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Opening Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, forty-first session, Geneva, 1 October 1990

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, forty-first session, Geneva, 1 October 1990

1 October 1990

Since our last formal meeting in May, there have been a number of dramatic developments. Recent events in the Middle East have cast a cold shadow on the optimistic view that 1990 would mark the beginning of a new era in international affairs. The situation is serious. We should not, however, forget that the end of the cold war, the replacement or radical transformation of many authoritarian regimes, and the new central role of the United Nations have, nevertheless, provided us with unprecedented opportunities for multilateral co-operation. Let me today say a few words about how I see the role of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in seizing these opportunities and thereby contributing to the construction of the edifice of peace.

New challenges, new roles

The crisis in the Middle East has, among other things, triggered a wave of destitute and dispossessed people across international boundaries. The great majority of them are foreign workers desperately trying to get back home. In the minds of the public and the media, in many government circles, among many non-governmental organizations, those on the move are considered to be "refugees". Many of us in UNHCR have indeed spent quite a lot of time responding to questions on this matter. Bureaucratically, this situation may have posed a dilemma. Those in need are, overwhelmingly, migrant workers who can and want to go back to their own country. They are not refugees in need of international protection. Yet, for a High Commissioner for Refugees whose mandate is humanitarian, whose policy is based on human rights and who seeks to protect and assist human victims, there can be no dilemma in such a situation. You do not ask a dying person who caused the accident. You try to generate, mobilize and provide help and support to the victim.

That is the reason why, from the early stages of the crisis, I undertook personal contacts with representatives of Governments in the region and offered the support and expertise of UNHCR. We also met with relevant organizations in an attempt, on an informal basis, to establish what was being - or should be - done and by whom. Throughout these initiatives, I remained in close contact with the Secretary-General's Office. I am concerned that at a time when the United Nations political machinery may finally live up to its original designs, the parallel humanitarian system may prove itself inadequate. There is clearly an urgent need to take a fresh look at the capacity of the United Nations and the international community to respond to the humanitarian emergencies of today, with swiftness and in a coherent way. UNHCR intends to take an active part in such efforts.

The conflict in Liberia is another recent event, in which, from the early days of the crisis, UNHCR was in contact with Governments and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in an attempt to contribute to containing the crisis, but unfortunately without success. The conflict in Liberia has continued to worsen, provoking one of the largest and fastest refugee exoduses witnessed anywhere in recent years. More than 500,000 Liberians have now sought asylum in the neighbouring countries of the Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone, while many more may have been displaced within their homeland. After several appeals, UNHCR has now received adequate funds for the coming months. A major humanitarian catastrophe has been, if not averted, at least diminished thanks to the generosity of the host countries and the local population, the hard work of some non-governmental organizations and the intervention - regrettably limited at the beginning by funding constraints - by UNHCR and other United Nations agencies. Developments of a political and military nature and some recent contributions of funds may prevent a further deterioration in the situation.

The administrative and funding situation

Such are the realities and challenges of the present. In order to respond meaningfully and effectively to them, the Office has spent a good part of the first nine months of this year reassessing and redesigning the necessary structures, procedures and funding basis of our programmes.

At the May meeting of the Executive Committee, I referred to the better use of our resources as one of the six pillars of our funding strategy. I believe that some major steps have been taken in this direction. We have a new structure at UNHCR headquarters, notably leaner at the top, and we have the capacity through the Senior Management Committee to take policy decisions and follow through. We are now in the process of retrenchment, through reducing posts by 15 per cent, and are currently implementing decisions to bring to 19 the number of UNHCR offices closed or to be closed in various parts of the world. While these measures will in the longer run lead to significant economies, their implementation within a very tight time frame will require additional resources in termination indemnity to separated staff. I know that I can count on the understanding and support of the Executive Committee in this regard.

In the middle of these changes, more than 130 UNHCR staff members have been reassigned at short notice and have been, or are, on the move. Although such reassignments have undoubtedly had a disruptive effect both on the individuals and their families, as well as on the overall functioning of the Office, they were necessitated by deferral of such decisions for sometime in the past. Throughout this, at times both painful and very difficult period, UNHCR staff - and their elected representatives, the Staff Council - have shown a sense of co-operation and understanding that I consider to be exemplary.

Other pillars of the strategy have been further developed and I will come back to two of those pillars later, that is the political tool of early warning initiatives and the efforts to promote voluntary repatriation. I should mention that initiatives to promote new government and private donor support require further efforts and - I should add - also investment in time and resource s which we do not have at present. Nevertheless, the limited results that have been achieved indicate the importance of continuing efforts in this area with vigour and conviction.

