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"Refugees: a multilateral response to humanitarian crises" - Elberg Lecture on International Studies, presented by Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, University of California, Berkeley, 1 April 1992

Speeches and statements

"Refugees: a multilateral response to humanitarian crises" - Elberg Lecture on International Studies, presented by Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, University of California, Berkeley, 1 April 1992

1 April 1992
Brief historical perspectiveChanging nature of the problemNew opportunitiesNew Challenges

I am very honoured and pleased to be invited to present the 1992 Dean Sanford S. Elberg Lecture in International Studies. I am particularly pleased to have this opportunity to address you on the subject of refugees and displaced persons not only because of its humanitarian significance, but also because of its impact on international peace and stability. The huge outpouring of migrant workers and evacuees preceding the Persian Gulf war, and the plight of refugees and displaced persons following it reflected in a microcosm the kind of population movements which we are witnessing as we come to the end of the twentieth century. I am convinced that if the post-Cold war world is to reach a new order, the problem of displacement must be addressed effectively and humanely. Therefore, in my lecture this afternoon I would like to examine: firstly, the changing nature of the refugee problem in the post-Cold War era, secondly, the new opportunities for conflict resolution which multilateral cooperation is producing, and finally the challenges which confront us in developing an effective response to the refugee problem in a conflict-ridden world.

Brief historical perspective

Population movements are indicative of a world in turmoil. Indeed, the first High Commissioner for Refugees was appointed more than seventy years ago by the League of Nations at a time when Europe was still reeling from the destruction of the First World War, the disintegration of empires and the effects of the Russian revolution. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations was confronted with a similar tragedy of uprootedness and exile in a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. This led to the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1951. Most refugees at that time were fleeing from totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Viewed as victims of persecution, they were readily accepted and integrated in the Western democracies. This comfortable convergence between humanitarian traditions and political objectives made UNHCR's task of developing adequate legal structures for the protection and integration of refugees in countries of asylum a relatively easy one.

By the early 1960s, refugee movements had changed in nature from individual flight to large-scale exodus as the process of decolonisation took its human toll, mainly in the African continent. There was strong solidarity for those fleeing the effects of national liberation wars and the large numbers of refugees who poured out of Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zaire, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, for instance, were hospitably received in neighbouring countries. International assistance was provided through UNHCR, and eventually UNHCR helped them to return home when their countries gained independence.

The situation worsened dramatically in the following two decades as Cold War rivalries were transmitted into a polarised and heavily armed Third World, exacerbating tensions and leading to regional or internal conflicts. These wars produced displacement on an unprecedented scale in and out of Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Indochina, Central America and Afghanistan. The refugee population which was around eight million at the end of the 1970s had surpassed 17 million by 1991. Most of the refugees were not fleeing political persecution as much as violence, conflict and insecurity, fuelled by political repression, poverty, recurrent famine and environmental degradation. The paralysis of international relations which marked the Cold War impeded any resolution of these conflicts. Consequently, millions of refugees continued to stagnate in over-crowded camps in countries which had neither the political will nor the economic capacity to absorb these growing numbers. As for the international community, with little scope for pursuing either repatriation or integration of refugees, the best that could be done in most cases was to provide humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs.

Changing nature of the problem

Does the ending of the Cold War then mean an end to refugees? Unfortunately, on the contrary, in some ways it has led to an intensification of the problem. The dominant feature of displacement in the post Cold War era is that it is largely the product of internal conflicts rooted in nationalistic, ethnic and religious violence. In the Middle East, the confrontation between the Iraqi authorities and the Kurds led to one of the largest and swiftest refugee outflows ever. In Africa, ethnic strife and civil war have long been a major cause of refugee movements. Now, with the withdrawal of Super Power support, the stranglehold of some authoritarian regimes has been weakened, unleashing, at least in the short term, vicious tribal warfare and threatening the timid sprouting of democracy here and there. Large pockets of insecurity in Ethiopia, the continued ethnic strife in southern Sudan and the civil war in Somalia make the Horn of Africa a region of chronic displacement - internal and external. In recent months, over 236,000 Ethiopian and Somali refugees have fled to Kenya, where UNHCR faces a major emergency in a region prone to drought and famine. We face another emergency in Bangladesh where almost 200,000 refugees from Myanmar have sought asylum from ethnic and religious persecution. Elsewhere in Europe and Asia, resurgent nationalism is raising its head with a vengeance, straining many fragile state structures and tearing others apart. Yugoslavia is the clearest example, where bitter ethnic conflict has led to the displacement of 650,000 persons within the republics of Yugoslavia, in addition to several hundred thousands to other parts of Europe. The mosaic of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities living in uneasy proximity in what was formerly the Soviet Union represent another fertile breeding ground for conflict. The violent dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh could well escalate into full scale war with massive outflow of refugees. Would it be overly pessimistic to say that we are viewing just the tip of the iceberg in eastern Europe and central Asia? The dilemma of displacement appears to have come full circle in the 41 years of UNHCR's history: having started as a European problem and spread globally, it has come back to haunt Europe once again.

