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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 16 June 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 16 June 1993

16 June 1993
Protection: Right to Seek and Enjoy AsylumSolutions: Right to ReturnPrevention: Right to Remain

Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very honoured to have this opportunity to address the Conference. At a time when the refugee problem has taken on distressing proportions, at a time when the world's refugee population has exceeded 18 million, it is important to underline the close links between the promotion and defence of human rights, and the mandate of my Office, which is to provide international protection to refugees and seek solutions to their problems.

Unbelievable as it may be, a few hundred kilometres from here, war is raging. In what used to be Yugoslavia, bitter ethnic war, senseless killing, violence and ethnic expulsion have led almost 4 million people to become refugees, internally displaced or otherwise affected by conflict. Whether in the former Yugoslavia or Somalia, parts of Africa or central Asia and the Caucasus, refugees are victims of the twin scourges of human rights abuses and war. It is clear that a just peace is indispensable for the full enjoyment of human rights. And peace, together with respect for human rights, is essential for the protection of refugees, for the solution of refugee problems and for the prevention of future refugee situations.

Mr. President, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was born out of concern for victims of human rights abuses. Human rights principles remain of vital importance to the work of my Office on behalf of refugees. Respect for human rights is crucial for the admission and effective protection of refugees in countries of asylum; improvements in the human rights situation in countries of origin are essential for the solution of refugee problems through voluntary repatriation; and safeguarding human rights in home countries is the best way to prevent conditions that might otherwise force people to become refugees. Each of these aspects of the refugee problem may be seen from a different human rights perspective. I will discuss these aspects under the three themes of the right to seek and enjoy asylum, the right to return and the right to remain.

Protection: Right to Seek and Enjoy Asylum

Securing asylum for people who are forced to flee violence and human rights abuses in their own countries is at the heart of my Office's function to provide international protection. The right to seek and to enjoy asylum is proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14). The corresponding principle of non-refoulement, or the non-return of refugees to danger, has been accepted as a binding obligation by the 120 States parties to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, by the parties to the OAU Refugee Convention and other regional instruments, as well as by the international community generally.

But this human rights principle of admission to safety, without which there can be no protection for refugees, is under severe strain today. Political instability and bitter ethnic and sectarian conflicts, aggravated by poverty, demographic pressure, environmental degradation and the proliferation of arms have led to wars, civil strife and large-scale violations of human rights. These have in turn resulted in new displacements of people, both within and outside national boundaries. The sheer numbers of refugees have created problems for many receiving countries. In several of the industrialized countries, where the numbers of asylum seekers are swollen by economic migrants, measures have been adopted to control illegal immigration which sometimes also prevent refugees from reaching safety, or even return them, directly or indirectly, to places where their lives or freedom are threatened. In too many cases, in too many countries, people who are fleeing violence and human rights abuses at home are confronted with danger, rejection at frontiers or legal obstacles in their search for asylum.

I am deeply disturbed by attacks on refugees and asylum seekers and incidents of xenophobia and racism, which appear to be increasing. If we do not show courage and political leadership in resisting these dangerous trends, the victims will not be just the refugees but also the very foundations of democratic societies.

As uprooted foreigners who do not enjoy the protection of their own government, often impoverished and without proper documentation, refugees and asylum seekers are in a particularly vulnerable situation even after they enter a country of refuge. That vulnerability is compounded when they are members of ethnic, racial, religious, cultural or political groups who are already at odds with the authorities. Their personal security is frequently threatened. Refugee women and girls are often exposed to sexual violence.

The presence of UNHCR in the field and the acceptance by governments of our role in providing protection to refugees can help to mitigate violations of the human rights of refugees, but we cannot prevent them without the full cooperation of the governments concerned. In providing international protection my Office relies upon States to secure the rights and meet the basic needs of refugees. We cooperate with States, we help them to obtain international support and, if necessary, remind them of their responsibilities. UNHCR is thus very much an operational human rights organization for the protection of refugees.

How can the World Conference on Human Rights help to safeguard the international protection of refugees? I hope that the Conference will do so by reaffirming the right to seek and to enjoy asylum, the principle of non-refoulement, and the continuing relevance of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.

Solutions: Right to Return

Mr. President, the ultimate objective of international protection of refugees is not to institutionalize exile, but to achieve solutions to refugee problems. Voluntary repatriation, whenever possible, is the ideal solution. This is why, in the three pronged strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions to which I have committed my Office, I have stressed the refugee's right to return home safely and in dignity.

In terms of human rights norms, the right to return to one's country is proclaimed in the Universal Declaration (article 13 (2)) together with the right to leave any country, including one's own. It is also codified in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The responsibility lies with the countries of origin to do what is necessary to enable refugees to freely exercise this right. Implementing the human right to return, achieving the solution of voluntary repatriation for the world's refugees, is one of the major challenges facing my Office and the international community as a whole. It is a political challenge, a humanitarian challenge, a development challenge. And in many ways it is a human rights challenge.

