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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-ninth session, 9 October 1978

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-ninth session, 9 October 1978

9 October 1978

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, Welcome to this session of the Executive Committee.

Many of you know this Committee better than I. For me, this is the first session. I, therefore, have much to learn from you. I trust, though, that the immediacy and freshness of my impressions will be of help to you.

It is nine months, to the day, since I assumed this responsibility. A period long enough to visit 25 countries in four continents, to see for myself where and what some of our principal problems are.

Long enough to gauge their gravity and to know that UNHCR symbolizes a great humanitarian ideal and commitment. Long enough, also, to realize that for the world's refugees and displaced persons, a few months - on occasion, even, a few hours - can tragically mean an eternity of suffering and insecurity unless we, jointly, provide solutions that are urgent and humane.

Our work is serious, because its purpose is to protect and reconstruct life and to preserve human dignity. There can be few more challenging, or sobering, undertakings.

It is therefore particularly gratifying that, in addition to the members of this Committee, we have present with us today a large number of observers representing Governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, liberation movements and the United Nations system.

Your presence provides a clear indication of the universality of the refugee problem, of the determination that we should search for solutions on a basis that is truly universal and shared. This, I believe, should be a principal objective of this session. Just as it has been a principal objective of mine since assuming office.

It is to this end that I have travelled extensively in Africa and Asia, where serious and growing problems of great complexity confront us. It is to the same end that I have travelled to many of the countries that have, most generously, assisted us with financial means and resettlement opportunities. Yet I should underline that it would be wrong to view our problems as being neatly divisible, between those faced by countries of first asylum, on the one hand, and those faced by countries that provide contributions and resettlement opportunities on the other hand.

There is no such clear distinction. Rather, history reminds us of the interrelationship of the one with the other. Our shared humanity and experience require us now to recognize our common predicament and responsibility and jointly to find humanitarian answers for those who have been the victims of events in which, unfortunately, many of our countries have been participants.

More fundamentally, however, the growing and varied refugee situation compels me to observe that, in many regions of the world, real peace remains elusive. It is not for this Office to venture political observations, but I must in honesty say to this Committee that our work grows no easier in present circumstances. To have to offer new and ingenious ideas, time and again, to cope with the refugee problem, is not the best comment on the capacity of nations to deal seriously with issues that cause the refugee problem.

This being said, I here must note, and pay sincere tribute to my illustrious predecessors, for having built UNHCR into an instrument of international humanitarian action that is widely respected for its record of integrity and effectiveness.

Mr. Chairman, I have recently returned from Thailand, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Viet Nam and Malaysia, a region of infinitely complex and interrelated problems. Each of the Governments, at the highest level, expressed appreciation and understanding of our role, the initiatives we have taken and must take, and the efforts we must make to co-ordinate international response. Each stated that UNHCR's efforts contribute to peace, stability and understanding in the region and each wishes us to continue to assist in every possible way in order to resolve the individual yet differing humanitarian problems that they face. We shall do so in a manner fully in keeping with the non-political character of this Office. I am most grateful to each for the reception I received. I shall help to the best of my capacity, in the spirit of trust that they conveyed to me.

I sensed the same warmth and understanding during the very first mission I undertook on assuming Office - to six States in southern Africa in January and February - again when I was privileged to visit Khartoum for the OAU Summit in July, and when I went to Angola in August. As members of this Committee are aware, we are deeply engaged in southern Africa, helping scores of thousands of refugees from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Additionally, in accordance with General Assembly resolutions and the wishes of the Secretary-General, we are coordinating an effort on behalf of a growing number of South African refugee students. I wanted the Governments and peoples of Africa to know that they could count on my support in their present difficulties and that I looked forward, as do they, to the early transformation of the entire southern region into one of justice and harmony.

I have seen the same evidence of trust and confidence in this Office in other delicate situations. For instance,

  • The Economic and Social Council recently adopted resolution 1970/39 requesting all States to respond generously to the programme I am coordinating in all parts of the Horn of Africa to alleviate the suffering of refugees and displaced persons in that region;
  • The Governments of Angola and Zaire recently approached this Office to assist with the voluntary repatriation of vast numbers of refugees between their two countries. We applaud this prospect, which could have far reaching and positive consequences for the future. We have assured the Governments of our support and co-operation and my new Director of Assistance has recently visited the area;
  • The Five Power proposals on Namibia, endorsed by the Security Council in its resolution 431, envisage a critical role for UNHCR in the return home of Namibians. To this end, UNHCR participated in the recent mission to Namibia, led by Mr. Ahtisaari, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. We are ready to discharge our responsibility as the situation evolves;
  • The Government of Bangladesh formally requested the Secretary-General to ask us to co-ordinate humanitarian assistance to over 200,000 persons who had crossed the border from Burma. We are doing so, and are now, at the request of both Governments, also seeking to facilitate the repatriation of those who wish to return voluntarily;
  • In Cyprus, I continue to serve as Co-ordinator of United Nations Humanitarian Assistance in accordance with the wishes of the Secretary-General and the parties concerned.