Support from traditional donors has once again proven to be a reliable pillar and one of which I am deeply appreciative. Mainly thanks to this group of donors, we have so far received $406 million, of which $286.7 million are for General Programmes and $119.3 million for Special Programmes. This income, covering the three quarters of the year, corresponds to slightly less than three quarters of our projected income for 1990 of $550 million. However, I am concerned that, after taking into account anticipated secondary income, we still require some $60 million to fund our General Programmes, and that the donors' response to a number of important Special Programmes remains very disappointing.

In general, the impact on refugees of the financial problems of UNHCR, particularly in Africa, has been severe. Operations which are inherently difficult and where achievements are hard to consolidate are particularly vulnerable without the resources for contingency reserves and buffer stocks. In such circumstances, reaching even basic minimum standards requires not only proper planning but also that things should happen as planned. When they do not, problems can escalate quickly if additional resources are not immediately at hand.

The timely provision of sufficient amounts of the right kind of food has proved a particular problem, but the effect of inadequate resources has also been felt keenly in missed opportunities for solutions, for example for organized repatriation from Malawi to Mozambique and local integration in Somalia. Of no less concern is the impact of the funding situation on protection and asylum policies, an issue which has been covered in the note on international protection presented to the current session of the Executive Committee.

Educational opportunities for refugees have also had to be cut back. For example, construction of schools in western Ethiopia has been postponed, it has not been possible to meet the full demand in Malawi, and a slow response to the appeals for Liberian refugees has limited assistance to date to the provision of only the most basic teaching materials. Over 200,000 primary school-age refugees have been affected as result in these programmes alone. The full effect of the financial problems, however, is not yet apparent. While, for example, the impact of reductions in the transport sector for maintenance, spare parts, vehicle replacement and access-road maintenance is starting to be felt, this will become increasingly severe and costly with time.

I cannot conclude my remarks on the financial situation of UNHCR without expressing my deep concern over the crippling effect of the unstable and unpredictable nature of funding our activities. Living almost on a month-to-month, sometimes week-to-week basis is not only uneconomic - and may I say not very dignified - but it also makes UNHCR a much less responsive and effective organization. The simple truth is that the Office does not have the flexibility today to respond immediately and effectively to new emergencies nor the capacity to plan ahead. I hope that during this session we can reflect further on this matter.


Access and security

When deciding on how best to use limited resources, one is constantly obliged to set priorities. I want to take this opportunity to emphasize that two fundamentally important elements in setting priorities must be the access of UNHCR to the refugees and conditions of security for refugees and agency personnel. It is impossible for UNHCR to ascertain that our protection mandate is respected and that limited resources are well spent if UNHCR does not have free and regular access to the refugees. Similarly, I cannot justify maintaining for a long time a refugee assistance programme in a country where the authorities show themselves incapable or unwilling to provide basic security conditions. Situations where minimum modalities ensuring access and security are not existing will inevitably be given low funding priority.

Refugee women

Speaking of priorities, you will note that the subject of refugee women is addressed at both sub-committees of the Executive Committee in 1990. It reflects the importance of emphasizing the "human" aspects of our activities, focusing as it does on those persons who, with their dependent children, represent the largest number of beneficiaries of our programmes. Ensuring that the issue of refugee women is addressed throughout our programmes requires adaptation of existing procedures, and a climate of understanding and support of the importance of this factor among Governments, implementing partners and UNHCR staff. Progress has been made over the past year in reinforcing the foundations of this support through training and in the formulation of a policy on refugee women. However, I expect that the coming year will put even greater emphasis on practical implementation, and will provide concrete examples throughout our programmes of this policy in action.

Early warning

Early warning of developing refugee situations and their mediation is one of the most effective methods to contain problems. I believe UNHCR has a duty to play a role in wider international efforts in this regard. I have for the same reason initiated a number of activities within the Office in order to enhance our ability to respond to a problem, preferably before, but at the least when, it occurs. The borderline between being seen to speculate in the emergence of a new refugee situation, on one hand and, on the other hand, taking all necessary precautions to be prepared - both in terms of addressing the underlying causes and building up the necessary capacity to respond - is a fine one and requires a sense o f responsibility. Not to attempt to prevent a situation from developing, or not to be prepared for it would however be irresponsible.

International protection and human rights

In our efforts to pick up early warning signals - which indeed must be the first step in primary protection function of UNHCR - the link between protection and respect for human rights must be stressed. Indeed, the human rights dimension remains the constant factor at the core of the refugee issue. The challenge presently confronting us is how to adjust our thinking and approaches to the realities of today's movements of refugees and asylum-seekers, while at the same time ensuring that the human values underlying international concern retain their central place and that international protection is guaranteed for those who need it - now and in the future. I shall not elaborate further on these thoughts, but simply refer to the note on international protection, which provides the thoughts of UNHCR on the future directions for refugee policy that the States of the international community might develop together.

