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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 11 November 1985

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 11 November 1985

11 November 1985

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates,

Thank you for giving me the floor to introduce my annual report to the General Assembly. This is the last time that I shall have the opportunity to address this Assembly in my capacity as High Commissioner for Refugees, as my term is about to come to an end. I trust, therefore, that I will be forgiven if this year I do not give you a tour d'horizon. In the Report which is before you (A/40/12 and A/40/12/Add.1) you will find a detailed description of all refugee problems throughout the world. I am not going to repeat what is already there in writing. Instead, I should like to give a more succinct description of the problems and devote part of my statement to some reflections on the nature of the office it has been my privilege to hold for the past eight years, and how this work for refugees has evolved during the 40 years history of the United Nations.

There are many challenges facing the international community today but few, in my mind, are more pressing than those of finding humanitarian solutions to refugee problems. We talk of regional conflicts, of economic and social crises, of political instability, of abuses of human rights, of racism, religious intolerance, inequalities between rich and poor, hunger, over-population, under-development and ... I could go on and on. Each and every one of these impediments to humanity's pursuit of well-being are also among the root causes of refugee problems.

The High Commissioner for Refugees may not be in a position to address the root causes directly. But, he can, and must, deal with the consequences. And by so doing, he may, indirectly, be making a contribution towards solving the underlying problems. Allow me to digress for a moment and look briefly at the changing nature of refugee situations. In 1945, one of the first challenges facing the United Nations was to solve the problems of more than one and a half million refugees, prisoners of war and displaced persons in camps in Europe, and that was largely achieved by 1950. The residual refugee problem in Europe, when UNHCR was created by the General Assembly in December 1950, was mainly that of ensuring legal protection for the refugees - providing them with identity and travel documents, defining their rights to employment, education, health care and the like, either in Europe which was already regaining its prosperity, or overseas, through resettlement. It was believed, or at least hoped, that the first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees could complete his task in three years, which was the period of UNHCR's first mandate. But this was not to be the case. Things have changed since the fifties. Today, 35 years later, the Office is present on all continents and is managing assistance programmes in excess of five hundred million dollars a year. It has become one of the - major institutions of the United Nations system, but it still has a limited mandate, and it has no guaranteed source of income, having to ask each year for voluntary contributions.

The protection function of the High Commissioner is still the same as it was 35 years ago, but it has also developed. Today protection is increasingly equated in the minds of the public with the physical protection of refugees which is all-too-often powerless to provide.

The durable solutions mentioned in the High Commissioner's statute are still the same, but refugees are spending longer and longer in camps waiting for a solution that can open up a new future for them. Yet such solutions are increasingly elusive. Also, there seems to be a more and more generalized hardening of attitudes towards refugees both in countries of first asylum and of resettlement.

Thirty-five years ago refugees were, by and large, a European issue. Today's refugees are mainly located in the developing countries, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The phenomenon of massive exodus is the corollary of the world's political crises, sometimes compounded by natural disasters, as we have seen so tragically this year in Africa. Refugees and displaced persons all too often become pawns in those seemingly endless conflicts no matter how innocent they may be. Their legitimate aspirations are often twisted to justify verbal and even armed attacks against them. Yet as often as not, they are poor people, women and children, only seeking safety and succour.

Those are today's refugees - men, women, children, old people; villagers, farmers, tradespeople, students, professionals; running from danger, running for their beliefs or their ideals, only looking for a safe haven, a new life. I have seen them, in camps, in settlements, in schools, in churches and mosques, in many parts of the world, often far off the beaten track. In my mind's eye, I can see their faces today: African, Asian, Central American faces, looking to the horizon, through the dust and sometimes the barbed wire, looking for a ray of hope. That is what the High Commissioner for Refugees must try to give them. And when we have given even one single refugee that hope, and a possibility to begin a new life, we might say that we have made a contribution to peace.

It is almost a paradox that it has indeed been possible in the past 35 years since UNHCR was set up to help so many refugees, perhaps as many as 30 million. It is a credit to the United Nations that this humanitarian work has been funded and carried out - and we should all co-operate, as we do here in the Third Committee, to keep up this fine tradition and to make sure that it will continue to be a source of pride.

My Report, as usual, details the successes and the disappointments and points to the areas where we feel more must be done. In the field of international protection, we are happy to report new accessions to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees - 26 in the past eight years bringing the total to 97 - helping to make these indispensable instruments in the defense of refugees' human rights more truly universal. Unhappily, I am also obliged to draw attention to violations of refugee rights, cases of refoulement, abusive detention or rejection at frontiers of asylum-seekers, savage acts of piracy, failure of ship-masters to rescue refugees in distress on the high seas. I have mentioned the hardening of attitudes towards refugees and asylum-seekers in a number of countries, some of which have in the past always been amongst the most generous and hospitable. The xenophobic tendencies inspired by vociferous minorities in public opinion may be to blame. I trust that the round-table on xenophobia organized by my office last year, and the consultations on the arrivals of refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe held in Geneva earlier this year, may help to reverse this trend.

