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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Extraordinary Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 28 May 1990

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Extraordinary Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 28 May 1990

28 May 1990

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen:

Permit me the privilege of welcoming all of you to this extraordinary session of the Executive Committee. In so doing, I am plagued by two some what conflicting sentiments. On the personal side, I am indeed pleased to be making my first appearance before a formal plenary meeting of the Executive Committee and to meet members of the Committee who will advise and guide me in my functions as High Commissioner for Refugees. Yet, Mr. Chairman, we are gathered here at a time of the most serious preoccupations over the plight of the world's 15 million refugees - for whom I am mandated to provide international protection, assistance and to seek durable solutions. The very convening of this extraordinary meeting is, of course, a manifestation of these preoccupations, in that the level and quality of assistance to these unfortunate human beings - for the second half of this year - will be considered by this gathering.

Mr. Chairman, I am, however, confident that the spirit of generosity, compassion and international burden sharing, which have always been the trademark of this Committee's actions in favour of refugees, will once again prevail. As such, we must not lose sight of the heavy responsibilities before this extraordinary meeting towards these millions of the world's dispossessed; in fact, I am sure we all realize that decisions to be taken here during the next few days will have an immediate and direct impact on the well-being of fellow human beings.

Mr. Chairman, before I continue with my remarks, allow me to extend a special welcome to the delegation of the newest member of the community of nations, the Republic of Namibia. The fact that today Namibia is represented at this meeting as a sovereign and independent state attests to the fruits of international solidarity and cooperation at its best. The first appearance of the Namibian delegation at this meeting should, therefore, provide us with inspiration as we begin our important deliberations.

Mr. Chairman, many of us present here today have in recent months been reminded of a somewhat similar chapter in history some forty-five years ago. In 1945, when the second world war came to an end, out of its ruins the United Nations was built - an edifice for peace. However, contrary to the hopes and expectations of that time, those who had laid the foundations of the house never found a way of living together in harmony and peace. On the contrary, the cold war soon rendered the political machinery or the United Nations at times irrelevant. Today, we are seeing the end of the cold war and the beginning of a new life for the United Nations. There are good hope that the foundations of peace are more solid this time.

The dialogue among the major powers, the move towards democracy in many parts of the world - and the renewed confidence in the ability of the United Nations to tackle global challenges effectively, all provide enough reasons to hope that the causes of some of the major and protracted exoduses in recent times may finally be addressed. Indeed, this new and improved political climate has already borne fruit. In the last few years, a number of apparently intractable regional conflicts have been resolved or brought to the negotiating table.

The international refugee situation is a reflection of the world's political health, and the international community's ability to cope with the refugee situation is a reflection of its moral health. Too many people see the refugee issue simply in terms of charity. Charity is a very good thing. But it's not enough. As this new era of international cooperation unfolds, we must ensure that states have the political will to work together, resolving existing problems and preventing new ones from emerging.

For UNHCR, political solutions to conflicts which have forced people to flee open up prospects for the best of all solutions to refugee problems, namely voluntary return. My first journey outside Europe since assuming Office took me to Africa to attend the independence celebrations of Namibia where UNHCR had been privileged to contribute to the successful United Nations operation by bringing back to their country more than 40,000 former exiles. My next trip was to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where together with the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian and Economic Assistance Programmes relating to Afghanistan, the Executive director of WFP and the Secretary-General's Personal Representative, we reviewed and identified ways and means of promoting the voluntary return of the world's largest refugee population, the Afghans, so generously received by Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran for over a decade now. Through close and concerted action, we are actively following-up on the results of this mission. We have agreed that an early solution must be found to a problem that neither governments nor the refugees themselves want to see continuing for another eleven years. We are hopeful that recent returns of some 150 families a day may by themselves create a momentum, which could lead to the voluntary repatriation of more than 100,000 persons within the next four months.