Some of today's immediate concerns

Protection of refugees and return of rejected cases

Attempting to plan ahead while at the same time grappling with the immediate problems of protection and assistance is the daily reality for many of us. In South-East Asia, we have for months been confronted with the immediate and operational protection problem of ensuring that all asylum-seekers arriving in boats have access to first asylum. The problem is immediate in the sense that the very survival of individual asylum-seekers is often at stake. At the same time, it has been clear for a long time that the main characteristics of the outflow are no longer solely that of a refugee phenomenon.

To perpetuate such a situation could jeopardize the core of my mandate, namely, to protect refugees through ensuring the grant of first asylum. it is against this background that, on the basis of the Comprehensive Plan of Action, UNHCR has made itself available to the Governments concerned to help seek a consensus on the contentious issue of the return of those found not to be refugees. I am hopeful that humanitarian solutions are emerging that will secure continued protection for those in need of it whilst, at the same time, providing for the return, in safety and dignity, of those found not to be refugees. The combination of efforts to reduce the non-refugee elements of the outflow through extensive information campaigns and economic assistance to communities from which people leave and to which they return, as well as of measures upholding fundamental protection principles are being increasingly successful in resolving a difficult and long-standing problem in that region.

In Europe, too, we are increasingly witnessing migratory movements of which refugee flows are but only one aspect. The problem facing European Governments is often not so much that relating to refugees whose status and rights are clearly recognized in international conventions and resolutions, rather, it is of how to handle in a rapid, efficient but safe and dignified manner those not Meeting the refugee criteria. We are noting an increasing understanding among Governments that these matters cannot be solved through stringent border procedures but rather by way of international co-operation, combining asylum and resettlement with economic aid to countries or regions of origin and the early return, in conditions of safety and dignity, of those not meeting the refugee definition.

An integrated approach

Nowhere has the interrelationship between causes and solutions, refugee aid and development aid, national and international efforts been better demonstrated than in Central America where the conclusion on the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) process stands out as a model of solutions to the problems of uprootedness. The impressive response of the international community at the CIREFCA follow-up meeting held last June in New York provided tangible evidence of the support for CIREFCA, which links the Office's own limited assistance efforts with the much longer and more durable process of development in the region. In this respect, it not only serves as a contribution to solutions in the Central American region, but could also act as a guide and model for other parts of the world. With respect to international protection, Belize's welcome accession to the 1951 Convention, legislative moves in Mexico to reinforce the status of refugees in that country, and the favourable changes in attitudes to and actual movements of voluntary repatriation have also been inspired by CIREFCA. The institutionalized and well-functioning co-operation between UNDP and UNHCR to further the CIREFCA process is yet another example which, hopefully, will be emulated in other parts of the world.

Unfortunately, the example of CIREFCA stands out in stark contrast to some situations in other parts of the world where the outlook is less optimistic. I began my statement by referring, to the Gulf crisis, which threatens international peace and security, but there remain other situations that are of comparable gravity and yet they fail to command the same attention and interest. A few weeks ago, I addressed the Conference of the Least Developed Countries in Paris. I was then once again reminded that, while we rejoice in a new political climate that is ushering in a period of reconciliation and reconstruction in some parts of the world, the situation in others remains one of social and economic depression. It is evident that lack of development and underdevelopment are major factors causing instability and mass movements of people. It is equally obvious that adequate development aid can itself contribute to the prevention, and eventual solution, of refugee problems. The large majority of today's refugees are moving from the world's poorest nations to the world's poorest nations. If we do not address the plight of the developing countries, we will not only condemn present and future generations, we will inhibit the possibilities to seek solutions and bear the responsibility for a further deterioration in the world refugee problem.

The situation in the Horn of Africa illustrates my point. Continued conflicts, perennial problems of drought and famine, poverty and underdevelopment and little international readiness to come to the aid of the destitute peoples of these countries, continue to render the situation almost hopeless for refugees. I say "almost" because there are indeed possibilities for the voluntary return of refugees, which would not only provide the best solution for those individuals, but could also help to spark off other positive movements in the region and break the cycle of desperation. Unfortunately, not only has UNHCR been unable to seize fully these possibilities because of a lack of adequate funds, but I must express my deep concern on early-warning signals suggesting the recurrence of famine in the region. UNHCR has established an internal Task Force and has contacted other bodies of the United Nations system, Governments and non-governmental organizations in order to set up the necessary contingency plans.

Future perspectives

Where are we then after the first nine months of the year, and two months before the commencement of the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of UNHCR? And where do we go from here?

