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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-seventh Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 7 October 1996

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-seventh Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 7 October 1996

7 October 1996

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

I am pleased to welcome you to the forty-seventh session of the Executive Committee. May I extend a special welcome to the delegation of Ireland. In view of your country's support for humanitarian action, its election as a member of this Committee is a further reinforcement of the team we try to form in the interest of uprooted populations.

I should like to commend the outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Larsen of Denmark, for his excellent cooperation during the past year and for the professional manner in which he has steered all of us through the new and intensive process of Standing Committee meetings. I am confident that we can now count on the leadership of the new Chairman, Ambassador Mchumo of the United Republic of Tanzania, whose country remains at the forefront of one of the most serious refugee crises in recent times. Let me congratulate you and the new Bureau upon your election.

Mr. Chairman, since the previous session of this Committee there have been no new humanitarian emergencies of the scale witnessed during the first half of this decade. The international environment remains, however, volatile, and armed conflict in Burundi, Chechnya in the Russian Federation, Liberia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and, most recently, Iraq have again forced people to flee for their lives. The world's refugee population decreased from 14.5 million in early 1995 to 13.2 million earlier this year, and is clearly outnumbered by internally displaced persons. At the beginning of 1996, the overall population of concern to the Office stood at some 26.1 million. Africa remains the region with the highest number of refugees, followed by Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America. While there has been important progress towards durable solutions in many parts of the globe, there remain enormous new challenges in several post Cold War conflicts. I shall revert to them later in my statement.

I welcome the accession of South Africa to the 1951 Convention and the OAU Refugee Convention, the incorporation of many protection and human rights standards in the Programme of Action agreed at the CIS Conference, the adoption in the European Union of a common interpretation of the Conventional refugee definition, and the establishment of guidelines by some States regarding claims of gender specific persecution. I welcome these developments, which should further strengthen the international protection regime.

Mr Chairman, the continuing attachment to refugee protection standards in theory has in many places not been matched by observance in practice. Many States have continued to open their borders to large numbers of refugees, Iran being the most recent example. In many other States, however, access to territory has been either denied outright as a result of push-offs of boat arrivals and rejections at borders, or complicated by new legislative restrictions. Deadly attacks on refugee camps, sexual abuse of refugee women and children, forcible conscription of refugee men and children, and abusive detention have seriously undermined safety during asylum. And thirdly: the voluntary nature of repatriation is increasingly being undermined by a mounting number of forcible returns.

The core values of safe and adequate protection are the central concern of my Office. In order to preserve them, I believe that it is first of all crucial that the international community not only reaffirms, but respects the principle of non-refoulement. Providing safety against danger is at the heart of protection, and reflects fundamental values common to all cultures. People seeking safety should not be rejected at borders, nor returned from further inland, before it has been properly determined that they will not be in danger.

Second, I should like to appeal to those bearing political responsibility to combat the negative perceptions surrounding asylum-seekers and refugees in the larger context of migration. In many countries of the industrialized world the processing of asylum requests has become much swifter, and numbers have continued to decrease in 1996. Although, manifestly unfounded and abusive asylum requests have not disappeared, it is time that asylum problems are de-dramatized in political rhetoric and the public mind, and it is essential that States continue to differentiate between those seeking protection and those seeking better opportunities.

Third, we must pay more attention to international burden-sharing: it is increasingly evident that where burden-sharing fails, protection problems rise. The burdens are very unevenly divided, between and within continents. Germany hosts more Bosnian refugees than all other countries in Western Europe together. During my mission to Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea this spring, I visited regions where Liberian refugees outnumber the local population. The same is true in many other countries, from the Ngara region in Tanzania to areas in Pakistan. I am very worried that appeals such as those by UNDP and UNHCR to alleviate the huge environmental and other damages in eastern Zaire and western Tanzania, have gone largely unheeded.

Fourth, in the interest of protection we must collectively try to diminish the growing international security dimension of refugee situations. It is essential that the humanitarian character of asylum be preserved, by receiving refugees away from borders, by halting military activities in refugee camps, and by obliging refugees to respect the law. Refugees are entitled to freedom of opinion and expression, and having often fled from political problems, the political engagement of some of them is understandable. However, the humanitarian and non-political character of asylum could be endangered if their freedom of expression were boundless. Countries of asylum may therefore restrict the political activities of refugees, if necessary and in line with human rights standards.

The risk of inter-State tension is compounded when international protection is abused by people not deserving it, because they are guilty of genocide or other heinous crimes. As we are experiencing so painfully in the camps in Zaire and Tanzania, there can be huge practical, legal and especially security problems in identifying and isolating such persons, action that is moreover the primary responsibility of asylum States. On our part, we have now officially excluded from our mandate all those Rwandans who have been indicted by the International Tribunal for Rwanda. We are currently also designing guidelines which should help States and our own staff to handle the difficult question of exclusion as consistently as possible.

