AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Sivanka Dhanapala, the UNHCR Representative
The UNHCR Office was first established in 1950 by the United Nations. Once formed, UNHCR became in charge of leading and coordinating international activities to protect refugees and find solutions to their problems in every part of the globe.
UNHCR Office in Iran began its operation in 1984 and as construes the UNHCR mandate, it allocated all its work to preserve their rights and provide welfare for refugees in Iran. However, with the fast arrival of Iraqi refugees in Iran after the Gulf War in 1991 and as a result of the Taliban governance in Afghanistan in 1994 and the coming of Afghan refugees in 2001, Iran changed into one of the biggest hosts of refugees in the world.
As brings up the vast presence of refugees in Iran and to study more deeply the activities of the UNHCR Office in Iran, we conducted an interview with the UNHCR Representative here.
Very much so. I think law was something I had wanted to do since I was in high school. So it was quite gratifying to be able to complete my degrees in law and I ended up having a particular focus on international humanitarian law.
All over. I grew up as the son of a diplomat so I had a very nomadic life growing up moving from country to country, from school to school. I graduated high school at the International School of Geneva, one of the oldest international schools in the world founded soon after the League of Nations was established.
So you can say in a sense that I was exposed early on to the whole spirit of the League of Nations, and the United Nations. Upon graduating from high school I returned to Sri Lanka and attended the Law Faculty of the University of Colombo. After a life overseas I think my parents were keen that I return to Sri Lanka reacquaint myself with our homeland.
Unfortunately, that was a very turbulent time in Sri Lanka and many of the universities were opening and closing because of the political situation then. So I was fortunate enough to transfer to England and I was able to finish my bachelor’s in-laws, my LL.B., at the School of Law of the University of Buckingham. I then went on to Washington, D.C. where I did my LL.M. with a focus on international humanitarian law at the Washington College of Law of The American University.
I think you should ask how BOTH my father and my mother influenced me. Mothers always have an influence. My father, because of his profession, the international exposure that gave me and his commitment to public service. And my mother, who was a teacher, and an educator has a wonderful ability to connect with people and the importance of having empathy was something I learned from her.
Not quite those locations or in that order. He started as a junior diplomat in London and then went on to Beijing. Other postings included New Delhi, Geneva, and Washington, D.C. He was Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, and later Ambassador to Washington, D.C.
Correct. He was the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN and Ambassador in Geneva. I was going to high school at that time. He stayed on in Geneva upon being seconded by the Sri Lankan Foreign Service to the United Nations where he was the director of an institute called the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). I was a graduate student in Washington at the time.
In 1992. Cambodia was my very first assignment. Frankly, it was a very interesting and exciting way to start a career with the United Nations because it was a positive operation for the UN and also specifically for UNHCR.
It was one year after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords which brought peace to Cambodia after decades of war and UNHCR was in the country to assist with the voluntary repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees most of whom had been in Thailand for decades. That was a very inspiring assignment for me especially because it was my very first posting with the UN and motivated me to stay on and have a career with the organization.
There was one recollection in particular that I will never forget and that was, during the repatriation, observing the arrival of a convoy of trucks in Cambodia and witnessing the reunification of a woman with her mother after a forced separation of some 17 years caused by the conflict in the country. They were seeing each other for the first time after 17 years. That was a deeply moving experience and one that I will never forget.
My title was Associate Field Officer which is actually the lowest possible rung on the ladder but for me, as a 23-year-old just starting off on his career in the UN it was an amazing experience.
I have an interesting story to tell about that but I didn’t realize you would have known about it. Well, the Paris Peace Agreement brought all the parties to the conflict to the table but the Khmer Rouge was the first to withdraw from the accord, breaking the ceasefire agreed upon. Despite the presence of UN peacekeeping forces, the Khmer Rouge resumed hostilities with the other parties to the conflict and were periodically disrupting the peace.