Nor should we ignore the economic decline and pauperisation of large parts of the globe as an important factor of instability in a volatile world. In Albania, disastrous economic conditions, high unemployment and food shortages led to massive social discontent, recurrent riots and mass exodus of tens of thousands by boat to Italy last year. In the case of Vietnam, depressing economic conditions combined with political repression have long sustained an outflow of boat people. Closer to the United States, Haitians have taken to boats to escape to the United States from the debilitating effects of poverty and repression at home. The recent military overthrow of a democratically elected government in Haiti serves to underline the fragility of democracy in many poor countries.

It is clear that many parts of the world will remain in a volatile state for some time to come. It is equally clear that the political and strategic value of granting asylum has diminished, forcing a reassessment of the traditional response to refugee problems.

New opportunities

Despite this gloomy picture I see a hopeful future in the resurgence of international cooperation and the renewed confidence in the United Nations multilateral machinery for conflict resolution, not only between States but also within States. In one way or another the UN's political arm is actively engaged in resolving refugee-producing conflicts in Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Western Sahara, Somalia, Iraq, Burma and Afghanistan. A UN fact-finding mission is currently underway in Azerbaijan and Armenia. It is worth noting that the UN has launched more peace-keeping operations in the last 36 months than in its previous 43 years. Since 1988, 13 operations were mounted, including the two in recent months in Yugoslavia and Cambodia, and not counting the operation proposed soon in Somalia. Even more noteworthy is that these operations are not simply there to guard peace, but actively to build it. Whereas the objective of peace-keeping operations in the past was to prevent recurrence of fighting by supervising the ceasefire and separating warring factions, now there is a shift in UN operations from conflict management to conflict resolution. The modern UN operations contain dual military and political components with the objective of resolving the conflict within a fixed time frame. The multi-faceted and time-limited UN operation in Namibia which led the country to independence, and the observer mission in Nicaragua, which combined military verification and demobilisation with election-monitoring, were important precedents for the kind of operations the UN is now undertaking in Cambodia and El Salvador. In Cambodia, the UN is embarked on an ambitious plan of ceasefire, demobilisation, repatriation and reintegration of refugees, the rehabilitation of the displaced and elections for a constitutional form of government. In El Salvador, the UN broke new ground by mediating in a domestic conflict between the Government and the FMLN. This comprehensive approach to peace recognises the nexus between international and internal dimensions of security, the importance of democracy, rule of law and human rights to peace as well as the linkage between peace, development and freedom.

In some cases, multilateral efforts at peace keeping are buttressing or in turn being supported by regional initiatives. For instance, in Yugoslavia peace-keeping by the UN is creating the environment for the European community to broker a political settlement. In Somalia, mediation is a joint effort by the UN, the Arab League, the Islamic Conference and the Organisation of African States. The situation in Somalia illustrates clearly the link between security and humanitarian aid. Fighting in Somalia has so badly hampered relief efforts that the need for an internationally supervised ceasefire has become crucial for the distribution of humanitarian assistance.

By seeking to end conflicts rather than merely suspending them, the new generation of peace-keeping operations make possible the return of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of refugees in the near future. Indeed, repatriation of refugees, as in Namibia and Nicaragua and now Cambodia, are an essential precondition of UN-supervised elections, and thus a crucial part of the peace-building process. As the organisation responsible for protection of refugees as well as finding solutions to their problems, UNHCR has become the humanitarian arm of many UN peace-making efforts.

