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Commencement Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 22 May 1996

Speeches and statements

Commencement Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 22 May 1996

22 May 1996

Let me start by saying how deeply honoured I am that your University has bestowed a Doctorate of Humane Letters upon me and has invited me to present this Commencement Address. The Johns Hopkins University continues to be a top of the league school of excellence, thanks to its distinguished faculty members, its generous supporters and thanks to you, its talented students. John Hopkins has been a pioneer in international education, medicine, public health, and international relations, among many others. It is thus not surprising that Johns Hopkins graduates have reached the highest positions in national and international service. I wish in particular to note President Woodrow Wilson, the founding father of the League of Nations, and the Japanese internationalist thinker Dr. Nitobe Anazo, who served as its Secretary General in the early 1920s.

Today, the University's researchers are in all parts of the globe. Astrophysicists from many countries analyze data from the Hubble Space telescope at the Space Science Center here in Baltimore. SAIS is the nation's second oldest graduate school of international relations, founded by Paul Nitze and Christian Herter in 1943. I feel as privileged to stand here as you must feel to graduate, enriched and enlightened by years of high quality study and discourse. Let me also state that I see my honorary doctorate as a tribute to my 5000 colleagues in UNHCR, who dedicate their ideals and energy to the victims of war and persecution across the globe, in often difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Today, when many of you stand on the threshold of assuming responsibilities in the world outside, I should like to make a few remarks on the importance of your and America's continued commitment to make our planet more peaceful, liveable and humane. My speech is a plea for openness, engagement and solidarity, against indifference and intolerance.

I hope that you will appreciate why this plea comes from me. By virtue of the mandate with which my Office was entrusted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1950, I am the advocate for those fleeing from armed conflict and persecution. There are some 27 million people who are assisted and protected by my Office. They are refugees, people who have crossed an international border, internally displaced persons who have fled for similar reasons as refugees but have not crossed an international border, and returnees, that is refugees who have returned to their country but are still in need of international help. As a result of the increasing number of horrendous conflicts mostly within States, the number of people being assisted by my Office has continued to rise in recent years. Undoubtedly you will recall the tragic situations in northern Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Caucasus, Haiti, Chechnya, and Liberia. Unfortunately, this list is not exhaustive.

Refugees and displaced persons are perhaps the most vulnerable drop-outs of international society. Being in danger in their own communities or, increasingly, being chased away for the sake of ethnic or religious purity, they are in search of safety. They are a stark reminder of the fact that growing globalization and prosperity in many parts of the world are matched by political fragmentation and abject poverty in others.

More so than before, our world seems to be beset by contradictory trends. Whereas political and economic integration and cooperation promote stability and wealth among rich nations, disintegration hits the poor and makes them even poorer. It is widely recognized that the world has become increasingly interdependent: a global neighbourhood so to speak, guided by common values and shared interests to maintain peace, to preserve the environment and to tackle international crime and other transnational threats. Yet, at the same time people in industrialized societies are becoming inward looking, preoccupied with their own worries and indifferent to the ills elsewhere.

It is understandable that many people are more concerned with their own job security than with international security and refugees. Unfortunately the latter are too often viewed in a negative limelight. They tend to forget that many members of their societies, particularly in the United States, have been refugees themselves who have made valuable contributions to progress. As we often say: "Remember: Einstein was a refugee". Or people get bewildered by despair and helplessness when seeing Bosnian civilians being terrorized, Rwandans being slaughtered or Haitians taking to makeshift boats. But as an advocate for these people, I must urge you to resist the temptation to close your eyes and ears, and to concentrate on immediate domestic concerns. Rather, we can and must all contribute to the search for progress and stability in forming a global neighbourhood based on fundamental common values.

To realize these goals, first, we should safeguard the institution of asylum which has come under serious threat in many parts of the world. The distressing odyssey of a ship carrying thousands of hungry and thirsty Liberian victims of war, mostly women and children, along the shores of West Africa epitomizes this threat. In this context, that ship was aptly called "the Bulk Challenge". Providing safety and asylum can indeed involve multiple challenges. Large refugee influxes mostly take place in the developing world where they can slow down development, undermine national stability and threaten the environment.

