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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Alumni Federation of Columbia University, The Rotunda, Low Library, New York, 15 May 1996

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Alumni Federation of Columbia University, The Rotunda, Low Library, New York, 15 May 1996

15 May 1996

Dear President, Alumni and friends,

It is a great pleasure for me to address you at the 98th commencement Luncheon of the Alumni Federation of Columbia University. I am very honoured today to have been chosen to receive a honorary doctorate of law of Colombia University. Among the numerous illustrious scholars and alumni of Columbia University I have the pleasure of counting many close personal friends. Columbia University has always held a special meaning for me. As a young Japanese political scientist I started my graduate studies in the United States in the early 1950s. In one way, I belonged to a new generation of Japanese who, following the end of the Second World War, came to study in the United States and learned about the generosity and openness of America and its people, in particular. But more importantly, we also learned about the world from a very different perspective: liberty, equality and democracy. Columbia University has always promoted these basic values through its teaching and scholarly research. Its Asia and Russia studies, its international relations and history departments, among others, have had a world-wide impact on scholars. I have been one of the privileged beneficiaries and wish to express my profound gratitude.

By bestowing this recognition on me today, you also pay tribute to the more than 5,000 UNHCR staff worldwide who work under often difficult and dangerous conditions. You are also expressing solidarity with the millions of destitute victims of war, conflict and human rights violations around the world. You are recognizing the plight of refugee children scarred by war, the innate strength of refugee women in adversity and exile. I thank you for that.

As you know, I have spent a significant part of my professional career in the academic world. Although I decided some five years ago to jump off the tower of reflection and research into the distressing world of human displacement and suffering, I have kept a keen sense of identity with academia. More than ever, I have come to realise the need for close interaction and discussion between researchers and policy makers. They live often in two different worlds, but decision-making or policy-building should bind action with knowledge, while knowledge should incorporate appreciation of realities.

Today, we live in a rapidly changing world. On the one hand, there is a growing trend toward globalization. On the other hand, there are equally strong forces of fragmentation. From the perspective of my Office, the forces of fragmentation are giving rise to insecurity, isolationism and civil conflicts, and cause the displacement of millions of people. Furthermore, there is increasing recognition that threats to international peace and security are not only external but also internal. Existing borders are not so much threatened by would be hegemons from outside, but by discontented ethnic, religious, national and political groups willing to take up arms to further their aims. To force one group of people to leave their country or areas of residence is often the very objective of the terror and fighting, as we have witnessed in Republics of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Burundi and the Caucasus. It is the civilian population which is targeted by the militia and warlords, carrying on fighting with little discipline or regard for human rights and humanitarian law.

Ensuring the "security of people", in contrast to the traditional concept of "security of states", is rapidly becoming a top priority issue on the global security agenda. How can the international community effectively intervene to protect the physical security of people within their own borders? Currently the response has been frequently left to humanitarian actors providing life-saving assistance and limited protection, but how far are governments and international political bodies ready to come to the rescue with strong political and enforcement measures when required? In the absence of an emerging consensus, I would like to challenge you, who represent the concerned and committed leadership of the United States, to address the question of how to assure the security of people not just in crises and conflict situations, but also how to build societies that could prevent security threats to the people to begin with.

From Afghanistan to Angola, from Togo to Tajikistan, from Rwanda to Russia, from Burundi to Bangladesh, in 118 countries around the globe, my Office is currently helping some 27 million people. Although the Office was originally established to help refugees who fled their home country, today we are caring also for those who have been displaced inside their own borders or have returned to their homes, in less than ideal conditions, and require our assistance and protection to start their lives again. Increasingly, we have to work in conflict zones, as in Burundi or former Yugoslavia. Our main concern is to make sure that people - most of them women and children - are safe, their basic human rights are respected and minimum material needs are met. This cannot go on forever.

I have just returned from an extensive six-day field trip through Eastern Slavonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. I undertook this trip to obtain a first-hand impression of the situation and to review with the authorities, the international institutions and my staff our plans for the return of refugees and displaced persons. Since the signature of the Dayton Peace Agreement, major positive changes have taken place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fact that I could travel by road throughout the country without problems illustrates the progress made. Life is coming back to the cities, small numbers of people are returning home, houses are slowly being repaired, and people of different ethnic groups are talking and seeking to reconcile their differences.