We are also trying to make a meaningful contribution to the peace process in Central America through our involvement under the CIAV umbrella in the return of Nicaraguans to their country. It is a complex operation where the borderline between political and humanitarian mandates and functions require the utmost care and prudence of a non-political organization such as UNHCR. We are, however, encouraged in this connection by our positive experience during the first three months of this year with the voluntary return of some 7,700 Salvadoran refugees from Honduras which brought to a successful conclusion this long lasting refugee problem. In Cambodia, the Secretary-General has designated UNHCR as the lead agency for the repatriation of some 300,000 Cambodian refugees and displaced persons. While closely following ongoing initiatives in the political arena, UNHCR is involved in extensive planning and preparatory work for a prospective voluntary return of the Cambodians in close partnership with other UN agencies as well as non-governmental organizations. Mr. Chairman, if conditions in South Africa should permit and if requested by all parties concerned, there may also be a logical role for UNHCR in the return of South African refugees. In other parts of Africa, propitious conditions do indeed exist for the return of large numbers of refugees to their country of origin after, in many cases, being hampered by the lack of funds. So far, for example, the appeal for US $37 million covering the local integration as well as the voluntary return of some 430,000 Ethiopians has not received any significant contributions. In the meantime, we have no other choice but to continue a costly care and maintenance programme.

Indeed, solution to refugee problems are both difficult to achieve - and sometimes expensive to implement. The dilemma facing UNHCR today is that at a time when the opportunities for carrying out our basic mandate, namely to achieve durable solutions, are better than at any time in UNHCR's history, the resources may not follow pace with the developments. The face is that in 1980, UNHCR had twice as many resources for each refugee than it has in 1990. The resolution of conflicts and the lessening of geopolitical tensions carry with them a temporary price tag that would allow refugees to become full beneficiaries of this new peace. Thus, while peace has its costs, the costs of the alternative are painfully known to all of us.

Mr. Chairman, it is obvious that one of my major preoccupations during my first months in Office has been UNHCR's critical funding situation. Hardly a day goes by, where we are not, in one way or another, confronted by the dramatic problem of resources. I have, therefore, in close consultation with my staff, given considerable thought to strategies to overcome our present difficulties. Whereas our efforts will of course take some time to yield concrete results, let me share with you today some thoughts on my strategy which is predicated on six main pillars.

The first pillar is a better use of our resources. When you have a problem it is always healthy to have a critical look at yourself. Therefore, one of my first questions was to ask and see whether UNHCR can use its resources better. I was - and remain - convinced this is possible. This, in turn, led to my decision in January to establish an internal as hoc Review Group which was charged with the dual tasks of defining the role of UNHCR as we enter the nineties in a radically changing world and to propose an organizational structure that would enable UNHCR to play a meaningful role on the world scene. I received - and shared with members of this Committee - the Review Group's report in early March and spent some time studying it and consulting with colleagues on ways of implementing its recommendations. We have now begun the implementation of those recommendations of the report which I considered a useful basis for our work. My ambition is to achieve, once the new Headquarters structure is fully in place and a study of the field establishment has been carried out, a leaner, more effective and efficient UNHCR. At Headquarters, I have cut the direct lines reporting international bureaucracy, attempted to introduce some rotation at the top. I am confident, through the Senior Management Committee, of having a machinery capable of taking policy decisions and following them through. The process now started is also to lead to much desired economies in terms of staff and general administrative costs as evident in the documentation before you. In the further process, I am determined to pursue a consistent policy of rotation as well as a significant enhancement of the status of women in UNHCR. Concerning the latter question, I am pleased to report to you that the permanent working Group on the Situation of Women in UNHCR, constituted last August, will shortly be submitting to me its initial report. I hope that these recommendations will go a long way in redressing the inequitable representation of women at all levels.

Whereas I am convinced that we can use our resources better, I am at the same time deeply impressed by the human resource base at our disposal. While staff reductions in the order of 10-15 per cent are envisaged - in addition to a freeze on external recruitment - I am deeply mindful that restructuring and personnel reductions are, in the short term, destabilising. My aim is therefore - and owe it to the staff - to proceed with the utmost respect for these individuals and arrive at the necessary reduction in the number of posts with the least possible consequences for the persons concerned. There are also plans underway for the closure and gradual phasing out, at this stage, of 10 to 15 fields offices. Here again, we need to proceed with caution with due regard to all aspects of a diplomatic, financial and material nature, with our overriding consideration being the wellbeing of the refugees concerned.

The second pillar of my funding strategy is to intensify our efforts to find new donors. The ever increasing support from - and demand on - traditional donors make it incumbent upon UNHCR to do more in this regard. I am convinced that thorough preparations are required to launch into new avenues of potential funding. These preparations are underway and will be intensified during the coming months. I hope to be in a position to report on the first concrete results later in the year.

The third pillar is the private sector. I have already been in contact with - and addressed meetings of - leading industrial concerns and personalities. We are also exploring the potential of private foundations. Whereas I am frankly not too hopeful that the results will correspond to the time being devoted to this area, our initiatives are so far fairly embryonic and need to be further developed before one can draw any conclusions. But we need full support from the traditional donors to help us engage in this new area.

