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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 56th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 11 April 2000

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 56th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 11 April 2000

11 April 2000

Mr Chairman,
Madam High Commissioner,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by congratulating you, Mr Chairman, and the Bureau, on your election, and thank you for opening this agenda item to allow me to address the Commission this afternoon.

As ever larger numbers of people are uprooted by war, violence and persecution, the need for the Commission on Human Rights to address the causes of mass exodus and displacement has never been clearer. I would like to focus today on the distinct, yet complementary mandates of human rights actors and humanitarian organisations, as we both grapple with conflict-induced displacement.

Reports of the various Experts of the Commission have underlined the most appalling violations of human rights and humanitarian law in almost every region of the world, that have forced hundreds of thousands of people to seek asylum across borders. Millions more are displaced inside their own country and remain largely forgotten and out of reach of any assistance or protection. The vicious internal conflicts, which underlie the forced population movements, are themselves rooted in deep ethnic, social and economic divisions within communities. They are compounded by the arms trade, drug trafficking and the violent struggle to control oil, diamonds, timber, territory or other natural resources.

The theme of this Commission is extreme poverty. I hope that in examining this subject you will reflect, not only on how the lack of economic development hampers the enjoyment of human rights, but also how inadequate and inequitable distribution, and misappropriation and misuse of economic resources, perpetuate humanitarian crises, including refugee outflows.

Nowhere is this more evident - and in many, distressing ways - than in Central Africa, where conflicts going back several decades, mass violations of humanitarian law and human rights abuses, and consequent humanitarian crises, have affected almost every country in that region. There are well over 300,000 refugees from Burundi alone, mostly in Tanzania, not to mention large numbers of internally displaced persons inside the country. In the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, hundreds of thousands have been displaced internally, while some 130,000 refugees have fled to Tanzania. In Angola almost 20% of the population has been uprooted.

The cycle of human misery and displacement is not limited to Africa. I recently visited the Balkans, where a new impetus to return in some parts of the region, notably Croatia and Bosnia, has been offset elsewhere. In Kosovo, in particular, the massive return of ethnic Albanian refugees last July was soon followed by fresh violence and displacement of people from the Serb, Roma and other ethnic groups. I visited several areas in Kosovo and was shocked by the depth of hatred and resentment among the different ethnic communities.

In almost all these situations, whether in Central Africa or South Asia, Colombia or the Caucasus, refugee problems are closely linked to those of internally displaced people, in terms of the causes and consequences of the displacement, as well as humanitarian needs. Not surprisingly, the scale and scope of UNHCR's own activities on behalf of the internally displaced have dramatically increased. Today we are providing protection and assistance not only to 17 million refugees and returnees, but also to some 5 million internally displaced people. Recently, in the context of strengthening the UN's response capacity to the problem, we have indicated our commitment to greater engagement with internally displaced people, in collaboration with other relevant organisations. Our involvement will be subject to some key considerations, not least the need to preserve the integrity of our humanitarian mandate, and the right to seek asylum.

We have decided on even greater involvement because we believe that our expertise on protection and solutions is particularly relevant to conflict-induced internal displacement. But we are also acutely aware that dealing with internally displaced people is often more difficult than with refugees who cross borders. Our experience in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and parts of Asia and Africa, have amply demonstrated the operational difficulties of reaching large numbers of people in insecure and isolated areas as well as the political complexities of assisting civilians in their own country, where their own state authorities or rebel forces in control of the territory are frequently the very cause of their predicament.

Hundreds of thousands of people at risk, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Burundi, from Angola to Sierra Leone, as well as in Chechnya, in the Russian Federation - many of them internally displaced - cannot be reached by international humanitarian agencies. Even where access is available, it is often very dangerous, and humanitarian personnel from UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, the ICRC and many NGOs have been killed or attacked, harassed and threatened.

Mr. Chairman,

The North Caucasus shows the difficulties and constraints of protecting and assisting internally displaced people. UNHCR's presence in this area dates back to 1995, when, upon the request and with the consent of the parties concerned, we helped to reintegrate and rehabilitate the displaced population. The kidnapping of the head of our office in Vladikavkaz forced us to withdraw our international presence in early 1998. Following the outbreak of hostilities last year, and at the request of the governments of Daghestan and Ingushetia, and of the federal authorities, we began providing emergency relief to some 200,000 displaced persons from Chechnya in these republics.