Mr. Chairman, since assuming Office, I have been left in no doubt as to the multitude of essential tasks facing UNHCR. Document A/AC.96/553 and its addenda spell out our programmes for 1979 in full, and report on our assistance activities since this Committee last met. I shall not try to summarize their contents.

Rather, I should like to share certain preoccupations with you.

Fundamentally, and in accordance with paragraph 1 of its Statute, UNHCR must seek permanent solutions for the problems of refugees, by promoting their voluntary repatriation, or their assimilation in new communities, either in countries of first asylum, or through resettlement in third countries. This objective must be systematically pursued, in the absolute conviction that the refugee must not only be helped to help himself, but also be enabled to contribute productively to the community around him.

I am particularly happy that this has been possible in a number of recent situations. Thus, voluntary repatriation has provided the answer for those who have returned in independence to Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. Our special humanitarian operations, undertaken on behalf of the repatriants, have now been phased out, commendable results having been achieved. Likewise, I am gratified that settlements in the United Republic of Tanzania, Katumba and Kigwe, that had needed allocations under our programmes in earlier years, have recently been handed over to the national authorities. We must continue to work towards such conclusions. I can assure this Committee that in numerous settlements around the world, we are progressing precisely in this direction. The prospects of further large-scale voluntary repatriations to Angola and Zaire, to Namibia and Burma give hope for the future.

Quite clearly, however, while it takes a relatively short time for a person to become a refugee, it takes much longer for a refugee to become self-supporting for the choice of solution is not always up to the refugee - or to us, in UNHCR.

And here I must urge your understanding and co-operation, as the representatives of Governments.

Ultimately, both refugees and UNHCR are bound by what Governments will permit, or not permit, encourage or discourage, when it comes to the achieving of durable solutions. UNHCR can and must advocate courses of action that are humane and orderly, economic and well-planned. But UNHCR cannot determine when, precisely, the refugee will be allowed to till the soil in his own support, or travel elsewhere to strike fresh roots. These decisions are your prerogative. But delays in taking such decisions inevitably add to our budgetary costs for care and maintenance and take an awesome toll on the morale of refugees.

I am most grateful to the many countries that have encouraged refugees to become self-supporting - whether in situations of first asylum, or of resettlement.

And I fully understand the delicacy of the considerations, and the sensitivities of Governments, in areas where this has not yet proven possible. We must, however, continue to make every effort to find solutions consistent with human dignity - idleness and dependence on international charity provide no real solutions; they are also inconsistent with human dignity.

In regard to South-East Asia, it is imperative that we think and plan in advance - in order to stay abreast of the demands of the situation.

Whether we think of the tragic circumstances of the growing number of "boat people" or of those who continue to cross land frontiers to Thailand, Viet Nam or elsewhere, it appears to me that we must, continually, co-ordinate and align our policies in order to have coherence and real impact on a situation that develops from month to month. To this end, I would hope that this Committee provides a further opportunity for a full exchange of views that will result in strategies to help in a truly humanitarian and non-political way. As I said to representatives of a number of Governments in Kuala Lumpur recently, I believe the situation in South-East Asia requires a continuing process of consultation between UNHCR and all interested Governments. I intend to take the initiative to call consultative meetings in Geneva, or elsewhere, as and when the need arises, on this and other problems.

When viewing South-East Asia and planning for the future, I am convinced that we need to take an over-all view of the region as a whole, not only of its individual parts. If we recognize the interrelationships in the situation, it will follow that we must help refugees and displaced persons wherever they are - in all parts of the region and not merely selectively. Otherwise, there will be additional reason for problems to spill over frontiers. It appears to me that admissions to third countries for resettlement must be so devised and announced as to enable a balanced movement from each country in the area, and also permit the switching of numbers according to need. The announcement of the numbers to be admitted by each country over a longer term would clearly help in over-all planning and the pooling of opportunities. It further appears to me that, to the extent possible, the criteria for selection should be liberalized and we should provide equal opportunity for both "boat" and "land" cases. I should like to urge greater speed in processing and onward movement. I have seen, and cannot forget, the despair of refugees waiting, insecurely, for their departure. I feel a compulsion to stress this, as it is evident that the pace of resettlement has an influence on the implementation of asylum policy in the region and on the development of local possibilities for becoming self-sufficient. I am happy, in this connexion, to state that during my discussions in Thailand, it was agreed to elaborate a pilot project for a self-sufficiency programme to benefit both the displaced persons and the Thai rural people. I view this as an important development.

