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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-sixth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 16 October 1995

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-sixth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 16 October 1995

16 October 1995
Dilemmas of ProtectionThe Challenges of SolutionsNew Dimensions of ProtectionReintegration and ResourcesImperative of PreventionLooking Ahead: Management Strategies

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to welcome you to the forty-sixth session of the Executive Committee. May I extend a special welcome to the delegations of Bangladesh, India and the Russian Federation. Their presence here, at their first regular session of the Executive Committee, symbolizes the global nature of refugee concerns and the universal support for the mandate of my Office.

I should like to thank the outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Kamal of Pakistan, who, despite the competing claims on his time in New York, has made a special effort to come to Geneva to open the meeting. Let me congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, and the new Bureau on your election. As the representative of a country which has been a strong and constant supporter of UNHCR, and as a treasured friend of the Office, we look forward to continue working closely with you.

I would also like to welcome our special guest, His Excellency Dr. Salim A. Salim, the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity. His presence here today is testimony to the close cooperation which the OAU and UNHCR have enjoyed for more than a quarter century. It is also indicative of the importance of Africa to the work of my Office. Africa hosts more refugees and internally displaced persons than any other continent of the world. Africa is also the scene of voluntary repatriation today. Of the close to two million refugees who returned home in 1994, 1.5 million were in Africa. Out of 18 planned repatriations in 1996, 9 are foreseen in Africa. I count on the OAU's conflict resolution mechanism and its leadership to help create and maintain the momentum on the voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Mr. Chairman, UNHCR has been confronted with massive emergencies every year since I became High Commissioner in 1991. In recent weeks almost half a million people were displaced by war and violence in former Yugoslavia. The urgency of saving lives in the course of the past year has been matched by the pressures to find solutions and the predicaments of ensuring protection, whether in refugee camps or returnee communities, in situations of open conflict or fragile peace. In a world in which war deliberately targets civilians and peace fails to bring security, UNHCR's dual mandate of international protection and solutions has been severely tested this past year in almost every region.

In the aftermath of the emergency in the Great Lakes region we sought to respond to the strong pressure for early return, while continuing to take care of two million refugees and remaining vigilant to new risks of displacement. In Angola, thanks to the implementation of the political settlement, we have launched our operation to assist some 311,000 refugees to return home by mid-1997. In Sudan we have embarked on voluntary repatriation to Eritrea and Ethiopia. In West Africa we have tried to nurture solutions. In contrast, in southeast Asia, central America, Tajikistan and Mozambique, where solutions have taken root successfully, we have grappled with ways to phase down or move out. In the Middle East we have been encouraged by the evolution of peace and remain ready to play our role in line with our mandate and in cooperation with other organizations. Elsewhere, the picture has been mixed. In Afghanistan renewed violence has set back the flow of repatriation. In former Yugoslavia peace talks have offered the first glimmer of hope in months, although I fear that in the short term there could be more displacement as people are forced to move to accommodate territorial adjustments.

The thrust of these various developments has been to put the issue of solutions, and more precisely repatriation, even higher on UNHCR's agenda. One important statistic shows the extent to which we have shifted from a bias on exile to a focus on the country of origin. Of the 27.4 million persons of concern to UNHCR today, only about 14.5 million are refugees. The rest include 4 million returnees, 5.4 million internally displaced persons and 3.5 million civilians affected by conflict. Almost half of the population of concern to UNHCR is thus to be found within their own country.

These statistics also reveal that while the number of refugees has declined, the numbers and categories of those in need of international protection and assistance are in fact expanding. They illustrate that the pursuit of solutions without regard to protection will not take us far, and that international protection is a more complex task than merely assuring asylum. The two arms of my mandate are fundamentally linked. The objective of protection must be, not to perpetuate exile, but to encourage solutions. But if solutions are not approached from the perspective of protection, in other words, if they fail to protect the basic human rights of the individuals - then they will be neither effective nor permanent. Extending from flight, through exile, to return and reintegration, protection principles provide the over-arching framework for the prevention and solution of refugee problems.

