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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 1995 to Mrs. Graça Machel, Geneva, 20 October 1995

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 1995 to Mrs. Graça Machel, Geneva, 20 October 1995

20 October 1995

Mrs. Graça Machel, Excellencies, Fellow members of the Nansen Committee, dear colleagues and friends,

We are gathered here today to remember and celebrate the spirit of a great humanitarian: Fridtjof Nansen of Norway, the first High Commissioner for Refugees. A distinguished scientist, explorer and diplomat, he was appointed High Commissioner by the League of Nations at a time when millions were being uprooted in Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. Undaunted by his task, Nansen demanded that refugees be protected and that solutions be found to their plight. Urging the League of Nations to alleviate the plight of 30 million Russians suffering from famine, he pleaded: "Hurry to act before it is too late to repent." Thanks to his persistence and action, thousands of refugees returned home from exile. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his extraordinary courage and dedication. The first Nansen medal was awarded forty years ago to honour those who carry on the humanitarian legacy of Nansen.

Seventy years later, in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, the world is once again confronted with humanitarian crises on an unprecedented scale. From the Balkans to Burundi, millions of people have been displaced by ethnic conflict and civil strife. Africa has long been the scene of tragic displacement but in recent years emergencies have intensified. Political and ethnic conflicts have been aggravated by poverty, social inequity and environmental degradation. Africa today hosts more refugees and internally displaced persons than any other region in the world. But Africa has also provided hope in recent years. Thanks to the improved international climate and the impressive statesmanship of some African leaders, several long-standing conflicts have been resolved or are in the process of being resolved. Exploiting these opportunities, UNHCR has launched its own solution-oriented strategy to refugee problems, helping millions of refugees and displaced to return home. However, the sad reality is that people are returning frequently to uncertainty and insecurity, to villages which have been devastated, homes which have been destroyed and fields which have been mined. The success of our own efforts is therefore dependent on the larger socio-economic responses.

No country better reflects the hope of peace and reconciliation, nor the arduous task of reconstruction and rehabilitation than Mozambique, where over a million and half refugees have returned home recently. No woman better symbolizes the courage and commitment to rebuilding the war-torn society to which the refugees have returned than Graça Sabine Machel.

After Dr. Libertine Amathila of Namibia, Mrs. Machel is the second African woman in four decades to receive this award.

Mrs. Machel has served her country and her fellow citizens with great dedication and despite formidable odds. She was one of a handful of women who managed, under colonial rule, to receive a University education in Portugal. During her studies, she became actively engaged in the liberation struggle. The fight against colonialism provoked enormous displacement inside the country and abroad. She joined the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and later was a member of its Central Committee. In 1975 she became the only woman in the cabinet of the post-independence Mozambican Government. As Minister for Education and Culture she oversaw the increase of the country's school-going population from 400,000 to 1.6 million.

In the 1980s, Mozambique was once again confronted with war. It destroyed families, homes, schools and clinics, and created a quarter million orphans in the country. The war forced millions, the vast majority of them women and children, to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, or become displaced internally. What could one woman do in the face of that devastation? As chairperson of the National Organization of Children and as President of the Foundation of Community Development, Graça Machel once again demonstrated that individual fortitude can meet formidable challenges, that dedicated leadership can make a difference. Today, as one of the strongest voices for peace and reconciliation, she has engaged herself in what might be her biggest challenge ever: the reconstruction and development of a peaceful and democratic Mozambique.

Mozambique has shown that political will can lead to peace and reconciliation. People like Mrs. Machel show that the same determination and persistence which marked the peace negotiations are also vital in the longer process of recovery and rehabilitation.

UNHCR is proud to have made its own contribution to the process of rebuilding Mozambique by helping one and a half million people to return home. We are now working, together with the government, non-governmental and international organizations to reintegrate the returnees in their communities. Mozamibque is particularly significant because it underlines the solution-oriented approach to refugee problems which UNHCR has adopted, from Central America to Cambodia, Tajikistan to Togo. We must protect those who are forced to flee, but we must also work to bring a lasting solution to their plight. As part of that strategy we have cooperated with political actors and development organizations in Mozambique to bring about a comprehensive solution for refugees and displaced persons. What better end to their suffering than voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity? What better basis for their future than sustained efforts for national reconciliation and reconstruction? However, it is a long and difficult path ahead.

Children represent hope for the future, and it is to their cause that Graça Machel has dedicated herself. Given her depth of expertise and experience, it is only fitting that she should have been appointed to lead the UN Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. UNHCR is pleased and privileged to assist Ms. Machel, because her tasks of improving the situation of children affected by war is directly relevant to our mandate of protecting and assisting refugee children. Armed conflict is a major cause of refugee flows, and a very high proportion of refugees are children. Often physically maimed and emotionally scarred, deprived of stable family life, education, health care or proper nutrition, refugee children are extremely vulnerable. Like other victims of war, they have a special claim on the dividends of peace. Investing in war-affected, displaced and refugee children is investing in a stable future.

Mrs. Machel recently visited the Great Lakes region of central Africa. In Kigali and Gikongoro, Goma and Butare, Mrs. Machel saw how the efforts to protect child victims of war can also help the child refugee and returnee. We in UNHCR fully share your concerns, Mrs. Machel, and support your courageous efforts to engage all parties. We must join forces to ensure that children are neither the victims nor the perpetrators of violence. We must stop the recruitment of child soldiers, and protest the detention of children in prisons. We must speak out in favour of a total ban on anti-personnel mines which maim and kill children. We must prevent the victimization of children. We must protect them in refuge and ensure that their basic material needs are met. We must support their physical and psychological recovery and social integration in post-conflict societies. We must ensure their education and teach them tolerance and respect for human rights. By doing that we lay the seeds for democracy and social harmony.

Within its competence and area of expertise, UNHCR stands ready to do what it can to help you, Mrs. Machel, not only in conducting the study, or examining the adequacy of existing standards and activities but also eventually in implementing its recommendations. We see your work in the larger context of helping to resolve refugee problems and prevent further crises.

We are honouring you today because of your work for war-affected and refugee children. Through you we wish to highlight the tragedy of children deliberately targeted by snipers, conscripted into war or forcibly uprooted.

We are honouring you today because you personify the indomitable spirit of African women who overcome seemingly unsurmountable obstacles when faced with the trauma of war. Let us not forget that women in Africa, indeed the world over, have borne the heaviest burden of uprootedness and exile.

We are honouring you today as an activist for peace. Through you we express our solidarity with the people of Mozambique in their struggle for peace and progress. Your leadership and commitment will be a driving force in the difficult months and years ahead. I hope that our award will be an encouragement and a token of our appreciation as you move ahead.

We are honouring you today because you are a worthy heir to Nansen's humanitarian spirit. Like Nansen himself, you have been untiring in your search for solutions to human suffering.

I now have the honour to present the Nansen Medal to Graça Machel.