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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Global Launch of the Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeals for 2000, Geneva, 23 November 1999

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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Global Launch of the Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeals for 2000, Geneva, 23 November 1999

23 November 1999

Excellencies, Secretary-General, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today's theme is "the forgotten people". I will start by saying that for us, the humanitarian agencies, there are no "forgotten people". As we speak, in places as diverse as Kosovo, Timor, Sierra Leone, or the North Caucasus, our colleagues are on the ground, with the people who suffer, trying to relieve their plight, to help them stand on their feet, to give them hope. How could we forget people?

However, the world's attention span is very short. Even the most extreme images of suffering and violence fade in the collective memory, as they disappear from TV screens. And worse, when conflict resolution processes take time to bear fruit - when peace processes are protracted for years, as is the case in many situations today - the focus of international attention moves away from crises. With the shift in attention, funding also declines - especially the funding of humanitarian programmes. And yet, on the ground, people continue to suffer.

Last spring, for example, refugees from Kosovo were at the centre of the world's attention. There was intense media interest also in East Timor, and the plight of displaced people from Chechnya in the North Caucasus - where I was last week - continues to make headlines. This is positive. But while the world was busy concentrating on these crises, other disasters - smaller in scale but equally urgent - were going unnoticed. Many of you perhaps do not know that this year there has been a very serious refugee influx from Congo Brazzaville into Gabon, or a fresh refugee outflow from Burundi to Tanzania. In another, sad category, there are emergencies that are simply too old to be remembered - Sudan, Angola, Afghanistan: some of the worst humanitarian crises in today's world are virtually forgotten. The greatest danger of these situations is that humanitarian efforts become a routine, while political efforts to find solutions to the causes of humanitarian problems are stalled.

On the achievement of real, durable peace depend the solutions to humanitarian problems, and the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees. For example, I am very worried that insufficient political energy - if I may use this term - is being deployed by the international community to ensure the success of the Lomé and Lusaka ceasefire agreements in Africa - in terms of political pressure, support to peacekeeping arrangements, and development aid to back up peace-building. If these agreements fail, we shall have more conflict, more violence, more refugees.

And then there are situations in which peace has been achieved - politically speaking - but poverty, inequality, ethnic tensions, and violations of human rights have not been eliminated, thus leaving the door open to fresh conflict, and fresh displacement. It is the case of Liberia, for example, of Rwanda, of Bosnia. Peace building requires sustained economic and social support, or else the affected country will remain unstable. This is of particular concern to UNHCR because it frequently occurs in situations of divided communities to which refugees return after conflicts have ended.

In these situations of "forgotten peace", the gap between humanitarian and reconstruction activities is very wide. On our side, I can assure you that together with the World Bank and UNDP, and a number of concerned governments, we have promoted discussions on how to set up coordination and funding mechanisms to facilitate the transition from humanitarian to development aid. These discussions, the so-called "Brookings" process, have yielded some interesting ideas, which we plan to implement in selected countries in support of existing transition arrangements.

We live in a world which is too busy to notice and remember everything. I am worried that in our age of rapid and global communication, only "visible" tragedies will benefit from the active involvement of the international community; only those crises which are strategically or geographically closer to the industrialised world, or that are so big and dramatic that they cannot be ignored, will be tackled. In other words, the attention that we devote to situations such as in Kosovo will continue to be disproportionate - in relative terms - to any effort made to resolve other problems, especially in Africa.

This is why we should be grateful to the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs for today's initiative, and to the Secretary-General for supporting it. If you look at the situations covered by the appeals, you will see that many "forgotten situations" figure prominently on their list. UNHCR is especially interested in a good response to the Consolidated Appeal Process: over a third of our 933m USD budget for 2000 is presented in today's requests. This third covers situations for which we always have to make extraordinary fund raising efforts: Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan.... The documents before you, therefore, are not simply appeals for funds; they are also appeals not to forget situations which have slipped out of the evening news, but in which millions of people continue to die, get sick and suffer. wish to ask you - governments, but also the media - to pay more attention to those situations.

The Consolidated Appeal Process is a valuable effort, on the part of the agencies, to streamline the presentation of their needs, and to facilitate the task of supporting governments. Governments should look at it as a collective endeavour of different agencies: and they should respond to our requests taking into account this complementarity. For example, if WFP requests resources to buy food for refugees in a camp, and this appeal is not met, UNHCR and UNICEF will have serious problems implementing programmes in that camp, even if they are funded. If I may conclude with a sports metaphor, the ball is in your court. Governments will facilitate our task - enormously - not only by generously funding our programmes, but also by making predictable and flexible funding decisions.

Our presence here today indicates that we have a joint responsibility for the people we care for. None of them must be forgotten. This may require some less visible, less secure funding contributions. But no investment is too risky if it contributes to achieve peace, to consolidate peace, and, above all, to save lives.

Thank you.