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Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 60th Session, New York, 9 November 2005

Speeches and statements

Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 60th Session, New York, 9 November 2005

9 November 2005

Agenda Item[39]: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

Mr. Chairman,

Distinguished Delegates,

It is a pleasure to address the Third Committee of the General Assembly for the first time as High Commissioner for Refugees. And I look forward to discussing with you the variety of challenges and issues my Office currently faces.

And I would say it is an even a bigger pleasure as the Chairman of this Committee is the Ambassador of Uganda. It was not by chance that I visited Uganda just a few days after becoming High Commissioner. As Uganda is one of the countries that has been more generous to refugees for decades on its own territory, not only receiving them and protecting them but giving them conditions of livelihood that are totally parallel to the conditions of Uganda's population. So Mr. Chairman thank you very much. And it is a great pleasure to be here side by side with you.

Two months ago the largest number of government leaders ever to assemble endorsed the 2005 World Summit Outcome. Allow me to begin today by expressing my support for an important part of that document. I am heartened by the recognition therein that the international community has the responsibility to protect civilian populations against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. As the Secretary-General recently noted, and I quote, "most of the mass displacements of people over the past decade-and-a-half have been sparked by such crimes."

Other parts, of course, of the Outcome Document are also relevant to UNHCR's work, and in particular the decision to create a Peacebuilding Commission.

I want to take this opportunity to reassert that UNHCR is, above all, a protection agency. Protection must inform all our actions and be the starting point for the solutions we seek for the people in our care. It must be our direction and our guide.

And Mr. Chairman, as a protection agency, UNHCR is faced today with increasing challenges. And let me outline three of them as I've done time and time again: first, confronting rising intolerance in modern societies; second, preserving asylum in complex population flows; and third, addressing the clear gap that still exists between humanitarian relief and development to make solutions last.

The first of these is perhaps the most difficult to address. We experience intolerance as private citizens. We read it in newspapers. We hear it in the tone of political slogans. We see it in violent confrontations and even in terrorists acts. But the perverse impact is obvious where we work and is felt most keenly by the people we work for.

Intolerance for people from elsewhere, for strangers, for those who are different. Intolerance is fed by some politicians in search of popularity and by several media in search of increased market share. And the rise of populism has led to a systematic and wilful confusion in public opinion, making security problems, terrorism, migrant flows and refugee and asylum issues altogether mixed.

It is not only the institution of asylum that is threatened. Intolerance is a clear danger for world peace and the social cohesion of our societies. All of them, all of our societies, are becoming more and more multi-ethnic, multicultural, even multi-religious. Only in a tolerant environment can complex societal problems be solved.

The second challenge - asylum and migration flows - relates to the first. Migration and security are regular features of public debate. And combined, they are exerting an enormous pressure on asylum systems and asylum legislation.

Preserving asylum requires that we be able to find those in need of protection when they are concealed by complex migration flows. All states are entitled to the responsible management of their borders and to adopt appropriate migration policies. This is something UNHCR fully recognizes. But they should also act forcefully to eliminate the smuggling and trafficking of human beings and severely punish the profiteers. All states should also recognize that guarding borders must not prevent physical access to asylum procedures or fair refugee status determination for those entitled to it by international law.

"Preserving asylum requires that we be able to find those in need of protection when they are concealed by complex migration flows."

This involves advocacy and timely protection interventions, including access to mixed groups of new arrivals and improved screening of individuals. Measures against fraud and abuse are also part of delivering protection and are essential for the credibility of the asylum system. And I am aware of the dilemmas often faced by governments - I was in government myself - and my Office stands ready to assist all states, North and South, in implementing adequate procedures and in capacity building to improve asylum and to ensure that those in need of international protection benefit from it.

UNHCR supported the work of the Global Commission on International Migration and welcomed its recent report. It is a fact that migration movements are often mixed and that channels are multiplying. This implies that migration will require more and more attention from the international community in the years ahead. We have been an active member of the Geneva Migration Group and will fully cooperate in expanding inter-agency coordination, as well as in preparing the 2006 High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development.

The third challenge represents a major problem for the international community. The lack of an effective link between relief and development remains a great handicap for our work. This is particularly true with repatriation, where large-scale returns are difficult to sustain if development stalls and instability grows.

Prevention and post-conflict management are both crucial to avoiding population displacement. This is why UNHCR is very enthusiastic about the advent of the Peacebuilding Commission and intends to play an active role in the Support Office of the Commission.

The interest for us is obvious. While we are not a development agency, the impact of our actions is magnified or diminished by how development work is done. We will aim to ensure that refugees and displaced persons are automatically incorporated in recovery strategies of all types and we will redouble our efforts as an advocate and catalyst on their behalf.

"While we are not a development agency, the impact of our actions is magnified or diminished by how development work is done."

UNHCR is fully committed to working with the UN Development Group, with UNDP, with the World Bank and other partners to help people of our concern become more productive and self-reliant during their displacement and well after their return. All actors must be fully mobilized to realize the Millennium Development Goals. I welcome your reaffirmation of this commitment in the Summit Outcome Document.

Many crises will simply drag on, however, unless we are willing to take on the underlying causes of forced human displacement. In UNHCR we deal with the symptoms of a disease. But whether it is poverty and exclusion, any form of violent conflict, or massive violations of human rights, the challenge for today's world is to tackle the disease itself.

I look forward to collaborating with the Peacebuilding Commission to address not only the relief-to-development gap, but the complex needs of societies emerging from conflict. The restoration of the rule of law and the effective demobilization, disarmament and rehabilitation of ex-combatants, for example, are both essential to maintaining a fragile peace.

The goals of the Peacebuilding Commission fit with the conceptual framework underpinning UNHCR's Convention Plus Unit, an initiative which has been described to this Committee previously in the last years. Convention Plus will be now mainstreamed, becoming part of how we comprehensively and collectively address refugee problems today. While recognizing that voluntary repatriation is still the durable solution of choice for the large majority of refugees, we will actively explore opportunities for expanding resettlement and engage in advocacy for those countries which want to allow local integration but need the support of the international community to be able to do it.

Mr. Chairman,

There is today a general consensus, underlined by the Humanitarian Response Review, that the inability to address internal displacement has become the single biggest failure in humanitarian action. And this is no longer acceptable.

In September, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee supported the clear delineation of responsibilities within the so-called collaborative approach to internal displacement. UNHCR was tasked to lead the clusters on protection, camp coordination and management and emergency shelter in a new framework to be applied for future emergencies.

The cluster approach has been used to guide the inter-agency response to last month's devastating earthquake in South Asia. This was a true test for our capacities. UNHCR deployed large numbers of staff and mounted a massive airlift to transport vast quantities of relief items to Pakistan. We were also asked to support the management of camps for people made homeless by the disaster and our experts are working urgently with a range of partners, and in particular with the government of Pakistan, to provide shelter for thousands of families.

Although the aid is going to victims of a natural disaster rather than conflict, we have dug deep into our emergency reserves for several thousand tons of tents, blankets, stoves and other desperately needed supplies. I believe it is our moral responsibility to do so, to help, and particularly given the generosity Pakistan has extended to millions of Afghan refugees over the past two decades.

This brings me to the two conditions we have put on our involvement with internally displaced persons. UNHCR has made clear that we will act at the request of the Humanitarian Coordinator and with the consent of the country itself if, first, we preserve the right of affected populations to seek and enjoy asylum and, secondly, if funding for these actions is truly additional. While recognizing our role in mobilizing resources for internally displaced persons, we cannot divert funding intended for our work with refugees. We look forward to the efforts of both the Emergency Relief Coordinator and the donor community to meet these supplementary requirements. With your support UNHCR will be a predictable and effective partner in helping to close, finally, this glaring breach in the international community's humanitarian action.

Addressing the relief to development gap and addressing situations of internal displacement places a premium on partnerships, namely with NGOs. But I would like to evoke, with your consent, one other area where partnerships are of particular importance to my Office.

UNHCR has a long history of working with regional political organizations in the search for durable solutions for refugees and displaced persons. The European Commission with its reliable support. The African Union, more and more active in promoting peace and security and the goals of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, NEPAD. And the same must be pursued in Asia and in the Americas. We are cooperating actively with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to jointly organize a conference on refugees in its member states, and hope that this can take place in 2006.

Mr. Chairman,

Last year UNHCR deployed 184 emergency missions to 24 countries on four continents. But an honest appraisal of our present ability to face emergencies, when compared with that of the mid-90s, reveals a diminished response capacity and agility. Several measures have already been taken and our clear operational priority today is to build up capacities so that by 2007, we will be able to assume a quick and effective response to unexpected refugee crises involving the displacement of up to 500,000 people.

On the other hand, the physical security of refugees and returnees remains high on our protection agenda, helping government efforts to deliver on their primary responsibility in areas that well exceed UNHCR's mandate and competence. As well as our support to national police forces which ensure refugee camp security in countries like the United Republic of Tanzania, Chad, and Kenya, we have strengthened our cooperation with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in key areas such as rule of law, mine action, and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.

Security for refugees but also security for our own staff and partners. I am committed to ensuring that they can operate where we have to, while using every possible means to minimize risks to their physical safety. Minimum Operational Security Standards and training are fundamental, and in cooperation with the eCentre in Japan, we have introduced risk management tools which assist colleagues to weigh operational needs against potential security risks.

Mr. Chairman,

To meet the challenges I have enumerated, UNHCR must demonstrate vision and results. It needs strong partnerships and a healthy funding base. It requires transparency, accountability and structural reform.

In an open and transparent way we have started the selection process for the nomination of a successor to the former Assistant High Commissioner Mr. Kamel Morjane, a symbol of total dedication to the refugee cause. The same criteria will apply to the new Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, who hopefully will improve the linkages between protection and operations, and between Headquarters and the field.

We have already taken action to strengthen the Office of the Inspector General and to enhance its independence. We have enforced clear rules of non-interference and share the results of inspections with stakeholders. Members of our Executive Committee will now be able to access inspection findings and to put additional questions to the Inspector General.

I am committed to establishing a results-based management system with clear objectives, a measurable process to achieve them and an organization-wide accountability framework.

This year, and for the first time, Global Strategic Objectives were issued at the beginning of the planning cycle to instruct and guide the budget and programming processes. We have used the Objectives to establish measurable targets in operations, protection and management. We cannot tolerate the levels of malnutrition or access to HIV/AIDS educational material that still exist in several camp situations, for example, as we cannot tolerate that an operation does not have in place all the required procedures to respond to sexual and gender-based violence. We have identified these and other specific areas as absolute priorities for 2006 and I have asked all managers to focus their attention and resource allocation here.

Clear targets mean greater accountability both for us and for the donor community. Every effort has been made - and will be made - to prioritize activities and to contain expenditures, particularly administrative costs, not as a blind technocratic exercise but always bearing in mind the pressing needs of the people we care for, particularly women and children. UNHCR has enjoyed relative financial stability in recent years and it is important not to lose it.

Structural reform will be a sustained process. The key instrument for future changes will be the definition of a workforce management strategy to address simultaneously the efficiency of the Office, the personal fulfilment and welfare of its members, and effective gender balance.

Mr. Chairman,

We began 2005 with the smallest number of refugees in almost a quarter century. And the major reason for this is of course the large repatriation movements. Several of these are in their full maturity as operations. Afghanistan is the most relevant example. This year nearly half a million Afghans have been assisted by us to return home bringing the total we have helped since 2002 to 3.8 million. For the fourth consecutive year this is the biggest voluntary repatriation worldwide, and voluntary repatriation remains our main priority. While mindful of the difficult political, economic, and security conditions in the country, we need to maintain its momentum and count on your continued support for this.