Refugees have fled their homes and their homelands for compelling reasons, which include violence and human rights abuses. For them to return home safely and voluntarily, there must be a significant change in the conditions which caused their flight. There should be both peace and respect for their human rights. Assuring these requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the political, security, human rights, humanitarian and development aspects of the problem.

Today many refugees are returning home to situations that are far from stable, peaceful or safe. I am thinking in particular of the over one million Afghans who have returned to Afghanistan. But I am also thinking, this time with a degree of optimism, of the 370,000 Cambodians whom my Office helped to return to Cambodia in time to take part in the recent elections.

For the sake of these returning refugees as well as the communities to which they return, it is important to develop adequate and effective human rights monitoring systems which can contribute to an environment of confidence and stability. There are lessons to be learnt from recent or current operational arrangements, for instance in El Salvador, Iraq and Cambodia. Based on these experiences, UNHCR would welcome the strengthening of the capacity of our counterparts in the human rights field, particularly the Centre for Human Rights, to provide leadership, coordination, personnel and expertise for such operations, in which my Office expects to continue to play an active role as far as refugees are concerned.

Prevention: Right to Remain

In trying to respond to refugee problems, my Office is increasingly confronted with the problem of internally displaced persons, whether in the context of repatriation operations when displaced persons are intermingled with returning refugees, or in our efforts to prevent refugee flows by protecting and assisting people before they are forced to cross a border. How to secure the protection of the internally displaced and ensure their access to humanitarian assistance is one of the most important challenges facing the international community. Meeting this challenge will require the development of institutional and practical mechanisms.

In this regard I welcome the efforts of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. My Office remains willing to extend its humanitarian expertise to internally displaced persons in appropriate cases at the request of the UN Secretary-General or the General Assembly, but I must emphasize that the magnitude of the problem far exceeds the capacity and resources of any single agency. It calls for a comprehensive and concerted effort of the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations.

Whether we speak of refugees or of internally displaced persons, it is clear that there will be no end to their plight until the international community has found ways to deal effectively with the root causes of forced displacement, so as to prevent or alleviate conditions before people flee. This is why I have made the prevention of refugee flows a key component of UNHCR's strategy and have emphasized the need to defend the right of people to remain in peace in their own homes and their own countries.

When people have to leave their homes to escape persecution or armed conflict, a whole range of human rights are violated, including the right to life, liberty and security of person, the right not to be subjected to torture or other degrading treatment, the right to privacy and family life, the right to freedom of movement and residence, and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary exile. Whether we look at the former Yugoslavia or at other more distant areas, there are far too many situations in which torture, rape, murder and indiscriminate attacks on civilians are being committed with the deliberate aim of forcing one group of people to leave territory shared with another.

How to secure people's right to remain at home in the face of such onslaughts, how to be vigilant in our defence of tolerance and human rights for all those who live among us: these are urgent questions facing the international community, to which, I regret to say, we have yet to find an adequate response. It is on issues such as this that the success of this Conference will be judged. It is on issues such as this that the sincerity of international commitment to human rights will be tested.

Securing the right to remain at home in peace - and the right to return home in safety - requires ensuring respect for the human rights of everyone. UNHCR's objectives of preventing and solving refugee problems thus depends on the efforts of the international community as a whole to promote and protect human rights, and on the cooperation of sovereign States in these endeavours. The World Conference's consideration of the relationship between democracy, development and the universal enjoyment of human rights amply demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge. The prevention of refugee problems, as well as solutions to them, require multifaceted, comprehensive and integrated strategies.

The United Nations Secretary-General's Agenda for Peace sets out a challenging programme encompassing such strategies. It recognizes the importance of a commitment to human rights and of an effective United Nations human rights machinery, alongside preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peace-keeping and peace building efforts to avert threats to peace and security. I hope that the international community will be able to work towards developing an effective system of human rights monitoring and factual reporting, including, where appropriate, the use of international observers, regional arrangements and other elements of the United Nations system in an integrated approach to protecting human rights.

Mr. President, the deliberations and objectives of this Conference are of profound importance both for the refugees of today, and for millions of people who may be forced to flee in the future. In concluding therefore, I call upon this Conference to reaffirm the right of refugees to seek and to enjoy asylum, and to return home in safety and dignity. I call upon this Conference to reaffirm the right of all peoples to remain in peace and security in their own homes. Above all, I call upon the World Conference to forge a consensus on concrete, practical and action-oriented measures which will make the ideals of human rights into every day reality.

Thank you, Mr. President.