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"The Challenges to Humanity after the End of the Cold War" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Instituto Matías Romero, Mexico City, 25 November 1997

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"The Challenges to Humanity after the End of the Cold War" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Instituto Matías Romero, Mexico City, 25 November 1997

25 November 1997
New opportunities in the search for durable solutionsNew conflicts cause population displacementMeeting the challenges of the new environmentThe case of Guatemalan refugees in Mexico

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be given the chance to address this distinguished gathering at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The theme which has been proposed, "Challenges to Humanity after the End of the Cold War", is of great significance to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. My Office, as a humanitarian organization, must deal with many of the challenges which the world is facing in the global environment of the post-Cold War period. For decades our work was limited to providing an adequate response to the humanitarian needs of the victims. We are now compelled to become more active in promoting the search for political solutions to conflicts that give rise to population displacement in the first place.


The end of the Cold War made possible the resolution of a number of major refugee situations. After having assisted large groups of refugees in countries of asylum for years, sometimes for decades, we were able to resolve some long standing refugee crises: millions of people returned voluntarily, with UNHCR assistance, to Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Togo, Mali, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Iraq, Tajikistan and Cambodia, and of course in Central America, just to mention the largest repatriation operations in which UNHCR was involved during this period.

In all these countries, conflicts had been brought to an end, making it possible for refugees to return. In other countries, where peace-making efforts are on-going, refugees have been repatriated only to certain areas which they, and UNHCR, consider to be relatively safe: for example in Afghanistan, Somalia, Burundi and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Largely as a result of repatriation movements, the overall number of persons of concern to my Office has decreased for the first time in years, from a peak of 27 million in 1995 to the current figure of about 22 million. In 1998 the total budget of UNHCR, barring a major emergency, will be lower than the 1 billion dollar mark which it has exceeded every year since 1991.

Central America provides an even more significant example: during the second half of the 1980s, there were about 2 million forcibly displaced people in the region, equal to 10% of the total Central American population. UNHCR assisted up to 150,000 refugees. Considerable efforts were made by UNHCR, effectively supported by the international community, to find durable solutions for the various other groups of displaced people. The Esquipulas II agreement of 1987 linked the pursuit of peace in the region (and hence the return of people to their homes) with social and economic development, and the provision of better living conditions to those who had been uprooted. It was followed by a series of regional consultations and negotiations which culminated in the CIREFCA Conference in 1989. Since then, 70,000 Nicaraguans, 30,000 Salvadoreans and 36,000 Guatemalans have returned home. There are only about 30,000 refugees left in the region, mostly Guatemalans in Mexico, for whom solutions are at hand. My current visit to Mexico and Guatemala is to learn from the lessons of the Guatemalan repatriation and to thank all those concerned for their generosity.


The end of the Cold War opened up several opportunities to resolve refugee crises. But the Cold War had also created a status quo in which potential conflictual situations in many countries had been "frozen" for years. The end of bipolarism led to a series of harsh, violent internal conflicts, often linked to an complex international web of political and economic interests. These conflicts almost invariably forced people to flee their homes. Sometimes, population displacement became one of the aims of the conflict: in former Yugoslavia, for example, extremists from majority ethnic groups forced minorities from areas in which they had coexisted for centuries, in what has become known as "ethnic cleansing". In some cases the victims themselves were involved in conflicts. In the midst of ethnic confrontations, humanitarian agencies trying to protect and assist victims were perceived as taking sides and their neutrality and impartiality were often questioned.

It should also be mentioned that the size and speed of these population movements have few precedents in history. In 1991, over one million Kurds fled Northern Iraq. As a result of military intervention, most of them returned in a matter of weeks. In former Yugoslavia, over 1.5 million citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are still refugees abroad, or displaced in their own country, but 400,000 have already returned. Between April and July 1994, in three successive waves, almost two million Rwandan refugees fled to Tanzania, Burundi and the former Zaire; almost one million poured into the Goma region of Zaire in a period of four days. The mass repatriation of Rwandans from Goma which started in November 1996 in the course of military conflict resulted in 600,000 people returning suddenly over a period of a few days.

Under these volatile circumstances, it has often been extremely difficult for my Office to fulfil its mandate for refugee protection in the countries of asylum. In some cases, for example, UNHCR has been obliged to assist refugees among whom were groups of persons not entitled to international protection. This situation prevailed in the camps set up to host Rwandan refugees in 1994, especially in Tanzania and in the former Zaire. We were not given the means to separate political extremists, militiamen, armed elements and criminals from bona fide refugees. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the huge mass influxes of Rwandan refugees into neighbouring countries later that same year, and finally the recent tragedy of the Rwandan refugees scattered in the Congolese rainforest and dying of starvation and violence, represent a series of blatant examples of how the efforts to uphold humanitarian principles are becoming harder to sustain. What we have recently defined as a "crisis in protection" may worsen, unless countries of asylum and of origin, as well as the major regional and global powers, have the will to resolve political problems causing displacement, or - in extreme cases - dispatch military forces to restore law and order indispensable to the provision of protection and assistance.


