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"Solidarity and Nation Building: the Case of Refugees" - Speech by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Makerere University, Kampala, 7 May 1998

Speeches and statements

"Solidarity and Nation Building: the Case of Refugees" - Speech by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Makerere University, Kampala, 7 May 1998

7 May 1998

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you very much for inviting me to Makerere University. I am glad to have this opportunity to speak to you, the young generation of Africa. I shall indeed talk about the topic which you expect from me - refugees - but right at the outset I want to be clear on one point: refugees are not, as is sometimes perceived, an isolated "moral issue". Refugees have complex relations with the societies they come from, and with the communities who host them. They constitute a link between different societies and states, across the borders they cross. More than ever, they are of concern to the world for humanitarian, security, and economic reasons.

Let me address you as the future leaders of Africa in government and politics as well as in all other fields and professions - business and law, education and culture, science and technology. Today I sense, in Africa, the growth of a new political culture, the awareness that Africa belongs to all Africans. At least in some countries, alongside with a fresh impulse for democracy, there is also a new sense of freedom - not just the political freedom to elect governments: people have begun to feel that resources are available, that possibilities are opening, and that choices can be made. This evolution towards greater maturity and confidence is also reflected in the way Africa looks at its past. It is still, rightly, a critical look - but it is also a healthy, pragmatic approach to the more positive legacies of history.

I believe that the time has come for Africans to engage themselves in a new process of nation building - not from the narrow perspective of nationalism, but through a broader approach which focuses internally on civil society, and externally on creating or strengthening regional mechanisms.

If this process is to be successful, I believe that you must not build nations and societies whose strength is merely economic, or military. Let me make a semantic distinction - but one which I think is important - and argue in favour of "strong", rather than "powerful" nations. A strong nation is one in which the peaceful coexistence and mutual trust of its people are based not only on common material interests, but also on a shared respect for the rule of law, and on a set of goals, ideals and values for all citizens - it is a nation in which civil society is an active, visible, free and independent reality. And I would like to add that nations are "strong" only if - while becoming richer and better organized - they do not neglect their weakest citizens.

I am often disappointed by what I see happening in developed countries. Great energy is spent in building wealth and power. I am not arguing in principle against materialistic and individualistic values - they are very useful in making a society solid, rich and stable. To a certain extent, they are the engine of economic development. I also know that what used to be called "charity", and which I prefer to call "solidarity", cannot alone bring prosperity. Dealing with refugees, we know too well that aid can create dependence, which becomes an obstacle for economic growth.

But let me make a personal reflection and tell you that what I find distressing, particularly in rich societies, is an exclusive focus on the individual and his or her success, wealth and career. What disturbs me, as the chief of an agency which protects and assists extremely vulnerable people, is to see many societies - many individuals, I should say - seeking prosperity without solidarity. The absence of solidarity, not only as a value but also - most importantly - as a set of practical measures to protect the weak, inevitably excludes people. And in this exclusion lies a seed of division and conflict which will eventually erode societies from within, and will destroy the work of nation builders.

This is a very real risk in societies undergoing a process of rapid economic development - I am very concerned, for example, by what may happen to groups of people more exposed to economic recession, including refugees, recent returnees, and migrant workers. The current financial crisis in Asia may be a case in point. As you make your own careers in government or business, in the fields of education or technology - all of which are indispensable contributions to prosperity - it is essential that you do not lose sight of those who inevitably "fall through the cracks". Africa has an important - and in my opinion not too well studied - tradition of community-based solidarity. When I say this, I do not refer to some idealistic, abstract notion. I am talking about very concrete family and community support systems - whose effectiveness my Office is well placed to observe in refugee situations, such as camps and village settlements - and I am talking about the need to translate them into secure social safety nets as you build modern nations.

Solidarity is therefore not just a moral value. "Charity," said Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, "is realpolitik." It is often said that good leaders are visionary. Vision, in my opinion, also means to realize that solidarity brings stability, and that only through stability you will achieve prosperity.

