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Opening Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-second Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 1 October 2001

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-second Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 1 October 2001

1 October 2001
Organisational managementGlobal governance of refugees

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be with you here today - this being my first plenary session of the Executive Committee. I have met many of you individually over the last few months, but it is good to see all of you together. I am particularly pleased to welcome Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has kindly agreed to address the Executive Committee.

Let me begin by extending a special welcome to Mexico as a new member of the Committee. I would like to congratulate the incoming Bureau and its Chairman, Ambassador Molander of Sweden. His experience and knowledge of refugee affairs will certainly be an asset to the Committee. I would also like to thank the outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Khorram of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was privilege to work with him. I greatly appreciate the commitment that he has shown to refugees and to the work of this Committee over the last year, and I hope we will continue to benefit from his keen insight.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My first nine months have gone by very quickly. It did not take long for me to learn what a rich history this Office has. In particular, I have been deeply impressed by the high calibre and dedication of its staff, many of whom make enormous personal sacrifices and risk their lives daily to help others. I would like to pay particular tribute to my predecessor, Mrs. Sadako Ogata - a great woman and a great leader.

I arrived at a difficult moment, but also at an interesting and challenging time. Last year, UNHCR commemorated its 50th anniversary. This year, we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention. These two occasions allow us to take a fresh look at where we stand today, and to review the direction in which we are heading.

In her statement to the Executive Committee last year, Mrs Ogata identified a number of key challenges for UNHCR. Foremost was the need to strengthen UNHCR's emergency preparedness and response capacity. This is vital, as we are constantly facing new emergencies. The first major crisis I had to deal with this year was in Guinea, where my top priority was to ensure safe access to and safe passage for refugees. I was able to make progress by linking up with a political process, convincing the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone to change its agenda. This was followed by yet another crisis in the Balkans, with more than 100,000 people being forced to flee their homes in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I was there on Friday last week, consolidating the important work that we have begun there. In the first eight months of this year, we provided emergency support to 22 countries.

All this was before the barbaric terrorist attacks on the United States of America on 11 September. These attacks, and the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the surrounding countries, are a sobering reminder that emergencies are hard to predict. We need to be ready at all times, and - together with our partners - we need to be able to respond to new crises in an efficient and co-ordinated manner. Indeed, we have taken a number of measures over the last year to further enhance our emergency preparedness and response capacity. In particular, improved training of staff, an increase in the number of deployable emergency core staff, new stand-by arrangements with governments and partners, and an increase in our emergency stockpile.

For the current humanitarian emergency in and around Afghanistan, as you know we are preparing for a massive relief operation. I hope that donors will respond positively to our appeal for US$ 268 million to cover the next six months. This will enable us to prepare for an influx of up to 1.5 million refugees into neighbouring countries - particularly Pakistan and Iran. We count on donors' generosity.

Another serious challenge for UNHCR is staff security. The events of September last year, when three of our colleagues were savagely killed in West Timor and another was brutally murdered in Guinea, remain imprinted on all of our minds as some of the darkest days in UNHCR's history. But it did not end there. Another of our colleagues was murdered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in March this year, and this was followed barely a month later by the appalling killings of six members of the International Committee of the Red Cross. All these deaths are a reminder of the tremendous sacrifices made every year by humanitarian staff who risk their lives to save others in some of the most dangerous corners of the world. As a tribute to our slain colleagues, a permanent memorial will be inaugurated on 12 December in front of the UNHCR Headquarters. It will serve as a constant reminder.

But while it is important to remember the past, we must also prepare for the future. Addressing the staff security issue will remain one of my major priorities. Our mission will never be without risks, as we need to be close to those whom we serve. But there are limits as to what we can accept. Proper training and the provision of the necessary technical equipment are basic minimum conditions for operating in remote duty stations.

In the last year, we have set up new security training courses for staff and redefined the responsibilities and accountability of managers. We have also supported the enhancement of UNSECOORD, the UN system-wide security mechanism. But there are still major problems to overcome. I have strongly protested to the authorities in Indonesia about the unacceptably light sentences given to those responsible for the murder of our colleagues in West Timor. We must take steps to ensure that there is no impunity for those who attack humanitarian staff. Funding constraints also affect us. Let me be blunt. Expressions of sympathy for the deaths of our colleagues mean little when the resources needed to improve security are not forthcoming.

