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Briefing by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 10 November 2000

Speeches and statements

Briefing by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 10 November 2000

10 November 2000
Between people and statesPeace operations in a changing security environmentPeace-building needs more attentionEstablishing security partnerships for refugees

Mr President,

Thank you for inviting me, once more, to brief the Security Council. In six weeks, after ten years, I will leave office, so it is for the last time that I speak here today as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Therefore, rather than elaborating on specific regional crises, I will take this opportunity to give you some "food for thought", looking back at the experiences of the past turbulent decade; and reflecting on the future of refugee work - in particular, on its relationship with this body, the most important forum where issues of peace and security are discussed and addressed.

Between people and states

Mr President,

I briefed the Security Council for the first time eight years ago. Since then, I have met with the Council quite often - if my records are accurate, this is my twelfth briefing. Over the years, refugee issues have also appeared on the agenda of the Council more regularly and frequently. This proves the obvious. The nature of contemporary wars - primarily internal and inter-communal; their intensity; and their objectives - especially the brutal expulsion of entire communities from specific areas - mean that conflicts, today, are inevitably the main cause of mass exodus. Internal conflicts and refugee flows, in turn, have become a threat to peace and security, across borders, in many areas.

More than ever, refugees and wars are inextricably linked. My first briefing to the Council was in 1992, when the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia was displacing millions of people. It was less usual than today that a humanitarian agency would be asked to speak before the Security Council - and it was the tragedy of ethnic cleansing which placed the United Nations refugee agency - whose mission is to serve people - at the centre of the political debate on peace and security.

Over the years, I have observed the interface between the political and humanitarian spheres grow and evolve. I have not ceased calling for political support for humanitarian crises. I have repeated, countless times, that humanitarian action can only address - not resolve - political problems. I have given much thought to the relationship of humanitarian and political bodies. Bridging the gap between the pressing, often dramatic interests of the most vulnerable and deprived people in the world, and the legitimate concerns of states, has been the crucial theme of my decade at UNHCR.

My central question to you, today, is therefore the following: what do refugees need from the Security Council? What does the UN refugee agency expect from the body responsible for addressing peace and security problems, in order to fulfil its core mission - to provide effective protection to refugees, and find durable solutions to their problems?

I would like to elaborate on, and make concrete proposals in two main areas: peace operations, and peace-building. Let me begin with peace operations.

Peace operations in a changing security environment

As we have said many times, the nature of war has changed. But the concept of peace operations may still be based on the assumption that wars are fought across clear-cut frontlines. And in spite of discussions on wider approaches, peace operations continue to be country-based, and reflect neither the internal nor the regional nature of many of today's wars. You will appreciate that we at UNHCR ask ourselves such questions as an agency dealing - precisely - with forced population movements across blurred conflict lines, and across borders.

We deploy our own staff - unarmed humanitarian workers - to dangerous and isolated duty stations; they are increasingly targeted and - as in the terrible September incidents of Atambua and Macenta - attacked and brutally killed; the gap in time between the beginning of humanitarian activities, and that of peace operations, continues to widen; last, but certainly not least, in many places, like West Timor, Guinea and Liberia, forced population movements have become the cause and conduit of grave insecurity and instability, and little is done to address the problem - as if we had learned nothing from the lessons of the former Eastern Zaire.

Mr President,

This is a situation that worries me deeply. In most parts of the world where UNHCR and its humanitarian partners are called upon to operate, mechanisms to address security problems are slow-moving, unwieldy and not adapted to the new type of conflicts. In many places, they simply do not exist. Among my most vivid memories is the rescue operation that we set up in the former Zaire in 1996 - when all deployment of international forces failed, our staff had to go and search for scattered, hungry and terrified refugees in the rainforest of that vast country, sometimes even on foot.

I am aware of the difficulties - in political terms, in military terms, and in terms of resources. But there are a few points that I would like to raise, and a few suggestions that I would like to make in this respect.

