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Introductory Statement by Ms. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 26 June 1992

Speeches and statements

Introductory Statement by Ms. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 26 June 1992

26 June 1992
Current protection concernsInter-agency coordinationFundingStaff SecurityConclusion

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:

After the unprecedented challenges of last year, I had looked forward to addressing the Executive Committee in more "normal" times. Having dubbed this year the beginning of the decade of voluntary repatriation, I had anticipated reporting to you on solutions rather than new emergencies.

We have undoubtedly made significant progress. Unfortunately, it has been more than offset by the perpetuation and escalation of conflicts, notably in what was formerly Yugoslavia, and by the eruption of massive new crises in Bangladesh and Kenya - to mention but the most conspicuous of the world's recent rash of tragedies. Each day in recent months, 10,000 refugees have been forced to flee their homes, often in conditions of unspeakable misery and destitution. As a result, my Office has been confronted by humanitarian emergencies on a scale which stretches human and financial resources to their very limits.

Of course, the fact that, of late, up to ten thousand refugees have been returning home each day is immensely satisfying. So too is the prospect of further large scale repatriation in the near future to Eritrea, Angola and other parts of Africa. But this satisfaction is tempered by the problems which, in many instances, continue to plague countries of origin and which, if not contained, could undermine the current impetus to return. Harassment and detention of returnees in South Africa, unresolved tensions in Cambodia and Afghanistan, or returnee emergencies in the Horn of Africa, all demonstrate that the foundations of voluntary repatriation are often more fragile than we would wish. Never has the need for concerted and effective action by the international community been so necessary to reinforce achievements in the resolution of regional conflicts, to support and consolidate related humanitarian solutions for their victims and to contain and reverse the new crises of the post Cold War era.

It is not my intention today to present the Executive Committee with an exhaustive review of developments since our last meeting. These are outlined in the Briefing Note on Regional Developments that has been prepared for your background information. I propose, rather, to share with you my perceptions on a number of key issues that I consider to be of particular significance or concern in this troubled period. And I hope to hear your comments or reactions on some of my thoughts. The informal nature of this meeting should facilitate such a dialogue which, as always, I greatly welcome.

Current protection concerns

The complexity of the situation confronted by my Office in recent months has raised not only a number of demanding operational issues but also complex protection concerns that go to the crux of UNHCR's mandate.

With the horrendous conflict in Yugoslavia, problems of massive population displacement have affected the very heart of Europe for the first time since the Second World War. Refugees in flight from conflict, bitter inter-communal tension and a range of associated human rights abuses are today almost on the very doorstep of this conference room - and their numbers are growing by the hour. Elsewhere too, the turbulent events that leave almost no part of the contemporary world untouched have given a sharp new turn to the debate on refugee issues and, at times, put first asylum in jeopardy. They pose, in ever more acute form, the question of how the international community as a whole can better equip itself to respond in a coherent, humane and coordinated way to new outflows of refugees and to problems of massive displacement.

Thus, the first of the concerns I should like to raise today is how we can define a strategy which takes account of current realities and moves us beyond an approach which often seems at best fragmented and at worst incoherent. How can we ensure that the victims of contemporary events are accorded asylum and protection until such time as they can return home in safety and dignity? How can we make voluntary repatriation indeed a durable solution? And how can UNHCR further develop the preventive dimension of its operations so, whenever possible, to provide alternatives to external flight?

And this brings me to a second, related preoccupation. The fragmentation of states and the proliferation of internal conflicts is increasingly blurring the distinction between refugees and the internally displaced. When world events are moving so rapidly that they repeatedly threaten to overtake us, we would do well to give high priority to addressing this increasingly important question which has profound implications for UNHCR in particular and for inter-agency cooperation in general.

In recognition of the complexity of these and other protection issues confronting my Office, I recently established an internal Working Group under the leadership of my new Director of International Protection, Mr. Leonardo Franco. Its purpose is to assess how UNHCR's protection activities can be strengthened and adjusted to the present difficult, and constantly changing circumstances. Having met throughout the month of May, the Group is now in the final stages of drawing up its report. Once its recommendations have been reviewed and finalized, I look forward to reporting to you in detail in October on its findings and their implications for the protection role that has been entrusted to my Office.

Inter-agency coordination

Moving now to more operational matters, it goes without saying that many of the humanitarian emergencies confronting the international community today are of extraordinary complexity. Refugee situations, returnee emergencies, conflict, internal displacement, famine, drought and underdevelopment - to name but the most obvious elements - relentlessly conspire to create situations which require concerted and comprehensive approaches from the international community and the United Nations system.

If we are to have a real impact on anything other than the superficial symptoms of current refugee-producing crises, it is my firm conviction that a high level of concertation and coherence are required within the United Nations family as a whole in its efforts to address the political, humanitarian and economic dimensions of current emergencies.

Increasingly close operational partnerships have already been forged between UNHCR and a number of other agencies. By way of illustration, I would like to make particular mention of our efforts in former Yugoslavia.

