Governments endorse global action plan for refugees
3 October 2002
GENEVA - Delegates from the 61 governments that make up the UN refugee agency's Executive Committee on Thursday endorsed a detailed strategic framework that deals with many of the most controversial issues in the current global asylum debate.
The "Agenda for Protection" is the result of an unprecedented and exhaustive process known as the "Global Consultations." Initiated by UNHCR, the consultations spanned the world over the past 20 months. They involved a wide array of government specialists, non-governmental agencies, academics, judges and other refugee experts - including refugees themselves.
The Agenda for Protection is prefaced by a landmark declaration, issued last December by a meeting attended by 127 of the 144 signatory states, including 70 at ministerial level. The declaration renewed the states' commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and confirmed its place as the cornerstone of international efforts to protect refugees. At the same time, it recognized that the Convention does not provide all the answers to today's problems. The declaration also contained a number of recommendations that fed into the main body of the Agenda for Protection - its 'Programme of Action.'
Addressing governments on the eve of their endorsement of the document, UNHCR's Director of International Protection, Erika Feller, stressed that the Agenda for Protection "is not an abstraction, but is directly relevant to the management of today's asylum dilemmas." It sets out clear objectives, grouped according to six main goals, and outlines a number of specific activities designed to support them.
Feller pointed out that the topics grouped under the six main goals include some of the most pressing challenges of today's world of refugees. These include measures for preventing sexual and gender-based violence; improving the protection of women and children; maintaining the civilian character of refugee camps; clarifying responsibilities for refugee protection during rescues at sea; and strengthening individual asylum systems and procedures that are often cumbersome and prone to abuse.
Feller said UNHCR itself had already begun to implement some of the measures contained in the Agenda, even before it was officially endorsed and despite the constraints imposed by UNHCR's repeated funding crises.
"It is difficult to make protection a meaningful concept where one field officer has responsibility for three refugee camps," she pointed out, while adding that the agency had nevertheless found ways of deploying specialists to boost urgent protection activities in understaffed locations.
She also stressed that the Agenda was not just a strategic policy document for UNHCR, but also "a framework of actions by states" to ensure that refugee protection is maintained in today's complex environment.
Feller noted that when discussing the problems of refugees, "we are in the first instance talking about human rights problems.... At the root of many of the dilemmas confronting the protection of refugee rights today lies not the regime of rights itself, but rather some confusion about how to determine who is responsible to protect these rights."
"States must bear their responsibility," she said, adding that the combination of lack of accountability, shortage of resources and failure of state responsibility were systemic problems that needed urgent attention.
The Agenda for Protection should prove to be "a key tool" to remedy failings in the global system, and "give needed direction to the process of defining who is responsible to do what, and when," Feller said. "Our common task is now to give substance to its vision."