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The Nansen Memorial Lecture, presented by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4 October 1990

Speeches and statements

The Nansen Memorial Lecture, presented by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4 October 1990

4 October 1990
"Love of Man is Practical Policy""Lack of Alternative is a Strong Incentive for Human Action""Nansen Passport": a Framework for International ProtectionRefugees: a New Challenge in a Changing WorldGlobalization. Interdependence and SolidarityOur Ambitions

"Love of Man is Practical Policy"

It is seventy years since Fridtjof Nansen, as Norway's delegate to the newly formed League of Nations, began his humanitarian crusade on behalf of victims of persecution and conflict. He faced a world still suffering form the ravages of the First World War and the political upheavals which followed it, forcing millions to flee into exile or become displaced in their own country. With idealism, vigour, humanity and vision Nansen pursued his unshakable conviction that mankind must be spared the recurrence of such devastation and misery. His life remains an inspiration for us all today. As we find ourselves facing the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing world, we would do well to study the life of this great explorer, diplomat and humanitarian, for guidance in tackling the problems of the dispossessed. Nansen's accomplishments were so various and so clearly demonstrated his personality, that I feel it would be useful for us to remind ourselves today what an extraordinary man he was.

"Lack of Alternative is a Strong Incentive for Human Action"

Fridtjof Nansen was born in Christiana, now the city of Oslo, on 10 October 1861. As a boy he showed an insatiable curiosity and determination to follow things through. As a young man, he won national championships in speed skating and cross-country skiing - no small deed in Norway, I can assure you. His interests and talents were so diverse that he had great difficulty in choosing his area of study when he entered the University of Christina. He finally decided on zoology but also continued to find time for his love of drawing and later illustrated several of his own books.

In 1888, at only 27 years of age, Nansen led his first Arctic expedition. His plan was a daring one - he planned to land on the inhospitable east coast of Greenland and make his way across the icecap to the west coast. As there would be no ships on the east coast he calculated there could only be one way to move: to go forward. This clearly illustrated Nasen's all-or-nothing attitude. "Lack of alternative is a strong incentive for human action", he later wrote, and it is a statement which we would do well to remember today in our approach to refugee problems. After great efforts in temperatures 50 degrees below zero, Nansen's expedition finally reached the west coast.

On his return to Norway, he received a hero's welcome, but already he was preparing for his next project: the Fram expedition. This time he wanted to test the theory that a strong arctic sea current flowed from east to west, over the North Pole. The expedition took 3 years and demonstrated Nansen's determination to succeed, his power of organisation and his quest for knowledge. His research during the expedition provided new and invaluable information on the arctic region, which would be used by scientists for many years.

As a scientist and explorer, Nansen had acquired such stature and was so deeply respected by his countrymen for his qualities of leadership that the move from explorer to statesman did not take long. The opportunity came in 1905 when the union between Norway and Sweden broke up. In this difficult period, Nansen played a key role in promoting the cause of independence for Norway while at the time acting as a moderating factor. Using his diplomatic skills and his prestige, he helped to obtain world recognition of Norway as an independent state.

When the League of Nations was created soon after World War I, Nansen saw in it a new hope for peace and reconstruction of a devastated Europe. He was now given a new task, a task to prove that the League of Nations was not just an idealistic concept but a practical tool for improving the lot of mankind. For him, "Love of man was practical policy". One of his early humanitarian achievements on behalf of the League was to negotiate and organise the repatriation or relocation of half a million prisoners of war from 26 countries. At the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross, he set up the International Russian Relief Executive to provide relief to famine-struck people in Russia.

But there was more to come. The destruction during the War and the political and social upheavals in its aftermath had left behind one and a half million refugees and displaced persons, including Russians, Greeks and Armenians. So many countries were involved in the problem that it was necessary to have a focal point for coordination. Thus, with a foresight which is striking in the light of today's experience, the League of Nations appointed Nansen as the High Commissioner for Refugees and the focal point for the coordination of relief efforts for the mass movement of people.

"Nansen Passport": a Framework for International Protection

A major task facing him was to provide the refugees with identity papers, which would give them a legal status. Nansen proposed the issuance of certificates and these "Nansen passports", the forerunner of today's Convention Travel Document for refugees, enabled thousands of stateless persons and refugees to travel and to settle in other countries. He himself persuaded governments to accept quotas of refugees.

One of Nansen's most remarkable achievements was the resettlement of Greeks and Turks. In 1922, several hundred thousand Greeks fled to Greece from eastern Thrace and Asia minor. Nansen proposed an exchange of population, as a result of which half a million Turks moved from Greece to Turkey. The League of Nations provided compensation to the Turks who left their homes in Greece, and loans to enable the Greek Government to reintegrate the Greek refugees arriving from Turkey. This scheme of population movement and settlement was without precedent and took eight years to complete, but it succeeded.

In 1922, Nansen received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of refugees and displaced persons.

Even in his final days, Nansen continued to work for peace and rehabilitation, helping to secure a convention against forced labour in colonial territories and to prepare for a disarmament conference. But by the time the League adopted a resolution convening the conference, Nansen was longer there. He died on 13 May 1930, in his home near Oslo.

Refugees: a New Challenge in a Changing World

Today, we are enjoying the benefits of the diverse accomplishments of Nansen in scientific research and in humanitarian work. In the refugee area, the rudiments of international protection, first conceived by Nansen, has developed into an elaborate legal framework. Nansen, the practical idealist who believed so fervently in the importance of international co-operation, would be heartened, I am sure, to see the universality that humanitarian law and the international refugee instruments have assumed. He would be impressed also with the new effectiveness with which the United Nations has begun to play its role in conflict mediation and resolution.

Yet, I am equally sure that he would also be appalled to see how little the nature of the humanitarian problems has changed. Tragically for us all, the spirit of Nansen has been betrayed, not once but repeatedly. The hopes of international co-operation embodied in the League of Nations collapsed in the conflagration of the Second World War. The reborn ideals of the United Nations itself were immediately paralysed by the onset of the Cold War from which we are just emerging. The consequences of human antagonism and intolerance are just as much a feature of our present day world as they were of Nansen's time.

However, what is unique today is the universal spread and massive scale of the refugee phenomenon. The refugee condition has spread far beyond the troubled Europe of Nansen's times. Refugee movements now spare virtually no corner of our planet - from Africa to Asia, from Central America to Europe itself. My Office, which was originally set up on a temporary basis to deal with what was perceived as a residual problem in Europe, has found itself confronted by ever growing numbers of refugees in need of protection and assistance. From several million in the late seventies, the numbers have continued to rise to the 15 million mark today.

The complex factors underlying these movements have been exacerbated in a shrinking world. Technological progress has, despite its many benefits, too often served to strengthen the grip of oppressive forces or increased the destructive power of armed conflicts. In recent decades, communal strife and civil war have increased in intensity and frequency, and have been accompanied by even greater levels of brutality.

The refugees of today are not only victims of persecution, as defined in the 1951 Convention. They are also, and overwhelmingly, victims of the kind of social dislocation and conflict that Nansen knew. The situation in Europe in the early decades of this century provides many parallels with the current pattern of refugee problems. The collapse of old political orders, the rise of new nation states and nationalist ideology, social tension arising out of poverty and deprivation are problems which ravaged Europe in our own century.

These factors continue to plague the developing world today with even greater intensity. Political, socio-economic, cultural, religious and racial tensions all too often explode in uncontrollable cycles of aggression and revenge, of frustration and despair. Such conflicts have been most acute in those countries of the developing world, which are characterised by a mosaic of ethnic groups, scarce economic resources, weak state structures and non-representative forms of government. Mutually suspicious populations, thrown together by the growth of the nation-state, live in uneasy proximity amidst tensions which provide a breeding ground for the worst manifestations of human intolerance, and which can easily lead to violence. In many cases, economic deprivation and decline, coupled with demographic explosion, exacerbate competition for scarce resources and breed hostility.

Africa, not least because of its colonial heritage, provides a range of grim examples of countries torn apart by conflicts between different ethnic, linguistic, religious or ideological groups. The Horn of Africa and southern Sudan are rent by ethnic strife and civil war, while the war in Mozambique - mainly fuelled from outside - has led to the displacement of well over a million Mozambicans. The system of apartheid in South Africa encourages more displacement. More recently, communal violence has exploded in West Africa, first in Mauritania and Senegal, and in recent months in Liberia, leading to one of the largest and fastest exoduses in recent times. It is sobering to consider that one in seven Liberians has fled across the border.