Let me then turn to another major challenge for UNHCR: the management of complex population flows. This includes "mixed flows" of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants, and "mixed-motive" migration, where people leave their homes for a combination of political, economic and other reasons. Smuggling and trafficking of people is on the rise. With regular arrival routes closed, many refugees continue to turn to smugglers to reach safety, in spite of the dangers and the financial costs involved. Other migrants portray themselves as refugees to overcome immigration barriers. The result is that refugees are often stigmatised in the public mind. This presents two main challenges: governments must find ways of handling asylum applications more quickly and fairly, and politicians and people in receiving countries must avoid stereotyping all asylum seekers as "phoney" or "bogus", if not criminals.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Efforts to protect refugees are of limited value if durable solutions are not found. This is key. Voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement: these are, as you know, the three durable solutions. We must focus more on these, together with governments and our partners. I see this as the heart of my mission: not 'protection' alone, but 'protection and solutions'. For protection is not protection if there are no solutions.

Failure to provide solutions makes us all guilty of the degradation of refugees. It can also lead to a rise in crime and the threat of further conflict or instability. We must guard against this. The unacceptable alternatives when we do not provide durable solutions are more protracted refugee situations, more refugees languishing in refugee camps year after year, more refugees taking desperate measures to find safety and a better future, and more refugees being exploited by criminal networks.

To enable sustainable local integration of refugees and re-integration of returnees, we also need to find a more effective way to close the gap between emergency relief and longer-term development. Most development assistance excludes refugees. As I reported to ECOSOC in July, I see this as a big mistake. I do not believe that refugees can be dismissed as an issue peripheral to development. Africa is home to more than 5.3 million refugees and other people of concern to my Office. Their productive potential is enormous. In many African countries, I would venture to say, sustainable development will be very difficult to achieve if the productive capacities of refugees are ignored by host countries or by their own governments as they return home. This challenge arises not only in Africa. The new authorities in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are coming to terms with the reality that several hundred thousand refugees may never return home. The quality of life these people - and their children - will have in the future will depend upon reconstruction and development activities in Serbia, not upon humanitarian aid.

Refugees are often seen as a burden, and I do not want to underestimate the humanitarian and security issues related to the presence of large refugee populations. But I would argue for a more enlightened and integrated view. Refugees are not simply the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. They are potential contributors to development - both in their countries of asylum and upon their return home. We therefore need to rethink the relationship of refugees to development. And we need to do this thinking not far away in conferences in New York, Washington or Geneva, but on the spot, together with our donors and partners, in the places where day by day we have to remove the obstacles. Such facile statements as "development is long-term" and "humanitarian assistance is short-term" are not useful. They simply miss the point. The search for durable solutions should begin at the outset of every humanitarian emergency.

I would like to repeat the call that I made at the Least Developed Countries Conference in Brussels in May. Donors should allocate or "earmark" a modest, at least proportional, share of development assistance funding for the inter-related issues of refugees, internally displaced people and affected local populations.

Yet another challenge for UNHCR is to find ways of promoting co-existence and reconciliation in divided communities. Last year UNHCR launched an initiative called "Imagine Co-existence", with pilot projects in Bosnia and Rwanda. These projects are candles in the dark of xenophobia. I will be working closely with Mrs Ogata in her capacity as Co-Chair of the International Commission on Human Security to follow up on these projects.

These are ongoing challenges that were mentioned last year. But the world is changing fast, and UNHCR has to be able to adapt. The recent terrorist attacks have already unleashed a wave of discriminatory assaults and provocations on people of Muslim origin in a number of countries. Xenophobia and intolerance, which is already present in so many societies, may escalate and lead to further discrimination against refugees, asylum seekers and minority groups across the world. We need to battle against xenophobia and be prepared for the formidable protection challenges that lie ahead.

