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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-third session, 9 October 1972

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-third session, 9 October 1972

9 October 1972

Some of the distinguished delegates in the room and many of us here in the Office may feel sometimes that international organizations tend after a while to drift into the doldrums of routine and complacency. Let me assure you that we in UNHCR have not been affected in the slightest by monotony or boredom during the year that has just elapsed. Indeed, momentous developments have taken place in the field of refugee situations, and this is evidenced, I believe, by the heavy agenda that is before you. As a result, I do not propose to dwell at length on the details of our activities since the last meeting of the Executive Committee, but rather to restrict myself to the main themes and draw the conclusions, with the members of the Executive Committee, which I think emanate from these themes. I leave to my colleagues, who will be introducing the individual items as we progress in our work, the responsibility of going into some of our chapters in more detail.

The world today is rich in problems and poor in solutions, and it is for this reason that, whenever we note an improvement in the world refugee picture, we have to make sure that our enthusiasm is guarded and that our optimism, if there is any cause for optimism, is qualified. It is for this reason that I am particularly happy to report on two instances of repatriation - one where the refugees have already returned to their homeland, and another where a great many refugees are on the verge of doing so. Who indeed would have thought when we met in this room last year that, in February of 1972, the millions of refugees who had been in India would have returned to their homeland. As the Executive Committee knows, the High Commissioner was acting in this situation at the request of the Secretary-General of the United Nations as the focal point for the aid to be channelled through the United Nations. I have reported already on the role of the Office in this respect and the report which I addressed to the Secretary-General has been forwarded to the General Assembly. I commented on this report during the spring session of the Economic and Social Council. Therefore there is little to add to what has already been said in great detail, but I think we can all be happy that these unfortunate, uprooted millions have now gone home.

In the Sudan, I believe we have been making considerable progress in co-ordinating the assistance measures. This came about as a result of the request which the Government of the Sudan addressed to the Secretary-General and the new responsibility which Mr. Waldheim entrusted to me. This programme, I hope, will also bring about the repatriation of many hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons. What we are doing there is essential not only to bring back the 180,000 refugees whom this Committee had been helping for so many years in the neighbouring countries of the Central African Republic, Zaire, Ethiopia and Uganda, but also indeed to assist those displaced persons who are coming out and returning gradually from the bush and the forest to their villages. During the special meeting which took place here in Geneva on 27 June 1972, the Executive Committee was fully apprised of the historical developments which led to the assumption of this responsibility by UNHCR. I hasten to add that an information paper is going to be circulated to bring the Committee up to date with the developments that have occurred since 27 June. They are extremely significant.

I have just been to the Sudan myself and I spent a long time visiting the three southern provinces. I had the privilege of being received by his Excellency the President and I visited the south in the company of the Vice-President, who is also the President of the High Executive Council for the Southern Region. I was able to see for myself that the Addis Ababa Agreement had indeed brought peace to the Sudan. It was so encouraging to see the atmosphere of hope and confidence which prevailed everywhere. But clearly this peace must be consolidated and consolidated speedily in an area which has always been poor, which has always been faced with the problems of underdevelopment, which, in addition, has been affected by 17 years of civil strife and where, if the people are going to return to their homes and their villages, a great deal has to be done to re-establish the normal economic and social conditions without which the return of the refugees could not take place.

Mr. Jamieson, who is well known to the Committee, who is master-minding our assistance in the Sudan and who has himself just returned from that country, will be giving you a much more detailed account of the developments there when we reach that point on our agenda. I think also that we should avail ourselves of the presence of the very distinguished delegation of observers from the Sudan headed by Sayed Mamoun Beheiri, who is the President of the Board of Directors of the Special Fund for the Southern Region and who certainly will be able, better than anyone else, to give the Committee a picture of the developments and the needs in the Southern Region of his country.

The appeal which we launched has brought very positive results. All I want to say about this for the time being is the following: we have received to date a total in pledges and contributions of 12.5 million dollars, of which 3.9 million are in cash and 8.6 million are in kind. We still have a long way to go. Mr. Jamieson will be giving you all the details. It is clear that, since we started, a number of changes have taken place. Priorities have changed. As a result and particularly because there is still a very dire need for generous contributions on the part of the international community, I propose, when we get to the end of our meeting, to launch a follow-up appeal with a revised budget, which will be circulated to all Governments as soon possible.