In my statement today I should like to focus on our efforts to develop a new paradigm of protection oriented towards solutions. How do we seize the political impulse for solutions while retaining the humanitarian imperative for protection? What are the prospects and the possibilities which inspire us, the dilemmas and difficulties which confront us? Externally, what are the partnerships we must cultivate? Internally, what are the management priorities and structures we must establish?

Dilemmas of Protection

Mr. Chairman, one of the most difficult problems confronting my Office in recent years has been the decline of asylum, even on a temporary basis. Many countries are openly admitting their weariness with large numbers of refugees and blatantly closing borders. Others are more insidiously introducing laws and procedures which effectively deny admission to their territory. This year was particularly significant in that developments in the Great Lakes region demonstrated that even the proverbial African generosity towards refugees has become strained.

The threat to asylum has taken on a global character, affecting both the developing as well as the industrialized world. In major incidents in Africa and Europe in recent months, borders have been closed to refugees fleeing danger. Thousands of refugees and displaced persons have found themselves caught in the midst of conflict and violence. Some have been killed, others have been brutally attacked and terrorized, or forced to return to danger.

Mr. Chairman, international protection reflects the convergence of humanitarian and political interests. In many circumstances asylum is not only the most powerful tool of protection but also the most pragmatic, especially when provided on a temporary basis. This is why UNHCR requested governments to provide temporary protection to those fleeing the conflict in former Yugoslavia, and has urged them to continue it for the time being. The possibility of temporary asylum encourages a phased and orderly approach to repatriation, and thereby assures greater stability for peace and progress in the country of origin. I call upon the members of this Committee to support our endeavours to ensure respect for the institution of asylum, at least on a temporary basis, for those fleeing persecution, conflict and civil strife.

Mr. Chairman, I am fully conscious that the decline of asylum cannot be arrested simply by appealing to the generosity of states. It must be addressed, on the one hand, by action to enable countries to receive refugees, and on the other, by initiatives to find solutions to refugee problems, and where possible to prevent the outbreak of new crises.

Peoples and governments around the world have shown and continue to show remarkable hospitality to millions of refugees, despite their own political, social, economic and environmental constraints. The costs of hosting large numbers of refugees are not always measurable in dollar terms. UNHCR's refugee assistance does not redress the collateral impact of refugees on the host countries. If governments are to continue to grant asylum, greater attention must be given by the international community to addressing the concerns of affected host communities, and strengthening their capacity and willingness to cope with population movements.

One area which has attracted attention in the aftermath of the Rio Summit has been environmental damage caused by large concentrations of refugee population. In the light of those concerns UNHCR is proposing a reformulation of its environmental policy. The objective is to make the environmental dimension an integral aspect of our operations.

Nor can we ignore the security implications of large-scale refugee flows. Indeed, the security dimension of today's refugee problems underscores both the decline of asylum as well as the drive towards solutions. In an effort to assist governments to meet their international obligation to refugees, UNHCR strengthened the capacity to maintain law and order in the refugee camps in Tanzania and eastern Zaire. During my visit to Kivu in early September, I saw for myself the improved situation, thanks to the Zairian security personnel deployed with UNHCR's assistance and the international security advisors seconded to UNHCR by governments.

Insecurity in refugee camps is not only a matter of law and order but also of maintaining the civilian character of the camps, which is a fundamental principle of international protection. Although the primary obligation lies with the authorities granting asylum, UNHCR will do whatever it can within its mandate and in line with its expertise to help ensure respect for the principle, including seeking the relocation of camps if necessary.

