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Address by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Fifty-sixth session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (Geneva, 6 October 2005)

Executive Committee Meetings

Address by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Fifty-sixth session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (Geneva, 6 October 2005)

6 October 2005

It is a pleasure for me to join you today - here where I spent some of my most formative years of my career. At UNHCR, I always know I am among friends and with people whose commitment to the United Nations is second to none.

I especially welcome the opportunity to speak to the Executive Committee at such an important moment for the world and for the humanitarian community. It has been five years since we last met - an eternity when one considers all that has happened since then. The Committee itself has continued to grow over that time, and I am glad to welcome Romania and my own country, Ghana, which have joined since last year's session.

This is also, of course, the first meeting of the Executive Committee since my good friend António Guterres took up his duties. António and I worked very closely together on the question of East Timor and on other matters when he was Prime Minister of Portugal. I am sure you have already experienced the dynamism and wide-ranging expertise that led me to ask him to join our team. I should also note that his selection pioneered a new way of handling senior appointments, as part of our efforts to increase transparency throughout the United Nations system.

Let me also express my gratitude to Kamel Morjane, for his contributions as Assistant High Commissioner. I know you join me in wishing him every success now that he has returned to Tunisia to serve as Minister of Defence.

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to UNHCR staff. They have been through a lot lately, and continue to face many challenges, including threats to their security. But they have carried on with a real sense of teamwork and dedication. UNHCR is in good hands at every level, and worthy of your continued political and financial support.

I think it would be quite appropriate for me to focus my remarks today on what the outcome of last month's World Summit means for the humanitarian community, and for UNHCR in particular. Then we can open up the floor for questions and comments if you would want to proceed that way.

You will recall that when I issued my report, "In Larger Freedom", earlier this year, I challenged world leaders to be bold. I think you would agree that our expectations have not been met in all the areas where we thought progress was necessary. But the Summit did produce some remarkable commitments, including on matters of direct concern to the humanitarian community and this Executive Committee.

On a broad level, world leaders endorsed the role of the United Nations in strengthening the humanitarian response system. With this commitment comes hope for swifter and more predictable action to help the victims of war and natural calamities.

Leaders also made a number of important specific commitments.

Perhaps the biggest innovation was the agreement to establish a Peacebuilding Commission. This fills a gaping institutional hole. As you all well know, too many countries lapse back into violence when efforts to consolidate peace or create stability are weak, or are not sustained. The new Commission is meant to counter this trend. It will bring all actors to the table in an effort to improve international coherence. And it will try to ensure that international attention does not diminish once the media spotlight turns its focus on other crises. The return of refugees and internally displaced persons is a major part of any post-conflict scenario. And it is far more than just a logistical operation. Indeed, it is often a critical factor in sustaining a peace process and in revitalizing economic activity. I welcome the High Commissioner's determination to have UNHCR play a proactive role in the future work of the Peacebuilding Support Office, which will be established to support the Commission. Member States have asked that the Commission and Support Office start work no later than the end of this year.

Another very important step taken by the Summit was the clear acceptance of all UN members of the responsibility to protect civilian populations against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Most of the mass displacements of people over the past decade-and-a-half have been sparked by such crimes.

A number of countries had been sceptical of this concept, fearing that it would be used as a fig leaf for unwarranted intervention. But that resistance is lessening, as shown by the clear language endorsed by the Summit. And I recall that when I first raised the issue of responsibility in a General Assembly speech in 1999, there was quite consternation in the room, but six years on there is acceptance of the responsibility to protect, so we do make progress on this issue.

I know that the humanitarian community has had concerns of its own - that they themselves will be used as a fig leaf, with deliveries of assistance masking Member States' lack of appetite for addressing the real sources of conflict. I know there is also concern that military action taken to exercise the responsibility to protect could somehow taint the impartiality of humanitarian assistance.

We will continue to live with these tensions. But they must not take a backseat to the breakthrough that has been achieved. International inaction has been recognized as unacceptable, especially where national governments are unwilling or unable to act. Of course, robust action must be a last resort. Our focus should really be on earlier, non-violent ways to prevent conflicts or political upheavals from reaching such a point. At the same time, let us do our utmost to ensure that when we are tested again, as we surely will be, we will honour the solemn pledge made by Heads of State and Government in New York last month.

The Summit also marked a step forward on the question of internally displaced persons. The Summit's recognition of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement should help to improve the protection provided to some of the world's most vulnerable people. However, the provision of a more predictable and effective response remains an outstanding humanitarian challenge. I saw for myself in Darfur earlier this year the difficulties that exist in meeting their needs.