Let me now turn to refugees. If we talk about the need to uphold and implement solidarity, refugees, displaced persons and returnees are a typical group in need of special protection and attention. I do not say this simply as the High Commissioner for Refugees, but because those compelled by persecution and violence to leave their homes exemplify the dangers which lie in the exclusion of a particular group.

Refugees are especially prone to exclusion. They are by definition excluded from their own societies. They are often perceived as strangers, even intruders, by societies hosting them. Exclusion frequently becomes rejection, in different degrees and fashions. There is a social form of rejection - for example, barring refugees from jobs, education, social benefits. Sometimes rejection takes silent but subtly effective psychological forms and refugees are made to feel that they are unwelcome. Violent rejection also occurs - unfortunately quite often - and refugees are then harassed, imprisoned, tortured, sometimes deported to the country they fled from.

Many argue that rejection is a very instinctive form of reaction by a community against any foreign people perceived as an additional burden on its scarce resources or a threat to its security. But what we observe in many countries is that exclusion does not occur only when refugees flee to a host country, but also when they return to their own communities. (In Bosnia, last month, a woman told me that her worst experience as a refugee was to go back home and discover that her neighbour, a friend from a different ethnic group, did not want to speak to her any longer.) This is made worse when forced displacement has been caused by internal, inter-communal or inter-ethnic conflict, and takes dramatic forms when - as happens with increasing, worrying frequency - displacement is one of the very objectives of conflict, and refugees return home to divided communities.

In such cases, people subjected to forced displacement can become a factor of grave instability - both for countries hosting refugees and for those from which they flee, or to which they return. We have observed this pattern, for example, in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa since 1993. States and communities respond in different ways to these situations - they may react through even more brutal exclusion, thus initiating a spiral of violence, retaliation and hatred; in other situations, refugees may be utilized as tool of war, as we have seen in the former Eastern Zaire in 1994. In either case, instability worsens: both the exclusion and the manipulation of refugee groups affect the peace and security of the region in which displacement occurs.

The Great Lakes region has been marked by divisive, destructive and prolonged inter-communal conflict. During a recent tour of nine countries in Central Africa, I have proposed to their leaders that the Organization of African Unity and my Office convene a meeting to discuss how to protect refugees and returnees while at the same time ensuring that the interests of States, and security in particular, are taken into consideration and safeguarded. I am happy to say that this meeting, which I will co-chair together with Dr Salim, the Secretary-General of the OAU, and which President Museveni has kindly offered to host, begins in Kampala tomorrow.

Implementing refugee protection principles in a fashion which is not contradictory with the interests of States and peoples is perhaps the greatest challenge my Office faces today, but not only in Africa. In this process there are - I should say - two levels of responsibilities.

First, the responsibilities of States. The 1969 refugee convention of the OAU, to which most African countries are party, conceptualizes a generous tradition of asylum, which extends to those fleeing violence and conflict, while at the same time establishing clear and precise provisions to ensure that giving asylum does not unwittingly create security problems to countries hosting refugees, and to their countries of origin.

It is the responsibility of States to implement the principles of the OAU convention, through the application of its norms, some of which are extremely practical measures such as for example keeping camps at reasonable distance from borders. It is the responsibility of States, in particular, to ensure the civilian character of refugee camps and settlements - in other words, to avoid their militarization. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of the international community to provide States with the necessary support to implement the principles of refugee law.

I do believe that there have been recent instances, especially in the Great Lakes region, when States have failed to fulfil the responsibilities to which they were bound by refugee conventions. But I also believe that under the same, challenging circumstances - and I shall give you as the only example the need to separate refugees from criminals and armed elements in the former Eastern Zaire - the international community has not provided States with sufficient support to carry out their responsibilities. It is the refugees, and the people in towns and villages hosting them, who have paid the highest price for this situation. In the next two days, in our regional meeting, we should be able to start redefining in precise and concrete terms how we can address this problem. I hope that the Kampala meeting will be the opportunity to begin a process of dialogue, through which we shall eventually be able to make principles and interests converge.