New Challenges

Emerging prospects of voluntary repatriation in the larger context of political settlements, as well as increased possibilities for "preventive"protection so that people are not compelled to flee their homes, have shifted the focus of refugee problems from the relatively stable conditions in the country of asylum to the more turbulent and often evolutionary process in the country of origin of refugees. This changing dimension of the refugee situation has confronted UNHCR with a major challenge of developing principles and strategies to meet the protection and assistance needs of refugees as they return home.

The most acute need is in the area of protection. Normally, returning refugees should be reabsorbed in the national protection system, but unfortunately, despite the multilateral efforts at comprehensive peace settlements around the globe, return does not always take place in ideal conditions according to bureaucratic blue prints. To give some examples, the massive exodus of Kurdish refugees last spring had turned within weeks to large-scale spontaneous return, conditioned as much by the decision of the Coalition Forces to set up a safety zone inside Iraq as by the reluctance of Turkey to allow the people in. However, many of the returnees remained displaced inside Iraq for months in insecure and unsafe conditions. In the Horn of Africa, war and food shortages in the country of asylum are forcing people to return home prematurely to areas still subject to instability - politically, economically and environmentally. Two years ago, 30,000 Salvadorean refugees decided to return in desperation after a decade in exile despite the on-going war between the government and the FMLN. In Sri Lanka, Tamil refugees are returning from India to conflict-ridden areas of north eastern Sri Lanka. The net result of such returns is often to shift displacement from one side of the border to the other and to place returning refugees in extremely fragile security conditions. How can UNHCR ensure that those who return in the midst of conflict and insecurity are not left unprotected?

The problems which these returnees face are not dissimilar from that of those who have never left their country but remain displaced within their own borders. In fact when refugees return to conflict areas, they often join the ranks of other internally displaced population. In such situations, the classical distinction between the two categories becomes illogical and impractical, if not inhumane. One of the first decisions which UNHCR made in the Kurdish crisis last spring was to provide protection and assistance to anyone displaced by the insurrection, irrespective of whether or not he or she had crossed an international boundary. In fact the plight of the internally displaced is the silent tragedy of our times. There are no reliable figures but estimates of the number of the displaced vary from 15 to 20 million. I see them as potential refugees, and an effective response to the refugee problem cannot ignore their plight. By meeting their protection and assistance needs we could preempt a refugee exodus, and even perhaps help to reduce internal displacement. This is the reasoning behind our involvement with some 650,000 internally displaced persons in Yugoslavia.

Protecting and assisting people in their own countries in the midst of violence and insecurity raises many thorny problems of law, policy and practicality. Whereas there is a general recognition that UNHCR retains a residual responsibility for returning refugees or returnees until they are properly reintegrated in their own countries, we clearly have no mandate for those who have never crossed a national frontier. In such cases we can only act - and have acted - at the specific request of the General Assembly or the Secretary General, as in northern Iraq and Yugoslavia. Refugee law, which focuses on the protection of persons after they have crossed their national frontier, is, I am afraid, out of bounds in this area.

There are of course provisions in humanitarian law, in particular the Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions for the protection of civilians in internal armed conflicts, as well as the mandate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but these too have their limitations. The major problem is that Protocol II comes fully into operation only when the party opposing the Government consists of an organised armed force, uses armed action and controls a significant part of the territory. Consequently, it does not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, which do not meet these conditions, even though violence may be used by either or both parties.

The protection of returnees and the displaced becomes particularly tenuous in situations of internal disturbances and tensions, in which gross and consistent violations of human rights occur but which do not amount to armed conflict, thus precluding the application of humanitarian law instruments. Of course, the law of human rights is applicable in these situations. However, it is considerably weakened by the fact that governments are allowed to derogate from many human rights during a state of emergency, exactly at a time when the need for protecting the individual is the greatest. The U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contains a derogation clause as do the European and American Conventions on Human Rights. There is no effective international mechanism to question the necessity of governments to resort to emergency powers nor any means of preventing human rights violations when the State abuses its powers. Thus, ironically, the level of protection is highest for refugees in their country of asylum, and falls dramatically once they are back over the border. Similarly, protection is high in international armed conflict situations, but significantly lower during non-international armed conflict, and virtually non-existent in situations of internal disturbances and gross violations of human rights. This lacuna in the law needs to be addressed urgently if the problem of displacement is to be reduced or resolved. Admittedly, development of the law itself will not resolve the problem if the political will to observe legal obligations is lacking.

