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Opening Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 29 September 2003

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 29 September 2003

29 September 2003
UNHCR ExComAngelina JolieIraqGlobal operations and challengesThe "UNHCR 2004" process and the "Convention Plus" initiativePerformance and management

(Check against delivery)

Mr. Chairman,

Mr. Egeland,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to the fifty-fourth session of the Executive Committee. I am pleased to see that the Committee continues to grow, and this year I would like to extend a special welcome to three new members, Cyprus, Kenya and Yemen.

This has been another important year for the Committee. I would like to thank the Bureau for its work, and particularly the outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Fisseha Yimer of Ethiopia. My congratulations to the incoming Bureau and its Chairman, Ambassador Boulgaris of Switzerland, with whom I look forward to working closely over the coming year.

Allow me to use this opportunity to pay tribute to former High Commissioner Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who died earlier this year. Prince Sadruddin - UNHCR's longest serving High Commissioner - led the organization through some of its most challenging moments. Much of what we are doing today builds on the work that he did in the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, it is an honour to introduce our special guest, Jan Egeland, the new United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, who will be addressing you later this morning.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my opening remarks last year, I welcomed another special friend of ours: Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had just returned to Geneva to take up his position as the new High Commissioner for Human Rights. Sergio - who worked for UNHCR for over 25 years - sat at this podium many times. Even before becoming Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, he had been closely involved in the work of this Committee, not least during the period when he was its Secretary.

Sergio was a truly remarkable man. With his death in Baghdad forty days ago, the United Nations has lost one of it most inspiring leaders, refugees have lost one of their strongest advocates, and UNHCR has lost one of its greatest friends. We continue to struggle hard to come to terms with the appalling attack in Baghdad which led not only to Sergio's death, but also to the deaths of twenty-one other friends and colleagues, including Reza Hosseini, a former UNHCR staff member, and Arthur Helton, a renowned international expert on refugee affairs. Amongst those badly injured was another close friend of UNHCR's, Gil Loescher - author of an important recent book on the history of the organization.

The attack on 19 August and other serious security incidents since then have cast a shadow over this 54th Session of the Executive Committee. The environment in which we operate is changing. The United Nations is not always perceived in the way that we would like it to be. For the first time, it has been declared a legitimate target by a terrorist group. How do we operate now, after the most vicious attack on the United Nations in its history? What can we do to address the many misperceptions of the United Nations that exist, particularly in the Middle East? What contribution can humanitarian agencies like UNHCR make to this process?

Earlier this year, UNHCR drew up plans to assist with the voluntary return and reintegration of over half a million Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers, as well as with the return of some 800,000 internally displaced people. Since 19 August, this has been put on hold.

The Secretary-General has made it clear that subject to security conditions the United Nations is prepared to continue playing its full role in assisting the Iraqi people. He has also stressed that we must never be reckless with the lives of our staff. This is our challenge now - to find the right balance. Ultimately, the answers lie not in more armoured vehicles, barricades and armed guards, but in improving the overall political environment.

The United Nations - and particularly operational agencies like UNHCR - cannot operate from a fortress. Our strength lies in our ability to communicate with the people who need us, to work through local authorities, and to build up local capacities. If we cannot work with the Iraqi people and with Iraqi authorities, then we cannot work there at all.

These must be our priorities now: to build confidence in UNHCR amongst the people of Iraq; to help strengthen the capacities of Iraqi authorities; and above all, to support the work of the newly appointed Iraqi Minister for Displacement and Migration - who I am pleased to say is here with us today.

Global operations and challenges

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Turning to operations elsewhere, let me begin with Afghanistan. The Afghan repatriation operation last year was a truly exceptional one, with over two million returns of refugees and internally displaced persons. The number of returns this year has been lower, but with over half a million returns so far it remains the largest return movement anywhere in the world. This is a remarkable achievement, particularly when one considers the worsening security situation and the fact that much of the country is still in ruins after decades of war.

In spite of the difficulties that our staff have faced because of security problems, they have worked hard to keep up the momentum on returns. Most importantly, they have made considerable progress in ensuring that returnees are included in national development programmes led by the Transitional Administration and supported by development actors. This is a good example of what we are trying to achieve through the 4Rs approach - ensuring that returnees both benefit from, and contribute to, the process of national recovery.

The key now is to speed up rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. This is vital for the stability of the country and it will largely determine the pace of future returns. The international community must stay engaged if the return and reintegration process is to succeed in the long term. There will be an opportunity to exchange views on this at the special session on the Afghan operation at 6 p.m. tomorrow.

Despite all the progress so far, millions of Afghan refugees are still living in neighbouring countries, particularly Iran and Pakistan. The patience of these countries in continuing to extend hospitality to large refugee populations while Afghanistan rebuilds itself is greatly appreciated. Finding durable solutions for these people remains a top priority for UNHCR, and over the next two years we will be working with the Governments of these countries and other partners on concrete initiatives aimed at addressing the changing situation in the region in a comprehensive manner.

Concerning the funding situation, we decreased this year's total budget for the Afghan operation from US$ 195 million to US$ 184 million to reflect the lower than expected number of returns. We cannot responsibly decrease the budget further. Yet we are entering the last quarter with a projected shortfall of about US$ 30 million. I can only appeal to all those donors who have supported our Afghan operation so generously in the past to come forward with additional funds to help us cover this shortfall. Our budget for the Afghan operation next year is considerably lower than this year's. It nevertheless accounts for a sizeable portion of our total budget, reflecting the fact that we are still expecting significant returns. The Afghan operation is now being mainstreamed, and by 2005 we will have incorporated the Supplementary Programme into our Annual Programme Budget.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me turn now to Africa. In Angola, about 160,000 refugees have returned home in the last year, including some 30,000 who were assisted by UNHCR. Almost half a million others are eager to return, but the country remains devastated after 27 years of civil war. We have an opportunity today to put an end to yet another of Africa's biggest and most protracted crises of displacement and I hope that donors will continue to generously support our repatriation programme. At the same time, I hope that we will see a commitment by the Angolan Government to invest its own funds in rehabilitation and reintegration efforts.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the political process has taken a significant step forward with the installation of a transitional government. While parts of the country remain insecure, other parts have seen a considerable improvement in the overall situation. I hope that we will soon be able to assist with the voluntary return of refugees to these places. Meanwhile, a faltering peace process in Burundi has meant that over 300,000 Burundian refugees and almost 400,000 internally displaced people still have limited prospects of returning home in the near future.

I had to cut short my recent mission in Africa following the attack in Baghdad, but I am hoping to go back and visit Tanzania and Burundi before the end of the year. Finding durable solutions for the refugees in Tanzania remains a top priority for my office. I have also been following with interest recent developments in the Sudanese peace talks. In contrast to the positive momentum towards peace in southern Sudan, the ongoing fighting in the Darfur region in northern Sudan is of serious concern. Fighting has already led to the exodus of some 65,000 refugees to Chad, as well as to considerable internal displacement. Every effort must be made to put an end to this new conflict.

In Liberia, there has been a marked improvement in the situation since the ousting of Charles Taylor and the deployment of ECOWAS peacekeepers. But tensions remain high in many parts of the country, and I welcome the recent Security Council resolution establishing a UN-mandated peacekeeping force, which is urgently needed if further displacement is to be avoided. A paper outlining our strategy in Liberia for the coming months is available. In the case of Sierra Leone, my Office continues to facilitate the voluntary return of Sierra Leonean refugees from Liberia. However, more support for Sierra Leone's reconstruction efforts is needed if such returns are to continue and be sustainable.

Turning to Asia, a top priority for my Office remains that of resolving the stalemate on finding solutions for over 100,000 Bhutanese people in camps in Nepal. Despite all my Office's attempts to assist Bhutan and Nepal to identify acceptable solutions for these people, we have not been able to participate in the joint Bhutanese-Nepalese process of verification of these persons; neither have we been granted access by the Government of Bhutan to areas of potential return.

This is totally unacceptable. I have therefore decided to take three key measures. First, since the Nepalese Government has offered to settle those willing to remain and to grant them citizenship, my Office will promote self reliance projects to facilitate their integration and will gradually phase out its direct involvement in the camps. Second, my Office will support resettlement initiatives for vulnerable cases. Third, because of the denial of access to UNHCR in Bhutan, making it impossible for us to monitor the return process, we will not promote returns. My Office will, however, assist in verifying that returns from Nepal are voluntary. In Bhutan, the right of return must be respected. I urge States, and particularly neighbouring India, to assist Bhutan and Nepal to identify just, humane and durable solutions for all of these people.

In China, the plight of North Koreans who leave their country illegally remains a serious concern. For a number of years UNHCR has been making efforts to obtain access to them, but this has consistently been denied. An analysis of currently available information recently carried out by our Department of International Protection concludes that many North Koreans may well be considered refugees. In view of their protection needs, the group is of concern to UNHCR. For those in need of assistance, UNHCR is ready to work with partners in meeting their needs. Above all, the principle of non-refoulement must be respected.

In the Americas, the humanitarian situation in Colombia remains of great concern. Over 100,000 more people have fled their homes in recent months, bringing the total number of internally displaced people in Colombia to well over two million. My Office continues to play a central role in coordinating the UN response to the IDP situation.

In Europe, a recent visit to the Northern Caucasus by our Goodwill Ambassador, Angelina Jolie, helped to raise awareness of the difficulties being faced by the displaced Chechen population. Pressure is once again being put on them to leave Ingushetia and return to Chechnya. In response I have proposed a two-pronged approach. I have insisted that the displaced continue to be guaranteed a viable safe haven in Ingushetia until they judge that conditions are conductive for their voluntary return. Meanwhile, I have agreed to commence a series of pilot projects in Chechnya aimed at enabling the sustainable reintegration of those who wish to return.

