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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and the New Zealand United Nations Association, Wellington, 18 July 1996

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and the New Zealand United Nations Association, Wellington, 18 July 1996

18 July 1996
UNHCR's Traditional FunctionsUNHCR's Evolving RoleIn A Changing International ContextInvolving Major New ChallengesConcluding Remarks

Let me start by thanking you for inviting me to speak to you today. I am deeply honoured by the opportunity to address your renowned Institute and the United Nations Association.

The invitation to address a foreign relations' Institute bears witness to the fact that issues of forced displacement have in recent years risen sharply on the international agenda, and that humanitarian action aimed at managing such displacement has moved beyond the realm of charity. It is now recognized as a necessary part of the international response to crises, and sometimes it is, I am afraid, the only or main response.

Having been asked to speak about the role of UNHCR, I shall first describe our traditional functions and then explain how our role has evolved, particularly in light of international developments since the beginning of this decade. I shall conclude my statement by formulating a number of challenges for humanitarian action in the years to come.

UNHCR's Traditional Functions

My Office was established by the General Assembly in 1950, to provide international protection to refugees and to seek "permanent solutions" to their plight. According to UNHCR's founding Statute the organization's work is, I quote, "humanitarian and social" and "entirely non-political". The Statute defines refugees as persons who are outside their own country "owing to well - founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion ...". Since 1950 the international community has, however, progressively endorsed UNHCR's competence to deal with refugees fleeing from war and other situations of generalized violence. These account for the majority of refugees today, although many are fleeing from combinations of both persecution and armed conflict.

Traditionally, UNHCR has two clients: the refugees and the Governments of the countries where they seek admission.We often have to serve as an honest broker between the two. As only States are in a position to provide physical safety to persons fleeing from danger, the primary responsibility for international refugee protection is theirs. UNHCR's protection is more of a diplomatic and legal nature, aimed at supporting and overseeing asylum States in the discharge of their primary responsibility.

In practice my staff provide legal counselling to refugees; they give expert advice to Governments and, where applicable, to the Courts on the factual and legal justifiability of refugee claims; they lobby with parliamentarians; they advise on the establishment of proper procedures; they support local NGOs; they promote accession to refugee and human rights treaties; and across the globe they intercede with Government authorities, police chiefs and army commanders, to prevent rejection at borders, the forcible return to countries of origin or unlawful situations of detention.

As these practices are unfortunately on the rise, UNHCR's independent protection mandate has become all the more relevant. It is uniquely reinforced by the explicit attribution to my Office of a supervisory duty in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which treaty is often cited as a Bill of Refugee Rights and has meanwhile been ratified by 132 States. These have rightly recognized that refugees having lost the protection of their own country, are vulnerable and deserve special international attention.

Our second function, to promote durable solutions to the problem of refugees, focuses on the ultimate goal of ensuring that refugees will again become full and independent members of society. Sooner rather than later international protection must be replaced by full national protection. While local integration into host communities has enabled many refugees throughout history to rebuild their lives, voluntary repatriation has increasingly been recognized as the preferable solution. When neither repatriation nor local integration is feasible or advisable in a particular case, resettlement to third countries is another option. New Zealand for instance, has cooperated with my Office in resettling refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam and more recently from Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq, for which I am extremely grateful.

UNHCR's third task, although not mentioned in its Statute, is to assist Governments in ensuring the material well being of refugees. As most refugee flows of the past decades have occurred in developing countries - where they almost invariably hamper development and tax the environment, UNHCR rapidly acquired the additional role of coordinating material assistance, that is shelter, water, food, health care, and community services. Our contribution, which is funded entirely on a voluntary basis, is viewed by States as an instrument of international burden sharing. In practice we manage refugee camps, which can vary in size from a few thousand in central America to 250,000 in eastern Zaire. Where possible, assistance strategies are aimed to help refugees to help themselves, and to be of benefit also to local communities.

UNHCR's Evolving Role

These are our traditional functions. Over the years, and especially as a result of the large scale crises of the nineties - northern Iraq, Somalia, former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, UNHCR's work has, however, expanded considerably. Let me mention the main characteristics of this evolution.