Mr Chairman, constantly re-affirming the principle of non-refoulement, combating prejudices about asylum-seekers, increased burden-sharing and measures against the misuse of asylum must be combined with redoubled efforts to avert and resolve conflict, and to provide more effective protection to internally displaced and other civilian populations during conflict.

This brings me to the pursuit and implementation of durable solutions to refugee problems, which is the annual theme of this Executive Committee. In its long history, and again this year, UNHCR has helped millions of refugees to integrate, to resettle and especially to repatriate. Although this work has never been easy, the challenges are now becoming even bigger. Today, we are called upon to solve displacement following cruel inter-group rather than ideological conflict. In essence we have to deal with the huge challenge of reconciliation in the transition from conflict to real, lasting peace.

Bosnia and Rwanda demonstrate that the establishment of military peace is insufficient in societies which emerge deeply divided from fierce communal conflict. There the establishment of civilian peace, of reconciliation in the broad sense, becomes a still greater challenge than separating armies or physical reconstruction. It requires at least a minimum consensus on the future make-up of society - which cannot be imposed from the outside, and a fair balance between the often competing demands of peace and justice, of forgiveness and ending impunity. It requires just and humane solutions for those who were deliberately chased away in order to establish ethnic hegemony or territorial control. Whereas in almost all situations of conflict solutions for refugee problems require some form of peace, the reverse is often equally true: humane solutions are essential for peace.

The link between refugee problems and peace and security is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Great Lakes region in Africa. After 15,200 Rwandan refugees were refouled from Burundi in late July, the ongoing turmoil in that country prompted virtually all 65,000 remaining Rwandans to repatriate, with the material and monitoring assistance of my Office. However, during all of 1996 less than 15,000 of those Rwandans who had fled in 1994, returned home from Zaire and Tanzania, leaving 1.6 million people behind. The dangerous security implications of this refugee situation have now escalated. Cross border raids, the targeting of survivors of the genocide and attacks on Tutsi residents in the Kivu region of Zaire resulting in armed resistance, are causing more deaths and are undermining prospects for reconciliation.

Probably never before has my Office found its humanitarian concerns in the midst of such a lethal quagmire of political and security interests. While our humanitarian assistance and protection serve an innocent, silent majority of needy and anxious refugees, they also serve the militants who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. This cannot go on. In order to bring about large scale repatriation, we have formulated a set of proposals on which we hope to reach agreement with affected and interested Governments in the coming days. Only through a comprehensive approach encompassing security, justice, political interests and humanitarian considerations, can this problem be solved. I wish to commend the Rwandan Government for its courage in enacting the Genocide Law, and the Zairian and Tanzanian Governments for coping with a tremendous refugee burden. I appeal again to the international community to do more to relieve this burden.

Turning now to Bosnia and Herzegovina, we estimate that since Dayton already 250,000 people, mostly internally displaced persons, settled or resettled in areas where their group is in the majority. Inter-entity returns, especially to the Bosnian Serb entity, continue to face many political, psychological and practical obstacles. Yet, there are hopeful signs of progress. Following the recent elections, work is in progress on the building of common institutions. Finally reconstruction works are gathering some pace, especially in the 22 target areas launched by my Office. 20,000 homes have been repaired through UNHCR's shelter project. There have been some breakthroughs in the pilot projects for return within the Federation, and a small number of Muslims are being allowed to work on their houses on the Serb side of the inter-entity line. Our buses are running across the lines of division. I firmly believe that we must continue to build bridges between the people of Bosnia.

We must not give up on the right of people to return to their homes, while we should at the same time create conditions making it possible to rebuild their lives elsewhere, within Bosnia and in the region. Our initial consultations with the authorities of the countries concerned on a Regional Plan of Action have been promising. A regional approach would also allow for more progress on solutions for refugees and displaced persons from Croatia, including Eastern Slavonia. Many of the problems and their solutions are interlinked. Let me in this context express my appreciation of Croatia's recent new and much broader Amnesty law.

As conditions in Bosnia improve further - and the forthcoming municipal elections should be an important indicator the time will come for the lifting of temporary protection. Those unable to return to their home areas should, however, not be pushed back, as long as they will not have a decent roof over their head and a decent alternative solution in sight.

Mr Chairman, the difficulties in Bosnia and Rwanda should not obscure the historic progress made in resolving forced displacement elsewhere. We should all be inspired by the process of reconciliation in Guatemala, South Africa and Mozambique. In the latter country, in spite of seventeen years of atrocious conflict, the peaceful reintegration of 1.7 million refugees worked, and in July this year we were able to end our involvement there. I should make specific mention also of Mali, where the ethnic dimensions of conflict did not preclude reconciliation, and where we helped this year some 50,000 Tuareg refugees to repatriate.

