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Closing Remaks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-ninth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 9 October 1998

Speeches and statements

Closing Remaks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-ninth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 9 October 1998

9 October 1998

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank all the delegations who have participated in the 49th Executive Committee meeting, and those who have contributed to the general debate. I am also grateful to Mr Sommaruga, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, for his inspiring remarks. My special thanks go to the Bureau, the Secretariat, the Conference Services, and to you, Mr Chairman. Your hard work has been invaluable in making our discussions more productive and meaningful.

Participation in the Executive Committee session and in related meetings has been, once again, very broad. The number of member and observer States, and of UN, international, regional and non-governmental organizations which sent delegations this year is an impressive 244. Interest in refugees is growing. This is positive and encouraging. It is also a sign that refugee problems, more than ever, are a mirror of our times - of their political, social and economic trends and events. I was struck by the great variety of subjects discussed. The issues facing returnees in Guatemala are very different from the plight of the recently displaced in Kosovo, or from the problems of the Somali refugees hosted for many years in neighbouring countries. Yet, clearly, there are some concerns that we all share. None of them is more evident than the continued and indeed increasing need for international protection for all those forced to leave their homes by violence and persecution.

The diversity of problems indicates that we must be creative in seeking solutions. The common concerns mean that these solutions must be based on a universal spirit and shared effort, which I have referred to as global solidarity. And because our concerns are essentially of a protection nature, I wish to repeat again what I said in my opening statement: global solidarity must be firmly rooted in refugee protection principles.

I am pleased that most delegations strongly reaffirmed their commitment to refugee protection and clearly stated that sharing the "burden" of refugees means first and foremost sharing responsibilities towards them. Many delegations also said that the cost of carrying out such responsibilities was a factor to which the international community pays insufficient attention. I subscribe to this view. In most cases, it was expressed by countries which have given asylum to large groups of refugees, often for decades. Not only do we have to recognize this, we must also do more to help these countries shoulder their responsibilities. One delegate rightly said that the focus of our theme, this year, is on refugees, and not on resources. This is true, but resources, indeed, must remain an essential element of this discussion - and in a very broad sense: the political, social and environmental consequences of the successive refugee crises in West Africa, the Great Lakes region and in the Horn of Africa, or of the Afghan refugee influx in Pakistan and Iran, for example, have been as substantial as their economic cost.

Although our means are limited, and we cannot redress all the imbalances that will continue to exist, UNHCR can be - if I may say so - an instrument in trying to improve the sharing of refugee responsibilities. We can do so by providing material assistance, but also support in the areas of legislation, training, education and public awareness. Working, as we do, at the grassroots level, we can help foster dialogue between divided communities and bring people together. I am very pleased that many Delegations, in my individual meetings with them, requested more cooperation in these areas.

Concerning the role of my Office, I would like to make three remarks.

First, some Delegations stated that we should concentrate on our protection mandate, and expressed concern about the possibility of an imbalance in favour of material assistance activities. I wish to repeat here what I have said many times. To consider protection and assistance as two separate spheres of work is an artificial distinction. Anybody who has visited a refugee camp knows, for example, the protection value of a food distribution system in which women play an active role. Giving out plastic sheeting in Bosnia or the former Zaire helped people survive the cold and the rain, but it also enabled UNHCR and NGO staff to have direct access to refugees and displaced people: ensuring protection in the full sense of the word was certainly very difficult, but without such access it would have been impossible. This said, I am encouraged by the unanimous recognition of the unique protection role of UNHCR. I wish to assure you that all our activities, without any exception, will continue to have as their foremost objective to ensure the protection of refugees, of returnees, and, whenever necessary, of other victims of forced displacement.

Second, I am concerned by the doubts expressed by some delegations about our role in returnee reintegration activities. I wish to reaffirm that our involvement in this crucial phase of the displacement cycle has been requested and recognized in the past by this Committee. Stabilizing returnees in the phase immediately following large repatriation movements is an indispensable contribution to the reconciliation of divided communities, and, as such, to post-conflict reconstruction. Although limited in scope and time, it can also have a preventive value in avoiding further displacement.

Our efforts in this area have indeed been hampered by what I consider a growing gap between humanitarian and development assistance - a gap upon which many of you have indeed elaborated. I believe, however, that we should move the focus of the discussion from the rather abstract definition of respective mandates to the concrete identification and creation of realistic linkages. UNHCR does not want to do development work and has no expertise in this area. Our objective is to ensure that immediate humanitarian needs are covered, so that the reintegration process has solid bases. We also hope that development partners can intervene quickly and effectively, something which is often made difficult by the fact that they are not present on the ground during the conflict, and lack resources during the post-conflict phase.