First, the number and type of beneficiaries has sharply increased. We are now responsible for 26 million people. In addition to refugees, these include people who have returned but are not yet fully re-integrated, stateless persons and especially many groups of people forcibly displaced within their own countries. In order to undertake protection and assistance activities in favour of the latter category, we depend, however, on a specific request by the Security Council, the General Assembly or the UN Secretary-General. At the same time we try to obtain the agreement of the Government concerned. The expansion of our activities has led to an increase in our staffing to 5,400 and in our budget to 1.3 billion USD.

Second, our work has become more diverse. During the nearly four years of war in Bosnia, we organized together with UNPROFOR, the humanitarian airlift to Sarajevo and convoy operations to other besieged cities, thus preventing the often deliberate starvation of Bosnia's population, including 1.1 million internally displaced persons. At the same time we tried to ensure that those fleeing abroad were admitted to safety. Often forced by the circumstances, our protection work has become more innovative, using new concepts such as temporary protection in Europe, or new methods, such as initiating the Zairean security contingent to preserve a minimum of order in the Rwandan refugee camps. We try to reduce the ecological damage in asylum regions. I could give you many other examples.

Third, our approach has become more pro-active and solutions oriented. Although the humane management of refugee emergencies remains a core activity, we try to make meaningful contributions to the prevention and early resolution of situations of forced displacement. Our increased presence in countries of origin enables us to deploy assistance and protection activities on both sides of the border, aimed at attenuating circumstances leading to flight and at helping refugees and displaced persons to return in safety and dignity. As an impartial organization we try to initiate dialogue between countries of asylum and of origin, we negotiate amnesties and we monitor the implementation of safety assurances for returnees. We also participate in the rehabilitation of returnee areas through the re-building of homes, hospitals and schools or other quick impact projects.

Fourth, we are cooperating with a wide range of new actors. Whereas traditionally our partners were the UN sister-agencies and local and international NGOs, they now include, especially in the context of peace building and repatriation operations, human rights monitors, election experts, reconstruction entities and international military forces. Right now we are cooperating closely with the Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia. We are also expanding our ties with regional political organizations, such as the OSCE, the OAU and ASEAN.

In A Changing International Context

The evolving role of my Office must be viewed against the background of a rapidly changing international environment. During the Cold War the international ideological divide, which had fuelled, if not caused, many conflicts in the developing world, influenced in many ways the protection and solutions offered to refugees. For example, until the internationally agreed Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) of 1989, the Vietnamese boatpeople were automatically accepted as refugees and resettled in capitalist countries. The end of the Cold War paved the way for the resolution of many primarily political conflicts and for large scale refugee repatriation. The return of 1.7 million refugees to Mozambique, and of 300,000 refugees to Cambodia, which in both cases was organized by my Office, are prominent examples.

At the same time, the improved superpower relations enabled a greater readiness on the part of the international community to save human lives during conflict. As a result there have been in - country humanitarian assistance operations (Somalia) or forcible humanitarian interventions (northern Iraq, the Zone Turquoise in Rwanda) or combinations of both (relief and the protection of "safe areas" in Bosnia). These efforts were in varying degrees inspired by genuine feelings of compassion, strategic interests to prevent the spill-over of conflict, and the increasing wish to contain refugee outflows. Some of these operations came late, as was the case in Rwanda, or have had, for various reasons, only mixed success. In my view they nevertheless signal a major positive development: even though the conflicts in question were primarily internal, in excessive circumstances the international community proved to be no longer prepared to standby and watch. The concept of state sovereignty has become far less absolute than in the past.

Furthermore, the international community has on several occasions shown more interest, through the United Nations and, increasingly, regional organizations or groups of States, in peace making and in post-conflict peace building. All these are hopeful trends. For my Office, the increased attention in international relations to the material and physical security of people within their own countries offers the hope that less people will be forced to flee and that more people will be able to return to their homes in peace.

Involving Major New Challenges

However, as you know, the demise of the bipolar world has been accompanied by an upsurge of ethno-political conflicts, leading to a severe weakening of state structures and even to state fragmentation. These conflicts present formidable challenges to UNHCR and other humanitarian actors, on which I should now like to briefly concentrate.

