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Opening Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Round Table on the theme "Help refugees contribute to peace," Geneva, 28 April 1986

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Opening Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Round Table on the theme "Help refugees contribute to peace," Geneva, 28 April 1986

28 April 1986
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I would like to welcome all the participants in this Round Table. Everyone will have the opportunity to be heard, and we hope that you will reach a certain number of conclusions. Before we begin this session, I should also like to welcome all those who have joined us. Your willingness to participate indicates your concern for the refugee question and your hope that this problem should not be forgotten but that new and more humane solutions will be found.

Are refugees in fact the new 'untouchables' of the late 20th century? Judging by the innumerable articles and political or parliamentary debates in Europe, in North America and elsewhere over the last 18 months, it is evident that refugees represent a danger for many people. On the other hand, the 18-hour-long demonstration of solidarity by young people all over the world brought together at the Live Aid concert last July, bears witness to their refusal to let innocent people die on the African continent.

Anguish, compassion, rejection, solidarity, selfishness: where do our real feelings lie with regard to millions of men, women, and children forced into exile by relentless violence? Is it not true to say, in fact that the most privileged among us continue to think that a little charity will keep human misery 10,000 or 20,000 kms away from their doorstep? After all, the West does have its own problems, unemployment being one of them. In the growing confusion which characterizes human as well as international relations, moral virtues in themselves are not enough to solve in the long run, the root causes ranging from exclusion to confrontation which disrupt entire communities.

The root causes for many tragic situations will be masked by noble emotions so long as a determined will does not insist upon an explanation of such infernal mechanisms, then tackle and solve them. It is up to everyone of goodwill - and this idea is more relevant than ever - to stand up and make it clear to his parliamentary representatives that he will no longer tacitly condone the stagnant situation of millions of human beings unable to leave border areas, or imprisoned in refugee camps. Their dependence grows with each day of exile, their human dignity is eroded, and ours with it.

There are those who will retort that we must not confuse the issues, and that the political problems linked with the crises and conflicts of recent years are difficult enough without adding humanitarian questions to them. But these issues are linked, and my participation in major humanitarian activities over the past 20 years has taught me two fundamental truths: refugees, prisoners of war, political detainees, displaced populations, are the consequences of armed conflicts and the upheavals which divide the international community. Secondly, in the quest for a peaceful solution to a dispute, the first thing to do is to try and reach an agreement which would allow a refugee, a prisoner of war or a political detainee to return home to live in dignity and safety once again. How many peace agreements have been delayed to no good end, and how many negotiations are at a standstill today because this latter, obvious, fact has been ignored? In other words, when the authorities concerned allow UNHCR, on the one hand, to aid refugees, and on the other to immediately initiate a process that might lead to the progressive return of people to their country of origin, to their transfer to a country of permanent resettlement, to more permanent solutions in countries of first asylum, this humanitarian activity in itself will go a long way towards easing the belligerent attitudes of warring nations and creating conditions for a renewed dialogue. Over the last few years, however, it has all too often been the view of certain administrations that because humanitarian interventions will take care of the victims, the political situation can be allowed to degenerate. This is an illusion. That in itself makes them responsible for the increasing inability of organizations like UNHCR to fulfil their protection mandate.

Caught in this dilemma, humanitarian problems are condemned to become an integral part of the political confrontations which caused them. To sum up, humanitarian activity must at all costs be divorced from political bargaining; the real interests of governments, both now and in the long terms, lie in this.

One should not deduce from what has been said that UNHCR is discouraged. On the contrary, a better understanding of the procedures and attitudes described allows UNHCR representatives to demonstrate greater determination, day after day, in overcoming the obstacles they are confronted with. They observe, however, that if the humanitarian objectives that they are pursuing and the political interests guiding governments do not converge temporarily, nothing solid or lasting will be accomplished on behalf of the refugees. This convergence will become more and more elusive if we do not agree to seek out, as I have underlined, the root causes of refugee movements; to make each individual aware, so that they will pressure their governments to find a solution, with a declared concern for fair burden sharing, rather than simply shift the responsibility onto their neighbour.

Finally, I would like to extend my warmest thanks to each one of you for having made the effort to participate in this Round Table. It is absolutely vital that we be able to sit back and take stock, in order to better tackle the immense task before us.