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Statement by Mr. Gerald Hinteregger, Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 15 November 1989

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Gerald Hinteregger, Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 15 November 1989

15 November 1989

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen:

It is a privilege for me to address the Third Committee of the General Assembly on matters concerning UNHCR. This occasion has arisen from the recent resignation of the former High Commissioner and my appointment by the Secretary-General as Officer-in-Charge of UNHCR with effect from 1 November 1989. I am most grateful for the confidence bestowed on me by the Secretary-General and will do my utmost to discharge the important temporary tasks entrusted to me in the best interest of the high mission of the Office of the HCR to protect and assist refugees in all parts of the world.

The Secretary-General considers it of eminent importance that the organization continues to function in the best possible way during this interim period and he has assured me of his full personal support and that of the Secretariat of the United Nations. He intends to propose a new High Commissioner to the General Assembly as soon as possible.

In the meantime I have made a particular effort to assess the state of the organization in view of the crisis confronting the Office and to define the most urgent problems that have to be addressed without delay. One of the foremost concerns must be to make every effort to support the highly motivated staff in the field in the fulfilment of their most responsible functions for the benefit of the refugees and to keep the negative impact of the financial crisis to a minimum.

Mr. Chairman, the annual report of the UNHCR as well as the report of the Fortieth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme are before this Committee. Rather than comment on these documents in greater detail I would like to highlight some of the issues which I consider to be of particular importance and urgency under present circumstances. Repeatedly and insistently the international community has stressed the importance of voluntary repatriation as the most desirable and satisfactory solution to refugee problems. In the following regional overview I will share with the distinguished members of this Committee the Office's perception in this particular regard.

In Africa foremost mention must be made of the repatriation of Namibians. The Plan for the Independence of Namibia as set out in Security Council Resolution 435(1978) assigned to UNHCR the specific responsibility for the timely repatriation of Namibians within the overall framework of the Secretary-General's authority and the activities of UNTAG. By early November over 42,000 Namibians have voluntary returned. As in other situations, to which I will revert later, UNHCR faces a financial shortfall to complete the operation; in this case an additional $5.6 million are required.

In addition to this large scale repatriation operation there are others which were completed, like the one for some 320,000 Ugandans having returned from the Sudan and Zaire, and the return from Rwanda of almost all of the Burundi refugees. Angolan and Zairian refugees are presently returning to their countries of origin in a two-way airlift repatriation operation. In other situations, the search for possibilities of durable solutions, particularly voluntary repatriation to their countries of origin, will have to be pursued. Prospects for the return of Angolans and of some Ethiopians appear to have improved. Repatriating refugees and the communities they rejoin must be enabled to survive economically after their repatriation and initial reintegration is over.

There are other major preoccupations in Africa; among them I want to mention the plight of Somali refugees in eastern Ethiopia, particularly after the influx in mid-1988 of 300,000. This particular operation, it seems, will continue to be fraught with difficulties given the geographical, logistical, and political circumstances which prevail. The problem will only be brought under control through the creation of conditions in the refugees' region of origin that will allow them to return home voluntarily. The same applies to other situations, such as the 350,000 Sudanese refugees in Western Ethiopia and to Mozambican refugees including the 750,000 in Malawi. Despite the laudable efforts of all those concerned with the provisions of asylum and assistance to these refugees, the only prospect of a real solution to their plight will come when their country is at peace and they can return home in dignity.

Mr. Chairman,

In Asia, this past year seems to have witnessed a certain paradox in respect of the five million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, who constitute the largest single refugee group in the world. On the one hand, the Office has continued its preparedness in anticipation of a large-scale voluntary return home, while, on the other, it has been confronted with a new influx of refugees into Pakistan. The Office remains fully committed to the tasks entrusted to it by the Geneva Accords nineteen months ago.

