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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 18 March 2003

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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 18 March 2003

18 March 2003

Madam Chairperson,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to congratulate you, Madam Chairperson, on your election. I would also like to say what a pleasure it is to see our former UNHCR colleague, Sergio Vieira de Mello, here as High Commissioner for Human Rights. As Sergio mentioned soon after he assumed office, there is a need for greater convergence between human rights and humanitarian actors in addressing situations of forced displacement. This is key. Indeed, I intend to foster closer ties between UNHCR and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Our activities are to a large extent mutually reinforcing.

Madam Chairperson,

Let me begin with a few words about Iraq. The United Nations has striven hard, under the leadership of the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to find a peaceful solution to the current crisis through diplomacy and the inspections process. There was unanimous support for Resolution 1441, requiring Iraq to disarm. The inspectors did their work systematically, step by step.

In view of the prevailing atmosphere of mistrust, it is a pity that members of the Security Council did not look sufficiently into the possibility of backing up the inspectors with a United Nations military presence, to ensure the permanent and effective surveillance of all sites known to be used for the production and storage of weapons of mass destruction or related activities. The United Nations should have been at the very centre of any solution. A world without an effective United Nations cannot be a secure world.

Sadly, despite all the United Nations' efforts, today we find ourselves on the brink of war. As High Commissioner for Refugees, I am obliged to speak out. Let us not forget for a moment the suffering that comes with war - the fear, the destruction, the loss of innocent lives, the desperation of refugees fleeing their homes.

Strong and decisive action is needed to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This must remain a priority for the United Nations. At the same time, every effort should be made to prevent situations which may give rise to new flows of refugees and more human misery. For this, in itself, can breed insecurity and can sow the seeds of tomorrow's terrorism.

Even at this very last moment, like many others I have no other option but to pray that Saddam Hussein understands that it is time now for him and his sons to go.

In the last three years more than 100,000 Iraqis have applied for asylum in other countries. Indeed, Iraqis today represent the largest group of asylum seekers in the industrialized world - a sad testimony to the state their country is in. I hope that, on top of this, we will not soon be seeing a new outflow of Iraqi refugees. Still, if this happens, UNHCR stands ready to assist.

But let me add a word of caution. We cannot allow important programmes elsewhere in the world to be neglected. It is crucial, therefore, that any large-scale relief operation for Iraqis should be paid for through a refocusing of the existing Iraqi Oil-for-Food Programme. Why should the return and reintegration programme for Afghans suffer because of Iraq? This would be politically insane. Why should vital aid programmes in Africa suffer? No - already too many people in the world have paid a price because of the exclusive focus of the international community on the Iraq situation.

Madam Chairperson,

Despite positive developments in Afghanistan, Timor Leste and South-Eastern Europe over the past year, armed conflict and human rights violations continue to plague many countries and regions. Refugees are the most visible result of these violations. They remind us of our collective failure to ensure full respect for human rights.

The 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol were landmarks in setting specific standards for the treatment of refugees. They remain as relevant today as when they were first drafted. The Ministerial Declaration adopted by States Parties in December 2001 stands as a strong commitment to upholding the values and principles of the Convention and its Protocol.

But the refugee issue must not be viewed only from the perspective of human rights. It must also be tackled from the perspective of burden sharing and responsibility sharing, with a focus on permanent solutions. The difficulties faced by states in providing protection stem from the fact that the question of sharing burdens and responsibilities has yet to be adequately resolved. This disconnect is perhaps one of the major challenges confronting asylum today.

The sharing and apportioning of responsibilities was one of the main cross-cutting themes of the UNHCR-led process of Global Consultations on International Protection. It is reflected in the Agenda for Protection, which was adopted last year. The Agenda provides a roadmap for action not only for UNHCR, but also for governments, NGOs and other partners. It is not about preserving the status quo, but is a forward-looking document intended to strengthen refugee protection in the years ahead.

I have given the ideas contained in the Agenda further shape by launching a new initiative which I call "Convention Plus". This involves building on the Convention framework by drawing up new special agreements with and between States. These agreements will help to more effectively address the specific challenges that we face today.

Madam Chairperson,

A major challenge for all of us concerns the nexus between asylum and migration. While the phenomenon of forced displacement constitutes but a fraction of global migratory movements, the problems associated with this have attracted much media attention in recent years.

The focus on policies of deterrence and migration control, particularly in the post-September 11 environment, has tainted the institution of asylum in the public eye. It has become increasingly difficult for refugees and asylum-seekers to reach asylum countries or to achieve family reunion through legal means. Many are now compelled to use the services of smugglers. Others - including the most destitute - remain stranded in countries where the asylum systems are not yet sufficiently developed, and where they are often unable to legalize their stay.

We need to find more effective ways of managing the asylum-migration nexus, so that people in need of international protection find it, people who wish to migrate have appropriate opportunities to do so, and abusive manipulation of entry possibilities is curtailed. International migration can no longer be addressed solely from the limited perspective of national sovereignty. A multilateral approach is required, which addresses migration and forced displacement in a concerted, comprehensive and forward-looking manner, focusing on root causes, human rights protection and labour needs.

Stronger and more strategic partnerships are needed, especially where asylum and migration issues intersect. My Office will therefore be working closely with the International Organization for Migration, the International Labour Organization, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other partners to address global migration problems in a more effective way.

Thank you.