The UN was assisting the country in moving towards a free and fair election, and having withdrawn from the peace process, the Khmer Rouge was doing its best to disrupt preparations for the election. Now we are talking about the first half of 1993. In one of those attempts to disrupt the elections, the Khmer Rouge attacked the town that I was in.
They also happened to attack the house that I was in. I was with two friends who were UN volunteers working on the election and the three of us had to hide in one of the rooms of my house for the duration of the attack which fortunately ended after a few hours. That seemed like a lifetime but fortunately, the attackers left the house and left the city eventually and we were unharmed. Needless to say, that was a bonding experience and one that made these two friends life-long friends of mine.
I think that was the most intense experience. There was gunfire and shelling all around me. There were a number of incidents while I was in Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina 1995-97. The period in Bosnia was an interesting one because I was there when the conflict was still ongoing, I was there when the Dayton Peace Accord was signed, and I was there in the immediate aftermath of the peace agreement.
What I have always said is that, while the conflict was dangerous for everybody who was there, the dangers were apparent. Meaning we knew when it was dangerous and when it was not. In the period that followed the peace agreement, UNHCR was charged with facilitating the return of people who had been displaced. Many wanted to go back home. That was a very politically tense period because you had returning populations mixing once again with those that caused their displacement. The resulting situation was highly volatile and you would suddenly witness spontaneous demonstrations of violence.
This is why I often say during the war it was black and white because in a sense we knew when to stay out of harm’s way but in that immediate post-conflict period it was more dangerous and unpredictable for many of us who were present, with sudden eruptions of violence.
I am not sure how to approach your question. You spoke earlier of the bridge in Mostar. Mostar is very famous for its bridge. In fact the word ‘’ most’’ means bridge and Mostar I believe means the ‘keeper of the bridge’. One of the many tragedies of the conflict in Bosnia was the destruction of the Mostar bridge that was over 450 years old.
In 1993, a number of artillery guns were aimed at the bridge and it was destroyed. So when I was there a cable bridge had been put in place as a temporary measure. I am very happy to hear that it is now completely restored in accordance with its old design. In fact, the immediate conflict in Mostar while I was there was not between the Muslim Bosnians and Serbs, most of whom had withdrawn earlier from the town, but between the Catholic Croats who were in west Mostar and the Muslim Bosnians who were in east Mostar. This conflict was very intense.
I was a Field Officer and the Head of Field Office. But one thing just to say going back to the original question that I found interesting during that particular time after the peace accord was that UNHCR was given the responsibility of trying to facilitate the return of all those displaced in the war under Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
To facilitate return we often had to bring together those who were displaced with local authorities in their location of origin to discuss a possible return. It was an amazing experience. We were chairing these negotiations. We had a mayor of a particular municipality seated opposite a mayor in exile of the same municipality who represented those who had been displaced. So it was a very tense but interesting experience that aimed at bringing people together.
In the first few meetings, they did not speak to each other, and only directed their comments to UNHCR, but as we progressed, the atmosphere got incrementally better and better. Of course, the atmosphere was never ideal because it was so soon after the peace agreement had been signed but it was interesting to see how human contact gradually encouraged dialogue.
As you know the most horrendous and the most well-known mass killing was in Srebrenica. That tragedy took place while I was in Bosnia and I still recall it happening while I was in a small town called Jablanica. I remember the horror as a number of my national colleagues were talking to me about what they heard was going on and we all felt helpless to stop it because we were in another location. Certainly, there were a number of tragic events that took place during that time.
I was personally fortunate to arrive in Bosnia towards the end of the conflict. I arrived there circa April 1995, while the date of the peace agreement was in November that same year if I am not mistaken. So, most of the violence that I saw was in the post-peace agreement stage and between civilians.
Well, I think when you are very young and in the early stages of your career, you take some time in finding your way. I had served in Cambodia, as I said it was a very thrilling experience, and I remember wondering what to do next. UNHCR offered me a post in West Africa. And then around that time, an application that I had made just after law school was picked up.