As the lead agency designated by the Secretary-General, UNHCR has built up close collaboration with UNICEF, WHO and the ICRC in providing relief and protection to the 1.5 million refugees and displaced persons who are victims of the most terrible humanitarian crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Equally significantly, I could mention the major emergency in the Horn of Africa where, together with WFP and other agencies, we are trying to respond, through cross-mandate and cross-border assistance programmes, to the critical needs of all categories of persons, be they refugees, returnees, internally displaced or needy local population. At a more general level of inter-agency cooperation, I hope, as I said when I addressed the UNICEF Executive Board earlier this month, that UNICEF can eventually become the automatic supplier of water to refugees as WFP now has responsibility for the supply of basic food.

Despite the significant progress that we have been able to achieve with other agencies, the scale and complexity of a number of recent challenges have called for more comprehensive coordination measures. There has been a clear need within the United Nations system for an interlocutor for the operational agencies on political issues and, where a multifaceted inter-agency response is required, for a focal point to address both overlaps in responsibilities and the gaps in mandates and performance that have been evident in various operations. For this reason, I have warmly welcomed the initiatives taken by the Secretary-General to reinforce system-wide coordination, notably the establishment of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs and the appointment of Jan Eliasson as Emergency Relief Coordinator. I am glad that his Deputy, Charles Lamunière has been able to join us today.

Although these new arrangements are only in their initial stages and policies and structures are still being formulated and created, I am pleased with the relations that we have already been able to establish with the Coordinator. I also welcome the progress made in setting up institutional mechanisms for cooperation, including the Inter-agency Standing Committee here in Geneva. Focal points have been designated within my Office for relating to the Coordinator at the levels of both policy and operations.

If the new efforts to enhance coordination are to succeed, however, they must not be diluted but, on the contrary, need to be carefully focused. In this respect, a clear distinction must be maintained between normal operations, which remain the responsibility of individual agencies, and complex humanitarian emergencies requiring a special degree of coordination not already provided for. Where the efforts of the Coordinator can, in my view, be of inestimable value is not at the operational level but in facilitating, when necessary, the delivery of assistance in complex emergencies and overcoming political obstacles that may stand in its way.

In this context, I would like to make particular mention of a recent phenomenon affecting our ability to respond to emergencies - the imposition of sanctions by the international community. While I fully recognize that sanctions are an important instrument in containing aggression and enforcing the accepted norms of international behaviour, they may also entail serious humanitarian consequences. Unless clear provisions are made for exempting from sanctions humanitarian assistance such as food and medicine, we risk penalizing innocent victims, including children. Moreover, by depriving civilian populations of basic economic necessities, we may exacerbate tension and instability and provoke new refugee outflows into neighbouring countries. Our goal must be to ensure that sanctions achieve their objective without punishing those who are already disadvantaged. On the question of international sanctions against Yugoslavia and the problems that they have entailed for the humanitarian efforts of UNHCR, Mr. Eliasson has provided invaluable support.

At the operational level, coordination can, in complex emergencies, help agencies to dovetail their efforts more effectively. It cannot, however, substitute either for the unique mandate of an individual organization or for its operational capacity. An important ongoing challenge for organizations is therefore the enhancement of their individual response capacities.

In this respect, I am pleased to report that the recent crises confronted by my Office have proved the value of the emergency preparedness and response capacity that we have built up in recent months. While yet to be perfected, it is now operational and has been deployed to considerable effect in Bangladesh, Kenya and Yugoslavia, to name but the most striking examples. We now have a solid basis on which to respond with the speed and effectiveness that both the victims of refugee emergencies and the international community have every right to expect.

While institutional reinforcement both within UNHCR and in the United Nations system as a whole has undoubtedly increased our ability to respond rapidly and effectively, another of my main preoccupations has not yet been so effectively addressed - that is the need to look beyond emergency to rehabilitation and development. Progress in emergency response needs to be complemented by a more concerted approach to the reintegration of repatriants and the overall development of the communities to which they return. Most of the countries to which increasing numbers of refugees are now repatriating have been devastated by years of conflict. Without comprehensive rehabilitation programmes, the capacity of these societies to heal their wounds and achieve stability remains in question. I have just returned from the Ministerial Conference on Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Cambodia in Tokyo and I must say that I was very encouraged by the level of support demonstrated by the international community. I am extremely pleased, moreover, that a mechanism for United Nations system-wide cooperation exists in the form of UNTAC and that our repatriation activities will be complemented by rehabilitation efforts led by UNDP and involving longer-term reconstruction programmes supported by Governments, international organizations and NGOs.


The enormous scale and complexity of the challenges that have confronted UNHCR in recent months have made their inevitable and urgent claims on financial resources. I am obliged, therefore, to share with you my preoccupations concerning the funding of our activities. Here again I had hoped that 1992 would be a year of consolidation and, above all, one of solutions. We thought that 1991 was an exception. But the exceptional has shown an unwelcome tendency to become the norm and we find ourselves in a situation where our overall financial needs this year are at least as great as last.

Indeed, the dramatic acceleration in world events since the end of the Cold War has allowed us no respite. New or spiralling crises such as those in Yugoslavia, Kenya, Bangladesh, Nepal and Yemen, have required immediate and sometimes massive responses from my Office. Simultaneously, repatriation programmes require significant resources. In this context we have had no option but to ask the Executive Committee for an increase in our General Programmes target and to put out appeals for Special Programmes which may take our overall needs above the billion dollar mark.