It is clear that what UNHCR can do in this one-year period is only going to be significant if it can be linked with an over-all development and reconstruction programme for the whole of the South Sudan. What we can achieve in the year which has been accorded to us by the Secretary-General and by the Economic and Social Council must be continued. What is at stake here is not only the return of the refugees, but the peace and stability of the whole area. Once we have come to the end of the emergency, together with all the United Nations agencies, which here deserve to be praised once more for their excellent collaboration, it will be up to the United Nations Development Programme to rise to the challenge and take over what is going to be a much more important and long-term exercise.

Turning now to other parts of Africa, it is clear that refugees will continue to come from the areas which are still under colonial administration. I think it is interesting to note that this is an ongoing problem and that the Office will have to continue either to establish new centres or consolidate existing settlement centres in many of the countries in which refugees from areas which are still under colonial administration continue to seek asylum.

There is a limit to preventive diplomacy when it comes to trying to arrest the trends which produce the uprooting of vast numbers of people. I am thinking particularly here of the recent tragedy we have witnessed in Burundi, which has produced a very large number of refugees in Rwanda, in the United Republic of Tanzania and in Zaire. Isn't it ironic that, while we are about to reduce substantially the allocations which we requested from the Committee for the refugees from South Sudan, we should at the same time have to increase the budget to meet the needs of 50,000 new refugees from Burundi in another part of Africa.

We are now studying the techniques of settling these new groups. As you know, it is a difficult thing to find the right operational partners, methods of implementation and techniques which should be used, taking into account the social, climatic and agricultural realities of settlement. We are at present studying this very carefully with our operational partners, with the help of the technical expertise of the United Nations agencies. We hope very soon to have precise figures and an account of how the funds would be utilized for the resettlement of these refugees. For the time being, we do know that the substantial increase in our caseload in Africa will require allocations amounting to $1,350,000 within the over-all 7.8 million target for 1973. This is a very large and substantial part of our new programme requirement and, when we are able to discuss the "new and revised projects", which are going to be placed before you, we will go into some detail to explain the reasons for this expenditure. The presentation is perhaps not as specific and detailed as I would have wanted it to be, but, as I have pointed out, we are presently studying the ways to settle these people most effectively. This requires time and we must act with caution. However, there is no doubt that funds of this magnitude, added to about $1 million already committed or spent in 1972, will be required for this group of refugees in 1973.

We have been watching very closely the developments in Uganda, particularly with regard to the repercussions this may have on problems related to individual protection. As distinct from these developments, I am very happy to report that we have received assurances from the Government of Uganda that the refugees from some of the neighbouring countries, whom this Committee has been helping for many years in Uganda, will be able to remain and continue to benefit from the advantages which the Government of Uganda has granted to these groups in the past.

Now it is clear that just as we have to intensify our activities in some countries, and I have referred to them briefly already, we hope very much to effect savings in others. It is with this in mind that, in the light of the recent re-organization, which I shall come back to in a moment, we established a new evaluation and planning team in the Office, which is responsible for keeping our activities under permanent review. This means that we will be in a better position to initiate the phasing out of our assistance activities when the standard of living of the refugee is by and large that of the local population .This has always been our yardstick and I think we can ensure that this is applied even more effectively in the future.

This also means that in the countries of Europe, for instance, we shall be continuing to phase out our assistance as the problem is reduced in magnitude and in complexity, while at the same time keeping a very watchful eye on the continuous implementation of effective protection measures and the protection mechanism. Indeed, we have found that in some countries, where there is a great tradition of granting asylum most generously to refugees, the question of the implementation of protection is still not entirely satisfactory. I feel that the recent events which have caused terrorism to be placed on the agenda of the General Assembly may be partly responsible for what I would call a restrictive mood, which perhaps is understandable. However, I think that the role of the High Commissioner is to make sure that the bona fide refugees who are peaceful and law-abiding people should in no way be made to suffer as a result.

Turning now to Latin America, I believer that, as a result of the long-standing association which we have evolved with the Governments of the area, with the voluntary agencies, and other partners, the old problem of European refugees who were resettled in Latin America will be solved and that we shall no longer be asking you for substantial funds in the future. This is long overdue, but we have the solution in sight. Now, of course, this does not mean that we should not be concerned with new problems in Latin America. The Office has been called upon to assist with certain new problems of Latin American refugees. Here again, our objective will remain the same, namely, to assist Governments in finding speedy and permanent solutions in the non-political and humanitarian spirit, which is the one to which the Latin American Governments subscribe.