I have already alluded to the fourth and fifth pillars of my funding strategy, political tools and voluntary repatriation. Whereas I am eminently aware of my non-political mandate, I intend to be alert to political initiatives - and to attract the attention of those concerned - wherever I believe they may either prevent a refugee situation from emerging or lead to solutions of existing problems. Such initiatives may often also be productive in the promotion and pursuit of voluntary repatriation movements. The latter solution is, of course, not only in the best interest of the refugees but will also release resources for use in other areas.

The sixth and final pillar of my funding strategy is, of course, the traditional donors. This is a fitting moment to express UNHCR's warm thanks to the generous efforts of the traditional donors. Their constant increase in contributions over the last years - and, indeed, during the first five months of this year - is a source of strong encouragement to UNHCR.

Mr. Chairman, I will welcome any comments or ideas this Committee may have on ways of improving UNHCR's funding basis. Meanwhile, we need your support in allowing UNHCR to continue its work major disruptions while we wait to see the results of our combined efforts.

The budget we are presenting for the approval of the Executive Committee is, as you know, the result of a careful - sometimes painful - exercise involving cuts in three areas: delivery of assistance to the refugees;

Their host governments; and UNHCR staff. I shall not go into details on these figures - nor on the impact that the various budget cuts have had on our programme. This information is available in the documents submitted to the Executive Committee and will be further elaborated on by the Deputy High Commissioner. I would repeat however, Mr. Chairman, my profound preoccupation over the financial situation of the Office. Not only are we confronted today with an extremely tight schedule in relation to financial obligations, for the remaining month of this semester, and the rest of 1990, but also, we have no indication as to what we may expect in 1991. I am told that last year, it took over 800 entries in UNHCR's accounts to make up the half billion dollars we received in contributions, and this was over more than twelve months. It was not until January 1990 that our people knew that the Office would receive the income they had projected for 1989. Such lack of predictability, and thus stability, has to be seriously addressed if we are to manage our budget in a professional and cost-effective manner.

We are convinced that the revised budget we are submitting for 1990 represents a reasonable balance between the needs of the world's 15 million refugees and the income we can realistically expect today to have at our disposal for this year. On the latter point, we are encouraged by the trends of increasing contributions we have witnessed not only over the last four years but also over the last 5 months. In this connection, I wish to express my warm thanks to the Chairman of the Executive Committee for the efforts he has undertaken in seeking an increase in UNHCR's funding base. More specifically, his appeal letter of 7 May, on behalf of members of this Committee, is a source of encouragement to the Office.

May I, in this connection, express my deep gratitude to the prime Minister of Sweden for the initiative he took in addressing more than 60 governments urging their support for UNHCR's refugee programmes. His call on the highest levels of government, drawing their attention to the responsibility of all concerned to find a balanced solution to the problem of refugees, is as unique as it is exemplary.

I am also very appreciative of the understanding and contributions of host governments towards meeting the needs of refugees. This at a time when impoverished host countries, in most cases belonging to the group of least developing countries, are seeing a constant deterioration in their own citizens' living conditions - and also at time when the number of refugees have been on the increase in a number of countries - adding some 300,000 to the already dismal statistics over the last six months. This serious situation is especially acute on the African continent which hosts a very significant number of the world's refugee population. However, we must be aware that by their arrivals in large numbers in some of the poorest countries in the world, refugees aggravate prevailing difficulties; their presence and demands on already severely strained infrastructures add to the extreme hardship affecting the local population. In many instances, they become an added impediment to development efforts. In order to enable the refugees as well as the local population to break out of the vicious circle of poverty there is a definite need to complement UNHCR's limited investments in the humanitarian field with wider resources from those agencies with competence in the field of development. That is the background to a letter I addressed on 11 April 1990 to all the competent UN agencies and international organizations. I intend to pursue this matter with vigour - and rely on the support of members of this Committee in the various for a where such matters are being discussed.

As you will have gathered by now, the preoccupying funding crisis has almost overshadowed my principal function - that of providing international protection to refugees. That is not to say, however, that important events have not occurred which have affected the protection of refugees. Some of these events are positive and give rise to optimism, such as changes in countries of origin which facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugees and the lifting, by two States, of the geographical reservation to the 1951 Convention.

