilities. As delegations are aware, the High Commissioner has appointed Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen as her new Assistant High Commissioner. I know that he needs no introduction to delegations as his extensive experience at both headquarters and in the field, and most recently in New York, is well-known. Søren is presently on mission in New York and then on to a regional meeting in Mexico, but he shall be with us in future meetings of this Committee.

Although the past year thus began and ended with these important positive turns of events, 1997 on the whole was a difficult year for UNHCR, a year in which tragic, indeed deplorable, developments deeply affected the lives of refugees and challenged the capacity of the Office to ensure their protection. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I shall focus my remarks this morning on a review of the key developments which have taken place since the last formal meeting of the Executive Committee in October of last year.

First, however, I wish to convey the extreme preoccupation of the High Commissioner and all of us at UNHCR regarding the whereabouts and fate of our colleague, Mr. Vincent Cochetel, the Head of UNHCR's office in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. Mr. Cochetel was abducted by masked gunmen at the end of last week, on 29 January, upon returning to his apartment following a dinner with local officials. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for this latest act of violence against a humanitarian worker, and we are deeply concerned about his well-being. The Director of our operations in Europe, Mr. John Horekens, has proceeded over the weekend to Vladikavkaz, where he will join the Acting UNHCR Representative and other colleagues for a first-hand assessment. Our thoughts shall remain with Mr Cochetel, his wife and their three children, until he is safely returned to freedom.

Mr. Chairman,

Let me begin my review of global and regional developments with a word on international protection. Whilst there have been positive developments in a number of our operations since the last meeting of this Committee, the Office continues to face daunting threats to time-tested and fundamental humanitarian principles which underpin the international regime of refugee protection. In the Great Lakes region, but also in other refugee situations around the world, the lack of respect for human rights and humanitarian principles, and the complexity of the problems confronting governments, have at times seemed to overwhelm our best efforts to protect innocent human beings. Expulsions and refoulements, sexual violence against refugees, violations of the rights and physical security of refugee women and children, pressured repatriation prior to the necessary conditions being in place, unacceptable detention practices, and the erection of legal and administrative barriers to admission of asylum seekers have regrettably continued. In reiterating what the High Commissioner and the Director for International Protection emphasized in their remarks to the Executive Committee last October, we appeal once again to all delegations to promote renewed State commitment to the protection of refugees and the defense of the humanitarian principles that the international community painstakingly established over the course of almost half a century. We want to be clear: adherence to fundamental humanitarian principles is squarely in line with State interests. For our part, we continue to seek actively the views of States and to discuss their concerns and proposals to address and resolve refugee problems. In this context, the High Commissioner's upcoming trip to Africa is an important opportunity for her to explore the views of States in a region where humanitarian problems have been particularly acute.

Mr. Chairman,

Turning now to developments in our operations, I begin with the Former Yugoslavia, where we see ahead in 1998 some rays of hope. At the Bonn Peace Implementation Conference, and later at the Humanitarian Issues Working Group last December, the High Commissioner reported that 110,000 refugees repatriated from abroad in 1997, mainly to majority areas. UNHCR's overarching priority in 1998 will be to make a breakthrough on "minority returns" to, and within, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The principal vehicle to achieve this breakthrough is UNHCR's "Open Cities" initiative. Beyond the eight cities declared "open" thus far (Bihac, Busovaca, Gorazde, Kakanj, Konjic, Mrkonjic Grad and Sipovo and Vogosca), two of which are in the Republika Srpska, UNHCR hopes that Sarajevo and Banja Luka will be added to this list in 1998. The Office is already working closely with municipal and cantonal authorities as well as with the Office of the High Representative and other partners, within the framework of the Return and Reconstruction Task Force, to plan for minority returns, as requested by the Bonn Conference. Should there be a breakthrough on minority returns, UNHCR believes that as many as 220,000 refugees could repatriate from abroad in 1998. Without it, repatriation would be substantially lower, perhaps barely equalling 1997 levels.

