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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, forty-second session, Geneva, 7 October 1991

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, forty-second session, Geneva, 7 October 1991

7 October 1991

May I welcome you all to this session of the Executive Committee. Allow me to extend a special welcome to Her Royal Highness, Princess Martha Louise of Norway. This morning Her Royal Highness graciously accepted to become the Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. The Princess' interest in humanitarian issues is a clear reflection of the fine tradition of her family and her country. I should also like to congratulate you on your election, Mr. Chairman, as well as the Vice Chairman and Rapporteur. I look forward to continuing with this Bureau the close cooperation I have enjoyed with Ambassador Azikiwe and his Bureau. The outgoing Chairman's field trips are indicative of his own and, indeed, this Committee's close involvement and active support for refugee matters, for which I am grateful. We need it more than ever. My friend and colleague, Mr. James Ingram, Executive Director of the World Food Programme will address the meeting later today. His presence here, returning a visit I paid to the opening of WFP's Committee on Food Aid Policies and Programmes last May, shows the ever-closer cooperation between our two agencies.

Mr. Chairman, the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is a mirror of the world we live in. it is often as if the morning news sets our agenda of the day. In an age, where it is sometimes difficult to see whether news is triggered by events, or events by the news media, it is important for an institution like UNHCR to have both the capacity to respond promptly and to grasp the implications of the changes in the surrounding world. In my statement today, I would like to share with you some thoughts on how I see UNHCR in this fundamentally changed and changing world, and more particularly how UNHCR's operational capacity must be balanced by an appropriate policy formulation capability. I make my remarks after less than eight months in office - but after a period, which, in the opinion of many who have been involved in refugee matters much longer than I, has been truly unprecedented in many respects.

In the Persian Gulf, we have witnessed the largest and fastest refugee exodus in recent times. Less than five months after 1.5 million Iraqis fled their homes, all but some 70,000 are back. Some have been able to return to their homes, others - numbering some 500,000 - are back in their country but still displaced. A swift and volatile exodus has been followed by an equally fast but fragile return.

In the Horn of Africa, massive humanitarian operations have had to substitute for more constructive, economic and social development efforts. Continuing conflicts, timid democratization and tenuous peace initiatives make that region a mixture of hope and concern.

In Europe, the free movements of people that only recently were seen as the harbinger of political change in the East have now become the source of deep concern - sometimes fears - in the West. Growing numbers of asylum-seekers have stretched existing procedures and practices to their limits and put the institution of asylum to test. On the other hand, the countries in Eastern Europe which not so long ago were producers of refugees are now receiving them. I believe it should now be possible to look at the application of the "cessation clause" in this region. As many of these countries join the work of this Committee I welcome them, as I do their accessions or intention to accede to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. These acts underline the continued relevance of the refugee instruments in the post Cold War era.

1991 has been a year marked, not only by exodus but also by new opportunities for returns. Last month, I signed an agreement with the Government of South Africa, paving the way for a UNHCR presence in South Africa and the safe return of exiles.

Right now, we are standing in the wings ready to repatriate Western Saharans to participate in the referendum on the future of the Territory.

In Cambodia, as the lead agency for voluntary repatriation, we are accelerating our preparations to keep pace with the rapid and positive political developments. But further action is hampered by inadequate response to the Secretary-General's appeal last year on behalf of UNHCR for $US 33 million needed for preparatory arrangements. I must take this opportunity to urge Governments strongly to make immediate and generous contributions.

Some solutions are going almost unnoticed. In Central America, for instance, refugees have been returning home in large numbers, thanks to regional peace initiatives and the CIREFCA process. During my trip to Central America later this month, I shall be closing the last refugee camp for Nicaraguans in Costa Rica.

We are establishing a presence in Eritrea as a prelude to significant returns from the Sudan. The peace agreement in Angola makes it realistic to plan for the return of 300,000 refugees early next year. Negotiations are continuing for a lasting solution to the Rwandese refugee problem. A Tripartite Commission, composed of Burundi, United Republic of Tanzania and UNHCR, is planning for the return of some 94,000 refugees to Burundi. Tripartite discussions between Laos, Thailand and UNHCR are expected to lead to the voluntary return of some 55,000 Laotians over the next few years, while returns to Viet Nam now exceed 13,000.