Let me insist first of all on the need to initiate and implement peace operations much more rapidly. The issue of timing, frankly speaking, is one that has not yet been satisfactorily addressed by governments. We know that peace operations will inevitably be slower than the humanitarian response. In refugee emergencies, UNHCR, other UN frontline agencies (especially UNICEF and WFP), the Red Cross movement, and NGOs, will continue to be the first ones on the ground. But if there has to be complementarity in this endeavour, we must do all that we can to reduce the gap between the deployment of humanitarian personnel, and the implementation of some security support measures. Otherwise, the cost is simply unbearable, as proven by the catastrophic consequences of inaction in the successive Great Lakes crises, for example; or by the recent murders in Indonesia and Guinea.

We, at UNHCR, have become used to being called to confront refugee emergencies literally at a few hours' notice. We have no choice: delays, in our work, inevitably mean that lives are lost. Since 1992, we have therefore progressively built systems to respond, quickly, to sudden, massive population movements. These systems are based, essentially, on the concept of stand-by resources that can be mobilised and sent to the field within 72 hours - staff, equipment, goods, money.

Since 1992, however, the environment has changed rapidly - political pressure for quick solutions to refugee problems has increased; and there is a growing number of humanitarian actors, including sometimes government themselves. The Kosovo refugee crisis, last year, proved that we had to adapt our existing emergency response systems to a new and more crowded humanitarian space - and the area on which we are focusing in particular is to upgrade our surge capacity to address refugee emergencies at a very short notice.

But no matter how rapidly and effectively humanitarian agencies mobilise, their response will be inadequate unless the environment in which they operate is not secure. I am speaking both of staff security and, from UNHCR's point of view, of the security of refugees, and of the communities hosting them.

There is today an increased awareness that humanitarian agencies should not be left alone to confront difficult and dangerous situations. The question is, how do we ensure that? I have often spoken - also in this room - of the need to look at different options: not only full fledged peacekeeping, but also and especially measures intended to support local law enforcement capacity.

I insist on the word support - this is the key concept, and it implies working together, as opposed to straightforward intervention. I am also referring to very specific situations - especially insecure border areas in and around refugee sites. And I am thinking of relatively simple measures: assisting the judiciary; training the police and military; supporting the police with logistics and communication; deploying, if necessary, liaison officers to work as co-ordinators and advisors. We have some such programmes - and they are working reasonably well - in western Tanzania, in the area hosting refugees from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We need your support for similar programmes in other critical spots - in Guinea, for example, whose government has requested international co-operation in addressing security problems in the areas bordering Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The response of governments to the concept of a "ladder of options" to improve local security in refugee-inhabited areas has been very positive, but has remained - so far - in the realm of theory! It is urgent that we take steps to operationalise it and to implement concrete, predictable measures, for example the deployment of "humanitarian security" staff. We need to know what contributions may be forthcoming - in human, material and financial terms - and, again, how quickly they will be available.

Mr President,

I have insisted so far on "intermediate" security measures because I know that in most situations peacekeeping is simply an unrealistic option - but I also believe that the transition which has started with the end of the Cold War has not yet ended, that new (or renewed) conflicts will flare up in different regions, and that the international community will have to maintain peace after very fragile cease-fire agreements are signed. Peacekeeping, therefore, will continue to remain necessary - but to remain relevant, it will have to adapt to the new environment, and become much more effective.

We in the humanitarian community have welcomed the initiative of Secretary-General Kofi Annan of an in-depth review of peace operations. We have been among the most eager supporters of the Brahimi Panel report, and are participating very actively in the discussions on its implementation.