Under Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Agreement, UNHCR has been assigned the responsibility for the return of the 2.5 million refugees and displaced persons. We have reached a defining moment in the implementation of the Peace Agreement. How elections are conducted, whether and when people will be able to return, and how the rehabilitation efforts will take shape, will all determine to a large extent the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

IFOR has done an impressive job in separating peacefully the former military foes, and I have witnessed the difficult work accomplished by the US troops. The job of the civilian actors is now to bring the country and its peoples back together again. If the promise of Dayton is to materialize, four things must happen. First, the political forces of integration and reconciliation must be fully supported. Second, reconstruction must get urgently underway and the economy should be revived. People must see the dividends of peace, and quickly. About 63 per cent of the houses have been damaged, and in some areas the greatest obstacle to return is the lack of shelter rather than security. Third, the refugees and displaced persons must be able to go back to their homes, if they choose to do so. The return of people must be planned in a careful and gradual manner. If not, it may actually contribute to tensions and conflict. To achieve this objective, the parties must respect the right of freedom of movement and create conditions so that people can visit their homes. Fourth, free and fair elections must take place. The democratic election of civil and political leaders and the building of institutions will consolidate peace and form the foundations of a new civil society. But the right political and social conditions must exist, so that the displaced can exercise their right to vote in the communities in which they wish to reside. If not, the elections may contribute to the de facto creation of separate entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is clear that the road to lasting peace - that is to say, to reconciliation and economic revival as opposed to just the absence of war - will be long and arduous. There are many who would like to see an ethnic division of the country, and even others who are awaiting an opportune moment to restart the violence. Despite the relative security and stability achieved, an untimely withdrawal of IFOR may hamper, or even undermine, progress toward rehabilitation, reconciliation and the return of the displaced. After four years of bitter conflict, aimed at forcing people out of their homes, you cannot simply reverse the objectives of the conflict. It will take time to reconcile minds and souls and to rebuild dialogue.

Our greatest challenge in countries like former Yugoslavia, Liberia, Somalia, or Rwanda is to seize opportunities to rebuild civil society. In its own way, the United States has something to teach us in overcoming conflict. Its own history was marred by civil war and secessionist struggle. Your country has been built upon successive waves of refugees and migrants. You call some of the early settlers the Pilgrims, we would call them refugees. This century alone, the United States has given generous sanctuary to more than 2 millions refugees from central America, central Europe, the former Soviet Union, Indochina, Latin America and the Caribbean. Keeping the doors open to those in need of safety has been an important tradition of the United States. Why has the United States been able to absorb and integrate this rich amalgam of ethnic groups and religious traditions, whereas in some other countries people are breaking away? The answer must be found in the principles upon which American civil society has been founded: namely liberty, equality and democracy. These are principles conspicuously absent from many conflict-torn states.

To ensure the security of people of conflict-torn states, the international community must forsake the "band-aid" approach and vigorously address the causes. Leading nations, among which the United States, must show a stronger commitment to preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts in potential conflict areas. They must be more decisive in their action to arrest violence and ensure respect for humanitarian principles. The protection of human rights must receive greater emphasis in foreign policy considerations. States and individuals must be held accountable for serious human rights abuses. The creation of the international criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are steps in the right direction, but they must be given the means to exercise their mandate. States should be encouraged to set up democratic institutions, and to adopt laws and procedures which defend human rights and protect minorities.

These are formidable challenges. But if we fail to address these issues, whole regions of the world may become engulfed in civil conflict, as is the case in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire, threatening regional security and stability. The United States has always been a staunch supporter of UNHCR and is its largest individual contributor, amounting to some US $ 226.7 million last year, or 20 per cent of our total budget. I am very grateful for your support and leadership during this difficult financial period. Cutting down on international humanitarian aid would be tragic, just when the needs have never been higher. The casualties of such a policy would be the refugees returning home to Mozambique or former Yugoslavia. They would be victims twice: first of the conflict, and second of the lack of interest of the international community to help them start their lives again. Their villages have been devastated, their homes destroyed, their fields heavily mined. What kind of a future will they face without our help? Are we going to miss opportunities to bring durable peace to conflict-torn states because of short-sighted, narrow interests? What would have been the fate of western Europe if there had been no Marshall plan ? Or the future of my own country, Japan, without the massive economic assistance following the Second World War? We need to show the same courage and foresight today in rebuilding conflict-torn states.

Refugees are much more than images of despair crying out for charity. Like immigrants, they are agents of change, of cultural cross-fertilization, of development and innovation. Which society knows better than the United States the importance of granting sanctuary to those fleeing war and persecution? Had it not been for the talent and enterprise of the immigrants and refugees, would the United States have achieved its greatness today? Many of the faculty at Columbia University have been refugees from Europe. Without them, would Columbia University have achieved its high level of accomplishments?

I realise that my statement today has been rather serious and partly misplaced at such a joyous occasion. I believe however that Commencement ceremonies are not only celebrations of the achievements of a new Class of Columbia graduates, who have now joined the ranks of distinct Columbia alumni, but is also an opportune moment for reflection about the state of the world in which we live. The United States is a big country, big in geography but also in heart. America's support for refugees springs not only from the generosity of its national spirit, but also from its enduring love for liberty and democracy. With your support and your country's leadership, we will achieve a lot toward protecting people whose security is so much at risk.

Thank you