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Nansen Medal Award Ceremony: Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1996 to Handicap International, Geneva, 4 October 1996

Speeches and statements

Nansen Medal Award Ceremony: Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1996 to Handicap International, Geneva, 4 October 1996

4 October 1996

Mr. Segal, Dr. Richardier, Excellencies, Fellow members of the Nansen Committee, colleagues and friends.

It is a great honour to warmly welcome you to the Nansen Medal Award ceremony today. The Award is granted each year to recognize and promote the outstanding services of individuals or non-governmental agencies to the cause of refugees. This year's recipient is the French-Belgian non-governmental agency Handicap International. First, for its innovative contributions toward alleviating the suffering of anti-personnel mine victims by providing low cost prostheses to over 150,000 amputees around the world, many of which are refugees, internally displaced persons and returnees. Second, for its advocacy work on behalf of the victims to ban the production, sale and use of anti-personnel mines.

Handicap International's motto "vivre debout" - live standing up - reflects the spirit of the great humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen of Norway, after whose name this prize is called. Fridtjof Nansen was appointed the first High Commissioner for Refugees under the League of Nations in 1921, exactly 75 years ago. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the achievements of the "founding father" of international efforts to provide protection and assistance to victims of war, conflict and persecution.

Many of the problems and dilemmas which Nansen had to struggle in the 1920s are still with us today, but so are his achievements. Millions of people were displaced following the end of World War I, the Russian revolution and the wars on the Balkan peninsula. Nansen distinguished himself through adopting innovative approaches, such as the introduction of the Nansen Passport, a travel document for refugees and stateless persons, and the repatriation and resettlement of refugees.

Today, we are again confronted with many intractable refugee situations requiring equally innovative approaches. These have not been easy years for refugees and victims of conflicts. In some countries, asylum and protection of refugees are being challenged. Countries hosting large numbers of refugees are overburdened. In the Great Lakes region, more than 1.6 million Rwandan people remain in camps in Zaire and Tanzania, with no immediate solution in sight. In former Yugoslavia, rehabilitation is gathering steam but ethnic reconciliation is far from being achieved. More than 250,000 displaced persons and refugees have returned, primarily to majority areas. Developments in northern Iraq have once more underscored the fragility of that region.

In seeking solutions to refugee problems, I have sought to follow the example set by Fridtjof Nansen. Anti-personnel mines were not a scourge in Nansen's time, and require innovative and concerted efforts to overcome. Today, between 80 to 100 million devices have been planted indiscriminately, primarily in conflict areas in the developing world. This "poor men's weapon", costing a few dollars each, kills or maims some 2,000 people every month, often many years after the fighting has stopped. The victims are not the fighters, but civilians - women, children, farmers, refugees and returnees. Mines are used to force people to flee or to prevent them from returning. Valuable agricultural land lies barren, and children go hungry as farmers are unable to grow food.

The Cambodian crisis proved a watershed for international efforts to address the problem of anti - personnel mines. Confronted with more than 6,000 amputees who fled Cambodia to Thailand in 1980, several doctors started a programme to provide prostheses, set up rehabilitation centres and workshops to manufacture orthopaedic devices using local resources. These efforts led to the founding of Handicap International, a voluntary organization with programmes in 35 countries of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, as well as Europe. I have been fortunate to visit some of their centres during my many visits to refugee areas. I admire the commitment, the persistence and the vision of Handicap International staff to bring new hope to disabled people. In the rush of humanitarian emergencies, the handicapped tend to be easily overlooked. For more than fifteen years, Handicapped International has worked with UNHCR on special programmes for handicapped refugees and returnees and mine awareness programmes, in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, former Yugoslavia, Mozambique and Tanzania. As part of my Office's policy to pay particular attention to vulnerable persons, renewed efforts are being made to meet the needs of handicapped refugees and returnees.

In the final analysis, however, the scourge of anti-personnel mines can be eliminated only by prohibiting their use. Therefore, a complete ban on the use, production, sale, transfer and export of anti-personnel mines is essential. Handicap International has been at the forefront of the international campaign to achieve these objectives, an effort which my Office fully supports. So far, some 40 countries have declared support for an immediate ban, and several have renounced their production, stockpiling and use. Although we still have a long way to go to achieve these objectives, this campaign is an example of the important role which non-governmental agencies and concerned individuals can play in mobilizing public opinion and political will to prevent human suffering. Seeing thousands of shoes piled high are a moving symbol of the victims of anti - personnel mines.

By awarding this year's Nansen award to Handicap International, the Committee wishes to underscore its achievements, to encourage its work toward banning anti-personnel mines, and to recognize the suffering of the victims. Thanks to the generous contribution of the Government of Norway, this year's prize includes for the first time a monetary award of $ 100,000 to benefit refugee and returnee victims of anti-personnel mines.

In the pursuit of solutions, Nansen depended largely upon the assistance of voluntary agencies. Handicap International represents humanitarianism at its best, assisting disabled people regardless of race, political opinion or religion. You are an inspiration to all of us here today, and we hope that by bestowing the Nansen Medal to Handicap International it may serve as an inspiration to your colleagues and others to continue their efforts.

Thank you.