The External Relations Division of the IAEA offered me a position as a Junior Professional Officer. After two and a half years of working in the field, it seemed an interesting option to go and work on policy issues at a headquarters location. I thought it would be intellectually challenging. I am glad that I did it because I met and worked with two very interesting individuals, Hans Blix who was then the Director-General of the IAEA and whom I know has visited Iran many times and also Mohamed ElBaradei who was at that time the Assistant Director-General in charge of external relations. So, my very, very small office was right next door to his big office. For me, it was a very instructive period because I learned a lot. It is also important to understand that the IAEA is an agency under the aegis of the United Nations.
I was what they called Junior Professional Officer. I was very specific in the Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Unit within the External Relations Division. As you know IAEA is tasked with implementing Safeguards Agreements relating to the NPT.
I can say it was much more of a junior diplomatic role, drafting documents, being in touch with different embassies and missions in Vienna and so on. Let’s not forget I was a very junior officer. If Hans Blix was here (pointing up), I was there (pointing to a much lower location).
I reported directly to the head of my unit, and she reported to the Assistant Director-General, then Mohamed ElBaradei. I occasionally reported to him myself.
You know, if I was to look back especially in those junior years, there were a few individuals that stand out as luminaries. For example, in Cambodia, one was Sergio Vieira de Mello who was UNHCR’s Special Envoy there and who has now become an iconic figure. As many know he was brutally assassinated with a number of other UN colleagues in Baghdad on 19 August 2003.
Another figure, of course, is Mohamed ElBaradei who was intellectually very talented. Working with him really helped me understand a number of issues. He was one of the people who could talk about very complicated issues in a very simple manner. For me, both Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei fell in that category. While working at the IAEA was intellectually very challenging and interesting, I missed the immediacy of what I did in the humanitarian world. The fact is that what we do in humanitarian work is very tangible and therefore very rewarding. And this is why after having had a taste of a different world at the IAEA, I decided to return to UNHCR.
There were a number of issues that involved UNHCR in the country. First of all, it was one of the highest refugee-producing countries in Asia at the time. That means many Myanmar nationals left their country and sought asylum outside. Our primary issue was the number of Rohingyas who had repatriated from Bangladesh to Myanmar, specifically to Rakhine State.
UNHCR began its presence in Myanmar with that repatriation. Also around the time that I was there 2004-07, the government had also given UNHCR permission to operate in the south-eastern part of the country where over the years, various conflicts with ethnic minorities had caused significant internal displacement. Since then, I mean since my departure from the country, the operation has expanded to assist the other communities who have been displaced, for example in the province ‘’Kachin’’ which has a border with China.
I was based in Kabul with UNHCR but had a regional portfolio. In UNHCR, when we talk about Afghan refugees, we often talk about the ‘Afghanistan Situation’. We see the situation in its regional dimension. Afghanistan is the ‘country of origin’ and Iran and Pakistan are the two principal countries of asylum.
One of my main responsibilities was to facilitate and organize the two tripartite commissions. One of them was facilitating discussion between the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and UNHCR. Another was between Afghanistan, Iran, and UNHCR. So we could talk about mutual issues of concern relating to refugees.
While I was in Kabul 2004-07 such a forum did not exist but now we do have a quadrilateral forum that has been established and most recently in May we had a Quadripartite Steering Committee meeting hosted by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Actually for 4 ½ years. I handled a number of different issues in that position. We have a very small Liaison Office in New York, our headquarters are in Geneva. So the office of UNHCR in New York is to essentially ensure that refugees are placed on the agenda there where relevant and also to inform our headquarters on developments within the greater UN in New York.
Yes, correct. Of course, the main UN headquarters, political headquarters, like the SG’s Office and the Secretariat, and agencies like UNDP are in New York and the idea is to ensure that the refugee issue is brought to the table. For example, I would have a number of geographic portfolios and I would also have a number of thematic portfolios. Geographic portfolios included Southern Africa and Asia. Thematic portfolios included a number of policy issues, like UN Integration which is when we have peacekeeping or a political mission in the field and how the UN works together. Political or peacekeeping missions are mandated by Security Council resolutions, but then you also have the rest of the UN like UNDP, UNHCR, UNICEF, and WFP and so on in the country that works on non-political issues that are developmental or humanitarian in nature. It is important that the UN works on these very different issues in a coherent manner.
