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Oral Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR headquarters staff on 1 February 1972

Speeches and statements

Oral Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR headquarters staff on 1 February 1972

1 February 1972

As usual I welcome this opportunity to talk about the developments in the office and also hopefully to discuss things with you at the end of my statement. I would like to stress at the outset that I welcome questions and comments on an occasion when all of us are together.

Permit me to welcome the new colleagues who have joined UNHCR since our last meeting: Mr. Dadzie, a distinguished jurist, the Head of the Legal Division, and the new staff members including those whom I have already had the privilege of meeting a few days ago in my office and who impressed me very much. We should try to renew our staff because the newcomers make a valuable contribution especially if they come from many different regions of the globe.

All the work we have don this past year has been overshadowed by a problem of unprecedented magnitude and mind-boggling importance: the colossal tragedy of the Bengali refugees. This development as well as the entrance of the People's Republic of China into the United Nations are probably the two most significant developments for us in 1971. I should like to say a few words about the evolution of the Bengali refugee situation the way in which UNHCR has tackled it, and then turn to China's membership. Later I shall revert to more classical questions including administrative and staff matters.

What is important to remember with regard to the Focal Point is that we were able to respond to the appeal of the Government of India after the decision of the Secretary General to establish UNHCR as the Focal Point, without much effect on the number of our total staff. Although the Focal point was independent and separate from the UNHCR's traditional function, it is a fact that practically everybody in the office got involved. What is important is that we did not have to increase the staff substantially apart from the limited recruitment that was made for the Focal Point function itself, and that we discharged our duties in such a way as to give governments the necessary confidence to channel a colossal amount of money and important contributions in kind through the channel which we provided. This was done therefore with very limited manpower, very limited administrative means and perhaps even more significant, without any kind of precedent which could be use as terms of reference or guidance about the way in which we were going to respond to this challenge. The way in which you have all responded, both the regular staff or the office who were used for the Focal point and all the new recruits who joined us specifically to deal with Focal Point problems, is a source of great satisfaction. The figures are impressive: all you have to do is to remember that Focal Point's contribution of 187 million dollars, to date is more money than the total amount of all programme funds since the very inception of the UNHCR programme in the 1950s. It shows that when there is a dramatic need, on which governments focus their political attention and on which public opinion is moved, and rightly so, by the tremendous attention of the mass media, then governments and voluntary organizations generally find no trouble in raising funds. It is interesting to note this because many of us were struggling desperately to obtain the necessary financial support for our regular programme for so many years. The administrative arrangements were effective and the standing inter-agency consultation unit which was set up here provided, for the first time in the United Nations system, a really effective, co-ordinating machinery. We speak a great deal about co-ordination and it has become a kind of an empty slogan. There are all kinds of committees, which are supposed to be dealing with co-ordination, but I must say that in my experience with the international organizations, I have never seen effective co-ordination to meet a crisis until we established this Focal Point. In a very pragmatic and highly ad hoc way, we cut across red tape and for the first time co-ordination really meant something.

We had an effective machinery not only here but also in Delhi through the local governments committee where UNHCR was represented. The Government of India knew at all times what it could expect through the United Nations channel. We knew what we could expect from the other UN agencies. We succeeded in building up a climate of confidence and of good reporting and accountability without which the governments would never have contributed such colossal funds. By having made this possible, all of you and particularly those who worked in the Focal Point, not only strengthened UNHCR and increased its prestige, not only helped me to discharge my own duties, but you also helped, and this is much more significant, to give the United Nations a good image and reputation in that humanitarian area. The General Assembly's decision was left unimplemented in the political field. The UN, in the view of public opinion, failed to prevent the war and the military repression in East Pakistan. The Security Council was paralysed through successive vetoes, and could not reach a decision to stop the conflict.

If you look at this whole, stark, grim picture, the only positive thing which is left is that the UN was able to respond in the humanitarian field. This is extremely important and to understand what I am saying all you have to de is look at the results of the debate in the Third Committee. At a time when political feelings were running very high and when everyone feared a confrontation of the worst kind in the General Assembly, we succeeded to sail through all these dangers in the Third Committee and emerged with a resolution that was voted by acclamation. l in addition, the Government of India said in their Aide-Mémoire of 20 January that they wanted to extend a special tribute to "the indispensable role played by the United Nations in the stupendous task of refugee relief work". It really does not matter so much if we did not get as much publicity as perhaps we should have had. As you know the UN usually does not get very much good publicity. Many papers and magazines and T.V. reports referred to what governments were doing but did not refer to the Focal Point channel through which they were contributing. What is important to me is that human beings were helped, that we succeeded in alleviating their suffering and that we did it in such a way to gain the credit and confidence of governments.

