Talking points for Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the "Dialogue on Mainstreaming Human Rights in the United Nations" Forum, Geneva, 16 March 1998
Persecution, conflict, serious violations of human rights are the main reasons why 13 million refugees have had to flee their country. In addition, millions of people are displaced inside their own countries.
When massive and rapid displacement of refugees takes place, we are called upon to respond to their emergency needs. Think of Rwanda, Burundi, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Liberia, Afghanistan. The list is long and the human suffering intolerable.
In the last few years, the international community has strengthened its emergency response capacity and mechanisms. However, as we look to the next 50 years, and seek ways to mainstream human rights, we should examine the causes that lead to humanitarian crises and identify measures that will bring solutions.
Protection of people fleeing persecution and conflict across borders is the core of my mandate and responsibility. By protection I mean not only legal protection but also physical safety. It involves the provision of basic substance such as food, water, shelter, and health measures. Protection also means the assurance of a whole set of rights as contained in the Universal Declaration. Thus, the protection of refugees is part and parcel of the human rights system.
The core of refugee protection lies in the granting of asylum. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration states that, "everyone has the right to seek and enjoy, in other countries asylum from persecution". This Article is of utmost concern to the mandate of my Office.
I wish to plead for three points:
First, that the right of asylum be upheld and respected. Without the institution of asylum, victims of torture and genocide have nowhere to flee. Increasingly, borders are closed, legal barriers erected, and asylum-seekers detained, preventing them from finding safety. How can I appeal to countries facing a massive refugee inflow which pose a heavy burden, when wealthy countries close their doors to relatively few asylum seekers?
Second, I ask for tolerance and understanding of refugees and asylum-seekers. We need to de-dramatise and de-politicise the asylum debate. Do not let racists and xenophobes set the agenda. Nor turn it into an election issue.
Third, I wish to insist that asylum be upheld as a precondition in the search for solutions to humanitarian emergencies. As the Holocaust proved, asylum can make the difference between a "final" solution or a "sustainable" solution, be it returning home when possible or settling in a new country.
From my perspective, our goal during the next fifty years should be to mainstream respect for human rights among all peoples. The United Nations through forums, like this one today, and actions should be ready to serve not only member states, but also various communities and peoples in the world in strengthening their own ability to observe and protect human rights. If these objectives are attained, the United nations would have done well in fulfilling its human rights mission.