Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 58th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 20 March 2002

Speeches and statements

Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 58th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 20 March 2002

20 March 2002

(Check against delivery)

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

As High Commissioner for Refugees, all my work relates to the protection of human rights, albeit for a specific group of people. Indeed, I believe that refugee protection is one of the most fundamental of all human rights, for the minimum right that anyone can ask for is the right to flee and the right to be welcomed somewhere.

Let me begin on a positive note. The 1951 Refugee Convention, as you know, lies at the heart of UNHCR's work. In December last year, as part of the process of Global Consultations on International Protection, a meeting of States Parties to the Convention and Protocol took place in Geneva. This was the first such gathering of States Parties in five decades. Attended by 162 States, including 76 represented at Ministerial level, the gathering adopted a landmark Declaration of States Parties which breaks new ground in a number of areas. The Declaration recognizes the 1951 Convention as a human rights instrument, and acknowledges its enduring importance as the primary refugee protection instrument.

The importance of this Ministerial Declaration should not be under-estimated. A few years ago, the Convention was under attack. A number of States were arguing that it was out of date. This is no longer the case. Now, no one is questioning the Convention's continuing relevance and validity.

As I reported to the Commission last year, the Global Consultations process, which was set up to reflect on how to revitalize the international framework for refugee protection, has been a unique consultative process. It has brought together representatives of States from all regions of the world, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, academics and refugees themselves. This important process, which will be brought to an end later this year, will generate an Agenda for Protection for the years to come. This will contribute greatly to the effective protection of refugees, asylum seekers, returnees, stateless people and other people of concern to my Office.

Still, while progress has been made in developing international law and setting standards, we continue to be confronted with new challenges, such as the recent allegations of sexual exploitation of young refugees in West Africa. There is no question that sexual exploitation is a very real problem, not only in West Africa but in many other countries as well, as has been documented by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch in the past. But I am particularly alarmed that humanitarian workers, including UNHCR staff, may have been involved in such acts - using their positions to extort sex for food and other commodities. The scale of any involvement of individual humanitarian workers in sexual exploitation is not clear yet, and the list of allegations may be grossly exaggerated, but even if there were to be only one case, it would be one too many. There is absolutely no place in the humanitarian world for those who would prey on the most innocent and vulnerable of the world's refugees - the children. There must be zero tolerance.

UNHCR commissioned the study on sexual violence and exploitation in West Africa together with Save the Children (UK), and we will ensure that every effort is made to address this issue. As I said, the number of allegations made against specific individuals and organizations by the consultants who carried out the study might be exaggerated. The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) is in the process of carrying out an investigation to verify the allegations. But, for me, the point is that action is needed anyway. We have therefore begun implementing a plan of action to enhance the protection of those who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. We are also working to ensure that the survivors of sexual exploitation are provided with appropriate care, including access to counselling and health services. In addition, we are proceeding with the drafting of a strict code of conduct for staff. We must ensure that all humanitarian workers adhere to the highest standards of conduct.

There are many different types of sexual exploitation today. UNHCR has a particular responsibility where this exploitation amounts to persecution and creates new refugees. We have seen this most recently in connection with the trafficking of women for sex, as part of the new phenomenon of global - highly lucrative - criminal smuggling and trafficking of people. Not all trafficked women are refugees, but some clearly are, and this should be appropriately recognized in the asylum procedures of receiving States.

In the middle of last year I instructed my staff to review specific areas that need to be addressed through our programmes to better protect the rights of women. In this context, I made five concrete commitments to refugee women. One of these was to develop integrated country-level strategies to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence. I am continuing to closely follow the progress which is being made to implement these.

Mr. Chairman,

The tragic events of 11 September have added a new dimension to the work of my Office. UN Security Council Resolution 1373 calls on States to work together to prevent and suppress terrorist acts. It also calls on them to prevent terrorists from abusing the asylum system. This is consistent with the 1951 Refugee Convention, which specifically excludes persons who have committed serious non-political crimes. My Office fully supports the efforts by governments to ensure that perpetrators of terrorist crimes, who seek to abuse the asylum channel, are promptly identified and dealt with.