The outflow from Viet Nam has subsided considerably, with the notable exception of arrivals to Hong Kong. However, the stalemate in finding a dignified and humane solution to those determined not to be refugees has hampered further progress. Consultations on this important subject are continuing and I am hopeful that a consensus can be reached soon so that all those who have not qualified as refugees can return home in safety and dignity.

In Afghanistan, notwithstanding the security situation, some 200,000 refugees have returned from Pakistan this year. Likewise, despite continuing insecurity, Liberian refugees are returning to their country. I do hope that political initiatives will lead to more orderly solutions to this problem which is weighing heavily on the countries neighbouring Liberia.

New refugee emergencies, actual repatriation operations or prospective return movements, as well as ongoing care and maintenance programmes, have created the highest ever UNHCR programme requirements. At the end of last year, we expected total expenditure in 1991 to be at the level of some $US 560 million. Today, the projected total needs for 1991 amount to $US 982.5 million. A year of unprecedented needs has been matched by an equally unprecedented response. As of today, donors have made available $US 785 million in voluntary contributions. I am deeply thankful for this support. I see it not only as a sign of confidence in UNHCR but also as a clear commitment on the part of the international community to participate in an effort of solidarity and burden-sharing to alleviate the plight and promote solutions for the some 17 million refugees under our care. The contribution of the countries of asylum to this international effort is immeasurable.

Greater support brings with it greater expectations and greater demands. I am acutely conscious that our performance must measure up to the confidence which the international community has placed in us. You will appreciate, Mr. Chairman, the strains on a bureaucracy that in the course of 15 months has had three High Commissioners and, within a period of 18 months, has gone through a retrenchment exercise followed by around 60 per cent increase in activity. The administrative and management requirements to respond to the record needs this past year have been staggering.

I have been impressed by the tolerance, patience and commitment of UNHCR staff and their families during these turbulent times. Many of them risk their personal safety in difficult field situations. Some have paid dearly for it. Mr. Chairman, I should like to record a special tribute to six Somali and Ethiopian colleagues who lost their lives during the recent upheavals in their countries. There is no doubt that UNHCR's effectiveness depends heavily on the commitment and contributions of a motivated staff, guided by a competent group of senior managers at the appropriate level as I have recommended in the note on the review of the classification of the directors' posts. I am eminently aware of the legitimate concerns in areas of staff welfare and job satisfaction. There are a range of personnel issues that need to be addressed but which have gone unattended as we have concentrated on meeting the demands of an exceptional year. I am determined to take a comprehensive look at these issues in the coming months.

Mr. Chairman, as the 40th Anniversary Year of UNHCR draws to a close, issues of migration and refugees have become an increasingly important and essential component in formulating a more open and just world order. The ending of the Cold War has placed before us new challenges. On the one hand, there are risks of further displacement as nationalistic, ethnic and religious tensions flare up. On the other hand, there are immense opportunities for solutions in the changing climate of multilaterism. At the same time, stagnant refugee situations of Afghans, Mozambicans and Liberians, fester, eroding human dignity and impeding regional peace. At this time, I believe that UNHCR must chart a forward-looking strategy which focuses on prevention and solutions and addresses the totality of the refugee problem from exodus and relief to return and reintegration. My strategic plan has three aims.

My first aim is to improve UNHCR's emergency preparedness and response mechanism. In addition to building its own capacity, UNHCR is also entering into agreements with Scandinavian Governments and non-governmental organizations for access to their capacities both in terms of staff and equipment. The proposals presented to you at this session will not only enable UNHCR to respond to refugee emergencies, but can contribute also to a United Nations system-wide emergency response in case of large and complex humanitarian disasters. I have already had the opportunity to pronounce myself on this latter issue during our meeting last June, and also at the Economic and Social Council session in July. Let me simply reiterate that, based on our recent experience in the Persian Gulf area and the Horn of Africa, I see a clear need for an arrangement that fully utilizes the political and humanitarian potential of the United Nations, while assuring a coordinated operational response to complex emergencies. The goal of coordination should be to facilitate cooperation and not to add to the bureaucratic layer of control. It should be based on a stand-by arrangement for funds, personnel and equipment and should be supported by a standing inter-agency secretariat.