This is much more satisfactory than publicity. It passes very quickly and nothing is more obsolete than yesterday's newspaper. We are now in the repatriation phase. This is not of such direct importance in terms of UNHCR's function because the major part of this movement is spontaneous. There are very large numbers of people who have already gone home. The Government of India states a figure which totals 6 million, to date. The movement is taking place at a rapid pace and Mr. Kelly's role in Dacca will continue to be important even though we may not be able to contribute as directly, financially, to the rehabilitation aspect of the whole operation. As you know the United Nations Relief Operations in Decca, (UNROD) is dealing with that problem UNHCR, whose responsibility was Focal Point for refugees, has no specific mandate to go into the integration of the former refugees in their own homeland. Our role here is to facilitate and speed up their return and to make sure that we can provide them with whatever they can take back home with them. This may include new rations, some financial assistance, some basic equipment and shelter, and also hopefully a financial grant not only to facilitate their transportation but also the early stages of their settlement before they can be helped by UNROD or other forms of aid.

Many people will continue to need help for many years in this part of the world. If we have anything left over from our operation in India, we will of course make sure that this is channelled to the refugees who go back home to be pooled together with what the UN is doing already. This is the function of Mr. Kelly and his team. They will be going from Dacca to the field very frequently to assess the rate of return, to ensure that returnees should not be faced with bottlenecks since communications have badly broken down and that they are not suffering from hardship or lack of food. They will maintain a constant liaison not only with UNROD and other agencies, but also maintain close contacts with the authorities in Dacca. In case a group of returnees in a certain area need priority attention, our team be in a position to draw the attention of the competent bodies to the needs of these groups who were being helped by us as Focal Point in India when they were on the other side of the border. To conclude, I would again like to thank all those of you who did so much for this operation not only the Focal Point team but all others in the office who contributed directly or indirectly to this tremendous challenge.

I extend a particular tribute, as it is so well deserved, to Mr. Jamieson who once again performed miracles and his team in Delhi and to Mr. Kelly and his team in Dacca. Mr. Kelly went through highly critical days, facing great personal risk before and during the war, and yet remaining steadfastly in Dacca dealing with a great many problems that no UNHCR representative has ever had to cope with and generally contributing in a tremendously spectacular way to the humanitarian tradition of this office. He stayed away from politics, always managing to stay on good terms with everyone.

The People's Republic of China is now a member of the UN. This is a tremendous development. It is important not only in the political field but also to UNHCR specifically because China is a member of our Executive Committee. We are a subsidiary organ of the UN. When the People's Republic became a member, it automatically had the right to avail itself of their seat on our governing body. It is with this in mind that we had a meeting here at Headquarters last week with all our position in Asia. I do not intend to go into this in detail. Asia has been very largely ignored by this Office not so much because we are guilty of not having done our job, but because many Asian governments have not drawn our attention to problems or have not understood exactly what UNHCR could do for certain refugee situation; we have been guilty of not examining carefully enough our methods of work for Asian refugee. This applies to a caseload, like the Tibetans and others. Where. Are we going? What are we trying to prove? To what extent is the programme geared to permanent solutions? How can we phase out in the way that we have done in so many other parts of the world? It is not good to perpetuate refugee problems and we should not forget that some of the refugees from these Tibetan regions have been in the host countries since 1959. It was a useful, productive meeting and it gave our colleagues in the field a change to exchange views with us and each other. It was said in this very room last year that what was perhaps most impressive about UNHCR was that it was always walking on a tightrope.

Ours is a kind of permanent balancing act, to avoid becoming politically controversial again. Once more UNHCR succeeded in getting the unanimous support of the Third Committee and this for the fourth year. If we succeeded in getting this support from the governments for both Focal point and the report, it was very much because of our past record. Governments knew that UNHCR was worthy of confidence and that they could trust UNHCR as an objective Focal point. If we want to maintain this reputation in the future, then we must be ready to face the consequence of China's presence now in the international organization. The next sessions of the Executive Committee will be exciting, stimulating and a welcome change for those of us who sometimes felt that the Executive Committee was getting to be a bit of a routine, a kind of a nice club where everybody knows everybody and where there are no surprises.