Organisational management

Ladies and gentlemen,

UNHCR now finds itself operating in a crowded space, with diverse actors and limited funds. Clearly, we cannot continue to think of "business as usual". We need to re-examine the way in which we carry out our mandate to ensure the protection of refugees and durable solutions.

During my first nine months in office I have taken a number of measures to sharpen the focus of the organisation and to strengthen our capacity to meet tomorrow's challenges. This has involved new appointments, changes to our organisational structure and new policy directives.

I would like to pay tribute to the former Deputy High Commissioner, Rick Barton. He has been replaced by Mary Ann Wyrsch, who joined us in April, and whose wide-ranging management experience I warmly welcome. I would, of course, also like to pay tribute to the Assistant High Commissioner, Søren Jessen-Petersen, who is well known to all of you and who will be leaving us in this month after a long and distinguished career with the organisation. When I first arrived, he advised me that something would have to be done about the geographical balance in the Executive Office. He pointed out that there were now two of us from northern Europe, and he suggested that I look for another Assistant High Commissioner. I am sure you will join me in wishing him all the best in his future endeavours. In his place, I am pleased to welcome Kamel Morjane, who was with UNHCR for almost 20 years and who was until recently the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I have created a core top management team - a "seamless Troika" - composed of the High Commissioner, Deputy High Commissioner and Assistant High Commissioner. Under the new structure, the Director of the Department of International Protection continues to report directly to the High Commissioner.

It is important to stress that the role of the Deputy High Commissioner has been significantly strengthened. I have created a new management structure in which all internal resource management issues are channelled through the Deputy High Commissioner and all operational management issues are channelled through the Assistant High Commissioner. The Deputy High Commissioner will be responsible for tightening up our systems for planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating our programmes. It is clear that in our strategic planning, we need to focus less on inputs and more on performance, systematically evaluating our activities and following this up with appropriate corrective action.

I have revitalised the senior management with a number of new appointments including new leadership in the Department of Resource Management, the Department of Operational Support, the regional bureaux for the Americas, Asia and CASWANAME, the Inspector-General's office and in other crucial areas such as the Human Resources Service. Through all these changes, I have been able to not only introduce new talent into the organisation, but also to ensure a greatly improved gender balance within the organisation's senior management as well as geographical diversity. Rotation is good after some years, not only in the field but also with directors.

I have also taken measures to strengthen our internal investigation and oversight mechanisms. I am particularly concerned about allegations of corruption linked to resettlement in our Nairobi office. A comprehensive reform plan is now being implemented in Kenya and efforts will be made to ensure that the lessons learnt from this operation are applied globally. I am determined to do everything possible to minimise such abuse and to ensure that resettlement remains a key protection tool.

When I took up my appointment, a 20 per cent budget freeze had been imposed on all our operations across the board. This was because donors had made it clear that the budget of US$ 955 million - which had been approved by the Executive Committee only three months before - was not fundable. Moreover, UNHCR was regarded by some as being unfocused and without a clear sense of mission. Since then, we have had the "Actions 1, 2 & 3" exercise. Under this process, we reduced our 2001 budget by roughly 10%, while the number of staff posts were reduced by 16%.

Action 1, which has now been completed, entailed defining UNHCR's core activities. This proved useful in helping to define UNHCR's strategic direction. Donor reactions, however, varied. Everyone was pleased that we carried out this exercise. But while some donors had strongly urged the Office to re-prioritise its activities and to scale back or withdraw from some sectors, others - and sometimes even the same donors - were reluctant to see this happen when concrete proposals were put on the table. The call for a more focused UNHCR was unanimous. But there was less unanimity on how this should be achieved.

A contentious issue was that of defining UNHCR's role vis-à-vis internally displaced persons. UNHCR inevitably has an important role to play in situations where the same root causes give rise to both internal displacement and movement of refugees across borders, or where internally displaced people live side by side with refugees or returnees. Indeed, almost a third of the people currently of concern to UNHCR are internally displaced. I am willing to continue programmes to support the internally displaced and to take on new ones where there is a need. However, programmes to assist the internally displaced should be contingent upon additional funding being made available by donors. Against this background, in September I issued new Operational Guidelines clarifying criteria for UNHCR's involvement with internally displaced persons. Let me stress that we will continue to work with internally displaced persons when they are found in the situations I have described.

