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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 20 November 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 20 November 1995

20 November 1995
Third CommitteeProtection and SolutionsEmergency ResponsePreventionThe safety of staff - and refugees

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

I would like to thank you for being able to meet with the Third Committee today. My colleagues have briefed me on the debate on my report which took place earlier this month. At the outset, let me express my deep appreciation for the many kind words addressed to me and my staff and for the many useful and constructive comments made. We need all the advice, encouragement and support of this Committee as we strive to ensure protection and seek solutions for the 27 million refugees, returnees and displaced persons under the mandate of my Office.

Ours is a job about survival and solutions. We need to act with speed to save lives and with vigour to seek solutions. In the wake of the large-scale emergencies in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda there has been a growing recognition by the international community that a new pro-active and comprehensive approach is required. Although the core of our mandate is still the granting of protection to and the search for solutions for millions of refugees, the international community is no longer satisfied with UNHCR waiting for people to cross borders to protect and assist them. Instead, growing emphasis is being placed on the provision of humanitarian assistance, protection and the creation of conditions which may contribute to early solutions in the countries of origin. Moreover, UNHCR is increasingly pursuing openings for preventive action that could contain the causes of displacement or, at least, mitigate its consequences.

Today, I do not intend to present a comprehensive review of our activities throughout the world. Instead, I would like to share our views of the limits and opportunities of humanitarian action as we pursue our strategy of protection and solutions, emergency response, and prevention.

Protection and Solutions

UNHCR may today be known by the larger public as a relief agency responding to refugee emergencies. But it is the mandate of the Office to provide international protection to refugees that distinguishes UNHCR from any other organization in the United Nations system. Without protection, there may be no survival. Without protection, there may be no solutions.

The essential protection function of my Office consists of working with governments to keep borders open for those fleeing persecution and war, and to make sure that refugees are not returned against their will to situations were their lives might be in danger. That is why, at the meeting of UNHCR`s Executive Committee in October, I expressed concern over the decline in the willingness of States to grant asylum, even on a temporary basis. Many countries are openly admitting their weariness with large numbers of refugees seeking asylum and some are closing their borders. Others are introducing laws and procedures which effectively deny admission to their territories.

From the perspective of my Office, however, the best protection is to find a lasting solution so that refugees are no longer in need of international protection. Return home has always been the best solution. Today it is often the only available solution, in particular in situations of large-scale displacement. My Office, however, will continue to underline the importance of third country resettlement for categories of people.

Despite the increase in the number of persons of concern to my Office, some 9 million refugees and displaced persons have returned to their places of origin. More than 2 million of them have gone home following peace settlements in Namibia, Cambodia, El Salvador and Mozambique. But increasingly refugees are - and will be - repatriating to situations where perfect conditions for return may not exist, where peace and stability may not yet have taken root following long periods of conflict and devastation. Yet return may be a better alternative than prolonged stay in exile in often intolerable and dangerous conditions. But our approach and any decision to promote return should be based on humanitarian considerations. Here, voluntariness should be the key principle. In seeking return, we strive to protect the interests of returning refugees while attempting to contribute to the reconciliation and the rehabilitation of their places of origin. This strategy is at the core of our approach to seek an early solution to the problem of more than 2 million refugees and displaced persons in the Great Lakes Region. In such situations, we may have no choice but to try to work actively to create conditions that will allow refugees to return in safety and dignity.

In the absence of a peace settlement, official assurances that refugees can return without fear of repression or persecution are important confidence building measures. But they will often not be enough. International presence - to monitor safety and reassure the returnees, while working with the authorities to create the conditions that will allow communities to welcome those returning and move towards recovery - will often be required. In Tajikistan, in Afghanistan and in Rwanda, international presence of humanitarian staff, supported by human rights workers, and/or peace-keeping observers, has contributed to the willingness of refugees to return despite the fragile conditions at home. Confidence-building measures thus promote return, while return may promote further confidence in longer-term reconciliation and peace-building in countries still ravaged by conflict.

Despite the important contributions which humanitarian action can make, operating in the midst of conflict has been exceedingly difficult. Nowhere has UNHCR been more severely tested than in the former Yugoslavia. On the one hand, it has been a privilege for my Office to lead a major humanitarian effort that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the last four years. On the other hand, it has been a painful experience to be powerless to stop some of the worst human rights atrocities in the history of the United Nations. With the hope of an imminent peace settlement, we must insist that the people who have so far been the targets of the war do not also become the victims of peace. We must insist that return to places of origin - and respect for humanitarian principles and human rights - be made a condition for reconstruction assistance and membership among the community of civilized nations. My Office has accepted to continue leading the humanitarian effort as we embark on what we hope is the road towards peace, return and recovery. But we expect, on our side, that humanitarian concerns will occupy a central place on the political and peace agenda, and counts on other agencies to take the lead in the reconstruction process.

Emergency Response

Mr. Chairman,

Let me turn now to emergency response. Since becoming High Commissioner, I have invested a lot of time and effort in improving UNHCR's emergency response capacity. As a result of the strengthening of our own systems and the collaborative arrangements we have established with Governments, the World Food Programme and with numerous non-governmental organizations - as well as the one we are concluding with UNICEF - we can act now with the necessary speed and predictability. UNHCR's capacity to respond and to coordinate the international response to refugee emergencies will continue to be available as a major contribution to United Nations efforts in humanitarian crises.

I believe that discussions on reform of humanitarian activities should focus not so much on individual institutions, each with their specific mandates, but on the collective efforts of the humanitarian community. As managers, we have a responsibility to improve our procedures and tools and to review our institutional constraints constantly. In UNHCR, we are doing this together with our Executive Committee in a close and constructive process. But we have also a responsibility to fine-tune and synchronize our response with wider and larger efforts to respond to complex emergencies. That is why I welcome the resolution adopted by ECOSOC earlier this year, which calls for a comprehensive review of the emergency response capacity of the United Nations system. UNHCR intends to contribute actively to this initiative.


Let me turn now to the difficult and complex question of prevention. Preventive efforts are often invisible, their results unseen. Failure of prevention is, however, all too visible in the form of each successive humanitarian emergency. We are fully aware that prevention is basically a political function, as it touches upon the issues of sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs, early warning, preventive diplomacy, conflict negotiation and resolution, among many others.

Humanitarian action, however, can make significant contributions. By being well prepared and quick in response, it can soften suffering and act firmly on the side of the victims while buying time for negotiators to continue their political efforts. I am encouraged by the increasing support of the United Nations political machinery for humanitarian concerns and efforts. But our experience shows that humanitarian action cannot be an end in itself. We look to the Security Council and other political bodies to act on early warning signals and prevent or resolve emerging conflicts. Action by political bodies must address the causes of conflicts and resolutely seek solutions, otherwise humanitarian activities will be left in isolation or will continue indefinitely.

Our current efforts in the CIS and the neighbouring states are an example of how humanitarian action may eventually contribute to the prevention of forced displacement. Further to resolution 49/173 adopted by the General Assembly last December, UNHCR, together with IOM and the OSCE, has organized a series of sub-regional meetings in preparation for a Conference that we hope to hold in 1996. The Conference will seek to adopt a declaration of principles as well as a programme of action. The process promises to be invaluable in developing a regional strategy to avert population displacement in a part of the world marked by ethnic tensions and conflicts. I am encouraged by the support this Committee has expressed for this initiative. I have also taken note of the suggestion made by some delegations here that the process might be useful and applicable beyond the region concerned.

The safety of staff - and refugees

Mr. Chairman,

Operating in conflict situations raises also fundamental questions about the security of humanitarian workers and the refugees and returnees they seek to protect and assist. I am grateful for all the kind words this Committee expressed earlier this month on the heroism and courage of my staff. They frankly deserve them; but they need more than compliments. I remain deeply concerned that the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel, although a welcome step forward, did not extend automatic protection to all staff of the United Nations risking their lives and limbs for peace. Humanitarian staff are now in the forefront of what has often been described as one of the most successful missions of the United Nations. Their safety must also be in the forefront of governments' concerns, and I thank those who have declared their intention to seek better protection for our staff.

Turning to the safety of the people we seek to protect, I am dismayed by the international community's inability to reach a clear stand on the question of landmines. The presence of landmines is a threat to everybody, including refugees and humanitarian personnel; it is an obstacle to repatriation - and an affront to humanity. I join the Secretary-General in calling for a total ban. For its part, UNHCR is now implementing the policy I announced at the International Meeting on Landmines organized by DHA last July that we will not knowingly do business with companies involved in the production or sale of these terrible and indiscriminate weapons.

Mr. Chairman,

In order to pursue this pro-active policy of prevention, solutions and protection, we must cooperate closely not only with humanitarian agencies, be they intergovernmental or non-governmental ones, but also with the political, military and development agencies. For example, following the signing of the peace agreement on Bosnia Herzegovina various political, military, humanitarian and development agencies, not previously present, will seek to assist in the peace process and the reconstruction of the country. This will pose new challenges to coordinate the different but complementary responses by the international community.

I would like to take this opportunity also to express my deep appreciation to you for the generous contributions your Governments have announced during the Pledging Conference last week. Many more Governments have expressed their intention to increase their contributions for 1996. Your support will enable my Office to meet the many urgent demands imposed upon us and to seize early opportunities for solutions to the refugee crises. I would like to reiterate my commitment to use the resources prudently and to improve the transparency, efficiency and, most importantly, accountability of my Office. I have taken serious note of the report by the Board of Auditors and the ACABQ and we are already taking the necessary action.

Mr. Chairman,

The United Nations has over recent years demonstrated its capacity for effective humanitarian action. Indeed, humanitarian staff working with the parties and the victims of conflict to build confidence, and rebuild lives and communities, are important contributors to peace. Humanitarian action, however, is not charity. Our work to protect refugees and displaced people and to assist them in resolving their problems is an integral part of the work for peace. It must be recognized as such.

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the declared purpose was to reaffirm the world's faith in "fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small". Fifty years later, the search for solutions to the refugee problem must be guided by the same principles.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.