Unfortunately, the need for resettlement in third countries is not limited to South-East Asia. It continues to be an urgent need for refugees, notably in Argentina and other Latin American countries. The legal situation of many of these refugees in their country of first, or temporary asylum, is such that resettlement is the only viable long-term solution. Sadly, the restrictive social and economic conditions in which many refugees have to live have, too often, caused psychological and physical deterioration which today constitutes' in itself a valid criterion of urgency in the need for resettlement. Needless to say, we continue to make every effort to find resettlement opportunities within the region, but the response locally has been limited. Inevitably, therefore, I turn to Governments that have already helped us so considerably. A concerted effort, particularly in regard to refugees who cannot stay in Argentina, could solve a present major problem which has persisted too long.

Very recently, Mr. Chairman, we have been alerted to new problems in Central America. We have assured the Governments that have requested our humanitarian help in coping with refugee influxes that we shall do our best to be of assistance. As a first step, and to meet immediate needs, we have already made an allocation from our Emergency Fund. We are presently examining, in consultation with others, what else can be done to assist.

In Europe, Mr. Chairman, our offices continue to perform valuable functions, notably in the field of international protection. Additionally, however, many European countries are faced with new problems, resulting either from the organized resettlement of large numbers of non-European refugees, or the sudden arrival of asylum-seekers, many being from other continents. While allocations for our work in Europe are minimal, I cannot adequately stress the importance that I attach to the work of my colleagues in this continent - not least in assuring continuing understanding of our efforts, and support for our work, which is so generously expressed in both moral and material terms. Additionally, recent developments in Portugal and Spain, including accession to our principal legal instruments, require us to strengthen our contacts with these two countries.

Mr. Chairman, I should now like to turn to the financing of UNHCR's programmes. In January, soon after I took up my post, I was told that the total expenditures of the Office, in 1977, had been $111 million and that similar expenditures might be required of us in 1978. I was also told that the budget for the General Programmes in 1978, as approved by the Executive Committee, was only $35 million, against which Governments had pledged scarcely $13 million, of which only $5 million were available for commitment on 1 January.

I was concerned that orderly planning and implementation might be impossible in such circumstances. When I voiced my concern, I was told by my colleagues to have an abiding faith in the generosity and understanding of Governments. In the nine months that have passed, I have been gratified to see that optimism justified. Governments, with few exceptions, have responded generously to my several appeals for financial support. Today, I am happy to report that the General Programmes for 1976 have been fully financed and, additionally, over $55 million have already been provided for the Special Programmes. I wish to express my deep gratitude for this testimony of trust and confidence in UNHCR.

I am well aware, however, that Governments - on their side - would wish to see as comprehensive a presentation as possible of our General Programmes, particularly in order to cover those who are traditionally of our concern, and especially when their needs prove to be of an ongoing nature. To this end, I have proposed the inclusion in the 1979 General Programmes of our activities on behalf of refugees and displaced persons from the Indo-China peninsula. This means that the General Programmes for 1979, as Presented to this Committee, amount to $87.8 million, a figure substantially higher than the revised target for 1978. However, the size of the General Programmes for 1979 should not cause alarm since a major part of the increase is being offset by corresponding reductions in the Special Programmes.

Indeed, for those concerned with budgets, the total increase in expenditures of the Office is minimal. These expenditures were, from voluntary funds, $91 million in 1976, $111 million in 1977 and, this year, they may be between $110-115 million. Taking into account currency fluctuations, inflation and desperate needs that we are in conscience bound to try to meet, we earnestly hope our plans will receive your understanding.

In the same spirit, with this effort by us to bring before this Committee our General Programmes in as complete a form as possible, we would urge that Governments pledge a corresponding increase in their annual contribution to the General Programmes. That alone would ensure an orderly transfer of activities from the Special to the General Programmes.