Similar conflicts proliferate in other parts of the world, from Asia to Central America, where equally explosive forces can easily and quickly rip apart the social fabric of fragile communities. Moreover, as totalitarian government gives way to more democratic forms in Europe, we are confronted by the danger of resurgent nationalism and economic maladjustment. These factors could pose the kind of threat in the newly democratic Europe which many had considered to be a matter of history. Without the institutions and mechanisms to diffuse these tensions, there is a danger of an upsurge of ethnic refugees in Europe at as time when political persecution is clearly declining.

Globalization. Interdependence and Solidarity

What I have spoken of here are largely changes of scope and intensity. But the globalization of the refugee problem implies more than mere proliferation. Globalization means also increasing inter-dependence and complexity. We live now in an interdependent world, where almost no problem can be perceived as that of one nation or even one region alone. One of the lessons to be learnt from the current crisis in the Gulf is surely that. The inhabitants of our planet are being brought into ever closer contact with each other with all their burdens of inequality, antagonism, incompatibility and prejudice. But as the distances separating us become increasingly smaller, the economic gap between the north and the south continues to widen. Economic retrogression has been a desperate reality affecting much of the developing world. Many of the world's poorest countries are increasingly locked into a vicious circle of poverty, strife and oppression, often causing massive numbers to spill across national frontiers. This adds a further burden and a further element of instability to neighbouring countries which are often the themselves under pressure. Some of these victims of violence and instability - a small but increasing minority - even undertake the longer journey that ends at the ends at the door of the developed world. And along with those fleeing from persecution and conflict, move also those escaping from economic deprivation and despair. They form the swelling tide of migrants who, for reasons which are often just as compelling as persecution and oppression, move in search of a better life or even simply of survival. Standing here on the threshold of the 1990s, I see these movements, of refugee and migrants, as the challenge of the decade to come. Their potential is explosive.

Hostile reactions on the part of host population may be limited or even non-existent when refugees belong to the same ethnic group as those in the country of asylum. This has often been the case in Africa which has a long history of generosity and hospitality towards those displaced by persecution and violence. However, even in situations of this kind, the depletion of scarce resources or competition of limited economic opportunities by refugees can lead to resentment or more serious social tensions. It can be more grave in the case of transcontinental movements of refugees and migrants. In this case, the host populations in the developed world are confronted with persons of radically different ethnic and cultural origins. Increasing numbers of refugees for the developing world are arriving in the industrialized west in recent years. They are part of a flow of much greater numbers of would-be migrants fleeing from the poverty of other continents, or from the less prosperous countries of eastern Europe in search of economic betterment. In the face of this trend, public concern and xenophobia have been aroused in the West. Increasingly worried governments have begun to resort to tighter restrictions on immigration. At one level, public hostility has been reflected in widely reported incidents of racial attacks on asylum-seekers or migrants, even in countries with the strongest humanitarian and liberal traditions. Most disturbingly of all, the xenophobic tendencies have sometimes been exploited by unscrupulous politicians who have made use of openly racist platforms for their own demagogic purposes.

In drawing attention to these facts, I do not wish to minimize the difficulties faced by governments or communities - nor the insecurity felt by the general public, when confronted with the increasing pressure of the north-south migration. Indeed, I have been impressed by the commitment that governments have shown to maintaining asylum for those fleeing persecution and violence. Nevertheless, there has been an increasing concern expressed by governments in the developed world at the steep rise in the numbers of those seeking to benefit from asylum procedures. In the last seven years, the number of asylum applications in Europe and North America has risen by almost one hundred percent per year. While the total remain small in comparison with the far heavier burden of developing countries, there is a real danger that a point of psychological saturation might soon be reached on the part of the governments and the public at large in these countries. This could undermine the foundations on which the edifice of refugee protection rests. Let us not fool ourselves that the developed world can build barriers against this human tide. The revolution in transport and information technology has shrunk our world and drawn us into such intense mutual dependency, that this problem of population movement cannot simply be wished away. The solution to the problem can only be found in international cooperation. The problem of refugees acts, in a very real sense, as a barometer of human solidarity. The number of the World's refugees is a measure of the political health of the international community. Our ability to respond to their needs is a measure of its moral health. In our increasingly inter-dependent world, to fail to respond would be to jeopardize the future security of all of us.

Our Ambitions

In my address last Monday to the annual meeting of the Executive Committee of UNHCR, I talked about the three ambitions which we must achieve in the months to come.

