Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 15 November 1982

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 15 November 1982

15 November 1982

Mr. Chairman,

Let me first say how happy I am to be here again in Third Committee, and how much I am looking forward to working with you, and with the Bureau.

Mr. Chairman, in a world in crisis, which compels those who deal with humanitarian problems to be constantly in action and on the alert, it is nevertheless sometimes useful to step back and reflect for a while. Therefore I very much appreciate the annual opportunity of meeting with this Committee, and discussing the principal concerns of my Office.

Today I do not propose to review specific refugee situations, these are described in the documents distributed for our meeting. Instead, I would rather single out a number of issues that I think are important for placing our Office in its proper perspective.

For this purpose, it seems to me that a reference to the Charter of the United Nations would be an appropriate point of departure. UNHCR is, in fact, a direct response to certain categories of concerns expressed in the Preamble and in the Charter itself, in phrases whose deeper meaning remains the driving force behind all humanitarian activity in the United Nations. I am thinking of the proclamation in the Preamble of "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person", and, as set forth in Article I, as one of the purposes of the United Nations, of achieving "international co-operation in solving international problems of an ... humanitarian character". The role of UNHCR is at the hub of the international community's efforts to solve the problems of refugees in the spirit of the Charter, by restoring them to a dignified existence and enabling them to better their lives.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees was established by the United Nations General Assembly as of 1 January 1951. Under the terms of its Statute, its work is "of an entirely non-political character", it is "humanitarian and social". Credit is due to all Governments, members of the United Nations, not only for having established a non-political organization to take care of the victims of intolerance and injustice, but also for having preserved that character intact. In the past thirty years, not only has there been a sharp increase in the number of members of the United Nations - representing a wide variety of political trends; we have also experienced a growing complexity in the nature of the refugee problems, and a tendency to introduce politics into problems which, by their very nature, ought to remain non-political. Yet, the United Nations members have indeed maintained the purely humanitarian character of UNHCR. This is crucial for the Office. As you well know, it is sometimes thought that to refrain from action is to take sides, that to act is to make a political choice, and that using a particular form of wording or terminology is tantamount to taking a stand beyond the strictly humanitarian field. We cannot avoid these problems - these interrogations - but by virtue of our Statute and in line with the general attitude of the United Nations and Governments, we have to do everything possible to preserve intact the non-political credo, which is essential for the functioning and survival of UNHCR.

It might be asked whether this attitude is not liable to lead to an excessive caution that could be paralysing. On the contrary, in order to meet new refugee needs and the wishes of the international community, UNHCR, while maintaining its non-political stand, has in fact been able to adapt to the requirements of refugee situations.

The General Assembly and the Governments have always followed the line that the original mandate of UNHCR, as embodies in the Statute, still remains a fundamental and valid text today and has been a solid basis on which to build in accordance with the evolution of humanitarian needs arising from man-made disasters in the world.

The High Commissioner's role in humanitarian efforts gradually expanded and this was reflected in various General Assembly resolutions which originated in this Committee. Thus, the High Commissioner's assistance to refugees and displaced persons has benefitted millions of people, either refugees in the sense of the original mandate, or displaced persons in a situation similar to that of refugees, who have been uprooted as a result of man-made circumstances such as international war, civil strife, a war of independence, serious political or social disturbances. In three decades UNHCR has developed from a body dealing solely with persons able to substantiate a well-founded fear of persecution by reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, into one covering a far wider range of situations, including numerous categories of displaced persons and repatriates who have often returned home in large numbers after independence or a change of circumstances in their country of origin.

This evolution has been based on a continuing dialogue with Governments. In fact, none of these large-scale actions can be undertaken by the High Commissioner's Office without a request from the Government or Governments concerned who, furthermore, pledge their responsibility, give their support and create favourable conditions for the proposed action.

Indeed, the support of first asylum countries is paramount to the UNHCR task. These are the countries where refugees arrive both traumatized and full of hope. The first asylum countries are very often developing countries, or even belong to the category of the least developed. They show great hospitality in receiving the refugees, but in order to deal with the problems involved they need substantial international help. The help that these first asylum countries are able to offer, ranging from reception to all kinds of assistance, and involving the sharing of their limited resources, is often vital for refugees and entails huge sacrifices. In the first asylum countries., the response of the local population and the support of governments are a key to all further action.

In order to relieve first asylum countries, other Governments offer resettlement possibilities - sometimes in considerable numbers. They also make generous financial contributions to UNHCR programmes. The participation of such Governments is equally essential, both for the refugees and for the success of the work of UNHCR.

More general support also - here in the Third Committee, at the General Assembly, in the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, and in other fora - what I would call the political backing of UNHCR - is the frame of the entire structure.

This support is, of course, founded in the cause itself, that of refugees, which is just and must be defended and constantly reaffirmed. But the ability of the United Nations system, and UNHCR in particular, to deal with the problem and meet the needs is founded on credibility. This is where our performance, on the one hand, and our dialogue with Governments, on the other, become so important. While strengthening our links and co-ordination with other bodies of the United Nations system, we have adopted a series of internal measures designed to improve our capacity to deal with problems in the event of a crisis and also in the longer term. In the process, we have kept Governments informed of our activities - through our Representatives in the field throughout the world, through direct contacts during my missions and those of my colleagues, or through Governments' Ambassadors in Geneva or New York.