Another event to which I attach great importance was the Colloquium held in Cartagena, Colombia, late last year, which adopted a Declaration that I am sure will have a great impact on the future international protection of refugees in Latin America. The Colloquium brought together all the countries of Central America and the four members of the Contadora group; and it urged accession to and application of the international refugee instruments. These developments were welcomed by my Executive Committee, as was the study we have carried out on the irregular movements of asylum-seekers (the so-called "jet-age" refugees).

Throughout the years we have paid special attention to the particular plight of women refugees, both in the field of international protection and of material assistance. I am happy that, following the round-table we held this spring in Geneva, the subject of refugee women was given prominence at the Nairobi Conference that ended the United Nations Decade of Women, and that it was included in the forward-looking strategies adopted there.

As for durable solutions we have continued to pursue voluntary repatriation whenever possible as the best solution to a refugee problem. In Africa we have seen examples only in 1984-1985 of voluntary return from Djibouti to Ethiopia, from Rwanda, Sudan and Zaire to Uganda, to mention but a few. Refugees have returned in large numbers to Argentina and Uruguay with the restoration of democratic forms of government in those countries. Unfortunately, our efforts to promote voluntary repatriation in South-East Asia have only seen modest success. I am convinced that a considerable number of the refugees in that region, as elsewhere (and I think also of Central America and Western Asia) only aspire to return to their homes, their villages, if, at last, a political solution can be found.

For some refugees resettlement in other continents is the only answer. Many have stayed in camps for too many years. They desperately need a chance to resume a more meaningful existence. I would, therefore, urge the resettlement countries to maintain their present generous admission policies and ensure that the queue keeps moving, if possible even a little faster than at present.

Local settlement for both rural and urban refugees has long been the best of the durable solutions when voluntary repatriation is not possible. A relatively modest investment can pay big dividends in giving the refugees the wherewithal to become self-supporting as quickly as possible. In Africa we have numerous examples of rural refugee settlements becoming so productive after a few years that they actually export produce, locally or even outside the country. With the co-operation of other agencies, both within the U.N. system and the non-governmental voluntary agencies, training and job placement make it possible for individual refugees to become productive citizens.

We have pushed forward with this type of solution and, in association with institutions such as the World Bank, we are seeking to p that durable solutions for refugees, especially in low-income countries, can and should also be to the advantage of the host country - what we call forging the link between refugee aid and development assistance. ICARA II recognized the need to offset the burden placed on host countries with additional development assistance from which both refugees and nationals can benefit. I believe this concept must be vigorously pursued, despite the setbacks such as those caused by the African emergency. The refugee settlements themselves, particularly in the Horn of Africa, were no exception when the drought struck, and much of the work towards self-sufficiency will have to be started again from scratch. This emergency has hit the refugees and our programmes for them very hard. We have had to spend an extra US dollars 100 million this year just to save lives in Africa and indeed, thousands of lives have been saved. I would like in this regard to stress the great value we attach to the close co-operation we have had with a number of voluntary agencies and with sister-organizations in the U.N. family particularly with the Office of Emergency Operations in Africa (OEOA), headed by Mr. Bradford Morse. By presenting a coherent picture of needs to the donors, this mechanism has certainly proven its worth. We are now studying with OEOA how best to approach needs in 1986, bearing in mind that until now, UNHCR has also been assisting categories of persons who do not normally fall within my mandate.

I have mentioned money. Without it we can of course do nothing, and each year, in theory at least, we have to start from scratch. You are all aware, I am sure, that we are facing a deficit in funding our 1985 General Programmes. One of the reasons may well be that a number of donor Governments have had to divert funds to the African Emergency. We have had to cancel or postpone some activities - but of course not to the point of depriving refugees of essential services. Next year will also be a difficult one. When we come to our annual Pledging Conference on Friday, 15 November, I should like to urge all those Governments that have so steadfastly supported UNHCR's work over the years to make the maximum effort to pledge generously and to pay as early as possible in the year. The target for the General programmes for 1986 is some 330 million dollars as approved by my Executive Committee in October. The refugees count on this humanitarian support from the international community. We cannot abandon them.

We, for our part, are doing our utmost to make. Our assistance programmes as efficient and cost-effective as possible. In the eight years that I have been High Commissioner the office has grown enormously, because the refugee situations have grown and become so much more complex.

It has grown in money terms. In 1978 we spent less than 100 million dollars. Today, to cover our General and Special Programmes we have to find and channel to the refugees more than 500 million dollars a year.

