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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 4 October 1993

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 4 October 1993

4 October 1993
Solutions: Challenge of RepatriationPrevention: International Presence and Internal DisplacementProtection: Commitment to AsylumEmergencies: Preparedness and ResponseManagement: Programmes and ResourcesPartnership: A Comprehensive Strategy

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to welcome you to this forty-fourth session of the Executive Committee. It is good to see old friends and greet new ones. It is also encouraging to see an ever-growing number of NGOs attend our meetings.

Let me extend a special word of thanks to the outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Lanus of Argentina. During the past year, Ambassador Lanus has taken a strong interest in our activities. We still recall the lively and thought-provoking report on his trip to Southern Africa as Chairman. May I also congratulate the new Bureau. Your wisdom and guidance will be of tremendous value to my Office during the coming year.

I should like to begin by paying a special tribute to the many heroic field staff, particularly those who during the past year risked or lost their lives while serving others. They have been the pioneers as we seek new frontiers in terrains of uncertainty and peril. Security is a matter of special concern to me, as our staff and other humanitarian workers become targets of deliberate attacks. I have strongly condemned these callous acts, and I am grateful to the Secretary-General for his repeated calls to the international community to prosecute and punish those responsible.

I have just returned from a visit to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It brought home to me once again the reality of UNHCR's action in today's world. I visited two of the most generous asylum countries, which together hosted more than six million Afghan refugees for over a decade. Indeed, Iran has the largest refugee population in the world today. Fortunately, this region is experiencing repatriation on an enormous scale. But the hope for a lasting solution depends greatly on the improvement of conditions inside Afghanistan. Moreover there are fears of new outflows, as instability and internal displacement mark some of the countries bordering the region. The trip highlighted many of the issues on which I wish to speak to you today: the challenge of solutions; prevention and presence; protection and asylum; and the need for resources.

I would like to raise these issues from the perspective of a humanitarian organisation operating in a world which is still groping for a new order. The major challenges confronting the United Nations today - the challenge, on the one hand, of maintaining peace and security and, on the other, of promoting economic and social development - are both directly relevant to the humanitarian work of my Office. Our close collaboration with the UN's political initiatives is essential in order to be able to solve refugee problems. Our close coordination with the UN's development activities is critical to ensure the viability of those solutions. Humanitarian assistance can make an important contribution to the peace-keeping and peace-making efforts of the UN. However, as the former Yugoslavia so clearly demonstrates, humanitarian endeavours cannot replace peace settlements nor become a substitute for political negotiations.

Solutions: Challenge of Repatriation

It is against this background that I turn to the issue of solutions to refugee problems. In Iran I saw long convoys of buses with Afghan refugees moving homewards to a country where security is fragile and economic prospects dim. Since the inception of the programme, some 2.5 million Afghan refugees have gone home, 1.9 million of them with the assistance of UNHCR. While the numbers are impressive, I cannot but be concerned about the reintegration possibilities. Lack of funds is severely inhibiting the continuation of UNHCR's repatriation activities, particularly in Iran, as well as the UN's humanitarian assistance operation inside Afghanistan.

Two years ago at this ExCom, I predicted the beginning of a decade of voluntary repatriation. Since then more than 3 million refugees have returned home. In the course of the past year alone, refugees have returned to Tajikistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burundi, South Africa and Guatemala. Earlier this year, we successfully completed, under the most complex conditions, the return of more than 370,000 refugees to Cambodia. Preparations for return to Mozambique are now complete. The first organized movements from Zimbabwe have already taken place, to be followed later this month by those from Swaziland and Zambia. Meanwhile, more than 350,000 Mozambicans have returned spontaneously, mainly from Malawi. In this context, I am encouraged by the recent signing of an agreement with the Government of South Africa which will give UNHCR access to Mozambican refugees in that country.

During my visit to Bangladesh last May, I signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government on our role in the voluntary repatriation of Myanmar refugees. Following my private visit to Myanmar and a recent programming mission to the area, I am hopeful that a Memorandum of Understanding will be completed soon between the Myanmar Government and my Office, which will pave the way for the safe and voluntary return of the refugees in Bangladesh.

I am disappointed, however, that no solutions have so far materialised for the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and would like to reiterate the offer of my Office to assist the Governments concerned in this respect. Nor has there been much progress on repatriation to Eritrea and other parts of the Horn of Africa. I call on the Governments to create the opportunities which would allow the refugees to exercise the right to return to their own country.

