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Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 14 November 1977

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 14 November 1977

14 November 1977

Madam Chairman,

The Committee has before it today two seemingly routine matters: my Annual Report, and the periodic consideration of whether UNHCR should be continued. The agenda, appropriately terse, scarcely conceals its irony.

An Office which it was hoped, in 1951, would soon wither away together with the refugee problem, finds itself speaking today for a nation of the nationless - more populous than many Member States, more neglected and deprived than any represented here. The situation compels me to speak with increasing frankness: the dichotomy between aspiration and reality widens, not narrows.

There is the paradox of universality: we applaud, rightly and with hope, the growing universality of our Organization and look forward to the completion of this process. Must we concurrently witness the growing universality of the refugee problem? Must the concept of nationhood so often disenfranchise millions along the way?

Consider the paradox of international treaty-making: we invoke our inter - dependence and seek to elaborate laws of the sea and outer space; yet for many there is refuge neither on sea nor land and international instruments that exist are too frequently ill-observed, if observed at all.

The economic dialogue continues between North and South: but the nation of which I speak belongs neither to one, nor the other. Neither fair trade, nor debt cancellation touches its life. From where, then, will the resources be obtained each year to meet the "basic needs" of refugees and the displaced?

Surely there is no better forum than this in which to underline these ironies. They haunt the work of UNHCR, and infallible indicator of the world's political fever - a fever that UNHCR cannot cure, but the consequences of which determine, each year, the actions and concerns of this non-political Office.

Consider our proclamations: 1978 is Anti-Apartheid Year and 1979 International Year of the Child. Yet the road is paved, in 1977, with the expulsion across borders of children in southern Africa and the scattering of families on each continent.

It is callous, Madam Chairman, to compare degrees of human suffering and facile to speak of mass suffering. When we think of the refugee, we must really think of the individual. Bur, sometimes, the aggregate of similar individual experience amounts to the indictment of a system: apartheid is such a system. It represents the ultimate distortion of political values - a government intrinsically hostile to the people.

It is no surprise then, but the more intolerable for being foreseeable, that 1977, witnessed and unprecedented increase in refugees from South Africa. We cannot view with polite detachment the thousands of students crossing into Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. Or erase from mind the children of Nyazonia, now in another settlement in Mozambique, but still in trauma following an armed attack by Smith's forces. The exodus from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe continues. It is therefore fitting, even as southern Africa approaches its "tryst with destiny", that the international community act in concert to assist the host countries and refugees of this region.

To this end, UNHCR has been closely associated with United Nations mission led to the area by Assistance Secretary-General Farah. These missions have been undertaken in furtherance of General Assembly resolution 31/126 on Emergency Assistance to South African Student Refugees, and resolutions of the Security Council and ECOSOC on assistance to Botswana and Mozambique. On being designated by the Secretary-General to co-ordinate multilateral assistance for the South African student refugees, I considered it appropriate, in June 1977, to appeal o the international community for some $16 million - in order to provide both for these students and for other refugees in southern Africa. I am happy to state that nearly $11 million have already been pledged through UNHCR. Work in the area has proceeded apace, but so has the influx of refugees Inevitably, therefore, they shall need your continuing help in 1978. I should like to express my deep gratitude to the Organization of African Unity and to a number of governments of Africa that have backed our efforts on behalf of these refugees, not least by offering places in their educational facilities. I should also like to sincerely thank the governments that have contributed financially towards our projects. Our work on behalf of the student refugees has, of course, been undertaken in close co-operation with the UN Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa and others concerned, both within and outside the United Nations system.

This Committee will recall that, in July 1976, the Secretary-General asked me to act, for a period of one year, as Co-ordinator of the United Nations Programme of Humanitarian Assistance to Angola. We sought 48,000 tons of food and $32.5 million in cash for the displaced persons and returning refugees. By mid-1977, some 38,000 tons of food and over three-quarters of the cash target were contributed or pledged towards this programme. As we withdraw from this co-ordinating role, arrangements have been made with the Government and our many partners within the United Nations system, to ensure a smooth transition.