One of my aims has been to strengthen the credibility and moral authority of the Office; another aim has been to sustain the morale of the staff. I hasten to add that these are not aims in themselves but necessary tools to place UNHCR on the international map as the effective focal point for the efforts of the inter national community in favour of 15 million individual refugees, children, women and men.

I am encouraged by the response we have had so far. UNHCR is being increasingly solicited. The staff is responding with traditional devotion to duty and, may I say, enthusiasm. I believe we are now equipped to embark on the next phase, that is, in concrete and practical terms to seize the many opportunities phase, that the new international climate has, despite set-backs, created. I have three major ambitions for the forthcoming months.

Promoting voluntary repatriation

My first ambition is that UNHCR should be prepared to seize all the possibilities for voluntary repatriation, which is the best solution for refugees, the most productive use of resources, and a concrete contribution to peace and stability. The recent completion of the return home of over 43,000 Namibians, and more than 30,000 Central Americans show that it is possible. Favourable conditions have also led to an increased momentum in the voluntary return of Chileans. Despite all obstacles, a fragile but promising start has been made with the return of more than 50,000 Afghans under the voluntary repatriation pilot project launched earlier this year. We hope such movements will be the springboard for much larger returns. I should add that around another 125,000 Afghans have also returned home spontaneously from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan. Political developments surrounding Western Sahara and Cambodia are now moving at such a pace that UNHCR must - and indeed is eager to - prepare itself for a major role in the overall settlement plans under the auspices of the United Nations. In both situations, the return of refugees is of necessity one of the first priorities.

In the case of Cambodia, in the light of the framework agreement now accepted by all parties and endorsed by the Security Council, accelerated steps are being taken to prepare the ground for the safe return of the refugees and displaced population. To embark on such preparations, significant "up-front" funds would be required. Repatriation, being a part of a multi-faceted peace-making effort by the United Nations, must be funded through regular United Nations financing mechanisms; however, the lead responsibilities accorded to my Office cannot be discharged unless we are given the means to do so. That is why I have been in contact with the Secretary-General with a view to addressing this urgent problem.

We also follow developments in southern Africa with a deep interest and are prepared - as indeed the parties are aware - to contribute to the voluntary return of both South Africans and Mozambicans when the conditions therefore are attained. I will remain constantly alert to other possibilities and seek and expect the political and financial support of the international community whenever we believe voluntary repatriation to be possible.

Securing asylum

The policy we pursue today will be decisive for future refugee flows, and so my second ambition is to conduct a policy that is geared to securing asylum for refugees also in the future. This requires unwavering commitment to fundamental principles of protection against return or refoulement of a refugee to situations endangering life or freedom. However, in order to secure admission and asylum for those in need of protection, we have to be prepared to address the much larger issue of migratory flows. Persecution and oppression have to be met by asylum, migratory flows by preventive economic and development aid. To blur the distinction may be detrimental to the specific interest of individual refugees, but to ignore the links would be unrealistic and demeaning to the aspirations of all human beings seeking a future with dignity and safety. Unless the issue of migration is dealt with forcefully, through economic and development policies that go well beyond the traditional patterns of humanitarian assistance to people in need, Governments of both developed and developing countries may find it even more difficult in the years ahead to rationally and successfully cope with mass exoduses. At the same time, my Office may find it impossible to continue effectively to identify, protect and assist persons falling within its competence.

Placing the issues on the international agenda

My third ambition is to have these issues placed on the international agenda. It is, in my view, increasingly evident that the issue of refugees and migration at large is bound to be one of the threats to the broad concept of international, regional and national security in the decade ahead of us. I shall miss no opportunity to raise these issues with world leaders, competent organizations, the public and the media. The increasingly interdependent world obliges all of us to lift our thinking and actions beyond parochial bureaucratic interests.

If the causes of refugee movements go unchecked, if the poor are forced to move in ever-increasing numbers towards the more prosperous regions, then the threat to our common future security is a real and immediate one. But let me be quite clear. It is not individual refugees or migrants who pose this threat. They themselves are victims of injustice and inequality. They are our conscience too, an insistent reminder of the need to combat the various forms of political and economic oppression that so gravely afflict our world. The threat of which I speak lies, rather, in the root causes of refugee movements and uncontrolled migration. It lies in the inequalities and injustices that we have created or condoned. The solution is not to put up barriers or to deprive refugees of the protection they deserve. Nor is it to condemn the poor to live with their deprivation what is needed, on the contrary, is a clear policy of asylum for refugees and a firm commitment to development aid for the impoverished of the world. If the international community can move on these two fronts, I am convinced we will be laying the foundations for a more secure and peaceful future for generations to come. To follow any other road would be to mist the opportunity offered to us by ore importantly, it would be to jeopardize the new climate of reconciliation. More importantly, it would be to jeopardize whatever opportunity we may have of creating a safer world.