On the other hand, some of the events are very preoccupying. Thus for example we have recently witnessed serious cases involving thousands of persons who have been subjected to refoulement, push-offs, expulsion, extradition and in certain countries, asylum-seekers and refugees continue to be detained in inhuman conditions. Isn't it ironic that, at a time when human rights are increasingly respected in parts of the world where the concept was hitherto ignored, the right of refugees to be protected is increasingly being violated elsewhere? I am concerned over the hardening attitude in many parts of the world towards those in search of protection as refugees.

I am aware that one of the consequences of the economic and social retrogression in developing countries has been the increase in the flow of migrants within as well as among countries. In this connection, my concern is that as a result, genuine asylum-seekers are at times being treated at the frontiers as economic migrants fleeing poverty rather than as refugees escaping political or other forms of persecution. My direct concern is, of course, that refugees find a safe haven and that persecution is met by asylum. But I am equally concerned that the international community should address the challenge of migration - and flight from poverty - through, among other things, a development-oriented approach to humanitarian emergencies.

Let me briefly mention the example of South-East Asia. How can the tragic problem of Vietnamese boat people be tackled in a truly comprehensive manner? In my view, there is no purely humanitarian answer to this question, which we must confront against a complex historical and political background. Indeed, contemporary history in that part of the world has bred a variety of economic and social problems that have exerted an increasing influence on the decision by many Vietnamese to leave their country. Fifteen years after the end of the war in Indochina, Governments - especially those of first asylum countries - and my Office, continue to cope with a humanitarian nightmare that seems to be without an end. It appears to me that the time has come for us to recognize that until these root causes are clearly addressed, the exodus is likely to continue in spite of UNHCR's best efforts. If this prediction were to prove accurate, the logical consequence would be a further erosion of the goodwill of governments in the region and a possible breakdown of the principle and practice of first asylum, as a result of an indefinite influx of asylum seekers, the nature of which has in recent years become increasingly migratory. Caught, as we would inevitably be, in such a spiral, our ability to protect and assist genuine refugees would be seriously hampered, if not made impossible. Ultimately, chaos would once again prevail in that region, leading to greater human suffering and loss of livers on the high seas. Clearly, we cannot afford the collapse of multilateral humanitarian efforts in an area where, in the past, concerted action by the international community has yielded such impressive results. I urge all Governments to live up to their respective responsibilities and seek a consensus in solving this problem. I shall shortly resume my direct contacts with concerned governments in order to pursue this consensus.

Mr. Chairman, we have only three days at our disposal and I wanted to be as brief as my possible. I therefore have not referred to the importance I attach to the role of - and partnership with - the Non-Governmental Organizations. In quite a few meetings with NGOs since January, I have, however, attempted to define and put into practice my ideas in this area. I look forward to continued contacts on this matter. Nor have I talked about the obvious importance I attach to the particular needs and resources of refugee women and the necessity to integrate these considerations into all aspects of UNHCR's activities. I can assure you that my previous experience renders this so obvious that it will rank as one of my top priorities. Nor do I ignore that women together with refugee children constitute the large majority of the world's refugees. I am determined that refugee children and their aspirations for education in search of a better future, will not be the victims of our funding problems. I also hope that the forthcoming World Summit on Children will bring the plight of refugee children to the attention of the highest levels of Governments.

Mr. Chairman, later in the year - in December - UNHCR will commemorate its 40th Anniversary. For human beings, this is sometimes referred to as a mid-life crisis. Indeed, it is evident that UNHCR has been undergoing some difficult times recently. In my view, it serves little purpose to dwell on the past apart from in areas where we can learn from our mistakes. I am convinced that out of the crisis, UNHCR will emerge a stronger organization. I consider the close relationship which has developed between the Executive Committee and UNHCR a considerable asset. I also believe that UNHCR's own need to redefine and readapt its role to a changing world - both in terms of the necessary institutional streamlining and rationalization as well as the readiness to seize available opportunities for solutions - will be a source of strength. Above all, I trust that UNHCR's forty years of experience and maturity - when applied constructively and realistically to the future - will make it better equipped to face the realities of the nineties. During its history, UNHCR has helped some 26 million individual human beings to a durable solution. They are no longer refugees. Our focus today must be the 15 million individuals - children, women and men, - waiting for the same opportunity. I can think of no nobler ambition for all of us than creating the necessary conditions for the solutions to their plight. I look forward to working with you towards that goal.

I thank you, Mr. Chairman.