At the same time, let me add words of caution. In taking new counter-terrorism measures, we must ensure that governments avoid making unwarranted linkages between refugees and terrorism. Genuine refugees are themselves the victims of persecution and terrorism, not its perpetrators. Security Council Resolution 1373 must not be used, therefore, to deprive innocent people of their basic rights.

Refugees and asylum seekers have for some years been the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are now particularly vulnerable. In the current climate, there is a risk that refugees and asylum seekers may become convenient scapegoats and may be unfairly victimized. We must not allow the global fight against international terrorism to weaken the international refugee protection regime. Refugees and asylum seekers must not be discriminated against because their religion, ethnicity, national origin or political affiliation are perceived by some to link them to terrorism. Governments must avoid resorting to the mandatory or arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, and to procedures that do not comply with the standards of due process. Detention of asylum seekers must remain the exception, not the rule. Resettlement programmes must be maintained, and must not discriminate against people of particular ethnic groups or nationalities.

Last year, in my first address to this Commission, I stressed the need for tolerance and respect for refugees. Today there is even greater need for this, and I would like to renew my plea for us all to work collectively towards a culture of respect, tolerance and compassion. The Durban Conference set up a number of important signposts that should guide us in these endeavours. In this context, it is vital to ensure that we continue to fight against all forms of xenophobia and intolerance in our societies. Above all, we must ensure that refugees - who have already been persecuted once - are not victimized twice.

Mr. Chairman,

In a speech to the US Congress in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. UNHCR's work relates to all of these in different ways. It relates most obviously to the last of these: freedom from fear. But it also relates to the first two, which are grounds for refugee status, as recognized in the 1951 Convention. This is not to say that our work does not also relate to the last of these: freedom from want. On the contrary, as you know, millions of refugees and other displaced people live in the most degrading conditions of abject poverty. They are often accommodated in remote, economically marginalized and insecure areas, where they are given few opportunities for self-sufficiency and where they become almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. And this humanitarian aid is going down. It is simply not being adequately funded.

The abominably low levels of assistance being provided by the richest countries to the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the world cannot be allowed to continue. As the International Conference on Financing for Development begins in Monterrey, I believe that it is important to flag this as a crucial human rights issue. I believe that we, in the international community, must ask ourselves whether or not we are violating the human rights of refugees and other vulnerable people by not providing them with enough assistance for them to live with a minimum of dignity. As Mary Robinson said in her opening statement, it is critical that the outcome of Monterrey contributes to the greater realization of the right to development.

This is a human rights issue. But it is also a security issue. For how can we live in a world without crime, and how can we live in a world without terrorism, if we do not address the critical need to ensure freedom from want? Injustice, poverty, conflict, ignorance and disease - all these contribute to general instability. We live in a globalized world, and we cannot afford to turn our backs on countries and places severely affected by any of these. On the contrary, we must make every effort to address the conditions that lead to despair and breed hatred and violence in the first place.

It is bad enough that today one fifth of humanity consumes four-fifths of global income. But on top of this, to allow humanitarian programmes aimed at assisting some of the world's most vulnerable people - refugees - to remain grossly under-funded year after year, is shameful. I would therefore like to endorse the appeal which has been made by James Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank, for a doubling of global development assistance. It is worth noting that this would cost a mere 0.2 percent of the income of rich countries.

To summarize, we should not hide the shameful facts: many refugees are victimized twice. First they are forced to flee from violence and persecution. Then, when they turn to the so-called developed world, they are often portrayed as "phoney" or "bogus" refugees. Yet when they stay in refugee camps, they are confronted with unacceptably low levels of assistance. This, to me, is a violation of human rights.

Thank you.