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Opening remarks by Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, Assistant United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 9 September 1997

Speeches and statements

Opening remarks by Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, Assistant United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 9 September 1997

9 September 1997

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates and friends,

It is a privilege for me to address you on behalf of the High Commissioner, who is currently in New York. She will be briefing the Security Council in just a few hours from now. Our agenda today is even more full than normal. I will focus my remarks on major regional developments since the last meeting of the Standing Committee on 24 June and there have been many.

It has been a busy summer. There have been significant new refugee outflows from Myanmar, Cambodia, the Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Sierra Leone. Over the same time period, promising political developments have to varying degrees brightened the prospects for refugees and displaced persons from Liberia, Mali, Tajikistan, Georgia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Guatemala and we hope soon Western Sahara.

While the High Commissioner in the last Standing Committee stressed the importance of addressing refugee problems in accordance with international standards, these have been totally disregarded in some cases. In the past two months alone, UNHCR has had to protest three major, blatant acts of refoulement. Most recently, on 4 September, some 800 Rwandan and Burundi refugees and asylum-seekers were rounded up from Kisangani transit centre at dawn by soldiers of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and forcibly returned to Rwanda.

Mr. Gerety, UNHCR Director of Operations for the Great Lakes, sitting to my right, who just returned from the region, will brief you in detail on the Great Lakes shortly, but I will also be sharing with you a number of thoughts on the subject, Mr. Chairman.

Since January we have repatriated - often evacuated - over 181,000 Rwandans from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the largest returnee airlift ever to my knowledge on the African continent, 62,000 were repatriated by air. It is a disturbing fact, that while over two million refugees from the old and new Rwandan caseloads have returned to Rwanda, due to ongoing insecurity, there are large areas in the western part of the country, where we have no, or very limited access and are thus unable to properly assist and monitor returnees. The majority of refugees who fled to the former Zaire, you will remember, originate from precisely these areas.

Rwandans remain in ten countries in the region including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Tanzania, Malawi, the Central African Republic, and I could go on. The numbers, though, are now clearly manageable. Without meaning to understate the complexity of the task, we are in a position, where we have the co-operation of the relevant host Government, to screen these refugees and to exclude those who do not deserve refugee status. We have undertaken screening in the Central African Republic, Gabon, Malawi and were about to initiate it in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Pre-screening had indicated that among those forcibly returned from Kisangani transit centre were many who had genuine claims to refugee status in the sense of the OAU Convention. The camp was in effect a closed centre. Its occupants could not be conceived to pose a security threat. Of its 835 occupants, 586 were women and children.

The forcible return from Kisangani happened against a backdrop of steady deterioration of humanitarian standards in the region. While we fully appreciate the legitimate concerns of Governments in the region over the instability and insecurity that certain Rwandan and Burundi groups have caused or might still cause, the solution does not lie, in my opinion, Mr. Chairman, in arbitrary and heavy-handed measures, but in resolute and consistent State practice. Prevention and containment might have averted the 1994 catastrophe in Rwanda. As I recalled before you at the end of January 1997, States are responsible for ensuring the strictly civilian character of refugee settlements and their location away from international borders, which is what we never managed to achieve in eastern Zaire. After conflict erupted, the respect of certain basic standards would have protected civilian refugee populations from political and military exploitation and indiscriminate violence. Let us urgently consider, outside this forum obviously, comprehensive support strategies that will help the region transcend the self-perpetuating dialectics of genocide and impunity.

Reverting to the events in Kisangani, they make it clear that the most basic conditions for delivering of humanitarian assistance and protection to Rwandan refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have ceased to exist. As a result, I have an important announcement to make to you now, which the High Commissioner will be delivering shortly to the Security Council. The High Commissioner after consulting with the UN Secretary-General, has come to the conclusion and will announce it, I repeat, to the Security Council that these unacceptable developments force UNHCR to suspend all activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo related to Rwandan refugees, including rehabilitation of affected areas in the east of the country. This unprecedented decision will be reviewed once proper assurances are received from the Government that Rwandans will be treated according to humanitarian standards, and that their claims to refugee status will be properly examined, as we have been proposing for a number of months, in particular since my own visit to Kinshasa in June. We also seek concrete guarantees that UNHCR staff, both international and local, as well as our NGO partners, will be allowed to work in conditions of minimal safety and dignity, terms which we normally use for refugees but which, you will agree, should also apply to our staff.