Action 2 entailed a thorough review of our operations and internal structure, setting priorities on the basis of Action 1. It also entailed taking immediate steps to manage with fewer resources, through greater austerity and efficiency. The revised needs for 2001 (including Supplementary Programmes and the UN Regular Budget) now stands at US$ 882 million (excluding the Afghanistan emergency operation), and I have proposed a budget of US$ 828 million for 2002. Our efforts to ensure greater efficiency are illustrated by the fact that there has been a significant reduction in our staffing level while there has been no real change in the number of people of concern to the Office. Also, while most of the savings were made in the field rather than at Headquarters, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that between 1995 and 2000, there was a radical reduction in Headquarters expenditure by 34%. I am convinced, therefore, that we are already close to reaching our optimum size at Headquarters.

One of the results of this prioritisation exercise was a greater appreciation of the importance of effective partnerships in fulfilling UNHCR's protection mandate and achieving durable solutions. Partnership is key for us. At the same time, it was clear that we could not simply cut activities where other actors were not willing to take on new responsibilities.

While the Action 2 planning phase is over, implementation continues. This involves the closure of 11 country offices and a reduction of our staff by 16% (760 posts). A total of 219 staff were recently reassigned under an Accelerated Postings Procedure. I am fully aware that the reduction in staff posts has created a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety for many colleagues and their families. To minimise the impact and limit the negative effects of what is clearly a painful undertaking, we have put in place a number of measures including Early Retirement and Voluntary Separation Programmes. Throughout this exercise we have benefited from the constructive engagement of the Staff Council.

The question now is: did we make sufficient savings? If one does a historical comparison of numbers of people of concern to UNHCR versus budget, the answer is clearly Yes. The current working budget amounts to less than US$ 40 per year for each person of concern to UNHCR. This is considerably lower than most previous years. I consider this budget to be the absolute minimum. There are already important needs that cannot be met with this budget. If any governments feel that UNHCR can effectively operate with less, I would like them to explain how.

Action 3 is an ongoing process. This involves reviewing fundraising in the broadest sense. I recognise that burden-sharing should be seen not only in terms of cash contributions, and I appreciate very much the efforts of countries hosting large refugee populations and countries of resettlement, but clearly these efforts do not negate the need for an adequately equipped UNHCR. I have already conveyed to donors the importance of considering a minimum level of contributions to UNHCR, commensurate with the Office's role as a multilateral organisation with a global mandate to ensure the international protection of refugees. In this context, I have suggested an amount of one dollar or one Euro per citizen as an objective to be reached over a number of years. At the same time, I hope that our most generous donors - who already exceed this amount - will continue to fund us at the current levels.

I have also set up a number of initiatives to diversify UNHCR's base of support. This has included the upgrading and professionalisation of our private sector fundraising efforts, the appointment of a Special Representative to the members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States, and an intensive dialogue on partnership with the European Union and European Commission. I regret very much that we still do not see the representative of the EU Presidency, Ambassador Noirfalisse, and the representative of the European Commission, Ambassador Trojan, sitting next to each other in this meeting. I consider this, after the Treaty of Amsterdam and the Tampere proposals, somewhat painful.

I am aware that donors often limit their contributions to UNHCR because of complaints about the quality of our programmes. Let me say a few words on this as I take this very seriously. I recognise that in some cases we can improve our performance with the same money. I am determined, together with the Deputy High Commissioner and the incoming Assistant High Commissioner, to pursue this. But in other cases we can only do so with additional resources. We need your help. We must find better mechanisms to avoid the chronic budget shortfalls and under-funding that we have experienced recently. Such shortfalls both impact negatively on quality and performance and - in vicious circle - they further weaken UNHCR's ability to mobilise resources.

Concerning the budget for 2001, I would like to ask donors who have expressed their intention to provide funds in the last quarter to do so generously and in a timely manner. We have yet to receive over US$ 100 million already indicated, and even then we will still have a shortfall of about US$ 50 million. I welcome the new contributions for the Afghan emergency operation, but these should not be at the expense of programmes in other parts of the world, many of which have already been scaled back.

