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Let's translate talk into action, says Lubbers at "Convention Plus" Forum

Let's translate talk into action, says Lubbers at "Convention Plus" Forum

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers has opened the second Forum on his "Convention Plus" initiative by calling for states to translate generic understandings into concrete action to find pro-active solutions for protracted and evolving refugee situations.
12 March 2004
Returnee boys threshing wheat in Qala-i-Naw, Afghanistan, where UNHCR is exploring ways of implementing "Convention Plus" initiatives.

GENEVA, March 12 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers today opened the second Forum devoted to his so-called "Convention Plus" initiative by stressing the need to translate talk into action.

More than 50 states, the European Commission, between 30 and 40 non-governmental organisations and a number of other international and intergovernmental organisations attended the full day of discussions in Geneva.

The Convention Plus initiative, which the High Commissioner launched in 2003, aims both to improve refugee protection worldwide and provide a more systematic and structured approach to finding lasting solutions to refugee situations - in particular protracted refugee situations.

UNHCR estimates that more than 9 million of today's refugees - or around 70 percent of the total - have already been in exile for more than five years.

At present, the Convention Plus initiative is following two distinct but linked tracks: the first is devoted to developing generic multilateral agreements covering three major themes: namely resettlement; the targeting of development assistance to achieve durable solutions for refugees; and clarification of the responsibilities of states with regard to so-called "secondary movements" (when refugees and asylum seekers move from one country of refuge to another).

The work on these proposed generic agreements is being facilitated by five states, all of whom made presentations on Friday, informing the other participants about what they had achieved so far and where they were heading.

Canada reported considerable progress on reaching agreement on a framework document on the strategic use of resettlement; Switzerland and South Africa opened a lively debate on secondary movements; and Denmark and Japan presented a paper on the targeting of development assistance. Core groups of other states have been formed around each theme and have been meeting separately over the past two weeks.

In a constructive and free-flowing debate, numerous other states gave their views on each of the three generic themes, as did the NGOs, and the European Commission and other observers.

However, in his opening statement, the High Commissioner stressed that "while over the past year our efforts have largely focused on the generic strands, we are now shifting our focus to implementation. Why? Key here is that understandings and commitments of States have to be translated into action if they are to result in more durable solutions and more effective burden-sharing. If not," he warned, "generic understandings are useless."

The second track of the Convention Plus initiative is devoted to identifying specific situations that would benefit from a carefully tailored special agreement, which might include some or all of the elements proposed under the three generic issues.

Speaking later in the day, Assistant UN High Commissioner for Refugees Kamel Morjane pointed out that complex special agreements geared to finding solutions to a particular refugee situation have taken place on an ad hoc basis in the past. He cited three examples: the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action that led to the solution of the Vietnamese boat people crisis; the CIREFCA process, also launched in 1989, that helped consolidate peace in Central America through durable solutions backed up by integrated development; and the CIS Conference process, launched in 1996, that sought to address the complex web of recent and long-standing displacements, return movements and other related issues facing the newly-independent states that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"A common characteristic of these experiences is that they were largely reactive and motivated by geopolitical concerns," said Morjane. "They were also characterised by tremendous multilateral cooperation. Unfortunately, however, international cooperation has not always been as effective as it could be, and comprehensive arrangements have not been pursued even for refugee situations that warranted them. The large number of refugees languishing in protracted situations is a grim reminder of this."

At another meeting earlier this week, the High Commissioner outlined the prospects that are opening up, to various degrees, for solutions to nine refugee situations in Africa. Potentially these could involve the voluntary return and reintegration of up to 2 million refugees and millions more internally displaced people over the next few years. The likelihood of successful voluntary repatriation and durable reintegration of these people may be greatly enhanced as the Convention Plus approach is translated into action.

Delegates at Friday's Forum also heard that Convention Plus initiatives are already being explored in connection with Somalia - with detailed discussions already taking place about the possibility of developing a Comprehensive Plan of Action for Somalia. Convention Plus concepts are also being explored in relation to current and future activities in Afghanistan and the neighbouring region, where a fundamental change has taken place, offering considerable opportunities, after an evolving refugee crisis that lasted for a quarter of a century. Other promising areas that were mentioned include the Nepal/Bhutan situation and the Great Lakes region of Africa.

"This is where Convention Plus has real and tangible value," said Morjane. "It offers a means of addressing both protracted and evolving situations in a proactive, rather than reactive, manner. It calls on us to examine current realities and opportunities and determine which situations can be resolved through a comprehensive holistic approach."