With regard to Congolese refugees, I am particularly happy to report, as I initiated the indirect talks in this respect, that with regard to those who fled since October 1996 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Tanzania, on 1 September UNHCR commenced a voluntary repatriation programme to the Kalemie, Fizi, Uvira areas. Some 74,000 Congolese refugees are in Tanzania and we intend to repatriate them in a gradual manner, and to provide them with reintegration assistance.

With regard to Burundi, the partial dismantling of regroupment camps which, as you know, have been a source of concern to humanitarian agencies for some time, and the ongoing peace negotiations - with the inevitable ups and downs - give some reason for hope, but the situation remains very unsettled. It is essential that Governments in the region maintain a policy of asylum for Burundians. I am glad to report that the Government in Kinshasa has been displaying understanding in this respect and I hope this will translate into permission for UNHCR to provide tangible assistance and protection to Burundis.

The largest group of Burundi refugees is in Tanzania. There have been allegations of militarization of some of these refugee camps at the hands of the extremists, an issue I raised with you last January. This, as you know, is an extremely sensitive matter in bilateral relations between the two countries concerned. A few weeks ago, the Government of Tanzania and UNHCR jointly conducted a thorough mission to examine the situation in the Kagera and Kigoma regions. While no evidence was found of militarization of the camps assisted by UNHCR, the development of a situation similar to the one witnessed in the former Eastern Zaire must be avoided at all costs. Precisely to prevent this, we are grateful for the determination of the Tanzanian Government to review the recommendations of the joint assessment mission and implement a comprehensive plan to enhance security in and around all UNHCR-assisted Burundi camps.

Mr. Chairman, in 1994 the international community ignored, if I may say so, the worst genocide since the second World War. Since then, the logic of war, of revenge, of political and military expediency has prevailed in the region and curtailed our action. The region remains on a knife edge. The scales may tip towards continued unrest, further conflict, war or - we hope - the consolidation of peace. If we demand the respect of minimum humanitarian standards time and again, it is because this is one of the basic pre-requisites for peace.

It seems to me, Mr. Chairman, that as soon as the current crisis - one in many - abates, UNHCR together with key regional players, the UN and the OAU Secretaries-General and countries represented in this room will need to launch a collaborative reformulation of the parameters for a humanitarian code of conduct in the region that reflects: first, traditional African asylum practice; second, legitimate national security concerns; and third, the effective course of justice.

Mr. Chairman, elsewhere in Africa there are also signs of hope alongside new outbreaks of violence. Following the 25 May coup in Sierra Leone, UNHCR mounted an emergency programme for the 38,000 refugees compelled to flee to Guinea and Liberia. In Sierra Leone, albeit for other reasons, we had no choice but to suspend our operations.

In Angola, organised repatriation has had to be postponed due to the delays by UNITA in the implementation of the Lusaka protocols. Large numbers of refugees are, however, returning on their own accord. To date, some 98,000 have returned. Our efforts are focused on assisting with their reintegration.

I regret another area, where I cannot report much progress, is Eritrea. Eritreans continue to languish in Camps in Eastern Sudan awaiting the possibility to repatriate.

Recent unrest in Kenya has had a negative impact on refugees as well. There has been a tendency to lump them together with armed groups and bandits and there have been calls for energetic measures against them. Refugees are precisely defined by the fact that they do not engage in armed activity. The principle of asylum, the reign of humanitarian law, must be maintained for those who have refugee status and abide by their obligations.