The International Conference on Indochinese Refugees (ICIR) adopted a Comprehensive Plan of Action. I understand that its balanced components require an equally balanced implementation. As far as UNHCR is concerned, full respect of the principle and practice of first asylum is one of its key elements. Disturbing developments in the region since the Conference lead me, as Officer-in-Charge of UNHCR, to appeal to all countries concerned, particularly those that played a lead role in its convening, to adhere strictly to the provisions of the Plan as a whole. The Conference created, as follow-up mechanism, a Steering Committee which has met on three occasions since June. The Steering Committee has acknowledged progress in several areas: orderly departures from Vietnam, status determination of new arrivals and resettlement. Preparations are under way for an early resumption of the Steering Committee's deliberations on other outstanding problems, including the question of return. In this connection, encouraging progress appears to have been achieved with regard to repatriation of Laotians.

Some hope for a solution to the problem of Cambodian refugees and displaced persons existed a few months ago and, for this reason, the Secretary-General had in July appointed UNHCR as the lead agency for their repatriation within the framework of a comprehensive peace settlement. Regrettably, such a settlement eluded the recent Paris Conference.

Mr. Chairman,

The plight of Central American refugees which continues to be the main concern of the Office in Latin America was also the subject of the International Conference (CIREFCA) which took place in May. The Conference also dealt with questions of returnees and displaced persons in the affected countries of the region. The approved resolution and the concerted Plan of Action constitute a significant step forward in the solution to the problems of the uprooted populations created by the crises affecting the area. Projects require for their formulation and implementation the necessary co-operation of the whole UN system and, in particular, that of UNHCR and UNDP. The main solution envisaged by the Conference for the refugees is their voluntary return, and the concerted Plan of Action highlights the important criteria to promote voluntary repatriation. In this connection, I would like to remark that the voluntary repatriation of Central American refugees has continued throughout the year following peace initiatives in the region and within the framework of tripartite commissions. As recently as three weeks ago, some 1,200 Salvadorian refugees repatriated voluntarily from Mesa Grande to locations of their choice in El Salvador. Refugees from other camps in Honduras have also requested voluntary repatriation and their request is being processed. However, recent events are unfortunately likely to delay those returns.

Of the most recent developments in some parts of Europe, not all are of direct concern to UNHCR. From UNHCR's perspective, as I understand, there are however developments in the region which may affect the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers. The number of asylum applications continues to rise and has reached the highest level since the aftermath of the Second World War. As a result, serious strain is exercised on procedures for determination of eligibility for asylum and on reception facilities for asylum-seekers and considerable expenses for public relief and assistance are incurred on a national level. There appears to be a growing realization by governments of the region that the problems caused by the influx of asylum-seekers and refugees can only be solved through a concerted approach by governments, intergovernmental agencies and voluntary organizations aimed at developing comprehensive solutions in a global context. The Office appreciates the dialogue with now 14 governments which has developed through the so-called informal consultation process since 1985.

Among the important developments in Europe it is worth mentioning in particular those in Turkey and in Eastern Europe. Turkey, as you are aware, is confronted with the influx of several different groups of asylum-seekers. UNHCR is at present working on a proposal for assistance to one of these groups which has until now been assisted by the Turkish Government largely from its own resources.

Co-operation between UNHCR and Eastern European states has intensified over the past year. It is important, in this context, to refer to the accession by Hungary, in March 1989, to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the opening in October of a UNHCR Office in Budapest and the setting up of a UNHCR assistance programme in Hungary.

Mr. Chairman,

This brief regional overview would not be complete if mention were not made of the important subject of co-operation. This obviously involves Governments of the host and donor countries as well as international organizations. It would appear that the already existing co-operation with development agencies, notably with UNDP and IFAD as well as the World Bank, could be further intensified and broadened. Co-operation with others - inside and outside the UN system - with particular competence and expertise relevant to components of assistance programmes for refugees would seem to require further exploration. In this connection, tribute must be paid to the important role and function of non-governmental organizations and to their dedication to the cause of refugees.