From my experience in Denmark, I was accustomed to a procedure whereby the parliamentarians responsible for adopting an expenditure were also responsible for its financing. But the structure for UNHCR is of an Executive Committee where governmental representatives, while approving a target, are not directly responsible for its full financing. In these circumstances, I must plead with members of the Executive Committee to ensure, by every means possible, that governmental contributions to be announced at the Pledging Conference in New York next month be at a level appropriate to the changed structure of the General Programmes.

Failing this, needless hardship will ensue for the refugees, and costly piecemeal implementation will help neither economy nor good order in planning.

Year after year, the resources at the disposal of UNHCR on 1 January, in the form of firm pledges, constitute only a small fraction of the total requirements for the year. The reason is simple. Governments do not have sufficiently in advance precise information on UNHCR's requirements in the following year. Consequently, when their budgetary reviews take place, well in advance of their fiscal year, they are unable to budget for what I would call an adequate contribution to UNHCR. In further consequence, the High Commissioner has to resort to special appeals which are time-consuming for UNHCR, and awkward or even embarrassing to those Governments which, for fiscal reasons, may not always be able to respond as immediately and generously as they would wish.

In the course of this year, I have had occasion to discuss this problem in the capitals of Governments that are major contributors. It was felt that one possible way of overcoming this obstacle would be for my Office to submit at least an educated guess of future requirements, perhaps covering the estimated global financial needs for a three-year period. I do not have to convince this Committee that such an exercise is fraught with difficulty, because in dealing with refugees uncertainty is the rule rather than the exception. Nevertheless, a rough approximation based on past experience and current trends could perhaps serve as a useful yardstick for donor Governments. I must underline, however, that such a yardstick can only be based on existing refugee groups, possible new influxes in known areas, and a minimal margin for totally new situations. It is the latter that cause great difficulty in Planning, for no one can predict their magnitude or timing. For example, a year ago, we could not have said that needs in Bangladesh and the Horn would require some $27 million this year.

With these reservations, I believe that it would not be unreasonable to venture a figure of $360 million as an initial estimate, for planning purposes, of the over-all financial requirements of UNHCR over the three-year period 1979-1981, an average of $120 million a year.

I wish to assure this Committee that UNHCR's operational partners in the field, as well as my staff, have been strongly urged to control and monitor expenditure as carefully as possible. I know, from experience in Government, that donors would wish every dollar to reach the beneficiary for whom it is intended. In return, I would urge Governments to set aside appropriate allocations for UNHCR in their budgetary provisions, preferably on a three-year basis, so that they can announce generous contributions at the Pledging Conference. Only thus can we begin the programme year at a reasonable pace of implementation and discharge effectively our responsibilities not only to the refugees, but to the many countries that have, generously, granted asylum despite the considerable costs to them.

Indeed, on this last point, I cannot be too emphatic. It is not easy to estimate the costs that countries of first asylum incur. They make available their arable land, their educational and administrative facilities. They also bear, on occasion, an incalculable cost on the social and political lives of their people. We must recognize this, and we should not take it for granted.

I should also add that UNHCR welcomes and encourages every effort of a complementary kind that can benefit refugees and displaced persons. The substantive efforts of our colleagues in the United Nations system, in UNDP, UNICEF, WFP/FAO, WHO and other agencies, are of inestimable value. We have also strengthened the nature of our co-operation with UNDRO and have concluded a memorandum of understanding in this regard. The efforts of the ICRC and League of Red Cross Societies, of our many close friends in the voluntary agencies and of our partners in ICRC, are all deeply appreciated by us. It goes without saying that, but for their effort and contributions, the costs to our programme would be infinitely higher and we would, moreover, lack what this work most needs - a continuing and co-operative endeavour by all those who have the interests of refugees at heart. My most sincere thanks are therefore conveyed to them.

Mr. Chairman, it is the protection function of UNHCR that gives our work its essential character and uniqueness. All else flows from this. There can be no emergency assistance for refugees, still less durable solutions, unless we first protect life, save refugees from the perils of refoulement, the perils of the high seas, arbitrary detention and punishment. No function of our Office will therefore be more central to my concern: this Office stands for the rights of the refugee, the right above all to humane treatment and human dignity.

In this, I view the interest and support of the Executive Committee as crucial. I am most happy, therefore, that the third meeting of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection, which met last Friday, permitted a clarification of certain basic problems relating, particularly, to the status of refugees and travel facilities for them. I have already learned that the international protection of refugees is a duty without working hours. It is a duty without end. It requires the most continuous vigilance by UNHCR.

Our efforts in this field have continued to develop along two interrelated lines: first, to increase accession to international legal instruments and; more generally, to develop "refugee law"; second, to intervene directly on behalf of individuals or groups.