I am deeply grateful for the strong donor support that my Office enjoys in these difficult times when competing demands on donors multiply and overall resources available to Governments continue to be tight. Our General Programmes, to which we must accord priority, are now three quarters funded - a reasonably good position to have achieved at this time of the year. But I am, nevertheless, deeply concerned. Earlier in the year, I almost had to suspend UNHCR assistance programmes in Yugoslavia for lack of resources. While the situation has now somewhat eased as a result of generous contributions from the European Community and others, sustained support is needed to allow us to meet this tremendous humanitarian challenge.

But, above all, in a situation where needs may outpace resources and where we may have to set priorities, I fear that it could easily be solutions, and notably voluntary repatriations, that suffer. The financial needs of accelerating repatriation programmes are massive, amounting to some 300 million dollars in 1992. While some, such as Cambodia, elicit strong support, others, such as Angola or even Afghanistan could easily be constrained by insufficient funds. By way of illustration, the encashment programme for Afghan refugees now repatriating from Pakistan at a rate of some seventy thousand persons a week requires a weekly injection of over one million dollars, not including essential rehabilitation assistance back in the country of origin. Overall, our funding projections warn us that we may face a financial shortfall this year of some 200 million dollars against overall needs. I therefore urgently call on Governments to make available additional resources for durable solutions without cutting back on their commitment to funding our core activities under the General Programmes. On our side, we will be monitoring the situation carefully in constant dialogue with members of this Committee.

This worrying funding situation highlights a fundamental dilemma. While totally dependent on voluntary funds for the financing of its programmes, my Office has, unlike many other United Nations agencies, very little scope to be selective in assuming its responsibilities. How can we refuse assistance when a new refugee crisis erupts and when the international community is rightly urging us to act? Where are the limits to what is expected of us in refugee and refugee-like emergencies? How should we set priorities when the very operations in which Governments have urged our involvement draw resources away from durable solutions elsewhere? And what should be the criteria for phasing out our operations and handing over to those responsible either for political solutions on the one hand, or for development initiatives on the other? These are serious and difficult questions on which my Office needs the guidance of this Committee.

Staff Security

I cannot end today without mentioning an issue of the utmost importance to me concerning another aspect of UNHCR's resources - its personnel. For the staff of my Office, the increased complexity of our operations has often meant not only escalating demands but also greater danger. In recent times UNHCR and other humanitarian relief agencies have been increasingly called upon to operate under conditions where open conflicts have erupted or where effective state structures and law and order have broken down. This year alone, six UNHCR staff members have lost their lives. I would like to pay tribute to the courage and dedication both of those who have died in the service of the Office and the many others who daily put themselves at risk in the performance of their duties.

We all accept that the work of UNHCR will, because of its very nature, sometimes entail a strong element of risk. My Office has always accepted its responsibility to intervene on behalf of refugees wherever they may be. It is my firm belief - and a belief that I know to be fully shared by the staff of UNHCR - that this commitment must be maintained. Nevertheless, the current international situation raises serious questions. Under what conditions can humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR be expected to continue their operations?

I intend to take all possible measures to ensure the safety of my staff. With this in mind, I have recently initiated a comprehensive review of the question of staff security, including further assessment of the conditions under which we can continue to operate when all but the humanitarian organizations of the United Nations system have evacuated their personnel, as well as of practical ways to strengthen existing security arrangements.

Convinced that these matters are best considered within the framework of the United Nations as a whole, I have brought them to the urgent attention of the ACC in April this year. An inter-agency meeting on security matters held last month on our initiative provided a forum for refining approaches to a wide range of issues, including conditions of service for staff assigned to dangerous duty stations, the establishment of compatible communications networks, early warning mechanisms, contingency planning and staff training. Important decisions taken have included increased delegation to those directly affected in the field, most importantly in the isolated locations where UNHCR staff are often called upon to serve, and the creation of a full-time Field Security Officer post to provide the necessary professional guidance and oversee field security plans. In this way I hope that UNHCR's most valuable resource, its staff, can benefit from the physical and psychological protection that they so fully deserve and which is so essential to the effective performance of their duties.


Mr. Chairman, I have outlined a number of the concerns that confront my Office as we seek to grapple with the unpredictable events of today's turbulent world. While I have chosen not to undertake here an overall review of regional developments, the preoccupations that I have underlined are heightened by the global spread of refugee problems. As I consider my schedule for these coming weeks, I am struck by their universality. Having returned yesterday from the Ministerial Conference on Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Cambodia in Tokyo, I shall leave next week to attend the OAU Summit in Dakar. The following week, I hope to get a first hand impression of our operations in former Yugoslavia. Later in July I will be returning to Asia, this time for an official visit to China.

In our constant efforts to adapt to changing circumstances, to respond to new challenges and emergencies, and to seek new avenues to solutions in all parts of the world, the views and the guidance of this Committee are more crucial than ever before. I know that I can count on your support.

Thank you Mr. Chairman