In responding to emergencies, we must not forget those who are the most vulnerable, in other words the women and children. With the example of the Coordinator for Refugee Women to inspire us, I intend to appoint a Coordinator for Refugee Children as soon as possible, thanks to the support of the Government of Norway. In the past few years, we have developed some useful policy guidelines on refugee women and children, but it is painfully obvious that the Office still has a long way to go in translating the policies into systematic, concrete action. I am committed to improving this important area of UNHCR activities.

Another vulnerable, yet overlooked, element in emergencies, as much as in ongoing refugee situations, is the environment. Economizing on refugee assistance in the short term may be prohibitively costly on the environment in the long run. The impact of large numbers of refugees on the environment in Malawi and Pakistan are but two examples. We need to give greater consideration to environmental issues in our assistance activities. Degradation of the environment may lead to displacement, and displacement may cause further degradation of the environment. Conversely, sustainable development may reduce displacement. I hope that next year's Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro will pay attention to the link between population movements, the environment and development.

My end goal is to pursue every opportunity for voluntary repatriation. In a world where most refugees are confined to over-crowded, makeshift camps in conditions as dismal - if not more dismal - than the situation they have fled, the right to return to one's homeland must be given as much recognition as the right to seek asylum abroad. Renewed confidence in the ability of the United Nations to tackle global challenges is opening up new prospects for peace around the world. The prevention and solution of refugee problems is inextricably linked to these peace-building and peace-keeping efforts. I see 1992 as the year for voluntary repatriation.

It is very encouraging that the prospects for the return of many refugees seem brighter today than in the past. But I am concerned about the kind of life to which they are expected to go back. In July this year I visited Ethiopia, and met many of the Ethiopians who had come back from Somalia. They had come home to escape fighting in Somalia and found themselves hungry and homeless upon return. They are back, but in the absence of prospects, the question is: for how long? Is the problem of displacement simply going to be shifted from one side of the border to the other? Are we going to be confronted with returnee emergencies just as we are now facing refugee emergencies? And at what cost to the fragile process of peace in these countries?

The country of origin must accept responsibility for its own citizens both in terms of conditions which avert forced exile and also which promote voluntary return. However, large-scale repatriation can only succeed if there is a concerted international effort to create proper conditions for return. Most of the countries to which refugees are returning or will return have been devastated by war. They already have large numbers of internally displaced persons, and little or no capacity to reabsorb those who left. Returning refugees can only be properly reintegrated if there are comprehensive programmes for political, economic, and social construction or reconstruction. As such, ensuring the success of voluntary repatriation goes beyond the mandate or resources of UNHCR alone. UNHCR's short-term relief and aid to returnees must be complemented by and integrated with the national development efforts for the entire population. UNHCR is not a development agency but I am determined to act as a catalyst, sensitizing, encouraging, cooperating with development organizations, donors and, most of all, the countries concerned. I am optimistic that the concept of returnee aid and development will attract much interest and support. Firstly, the country of origin would have a clear stake in seeing its citizens return and, in the process, act as a dynamo for local, regional or national development efforts. Secondly, I trust that development organizations and lending institutions will see an interest in contributing to humanitarian solutions which might provide more stability for long-term economic development. Thirdly, donors would wish to see their resources directed towards consolidation of lasting solutions rather than protracted care and maintenance programmes in countries of asylum. Through the note on voluntary repatriation I am providing some thoughts and ideas on this subject and look forward to further reflection with members of the Executive Committee.

My third objective is to promote solutions through preventive measures at the source of the problem. The first step in this approach must be to define who is in need of international protection. The Working Group on Solutions and Protection has helped to clarify some of the issues. But it is important for the international community to arrive at a clear and agreed understanding of who deserves international protection. People leave their homes not because they want to, but because they have to. Refugees flee to save their lives, economic migrants to improve the prospects of life. A better understanding of the different reasons that drive people to move will help to identify the ways in which outflows could possibly be prevented. I should clarify that I define prevention not as building barriers to stop people moving, but as removing or reducing the factors which force displacement.