The desirability, feasibility and necessity of voluntary repatriation as a solution is evident. But so is its fragility, complexity and, at times, elusiveness. Often, refugees are returning to conditions of civil strife or instability, to situations where peace negotiations are still under way or not yet consolidated, to areas where infrastructure has been destroyed. Too many of our repatriation operations are under-funded. Too little investment is made in the post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts.

Political settlement and economic rehabilitation are closely linked. The international community must show greater willingness to support politically and financially what is not only the best solution to a refugee problem but also an investment in regional and global stability.

If repatriation and reintegration are well-planned, in coordination with other UN agencies, I believe they can lay the ground for longer-term development. We should not pretend that UNHCR's "quick-impact projects" or QIPs are anything other than a modest, practical tool to assist reintegration by focusing on community needs. Yet, this bottom-up approach, as it were, may be a critical first step on the much-quoted continuum from relief to development. Having successfully moved from Central America to Cambodia, QIPs are now spreading to other operations throughout the world, from Afghanistan to Somalia, from Mozambique possibly to Myanmar.

As refugees go home, so must we. After 14 years, our office in Nicaragua has been phased down and will be closed at the end of the year, after the successful completion of 350 projects to promote the reintegration of returnees. Most of our people on the Cambodia operation have already been redeployed. Last Thursday we closed down our office in Suriname. Phasing out is a difficult but essential undertaking for an organisation like ours.

Before I move away from the subject of solutions, let me say a word on resettlement. With repatriation opportunities increasing, there is a need to examine the role of resettlement as a solution, particularly to meet protection needs. I would like to invite interested Governments to further consultations with my Office on this subject.

Prevention: International Presence and Internal Displacement

Let me now turn to prevention. As structures breakdown, as central authority is challenged, as borders change, international presence in the country of origin is becoming an essential feature of our preventive strategy. Through international humanitarian presence some measure of confidence, security and relief can be provided to victims of conflict or human rights violations who may otherwise feel compelled to cross borders or be unable to return home. In this sense, there is a close connection between presence, prevention and the pursuit of solutions.

While I was still in Iran, dramatic developments in neighbouring Azerbaijan brought to the forefront the protection and assistance of the internally displaced as an important means of preventing refugee flows. We are extending protection and emergency assistance to some 210,000 persons in Azerbaijan who have been displaced by the recent fighting. The assistance from our office in Baku is being augmented with cross-border support from our operation in Iran. I decided on this parallel approach after receiving assurances from the Iranian government that the borders would remain open for those who wish to seek asylum. I have alerted the Secretary-General to the situation, seeking his support to mobilize the political will to resolve the problem before it explodes into an even greater crisis.

Although I am heartened by the endorsement of the General Assembly for UNHCR's activities on behalf of the internally displaced, I would like to make it clear that we are not seeking a global mandate for the internally displaced. However, UNHCR is prepared, at the request of the Secretary-General, to intervene on behalf of the internally displaced when our involvement could have a preventive impact on refugee problems. For example, we could provide protection or assistance to displaced people who might otherwise feel compelled to cross the border to become refugees. Another situation might be when the internally displaced are mixed with returning refugees in such a way that reintegration can only be achieved successfully if both groups are assisted. Thus, our involvement with the internally displaced is not an extension of our mandate but an essential ingredient of our strategy to protect refugees by focusing on prevention and solutions.

Obviously, our activities on behalf of the internally displaced must be premised on the necessary funds being available from the international community, and the consent of the country concerned.

Where internal displacement poses a humanitarian problem but there is no link to actual or potential refugee flow, UNHCR's role can only be a limited one, supporting the efforts of other organisations, at the request of the Secretary-General.

Let me, however, underline that UNHCR's contribution in the field of prevention is primarily catalytic and collaborative. As our efforts in Tajikistan and other parts of the former Soviet Union demonstrate, prevention can only work if it is part of a larger international effort to resolve the underlying causes of conflict and ensure respect for human rights. Indeed, I cannot adequately underscore the need for an integrated and comprehensive approach by the UN system in this part of the world, if we are to contain the proliferation of humanitarian crises.

Prevention, like solutions, is cost-effective in the long-term, but cost-intensive in the short-term, often requiring considerable investment, particularly in terms of staffing to ensure presence. I expect the international community to respond more speedily and generously to support these efforts.

Protection: Commitment to Asylum

Prevention must not be pursued as an alternative to asylum, but rather in addition to it. The possibility of asylum must continue to remain open for those who seek it. While I am encouraged by the developments to provide temporary protection in situations of large-scale movements, I am also concerned by the fact that major reversals can be observed in the commitment to asylum. The cardinal principle of non-refoulement is being flouted in some parts of the world, by those very States which support our international action most generously elsewhere.

As I said in my address to the International Conference for the Protection of War Victims, held here in Geneva recently, the human suffering of two World Wars led to the emergence of certain cardinal legal and moral values to protect the individual, including the right to seek and enjoy asylum. Those States that are tempted to curb this right should carefully consider the pervasive and unscrupulous nature of military conflict today. Let us all remember, particularly in the industrialized world, that wars and their appalling human consequences are not so remote in our histories. We had wanted, then, for the right of asylum to be more widely recognized, and more generously granted to those fleeing from countries that today contemplate restricting that very right. At a time when Europe is once again the scene of conflict and the source of large refugee outflows, the need for protecting refugees has never been greater. If there is legitimate concern over how to manage irregular migratory flows, other means must be found to address it. I call upon this Committee to continue to support our unique protection mandate.

Emergencies: Preparedness and Response

International protection must be accompanied by rapid and effective emergency response. During the past year, UNHCR's capacity to respond to emergencies has been tested with some success in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Ghana, Benin, Uganda and Liberia. We are right now assessing emergency needs and providing some relief material to those displaced recently in Georgia.

Our emergency operation in the former Yugoslavia has expanded enormously since we first began almost two years ago. We are today assisting some 2.7 million people who are are displaced and besieged in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in addition to over 1.3 million Bosnian refugees in neighbouring Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. Prolonged war into a second winter, the vicious and total disregard of humanitarian norms and the consequent security threats raise serious questions about how long a civilian operation - by my Office and others - can continue under these circumstances.

The spiral of emergencies has led us to further strengthen our preparedness and response capacity through standby arrangements. 123 Nordic staff were deployed to operations in 16 countries over the past two years, following our arrangements with the Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils. A similar arrangement is now in place with the United Nations Volunteers, and we are exploring comparable measures with other bodies. We are also strengthening our partnership agreement with WFP to ensure that, together, we are better equipped to respond to all food emergencies.

I am grateful to this Committee for increasing the Emergency Fund to US$ 25 million and the ceiling for any single emergency to US$ 8 million. At the same time, I am concerned that many of the so-called "silent" or "invisible" emergencies are not funded or only inadequately so. Let us treat all emergencies equally as a matter of life or death for the refugees. UNHCR's responsibility is global - so should be our response.

Management: Programmes and Resources

Enhanced accountability and better delivery of programmes are both issues to which, as you know, I am deeply committed. In addition to our now well-established Emergency Preparedness and Response Teams, we have created a pool of emergency administrative staff to ensure that rapid response is coupled with improved accountability.

In the pursuit of better programme delivery, I established an internal Working Group on Programme Management and Operational Capacity. Its recommendations focus on greater delegation to the Field and a modified UNHCR programming cycle to allow integrated planning and enhanced monitoring and reporting. We are now in the process of implementing the Working Group's recommendations.

My ultimate goal is to create an institutional culture where effective performance, efficiency and accountability are prized objectives. This is linked not only to improved programming but also better human resources management. In the course of this year, an ambitious plan of action has been developed to cover such aspects as recruitment, career planning, training and performance evaluation. Steps are being taken to strengthen the Division of Human Resources Management with the necessary technical expertise to carry out the plan.

I mentioned at the outset my deep preoccupation about the difficult and dangerous conditions to which many UNHCR staff are daily exposed. The Field Safety Coordination Unit, established in January this year, has undertaken a number of specific measures to improve staff security, in close coordination with UN Headquarters and other agencies. We have also made a modest beginning on stress-management, a small but nevertheless important recognition of a serious problem affecting those who are working under the most demanding conditions.

From human resources let me move to financial ones. Our General Programmes, which benefit some 13 million of the world's 19 million refugees and support most of our world-wide protection responsibilities, is seriously under-funded. Although our needs are going up, as reflected by the Executive Committee's decision to increase this year's target to US$ 413 million, the contributions of a number of our most important donors will be well below the 1992 level. With our carry-over from last year, we will probably cover our 1993 General Programmes budget. But what really worries me is the funding of the 1994 General Programmes and a number of Special Programmes, particularly the repatriations to Mozambique, the Horn of Africa, and possibly Liberia. If programmes are cut back, I am afraid the first to suffer will be those services which benefit most the refugee women and children.

I would like to appeal strongly to as many Governments as possible to announce contributions at the Pledging Conference in New York on 10th November. A generous response then and in the remaining months of this year will make the early days of 1994 less gloomy.

Partnership: A Comprehensive Strategy

The gap is clearly growing between what we are asked to do and what we can do. As a turbulent world searches for a new equilibrium, there is no doubt that UNHCR will continue to face many demands in the next few years. I believe that our main focus will remain on Africa. But we may also have to respond to new and ongoing emergencies, increasingly in areas where we have never operated before, and where severe winters will require intensive measures to meet shelter and energy needs. At the same time, repatriation opportunities will continue to demand more resources.

To meet this challenge, we will have to look both internally and externally. Internally, to improve our own performance and accountability. Externally, to work with others to enhance our capacity, maximise our resources and enlarge the support for a coherent and comprehensive strategy on refugee problems.

I see a pentagonal, or five-point, partnership ahead.

Firstly, we must continue to work closely with the political arms of the UN and regional organisations to ensure that UNHCR's humanitarian response is paralleled by political initiatives to resolve refugee-producing conflicts. The dangerously recurrent nature of many refugee emergencies, particularly in Africa, only underlines the strong need for the international community to make concerted and energetic efforts to pursue political solutions.

With humanitarian action becoming an important component of many peace-keeping or peace-making operations, the challenge is to ensure that the independent, non-political and impartial nature of humanitarian action is preserved, perceived as such and respected by all. We must redouble our efforts to adhere strictly to the fundamental neutral and non-political principles that have governed our policies and programmes, that have given my Office the credibility without which we cannot hope to operate in any meaningful way.

Secondly, we should continue to develop our cooperation with the humanitarian organisations, within the UN system and outside, so as to maximize our comparative advantages. I look forward to continued close collaboration with the Department of Humanitarian Affairs in its efforts to mobilize the system's response to complex emergencies and address the continuum from relief to development.

Furthermore, as we operate increasingly in situations of conflict, we must deepen further our institutional contacts with the International Committee of the Red Cross to enhance our complementarity.

Equally, the linkages between migration and refugee flows call for strengthening of our partnership with IOM. I place particular importance on our joint programmes of mass information, which help people to be informed about the opportunities and consequences of their movement before they decide to leave their homes.

Thirdly, the non-governmental organisations are our quickest partners in emergency response, our strongest advocates on international protection. Their community-based approach is an asset in bridging the gap between relief and development. Their ability to mobilize public support and donor assistance is critical at a time of heightened demands. The decision to award the Nansen medal this year to Médecins Sans Frontières is a recognition of the NGO contribution to the refugee cause. UNHCR has initiated a process of consultation with NGOs, called PARinAC (Partnership in Action), which is intended to lay the basis for enhanced and improved future NGO/UNHCR collaboration. Six preparatory regional meetings will culminate in a global conference at Oslo in June next year.

Fourthly, we must further deepen our collaboration with UNDP, UNICEF and other development organisations. We are exploring partnership arrangements with the World Bank and regional banks, which have an important role in addressing the economic and social causes underlying coerced movements as well as in post-conflict reconstruction to consolidate peace settlements.

Finally, last but not the least, I count on the continued cooperation and support of Governments, whether countries of origin, asylum or donors. I am deeply grateful for the contribution of countries of asylum which cannot be quantified. I am grateful also to our major donors who, despite all difficulties, have responded magnificently over the last couple of years. Nevertheless, I must appeal to them, once again, in the strongest terms, to do everything possible to maintain, as a minimum, their level of contribution to UNHCR.

Mr. Chairman, during the last three years, I have visited 46 countries. During the same period, the number of refugees has increased from 15 to 19 million. Some 5 million refugees have returned home. We have seen our budget soar from US$ 544 million to almost US$ 1.3 billion, our staff rise from 2,400 to almost 4,000 persons. Dramatic developments have been matched by explosive growth.

Looking back over the past three years, and looking ahead, I am more than ever convinced that our mission is as unique as it is gratifying. I am deeply appreciative of our privileged partnership with members and observer States of this Executive Committee, the UN system, international and non-governmental organisations. Together, we must continue our pursuit of protection and solutions for the world's refugees. Our strategy must be based on partnership, our approach on solidarity. Our goal must be human security for all. I commit my Office to this course.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.