On 15 January 1998, the two year-mandate of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium, better known as UNTAES, came to an end, marking an important watershed in Croatia and another step in the process of normalization in the region. Yet the complex two-way return process - both to and from Eastern Slavonia - has only just begun. UNHCR is working closely with the OSCE and EC Monitoring Mission, as well as with the Croatian authorities, to ensure that the process remains on track. In recent weeks, UNHCR and the authorities of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have noted an increase in the number of ethnic Serbs leaving Eastern Slavonia to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, some in response to incidents of harassment. UNHCR is working closely with both the authorities of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to stem the flow and address the situation of those wishing to remain in Yugoslavia.

In contrast with the fragile peace being maintained in the Former Yugoslavia, terror continues to strike innocent civilians in many parts of Central Africa, in particular in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ongoing ethnic fighting and unrest has plagued the Masisi region of the DRC, as well as near Bukavu and Uvira. In Rwanda, the December massacre at Mudende refugee camp resulted in the deaths of over 300 Congolese refugees and is part of an increasingly systematic pattern of violence in the northwestern part of the country, where few feel secure and many have already felt compelled to flee from their communes as the crisis has worsened. UNHCR's work in parts of Rwanda is seriously hindered because normal monitoring and assistance to refugees and returnees, particularly in the north and northwest, has become impossible due to insecurity. Burundi has also experienced an escalating spiral of violence, including the brazen New Year's Day attack at the Bujumbura airport, resulting in over 300 persons killed.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with fundamental questions concerning the organisation's capacity to carry out its protection mandate, delegations will recall that, in September of last year, the High Commissioner felt compelled to suspend operations affecting Rwandan refugees in the eastern DRC. Subsequently there was a new influx of Rwandan asylum seekers to the DRC, but UNHCR was unable to achieve access as the Government ordered the closure of UNHCR's offices in the Kivu. Although this order was subsequently limited to the Goma office, our presence in Bukavu and Uvira was also sharply reduced. In November 1997, thousands of Rwandan and Burundi refugees who had fled the fighting in Gisenyi and Ruhengeri were expelled by the DRC from both north and south Kivu. Our Goma office to this day remains closed.

Although the large majority of Rwandan refugees have returned home, the refugee crisis in the region remains critical, and the issues and conditions that created the situation are far from resolved. UNHCR's programme in Rwanda, in close collaboration with the Government and other agencies, continues to focus on promoting the repatriation of the remaining refugees, facilitating the reintegration of both old and new caseloads, and promoting national reconciliation. Our Joint Reintegration Programme Unit with UNDP is finally up and running, and is actively planning for the phasing out of UNHCR reintegration activities during the course of 1998.

In Burundi, Mr. Chairman, we continue to work in a complex environment of relatively safe areas, where UNHCR has full and unhindered access to returnees, and other areas where the security situation is clearly uncontrolled. UNHCR's policy has therefore evolved to supporting voluntary repatriation to safe areas, while not facilitating repatriation to areas deemed dangerous. Within these constraints, UNHCR has been providing assistance to both returnees and internally displaced persons in the provinces and home communes of the returnees. In addition to six roving teams monitoring returnees in seven northern provinces, UNHCR has established two new Field Offices in Ruyigi and Muyinga.

Mr. Chairman, the United Republic of Tanzania now provides asylum to the largest number of refugees in the region, some 260,000 Burundi and 44,000 Congolese refugees. A Tripartite Agreement has been reached, and between October 1997 and the end of last month, 15,800 Congolese refugees returned with UNHCR organized convoys from Kigoma to Uvira, Fizi and Baraka, with some 14,500 spontaneous returns during the same period. Whilst carefully following security conditions, we are managing to continue receiving Congolese returnees in these areas and have very recently established an international presence in Baraka. In other parts of the region, efforts are also underway to promote, with the approval of the Government in Kinshasa, the voluntary repatriation of Congolese refugees.

Also in Tanzania, as we have experienced throughout the Great Lakes since the beginning of the crisis, the Office has been confronted by allegations of militarization of some of the refugee camps for Burundians. The Office took these allegations very seriously, and conducted a joint mission with the Government of Tanzania to thoroughly examine the situation in the Kagera and Kigoma regions. No evidence of militarization of the camps assisted by UNHCR was found at that time, but the Government of Tanzania and UNHCR continue to be vigilant in taking measures to strengthen security, including implementation of a 24-hour police presence in all of the camps, to ensure that a situation similar to the one witnessed in the former eastern Zaire is avoided.

To conclude my review of the Great Lakes region on a positive development, with the conflict the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) now resolved, UNHCR has been able to focus its efforts on repatriation of the close to 30,000 Brazzaville Congolese who had fled to the DRC, as well as some 1,200 who had gone to Cameroon.

We look forward to sharing with you the insights which the High Commissioner will have gained from her mission, which will no doubt have a major impact in shaping UNHCR's direction in the Great Lakes in the year to come.

Elsewhere in Africa, UNHCR has continued its efforts to resolve a number of protracted refugee problems. In Liberia, with the peace process still on track, and further to agreements signed with the countries of asylum and the Liberian authorities, including the Declaration on the Rights and Security of Liberian Returnees signed by the Liberian President on 27 October 1997, UNHCR was able to launch organized repatriation to Liberia in December of last year. We expect that, of some 480,000 Liberian refugees in the sub-region, some 380,000 persons will repatriate with assistance from WFP and UNHCR. In November of last year, two new Sub-offices were opened at Voinjama and Gbarnga, and three new field offices in Zwedru, Harper and Vahun are being established. Implementation of UNHCR's reintegration programme, including rehabilitation of clinics, roads, schools and water facilities has started in Lofa County. During the past month some 4,000 Liberian refugees have returned to their country, mainly from Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, and we are aiming to assist the repatriation of some 100,000 Liberians in the first six months of this year.

With regard to Malian repatriation, in spite of some insecurity in the north and funding constraints in 1997, we have been able to repatriate so far some 123,300 Malian refugees, mainly Tuaregs, from Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Algeria. Some 10,000 to 13,000 Malian refugees who are still in exile will return during the first few months of the current year. In 1998 our activities in Mali will primarily focus on sustainable reintegration, essential for the consolidation of peace. I must call to your attention, however, that the operation remains in urgent need of funding, and the appeal for 1998 will be launched this week.

In December of last year, some 2,200 Ethiopian refugees repatriated from the Sudan, and a cut-off date for the return of Ethiopian refugees presently in camps in the Sudan has been set for the end of May 1998. In Zambia, the refugee camps of Natande and Nkolemfumu were closed at the end of last year with the refugees' voluntary repatriation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

At the same time, Mr. Chairman, other refugee problems have remained resistant to solutions. The high hopes we had for the repatriation of Somali refugees from Ethiopia did not materialize due to various political, logistical and security constraints. With the end of Ramadan last week, however, the operation is scheduled to resume imminently, and we are hoping to organize in 1998 the return home of some further 90,000 Somali refugees now in Ethiopian camps, as well possibly as others in camps in Djibouti. As if they had not already suffered enough, Somali refugees in the three camps around Dadaab in Kenya have been completely cut off from overland access since November of last year, owing to unprecedented rains and heavy flooding that have affected many Kenyans as well.

Mr. Chairman,

Delegations are aware that, with regard to the return of Eritreans from the Sudan, no organized movements have been possible since the end of the successful pilot project that saw 25,000 refugees return to Eritrea in mid-1995. Ready to cooperate fully with both the country of origin and the country of asylum, UNHCR will again work toward an operational framework and mutually agreeable modalities for recommencing organized repatriation to Eritrea as soon as possible. Counting on their commitment, we are continuing discussions with the Governments of Eritrea and the Sudan.

In the southern Senegal province of Casamance, where several thousand civilians have fled during the past few years to Gambia and Guinea Bissau, the situation has been deteriorating further. In order to ensure the civilian character of the refugee settlement in Guinea Bissau, we are preparing for the relocation of the refugees further inland.

In Angola, the overall situation is stable but the central Government's authority has been extended only to 253 out of 339 localities previously under UNITA control. Spontaneous repatriation has continued at a steady pace, with returnees numbering 126,000 of whom some 3,000 arrived in the past three months. UNHCR is focusing its efforts on rehabilitation of roads, bridges, schools and health posts in the key returnee areas.

UNHCR has continued to strengthen its collaboration with regional organizations in Africa, as well as on other continents, as critically important partners in seeking to avert forced population displacements and promoting solutions. The High Commissioner's upcoming mission has been arranged in close consultation with the OAU, which she will visit during the last leg of her tour in Addis Ababa. For my part, I was pleased to have the opportunity to attend the IGAD Partners Forum held last month in Rome co-chaired by the Foreign Ministers of Italy and Kenya. The Forum proved once again the growing importance of IGAD to take on regional issues; as we hope to further our collaboration with the IGAD Secretariat, this meeting also offered a welcome opportunity for bilateral discussions with IGAD Member States and partners alike.

Turning to Asia, Mr. Chairman, last month the High Commissioner, after senior level discussions in Japan, visited the Philippines and Singapore where she had the opportunity to thank the governments for their contribution to the successful completion of the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese Refugees. The High Commissioner also consulted the governments on regional issues of mutual concern. In the Philippines the High Commissioner had the occasion to thank the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation for having bestowed upon her the Foundation's prestigious Award for International Understanding.

The situation in Cambodia remains of serious concern with the continuation of sporadic conflict in the West and Northwest of the country and with no immediate prospects for peace. Some 62,000 Cambodians remain in refugee camps in the provinces of Surin and Trat in Thailand, and another 1,000 exiles reside in Bangkok, Surin and Aranyaprathet. UNHCR complements the efforts of the Royal Thai Government in providing humanitarian assistance to refugees, and has facilitated the voluntary repatriation by road of some 3,500 Cambodians from Huay Cherng camp in Surin Province to their preferred destinations in peaceful areas. A further 114 persons returned voluntarily by air from Bangkok to Phnom Penh during December and January, under the auspices of UNHCR, and in collaboration with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General. Following their joint mission to Cambodia in November, the Directors of the Division of International Protection and the Bureau for Asia and the Pacific underlined the need for conditions conducive for the safe return of refugees, the conclusion of a cease-fire agreement, and respect for the fundamental right for refugees to return to their homeland in time to participate in forthcoming elections. Both Directors are presently visiting Myanmar. UNHCR is also concerned by the continuing absence of durable solutions for some 21,000 Myanmar refugees in camps in Bangladesh.

In the Americas region, the High Commissioner visited Mexico and Guatemala in late November and early December. She returned from her visit greatly impressed by the achievements of Mexico's "migratory stabilization" plan for Guatemalan refugees, which offers the refugees the possibility of integrating into the Mexican society. In Guatemala the High Commissioner was struck while visiting one returnee settlement by the difficult conditions, due to isolation, which are illustrative of many of the returnee settlements and the development challenges they pose. In spite of the harsh circumstances in the rural areas to which the refugees return, another 3,554 refugees chose to repatriate in 1997 with UNHCR assistance. Several thousand others are planning to go back this year.

The problem of displacement of Colombians in neighbouring countries continues to be a source of concern. You will recall that UNHCR was examining options for collaborative action within Colombia itself. The former Assistant High Commissioner undertook a mission to Colombia in November 1997 in order to evaluate the possibility of establishing a UNHCR presence there. Based on the findings of that mission and subsequent consultations with UN sister agencies, ICRC, IOM, as well as governments in the region and of donor countries, but most particularly with the Government of Colombia, the High Commissioner has agreed that UNHCR should open a small office in Bogota to assist the Government in addressing the problems of the internally displaced with any technical expertise UNHCR can provide.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, here in Europe, UNHCR remains extremely busy with a diverse range of activities including ever increasing collaboration with the European institutions on humanitarian issues. In Eastern Europe, significant progress has been made in addressing problems of statelessness and citizenship in Crimea, Ukraine, in partnership with other organizations including the OSCE. Several counselling centres have been established throughout Crimea to promote acquisition of Ukrainian citizenship among thousands of Crimean Tatars and other formerly deported peoples in the peninsula.

Governments of the CIS met in the context of the follow-up to the CIS Conference to address the issue of freedom of movement. They discussed potential changes in current residence registration systems, which impact particularly negatively on asylum-seekers and refugees, sometimes even denying asylum-seekers access to status determination procedures. Over 100 NGOs accredited to the Conference met to advance follow-up along five main themes of the Programme of Action. UNHCR, in partnership with others including the Council of Europe, is launching promotional and training workshops on the development of NGO legislation in the region. An appeal was launched in December for special programmes in the CIS countries.

I am very pleased to report to the Standing Committee that, in December of last year, Hungary lifted its geographical limitation to the 1951 Convention. This will enter into force on 1 March 1998. The three Baltic states all ratified the 1951 Convention in 1997, with Latvia lifting its geographical reservation on 2 October 1997.

In view of the concerns raised by some European Union countries about the alleged increase in the number of Iraqi asylum-seekers arriving in Western Europe in recent months, a Task Force to monitor developments and formulate policies has been established at UNHCR headquarters. The Office has been in close contact with the Presidency of the European Union regarding this matter, and will continue to cooperate with the Union and with individual countries, to ensure protection for refugees and asylum seekers while keeping in mind the concerns of governments regarding illegal immigration of non-refugees.

The High Commissioner has expressed grave concern about increasing levels of violence in Algeria, and she has appealed to governments not to forcibly return rejected Algerian asylum seekers without due consideration of the security risk they may face if they returned to Algeria at this time.

Mr. Chairman, as foreseen on our agenda, the Director for Central Asia, Southwest Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, Mr. Shamsul Bari, will be addressing these situations and others when he joins you later in the agenda for a detailed review of UNHCR programmes in that region.

Mr. Chairman,

Turning to the funding situation of UNHCR's programmes for 1997, whilst we still have to await the closure of our annual accounts, our best projections at this point indicate our overall level of expenditure under all sources of funds will be approximately $ 970 million, some 17% below 1996 expenditures. Within the 1997 expenditure, General Programmes are likely to amount to $ 385 million. Whilst we are indeed grateful for the continued support from all donor governments that made it possible to carry out most of the activities that were planned for 1997, I do need to bring to your attention that contributions to General Programmes in 1997 remained substantially below our projections. As a consequence, and with little or no carry-over, we will thus be entirely dependent on the amount of $ 101 million committed by governments at the pledging conference to start off the new programme year.

Lack of timely funding in 1997 has also seriously affected Special Programmes. Funds for repatriation programmes, particularly in Africa, were not available when needed, and despite substantially reduced budgets a number of important programmes remained underfunded at the end of the year.

Clearly, Mr. Chairman, great efforts are required from the very onset of the year to ensure funding in 1998. Later in the agenda Mr. Nicholas Morris, Director of the Division of Operational Support, and Mr. Ernest Chipman, Head of the Funding and Donor Relations Service, will give a more detailed overview of the current and projected financial situation, but at this point I must stress the high priority we continue to accord to funding of General Programmes.

Mr. Chairman, UNHCR must remain, we believe, well-prepared to meet the unexpected. Whilst maintaining our focus on emergency preparedness and response capacity, the coming year will be one in which we will place greater emphasis on the quality of UNHCR's programmes and additional focus on those that have an impact on women, children and the environment. Mr. Chairman, I will not dwell now on the range of improvements to our management and administrative processes and systems, and the gains being achieved through our change management process, as I hope that Mr. Horekens will be back from his mission by tomorrow to update the Committee on where we stand in that regard.

Mr. Chairman, I am grateful for this opportunity to brief you on some of the major developments since the Standing Committee last met, hoping this meeting will prove productive and fruitful for all of us. My colleagues and I shall remain at your disposal over the course of the next two days.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.