The root causes of refugee flows are ultimately related to political conflict and violation of human rights. When people feel their lives and liberties are secure, they have no reason to seek asylum elsewhere. The responsibility as well as the capacity for addressing these root causes lies with Governments and bodies other than UNHCR. But I firmly believe that UNHCR must promote and assist such a course. We must be prepared not only to switch resources as necessary from the country of asylum to the country of origin but also to develop the necessary tools for effective action to avoid refugee flows. Among these tools are: one: closer cooperation with human rights bodies and participation in wider early-warning activities. Two: developing country of origin database. We have already started work on it. Not only will it help develop action to avoid outflows but will also help us to provide advice on refugee status determination, the application of cessation clauses and the "safe country" concept. Three: closer contacts with development and lending institutions. Four: promotion of mass communication campaigns to address the expectations and misconceptions of those seeking to move. We are about to launch a new mass communication strategy in Europe, capitalizing on our experience from Viet Nam.

In fact, many of these tools have been tested in South-East Asia under the Comprehensive Plan for Action. They have been refined and reapplied in our approach to the problem in Albania. I see them as important elements in any strategy to address potential or actual population movements in Europe.

At our June meeting, I said that an important preventive measure must be to respond to the needs of the internally displaced. Their plight is as compelling as that of those who cross national frontiers. The problem, however, goes beyond the capacity of any one agency. What is needed is a coordinated and concerted response from the United Nations system, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and non-governmental organizations. UNHCR's experience, past and present, on behalf of internally displaced persons could serve as useful models for such concerted efforts. The ONUSAL operation in El Salvador could also offer interesting pioneering lessons in this regard. In my view, respect for national sovereignty should not restrict but should rather be reconciled with the protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced. We must build on principles of humanitarian law, human rights and refugee law to develop a legal framework and operational guidelines for humanitarian access to those in need.

In developing our strategy on prevention and solutions, let me emphasize that UNHCR should not and will not abrogate its responsibility to promote a liberal asylum policy. At a time when respect for human rights and the rule of law are gaining universal ground, I would like to see a greater emphasis - and acceptance - of UNHCR's supervisory protection role in favour of refugees. With this aim in mind, we have begun a review of our resources and structures in Europe, so that new policy priorities can be established and necessary changes introduced to assure efficiency and effectiveness. It should be underlined that in attempting to restructure our existing resources, we are determined to do our utmost to avoid incurring additional costs.

In this context, I believe it is crucial for UNHCR to develop a higher public profile. An effective public information strategy is an essential tool for protection. Public opinion and public policy are shaped by mass media and statements by policy makers. I am deeply concerned to sense a rising xenophobic mood in various countries, and I strongly urge all leaders to use their power and influence to combat these dangerous trends. On its part, UNHCR must contribute to a more informed and credible public debate by providing reliable facts and figures. Thus, we have already begun work within UNHCR to help improve our reporting on refugee statistics.

In concluding, let me summarize: our ultimate goal must be to act in such a way that people are not forced to flee or, alternatively, that solutions can be found so that people cease to be refugees. Some of these activities fall squarely within the competence of UNHCR, others require mobilization of and cooperation with Governments, other United Nations agencies, intergovernmental agencies such as IOM, regional organizations, such as the Organization of African Unity, the Arab League, the Islamic Conference, the Economic Community, Council of Europe, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States, with ICRC, and of course with non-governmental organizations, who remain our unfailing and invaluable partners. A truly comprehensive international effort is required. I take the presence of so many of you today as a clear indication of interest and readiness to join in such efforts.

UNHCR was created 40 years ago in 1951 at the height of the East-West confrontation in order to protect and assist those fleeing totalitarian persecution. Eventually, the desire of people to move across borders to enjoy freer and better opportunities forced the repressive regimes in Eastern Europe to change. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 was one of the most significant events symbolizing the end of the Cold War. The one lesson we can learn from the past is that building walls is no answer against those who feel compelled to flee. The answer should be to build bridges - between West and East, North and South, allowing democracy, human rights and prosperity to spread. As we meet in the 40th anniversary year, I commit UNHCR to a course that will lead to a more open and just world order in which many refugees will find their way back home and no one would be forced to flee.