Mechanisms for international protection of individuals in their own country inevitably raises the sensitive issue of national sovereignty. The position of the international community has been somewhat ambiguous on this point. The United Nations Charter upholds sovereignty by forbidding intervention in matters "essentially within the domestic jurisdiction" of states. The Persian Gulf War was fought to preserve national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yet it was the same Allied forces who then breached the principle by forcibly creating a "security zone" in northern Iraq. Understandably, such action has raised a plethora of questions on the limits of national sovereignty in relation to humanitarian action. Is respect for national sovereignty overriding or does the international community have the right to intervene when there is a gross violation of human rights? Should there be a right of humanitarian intervention? What are the risks and advantages of such a concept? Some have argued that the right to intervene would become an euphemism for the right to wage war, while others, using northern Iraq as an example, have pointed out that intervention often does not produce a complete solution to the problems that occasioned it. There is another problem, too. Sovereignty assumes the existence of a state. What should be the ground rules for international humanitarian action when the state itself has disintegrated and no viable system of government exists, as is the case in parts of Africa?

I believe this is an evolving area of law and policy. National sovereignty has never been an absolute concept as the development of international human rights principles have shown. The latter illustrate the growing emphasis on the obligations of sovereign governments towards their own people and the notion that sovereignty carries with it certain responsibilities. In my view, for practical reasons if nothing else, humanitarian action requires as a minimum the acquiescence of the government or authority in power. The current position of the international community is embodied in the General Assembly resolution last December which tries to find a balance between sovereign rights and individual needs. According to this resolution, humanitarian assistance can be provided with the consent of the affected country, rather than at its request.

Moving from theory to practice, one sees a great deal of improvisation and innovation through political and pragmatic measures by the United Nations to ensure the protection of returnees and displaced persons within the constraints of sovereignty."Corridors of tranquillity", "humanitarian ceasefire", and "zones of peace" are pragmatic devices which have been successfully used by the UN in places such as Sudan, El Salvador and Angola with the agreement of the warring parties to allow humanitarian assistance to be provided to those in need. It is interesting to note that even in the case of northern Iraq where access was initially established by force, on-going humanitarian activities by UNHCR have been based on an agreement with the government in Baghdad. On the basis of the Memorandum of Understanding reached with the Iraqi government, UNHCR and other agency staff established a massive presence to monitor human rights violations. In an innovative move, UN guards, who normally safeguard UN offices and property, were used as "moral observers". The long-term security of the people however remains uncertain in the absence of a political settlement.

In Sri Lanka, we have embarked on another novel experiment. When our traditional function of rehabilitating refugees returning from India was interrupted by renewed fighting, we were compelled to set up relief centres for displaced returnees. Without any legal basis whatsoever, and merely on the strength of our neutral, humanitarian presence, these centres have become havens of safety, respected by both warring parties. Unfortunately, while our humanitarian efforts have enhanced safety, they have, in the absence of a parallel political initiative, failed to achieve a durable settlement of the conflict.

This is where the strength of the arrangements in the context of the UN peace-keeping operations lie. In Yugoslavia, we are working in partnership with the United Nations peace-keepers on the safe and voluntary return of displaced persons to the demilitarised UN protected areas that are being created. I see UNHCR's efforts, in close coordination with the other international actors, in providing relief, protecting the displaced, facilitating their return and promoting respect for human rights as an important contribution to the peace negotiations underway.

The most innovative effort for protecting nationals in their own country has been taken by the UN in El Salvador where UN observer missions (ONUSAL) were deployed even before a full political settlement had been reached, to verify the undertakings made both by the government and the FMLN to respect human rights. In discharging our own responsibilities for monitoring the safety of returnees in El Salvador, we work closely with the ONUSAL.

Improved humanitarian and human rights practices gave a political impetus to the negotiations, leading to the conclusion of the Peace Accords in January this year, which in turn has helped to stabilise the situation of the returnees.

The responsibilities of UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia also include developing a human rights awareness programme, generally overseeing human rights as well as investigating and intervening on abuses during the transitional period. It remains to be seen how effective the UN will be in ensuring respect for human rights in Cambodia. What is evident however is that returning refugees and displaced persons, as well as the rest of the civilian population, can only benefit from the inclusion of human rights in the mandate of multilateral peace-keeping operations.