The report is very important and courageous in its attempt to discuss comprehensively, and in a broader context, how the United Nations can fulfil its key function to help maintain peace and security. But from a more specific, operational, humanitarian perspective, the report is also extremely relevant to UNHCR and its partners, particularly as it sets out a few objectives which - if achieved - would provide crucial support to humanitarian action: it stresses the need for quick decisions in responding to crises; it gives priority to quick fact-finding missions to the field; it underlines the importance of identifying, and pursuing, early solutions; and it places great emphasis on presence in the field. These are crucial aspects of the report - the importance of which UNHCR has advocated for years. They are also, by the way, basic elements of any humanitarian deployment. They clearly show the affinity - if I may call it so - between humanitarian action and peace operations, and the need to refine their relationship and mutual support.

UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have large programmes in post-conflict areas, where peacekeeping is vital - think of Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, just to mention a few. Without peacekeepers, we could not have worked, nor continue to work effectively in those areas. On the other hand, I am pleased that in discussing the concept of preliminary assessments, the role that is played (and can be played) by humanitarian, field-based agencies has been recognised. It is very important that these agencies are seen as complementary to peace operations, and not just as other actors who happen to work in the same areas. In my 1992 briefing to the Security Council, I said that humanitarian action was becoming "dynamically linked to peacekeeping and peace-making". We were then learning important lessons from our close co-operation with UNPROFOR in Bosnia. I am pleased that now, the United Nations are finally trying to make this concept a concrete reality.

But speaking not only from a humanitarian, but also from a refugee perspective, I would like to take this opportunity to go beyond the conclusions of the Brahimi Panel report.

Look at West Africa, for example. There have been, as you know, cross-border attacks in both Guinea and Liberia - in areas hosting refugees, and indeed because of the presence of refugees. Beyond Sierra Leone's borders, however, the only presence of the international community, amidst half a million refugees, is humanitarian, because UNAMSIL's mandate is of course limited to Sierra Leone. Yet, not only are humanitarian workers seriously at risk in border areas of Liberia and Guinea - but there is also a very real danger that the Sierra Leone conflict will spread, and that refugee flows will be one of the conduits of this propagation. The conflict, in simple words, may become regional - but the response, as I have said, continues to be country-based.

I understand of course that to expand peacekeeping beyond a country's borders presents many political hurdles and problems of resources. Sierra Leone is itself a good example of the difficulties encountered by a large operation in an area of relatively low strategic interest, with uncertain prospects, and high risks. The issue of insecurity spilling over across borders from countries in conflict, and affecting in particular areas hosting refugees, however, should be examined and factored into strategies for such operations.

West Africa is a case in point, but the matter is broader, and particularly serious in Africa - the Burundi, Congo and Angola conflicts, for instance, pose similar problems. I would like to make a proposal. Could peacekeepers, in situations of refugee flows which may become "carriers" of instability, be given a special, cross-border observatory mandate - in a word, monitor areas hosting refugees beyond the borders of the country in which those peacekeepers operate? Refugee-hosting countries, of course, would have to agree - but it would be in their interest, because this "expanded" concept of peacekeeping could address some of their own concerns in terms of security and stability.

Had we had this form of support, say, in West Timor, maybe the events of last September could have been avoided. Such an arrangement would have also been useful in the former Eastern Zaire in 1994-1996 - and perhaps some of the subsequent violence and instability could have been prevented.

Peace-building needs more attention

Let me now turn to the second important area on which I want to focus - peace-building. For years we have been saying that unless more attention is devoted to the consolidation of institutions and communities after conflict, peace will not hold. UNHCR, of course, has a very special interest in this process because of its mission to ensure that refugees return home and settle down in safety and dignity. And we have had very difficult experiences in countries emerging from conflict, with large numbers of people returning, and resources rapidly dwindling after emergencies have subsided - as in Rwanda, Liberia and Bosnia, just to mention a few examples.