Our work is not of a permanent nature and, contrary to the specialized agencies and other subsidiary organs of the United Nations, our representations abroad are not permanent either. We consider that our branch offices in the countries where we have representatives should be there as long as the problem requires a presence and, indeed, in many areas of the world our assistance is nearing completion. In Asia, our assistance measures in Macau and Nepal may not be continued beyond 1973. It is for this reason that we hope to be able to terminate our activities in these areas. The Committee will therefore not find separate chapters on these two areas in the report which is before it. We feel that, since only marginal assistance measures will be required in 1973, there was no need for the report to have individual references to these activities. In the same way, I have been recently in a position to withdraw my representative from Saigon, largely because the refugees which were of direct concern to UNHCR have been adequately integrated and have reached by and large the same standard of living as that of the local people. Whatever problems of concern to my Office remain to be kept under review will be the concern of the branch office in Bangkok.

Turning now to protection, there has been considerable progress with respect to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol and we have many new accessions to both instruments. When my distinguished colleague, Mr. Dadzie, introduces the protection item of our agenda, he will go into some of the details, including the number of accessions to these instruments. Unfortunately there are still notable exceptions and it is unfortunate that a great many countries in Asia and the Far East have not seen fit as yet to accede to these two basic instruments. There are a number of African Governments as well that have not yet acceded. It is unfortunate also that the OAU Convention, which represents such an improvement on existing refugee legislation in the region, has not yet come into force because of the fact that one third of the members of OAU have not yet acceded to it. We hope, therefore, that there will be many new accessions in the near future to the Convention and the Protocol, as well as to the OAU Convention.

The problems of asylum seekers and their protection needs still keep us very much concerned in the sense that clearly refugees are not ordinary aliens. It is absolutely essential that many countries still should take a very close look at what I would call adequate procedure in the implementation of the instruments they have ratified. Otherwise it is clear that all the benefits and the rights which are given by these various legal instruments are illusory and mean very little for the refugee himself. In this field I would stress particularly the regularization of residence status. I must appeal to all Governments once more to make sure that refugees are not only given the benefit of generous asylum and non-refoulement, but that their residence status should be regulated as quickly as possible. Indeed, I would also appeal that refugees should not unneccessarily be submitted to arbitrary detention or imprisonment because of the fact that their presence in the country is irregular. Indeed how else would a refugee come into a country?

Finally, with regard to the implementation of these legal instruments, we attach great importance to the right of the refugee to work. Clearly, in many countries, if the refugee is not in a position to work, he becomes a burden not only to himself, but to the Government which has welcomed him. In many urban areas of Africa, for instance, where I recognize that there is a problem of unemployment and under-employment, the refugee finds it extremely difficult to obtain the right to work, a right which is normally guaranteed to a refugee in the legal instruments which we promote.

I should now like to turn to another problem which is of great concern to us at this time and that is the problem of statelessness and the link of statelessness to refugee status. Any acts which produce refugees or stateless persons are, of course, to be deplored from the point of view of the principles of the Charter and the principles for which the United Nations stands. I should like to recall that for many years - since the inception of UNHCR, in fact - the question of statelessness has been very closely linked with the problem of refugee status. In many ways, the position of refugees and stateless persons is similar. Many refugees indeed are stateless. (The difference, it would seem to me, is that whereas a refugee is often a de facto unprotected person, the stateless person is a de jure unprotected person.) And just as a refugee, though he has not lost his nationality, may not be able to avail himself of the protection of his national authority when he crosses the border and finds himself in a foreign land, a stateless person, in fact, may not be in a position to enjoy any protection from any legal authority either in his country of habitual residence where he is or outside it. It is for this reason that year after year I have called on the Executive Committee and appealed to the General Assembly through my reports on the importance of the reduction of statelessness. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons has so far been ratified by only 26 States. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of statelessness has been acceded to by only four States and therefore is not even in force, as six ratifications are necessary to make this instrument effective. In this connexion, I would like to extend appreciation to the Government of Austria for its recent decision to accede to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This is indeed very encouraging, but I do hope that two Governments at least will see fit to ratify this instrument in the very near future so that it can be brought into force. I sincerely believe that it is of the utmost importance that Governments and, indeed, the whole of the international community should give the problem of statelessness its utmost attention as soon as possible.

The principle of asylum is, of course, embodied in the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol thereto and, by and large, Governments have been subscribing to this fundamental principle very generously. We also saw, in 1967, the adoption by the General Assembly of the Declaration on Territorial Asylum. My Office continues to be very much interested in the improvement, the development and the strengthening of law relating to asylum and it is with this in mind that we have reported to you the results of the efforts of 16 jurists from different countries, who recently drafted what might hopefully one day become an instrument of binding importance with respect to asylum. This has been forwarded to the General Assembly.