Well, let’s say when the refugees’ situation began in Iran it was very dramatic. UNHCR has now been working in Iran for over 30 years. We work very closely with the Iranian government. One of my first priorities has been maintaining this close relationship.
It is important to note that this is not my first time being in Iran. When I was based in Kabul, I was traveling often to both Pakistan and Iran. I traveled several times to Tehran and also to Mashhad and Zahedan because we had an office in Zahedan at that time. That experience greatly helped me to ‘hit the ground running’ when I arrived here in my current capacity.
I think when we talk about what we do for refugees; there are a number of different aspects involved. Of course, voluntary repatriation is a priority and we have been working with the government. However, so is ensuring that government efforts to assist refugees inside Iran are supported by the international community. There have been significant efforts in this regard.
This is why I often talk about health, education, and livelihood in our work. One example, on livelihood the Government and UNHCR work to ensure that refugees have skills when they return to their countries. But these skills also enable them to contribute positively to society while they wait in Iran to return to their homeland.
Today, we have just over 950 thousand Afghan documented refugees and we have approximately 30 thousand Iraqis refugees in the country. So, it is under one million but let me also add that between the years 2002 and 2005 almost 5 million refugees returned to Afghanistan from both Pakistan and Iran. That is 20 per cent of the population of Afghanistan. Tragically, since 2005 the security in Afghanistan has not improved. Access to basic services like education and health remains a challenge. As a result, we have seen repatriation numbers decreasing to Afghanistan.
Last year we had one of the lowest numbers in terms of voluntary repatriation. UNHCR and the Government of Iran meet with the new Afghan government on a regular basis. If all goes well, on 17 August we will have a Tripartite Commission meeting in Kabul with the Governments of the Islamic Republics of Iran and Afghanistan to discuss what we can do about voluntary repatriation and how we can improve the situation. To be honest, we have to find solutions in the next few years for the Afghan refugee situation which is over 30 years old.
We will talk about a number of issues at the Tripartite Commission. One is the whole idea of ‘go and see visits’ i.e. Afghan refugees go and visit their villages so that they can make an informed decision about whether to go back or not. Another issue is the data and information relating to the refugees here that the government of Iran has, including most importantly their villages of origin. If we can give that information to the government of Afghanistan, it will assist them in planning developmental activities and the returning refugees will have access to basic services.
Voluntary repatriation is among the foremost of solutions. There are other solutions we are working with the Government on, for example, to enable a transition from asylum towards a Migratory Management System for those who opt for it. A very creative and innovative system, the Alternate Stay Arrangement (ASA) was established by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to pursue exactly this objective. We are working with the Government to incorporate a number of principles within the ASA.
As I said earlier there are a number of immediate practical challenges that come up for us in this situation. For example, banking transactions are much more difficult and that can be a challenge but now that we have an agreement, and we might see the rolling back of sanctions in the not too distant future. Let’s not forget when sanctions impact ordinary Iranian people, the impact on refugees can be even greater given their economic circumstances.
I said we have had some challenges but it doesn’t mean work has been impossible. We are able to manage our operation otherwise you wouldn’t find us here. Our donors include not only the people and the Government of Japan but a number of other very, very generous donor governments. Now, globally we are going through an acute financial crisis and UNHCR is not unaffected.
In a ‘settlement’.But I should say that for the vast majority of refugees in this country, some 97%, live in urban areas. Only 3 percent live in settlements. So it would be good to go to any one of our field offices and have the interview there. As you know we have offices in Mashhad, Kerman, Shiraz, and Isfahan. I personally spend a lot of time traveling to the field. It is important for me to first give support to my offices and also to speak with refugees as often as I can to understand their concerns. Not only with refugees but also government officials who are dealing with their issues. As a result, we have a real-time understanding of what is going on.