The ongoing crises, delays and new emergencies, should not distract from the many positive developments in Africa. The general elections in Liberia brought to an end one of the worst civil wars on the continent. With your support we intend by the end of 1998 to repatriate half-a-million Liberian refugees. Progress has also been made in the Mali repatriation. Mali, I feel, Mr. Chairman, stands out as a pluri-ethnic example from which many others in and outside Africa could learn, of conflict resolution and reconciliation. To date more than two thirds of Mali refugees, largely Touaregs, have returned with UNHCR assistance. There are also promising developments in north-western Somalia. A pilot repatriation programme for 10,000 Somalis from camps in Ethiopia to north-western Somalia which commenced in February 1997, was completed in July. We anticipate a further 60,000 Somali refugees repatriating in the course of 1998.

Another area, where there are tentative signs of hope is Western Sahara. After consultations with the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy, Mr. James Baker III, UNHCR dispatched two missions in August to the region to update the repatriation plan and confirm the willingness of refugees to return. We hope that the excellent co-operation the missions we dispatched received from Algerian, Moroccan and Mauritanian authorities as well as from the Polisario, is indicative of growing willingness to finally resolve the Western Sahara refugee problem.

Mr. Chairman, a few words now on Central Asia. In Tajikistan, after three years of talks, a General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord was signed on 27 June. As a result, on 17 July UNHCR was able to resume voluntary repatriation operations that had been suspended some time ago. By the end of August we had taken home some 3,000 Tajik refugees from northern Afghanistan. The situation there, however, as we all know, remains fragile.

Mr. Chairman, turning to former Yugoslavia, for the first time there has been some significant progress on the return of minorities. We have witnessed what appears to be a major breakthrough in the Central Bosnia Canton. At the beginning of August, 700 returnees were expelled by force from Jajce. After long negotiations, an agreement was reached which allowed UNHCR to secure the return of this group to their homes. In parallel, Federation and Cantonal authorities also agreed to begin immediately with the return of as many as 40,000 displaced and refugees back to some 10,000 uninhabited homes in that canton. For your information, the total number of returnees to Bosnia this year stands at 83,000.

We continue to hope and work towards an evolution within Republika Srpska that will lead to new openings for minority returns, which are still barred, and the full implementation of Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement.

Following missions earlier this year by the High Commissioner and myself, we continue to work closely with UNTAES and the Croatian Government to accelerate return movement into and out of Eastern Slavonia, and there has been some progress I am happy to report. By end of August, over 8,000 Croatian Serb displaced had returned to former UN Sectors North, South and West, that is Western Slavonia and Krajina. The total number of displaced persons who returned to Eastern Slavonia, largely Croatians, to date is approximately 1,500. Despite the fact that refugee repatriation to Croatia remains limited due to the overall lack of housing and a continuing perception of insecurity in minority areas, the recent increase in the number of peaceful and safe returns of displaced persons is a trend which we applaud and that we had been calling for over the last couple of years, and that will constitute perhaps the most significant test of the sustainability of the Erdut Basic Agreement.

Elsewhere in Europe there have been other encouraging developments. In Georgia, negotiations on the Abkhaz and South-Ossetian conflict have recently gained some encouraging momentum. Bilateral talks resumed on 23 July and on 14 August, as you know the President of Georgia and the Abkhaz leader met for the first time since the beginning of the conflict. Our assistance programmes are focused on supporting the confidence building process in very close co-ordination with the Secretary-General's Special Representative in Tbilisi.

On 2 July, the Deputy Director-General of IOM, Ms. Escaler and I chaired the first review meeting of the CIS conference. UNHCR, IOM and several Governments reported on the status of the implementation of the Conference's recommendation. Considerable progress has been made in developing legal structures to address refugee flows and migratory movements and let me add that donor response to our appeals has been more encouraging than in 1996, for which I wish to thank you.

The High Commissioner has just completed a visit to Ukraine. In less than a year, Ukraine has granted refugee status to almost 2,000 persons. The fact that daunting economic and ecological problems have not distracted the authorities from meaningfully addressing asylum issues and problems of formerly deported people, particularly in Crimea, deserves commendation.

Mr. Chairman, Asia and Pacific are on our Agenda today and Mr. Fouinat, the Director of the Asia and Pacific Bureau will brief you in more detail. The culmination of the repatriation of some 24,000 non-refugees from Hong Kong in the past year is a historic development. The CPA in countries of first asylum is concluded, with less than 800 Vietnamese non-refugees and 1,300 mostly pre-CPA Vietnamese refugees remaining in the region, for whom, needless to say, we shall continue to seek lasting solutions.

