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Editorial Opinion: Comments by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on "Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action", by Barnett R. Rubin

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Editorial Opinion: Comments by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on "Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action", by Barnett R. Rubin

22 April 2003

Barnett Rubin's new book, "Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action", raises a number of important issues for all those involved in efforts to prevent situations of armed conflict.

I agree with Mr. Rubin that preventive action must be multi-faceted. There is not one simple solution or recipe. Both in my capacities as a former Prime Minister and as a Professor of Globalization, and in my current capacity as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I agree that the key is to put an end to the culture of impunity that has characterized so many situations of armed conflict. Democracy cannot flourish where there is impunity for those who commit serious crimes. In a world of interconnected democracies, states clearly have a common interest in reducing impunity.

As an economist by training, I must also agree with Mr. Rubin on the need to ensure that appropriate measures are put in place at the international level to combat all illegal forms of money-making, driven by greed. Blind and unqualified adherence to free market principles is inadvertently fuelling corruption and illegal trade in arms, minerals and other valuable commodities.

We tend to forget and ignore all too easily the negative consequences of excessive greed. Considering the number of cases in the USA recently of large companies being brought down by corruption scandals, it is indeed remarkable that there appears to be such a high degree of naïveté about what is going on in the world's less mature democracies. New financial regulations and control measures introduced since September 11 as part of the fight against international terrorism should be vigorously applied everywhere, to counter all forms of illicit profiteering driven by greed.

As High Commissioner for Refugees, I have a particular interest in the subject of conflict prevention, as there is a strong link between refugees and conflict. Indeed, refugees can be both a source and a consequence of conflict, and they can have a considerable impact on peace and security, whether at the national, regional or international level. It is widely recognized that unresolved refugee crises can give rise to instability and renewed conflict. UNHCR as an organization has much to offer in terms of activities which are related to conflict resolution and conflict prevention. In this context, I would like to draw attention to four recent cases where I believe that UNHCR has contributed positively to international efforts to prevent or reduce violence and to build sustainable peace.

The first case concerns the Balkans. In two separate conflicts in southern Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in 2001-02, UNHCR's Special Envoy, Eric Morris, was proactive in helping to ensure the introduction of mixed local police forces, consisting of both ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians. In both places, this proved to be a key factor in putting an end to inter-ethnic violence. Morris also negotiated with the political leadership in Belgrade, and succeeded in getting President Kostunica's government to acknowledge that there was a historical pattern of discrimination against the Albanian minority population in southern Serbia. On the basis of this, UNHCR and the government were able to put together a package of confidence building measures to address the legitimate concerns of the Albanian minority. This eventually resulted in a cessation of hostilities and the return of thousands of displaced persons. In FYROM, UNHCR's presence in conflict areas, alongside European monitors and NATO troops, helped to build confidence between communities. As a result, almost all of the 170,000 people uprooted by the fighting in 2001 have now been able to go home. UNHCR also helped to address problems regarding personal documentation and lack of effective citizenship for ethnic minorities. This was crucial for the success of the peace-building process.

The second case concerns West Africa. Early in 2001, UNHCR's efforts in Sierra Leone complemented those of the UN peacekeepers and the British troops, who were successful in reducing the amount of territory controlled by the RUF [Revolutionary United Front]. The conflict - and particularly the RUF's military activities - had already resulted in many Sierra Leonean refugees fleeing to Guinea and Liberia, where many faced harassment and where others were cut off from any outside support. As High Commissioner, I came to the conclusion that two key principles needed to be respected in the region: safe access to refugees (for humanitarian organizations), and safe passage for refugees (so that those who wanted to could return home). These principles had an impact on the overall peace process, as they brought the humanitarian dimension of the crisis to the fore. The acceptance of these principles by the RUF was the beginning of the solution. A strong peace enforcement operation was the sine qua non for this to happen, but on its own, it is quite possible that the British and UN military presence would not have been able to encourage the more moderate political wing of the RUF to take part in the peace process.

The third case concerns Afghanistan. As soon as the Taliban regime was defeated, UNHCR began to facilitate a large-scale repatriation operation. More than 1.7 million refugees returned in 2002 alone. UNHCR has also played a crucial role in promoting and facilitating the establishment of a national Return Commission. This clearly has a state-building dimension, as it puts the Afghan government at the centre of the process of refugee returns. The Commission will have a broad membership, and it is significant that it will include leaders of the northern factions as members. The UNHCR Representative in Kabul, Filippo Grandi, also continues to play a crucial role in negotiating with leaders in the north of the country, and in trying to introduce policies and practices that may help put an end to abuses committed against minority groups. The aim of this is to create conditions for the safe return of refugees and internally displaced people belonging to these groups. Depending of the availability of funds, UNHCR also plans to initiate assistance programmes fostering the peaceful coexistence of divided communities.

The fourth case concerns Colombia. In a visit to Colombia at the end of last year, I emphasized in the clearest possible terms to President Uribe that his goal of creating a strong government has to be complemented by visible and credible efforts to improve the human rights situation and to address, as a matter of priority, the needs of the internally displaced, who are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the country. A three-pronged approach of this nature is vital for peace and sustainable development. The dialogue with President Uribe was productive, and this gave new impetus to UNHCR's work with the internally displaced. My Office recently played a central role in developing the UN Humanitarian Plan of Action for Colombia, which has been endorsed by the Colombian government. The Plan aims at enhancing the protection of the internally displaced and at preventing further displacement. It includes activities which are complementary to existing Colombian government peace efforts.

One could easily expand further on each of these cases. What they illustrate is that complementary efforts are needed if one is to be successful in putting an end to ongoing conflict and in preventing the outbreak of renewed conflict. UNHCR is typically described as a "humanitarian" organization, but in fact its work has many dimensions. These include not only protection of refugees and the search for durable solutions to their plight, but activities related to conflict prevention, the ending of ongoing conflicts, and post-conflict peace-building efforts, including rehabilitation, reconstruction, reintegration and reconciliation efforts. Ultimately, all of UNHCR's work concerns the upholding of basic human rights, albeit for specific categories of people. In other words, UNHCR is an integral part of the United Nations' efforts to prevent violence and promote peace and security.