I'm very concerned that our Focal Point effort an the tremendous burden which this has imposed on all of us should not affect our work in Africa. We have great problems there which are unresolved. One of them which I mentioned last year is the build-up of individual cases. We haven't done as well as we should have. In some cases such as in Nairobi the approach is working quite satisfactorily. But there are still capitals like Addis, Dakar, other where it's going to a long, uphill struggle. The efforts which we have made to establish a small but effective network of social counselling for individual cases in Africa have not yet succeeded, except in Kenya, as much as I still hope they will. The OAU has not been able to help us much. The problem is linked with protection. The math that there is no real protection problem in Africa has finally been exploded once and for all. We are currently faced with protection problems, sometimes for very few cases, in many African cities. For this reason the legal Division must remain very active in this area. This being said, the number of governments that have acceded to the 1951 Convention now number 61, as opposed to the 49 who have acceded to the 1967 Protocol.

I was in Latin America recently and visited Argentina and Chile. Here again we are starting a new chapter, because for the first time, we're dealing with a new caseload of refugees. The Office until now was essentially concerned with Europeans who had resettled in Latin America, and who were considered to be largely handicapped cases. Now we have a new group, not a handicapped group, not a European group, but people who need assistance from UNHCR. If we succeed in solving the old situations more quickly than we have, we can turn with renewed energy to these new Latin American problems, where the Office has a pioneering role to play. Here also we have to exercise great political tact because of the sensitivity of Latin American governments. It's a great challenge for UNHCR, although the number of the refugees may be small in comparison to other groups.

In Europe, there are no major development. I'm not too pleased about the length of time it takes for us to find solutions to those remaining European refugees. People still spend far too much time in camps. It seems so unjust, inhuman and wrong that people should remain sometimes two years or more in camps in countries of first asylum frequently without being able to work, or working in an illicit, illegal way without the support of the host governments; that people should wait frustrated, like so many hundreds of thousands of refugees from the early post-war days for a migration mission.

If we fail once more in speeding up this operation in Europe, we're going to be faced with a new handicapped group which ultimately would bring about another appeal to governments, and new exercises like the Jensen and Berner approach to handicapped cases.

I'm also not pleased at all about the conditions in some of the camps, and this is a matter which I intend to revert to. There has been a recent development in one country which I'm extremely worried about and treatment and the conditions of the refugees in the camps. We should not forget that if we gain prestige in operations like the Focal Point, if the Office comes out stronger and its effectiveness is recognized by governments, then we should take advantage of it to influence governments that do not treat refugee in the way that refugees should be treated. This is as true in Europe as anywhere else.

Turning now to our financial situation, the figures speak for themselves. In 1966, when I took over, 50 governments contributed to our annual programme; in 1967 we had 55; in 1968 we had 70; in 1969 we had 75; in 1970 we had 81; and in 1971, last year, we had 82 with three more expected which will bring the number to 85. In the same six-year period, the total government support inside and outside the programme has nearly doubled from some $3,318,000 in 1966 to $220,000 in 1970. We finally at long last reached what seemed for so many years a utopian target of having the programme fully financed by governments, leaving the voluntary agencies and private sector to add to what we are doing as a minimum basic contribution of the international community. All those who have contributed to this should be warmly congratulated. While the number continues to grow, bearing in mind that we had 85 contributing governments in 1971, we might well reach 100 fairly soon.

I would urge you strongly to check the summary records of the Third Committee, not only the regular report, but also the Focal point, which you will find very interesting.

Turning now to the administrative budget. Well, here, unfortunately the situation is not as encouraging as that of the programme. Indeed, 1972 is a year of austerity in the United Nation and UNHCR cannot go against the stream. They are overriding restrictions which have been referred to by the Secretary General in his statements. The press has also been very outspoken about the State of finances of the UN. As a result for the first time since UNHCR's inception, we're not going to have any supplementary estimates. We must try to save the full amount needed to cover extra costs and salaries and other budget items which result directly or indirectly from the re-evaluation of the Swiss franc. This will also apply to other currencies which have been affected by this change, where we have field offices. Beyond this saving, and depending on the outcome of negotiations which we're presently holding with New York Headquarters, we may also have to share part of the expected over-all deficit of the United Nations Although we don't know yet what this will entail exactly, the Secretary General estimates the over-all deficit to be approximately six million dollars. This is a matter of great concern to me and I will keep you informed as time goes on of whatever results we achieve.