UNHCR is becoming increasingly involved in situations where the humanitarian/development gap is a major problem. I wish to therefore confirm the commitment of my Office to promote efforts aimed at bridging this gap. This is - I believe - a duty that we have towards countries emerging from years of conflict, and at the same time receiving large numbers of returnees. The delegation of Liberia provided an example which should make us think: there are refugees who return home, find no infrastructure and no support for their efforts to rebuild their lives, and leave the country once more - this time, I should add, to an even more uncertain future. To avoid this, as another delegation pointed out, we should even go beyond traditional models of international cooperation. Many channels, and many tools are available - multilateral and bilateral assistance, humanitarian and development funds, international and non-governmental agencies, and also - I hope - private sector resources. Let us be flexible and creative and combine them in ways adapted to the great variety of post-conflict situations. This, I believe, is one of the priorities of global solidarity.

Third, I was quite pleased to note that many of you - perhaps most of you - referred positively to past initiatives aimed at creating an international framework for solutions to refugee problems. ICARA, CIREFCA and the Comprehensive Plan of Action were mentioned many times. I was encouraged by the support of a large number of delegations to new and on-going initiatives, particularly the regional return strategy in the former Yugoslavia, the processes set in motion by the Kampala regional meeting on refugees and the CIS Conference.

In the former Yugoslavia, although the focus will understandably be on Kosovo for some time - and it should be, given the gravity of the situation there - international support should continue to be made conditional to the acceptance and promotion of minority returns to Croatia and to all parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the Great Lakes region, the international community should demand respect for international law and condemn its violations; at the same time, regional solutions to ethnic and displacement problems must be urgently sought and promoted.

I am glad that all of you have said that humanitarian problems can only be tackled successfully within the framework of political solutions. The time has come to give a concrete meaning to this statement, which we have heard too often, just to find ourselves once again in situations such as Kosovo or Sierra Leone. In many crises we continue to operate without such a framework. This is especially true in Africa, where - as we have heard even here, in this humanitarian forum - most new conflicts have recently occurred, or may occur. And in calling once more upon the international community to take a more determined, decisive role in preventing wars in all regions, let me stress in particular that it is imperative that the on-going conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, and Kosovo be brought to a swift end. The outbreak of new or renewed conflicts must be prevented as they will inevitably cause more suffering to innocent civilians.

The context is undoubtedly more difficult than it was a few years ago, but, as one delegation told me, it is important that we do not "lose the habit of cooperation". In fact, it will be necessary to cooperate even more closely than in the past. Many of you have mentioned the urgent need to tackle issues such as the trade in small arms, the continued plague of landmines, the problem of human trafficking. In different ways, these are all important factors aggravating displacement crises. Solidarity, one could say, has to be global also because its enemies know no boundaries.

In a different context, I was pleased to note that some delegations from industrialized countries reported improvements in asylum procedures, which may speed up the process of determination of refugee status. I hope, as I said in my opening statement, that this welcome development will not continue to be coupled with a trend towards restrictive interpretations of refugee law, resulting in the denial of the right to asylum to many who deserve it. Developments in Kosovo make me think that this issue will unfortunately remain a topical one in Europe for some time.

I would also like to thank those delegations - and there have been a few - which announced an increase in refugee resettlement quotas. As I said in my opening statement, resettlement is a powerful protection tool. Not only does it provide a better future to thousands of refugees who would have no such opportunity otherwise, it can also actually save their lives.

Last but not least, let me express my gratitude to governments which pledged additional financial support to UNHCR. I wish to reiterate here my request that we work together towards establishing a flexible and predictable funding base. This will be indispensable to our work in the future. And speaking of resources, I was pleased to hear in your statements many positive comments on our efforts to continuously improve the ways we manage them. Such efforts will continue and will be one of the priorities of my next mandate. As I said on Monday, I will be particularly mindful of your recommendations to develop better mechanisms to monitor, inspect and evaluate our activities. In particular, we shall implement our decision to improve evaluations so that they can be shared in a more useful and effective manner with governments and other interested bodies. The Inspector, Mr Amunategui, informed you yesterday in more detail about our plans in this regard.

And finally, I wish to thank all of you for having congratulated me on my re-election as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Your warm appreciation is very, very encouraging. Let me convey it to all those who work with refugees every day, especially in difficult and dangerous field locations: our government counterparts, our partner agencies, my own colleagues in UNHCR. Their contribution helps all of us share more easily the only burden I wish to speak about as such: that of being concretely responsible for the lives of some among the most vulnerable and exposed human beings in the world.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.