With the support of my Emergency Relief Coordinator, and the Humanitarian Coordinator system on the ground, I am committed to ensuring that the United Nations family fulfils its responsibilities. If this involves a new distribution of tasks, creating new partnerships and adjusting institutional arrangements, we shall do so. The internally displaced must not be seen as an optional extra.

I applaud the commitment made by UNHCR to strengthen its efforts to protect internally displaced persons, and to take a lead role in assuring emergency shelter and coordination in the camps. This commitment is a landmark in our efforts to meet the General Assembly's regular demands to improve the predictability of our response in an area where it has been lacking. Moreover, UNHCR will make this contribution without any distraction from its responsibilities for cross-border refugees. I urge the Executive Committee to recognize UNHCR's efforts to reform the humanitarian response system, and to support the agency as it explores the financial and capacity implications of these efforts.

The Central Emergency Revolving Fund for humanitarian emergencies is one avenue for providing such support. I am pleased that the Summit agreed to strengthen the Fund, and already, there are pledges in excess of $150 million, and we hope to obtain even more. But this step is not just about funding levels; it is about developing our ability to respond quickly and effectively, on a scale large enough to meet the needs. A strengthened fund, with its associated mechanisms, will help ensure that UN agencies have guaranteed funds within three or four days of an emergency, without having to wait for donor responses to flash appeals, which as we know can fall well short of needs. Last year's tsunami in Southeast Asia and the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast of the United States are only the most recent examples of how important it is to move quickly when crisis strikes. UNHCR has an emergency fund of its own, of course. But it would appeal to the Central Revolving Fund for additional needs and activities that go beyond typical refugee emergencies.

We should also take note of the Summit's decision to create a new, standing Human Rights Council and strengthen the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. If Member States give the new Council the right structure and terms of reference, it should ensure more effective protection, capacity building and technical assistance than that afforded by the present Commission, which would help prevent the crises that displace people in large numbers. I will continue to urge Member States to conclude negotiations, and come to a decision on details, before the Commission's next session in March. If Member States also truly give the Office of the High Commissioner the financial support it merits, we would see an office with far more capacity than today. We would see the two High Commissioners - of Refugees and Human Rights - meeting up, as it were, not just on matters of policy but operationally, reinforcing each other's work.

The development gains triggered by the Summit - more aid, debt relief, and support for quick-impact projects - should also be seen as a contribution to conflict prevention, promoting stability in places where humanitarian agencies are active.

And I think in a way we did make a sort of intellectual breakthrough at the Summit, as the Member States accepted, or acknowledged, for the first time the indivisible links between security and the development of human rights. It was clear that security can not be enjoyed without development, that development can not be enjoyed without human rights, and neither can be enjoyed without respect for human rights.

The Summit sought to improve UN system coherence and coordination, and will also have an impact on humanitarian personnel, from their operational activities in the field to the policy-making bodies that give them guidance.

And the Summit paid heavy attention to UN management. The extensive blueprint of reforms includes steps to increase accountability and efficiency, improve protections for whistleblowers, and ensure all staff understand and adhere to a single code of ethics. All of this will have a clear effect on UNHCR, as will additional steps to strengthen oversight and make it more independent.

Finally, let me raise the issue of international migration. This received some attention at the Summit. It will certainly consume far more of our energies in the years ahead. Migration is one of the big issues facing our world. Governments and international organizations need to do a better job of realizing its many benefits, while addressing the difficulties it can cause. Just yesterday, the Global Commission launched its report, which offers important recommendations for better managing migration for the benefit of all, States and migrants alike. I will be studying it carefully, and I urge you to do so as well, especially in light of next year's high-level dialogue on migration during the General Assembly.

The High Commissioner rightly spoke to you earlier this week about the difficulty of maintaining asylum régimes when States view all new arrivals primarily as would-be immigrants. But UNHCR also has considerable expertise in ways to improve the management of migration, for instance by empowering migrants so that they can integrate smoothly into host communities. It is my hope that UNHCR will actively engage in this debate, and I know that with the leadership of António, it will.

With the commitment to strengthening the humanitarian system comes the hope that the world will guarantee a swifter and more predictable response to the victims of war and natural calamities.

But let us acknowledge that humanitarian agencies alone, vital as their work may be, will not resolve crises unless States uphold their responsibilities, address root causes of displacement, and do the political work necessary.

Though the number of refugees has declined, the number of people of concern to UNHCR has increased. The Summit, too, has left us with a great deal of work to do, both on the part of Member States and the Secretariat. I am determined to keep pushing ahead - to implement everything within my power, and to continue pressing Governments to find agreement on those issues which proved insurmountable during the negotiations. I look forward to working with you in that effort.

Thank you very much for coming to listen to me this afternoon. Now I would be happy to take your questions or listen to your comments and advice.