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Closing Remarks of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-eighth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 17 October 1997

Speeches and statements

Closing Remarks of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Forty-eighth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 17 October 1997

17 October 1997

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank all those Delegations who have participated in the Executive Committee meeting, and those who have contributed to the general debate. This year, 82 observer Delegations were present - there were 75 last year. 27 Delegations, including 15 observers, were represented at ministerial level. This reflects a broad interest in humanitarian affairs, and in refugees in particular.

I have listened with keen interest to your statements. I have drawn valuable insights on the different, sometimes dramatic challenges we face in seeking solutions to refugee problems. As many of you have noted, this has been a challenging year for my Office. Your appreciation of the positive results achieved in many parts of the world, mostly through voluntary repatriation, is therefore reassuring. I am also greatly encouraged by your appreciation of our difficulties in other regions. Many of you said that UNHCR cannot be left alone to face intractable dilemmas and security risks. I hope that your sympathy can be translated into the political and financial support required to carry out our mandate. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those Delegations that have pledged additional resources, particularly to the core activities of the General Programme. I hope I can also count on what one of the Delegates defined "a shared determination to tackle the root causes of political, social and economic instability that generate population movements".

I would like to extend my special thanks to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for addressing the Executive Committee and for stressing the importance of cooperation between our two Offices in areas of common concern, especially in field operations.

I am extremely encouraged by the very strong support given to the rights of asylum and non-refoulement, which I defined as the non-negotiable foundations of my mandate. However, if we wish to uphold these fundamental refugee rights, not only as a matter of principle, but also in practice, we must consider how to improve the implementation of humanitarian standards - safe location of camps, civilian character of refugee settlements, separation of armed elements, arrest and trial of those who commit crimes. Many of you have clearly indicated the urgent need for such a discussion. In cooperation with the Organization of African Unity and its Secretary-General, I hope to promote in the next few months such comprehensive discussions with Governments on the relation between these principles and the concerns of States in Africa, and particularly in the Great Lakes region. I am convinced that promoting the correct application of humanitarian standards will result, in the long term, in increased regional stability and security

While many of you gave me insightful ideas, I wish to note the statement of the Delegation of Rwanda, which focused on the necessity to take into account the legitimate security concern of governments when seeking solutions to refugee problems. I emphasized this point myself in my opening statement. I also stressed that we must apply humanitarian principles while recognizing state interests.

I disagree, however, with the rather simplistic suggestion that this be achieved by ignoring principles, or by eliminating conventions and agreements which provide the framework for their implementation. The situation of refugee camps in former Zaire has been cited as an example of insecurity caused by the rigid application of principles - I would rather say that it was the failure to apply the provisions foreseen in refugee conventions that eventually contributed to insecurity and conflict. Let us not forget that millions of refugees owe their lives and well being to the application of the generous provisions of humanitarian instruments and, in particular, the OAU Convention.

I would like to comment as well on the statement of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I appreciate the magnitude of the reconstruction task which the new Government must accomplish. With this in mind, in January we allocated almost 20 million US dollars to rehabilitate areas affected by the massive presence and repeated displacements of refugees and other victims of conflict since 1994. This is one of the largest contributions of the international community to the new Congo thus far. I am also fully aware of the fact that the presence of certain undeserving elements among refugees has been - and still is - a very legitimate security concern for the Government. I have already reiterated this point in my statement. I will not further elaborate on our attempts to obtain support in separating armed elements and political extremists from genuine refugees between 1994 and 1996, nor on our proposal - which was not accepted - that Rwandan asylum seekers remaining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo be subject to proper refugee status determination procedures.

I do wish, however, to respond to three specific points raised by the Congolese Delegation. First, when refugees died, it was not because humanitarian agencies did not try to assist them, but because they were not allowed to do so. Second, I categorically reject any criticism that UNHCR staff have been involved in political activities. Third, it has never been our intention, in calling for the respect of the rights to asylum and non-refoulement, to artificially create or prolong refugee situations. Cooperative relations between governments and my Office must be based on our respect for State sovereignty, and their respect for our mandate. Such grave and unsubstantiated allegations against the integrity of my Office and its staff, made in this very Executive Committee, are unprecedented and do not help forge much needed constructive dialogue and mutual respect. We have discussed these matters with the Delegation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and I trust that we can continue to work together and re-establish a solid basis for our cooperation.

I am pleased that the Executive Committee provides many opportunities for myself and my colleagues to carry out important consultations with delegations. Direct contacts are invaluable in dissipating mistrust and promoting understanding. I hope delegations - so many have come from capitals - have also profited from the ExCom forum.

Concerning other regions, I listened with attention to the presentation of the Colombian delegation, supported by its neighbouring countries, asking my Office to help solve the problems of its internally displaced. We know that the problems are vast. I have decided to ask the Assistant High Commissioner to visit Colombia and to assess whether UNHCR can play a role in the troubled area.

Turning to the role of UNHCR in the post-conflict rehabilitation process, some of your statements have raised a number of issues which I would like to clarify. We do not wish to enlarge the scope of UNHCR's humanitarian work into development activities. We have no mandate, no expertise, and no capacity for development work. Voluntary return in safety and dignity remains the fundamental aim of all our repatriation operations, and as a consequence, obliges us to be involved in the post-conflict rehabilitation and reconciliation process.

Our approach has two objectives. First, we need greater assurances from development agencies that they will address the social, economic and psychological needs of returnees in their longer-term programmes. An earlier collaboration and a more horizontal division of work, is what we are working toward. I believe this is more adequate than the "relief to development" sequential model of post-conflict activities.

Second, we must plan and implement our own short term, quick impact projects with reconciliation in focus. The role of my Office is to initiate and support concrete, grass-root projects aimed in particular at groups of people, such as women and adolescents, most affected by inter-communal divisions, and who can therefore become catalysts for dialogue. I am convinced that this will contribute to make repatriation sustainable and to prevent further involuntary displacement of populations.

I am pleased that you have stressed the need to work in close cooperation with other actors. I wish to re-emphasize that we are ready to participate actively in a common United Nations endeavour for planning at the onset of crises, and for implementing post-conflict rehabilitation strategies in a collaborative manner. We are ready to actively contribute to this joint effort by ensuring that returnees participate in the rehabilitation process. In this context, it is important that donor governments take note of the need expressed by many Delegations of countries from the South, especially from Africa, for more resources to be allocated to communities hosting refugees or receiving returnees. States must not only be reminded of principles, but must also be given the means to apply them.

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I foresee a challenging but, at times, daunting year ahead. We shall continue to be heavily involved in Bosnia and the Great Lakes region. We shall proceed with the repatriation of Liberians, in support of which the cooperation of the asylum countries and of ECOWAS will be indispensable. We hope to accelerate the CASWAME and the CIS conference processes. The commitment of the concerned countries will be indispensable but I also wish to refer to the important partnership with the International Organization for Migration, particularly in the CIS.

Let me assure you that I have greatly benefited from your opinions, advice and proposals in the last three days. I am comforted by the support which you have shown for our work and by your words of appreciation. I shall relay them to my staff in Headquarters and in the field. I am particularly grateful to you, Mr Chairman, not only for having presided over this meeting in an exemplary manner, but also for having so kindly expressed your solidarity with my Office and my staff in the special statement you made three days ago.

Thank you.