May I add that all adherences to international instruments, to the 1951 Convention, the 1967 Protocol, the conventions on statelessness and on asylum are really quite academic if they are not somehow linked with proper and adequate implementation and if they do not penetrate the legal thinking of the officials in the Governments who are responsible for their supervision. Therefore, the efforts of UNHCR in this area have been concentrated very much on what I would call persuasion and education. We have had discussions and will continue to have discussions with officials at the highest level of Government and with junior civil servants as well to make sure that they understand that basically these instruments are not only in the interest of the refugees themselves, but indeed they are also in the interests of the Governments, and that it is in their interest that generous and humane status should be guaranteed to refugees and also to persons in similar circumstances.

I wish to turn briefly to financial contributions to our programme. Here again I am happy to report that we have made continued progress. The contributions have grown not only in number but also in size. Last year, 85 Governments contributed to our efforts. Incidentally, this was a new high. So far in 1972, 71 Governments have contributed, including many Governments that have never contributed heretofore. We hope, therefore, this year to repeat or perhaps even surpass last year's record. The income also has been substantial and has, in fact, increased by 14.5 per cent, from 5.2 million to 6 million, and thus we foresee in 1972 the full financing of the programme. For 1973, we clearly will continue to need the very strong support of Governments and this is particularly true because of the competition that exists in the field of fund-raising. It is particularly significant, I think, that the international community has been recently approached for so many different courses, for so many different appeals and for so many different humanitarian efforts that it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain necessary support and voluntary contributions. Clearly the important challenge which has been posed by the operation in the Sudan may handicap somewhat other fund-raising efforts for the regular programme and also hamper much-needed outside activities, like education and vocational training, which are funded from the Education Account. So we will need your support and your understanding. We feel that the needs are fully justified both outside the regular programme and within the programme and that the financial support must continue to respond to the requirements.

Turning now to administration, we have had since we last met a very substantial and detailed survey of our activities and of our structure at headquarters and in the field, conducted by the Administrative Management Service. The survey has given us valuable guidance. In the light of its recommendations, we have effected a reorganization of our Office and, although the two pillars of our activities clearly remain assistance, on the one hand, and protection on the other, we have given increasing attention to evaluation and planning like other organs of the United Nations. It is clear that rational and systematic planning must be based on thorough analysis and that this is necessary for organized and effective action.

In this context, I should like to refer briefly to the question of programme planning and budgeting, which is now before the United Nations. As you know, this question has been discussed for a long time and it is now under review by the General Assembly, particularly in the Fifth Committee. Whatever discussions will take place will be based on the Secretary-General's report on the matter and the very important recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions. Any General Assembly decision will, of course, have important implications for the Organization as a whole and the agencies, not only as far as the budget presentation is concerned, but indeed also with respect to programme planning. It is, of course, clear that the budget structure of UNHCR and the nature of the problems which condition the make up of the Office cannot really be compared easily to the activities of other United Nations bodies. It is difficult to foresee refugee problems in advance. It is extremely difficult to project the size, the nature and the complexity of the refugee problems with accuracy and, therefore, we must retain our capacity to react to changing circumstances which may require a very large degree of financial and procedural flexibility. We are following these developments very closely and the decisions and the implications of the decisions taken by the General Assembly will be brought to the Executive Committee and fully shared with you.

The most significant conclusion that I think can be derived from this past year is that this small Office, with its limited staff resources, has been called upon to deal with monumental tasks not as an integral part of its traditional activities and its limited programme, but indeed as a separate albeit parallel responsibility. The General Assembly appears to have acted with extraordinary foresight when in many resolutions it called upon the High Commissioner to, and I quote, "pursue his activities on behalf of refugees within his mandate or those for whom he extends his good offices". The underlying philosophy of the good offices and the whole concept of good offices was - and continues to be - that the High Commissioner, while adapting himself to rapidly changing situations, should act speedily and efficiently.

When the Secretary-General called upon UNHCR last year and then again recently in a completely different situation, to act as focal point or co-ordinator of the whole United Nations system, we were able to respond on the basis of the good offices. The world community supported our action in India very generously and is supporting us again this year in the Sudan, because of the realizations that it is through practical co-ordination of the complex multilateral apparatus that the United Nations can adequately respond to one of the challenges of our time. May I here extend a sincere tribute to all the agencies which have made this possible. Whether acting on behalf of refugees within the mandate of UNHCR or as a co-ordinator for wider assistance based on its good offices, UNHCR has endeavoured and will continue to endeavour to fulfil one of the main purposes of the Charter, as set out in article 1, "To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends", and indeed what common ends could be more natural or satisfying than the alleviation of human suffering which man has brought unto himself.