The Challenges of Solutions

Increased assistance to host countries alone, however, will not meet the demands of maintaining asylum. Whether in southeast Asia or Central Africa, the Caribbean or the Balkans, the universal reality is that protection abroad cannot be assured without a parallel effort to find solutions at home. Mr. Chairman, as refugees grow more impatient to return home, as Governments become more reluctant to grant asylum, and donors find other calls on their purse, how long can we wait for solutions to materialize? What are the parameters of UNHCR's mandate to promote solutions? What are the challenges we face in pursuing them?

In some parts of the world, political events may be turning the tide away from human suffering to homecoming. In others, it may take longer. However, in none of these instances is return likely to be under ideal conditions. In many it will be dogged by political insecurity and economic uncertainty. Anti-personnel mines are a major obstacle to returns. I am therefore disappointed the Vienna Conference failed to make progress on this issue.

For UNHCR, the challenge of solutions lies in seizing the opportunities, while remaining alert to the dangers. It lies in ensuring that protection principles, not political expediency, guide the pursuit of humanitarian solutions. Working closely with political and peace-keeping operations, for instance in Rwanda, Liberia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the CIS, we have sought to inject humanitarian concerns into the political discourse, and to reinforce our capacity to carry out our protection and assistance activities. The partnership has been fruitful, but obviously the humanitarian and strategic objectives have not always coincided. The relationship, particularly with the military, has at times created pressures on our humanitarian mandate.

In some cases, as in Angola and Tajikistan, we have reaped the benefits of our cooperation. In a few, such as the Caucasus, humanitarian solutions have become hostage to the lack of progress on parallel political negotiations, although I believe we are playing a meaningful role in that sub-region by assisting displaced populations. In other regions, for other reasons, the situation of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal continues to suffer from a stalemate, while repatriation to Afghanistan has stalled, prolonging the refugee burden of Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan. We need to look at fresh strategies to break the impasse.

Ultimately, the challenge of solutions is not only to ensure that the humanitarian issues are on the political agenda but that those who return feel secure in their own homes.

New Dimensions of Protection

Protection needs do not disappear when people repatriate. On the contrary, they tend to resurface in more complex forms in the country of origin, as the problem of the internally displaced has shown, whether in Rwanda or the Russian Federation. This has given a new dimension to our protection responsibilities and has led us to interpret our mandate for solutions in a protection oriented but proactive manner. Just as we no longer wait for refugees to cross the border but are increasingly involved with the internally displaced in order to avert outflow, we can no longer passively wait for conditions to change so that refugees can volunteer to return. Instead, we must work actively to create the conditions conducive to their safe return. It is important therefore that the protection debate moves on from interpreting voluntary repatriation solely in terms of the expression of individual will to the creation of conditions of safety - in the refugee camps, in the reception centres and in the home areas.

Rwanda shows the dilemmas of this approach, but also the way in which we have sought to overcome them. It is clear that in the longer term, the answer in the Great Lakes region lies in a comprehensive political solution. In the short term, however, I do believe that progress on humanitarian issues through voluntary and safe return can contribute to the political process, while easing the humanitarian crisis. It is this conviction that guided us in organizing the Bujumbura conference jointly with the OAU last February. The Bujumbura Plan of Action provides a comprehensive framework for solutions involving countries of asylum and origin as well as other interested Governments.

Although I was disappointed at the failure to implement the Plan earlier, I believe that my recent mission, followed by the convening of the Tripartite Commission in Geneva at the end of September, has helped to create a momentum in favour of voluntary repatriation. Zaire has made clear its intention to deal with those who block repatriation. Rwanda for its part has unequivocally recognized the right of the refugees to return, and expressed its commitment to improve the reception and security of returnees, including full access for international monitoring. It would clearly reassure the camp population if the Rwandese Government were to define the different levels of responsibility in last years genocide and examine specific measures in response to lower levels of responsibility. I was encouraged by the Governments declared intention to proceed along those lines.