In accordance with the wishes of the Executive Committee, I have personally approached, in writing, a large number of Governments to accede to our basic instruments, namely the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. There are now 76 States parties to them. Two others have recently deposited their instruments of accession, but technical formalities are yet to be completed. Regrettably, there are still geographic areas where accession is minimal, even though, within these areas, there are States confronted with major refugee problems.

As members of the Committee are aware, accession by itself is not enough. Actual implementation in municipal law of the Convention and Protocol is essential. Here, the situation varies greatly from country to country. It will remain a major task for UNHCR, in co-operation with Contracting States, to ensure that implementation matches obligations under our instruments.

The granting of asylum remains a major daily concern. While hundreds of thousands of refugees have been granted asylum in numerous States and in every Continent, regrettably there continue to be situations where asylum is refused. I think, for instance, of the "boat people", whose tragic odyssey demands the attention and understanding of all of us. There is, in their situation, a grave humanitarian challenge that we must not fail to meet. Some still perish at sea while others are still ignored by ships that choose not to notice their distress signals. As members of this Committee are aware, UNHCR, jointly with Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO), appealed through the International Chamber of Shipping to ship masters, urging them to continue to act in accordance with international principles relating to rescue at sea. Many have responded, but others have not. I am gratified, nevertheless, by some developments. Certain Governments have taken the decision to accept for resettlement those "boat people" who are rescued by ships flying their flags. I would hope that other Governments will follow this example. Further, with few exceptions, countries in the region are now accepting UNHCR's guarantee to assist with resettlement as sufficient for them to permit disembarkation. But the problem remains as, still too often, we learn of boats moving from shore to shore or ships that have rescued people being penalized by not being allowed in port, or being delayed there needlessly. It seems to me that we must all co-operate with greater seriousness to tie together a number of actions: rescue at sea and disembarkation are dependent on generous asylum policies. These in turn are related to resettlement possibilities in third countries. The latter must be swift in procedure and result.

In all cases where asylum is in jeopardy, or when we learn of the threat of refoulement, or the arbitrary and prolonged detention of refugees without trial, I consider it the duty of UNHCR to intervene.

Mr. Chairman, on assuming Office, I considered it my duty to meet as many of my colleagues in the field as rapidly as possible in order to understand their work and their problems. My travels enabled me to see them in various capitals, and also in places that sometimes do not feature on a map, but nevertheless shelter refugees. I have been impressed by their spirit and devotion. In order to exchange views with my representatives more fully, I called a brief meeting with all of them in May. It was time well spent together.

At headquarters, too, I have looked into various aspects of management. I was struck by the fact that, since the last major reorganization of UNHCR headquarters some seven years ago, the volume of our work, as expressed in the resources raised and handled and of staff deployed, had increased many times and so had the nature of responsibilities. Further, it was obvious that this increase was in response to the very real gravity of problems confronting this Office, problems that show no sign of diminishing. In these circumstances, I considered it essential to the discharge of my duties that the four Divisions comprising the management of this Office, having similar levels of responsibility, should be similarly classified in status and participate equally and collegially in the formulation of over-all policy. I am sure that this decision of mine will lead to improved management and I would seek your understanding in this regard.

Mr. Chairman, it is ten years since the size of this Committee was last increased. During this period, the interest of Governments in the work of this Office and the range of problems confronting UNHCR has increased considerably. With this in mind, the Economic and Social Council, through its resolution 1978/36 adopted this summer, recommended to the General Assembly that the membership of the Executive Committee be increased by up to nine additional members, to be elected from those States with a "demonstrated interest in, and devotion to, the solution of the refugee problem". Should the General Assembly act on this recommendation, the election would be due at the first regular session of the Economic and Social Council in 1979. On our side, we are grateful for the spirit in which the Economic and Social Council acted. We would hope that the additional members of the Executive Committee will, indeed, by their demonstrated interest in and devotion to the solution of the refugee problem, further facilitate the work in which we are jointly engaged.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, I hope these introductory words have conveyed something of the challenge and the effort, the imperatives and the responsibilities that I have faced during my first nine months in Office. If I should revert to a theme, it is to the universality of our problems and the universality of the effort that is demanded of us. I have heard the words "burden-sharing" wherever I have travelled. They should never serve as an alibi, for any of us, to do less than we can. Above all, we must resist the tendency to think that there are facile, general solutions to what are, ultimately, individual, specific problems. We must proceed with an acute sense of the uniqueness of each situation and of each human being whom we are called upon to assist.