We have had to adapt our structures and our management techniques to deal with new situations and increased costs, not only to make the most of every dollar for the refugees, but also to maintain the confidence of the donors. We have tried to do that with the smallest possible increase in staff: if the budget has grown by five times or more, the staff has only doubled. We have introduced modern programme management systems, electronic data processing, emergency and specialist support units. The bulk of our work is, of course, in the field, and we have taken a number of steps to strengthen the field establishment and thus reinforce our ability to respond to major new refugee situations.

In the past eight years we have opened a number of new offices: in Asia, in Africa, in Central America and Mexico, not for the sake of expansion, but because the refugees were there and our presence was needed, often a very modest one indeed. Here I would like to say a word about our staff. They represent more than 90 different nationalities, always recruited on the basis of merit alone. I know them much too well to call them superhuman. But they are indeed very dedicated. They often work in extremely difficult conditions, sometimes risky positions, for the refugees. I believe that they feel that it is a privilege to work for the refugees, to do this humanitarian, non-political work, which is sometimes life-saving work.

And that brings me to what I said a few moments ago, that this non-political, humanitarian work is a credit to the United Nations. That is the message I would like to leave to you, all the Member States in the Third Committee who have, over the years unanimously supported the work of our Office. You might ask: how can anything in the United Nations be non-political? I believe the fact that you have always approved the resolutions on my annual Report by consensus is ample proof that it is possible. I should like to thank you for that. And I would urge that the work of the High Commissioner be maintained, as it is said in the UNHCR Statute, "entirely non-political".

When you listened to the many speeches that statesmen delivered in celebration of the United Nations' 40 years, it became clear that their main preoccupations were political and economic problems. That is understandable. This organization is a forum where political and economic problems can and should be discussed. I have been participating in politics myself for many years. I have the deepest respect for political efforts to solve the problems. But it should not be forgotten that the United Nations has also taken upon itself a widespread humanitarian work. That cannot be done without the political framework of the United Nations; but the humanitarian work would be paralysed, indeed destroyed if we tried to politicize it. It is not always easy to come to a consensus. Nevertheless in the humanitarian field it is possible. Here you do see the nations united, they work closely together, and when it comes to UNHCR the consensus is the rule. In our Executive Committee we have never had a vote and the Member States are adamant not to have one.

When we celebrate the 40 years we should - in my opinion - not forget the ideas that the founding members put into the Charter and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. As an outstanding diplomat and foreign minister has said: "the declaration was an ideological victory, because it was a signal that respect for sovereignty ended at the point at which brutality offended the universal consciences'. We all know that national sovereignty is sacrosanct in international work. Is it not interesting then, that 35 years ago the United Nations decided that there should be a High Commissioner for Refugees - a spokesman with the duty to defend the individual refugee, often against a government? In my mind the United Nations can take pride in that fact. The nations were united in the decision that the human rights of an individual should be defended against a state. It shows that human rights here are considered to be above the sovereignty of a state - or that there is indeed a limit to the respect for sovereignty.

The idea of an independent United Nations spokesmen for refugees is essential and should be kept untarnished. Therefore, the work of UNHCR must be kept entirely non-political. The hands of the High Commissioner should never be tied with political chains. I am happy to know that the Secretary-General has clearly stated that the election of a High Commissioner for Refugees should never be politicized.

So that is my first point of importance: entirely non-political.

The second point is parallel or complementary: that the work for the refugees must be guided by genuine humanitarian principles. That is: we do not work for any state, not for any movement, not for any ideology. We work for the refugee, for the human being, for the individual. I am in the happy position of being able to thank all states for having accepted that.

UNHCR is a genuine child of the Charter and of the Declaration on Human Rights. It is a clear consequence of these ideas. Human rights are indivisible, that is, if they shall be valid for us, they must be valid for all. If we want to enjoy human rights, these rights are also the rights of the refugees.

My third point is again parallel to the first two: that it is indispensable for UNHCR to enjoy the confidence and trust of all States. We are impartial and we must be seen to be impartial. That is the condition for being able to work everywhere - on both sides of a border - for being able to talk to all governments. It is also the condition for being able to get the necessary funds. When UNHCR is receiving 500 million dollars a year, nota bene in voluntary contributions from about 100 countries, it is clear proof that we enjoy the confidence of donor countries. If UNHCR loses credibility, the work for the refugees will not get the necessary funds.

Because I have always felt that we have had the strong support of all the Governments, it has been a privilege for me, each year for the past eight years, to come to New York to present my Annual Report to the General Assembly. I do so now for the last time, confident that the humanitarian work for the refugees will continue to be an object of pride for the United Nations, and especially for this Third Committee, where we have always worked together in a spirit of dialogue leading to consensus. I would like to thank you all for that and wish you well in your deliberations.