In the former Yugoslavia, assisting the victims has never been an end in itself for us. Our goal was and remains to help them return safely to their homes or to find new homes for those for whom return is not feasible. Last Tuesday at the meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group of the International Conference on Yugoslavia, I reiterated UNHCR's willingness to promote the organized return of refugees and displaced persons, in keeping with its role as the UN humanitarian lead agency and in cooperation with our sister organizations. At the same time I stressed the importance of including humanitarian issues in the peace negotiations. People must not be used as pawns to further military and political interests. All returns must respect internationally accepted principles. The continued gross violations of human rights, ethnic cleansing and forcible return of refugees and displaced persons underline the importance of a firm commitment by all parties to human rights and humanitarian principles, and of international monitoring to ensure their compliance.

Mr. Chairman, in many situations people want to return home but are afraid to do so. Our negotiations to obtain the guarantees on safety, our presence in the camps to inform the refugees, and in the areas of origin to reassure them are not only the prerequisites to successful repatriation, but the predominant elements of our mandate for protection and solutions.

International presence in the country of origin is an important confidence-building measure, both for returnees and the internally displaced. It has been instrumental in persuading the refugees to return from Bangladesh to Myanmar. I am pleased to report that more than 200,000 refugees have returned home so far. I hope the remaining 50,000 will repatriate over the course of the coming months, allowing us to phase down in Bangladesh while maintaining our presence in the areas of origin in Myanmar until reintegration is completed.

Another example is Tajikistan, where UNHCR's mobile monitoring teams helped to stabilize the areas of origin and encouraged the vast majority of the refugees and displaced persons to return home safely. We closed the operation recently, successfully handing over the human rights aspects to the OSCE, and the rehabilitation issues to UNDP and other development actors.

I welcome the important operational role of UN human rights monitors as part of the collaborative effort to create safe conditions in countries such as Rwanda, El Salvador and Guatemala. However, the recent killing of returnees in Guatemala has underscored the difficulties of ensuring safety in the country of origin. I have noted the prompt action by the Government to prevent recurrences. Obviously the success of a proactive solution-oriented approach is directly proportionate to the political commitment of the governments concerned.

Reintegration and Resources

Mr. Chairman, viable solutions demand that efforts to safeguard human rights be paralleled by endeavours to rehabilitate socio-economic conditions. As you know, UNHCR has relied on the model of small, community based quick impact projects to spark rehabilitation, in situations as varied as Mozambique and Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Central America. Just as we have collaborated with political actors to ensure that humanitarian concerns are injected in the peace process, we have cooperated with development organizations like UNDP and financial institutions like the World Bank, to incorporate our reintegration efforts into the larger rehabilitation and development plans. However, as we try to phase down in Mozambique, the challenge is to ensure that others have a stake in the reintegration process and will continue when we leave. To further this goal, we are embarking on a consultative process with the World Bank to identify concrete strategies for specific countries.

At a time when development assistance is shrinking and humanitarian needs are expanding, a third window for financing emergency rehabilitation activities is needed. It would allow donors to channel resources from both humanitarian and development funds, and for organizations, whether humanitarian or development, to utilize them. In this way both immediate rehabilitation and longer term reconstruction needs could be addressed in the recovery process.

The issue of resources is critical when it comes to post-conflict rebuilding. It is tragic, therefore, that our programme in Mozambique is among those most strapped for cash. Nothing is more critical, however, than the funding shortfall of US$ 50 million for the Rwanda Burundi Emergency Operation, which leaves us with very little flexibility to adapt either to increased repatriation or potential exodus.

However, I am pleased to report that the overall level of financial contributions to UNHCR for 1995 has been impressive, totalling US$ 757 million, of which US$ 296 million is for General Programmes. This is roughly equivalent to the pledges made at this point last year. As UNHCR's total budget reaches US$ 1.3 billion for the second consecutive year, I am the first to appreciate the enormousness of the demands we continue to make on our donors, large and small. I am very grateful for your generosity and understanding.

Imperative of Prevention

The gap between expanding needs and limited resources reinforces the importance of the search for an effective strategy of prevention. In an effort to promote a preventive approach to refugee problems, UNHCR has moved towards greater involvement with the internally displaced, particularly in the CIS region. Within the framework of an inter-agency effort and based on a clear division of responsibilities, we successfully responded to the emergency needs of those displaced from the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation this past year. Having boosted the local response capacity, UNHCR is now gradually phasing down its activities.

True prevention means strengthening the will and capacity of Governments, individually and collectively, to preempt the reasons which force people to move. This is the underlying thrust of our efforts in the CIS and the neighbouring countries, where we have embarked on an ambitious project to draw up a regional action plan to address past, present and potential displacement. Further to General Assembly resolution 49/173 of 23 December 1994, UNHCR, together with IOM and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE, has organized several sub-regional meetings in preparation for the regional conference, hopefully in mid-1996. The Conference will adopt a declaration of principles as well as a programme of action. The process is proving to be invaluable in developing a regional strategy to avert population displacement in a part of the world marked by ethnic tensions.

Mr. Chairman, the challenge of prevention, as of solution, is ultimately protection. Early international presence can sometimes have a preventive impact, as was our experience in Tajikistan. However, if we are to break the pattern of coerced displacement, the security of States must presuppose the security of people within those States. A major test for the coming decades, as I see it, will be to develop a humanitarian perspective of security. While UNHCR, with its limited mandate and resources, can make a modest contribution to that process, the primary responsibility for prevention, as for security, is clearly a political one.

Looking Ahead: Management Strategies

Four years ago, UNHCR launched its strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions. Today, the review of our challenges shows the dramatic transformation in the approach to refugee problems. The second edition of the State of the Worlds Refugees, which comes out next month, highlights this solution-oriented approach. In taking the new direction, my Office has enjoyed the full confidence of the Executive Committee, for which I am grateful.

Mr. Chairman, I have just returned from New York where the UN is preparing to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. It is a sobering moment as Member States evaluate the UN's performance for the past five decades and reassess their own expectations for the future. Spurred by the financial crisis, the issue of reform is high on the agenda. The future of the UN will inevitably affect UNHCR. We too must prepare for a vigorous reappraisal of how we work. If we are to do our job properly, we too must use our resources more effectively. Consolidating what we have achieved so far, I believe that for the coming year, we must set the following four priorities:

Firstly, we must revitalize our protection policies and strategies. They must both reflect the dimension of solutions, and respond to the needs of a growing range of beneficiaries. We are being compelled often to provide refuge in the midst of conflict and promote repatriation in the midst of insecurity. How can protection strategies be reformulated to take account of these realities? How can we better help States, whether of asylum or origin, to meet their obligations in the light of these constraints? As a first step we are setting up an internal working group to look at the problems in Africa. We hope to undertake a similar exercise also for Europe. Given the dominance of the domestic agenda in many countries, mobilizing public opinion as a tool of protection will be an important element of the strategy.

In refining our approach to protection and solutions, we have not overlooked resettlement. Let me thank the governments and NGOs for supporting the consultations we have launched, and for their positive response to our resettlement appeal on former Yugoslavia.

Secondly, we must rethink the way we plan. The dynamics of displacement today require a planning approach which is comprehensive and integrated: comprehensive in covering the sequence of refugee flows from prevention to emergency response to solutions, and integrated in bringing together the entire spectrum of issues and actors.

Planning for partnership is vital. Given the multiplicity of organizations and agencies on the humanitarian scene today, our objective is to increase the predictability of action for mutual support, and thereby create a better basis for cooperation and coordination. We have strengthened our dialogue with the political and peace-keeping arms of the United Nations. We have cooperated with DHA, and with the ICRC and IOM in their respective areas. We have refined the concept of service packages with Governments. We have further developed our operational agreement with WFP and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UNFPA. I will be signing an agreement also with UNICEF when I visit New York next month. As for our closest partners, the NGOs, we are following up on PARinAC recommendations at the field level. The increasingly important role of regional organizations in peace-making has added a new dimension to our partnership strategy, as has the growing interest of institutions such as the World Bank in refugee and returnee issues.

Thirdly, we must reinforce the proper implementation and monitoring of our policies, guidelines and programmes. This includes our ability to monitor and control our implementing partners. I see it as an important priority for the coming year.

One area where the gap between policy and action has constantly drawn the attention of this Committee is that of refugee women. The Beijing Conference highlighted the considerable achievements we have made but also our shortcomings. We are introducing a number of specific measures to increase action and accountability, including additional resources to the field and stronger follow-up mechanism at Headquarters. Furthermore, I have decided to reformulate UNHCR's recruitment policies to give priority to women professional staff in order to try to reach parity by the year 2000.

Fourthly, we must restructure the way in which we work so as to improve our delivery, accountability and performance, and build a capacity to contract and expand in response to operational demands.

I have taken a number of steps to achieve this goal, including strengthening the top management in UNHCR. In an emergency driven organization such as ours, innovation can easily lapse into improvisation in the absence of a policy planning framework. This is why you will recall last year I decided to appoint a Director for Policy Planning and Operations. Having assessed the value and the need for the function, I am requesting the creation of a post of Assistant High Commissioner at the Assistant Secretary-General level, to which I hope you will accede. Overseeing the Regional Bureaux, policy development and external relations, and supported by a revamped research and information capacity drawn from existing resources, the Assistant High Commissioner will act as the fulcrum for an integrated approach to policy, planning and operations in UNHCR.

Mr. Chairman, like so many others we must also learn to do better and more with less. I have requested the Deputy High Commissioner to lead a management review of our priorities, procedures and personnel so that we can ascertain how best to improve delivery and increase productivity while reducing costs. Although the ratio of administrative costs between the field and Headquarters has actually declined, our expanding operations worldwide have pushed our budget and our staff to levels at which they cannot be sustained for long. Growth has a high management price and I am acutely conscious of my responsibility to assess those costs and make the cuts. In the course of the past year we have taken a number of initiatives to streamline management, increase delegation to the field and utilize our resources better. One of the most significant steps we are taking is to prepare an information and communications systems plan which will take us into the twenty first century.

I hope that one important result of all these initiatives will be the down-sizing of Headquarters and the redeployment or reduction of staff in the field, based on improved forward planning and prioritization. As new operations open up, we must phase down elsewhere, as we did a few years ago in Cambodia and more recently in southern Africa. We expect dramatic reductions in Southeast Asia in 1996. The Comprehensive Plan of Action is in its final phase. However, some transitional arrangements may be still necessary to ensure the smooth conversion of the operation into a migration programme.

Obviously the key to productivity and performance lies in a highly trained, motivated and mobile staff. The reform of UNHCR's human resources management, particularly the implementation of the career management system and strengthening of staff training, remains high on my agenda. I should like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Dan Conway, the outgoing Director of the Human Resources Management Division, for his efforts. I know that, as always, I can count on the commitment, competence and creativity of UNHCR staff in making the adjustments.

Mr. Chairman, let me conclude by saying that the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations is an opportune moment for UNHCR also to reflect on where it is going and how it will get there. The United Nations is here to stay but the very nature of UNHCR's mandate ordains that we must disappear when our task is done. Yet, every day brings new challenges for us, ranging from peace in the Balkans to return in Rwanda and retrenchment in Asia. The imperative for action carries within it an impetus for change. While retaining the core of our principles and the thrust of our strategy, we must continuously revitalize the way we think and review the way we work. Our goal is to be a slimmer, trimmer organization, responsive to emergency needs, aggressive in the search for solutions and committed to protection. Our donors expect it, the countries of asylum and origin need it, and the refugees deserve it. In that process of constant renewal and change I know I can count on your support.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.