For 2002, the "soft commitments" that we have received so far provide only partial reassurance that the proposed budget will be fully funded. I am grateful to donors who have already come forward, but I would welcome further commitments. I hope that no donors will diminish their level of funding in comparison with 2000 and 2001. On the contrary, I hope that many will increase their contributions to come nearer to the level of one dollar or one Euro per citizen.

Global governance of refugees

Ladies and gentlemen,

Refugees and asylum seekers have been in the international media spotlight a great deal in recent weeks - in the Balkans, at the Sangatte reception centre in France, on the Norwegian freighter in the South Pacific, and now the crisis in Afghanistan. Each of these have illustrated the severity of the refugee problem. Each has also illustrated the need for UNHCR to adapt to a changing international political environment; an environment that - to be frank - is not changing to the good.

We face many threats. These include: restrictive interpretation of the 1951 Convention, the deteriorating quality of asylum, the high costs and burdens of hosting refugees - especially in protracted refugee situations with no solutions in sight - and the perceived abuse of asylum systems.

Against this backdrop, the Global Consultations on International Protection were launched last year. The purpose of this process, on the one hand, is to seek to promote the full and effective implementation of the 1951 Convention, and on the other, to develop complementary new approaches, tools and standards to ensure the availability of international protection and durable solutions.

The Ministerial Meeting in December will be the first ever meeting of States Parties to the 1951 Convention and will be a real milestone. The level of interest amongst States has been so high that we have had to make it a two day meeting, rather than one day as initially planned. A draft Declaration has been drawn up, which - although not binding - will send a powerful message.

The Global Consultations are providing a unique opportunity for an open, frank and constructive dialogue with governments, NGOs, refugee experts and refugees themselves and will help to shape an Agenda for Protection for the coming years. There have already been good discussions on concrete policy and operational problems, such as the separation of armed elements, registration of refugees and mechanisms of burden and responsibility sharing. New standard setting, operational guidelines and policy approaches are expected outcomes of this process. Together, they will provide a guiding road map for UNHCR, States, NGOs and other protection partners, setting out shared strategic goals and recommending key actions for the years ahead.

The question that arises, is whether or not UNHCR - as it stands today in legal and formal terms, as it is positioned within the UN family, and as it is currently funded - will be able to meet the challenges of responding to the refugee situations of tomorrow. There are signals that UNHCR is not adequately positioned as a multilateral institution to address the problems we are required to handle under our mandate. To address these long-term questions, I have launched the "UNHCR 2004" process. The aim of this is to develop a concept of how UNHCR could be positioned better to carry out its mandate. This should be developed in time for 1 January 2004, when our current mandate comes up for renewal. In carrying out this exercise, I will take into account the outcomes of the three tracks of the Global Consultations.

Finally, a few words about the subject that is uppermost in most people's minds at the moment: the fight against international terrorism. As the Secretary-General has stated, no people, no region and no religion should be condemned because of the unspeakable acts of a few individuals. We must all guard against a rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance. Refugees and asylum seekers are already the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are particularly vulnerable in the current climate. We should beware of those politicians who claim to pursue the public cause but simply exploit racial instincts. Fighting against xenophobia must be at a top priority for us all.

Afghans are particularly vulnerable. Even before the barbaric acts of 11 September, Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world, with some four million spread out between Iran, Pakistan and a multitude of other countries across the world. A war on terrorism should not become a war on Afghans. Neither should it become a war on Islam.

Each of the solutions for refugee problems - voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement - have one thing in common: each is only attainable when there is respect. Respect for refugees going home; respect for refugees who can be instrumental in local development; respect for the refugees who come from far away and who can enrich our societies. Let us therefore talk about respect. A respect which goes beyond tolerance. Respect for people of every ethnic, religious, social and cultural background.

Everyone shares in the responsibility of ensuring respect for the individual dignity and worth of each and every refugee. Politicians and the media have a special charge to keep in combating racism, xenophobia and intolerance, and in resisting the temptation to scapegoat refugees. Let us therefore work together to create a culture of respect. The people who are of concern to UNHCR deserve it.

Thank you.