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Address to staff by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, delivered at headquarters on 19 December 1979

Speeches and statements

Address to staff by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, delivered at headquarters on 19 December 1979

19 December 1979

Dear friends and colleagues,

Let me tell you how greatly I welcome this opportunity of seeing you all and of exchanging views on our immediate and longer-term preoccupations. During the informal gathering we had at the close of last year, I expressed my feeling that 1978 had been one of the busiest years for our Office. As we all realize now, 1979 has been even more demanding. Thus, I would like to recall some salient features of the would refugee problems this year, and some of the landmarks in the Office's activities, which in themselves are important and help explain why we are becoming a much larger and different organization than heretofore.

Firstly, it is encouraging to note that voluntary repatriation of refugees and subsequent rehabilitation in countries of origin, tend to become a current component of our overall activities. UNHCR is called upon to act when international agreements are reached, when disputes are settled, when tolerance is restored.

During 1979, refugees, in large numbers, returned to Burma, to Nicaragua, to Zaire, to Angola. Refugees are returning to Uganda, movements back to Equatorial Guinea are just starting and UNHCR stands ready to assist with the return of Zimbabweans. The possibility of voluntary return to Laos is being explored. If there are to be sources of comfort in an organization facing distressing humanitarian situations day after day, voluntary repatriation is one.

Among other positive developments, I would like to mention the varied forms of support received from the international community towards the solution of refugee problems, or towards a better understanding and knowledge of issues at stake. In this respect, the Conference on the situation of Refugees in Africa, held in Arusha in May of this year, was a milestone and a fundamental basis for our future activities in Africa. The Geneva Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South East Asia, convened by the Secretary-General and in which our Office had a key role to play, was another important venture which produced very practical results. Today, almost 1,000 persons a day are being resettled from the area. Support was received in October from the Executive Committee, in which nine new members, from four continents, participated for the first time. Support was also expressed in the Third Committee of the General Assembly in November, where, once again, the resolution on the High Commissioner's Report was adopted by consensus and many words of praise were said about the staff of UNHCR.

Among important positive developments, I should also mention the opening of a UNHCR Office in China and the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding on 30 May with the Vietnamese authorities regarding the programme for the orderly departure from Viet Nam of family reunion and other humanitarian cases. Last, but not least, let me mention that we were able to meet the revised target of US$ 178 million, a considerable figure, set for the 1979 General Programme.

But now we must turn the coin. In the introduction to the last Executive Committee Report on UNHCR Assistance Activities, it was stated that in 1978 the number of new refugees and displaced persons averaged 2,000 per day. We know that in 1979 this figure is even higher. In Somalia, the influx remained very high throughout the year: it is estimated that there are 442,000 refugees in camps today. In the Sudan and Zaire, tens of thousands of new Ugandan refugees have arrived this year. In South East Asia, the "boat people" tragedy had at one point taken on appalling proportions: the peak month was in June 1979 when, in that month alone, 70,000 arrived in ASEAN countries. Numbers have dropped following the acceptance by the Vietnamese authorities, at the July meeting, of a moratorium on illegal departures. A delicate situation which must be monitored carefully. Arrival of Laotians into Thailand continues, while some hundreds of thousands of Kampucheans, perhaps 700,000 are on the Thai-Kampuchean border, fleeing conflict and famine, assisted by UNICEF and the ICRC until they cross into holding centres in Thailand away from the border, and thus become UNHCR's responsibility. 111,000 have arrived in holding centres so far. In Thailand, a UNHCR Regional Office Kampuchean Unit has been set up to deal with this particular problem. This situation has so far been the main concern of the Senior Co-ordinator whom I have appointed, to help face the complexities which have developed in the whole area. A Kampuchean Unit has also been established at Headquarters.

If we now turn to Pakistan, there are, according to the authorities, some 350,000 refugees from Afghanistan, the majority of whom arrived in 1979 - the influx continues.

I have taken only a few of the most striking examples of developing refugee situations which involve severe hardships or intolerable human suffering. You know that there are many more - but this is not the place for an overall review.

In the light of what I have said so far, I would now like to turn to UNHCR in itself. UNHCR is growing rapidly and has become a large organization. Just one year ago there were slightly over 750 staff members. The one thousand one hundred mark has just been exceeded and, in addition, some 120 new posts will be created as of 1 January 1980. I spoke earlier of the volume of our General Programme for 1979 - $ 178 million, which has been originally estimated at $ 88 million, but had had to be increased twice to respond to demands. The target for 1980 is $ 234 million. Taking possible requirements under the special programmes into account, the total financial requirements for 1980 are likely to be in the order of $ 350 - 400 million. These are figures and they are impressive.

No wonder. UNHCR is more in the limelight than ever before. This means a greater deal of praise or criticism, from the most varied quarters, justified or unjustified. The magnitude and intricacies of refugee problems, their close links in certain areas with general economic and development problems of asylum countries, the strong political overtones of certain situations, have largely contributed to the further intensification of our relationship with the United Nations Secretary General and his Office, with the Organizations of the U.N. system, and with a greater network of voluntary agencies than heretofore. Also - and most important - protection has continued to be a vitally needed function, often of a very delicate nature.