Given this complex network of problems and relationships that have gradually developed. UNHCR - whose responsibility covers some 10 million refugees and displaced persons - deeply appreciates the positive approach of Governments today, and above all their confidence. UNHCR follows the path mapped out for it by the General Assembly, ECOSOC and the Executive Committee, aiming firmly at finding for the refugees lasting and acceptable solutions. We cannot do our job successfully without a frank and sincere dialogue and a conviction on the part of Governments that UNHCR is not deviating from its humanitarian ideals and is endeavouring to find lasting solutions to refugee problems.

This year, a decision on the continuation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees beyond 31 December 1983 must be taken. In its resolution 32/68 of December 1977, the United Nations General Assembly, decided " to review, not later than at its thirty-seventh session, the arrangements for the Office of the High Commissioner with a view to determining whether the Office should be continued beyond 31 December 1983". As has been done in the past, I am sure you will agree that the Office of the High Commissioner should simply be continued. I am happy to report in this connection that my Executive Committee, at its thirty-third session held in October, adopted a decision which appears in the report distributed to you, expressing "the belief that the mandate of UNHCR is sufficiently flexible and adaptable to changing requirements and thus adequate in the evolving refugee situation".

Talking of the future, I am sure that Governments will continue to preserve the strictly humanitarian character of the Office. I have already explained why this is of the greatest importance, and I would like to add that it is by virtue of this characteristic, which underlies all our activities, that we are able to avoid involvement in the reasons that cause persons to leave their countries in large number, i.e. the root causes.

Obviously the root causes must be tackled, but in appropriate fora, as it is a political activity. To help the victims of discord and repression must be a humanitarian and non-political task. Of course, these efforts often have political consequences, as assistance to the victims may be part of a peace-creating process. Indeed, peace is not only an "absence of war". Peace is also something positive, a brotherly disposition, solidarity with other people, mercy towards those who are in distress, and an understanding that human rights are due to all of us. To assist refugees, to enable them to build a future without fear, in dignity, is part of the vast edifice of peace.

In order to build their future, refugees need protection as well as assistance. I would make an urgent plea to Governments to offer the maximum support for our task of international protection. This task includes certain medium - or long-term aspects which are most important. That is why we attach so much value to states being parties to international instruments relating to the status of refugees - the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. In this respect, I am happy to report that in the last five years twenty States have acceded to these instruments, bringing the total number of parties to 93, on all continents. Protection also has a more immediate, vital meaning affecting the safety and well-being of the individual, and sometimes even his life. This calls for the universal application, at all times and in all places, of the principles of asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, that is to say, not sending an asylum seeker or a refugee beck to a country where he has good reasons to fear he will be persecuted. Certain countries sometimes claim that political or economic difficulties prevent them from observing these principles. Clearly, their application may cause various difficulties. But an attempt must be made to overcome them, notably burden sharing by as many countries as possible.

Naturally, as l have already said, we must look to Governments for material support. In order to meet new situations or developments in existing situations, our programmes have, of necessity, become relatively voluminous over the last few years. UNHCR has no funds of its own, and must appeal for voluntary contributions year after year. Although until now, governments, who provide the bulk of the funds needed, have responded generously and enabled programmes to be carried out - for which I am deeply gratified - the fact of always relying on purely voluntary contributions continues to give rise to uncertainty. I am nonetheless sure that we can continue to count on this tangible form of Governmental support, which is so absolutely essential.

The same applies to resettlement. When refugees cannot return to their countries of origin of their own free will, when they cannot settle in their countries of first asylum for a variety of reasons, then resettlement to third countries becomes the only solution. Many Governments have shown great generosity in this respect. The need is still there and the momentum must be maintained.

Before closing, Mr. Chairman, may I turn to point (c) of our agenda item, namely "Assistance to refugees in Africa: Report of the Secretary-General".

At the request of the Secretary-General, I now introduce his Report, entitled "International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa" (ICARA), which has been made available to Committee Members.

As you will recall, the Secretary-General reported on the same subject to the second session of this year's meeting of the Economic and Social Council. On that occasion, I once again had the privilege of introducing that report, which dealt with the conditions of refugees and provided detailed information on post-ICARA activities, including data on pledges and contributions made at ICARA.

As I mentioned then, one of the results of the Conference was the receipt of pledges with a total value of approximately $ 574 million. During the course of the year, donors clarified not only the nature of their pledges but also specified the channel through which their contributions were to be disbursed for the benefit of refugees and returnees in Africa. At the present time, all but some $ 12 million of the pledges made at ICARA have, at the express wishes of donors, been channelled either bilaterally or through various agencies and organizations.

This report which I now introduce provides additional information with respect to the participation of United Nations Agencies and Organizations in post ICARA activities. It also provides information made available, through the ICARA Steering Committee, to the Secretary-General on how pledged contributions have been used.

As a complement to the ICARA report to the ECOSOC, this report now gives an up-to-date account of activities and developments that have taken place since the convening of ICARA.

Mr. Chairman, in UNHCR we like to think of ourselves as a tool, a tool in the service of a humanitarian cause, at the disposal of Governments and the international community. On the one hand UNHCR is shaped by events as they happen, and on the other by Governments, particularly through the General Assembly and our Executive Committee. Speaking to the Third Committee of the General Assembly, I would like to say that is you, the Governments, who enable in to develop and to adapt to current realities. True, UNHCR also has its share of responsibility in its own development, but the Governments on whom it relies determine the orientation and the limits of this continuous process. In our common search for durable solutions to refugee problems, I wish to thank all Governments for their support, and I am now looking forward to a constructive debate.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.