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Closing remarks at the 65th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, 3 October 2014

Speeches and statements

Closing remarks at the 65th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, 3 October 2014

3 October 2014

Edited transcript of extemporaneous remarks



Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to express my deep gratitude to all delegations for the positive spirit in which this excellent debate took place and for your remarkable contribution to the success of our work. Of course, when we gather with over 100 countries and organizations, there are inevitably different interests and different perspectives. And yet, we are all united by a deep common commitment to protect, assist and help find solutions for the people we care for. This commitment is the best indication of your dedication and support for our work. It is particularly inspiring; knowing how demanding and difficult it can be for our staff in the deep field. I thank all of you for your encouragement.

This positive atmosphere has contributed to a strong unanimous statement in our High Level Segment, which shares the vision of so many countries on their commitment towards refugees in Africa. During this meeting we were able to come together in a spirit of true partnership, marked by sisterhood and brotherhood.

But unfortunately, yesterday's tragic event where our colleague Laurent DuPasquier from ICRC was killed during a bombardment in Ukraine, was a stark reminder of the reality of today's shrinking humanitarian space and the increasingly dangerous humanitarian work done by all those who represent the UN, NGOs and other organizations and who are doing their best to support people in need in the most dangerous circumstances.

There is another reason to be sad today, and that is the fact that my Assistant High Commissioner for Operations, Janet Lim, will soon be leaving us. Until now, I thought that no one in this world was irreplaceable, and yet I am convinced that she really is irreplaceable. And although the process of selection is underway and the Organization will indeed have another Assistant High Commissioner for Operations; I am certain that no one will be able to replace what has been an absolutely outstanding contribution to our work. Without you, I would not have been able to do my job and, without you, I think UNHCR would have been much less effective in its work for the people we care for. I have done my best to prolong your stay by postponing your retirement, but in the end we understand that you also have your family and other commitments. I am very sorry to see you leave us.

I am grateful for the kind words that many delegations have expressed in relation to UNHCR, to our activities, and even to me. But one participant used a term several days ago which I believe best summarizes this meeting: No Complacency. This is a key conclusion. There will be No Complacency in the way we deliver to the people we care for; in the way we engage in our activities and with our partners in humanitarian action; in the way we are accountable for what we do; and, in the way we ensure effective oversight for our actions and those working closely with us. We are perfectly aware of the enormous challenges we face and we are proud that we are able to carry on with our work despite these difficulties and problems. I can guarantee that there will be No Complacency and that we will do our best to meet your expectations as expressed in your statements and in the decisions taken by this EXCOM.

Also related to No Complacency, is the fact that entire humanitarian community is at a crossroads. We have discussed at length during the debate how the humanitarian response system has reached its limits. The multiplication of conflicts, the pressures of climate change and other mega trends, the exponential growth in humanitarian needs have all had an impact on our ability to respond.

Allow me to be somewhat provocative with regard to the future of our common humanitarian system, given the growing challenges we are confronted with. First, it was clear throughout the debate that we really need to bring together relief and development: this means bringing together development actors, donors, international organizations and international financial institutions at the emergency phase and link the long term with the short term. This is easier said than done. I remind you that High Commissioner Sadako Ogata was already talking about the gap between relief and development over 15 years ago, and the gap is still there. There is indeed a problem of organizational culture. I recall the challenges in my own country and how difficult it was to join the efforts of those involved in humanitarian aid and those working in development cooperation.

This is also evident within the UN system, where there are different frameworks, different perspectives, and even a different sense of urgency. And while some progress has been made, the UN and financial organizations can be worlds apart. This is also evident in the field, with the World Bank and Regional Development Banks working based on one logic; while the UN development agencies may be working based on a different logic. It also becomes difficult to bring them together with humanitarian agencies and even more challenging to define development cooperation policies that take into account the problems posed by the present multiplication of emergencies; many of which are taking place in middle income countries, be it Syria, be it Iraq or be it Ukraine. Development cooperation policies are also directly linked to foreign policies of countries, while humanitarian aid tends to be increasingly linked to humanitarian principles. Hence bringing the two together will require innovative political decisions and consultations at the level of member states with international organizations both within and outside the UN system.

I appeal to all EXCOM members today, to take concrete steps in bringing us together so as to jointly overcome these obstacles that have been there for the last 20 years. If we take the business as usual approach, the gap will remain and be very difficult to bridge. A lot of efforts are being made in the context of the Syria operation in Lebanon and in Jordan, but to give you an example of how difficult this can be: In Lebanon, Helen Clarke and I visited a UNDP project funded by UNHCR. A humanitarian agency funding a development project is the opposite of what is needed. It was done in this manner because there was simply no other way to do it and it was vital to support the local community. This clearly demonstrates the long way to go, if we really want to bridge relief and development in the emergencies we face.