But, patently, UNHCR is - more often than not - a creature rather than a master of circumstance. New problems heap on those that persist. Thus, 200,000 refugees recently arrived in Angola, requiring a fresh response from us, while Djibouti - as a prologue to entry to the United Nations - posed its refugee problem to the Office. On the other hand, after three years in Cyprus during which we have channelled over $ 83 million in aid, reasoned political agreements remain elusive, and so do durable solutions to the problems of those displaced. In a similar vein, UNHCR's involvement with the Sahrawis can only be with the humanitarian aspects of the refugee situation: the Chairman of my Executing Committee, summing up the debate on this matter in Geneva recently, expressed the hope that my Office would continue its efforts to alleviate suffering and, at the same time, promote durable solutions, including voluntary repatriation. We shall certainly try, but the decisions that will determine events must clearly be made by those directly concerned.

The awkward truth about human deprivation, Madam Chairman, is that it demeans those who permit or ignore it, more than it does those who are deprived. In accordance with the unanimously adopted General Assembly resolution 3455 (XXX) we have continued our efforts to alleviate the hardship of displaced Indochinese - whether in Viet Nam, Laos, Thailand or adjacent areas, knowing that there are inter-relationships in their situation which must be acknowledged in a scrupulously humanitarian way. With this in mind, we greatly welcomed the recent adoption of General Assembly resolution 32/3 calling for reconstruction aid to Viet Nam.

Our own on-going projects in the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam and in the Lao People's Democratic Republic - in the amount of some $ 5 million - continue to be implemented with the full co-operation of the Governments. As the displaced persons gain in self-sufficiency, our projects are gradually being scaled downward.

In the quest for durable solutions, Madam Chairman, there is a certain symbiosis - which must not be ignored - between our assistance programmes and our protection functions. Failure to recognize this can constitute a flight from humanitarian responsibility, which could have profoundly disillusioning or tragic consequences for those needing help. Amongst such persons are those who still leave in small boats for various South East Asian ports. It was on their behalf that, on 3 October, the Secretary-General of the International Maritime Consultative Organization and I jointly appealed to ship-owners to observe the traditional rules of rescue of persons in distress on the high seas. It is my additional duty to appeal again to the countries of the area to let these persons disembark until more durable arrangements can be made, locally or elsewhere. I would also urge as wide a number of countries as possible to open their doors and grant resettlement opportunities. To do less would be to turn our backs on humanity.

We remain deeply concerned at the fate of those who have arrived in Thailand. Humane solutions are needed urgently for them. On the one hand, the sooner they are enabled to attain a measure of self-sufficiency, the easier it will be for all concerned: this is an inescapable lesson we have learned from years of experience in other comparable situations. On the other hand, both funds and resettlement opportunities must continue to be provided on as wide a basis as possible. Without such help, solutions can get postponed and difficulties exacerbated to the detriment of all. I would therefore urge support for our programmes in Thailand and adjoining areas where, in 1978, the order of financial requirements is expected to remain at least the same as in 1977.

The situation of refugees in Latin America remains tense and precarious. It demands the closest attention. Too often refugees have reacted in frustration, seeking to dramatize their insecurities, unfortunately not always without reason. On our side, we have relocated over 8,000 persons from Chile, while the movement of Chilean nationals joining heads of family abroad continues. From Argentina and Peru we have now relocated over 9,600 refugees of different origins. But looking into the foreseeable future, we see the necessity to resettle at least 5,000 more persons away from Latin America. This is hardly of choice, for we would all wish to see - to the extent possible - regional solutions to regional problems, whether in Latin America or elsewhere. Indeed, it is ironical that, at a time when global interdependence is being stressed, the refugee must increasingly have to prove the point by leaving behind not only his country, but even his continent, in search of permanent asylum in the furthest reaches away from home. I would nevertheless hope that, as a result of continuing resettlement in 1978, the refugee situation in Latin America will so ease as to facilitate the local integration of those who remain. It is to this end that we continue to seek your understanding.