Its focus on peace-building truly makes the Brahimi Panel report very complete - once more, however, we should shift into operational mode and look at how we can be as comprehensive in action as we are on paper. I will speak, again, from the perspective of the UN refugee agency. Our problem, as I have said many times, is that we do not have the resources, nor indeed the expertise, to run development programmes - and yet, development agencies are slow to come once emergencies have ended. There is a gap between emergency, short-term humanitarian activities and the implementation of medium to long-term development and reconstruction programmes. During this gap, societies can unravel again very easily, and conflicts re-start.

I have personally made efforts to co-ordinate a joint initiative with two key international development partners of UNHCR - the World Bank and UNDP. This initiative, which was launched in January 1999 under the auspices of the Brookings Institution, has become known as the "Brookings process". We aimed in particular at filling the gap in funding, and the gap in responsibilities and operations. In some countries we have initiated interesting and creative projects, for example with the World Bank in war-affected areas of Sri Lanka. In others, such as Sierra Leone, we have made proposals for pilot projects involving all three agencies. We are now examining opportunities elsewhere - Burundi, if a peace agreement is eventually implemented, would be a possibility. On our side, we have made great efforts - yet, the response by governments and organisations has been very timid, and raising funds for post-conflict activities remains a very difficult and uncertain exercise. I must tell you that I am disappointed by the limited response to our work in this area.

For us at UNHCR, peace-building is not an abstract concept. We see the concrete, sometimes desperate needs of returnees in devastated areas or in areas where communities continue to be deeply divided. We are doing our part to address these needs. In the 80s, we initiated "quick impact projects" for emergency rehabilitation in areas of return. In some places, we were criticised for having gone beyond our mission - but in countries like Rwanda, for example, could we have afforded to withdraw, when returnees still lived under plastic sheeting? When schools had no roofs, no books, no teachers?

We are now going further and exploring new avenues - particularly in the promotion of community coexistence as a first step towards reconciliation. We have launched a pilot project, in returnee areas of Rwanda and Bosnia, called "Imagine Coexistence", and consisting essentially of support to small, community based inter-ethnic income-generating activities, around which we would like to build clusters of other activities branching off into the community - sports, theatre, culture, dialogue. This is one of the innovative approaches that we are taking. But its impact, once again, will be limited, unless there are more rapid and comprehensive efforts towards peace-building at various levels.

One crucial issue, which I would like to mention before concluding, is that of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration. UNHCR is particularly anxious that effective DDR contributes to the creation of a safe environment for refugees returning home. Without any doubt, DDR is also one of the areas in which UNHCR expects more decisive action by the Security Council. In their great potential, and in the obstacles which undermine them, DDR programmes reflect all the contradictions of peace-building.

I see two problems which need to be addressed in particular: first, the roles and responsibilities of all actors involved in DDR related activities must be clarified; second, there must be stronger focus on reintegration, because disarmed and demobilised soldiers, if they are not given opportunities for a future, will go back to more lucrative military activities. These are not small matters - and, unless they are addressed seriously, little progress will be achieved in this important area.

Establishing security partnerships for refugees

Mr President,

The last ten years have proven that, if they are not part of a comprehensive political and security approach, humanitarian workers face dangers, are less effective, and even risk aggravating humanitarian crises. What we must establish, at different levels, are what we could call "security partnerships for refugees" - joint ventures between states hosting refugees, those ready to provide resources, and humanitarian organisations like UNHCR. In my briefing today, I have spoken of practical ways on how to promote such partnerships - by containing insecurity linked to refugee crises; improving peace operations; and focusing more decisively on peace-building.

Through "security partnerships", together, we can create a better security environment, in which refugee protection and solutions can be more effective. This is an essential, if very complex, task. My successor, High Commissioner-elect Ruud Lubbers, has the experience and the stature to carry it out with energy, courage and creativity.

I trust that the Security Council will give him the same strong and constant support that I have enjoyed in this chamber for the past ten years; support for which I would like to express once more my deep personal gratitude.

I do so, Mr President, also on behalf of my colleagues, and of all the uprooted people they so bravely work with in some of the most dangerous areas in the world.

Please continue to help them.