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States renew commitment to refugees and '51 Convention

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States renew commitment to refugees and '51 Convention

13 December 2001 Also available in:

GENEVA - Governments from around the world on Thursday renewed their commitment to protecting refugees and reaffirmed the central role of the 1951 Refugee Convention as the cornerstone of that effort.

A landmark declaration issued at the close of an unprecedented ministerial meeting of signatories to the Convention recognized its "enduring importance" and the "continuing relevance and resilience" of the rights and principles it embodies. The participating governments pledged to uphold these rights and to carry out their obligations under the Convention.

In all, 156 nations sent delegates - including 70 ministers - to the meeting, which was hosted by the government of Switzerland and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Among those attending were Belarus, Moldova and Saint Kitts and Nevis - three states that acceded to the Convention during the run-up to the meeting. A total of 143 states have now acceded to the 1951 Convention.

The ministerial meeting was the first-ever gathering of signatories to the 1951 Convention. It was convened as part of a process of Global Consultations, launched by UNHCR in 2001 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention. Participants at the ministerial meeting warmly welcomed the Global Consultations as an opportunity to debate and devise creative approaches to some of the complex problems affecting refugees in the modern world.

"A few years ago this Convention was under attack, and people were wondering whether it would survive. But we see here that nobody is questioning the Convention's validity." said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers. "The Convention will survive. It will go on."

While confirming support for refugees and the Convention, the meeting also highlighted challenges faced by governments in protecting refugees in today's increasingly complex international environment. Participants pointed to difficulties in dealing with mixed flows of people - those fleeing persecution alongside those seeking economic opportunities - and in quickly returning those found not to be refugees. They also underlined the practical challenges involved in coping with mass influxes of refugees and called for greater international cooperation and responsibility-sharing. Several States raised concerns about worldwide increases in human smuggling. States agreed to seek ways to strengthen and build on the foundation provided by the Convention.

After September 11, security concerns have become even more central in the policies and actions of countries around the world. Participants emphasized that while security is of great concern, this should not undermine protection for victims of persecution, and that the 1951 Convention is not a haven for terrorists.

The meeting also focused attention on lasting solutions for refugees, particularly through voluntary return whenever possible.

Many governments called for increased financial contributions to UNHCR to make sure it is fully equipped to fulfil its role in assisting and protecting some 22 million people worldwide. States also repeatedly voiced their support and respect for refugees and the valuable contributions they can make to the societies that host them - a point personified by the President of Latvia, Ms. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, herself a refugee for more than two decades, who made an impassioned statement to the assembled delegates.

"It is one thing to make a commitment here, but tomorrow we will face the practical problems again of how to implement it," Lubbers said. "Over the past two days, we have emphatically confirmed that the Convention is as strong and vibrant as ever. Now we need to make sure it is implemented effectively."

The recommendations from the meeting and other Global Consultation discussions will feed into an Agenda for Protection - a set of specific actions, which will serve as a guide for UNHCR and an inspiration for states to strengthen refugee protection in the coming years. The Agenda for Protection will be finalized at the end of the Global Consultations process in mid-2002.