This fall also marks a decade since the Dayton Peace Agreement, which reaffirmed UNHCR as the lead humanitarian agency for the return and reintegration of refugees and displaced persons in the former Yugoslavia.

In Africa, over half a million refugees will have returned home in 2005. UNHCR facilitated the repatriation of more than 38,000 Liberian refugees and provided material assistance and transportation for the return of 200,000 internally displaced persons. Angolans are also coming home in relevant numbers, concluding the final chapter of their exile.

We are gearing up for three large returns in Africa. There is increasing optimism among Burundi refugees following the recent elections with the rate of returns from the United Republic of Tanzania doubling in comparison to the previous months. Over 60,000 refugees have returned so far this year. But paradoxically, one of our largest repatriations is also our least well funded. It would be ironic if this were because - for the right reasons - Burundi is no longer in the headlines.

In Sudan, the hope that came from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for the South must be fulfilled. To renew optimism among the exiles and displaced of South Sudan, the international community must mobilize support for both the institutional build-up and the economic development of the area to create the conditions for sustainable returns.

The international community must also throw its full weight behind the peace process for Darfur and Eastern Sudan. Especially in Darfur, a peace agreement is a basic precondition for security to be progressively re-established, for confidence and reconciliation to be promoted, so that a complex multiethnic and multicultural community can come together again and we avoid a repetition of the terrible nightmare that shocked the world. Recent events make this global commitment more and more urgent.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, hope is reborn. It must be actively sustained by all.

In other regions relevant problems are also being dealt with. In Colombia, internal displacement affects approximately two million people. UNHCR has a leading role in protecting them as part of a collaborative approach to displacement, in addition to the protection of refugees in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Only small numbers have been recognized as such by national eligibility bodies but UNHCR is working on the strengthening of asylum systems and supporting the host communities in the region.

In other areas, lasting solutions have been found and acute problems solved, or have marked genuine progress. This is the case of 12,000 Tajik refugees granted citizenship in Turkmenistan, positive developments with protection and solutions for Vietnamese Montagnards, as well as for persons from Myanmar in Thailand. Others last well beyond any reasonable measure, be it the Western Saharan refugees in Tindouf, the Bhutanese in Nepal, or the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. In some countries, violations of human rights also represent a root cause of population displacement.

Mr. Chairman,

I would like to return to protection to close this brief overview of our operations.

The humanitarian transfer from Kyrgyzstan is a good example. After the violent events in Andijan in May 2005, UNHCR moved most of 450 Uzbek asylum seekers from Kyrgyzstan to Romania to ensure their protection and for future resettlement. The resolution of this situation demonstrated exemplary support from human rights institutions, the international community and concerned states.

Tragic events this year prove the need to reinforce international cooperation on rescues at sea, especially the protection elements which these involve. My Office has been working with the International Maritime Organization and is doing everything in its power to ensure that the global search and rescue regime is respected by states and commercial shippers. Refugees and any others in distress must be rescued, not imperilled.

And we will continue to be attentive to situations of direct or indirect refoulement, governed by bilateral agreements which disregard international law or by the treatment of bona fide asylum-seekers as illegal migrants.

Mr. Chairman,

While many of these protection interventions can be handled by colleagues with particular expertise, part of reasserting our identity as a protection agency is ensuring that each one of us is guided by these same principles.

"We must band together and stand against irrationality, against suspicion and the clamour for exclusion."

I would extend that same challenge to you today. The fight against intolerance involves all of us. We must band together and stand against irrationality, against suspicion and the clamour for exclusion. I know the force public opinion constitutes in most of our societies including on issues of concern to my Office. But rather than bow to public opinion, we should aim to lead it, holding firm to our values and principles, and reaffirming our accountability to refugees. The institution of asylum must be defended and cherished at all costs.

Thank you very much.