Just as political settlement stabilises repatriation, economic development sustains it. This brings me to the other great challenge we face in promoting voluntary repatriation. As High Commissioner, my first exposure to voluntary repatriation was during my visit to Ethiopia last July. I was deeply impressed with the political commitment and sincerity of the new government of national reconciliation whom I met in Addis Ababa. I then went to the eastern province to meet Ethiopian refugees who had returned from Somalia. I was appalled at their situation. Forced to come back to Ethiopia because of civil war in their country of asylum, they found themselves hungry and homeless on return. A year later we are still coping with returnee emergencies along with refugee ones in the Horn of Africa.

Last Monday the first busloads of Cambodians began returning home from Thailand. Cocooned in the protected environment of internationally-assisted refugee camps for more than a decade, how will they fare in a rural Cambodia, devastated by war, littered with mines, infested with malaria, burdened with demobilised soldiers and the internally displaced, almost totally bereft of any infrastructure, expertise or resources? Conditions in Angola, Somalia and Afghanistan, to name just a few of the potential countries of return, are going to be no better.

I believe large scale repatriation can only succeed if there is a concerted and comprehensive effort to create proper conditions of return - politically as well as economically. A multi-dimensional concept of peace must include not only freedom from war but also from want. Without that, people may come home, but for how long? - and at what cost to the peace process itself?

The International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), and to a lesser extent the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA), have both sought to address this economic dimension by developing a comprehensive approach to refugee solutions. Although moulded very much by their respective regional conditions and constraints, both of these efforts, in which UNHCR has played a central role, have a common multilateral strategy, involving countries of origin and asylum, as well as donors, UNHCR and other international agencies. CIREFCA, which has grown out of a political commitment to improve regional stability, has sought to incorporate solutions for the uprooted into a more durable plan for peace and development in the region. While the success of CIREFCA as a political instrument for solving the problem of displacement is already evident, the durability of the solutions it promotes will depend on the successful marriage of refugee relief to development assistance and the overall ability of the Central American countries to overcome their complex economic and social problems.

The CPA on the other hand was fashioned by the need to tackle a mixed movement of migrants and refugees, within a very complex political context. Although the outflow from Vietnam has been considerably reduced, it is only when the international community and Vietnam genuinely seek to address the underlying economic and social causes of the migratory movement from Vietnam that the CPA will have proven its success as a multilateral effort to solve a humanitarian crisis.

As both these instruments have underlined, areas to which refugees return must be given priority for development by the international community. These areas require significant, coordinated international investment to anchor those who come back. Programmes should not, however, target returnees as a favoured group but cover all those in need in that region equally, be they returnee, displaced, demobilised or others. While it is essential that the returnees be made part of the national reconstruction and development effort, they cannot afford to await the lengthy time-frame and planning process of development assistance. This is why UNHCR embarked in Nicaragua on "Quick Impact Projects", or QIPs as a means of spanning the bridge between relief and development. For maximum impact, QIPs - as indeed all effective development projects - need to be designed with the participation of the people, particularly women. This is where private voluntary agencies have a useful role to play in ensuring that all those who are meant to benefit from the project are involved in its design and implementation.

The ultimate test of course is the dovetailing of such immediate assistance into the overall development plans of the country. Just as in the protection of returning refugees there is a legal lacuna, in their assistance there appears to be an institutional lacuna between the short-term reintegration activities of organisations like UNHCR and the long-term development planning approach of agencies like UNDP. Caught in this gap, perceived as a minor segment of the larger problem of poverty and underdevelopment, the needs of returnees are often overlooked.

As we translate the experience gained in Central America into concrete proposals for refugees and displaced persons in Cambodia, there is no doubt that rehabilitation and reconstruction will require enormous commitment of funds. But investments which seem large now may prove to be money well spent in the future, and certainly less costly than prolonged instability and conflict. I am convinced that properly planned and resourced repatriation can help bring national and regional stability, which is in the interests of the country concerned as well as the donors, lending institutions and development agencies.

In conclusion, let me summarise that multilaterism is growing in areas of peace-making as well as development, both of which are of direct relevance to the resolution of humanitarian problems. However, lacunae in the law for protecting returning refugees as well as in institutional structures for their assistance on return, could seriously hamper efforts at finding solutions to refugee problems. I am afraid that these gaps will become even more pronounced as State power declines in the post-Cold War era. They need to be addressed urgently and forcefully if the multilateral response to humanitarian crises is to succeed.