The result of all this? Certainly a very heavy workload for a highly deserving cause. Also, a constant endeavour to maintain and improve our capacity of response, and reaffirm the strength of our mandate and responsibilities. A necessity for an optimum distribution of our existing staff resources, and a careful selection of new staff. An imperative need to maintain the confidence of all those, and notably the governments, who give us their support. We know that we are not perfect. Even our successful operations, some of which I mentioned earlier, had their negative aspects.

I strongly hope that the Policy, Planning and Research Unit, the creation of which I announced on 22 October - and for which candidatures have now been called - will give a valuable boost to a thorough and constructive analysis of our activities, and will pay the necessary attention to lessons of the past, as well as to valuable suggestions from the staff.

I should now like to turn to working condition and career development. There is no doubt that sound policies in these fields, as well as in the field of recruitment, while meeting legitimate aspirations of the staff, can only have a positive effect on the overall dynamism, efficiency and motivation which must prevail in UNHCR activities. Policies in staff matters must be kept under review, as demanded by developments. Obviously the staff representatives must be associated with this process. I shall now take up a few points which - I understand from my recent contact with staff representatives - are of immediate concern.

Working conditions in the field come naturally to mind as a priority. Of course, we have the constraints of the Staff Rules and the U.N. Common System, and the search for improvement within this framework must be constant. I believe the time has come for a systematic survey of conditions of service in the field, especially of internationally recruited staff, that is the staff liable to rotation. Problems in the field are challenging and I know that many of you far prefer to work where the refugees are. But in certain countries the conditions are, frankly, unattractive. I cannot, of course, prejudge the conclusions of the survey, but I hope that they will be practical and action-orientated and thus pave the way to improvement. I expect to be able to announce the launching of the survey and to explain its main aspects very shortly.

I have just mentioned staff rotation. Needless to recall why rotation and assignment of staff is fundamental in our organization. In consultation with the staff representatives, a formula is being devised to ensure that, to the greatest possible extent, staff movements are properly planned and fair rotation between Headquarters and the field is ensured. Naturally, owing to the very nature of UNHCR's work, unforeseen demands will continue to require emergency movements. But the policy in respect of staff movements must be clearly defined as well as the modalities of its implementation. I am aware that the creation of a "Postings Committee" is seriously envisaged and that proposals as to its composition and functions have been worked out. I shall study this in detail as soon as possible so as to set a suitable procedure in motion. Turning to the Appointment and Promotion Board, I shall not revert to the recommendations relating to procedures and criteria, which are being finalized by an ad hoc Working Group and by the Board itself. I am aware that numerous aspects can be constantly improved to enable the Board to fulfil its functions in the best possible way. In a rapidly growing office like ours, this is by no means an easy task. We will have further opportunities of reverting to specific points with the staff representative. What I wish to say at this juncture is that I will give early attention to the possibility of having more than one board, which might give a number of advantages in terms of fairness and efficiency. Certainly the considerable delay we have just experienced - for reasons beyond our control - in dealing with General Service staff would be avoided. I wish to recall that, in view of these circumstances, promotions approved will, as a rule, be retroactive to 1 October 1979.

Finally, I should like to turn to recruitment. As I said when I spoke to a number of you on 22 October, the question of recruiting staff on as wide a geographical bases as possible must be pursued, and further efforts must be made for recruitment to take place in all regions. Today, over 38% of our professional staff are from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Recruitment from these continents must continue and be reinforced. I only hope there is no misunderstanding on the institutional basis for this approach. This is to be found in Article 101.3 of the United Nations Charter which stipulates that "due regard shall be paid to the importance of recruiting staff on as wide a geographical basis as possible". But we are not included in the geographical distribution system of the United Nations. This I must say, is clearly an advantage. Under the system, in which a formula allocated each Member State a number of posts, Latin America is entitled to less than 8% of the posts, the whole of Africa to some 10%, the United States to 20%. Fortunately, we can give more weight to developing countries.

Of course, all recruitment must remain subject to the paramount necessity of serving the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity. This is also in the Charter, in the same article. Furthermore, according to the UNHCR Statute, staff shall be appointed by the High Commissioner and chosen from person devoted to the purposes of the Office.

I most certainly do not believe that the criteria I mentioned can more easily be met by nationals of any one group of countries or region. We must, therefore, make, as indeed we are making, special efforts to recruit staff from developing countries. We should also clearly recognize that the better staff structure must be across as wide a spread of countries as possible. It is not sufficient of count to have the right balance, but between nationalities of only a few countries. I would mention one additional factor: the need to recruit more women. Between otherwise similarly qualified candidates, we are giving priority to women.

These were the main topics in relation to personnel about which I wished to give you my thoughts. I would also add that I am giving attention to the question of Special Post Allowances (SPAs) and employment of retired staff members. However, I will not elaborate further on this at this stage.

Before closing, allow me to thank you all most warmly for your work during the year. I am well aware that many staff members in both the professional and general service categories work most intensely, beyond the call of duty, and - especially in the field - under stress and in harassing circumstances. It is heartening to see that the staff are indeed preoccupied by the refugees in distress who place their confidence in us. May the new year bring the refugees some relief and hope for the future.