Elsewhere in the region, peace is not yet fully consolidated. In July and August, renewed conflict in Cambodia led to an influx of some 28,000 Cambodians into Thailand. You remember that we have kept saying since 1993, "never again a Khmer refugee problem." I regret that events have proved otherwise. We hope, however, that this will remain within the present manageable limits. Some 3,000 persons subsequently returned voluntarily when fighting ceased in their areas of origin. Some 25,000 refugees remain in Thailand, whose hospitality and generosity I wish to commend.

Serious problems also persist in Myanmar. Some 21,000 former residents of the Rakhine State of Myanmar remain in Bangladesh and UNHCR is working with the two Governments to try and find a solution to their plight.

Turning to the Americas - also on our agenda today - Mr. Asomani, the Director of the Bureau concerned, will inform you of progress made in achieving solutions for Guatemalan refugees, which are truly exemplary. The High Commissioner will visit Mexico and Guatemala towards the end of the year.

On a less positive note, Mr. Asomani will brief you on the Office's growing concern with the new waves of internal displacement in Colombia resulting from armed violence. Estimates of the number of internally displaced put the figure as high as 1 million. Until now the numbers of Colombians seeking refuge across international borders have been relatively low. Potential asylum seekers have difficulty leaving Colombia. Our efforts are concentrated on trying to ensure adequate asylum for those who are able to flee, in accordance with traditional Latin-American policy and practice in this regard, be they victims of individual persecution or of generalised violence in their areas of residence.

Another item on the agenda today, Mr. Chairman, relates to inter-agency co-operation. There are a number of initiatives to report. On 11 July, I was part of a UNHCR mission to Washington to undertake consultations with the World Bank, which were also attended, for the first time ever, by the IMF. This meeting undertook a very thorough review of country programmes and led to agreement on a range of concrete measures to increase co-operation and facilitate joint projects in the countries reviewed, in particular those requiring post-conflict rehabilitation. On 29 August, senior UNHCR staff held a meeting with their ICRC counterparts to discuss issues of mutual concern. In the Great Lakes we have established excellent co-operation with the ICRC, on a almost daily basis we have been co-ordinating our responses and agreeing on a division of labour. On 16 September, we shall co-chair a meeting with IOM in which we will take stock of the implementation of our Memorandum of Understanding and see how our co-operation can be further strengthened. Another inter-agency initiative worthy of note, which I flagged to you previously, is the actual establishment in Rwanda in co-operation with the Government, of a Joint Reintegration Planning Unit with UNDP.

Inter-agency co-operation leads us to the subject of UN reform. A few brief words to state that UNHCR is categorically supportive of the establishment of the new office of the Emergency Relief Co-ordinator as set out in the Secretary-General's report "Renewing the United Nations: a programme for reform." With DHA, UNDP, UNICEF and WFP we have participated in the first phase of the Working Group established in late July and continue our engagement in Phase 2. We hope this process will strengthen the authority of the ERC and enhance early decision-making in the early phases of humanitarian emergencies.

Before I conclude, Mr. Chairman, let me say how much Mrs. Ogata, myself and indeed all UNHCR staff have followed with relief and encouragement recent efforts, with which you were recently associated in Oslo, leading to the Ottawa Conference in December, aimed at achieving the belated banning of anti-personnel mines.

Finally Mr. Chairman,

UNHCR's funding will be a major subject for the pre-ExCom Standing Committee Meeting next month. Nonetheless, given the seriousness of the situation, I must signal to you here a major problem: the financing of the 1997 and 1998 General Programmes. Declining levels of contributions and secondary income, are having a serious impact on the Office's ability to operate its core programmes. I appeal to UNHCR's donors to do all they can during the last four months of this year to maintain their contributions at the level of last year. May I also, Mr. Chairman, stress the importance of repatriation programmes in Africa, and the fact that these operations are dramatically underfunded. Where durable solutions are finally possible, we can ill-afford to miss the opportunity.

Thank you.