The first ambition is for UNHCR to seize every possibility for voluntary repatriation, which is the best solution for refugees, the most productive use of resources and a concrete contribution to peace and security. Political development surrounding South Africa, Mozambique, Western Sahara and Cambodia, coupled with return movements already underway notably to Afghanistan, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile, give us hope that we are moving towards solutions on many fronts. What better way to commemorate UNHCR's forthcoming 40th Anniversary than to promote solutions through the voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of refugees, so that they can join the impressive list of 26 million individuals who have ceased to be refugees during he last 40 years.

Our second ambition is to promote a policy which will enable us to ensure asylum for refugees today and in the future. I a convinced that we must make a clear practical - though not moral - distinction between refugees and migrants. Although the reasons for migration are just as morally compelling as those which motivate refugee movements, the problems of economic deprivation and inequality cannot be addressed through asylum. If we attempt to do so, the problem of psychological saturation that I have referred to will be exacerbated and doors will slam shut on refugees too. We must, therefore, preserve asylum for refugees. But at the same time the international community must also assume with vigour and commitment its responsibilities towards those who flee from poverty. For poverty can be just as devastating as persecution and oppression, and, in fact, claims many more lives. To leave our fellow human beings in a state of deprivation and despair is both morally unacceptable and quite clearly against the self interests of the prosperous north. The problems of poverty demand our urgent and immediate attention, both as a moral issue and as a problem of our collective security. It must be addressed through economic and development aid, through a concerted effort to remove the economic inequality which lies at the root of current migratory trend from the developing to the industrialised world.

Our third ambition is to have the international community recognise the importance of the issues of refugees and migration and to place them firmly on the international political agenda. We live in an era in which states are increasingly adopting a common approach to the global concerns and dangers confronting mankind. Indeed, the changing superpower relationship can be seen as symptomatic of a broader change. It can be seen as a progressive and important evolution, which no longer defines foreign policy merely as a defence of narrowly defined national interests, but rather recognizes the interdependence of states and the need to confront together the common problems and challenges to our global security. It also opens up the possibility of truly concerted international action in the face of conflict, oppression and intolerance, as has been recently demonstrated. Events in eastern Europe, where the democratic will of peoples has made itself felt so bravely, have gripped the imagination of the world and provided new hope that oppression and denial of human rights may become things of the past. In areas as far apart as south-west Asia, southern Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central America, an ongoing reduction in regional tensions and ideological confrontation has given rise to renewed optimism that solutions may be within reach for large numbers of refugees. Developments of this kind could eventually lead to the resolution of the profound antagonisms and inequalities which have so long divided the human race. Once the governments of individual nations clearly and collectively perceive that the problems of poverty oppression, conflict, and the consequent refugee and migratory movements, are important factors in our search for peace and security, I am sure that we will be well on the way to eliminating them. Some important steps have been taken in that direction. Now we must make every effort to consolidate them.

I am convinced that this is not only a time of danger, this is also, in a very immediate sense, a time of opportunity, a time of hope that the far-reaching changes of recent months - yes, even recent days - may mark the beginning of a new era of peace and solidarity. But it is also, as I said earlier today, a time of great uncertainty. We are in a situation which I cannot help but compare to the immediate post-war era, when we dreamt of a new international order based on justice, equality and freedom. Our dreams then were blighted by the onset of the Cold War. Will we fare better this time, or will the forces of short-sighted self-interest and intolerance again sidetrack us into failure? Will we be able to ensure that the much applauded improvement in east-west relations will not be accompanied by a deepening rift between north and south? How will we react to the destabilising forces which it will inevitably unleash? Like Nansen, we must believe that moving forward is the only way to go. I do believe that, unless we take heed of the danger signs, and more ahead, then we will lose whatever chance we have of creating a less dangerous and more equitable world for future generations.

However, we should not underestimate the challenge confronting us. Nor should we believe that they are problems which can be overcome with the medicine of charity alone. Like Nansen, we must combine idealism with realism, we must be practical idealists. With clarity of vision we must commit ourselves to do so, to lay the foundations of our future collective security. Like Nansen, we must engage ourselves in institution building. It is though the institutions which bind us together in mutual dependence, reciprocity and support, that the path to peaceful co-existence and recognition of our common interests lies. The world must not betray Nansen's vision again. It concerns our common survival.