Madam Chairman, I have sketched an outline of our current assistance programmes and spoken of vast numbers in need. Members of this Committee would, however, have detected again the one unyielding principle that must motivate UNHCR's work: recognition of the dignity and worth of the human person; to us, the individual refugee. This calls for decisively more than formal acts of tribute to our Covenants and Conventions. Violations of international norms of humanitarian behaviour are increasingly repugnant not only to our ideals but to society as a whole. No one in this Committee should remain indifferent. In the protection of refugees, which frequently amounts to the protection of life itself, half-measures are often as worthless as none. It is therefore of some importance that my Executive Committee examined problems of protection this year with greater care than ever before and, moving well beyond general exhortations, made a series of specific observations. Among them, first, that States not yet party to international instruments relating to the Status of Refugees consider acceding to them; second, that States that had entered geographical reservations at the time of acceding, consider with - drawing such reservations; third, that States parties to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol establish procedures for the formal determination of refugee status under these instruments and give favourable consideration to UNHCR participation in these procedures; fourth, that in regard to those States which have not acceded to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol, the Statute of this Office serve as the basis of the protection function of the High Commissioner.

I am deeply grateful to the Executive Committee for sharing my grave concern that the basic human rights of refugees be respected, that they not be subjected to physical violence, to unjustified and unduly prolonged measures of detention or, for that matter, to forcible return in disregard of the principle of non-refoulement. Instances of such violations are distressingly frequent. It is a pity, in some ways, that this is not the forum in which to name instances. For occasionally, our notes of protest receive no more that silence in answer, and then we know that expedience or injustice have once again sought a hollow triumph. Is it possible that those who hand over a refugees to a country where his life is endangered possess so little imagination that they cannot see themselves in his place?

As this Committee is aware, by its resolution 3456 (XXX) the General Assembly requested the Secretary-General, in consultation with UNHCR, to convene a conference of plenipotentiaries to consider a draft Convention on Territorial Asylum. The conference was held in Geneva between 10 January - 4 February 1977 and its report is contained in document A/CONF.78/12. In concluding its session, the conference noted that it had been unable to carry out its mandate within the allocated time, considered that efforts to draft a convention should be continued, and recommended that the General Assembly at its thirty-second session should consider the question of convening at an appropriate time a further session of the conference. Consultations are continuing in regard to the re-convening of the conference.

Madam Chairman, it has been my privilege to report to this Committee for twelve years now. Each year, my Office has derived renewed strength from the manner in which this Committee has, as it were, "united for mankind" in the resolutions here adopted. My thanks are also due to the many non-government organizations and voluntary agencies that have steadfastly supported our effect Of particular importance to me has been to recognition that the work of this Office is, indeed, humanitarian and non-political, despite its too-obvious sensitivity. This was not always so and I respect, all the more for that reason, the delicacy of the trust conferred on us. But this trust must be translated into programmes of assistance for refugees and displaced persons. And here. I must plead with you to match your trust, and your sympathy, with resources.

As we enter 1978, our combined "general " and "special" programmes, to be financed from voluntary contributions, total $ 72.7 million. As you have se this sum does not derive from some figment of our imagination, but from and increasingly large number of persons in desperate circumstances who, unfortunately, stand outside the general economic debates and processes with which we are familiar in inter-governmental forums. Nor will they benefit from them.

It is for this reason that I would urge generosity, at out Pledging Conference on 18 November and thereafter. I would particularly direct my request to governments that have not hitherto participated substantially in the financing of our humanitarian activities. As you would have noted, the problems confronting us are widespread and growing and, in a sense, they reflect a world that all of us have made, or mis-shapen.

Madam Chairman, I should be relinquishing my post at the end of the year. The most valuable mark of confidence which I could wish to receive from the Third Committee would be the knowledge that the partnership which we have established during my term of office will continue to benefit refugees and displaced persons in the future.

It is to them that my thoughts turn now, in the hope that the application of this Organization's Charter and the principles that it upholds will help some day to prevent further human tragedy.