First of all they have produced massive and often extremely rapid displacement, both across and within borders, forcing us to strengthen our emergency management capacity as well as inter - agency coordination. Secondly, communal conflicts with deep rooted political and socio - economic causes, and exacerbated by the worst atrocities, prove to be difficult to resolve in a lasting manner, and in a way that offers traditional and just solutions to refugees and other victims. These solutions are particularly difficult to achieve, when forced displacement or even extermination has been the very objective of conflict, of one side or another. That is the problem with respectively Bosnia and Rwanda today. Both are cases of political and group conflict, in which peace building amounts, albeit in varying degrees, to the huge challenge of nation, or better, community building.

For some time now my Office is trying to implement the return, on a voluntary basis, of 1.7 million Rwandan refugees and of 2 million Bosnian refugees and internally displaced persons. However, their return, which should be humanitarian, is highly political: in peace time, refugees continue to be hostage of political objectives. In the case of Bosnia, the right to return to one's home, enshrined in the Dayton Peace Agreement, is blocked by those leaders who try to pursue in peace their goals of war, i.e. ethnic division. In the case of Rwanda, preventing repatriation of the Hutu refugees is an objective of those who perpetrated the genocide, who are not prepared to accept defeat and who now keep them as virtual hostages in the refugee camps.

I am afraid that in future one of the dominant questions for UNHCR, and indeed for the international community at large, will be: how does one achieve the peaceful re-integration of refugees and displaced persons in countries with a politically and demographically changed landscape, when there is not or not yet a compromise solution for group co-existence? Under which circumstances is the re-mixing of populations possible, following ethno-political conflict? Which imaginative concepts and methods can the international community design to prevent, manage and resolve such conflicts, and which principles would underpin these?

The changing international context and UNHCR's broader involvement with issues of forced displacement, including in countries of origin, give rise to many other challenges. In many places we operate in dangerous conditions. We have increasingly been obliged to deal with non-state actors, in situations where little or no respect is shown for international rules and standards. Humanitarian actors are often labelled as either too impartial or not impartial enough.

In the field of asylum, growing patterns of mixed migration to developed countries, for both economic and political reasons, distort the picture in the public eye and tend to complicate an effective but humane response. Restrictive asylum policies are on the rise, and can lead to a simple closing of the door. More in the developing world, many refugee populations are being used as political and even military pawns, which seriously undermines both the humanitarian character of asylum and regional security. And how should we approach the phenomenon of refugees repatriating to insecure conditions, for example because the pressure and insecurity in asylum countries is deemed to be worse than back home?

However, one of the greatest challenges we face is what could be termed as the politicization of humanitarian action: it should not be accompanied by, or worse: facilitate political inaction. I am extremely grateful for the support that humanitarian operations have received in recent years, including from the Government of New Zealand. But still too often, humanitarian action has to perform in a political vacuum, when insufficient efforts are being made to tackle the causes of conflict or when other, more resolute action would be required to halt the violence.

Concluding Remarks

I have come to the end of my statement. There is one, unwritten function I have not yet mentioned, but which may transpire from the foregoing. We try to be humanitarian advocates of all those millions who are forced to flee from violence and persecution. As such I should like to end with the following. First, some of the greatest challenges of the coming years will be ensure more effective protection to civilian populations, including internally displaced persons, during conflict. Second, at the same time it is as vital as ever that the institution of asylum for those fleeing across borders be upheld. And third, tangible preventive initiatives and sustained and well - coordinated efforts to help re-build war-torn societies will, I hope, rise on the international agenda.

Ladies and Gentlemen, all of these points require a strong collective will, which transcends domestic concerns in the interest of international order and solidarity. There can be no true globalization, if solidarity, such as right now with the people in Burundi, is not part of it. In spite of the difficulties we experience in places like Bosnia, we must not only keep up the increasingly global involvement, but expand it. As experts in foreign affairs, I sincerely hope that you will support all efforts, whether humanitarian or otherwise, to enhance the security of people wherever they are.

Thank you.