This year we have been able to conclude the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese refugees. Thanks to an impressive show of international cooperation 1,075,000 Vietnamese and Laotian refugees have, since 1975, benefited from protection in the region followed by resettlement. I should also like to commend Viet Nam for its efforts in receiving back almost 100,000 returnees, and I hope it will make an additional effort to clear the return of the remaining 12,000 persons in Hong Kong.

In many other places there is progress towards solutions. Since October last year we have assisted some 50,000 refugees to return to Togo. We are trying to help more refugees to go home to Somalia, in addition to the estimated 500,000 Somalis who have repatriated in the last few years. I wish to express my appreciation to the Governments of Ethiopia and the Sudan for the successful voluntary repatriation of some 27,000 Ethiopian refugees, since December 1995. In Angola, in spite of the slow progress in the implementation of the Lusaka Protocol, some 30,000 refugees have returned spontaneously and we are gearing up our capacity for larger movements in future.

I sincerely hope that following the recent events in Afghanistan as many refugees as possible will start the journey home, in peace and in full respect of their human rights, particularly those of women. We also hope to receive the clearance of the Government of Myanmar for the voluntary return of the remaining 40,000 refugees in Bangladesh, which would enable UNHCR to strengthen its monitoring and reintegration activities in Rakhine State, thus helping to improve conditions there. At the same time I count on the Government of Bangladesh to provide UNHCR access to any new asylum-seekers. I am grateful to the Royal Bhutanese Government for having engaged in a dialogue with my Office regarding the refugees who have received generous asylum in Nepal. I repeat my readiness to cooperate in the implementation of any satisfactory arrangements Bhutan and Nepal might reach toward solving this complex problem.

Mr Chairman, this overview should provide us hope: refugee problems are less insoluble than they often appear to be. In most cases, however, solving them requires time. In situations where refugees have fled from war, and although they increasingly return or are pushed to return to unstable conditions, real progress toward peace is almost always a pre-requisite for ending their predicament in a lasting manner. This also applies to the Caucasus. During a recent joint mission with DHA to Armenia and Azerbaijan we discussed proposals to prepare for the return and reintegration of some 1.1 million refugees and displaced persons, who fled as a result of the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. Although our proposals were well received, it became clear that progress on the humanitarian front will be intimately linked to a favourable evolution of the OSCE Minsk Group negotiations.

Although peace cannot be imposed from the outside, international cooperation and involvement are in many ways indispensable to solve problems of forced displacement. Let me in this context appeal once again for increased international support to the peace efforts of ECOWAS in Liberia, so that the predicament of 750,000 Liberian refugees will finally end. International cooperation implies of course in the first place the responsibility of countries of origin to re-admit their citizens, whether refugees or rejected asylum-seekers. The CPA and Mexico's recent praiseworthy decision to offer many remaining Guatemalan refugees possibilities for integration, remind us of another aspect of international cooperation: it may be necessary to complement voluntary repatriation with other pragmatic solutions.

It has become very clear that the international community must help countries emerging from conflict to cope with the complicated transition from war to peace, and with resuming development. Early planning, early coordination and early action by all international actors involved are necessary. The absence of visible peace dividends can clearly compromise the process of peace building and healing. Through community-based approaches, a focus on human as well as material needs and by involving women, these dividends can contribute to reconciliation. At the same time we have learned, for example from our operation in Mozambique, that UNHCR's quick implementation projects must be accompanied by timely efforts to ensure their sustainability, once we leave. Not being a developmental organization, my Office must leave as soon as our refugee work is completed. Finally, for the challenges of refugee return and reconciliation the building of fair systems of justice and efficient mechanisms for property restitution have proven to be increasingly important.

The women and children who survived Srebrenica and Rwanda have starkly reminded us that more must be done to help them and many others to overcome their traumas and to restart their lives. Following the Bosnian Women's Initiative Fund, for which I would like to thank the Government of the United States, I am therefore considering a new initiative to help the women and child survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. In the context of refugee protection and assistance as well, the needs of women and children deserve more attention, by the international community and also within UNHCR. Having elaborated specific Guidelines on women and children issues, having appointed focal points and regional advisors, and having stepped up gender awareness training, full attention to these needs must now permeate all our activities. I also intend to examine carefully the recommendations of the Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, undertaken by Mrs. Graça Machel, with whom UNHCR has closely cooperated.

Mr. Chairman, while I hope that we will continue to move towards solutions, UNHCR's next challenge will be to better frame and concretize its contributions, however modest, to avert necessary displacement. By injecting some humanity into conflict situations, humanitarian action can help to contain them, to prevent their spilling-over and to avert refugee flows. By re-anchoring returning refugees in their communities and by promoting reconciliation, we can help to prevent the recurrence of conflict. However, within the limits of our mandate and against relatively low costs, we need to do more in the following areas: the reduction of statelessness, strengthening the capacity of local NGOs and administrative structures, humanitarian advocacy, and encouraging regional dialogue.

Following last year's Conclusion on Statelessness, we have already advised some Governments, for example in the Czech Republic, on sometimes sensitive citizenship issues. Local institutions and NGOs are not only critical to ensuring protection and sustaining rehabilitation, but they can also reinforce good governance. Promoting awareness of refugee and humanitarian standards is especially relevant in regions where we have been able to reduce our presence, such as Latin America and South-East Asia. Most importantly, we need further efforts to encourage dialogue on how to prevent, manage and solve displacement through comprehensive regional initiatives, such as the CIS Conference we organized this spring together with the OSCE and IOM.

Dialogue, standard setting and material help were the outcome of the CIS process, and I call on the donor community to enable us to start implementing our projects, for example for the Crimean Tatars in the Ukraine and in support of the migration service of the Russian Federation. Building on our positive experience with the CIS Conference, I have decided, in close consultation with the Secretary-General, to explore the possibility of a similar process for the countries of Central and South-West Asia, which, while being faced with some of the largest and longest refugee crises in modern times, have continued to extend their hospitality to refugees in the best tradition of Islam. The initial reaction of these countries has been promising and I am very grateful to them.

Mr Chairman, let me devote the last part of my statement to perhaps my most crucial objective for the coming period: to deliver the changes necessary for UNHCR to perform better with less. Last year, I announced initiatives in this direction, and I was pleased that, last week, the Standing Committee was able to assess the progress achieved under UNHCR's change process, better known as Project Delphi.

The objective of Delphi is nothing more or less than to give UNHCR better tools to perform its central mission of ensuring international protection and achieving durable solutions, in an ever more complex and critical environment.

Our programmes and operational structures will be based on better defined objectives tailored to the needs of each situation, but at the same time consistent with the overall strategic directions of the Office. We have already begun to introduce a new operational orientation, which we have taken to calling the "situational approach". While ensuring protection and assistance, this approach will gear us more towards finding and exploiting openings for solutions. In addition, greater delegation and support should enable our managers to take greater responsibility, while more finely tuned and expanded oversight from the centre should allow us to better hold them accountable for reaching their objectives.

I am pleased, Mr Chairman, that we have been able to start implementing Project Delphi. As delegations are aware, I have reorganized our senior management structure. We are reducing unnecessary bureaucratic layers, which, I hope, will bring me too closer to what is happening on the ground, at the point of delivery of our services. We are making progress in developing clear policy directives. Following consultations with all my Representatives earlier this year, we have issued a Global Strategy Paper, which, together with the research undertaken in the new Centre for Documentation and Research, should better inform the content of our policy and decision making process. Planning and evaluation capacities have been strengthened. I am also insisting that all Representatives and other senior managers acquire advanced management training.

On the human resources side, I am pleased to report that we have now launched our new Career Management System. We expect the new performance appraisal to assist our staff in planning and advancing their careers, to introduce greater accountability for accomplishing specific work objectives, and to enable the organization to assign the right people to the right place.

With working processes streamlined and greater authority delegated to the field, I expect that UNHCR will need fewer human resources, particularly in Geneva. Anticipating a reduction of 250 staff at headquarters, I have instituted a freeze on external recruitment, and further measures are planned to contain the impact of the reductions on staff. My Director of Human Resources Management is working, in close consultation with the Staff Council, to prepare a transition strategy.

Your broad support will encourage the process of change at UNHCR. From the beginning our staff has been involved in UNHCR's change process, and I remain committed to continuing this broad based approach.

Mr Chairman, I have come to the end of my statement. While we try to perform the best we can, we need your continued moral as well as financial support. Against a total budget of some 1.3 billion dollars, our funding situation now shows 776 million dollars contributed since 1 January, of which 320.5 million dollars are for our General Programmes. I appeal especially to the donors here present to make an extra effort for the serious shortfall in our operations in Bosnia, Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, West Africa and most urgently, in Tanzania and Zaire.

Amidst growing pressures and dilemmas, the challenges in sustaining international protection and achieving durable solutions are enormous. More than ever, we depend on the cooperation of all Governments, our United Nations sister agencies, the ICRC, and the NGOs - our crucial partners in action. With the help of all of you, I pledge my determination to continue to serve the victims of war and persecution with my dedicated and able staff.

Thank you.