Turning now to staff questions. As you know we are having a Management Survey. It's too early to tell what the results will be. I don't want to prejudge the outcome. I am hoping that if we explain the position of the Office at it really is and in what way we are "underprivileged" in comparison to the grade levels of other UN agencies, particularly in the field, that this should be taken into consideration by the AMS.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to reorganize and streamline from within. We don't have to wait for experts to come from outside to tell us what to do. If we do our job correctly we should be able to improve organization and communications within the Office. I know there are problems, I recognize them. there are gaps in communications. We suffer like many other organizations from overlapping and duplication. It should be avoided. The communications problem is made worse by the space situation in and around the Palais. Last year I told you that we would be moving into the new building. The Legal Division, which has been particularly discriminated against and has had to move so frequently, and the America/Europe and Oceania Division will move into the new building permanently within the next two or three weeks. We will all be moving there in due course. I mentioned the new recruits. For a small outfit like UNHCR the recruitment really has been very encouraging in 1971. We tend to forget that we only have 112 established posts. As against the 112 established posts we recruited 17 professionals, vice-versa, then we'll never be able to do our work. There will be duplication and overlapping. The answer again lies in a much stronger desk. A stronger desk should incorporate the constant attention and concern of the Legal Division. This is something which I intend to discuss with Mr. Dadzie. In my opinion there is no substitute and I certainly haven't heard of any.

If there are complaints, I want something to be done about them. Nothing is worse than having ideas or complaints voiced and then inaction. This is very frustrating. This is the responsibility of the area desks and the senior staff. There must be a collegiate spirit. If we succeeded in doing such a good job in the Focal Point it's really because we had a team spirit. A Focal Point which did not have a collegiate atmosphere would have been useless. If we had depended in the Focal Point on hierarchy, speed and efficiency would have been impaired. In an emergency you have to respond rapidly. In the Focal Point colleagues contributed not on the basis of hierarchy, but on the basis of ability. This is the real criterion. The same collegiate team spirit which prevailed in the Focal Point, based on ability and capacity rather than hierarchy should exist in UNHCR. We have moved in that direction. We have junior members of the staff now on the promotions board. Mr. Mace can testify that the board works in a good spirit and produces results and good thinking. In addition to this I'm delighted that two staff members will be nominated I an ad hoc way by the chairman of the electoral unit, and Staff Association, to participate in the discussions which will be held on the question of special post allowances. This group is chaired by the Deputy High Commissioner, and it's important that everybody should know what it's all about. For this reason, I welcome the recent decision to send out a joint circular, signed by the Administration and the staff jointly, informing all of you of the criteria and procedures which are to be used in the appointment and promotions board.

I appeal to all of you to indicate some interest and volunteer for field posts. In the general service category, there have been many candidates for field assignments. In the professional category there have been fewer application. In terms of your own career and also from the point of view of promotion, field assignments are extremely useful and should not be neglected. It may be tempting sometimes to remain in Geneva, but I would urge you to bring your names forward to us and indicate your interest in field assignments. This applies more to those who haven't yet been to the field, than to those who have just come back. Some are so content abroad that they are not anxious to return to Headquarters.

We have instituted leave without pay for those who would like to continue their studies or develop their knowledge. Some of our colleagues have benefited from this.

This is something I also wanted to bring to your attention particularly for those young colleagues who wish to pursue their academic career and yet stay with UNHCR.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the outgoing officers and members of the Staff Association and welcome those new members who have been recently elected.

It is good to resort to self-examination, and self-evaluation. We can benefit from advice from outside or shoulder the "fait accompli" of a very restrictive financial situation but nothing will replace improved organization from within. The criteria should be "are we all contributing our optimum efforts and our capacities to the Office?". And if not, why not? This is absolutely vital. he Office has responded in a most remarkable way to the challenge of ten million refugees in India.

We've gained great strength and great credit for this. We shouldn't be self-satisfied and simply relax now that this challenge has been largely met. We should always do as well, or better.

May I thank you all for what you've done. I'm counting on you again in 1972.