Certainly, not everyone seeking to enter the United States is in need of asylum. Some people abuse asylum procedures and international goodwill. But many are in need of safety as sending them back would put their lives in danger of persecution, armed conflict or systematic abuses of human rights. The United States has a generous record in providing asylum to destitute people. This century alone, the United States has allowed more than 2 million refugees to enter the country. I was, however, concerned when reading that a young Togolese woman, who fled for fear of genital mutilation, was kept in custody for sixteen months. I am also concerned about your proposed immigration legislation, which would make it difficult for many undocumented asylum-seekers to get a fair hearing. Let me add here, that developing countries are watching carefully the increasingly restrictive asylum policies of the developed world. We call this the negative ripple effect, which we fear.

The choice is, however, not between a cold closing of the door or an open house. The choice is between leaning back until another Somalia descends into chaos or Bosnia's fighting resumes and international action to prevent crises from occurring, to protect people so that they do not have to flee or to help re-build societies, in a spirit of international solidarity.

This then is my second message to you: we should all work to uphold the commitment of our Governments to tackle the problems which make people flee. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, chaos in Liberia, continued fighting in Afghanistan and spiralling violence in Burundi: you may ask, why does that concern us? Why should we get involved in these faraway places? I agree that foreign policy cannot be based on morality, ethics or values alone. That would be naive and dangerous. The "national interest" is probably a healthier starting point. But it should not be interpreted too narrowly but evolve into the "common interest." Let me briefly elaborate.

Many of today's internal conflicts may look purely domestic. They, however, threaten regional security and stability by creating large-scale forced population movements, as Haiti demonstrated. America's political and peace-keeping involvement in Bosnia has not only been vital in saving lives, it has also helped to keep the transatlantic alliance alive, a key strategic interest for countries on both sides of the ocean. But there is more to it. As the world gropes for a new equilibrium and as ethnic and religious factors become increasingly prominent, lack of international commitment and verbal condemnations alone would send the wrong message to the ethnic cleansers and Pol Pots of the future.

Preventing crises, halting massive killings and re-building societies: all this is easier said than done. Humanitarian agencies like mine can do a lot. Through our presence and interventions we can sometimes help to stabilize a tense situation and mitigate human rights abuses. We try to make sure that fleeing civilians are admitted to safety. We manage refugee camps. We are bringing refugees back to home. Right now in Bosnia, we are assisting in the rebuilding of shelter. But we cannot do miracles. Support for humanitarian action is vital. But humanitarian actors should not be left alone. What is needed is the political, economic and sometimes military involvement of the international community. It is essential that Governments and their constituencies understand how long, complicated but necessary the process of civilian reconstruction and reconciliation is, after the guns have fallen silent. I realized this more than ever, when I travelled through Bosnia two weeks ago.

It is understandable that individual countries want to share the risks and the costs. This leads me to my third point: we must build support for a strong and effective United Nations. That institution, of which President Roosevelt was the principal architect, spreads the burden, sets and defends global standards and legitimizes international action. Its efficiency needs to be improved, as we are trying to do in UNHCR. The UN may have fallen short of its full potential, but many expectations may have been over optimistic, especially in the field of international security. States view the UN as an instrument, not as an actor in its own right with the necessary means.

The UN diffuses tension in many places. It has helped bring peace in, among others, Namibia, Cambodia, El Salvador and Mozambique. The UN keeps the peace where others would not venture. Even in Bosnia hundreds of thousands of lives were saved by UN troops, UNHCR and our partners. Any responsibility for not saving more should rest with those failing to intervene at an earlier stage and in a more resolute manner. The UN promotes sustainable development, immunizes children and helps with their education across the world. It has the equivalent of less than US $ 1.75 per human being to spend on social and economic development. It supports numerous countries in their delicate transition to democracy by providing electoral assistance and human rights programmes. You barely read about the successes; all too often the only news is bad news.

Having come to the end of this address, let me return to the good news of today: you are graduating. Great nations are those, big or small, which take care of the well-being of their citizens. The greatest nations are those which care and make sacrifices for the global neighbourhood as well, for the physical and material security of all people, of the refugees and of the dispossessed.

You have the privilege of being part of this great nation. You live in a rich multi-ethnic society whose strength has been its openness and tolerance. Your ancestors created this country to vindicate the ideals of liberty and democracy. One day you will be the leaders of this nation. I call on you to carry on your tradition and spread the ideals. I am by no means exhorting you to become crusaders, but to remain outward looking, tolerant and engaged, whether you will enter the private or the public sector. Let me end by congratulating you and your family members and friends on your graduation. I have faith in you and wish you success.