Secondly I believe we need to think more out of the box, as I said in my first intervention about the way the UN is funded and the way in which assessed contributions and voluntary contributions work in the UN. When I go to the field and visit a UN mission, it is a different world. The way in which we budget in UN missions is completely different from how we budget in agencies like UNHCR. And on the other hand, it is clear to me that the only way for us to bridge this gap is for humanitarian response to be able to rely partially on assessed contributions. I envisage this to fund a kind of "super CERF" for L-3 emergencies. There may be other ideas.

A great deal has been done in terms of integrated missions, yet there has been no discussion about funding and the consequences of funding in integrated missions. If we want to have integrated missions, we need to look seriously into what funding mechanisms are available for the different components of that integration. This is a difficult issue to discuss, but something that sooner or later we need to put on the table, so as to have a serious analysis of how we can move forward.

A third important issue is how to bring an effective universal partnership into humanitarian action. The present multilateral humanitarian system was essentially a Western creation, and we continue to struggle with how to move a western-born group of institutions into a truly universal system. We in UNHCR had a very positive experience. Our mandate is defined by the 1951 Convention and the Statute of the Office, which were the product of a human rights conscious movement following the Second World War. And yet refugee protection is something that has been deeply rooted in different religions and different cultures for centuries. We have seen, for example how deeply rooted the protection of refugees can be in Islamic tradition and Islamic law. We also know what African traditions of hospitality represent. UNHCR operates in a wide variety of countries with our partners. Many are not signatories to the 1951 Convention, but they are extremely generous with their refugee protection policies. I believe that we have been successful in making our organization and our common work more universal and not only based on the codification of a number of principles in a historical moment. These principles of refugee protection indeed represent universal values, but they can also be expressed in different languages, different ways, different perspectives.

More generally, to reach this truly universal partnership in relation to humanitarian space and humanitarian values is a very important challenge facing us now. I believe the World Humanitarian Summit will be crucial for that purpose, and I am pleased to be keynote speaker at the Amman regional consultation next year. If something has been very clear in our operations in the Middle East, it is that at times we have two parallel humanitarian systems, working together with inevitable gaps and overlaps. It is crucial that everyone be brought on board to what should be a truly universal humanitarian response system, where we are all able to act based on the same principles and with the same strategy. This is another key challenge if we want to be able to mobilize all available resources everywhere in the world and namely in the emerging economies that are increasingly relevant to the global economy and trade. We must bring everyone on board in a true universal humanitarian response system.

Another aspect I would like to mention is related to effectiveness and innovation. I believe we have done a great deal to make the organization more effective in classical terms of productivity. We now do three times as much with a 30% increase of staff worldwide and a 30% decrease of staff in Geneva. I don't think any other organization has had a similar increase in productivity and there is not much more we can do to increase our productivity, in classical terms.

Thanks to the Deputy High Commissioner, a number of important initiatives of innovation have been developed in different areas ranging from shelter to cash, to the use of information technology and new energies, etc. But these remain scattered initiatives in a classic framework of humanitarian action, and we need to think seriously about what will be the new generation of humanitarian organizations in this digital age. This is not a UNHCR problem, it is a challenge that we, the humanitarian community, need to face together and which will hopefully help us to optimize the use of our resources.

Finally I turn to the question of self-reliance. We need to depoliticize the debate on self-reliance. Self-reliance is perceived by some countries as a disguised way to try and impose mechanisms of local integration that politically they have decided not to adopt. I understand that and I think that we need to be very clear: this is not the objective and this cannot be the objective of self-reliance. Self-reliance is a very important contribution to the dignity and human fulfilment of refugees, but self-reliance can also serve as an important contribution for the local communities of the host countries. Not only can it significantly help reduce the costs of humanitarian action, but it can also be an excellent preparation for voluntary repatriation, which is most often the preferred durable solution for refugees, independently of the importance of resettlement and local integration, according to the capacities and decisions of the countries that offer resettlement opportunities or decide to have local integration in their territory. But to really move away from a perspective of care and maintenance, to a perspective of making people able to cater for their own needs is probably another key element in the set of issues that we need to address if we want to make sure that we prevent a situation in which humanitarian action will be a failure in relation to the enormous challenges that we face.

This is not something that can be immediately resolved, but if we do not decide now to bring real qualitative changes to the table, we will face a situation where incremental improvements will no longer be enough to address the plight of the people we care for. I am not optimistic about the potential of prevention becoming more effective in the near future, be it in relation to conflict, to climate change or other aspects in which the international community has demonstrated how difficult it is to join efforts and accomplish what needs to be done. We must recognize that it is high time we change course - it is not with more of the same nor with business as usual that we will succeed.

Thank you very much.