Mr. Chairman,

It is not part of my task in this interim period to address questions of policy; this falls upon the new High Commissioner. But let me assure you that in all decisions I have to take because of their urgent nature I am fully aware of the importance of respecting the principles and objectives of the mandate of the UNHCR to protect and assist refugees, providing international protection to refugees is certainly UNHCR's fundamental responsibility and raison d'être. Access to refugees is a sine qua non for protection and very often such access is at the same time a direct function of UNHCR's assistance activities. Great care must therefore by taken that the financial constraints do not seriously impair UNHCR's priority functions during this critical period.

One of the most serious problems of the present crisis is without doubt the financial situation of the organization. This question was a key issue in last month's meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. The unprecedented financial crisis has obliged UNHCR to cut its general programme budget for 1989 from $429 million to $389 million, despite additional requirements resulting from operational developments. Although additional pledges of over $16 million have been announced during and since the meeting, the Office continues to face a projected deficit of some $40 million for its core assistance programmes this year. Additionally, at least $20 million is needed for special operations. I have mentioned earlier the return to Namibia; mention should also be made of the programme in South East Asia, of the assistance to refugees in Hungary, and to repatriation operations in Central America and in Africa.

The Executive Committee approved the revised target figure of $389 million for 1989 general programme and took note of the $414 million requirements submitted to it by UNHCR for 1990. It expressed concern, however, that the current level of income was likely to lead to a severe shortfall in funding of the 1989 programme and, therefore, authorized the High Commissioner, on an exceptional basis, to carry over a shortfall of up to a maximum of $40 million into 1990 on the understanding that this would be fully absorbed in the course of that year. It asked the High Commissioner to ensure that obligations entered into by UNHCR during the first six months of 1990 do not exceed a total of $190 million, including 50 percent of any shortfall carried over from 1989. This arrangement will permit the Office to continue life-sustaining programmes for refugees, but it will also put severe constraints on the financing of the activities of the organization particularly during the first half of 1990.

With a view to striking a balance between the financial resources that can be raised and the needs of refugees, the Committee established a temporary Working Group to review UNHCR's programmes including the issues relevant to the effective use of funds and administration of programmes and projects. The Working Group will report to an extraordinary session of the Executive Committee to be held in late May/early June 1990. This extraordinary session will authorize the level of UNHCR obligations for the second half of 1990, so as not to exceed the realistic level of contributions likely to become available in the course of that year. The Working Group has already taken up its work. UNHCR fully participates in the Working Group in a constructive and co-operative spirit. No effort will be spared by the UNHCR services concerned to make all their necessary inputs to this exercise, which is of crucial importance for the future of the organization.

The Executive Committee fully recognized the importance of ensuring that UNHCR has the resources necessary to meet the needs of refugees. It noted the concerns expressed by least developed countries of asylum about the serious negative effects on refugees which might result from the envisaged budget reductions, and that these countries should not bear an additional burden as a result. In this context, it asked member States to assist UNHCR in securing additional income from traditional governmental resources and from governments who have not previously contributed to UNHCR, and from such non-traditional sources as the private sector.

I can only echo and strongly support this request of the Executive Committee, especially as UNHCR's Pledging Conference will take place here next week, which will be among the most important ever. I will have the opportunity to address the Pledging Conference, but would already now ask that every effort be made by governments to announce significant contributions to UNHCR programmes in 1990. Urgent consideration should also be given to further contributions to the 1989 programmes to keep the negative carry-over within manageable limits. I also have to point to the critical cash situation of the organization which makes it imperative that actual payments be made as soon as possible.

Mr. Chairman,

In spite of all the difficulties I was obliged to point out I want to conclude my remarks on an optimistic note. The dialogue on the future of the organization has begun in a truly businesslike and constructive atmosphere of partnership and the full awareness of the great responsibility for safeguarding protection and assistance of the refugees also in the future is shared by all parties concerned. I am confident that the new High Commissioner with the strong support of the international community and his very able and motivated staff will be in a position to overcome the present critical phase of the organization to make it again one of the most respected agencies of the United Nations family.