For the international refugee protection regime to remain effective in this new environment, it is necessary to re-examine the context in which humanitarian agencies operate. The concept of the security of States, which was the foremost concern within the bipolar structure of the Cold War, must be supplemented by a wider concept of the security of people.

In this respect, I would like to emphasize three points which I consider essential:

First, in order to be successful, comprehensive solutions to humanitarian crises require an active combination of political and sometimes military peace-keeping initiatives, in addition to traditional humanitarian approaches. Today, humanitarian agencies cannot, alone, create the framework in which to deliver protection and assistance to the victims. Internal conflicts often escalate into conflicts among States. To this effect, early political action by regional bodies and key international actors is an essential support to our ability to respond to crises. Refugees - the tragic victims of political conflict and persecution - cannot be entrusted solely to the responsibility of humanitarian bodies. More than ever, humanitarian agencies must gain the support of political leaders to solve the basic causes of conflicts.

Second, it is essential that both countries of origin of refugees and countries of asylum perceive that treating refugee flows according to internationally recognized humanitarian standards is not in conflict with their national interest, and is at the same time conducive to durable solutions to refugee problems. I am fully aware that in some cases, particularly in the South, the presence of certain elements among refugees may constitute a threat to security. I am also aware of the mixed nature of population movements, particularly in developed countries, where refugees are often intermingled with economic migrants. However, disregarding humanitarian principles is not the response to these problems. As I have emphasized at the October meeting of our governing body, the Executive Committee of UNHCR, I am not prepared to negotiate the principles which constitute the foundation of my mandate - the rights to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement. At the same time, I believe that the application of these principles, in the international environment which has resulted from the end of the Cold War, must be reviewed to take into account the legitimate concerns of States. It is the implementation of principles, rather than the principles themselves, that we must review.

Third, it is necessary to promote the idea of burden sharing. No country receiving refugees, and no developing country in particular, should feel that it is left alone to shoulder this responsibility. States must not only be reminded of abiding by principles, they must also be given the means to apply them. Although we cannot ensure that there will be no negative impact in letting people cross borders and settle in another country, these effects must certainly be mitigated. Allocation of resources to communities hosting refugees or receiving returnees are necessary to make burden sharing possible.

When programmes are well planned and include - for example - an environmental focus to protect fragile natural resources, refugees may contribute significantly to the areas where they are settled. UNHCR has made important experiments in innovative programming, particularly in Central America. Another example is represented by our efforts to adopt systematically a gender-based approach to our programmes within the refugee communities. Bringing a gender perspective to refugee work means analysing how men and women are affected by being uprooted and how the different positions of men and women in the family and community affect their access to protection and assistance programmes. Invariably, women make up the majority of refugee populations. Many are heads of household. The special role of women "as agents of peace and development" should be mainstreamed into every aspect of our programme.


The case of Guatemalan refugees in Mexico and the solutions pursued on their behalf during the last year constitute in fact an example of how forced displacements may be addressed in a humane, efficient and constructive manner. True, there is a substantial difference in dealing with the huge population displacement in former Yugoslavia, or the Great Lakes region of Africa, and with the more manageable groups of refugees in this country. Solutions offered by the Mexican Government to the problem of refugees, however, demonstrate that providing protection and assistance to uprooted populations can be compatible with the interest of States, which in turn allows UNHCR to fully comply with its mandate.

Initially, Mexico granted asylum to fleeing refugees. The people of Chiapas were the first to offer their "ranchitos" and resources to help them. Subsequently, the Government allowed the development of a variety of assistance measures, in particular in the States of Campeche and Quintana Roo, where refugees have become self-sufficient. This has demonstrated that instead of "eating up" resources, refugees could contribute to the productive output of these States. As a result, the empathy between refugees and local communities has deepened and in fact flourished.

The possibility of providing immigrant documents to those refugees who do not choose to return to their homeland, for whatever reason, is the culmination of Mexico's generous tradition of hospitality. As an important member of the "Group of Friends" of the Peace Process in Guatemala, Mexico made an essential contribution to the orderly collective returns that began in 1992, thus facilitating the agreement between refugees and the Government of Guatemala. Over two thirds of the refugees have now returned home. Many remain, mostly as a result of population growth. Half of these were born in Mexico.

Beyond protection and assistance, Mexico is now implementing a two-track approach of repatriation and local integration, giving ample space to individual choices. This policy has been developed in a friendly and constructive atmosphere with the Government of Guatemala, demonstrating that refugees are not necessarily - as many still claim - a factor of conflict and resentment between States.

This is the reason why I am so pleased to be here this afternoon. It gives me great satisfaction to have a model of sound durable solutions which can be implemented in a world which has lately offered us less opportunities to solve refugee crises with the positive and active participation of States concerned.

To conclude, I would like to stress that international mandates, such as the one my Office upholds, can be satisfactorily implemented only with the willing and active participation of States. This has been the case here in Mexico. I look towards the leadership of the Mexican government and people through your examples and experiences to influence the international community in the direction of humane and political approaches in dealing with increasingly complex refugee challenges.

I thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen.