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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, New York, 1 November 1996

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, New York, 1 November 1996

1 November 1996

I am very grateful for the opportunity to address this renowned forum today. As depicted so clearly by the current drama in Eastern Zaire, the problems of refugees and displaced persons with which my 5,400 colleagues are trying to cope across the globe are so acute and painful, that every opportunity to advocate their cause is welcome. In my introduction I intend to focus on the role of my Office in managing and solving forced displacement and on some of our challenges and dilemmas we are facing on a daily basis. Andrew Carnegie would have immediately recognized the ethical dimensions underlying the refugee issue and this forum is appropriate to discuss them.

UNHCR was established by the General Assembly in 1950, to provide international protection to refugees and to solve their plight. Protection of refugees does not only mean making sure that people fleeing persecution, human rights violations or war are allowed to enter other countries to seek asylum or are not forcibly returned to a country which may threaten their lives. It also requires looking after their physical and material well-being, by coordinating emergency relief in the form of shelter, water, food, health care, education and community services. Over the years, and especially as a result of the large scale crises of the nineties - northern Iraq, Somalia, former Yugoslavia and Rwanda - UNHCR's work has expanded enormously.

First, the number and categories of people of concern to my Office have sharply increased. We are now responsible for 26 million people. In addition to 13.2 million refugees, these. include people who have gone home but still need our assistance and sometimes protection, stateless persons and especially millions of persons forcibly displaced within their own countries. In fact, the latter group outnumbers refugee populations having crossed international borders. They remain, however, too often beyond the reach of international protection and relief efforts when States, insisting on national sovereignty, invoke political or security reasons against such undertakings.

Second, our work has become more diverse. During the war in Bosnia, we organized together with UNPROFOR, the humanitarian airlift to Sarajevo and convoy operations to besieged cities, preventing the often deliberate starvation of Bosnia's civilian population. At the same time, we tried to ensure that those fleeing abroad were admitted to safety. In Tajikistan and elsewhere, human rights oriented training to judicial personnel is provided. In the vast region of the CIS, local NGOs, which are vital in building an open, civil society, are supported to develop a capacity to respond to and prevent forced displacement. Through reforestation projects we try to correct the ecological damage in many asylum regions in Africa. I could give you many other examples.

Third, our approach has become more pro-active and solutions oriented, instead of solely reacting to an outflow of people across a border. Our presence in both countries of asylum and origin of refugees enables us to engage in assistance and protection activities on both sides of the border. It allows us to ease the circumstances leading to flight and to help refugees and displaced persons to return home as soon as possible. We make sure that peace settlements make provision for humane solutions for those who were forced to flee, as we did in Dayton. As an impartial organization we negotiate amnesties and human rights guarantees for refugees to safely go back. From Bosnia to Rwanda and from Cambodia to Guatemala, returnees are assisted to reintegrate into their communities through small-scale quick impact projects, such as the repair of homes, hospitals and schools. We hope that these projects serve as a catalyst for other development oriented projects, essential to rehabilitate the economic and social infrastructure. We do not wait for conditions in the country of origin to become ripe for repatriation, but UNHCR wants to help create them together with our partners. In so doing, we are cooperating with a wide range of new actors, such as human rights monitors, election experts, reconstruction entities, military forces, and regional organizations.

The evolving role of my Office must be viewed against the background of a rapidly changing international environment. The end of the Cold War has paved the way for the resolution of many conflicts and for large scale refugee repatriation. There has been a greater readiness on the part of the international community to save human lives during conflicts by investing in peace-making and peace building. Following the signing of the peace agreement in Mozambique and the establishment of UNOMOZ, some 1.7 million refugees have returned in Mozambique. The repatriation was successfully concluded and UNHCR has handed over its activities to our development partners in July of this year.

However, let me hasten to add a realistic note. The recent in-country humanitarian relief operations - Somalia, northern Iraq, Rwanda and Haiti - were only in part inspired by genuine feelings of compassion. Political and security interests, to prevent a spill-over of the conflict, and the increasing weariness to receive refugees have weighed heavily in all these cases.

Some of these humanitarian interventions were belated or insufficient. In other places there has been no attempt to halt massive human suffering. They are the so-called forgotten crises, festering outside the international spotlight. This selectivity in response equally applies when States emerging from conflict are in desperate need of international assistance to rebuild their societies and economies.

If states perceive to have few or no strategic interests in a conflict, there is a tendency to opt for humanitarian action. Even if the strategic interests of states are affected but do not converge, relief serves as the lowest common denominator and as a substitute for more robust political or even military action in some instances. For a long time that was the case during the war in Bosnia. However many lives we saved, it was a difficult dilemma for UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to carry on highly complex relief operations while feeling increasingly helpless in containing "ethnic cleansing". Our efforts were constantly being exploited by the warring parties, and the security of our staff was being jeopardized. It may not be an exaggeration to say that when the war escalated to the point of undermining the Atlantic partnership, only then the major powers could agree to stop it in 1995, through determined political negotiations backed up by military force.

Turning now to the challenges for humanitarian action in the future, one of the greatest tasks will therefore be to preserve its integrity. We must ensure that the principles of impartiality, humanitarian and non-political are safe-guarded, first of all by the parties to the conflict, but also by the international community. Humanitarian agencies must be able to operate in safety, and in a credible and impartial manner, while others undertake political action to resolve conflict and to eradicate the causes of forced displacement. The current conflagration in the Great Lakes region in Africa demonstrates the dramatic humanitarian and security implications of doing otherwise.

Let me briefly explain. Following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 we have provided protection and assistance to 1.7 million Hutu refugees in Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. However, while these international relief activities serve an innocent, silent majority of needy and anxious people - most of whom are women and children - they have also aided the militants and perpetrators of genocide intermingled with the refugees and who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. You can imagine the ensuing dilemmas. The inability to separate the militants from the refugee population has been agonizing. We tried everything possible, both in Rwanda and in the asylum countries, to encourage the refugees to repatriate, but most of them were prevented from returning by the militants or lacked confidence in the developments in Rwanda. Meanwhile, armed incursions from Zaire into Rwanda have taken place, and ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis has spread to eastern Zaire, forcing nearly a million of Rwandan and Burundi refugees to flee their camps. As I have repeatedly argued, again last week at the Security Council, this untenable situation proves anew that humanitarian responses cannot solve political problems.

I am afraid that the lack of an international consensus and resolve on how to deal with the underlying political dimensions of the problem have contributed to the current humanitarian nightmare. The ethnic antagonism in Rwanda and Burundi has engulfed eastern Zaire. The region is in chaos, as more than 600,000 refugees and an unknown number of Zairians have fled to the hills and banana plantations beyond the reach of life-saving assistance, and unconfirmed reports say that local UNHCR staff in Bukavu and their families have been slaughtered while attempting to flee the fighting. Lest this crisis is halted, the catastrophe of 1994 risks to repeat itself. Lest action is taken now, there will be even more refugees to feed for many years to come, as peace and reconciliation will have become remote dreams.

This leads me to the second challenge: How to solve forced displacement following fierce inter-group conflict? In recent years we have been able to bring millions of refugees home in peace. This work continues, in the Horn of Africa, in parts of Asia and in Central America. We should all be inspired by the ongoing process of reconciliation in countries such as Guatemala, Mali, Mozambique and South Africa. But how does one achieve the peaceful re-integration of refugees and displaced persons whose expulsion was not a by-product but the very objective of the fighting, as was the case in Bosnia and in various parts of the Caucasus? How can just and humane solutions be obtained for the uprooted victims in the absence of a genuine compromise for coexistence among the groups, or when essential parts of this understanding - as contained in the Dayton Agreement for instance - remain blocked by both political obstruction and distrust? Can the goals of war be undone?

Helped by NATO, the OSCE and numerous other partners, my Office is spearheading the international effort to bring about the return of 2.2 million refugees and displaced persons to their homes or to a place of their choice. Unfortunately, only some 250,000 people have been able to return since Dayton, and nearly exclusively to areas controlled by their ethnic group. Bosnia demonstrates that the establishment of civilian peace, reconciliation in the broad sense, is a greater challenge than separating armies or the reconstruction of societies deeply divided following fierce communal conflict.

Again we are facing tough dilemmas: if there is so much obstruction against the return of refugees, especially on the Serb and Croat side, should we give up and try to settle all of them in their ethnic majority areas? My answer is no, as that would be tantamount to "ratifying ethnic cleansing." UNHCR will continue to build bridges among the people of Bosnia: not they, but some of their leaders are frustrating a multi-ethnic Bosnia. Alone, however, we will not succeed: once again, the issues involved are political rather than humanitarian. I wish the international political leaders would make this much clearer, and back it up with the necessary resolve. At the same time, we must be realistic and create alternative solutions for people wishing to settle elsewhere in Bosnia. This too is foreseen under Dayton.

Let me now discuss our third and final challenge this morning. How to uphold the core values of safe and adequate refugee protection? These days, Pakistan is granting refuge to thousands of people fleeing from Afghanistan, where battles rage and the human rights of women, in particular, are seriously violated. Iran has offered asylum to new waves of refugees escaping the fighting in northern Iraq. However, in many other situations the institution of asylum has come under threat. Even in the United States, stronger voices are heard to restrict asylum and to amend the immigration legislation.

You remember perhaps the distressing odyssey of a ship, aptly called "the Bulk Challenge", which carried thousands of Liberian victims of war along the shores of West Africa earlier this year. Many other examples do not reach the headlines. People who are in direct danger have been rejected at borders, and thereafter imprisoned and even executed. In other countries admission is complicated by new legislative restrictions. Deadly attacks on refugee camps, sexual abuse of refugee women and children, and practices of forcible conscription and abusive detention are undermining the safety of refugees. And last but not least, premature and severe pressures on refugees to return to their home country are mounting.

I fully realize the enormous economic, political and even security strains which the arrival of asylum - seekers and refugees cause. As my Office, an inter-State organization, has to serve many clients at once, that is: refugees and the Governments of the countries of asylum, origin and donors, you may appreciate the dilemmas we are facing. We have to serve as an honest broker. We constantly have to try to reconcile the rights of uprooted people with the legitimate interests of States. It is the daily challenge of balancing idealism and realism.

During the Cold War, receiving refugees was often both a political and humanitarian corollary of the ideological confrontation. Nowadays, refugee protection depends on a humanitarian rationale in many instances. This, I am afraid, is a much weaker basis. Despite all problems, we have to build on this rationale, by working toward a new paradigm for international action: to commit more resolve and resources to preventing conflict, to provide effective protection during conflict and to re-establish peace. There can be no genuine New World Order, if it continues to be premised exclusively on peace between and not within States. Refugee situations, such as those in the Great Lakes region in Africa, moreover prove how artificial this distinction can be.

Let me conclude. What I just said, is a tall order in a world beset by many other problems and increasingly preoccupied with domestic agendas. In the search for a New World Order, it is my conviction that we must build support for a strong and effective United Nations, to strengthen human solidarity, to better serve its member nations and to promote the security of people across the globe. My Office will continue to work for the victims of war and persecution to the best of its abilities.

Thank you.