UNHCR, which has the lead coordinating responsibility for the provision of humanitarian assistance in the region, is one of the few international agencies operating in the North Caucasus. The local population has made an extraordinary effort to receive and host those fleeing Chechnya, but its resources are limited. And the risk to staff safety remains a very serious obstacle. While international staff can work, under tight security arrangements, in neighbouring republics, we have no regular presence yet inside Chechnya, and must rely primarily on our national staff to monitor the situation. Operating on this limited basis, coupled with political complexities, makes the humanitarian response, particularly on protection matters, problematic, to say the least. Nevertheless, we have identified various protection issues confronting the internally displaced people in Ingushetia and Daghestan, and are actively discussing how to resolve these issues with the authorities.

Many of the displaced people have reported to us incidents of violence, rape, abuse, and detention to which they were subjected by the warring parties in Chechnya. The excessive use of force against civilians has constantly been the preoccupation of the United Nations - you will recall that last November, Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent me as his special envoy to the Russian Federation to examine the humanitarian consequences of conflict in the North Caucasus. In our discussions with the authorities during and after my visit, my colleagues and I have established arrangements to bring humanitarian assistance to the affected populations - to date, 55 convoys have been dispatched to the region, including one to Grozny at the end of February. We have also consistently urged the authorities to spare the lives and respect the rights of civilians - I made a personal appeal in this respect to then Prime Minister Putin when I met with him in Moscow - and we have called for the borders of Chechnya to remain open so that those who flee can find safety outside the area of conflict.

Our main priorities continue to be to find a safe, permanent solution for the displaced people, and to ensure that no one is forced to return to Chechnya. People must be allowed to remain in Ingushetia and Daghestan, and receive the protection and assistance they need, until such time as they wish to return home. To enable us to monitor and implement these objectives, we will be strengthening our protection presence within the limits of the security constraints.

Increased presence will be particularly important in view of the growing numbers who have begun to return to Chechnya, despite the unstable conditions, even as others are leaving the republic. Many of the displaced people told me when I visited the region that they would like to return home as soon as they can. As in any situation of displacement, the primary responsibility to provide protection and assistance to returnees lies with the national authorities. It is up to them to create the conditions conducive to voluntary return of displaced people in safety and to safety. The transparent handling of reports or allegations of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Russian Federation will go some way to create the confidence and the conditions necessary for safe, voluntary and durable return of the displaced population to Chechnya.

Mr Chairman,

The problem of internal displacement illustrates the distinct (yet complementary), and separate (yet mutually supportive) mandates of human rights and humanitarian actors in this field. But our protection role is different from the responsibilities of human rights advocates. We monitor legal standards, with a very particular emphasis - of course - on the fundamental right of asylum, which remains the cornerstone of refugee protection. However, as a humanitarian organisation, we don't do this so much through advocacy as through our presence next to those whose human rights we stand for, and through what I would call our "protection operations".

Effective field presence is an important tool of humanitarian protection. Through presence, which is based on the scrupulous adherence to the principles of impartial, non-political, and humanitarian action, we strive primarily to gain and retain access to those in need of protection, and to make a positive, tangible difference in their lives. Our role is to stand for the basic human rights of refugees and displaced people through constant contact, discussion and negotiation with the authorities on the ground, and through appeals for support from the international community. Implementing protection also entails a broad spectrum of activities: relieving the refugees' plight, ensuring that their material needs are met, counselling and alleviating traumas, helping them become self-sufficient, making sure that communities hosting them do not become hostile. It means paying special attention to the most vulnerable, like women, children, and the elderly.

At all these levels, presence is essential. We could not negotiate, assist, or advise, without being with the refugees. Presence is the key, if I may say, to our approach - the humanitarian approach - to upholding the rights of uprooted people.

This said, the role of human rights organisations and bodies, including the different mechanisms of this Commission, is crucially complementary to ours in many areas. It is very important that our activities on the ground be complemented by the identification and exposure to international public attention of violations of human rights that cause refugee crises. This must be done so that appropriate pressure can be created, and measures taken for remedial action. Likewise, human rights bodies must take the lead on issues of justice, whether in the context of restitution and compensation for the victims, or the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators. Such activities are extremely important in addressing the human rights violations that cause (or have caused) refugee outflows.

The specificity of our mandate as a humanitarian organisation, and the need to be present and lead operations in the field, do not reduce in any way our commitment, indeed our responsibility, to co-operate with the Commission on Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons. On the contrary, I wish to emphasize even more the complementarity of our work. It is only through working together that our operational activities can both benefit from, and support, their efforts.

We will therefore continue to contribute to the work of human rights organisations, by sharing information, exchanging views, and promoting human rights standards in our own protection and assistance activities. We expect human rights organisations, on their part, to recognize and respect our efforts, and to maintain close coordination with UNHCR.

Mr. Chairman,

Just as human rights and humanitarian bodies must work in their distinct, yet complementary ways, to respond to the needs of the displaced population, they must also work in their separate but supportive ways to find durable solutions to problems of displacement, and prevent further crises. In the volatile conditions where peace is fragile and the wounds of conflict still raw, we face a common challenge, not only to ensure that people are able to return home safely, but also that they can remain there in safety. The atrocities committed in the course of internal wars leave such deep wounds that the process of healing is a long and painful one - but respect for human rights cannot be built on a firm basis unless we help the communities learn to live together again.

Restoring or establishing judicial systems, and bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity, are of course extremely important tasks. But we must go further. If refugee problems are to be solved and renewed flows prevented, divided communities must be encouraged and helped to co-exist with each other. I deliberately use the word "co-existence", not reconciliation, because the goal of co-existence is less ambitious and more realistic. It recognises that bitterness and hostility between communities are an inevitable consequence of mass violence and will not evaporate with a political settlement. More concrete steps will be necessary at the community level to allow divided peoples to learn to live together - in other words, co-exist - without resorting to further violence. Co-existence may, in due course, lead to reconciliation. And co-existence, and reconciliation, may well be our greatest challenge in the years to come - a challenge that confronts both humanitarian agencies and human rights organisations.

We, in the humanitarian field, can make a particularly important contribution to this process because we work at the community level. UNHCR is trying to promote co-existence not only through community-based human rights training activities, but also through small-scale projects in education, job creation, religious and cultural life, including the arts, literature, sports and the media. In Bosnia, for example, UNHCR is advocating support to small businesses that employ people from different ethnic groups. Our Women's Initiatives in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, all try to engage women at the community level, in activities that build bridges between estranged communities.

In a recent visit to the town of Drvar, in Bosnia, I was struck by the determination of a group of women of Croatian and Serbian origin to discuss and work together - in spite of the deep divisions still affecting their communities, and in spite of their own sharp contrasts on a number of key issues. They had different opinions. They had arguments and rows. But they kept talking, with an obstinacy that I found moving - and my colleagues were there, helping them through a difficult process. This happens in many parts of the world. In another context, for example, the efforts of humanitarian agencies to support the demobilisation, education and psycho-social rehabilitation of child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone - again, at the grassroots level - will be crucial in helping those countries break the violent cycles of their past.

These are small efforts - but they are very important. Indeed, I would urge that more such efforts be made to address the situation before it has deteriorated to a level where conflict and forced displacement are inevitable. I fully support the High Commissioner for Human Rights when she spoke at the opening of this Session about the need of the United Nations to develop its collective capacity for conflict prevention. In this comprehensive strategy, humanitarian, human rights, political and economic actors all have their contribution to make, each in the area of their specific expertise, each in their own distinct way.

Let me conclude my statement, Mr. Chairman, by recalling that it is almost a decade since I first addressed this Commission. It was the second time that a High Commissioner for Refugees had spoken at this forum. It gives me great satisfaction to see a positive evolution of the relationship between the humanitarian mission of my Office and your human rights work.

I am confident that my Office will continue to enjoy your support as, together, we confront the challenge of upholding the human rights of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons.

Thank you.