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Opening Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Conference "Refugee Protection in the 21st Century: Renewing Our Commitment," Washington, D.C., 14 November 2000

Speeches and statements

Opening Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Conference "Refugee Protection in the 21st Century: Renewing Our Commitment," Washington, D.C., 14 November 2000

14 November 2000

Friends and Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be with you this morning. I would like first of all to thank Mr. Stanley for that warm introduction. I also wish to express my appreciation to the Stanley Foundation for sponsoring this conference, as well as to as well as to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, USA for UNHCR, the Refugee Council USA and the many NGO co-sponsors who helped organise this important event.

UNHCR will mark its 50th anniversary exactly one month from today. As you know, I will also conclude my term as High Commissioner at the end of the year - just six weeks from now. Today's conference offers us a welcome opportunity to reflect on past experience, to draw lessons and - most importantly - to focus upon the dilemmas and daunting challenges facing protection today.

UNHCR's core mandate has not changed since 1950. The protection of refugees and the search for solutions to their problems have remained our central objectives. But the environment in which my Office works and the types of activities we perform have changed significantly over the past half century.

Protection has never been easy. Twenty years ago, UNHCR was trying to stop Cambodian refugees from being pushed back across the Thai border through mine fields. At the same time, pirates were attacking Vietnamese refugees on the South China Sea, kidnapping and abusing women and sinking their dilapidated vessels. The militarisation of camps - and armed attacks on refugees - were persistent problems in Southern Africa, Central America and Southwest and Southeast Asia.

Protecting refugees is - by its nature - controversial. Carry out this dynamic and action-oriented function requires us to challenge the sovereign preserve of States to deal with non-citizens and, in some instances, their own people. Protecting refugees does not only mean encouraging governments to sign the Refugee Convention and to adopt refugee laws. It also means facing down hostile border guards - who likely have never heard of these instruments - making sure that refugees are allowed to enter and are not detained, mistreated or abused.

UNHCR's humanitarian assistance programmes have expanded over the years, in tandem with the growth of the world's refugee population. Some argue that providing aid distracts my Office from what is indisputably our main responsibility - protection. I believe that this alleged dichotomy between protection and assistance is false. First of all, from the refugee's perspective, protection of their rights is a hollow concept unless they also have access to adequate food, clean water, basic health care and primary education.

Assistance is actually a valuable tool of protection - not least when it gives us leverage to have refugees admitted to safety. When thousands of refugees converge on the borders of an impoverished country, it is often the promise of international solidarity - in the form of aid - that keeps the door to asylum open. Equally, donor fatigue and falling assistance levels can undermine asylum - as we saw vividly last week, when Pakistan closed its borders to Afghan refugees.

Well-designed humanitarian assistance programmes also have a direct, positive impact on protection. Protecting refugee women from sexual attacks may mean providing them with firewood so that they do not have to trek through dangerous, bandit-infested countryside to collect it. Protecting refugee adolescents from military recruitment may mean offering them an alternative such as going to school. Assistance is also crucial to achieving solutions. For example, last year's emergency shelter programme in Kosovo helped hundreds of thousands of returning refugees make it through the harsh winter.

Our protection efforts over the past decade have necessarily been a mixture of both tradition and innovation. Along with our partners, we ensured the safe return and reintegration of refugees in Cambodia, Mozambique, Tajikistan and elsewhere. Together with many of you, we have worked to make resettlement a more sophisticated tool of international protection and solutions - moving decisively away from the mechanical processing of large groups to a highly diversified and individualised approach, especially in Africa.

We broke new ground - and saved many lives - by promoting temporary protection for refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina in Europe. But it was our presence on the ground in Bosnia throughout the war that gave us the standing with governments to achieve this. More recently, last year's mass evacuation of Kosovar refugees flooding into Macedonia helped keep the border open for those who followed. Aiding the internally displaced in the North Caucasus - most of whom have no real asylum option - and addressing the problems of statelessness in the former Soviet Union are some of the other ways we have worked to enhance protection.

Protection today takes place in a highly politicised environment, and we ignore this reality at our peril. In the decade following the end of the Cold War, protracted internal, ethnically-based conflicts, on the one hand, and the pressures of economic migration generated by the emergence of a globalised economy, on the other, have brought about large-scale population movements. Many people are leaving their home countries for a combination of refugee-related, economic and other reasons, making the categories of people on the move more complex and less clear.

This has had a profound effect upon the ability and willingness of many governments to receive refugees. Industrialised countries have introduced migration control measures that impact indiscriminately on people who need protection and those who do not. They have made it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach their territory, interdicted them at sea, detained them upon arrival, interpreted protection obligations restrictively and created new and lesser forms of protection. Developing countries are also increasingly reluctant to host refugees for prolonged periods. Rich and poor countries alike are claiming that the costs of granting asylum are too high - financially, politically and socially. From Macedonia last year to Guinea last month, refugee influxes are also increasingly seen as a threat to national security.

Many of the issues and dilemmas facing UNHCR today are exceedingly complex. How do we encourage states to receive large numbers of refugees when, for them, the strategic and political value of asylum has changed? Can we possibly disentangle refugees from the growing net of migration controls and ensure their access to protection? Will we solve refugee problems, if we ignore those who are displaced in their own country as result of the same conflict? Can we really afford to withdraw from militarised refugee camps to avoid compromising our principles thereby leaving behind innocent refugees? Can we responsibly phase out our humanitarian programmes in post-conflict situations, if the reconstruction and development efforts needed to make return sustainable are not yet underway?

Perhaps most importantly - from UNHCR's perspective - how can we ensure that the foundation of refugee protection - the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol - are not ignored, undermined, and ultimately destroyed, because governments deem them to be no longer relevant to many of the contemporary concerns? The real protection challenge is not - as some have claimed - UNHCR's loss of mission. Rather it is the risk that governments are increasingly turning away from their protection responsibilities in the face of today's complex displacement and migratory realities. We do indeed need a renewal of commitment.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention, we have launched Global Consultations aimed at revitalising the international protection regime. We do not intend to renegotiate the Convention, but rather to pursue its full and effective implementation. We will also seek a common understanding regarding the areas the Convention does not cover and to develop new standards, tools and approaches for filling these gaps. The Global Consultations follow naturally upon the protection "Reach Out" process that we have just concluded. We want all stakeholders - and especially the NGO community - to contribute substantively to this important process.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As UNHCR prepares for a transition to new leadership, we must build on the legacy of a tumultuous decade that placed the agency on the frontlines of humanitarian action. Carrying out our protection mandate in the future will depend - as in the past - upon our willingness to respond with courage, imagination and a commitment to protecting the rights of vulnerable and threatened individuals and to meeting their needs.

I believe that the United States has a special responsibility for refugee protection. This country was instrumental in drafting the major international refugee and human rights instruments half a century ago. More crucially, the example that it sets inevitably influences the way in which other states treat refugees. I have often highlighted the "export value" of United States protection practices.

When I emphasise the essential role of the United States, however, I am not referring only the government. The NGO community in this country is tremendously important to the work of UNHCR. I personally have valued our partnership and your global perspective, which belies the stereotypical foreign view of this country as insular and detached from surrounding world.

In conclusion, I would like to express my sincere gratitude for contributions you all have made during my tenure as High Commissioner toward strengthening UNHCR as an institution and to the cause of refugees. I am certain that my successor, Mr. Lubbers, will come to rely - as I have - upon this wonderful group of concerned individuals and organisations as an irreplaceable source of support, encouragement and constructive advice.

Thank you.