I would like to turn now to the second level of responsibilities - the responsibilities of people. The process of nation building - of creating a cohesive, stable and prosperous society - can only be achieved if it is founded upon a sense of solidarity among all its members, particularly the most vulnerable ones. To prevent and avoid the exclusion of refugees, displaced persons and returnees, legal provisions are not sufficient. This process concerns all citizens of a free and democratic nation. It concerns civil society.

Exclusion is not an abstract notion. Just imagine that you have to suddenly abandon all that gives meaning to your life - family, friends, education, work. In refugee camps, I am always struck and moved by young people - men and women of your age - whose hopes and aspirations have been destroyed, in their home countries, by discrimination and violence. As refugees, they have little or no access to education and employment. Their best formative years are wasted. You can sense their despair, the shattering of their hopes. It is an oppressive feeling which is particularly acute in situations of prolonged displacement. While refugee camps, on the one hand, provide protection and asylum to those who flee, on the other hand they can also become a very concrete symbol of exclusion.

As participatory democracy progresses in Africa, people become more conscious of their role in society. Not any longer are public resources simply seen as belonging to an abstract and distant State, but citizens know that they own these resources and can have a say in how they are utilized. This evolution is necessary to build a responsible and dynamic society, and is extremely positive. Greater accountability by the State towards its citizens can only lead to better governance. But it is a process which is not exempt from risks, especially with respect to the people of concern to my Office.

It is a very real paradox of contemporary democracy that it can lead to exclusion. As citizens develop a sense of ownership of their resources, they sometimes tend to perceive as a threat those with whom sharing these resources is necessary. In extreme cases, this perception can be manipulated by unscrupolous politicians. In certain Western European countries, for example, refugee issues have become politicized and have occasionally justified the worst xenophobic excesses.

Let me be clear on this point. Obviously, I am not saying that democracy is bad, but I strongly believe that a democracy devoid of solidarity is "incomplete". As Mwalimu Nyerere told me when we last met in Butiama in February, it is absurd to consider democracy separately from other factors which provide all people with a sense of security. My message today is simple: Africa is moving boldly and decisively towards renewal; in this process, a window of opportunity exists to limit the negative excesses of individualism that are mixed - perhaps inevitably - with the positive energies of economic development. Let your own communities be inclusive. Do not consider weak, vulnerable groups - such as refugees and returnees - as an obstacle to growth, or as competitors for scarce resources. Think of them as men and women capable of making valuable contributions to society. Think of them as persons in whose exclusion lie dangers of instability, but whose inclusion leads towards true nation building.

My Office knows Africa well. We have worked in this continent for 40 years and we are present in practically all its countries. In most we have field offices next to those for whom we work - the refugees, the returnees and the communities among whom they live. Being close to the people we work for, we know that solidarity is difficult, especially in situations fraught with grave social and economic problems. We are also aware - and I said it very clearly to the United Nations Security Council two weeks ago - that the international community must focus much more on Africa's problems if any significant external contribution to their solution is to be made. We shall continue to make every possible effort to obtain from the international community the resources to protect and assist displaced communities; help communities hosting those who are displaced; and above all, strive to find solutions to the plight of displacement.

In so doing, we shall continue to fight against the rejection of those who are forced to flee their homes, and against the exclusion of those who wish to return. I hope to work with you in this challenging endeavour. It is a daunting task, which not only requires material resources and political will, but also courage and determination, and the ability to think freely and creatively, sometimes against prevailing opinions.

Africa's hospitality is legendary. Where else can we find such a fine example of a generous liberal asylum policy as in this country, Uganda? Even as you pursue individual success and achieve prosperity for yourselves, your communities and your countries, this hospitality must continue to be a reality. It is only through solidarity that you will be able to build truly strong nations.

Thank you.