In European Union countries, the asylum debate has been intense. On the positive side, this has prompted new thinking on ways of enhancing refugee protection in regions of origin. UNHCR has participated actively in discussions on the subject, as there are many points of convergence with the Agenda for Protection and our Convention Plus Initiative. The Thessaloniki Summit was encouraging and I hope the EU will ensure a practical follow-up when it comes to sharing the burdens faced by developing countries hosting large refugee populations and focusing on achieving durable solutions. On the negative side, the highly politicized environment in which much of the asylum debate has taken place has prompted increasingly restrictive measures in many areas of asylum law and practice. It has also complicated the process of EU harmonization of asylum policies. I continue to urge Governments of EU countries not to lose sight of their aim of turning Europe into a common "asylum space". Without harmonization, human trafficking and "asylum shopping" will only continue, to the detriment of both those in need of protection and of the individual States concerned.

The "UNHCR 2004" process and the "Convention Plus" initiative

Ladies and Gentlemen,

During my first year as High Commissioner I set up a process known as "UNHCR 2004". Its aim was to review how UNHCR is situated within the United Nations system vis-à-vis States and partners, and to determine how it could be better positioned to carry out its mandate.

The report has now been finalized and will shortly be submitted to the Third Committee of the General Assembly. The consultations that took place over the last nine months guided me in the preparation of the report. A draft was also shared with the Secretary-General and relevant bodies within the United Nations system. The final report reflects their comments and has their endorsement. I would like to thank all those who committed so much time and energy to this process, and particularly Ambassador Boulgaris for his skillful leadership of the consultations process, and Paula Lynch, the Rapporteur, for so successfully steering the negotiations on the draft conclusion.

There will be a panel discussion this afternoon on implementation of the conclusions in the report, so I will not go into this in detail now. But allow me to highlight a number of key issues that have arisen during the "UNHCR 2004" process.

With a growing understanding of the important interconnections among peace and security, humanitarian action, human rights and development policies, it is clear that my Office needs to create more effective linkages both within and outside the United Nations system. It is a pleasure to have with me on the podium today the new United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, whose Office plays the central role in ensuring well co-ordinated United Nations' responses to humanitarian crises. I intend to work closely with Jan in improving strategies aimed at ensuring better preparedness, timelier interventions and more comprehensive delivery of services and solutions, both for refugees and for internally displaced persons. I will also continue to focus on strengthening UNHCR's engagement with the peace and security pillars of the United Nations - particularly the Departments of Political Affairs and Peace-keeping Operations - and with the development actors. Over the last year I have strengthened the UNHCR Office in New York as a step in this direction.

Concerning situations of internal displacement, I remain convinced that there is a strong need for more predictability in the UN response. My Office will continue to work closely with OCHA, others in the UN system, operational partners such as ICRC, and NGOs in addressing the needs of the internally displaced. Over the last year we have been focusing increasingly on post-conflict situations, where there are clear linkages between repatriation of refugees and returns of internally displaced persons.

Another important theme during the "UNHCR 2004" process has been that of enhancing prospects for finding durable solutions for refugees. The Framework for Durable Solutions, which has been shared with you, brings together three initiatives we have developed in recent years: "DAR" (Development Assistance for Refugees), "4Rs" (Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction) and "DLI" (Development through Local Integration). I count on the continued support of donors for these initiatives.

As the Secretary-General pointed out in his recent Report on the Work of the Organization, there is a wide gap between the rhetoric of inclusion and the reality of exclusion. In the case of refugees and returnees, until now they have all too often been excluded from the development agenda. It is time to reverse this trend. UNHCR recently joined the United Nations Development Group, and I hope this will help us to ensure that refugee needs are kept firmly on the development agenda. Responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, we are also seeking co-sponsorship of UNAIDS.

Another central theme of the report is that of ensuring that the rights of refugees and asylum seekers are respected and that their special needs are met within the broader context of migration management. Over the past year, many States have expressed interest in finding ways to manage migration flows in a more orderly and systematic manner. This has led to new initiatives, and UNHCR is now an active participant in a number of these. The Secretary-General has himself identified international migration as a priority issue for the United Nations.

Together with our partners, we will continue to develop policies relating to the nexus between asylum and migration. UNHCR will also continue to strengthen its strategic alliance with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), on the basis of a clear division of labour. Last month our two organizations joined with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to form the Geneva Migration Group. We hope that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) will also soon join the group. Through the Geneva Migration Group, I hope that we will be able to improve cooperation and develop a broader understanding of the activities undertaken by different agencies during the various stages of the migration cycle.

The deliberations on UNHCR's governance structure during the "UNHCR 2004" process centered on how to give a higher profile to the refugee issue. My initiative of convening a ministerial meeting every five years is aimed at strengthening its multilateral character. Likewise, the proposal to streamline the reporting requirements is aimed at enabling my Office to bring the refugee issue to ECOSOC and the General Assembly in a more meaningful manner. I trust your governments will support these measures to strengthen the capacity of my Office when the General Assembly decides on this later in the year.

Concerning the recommendations on funding in the "UNHCR 2004" report, I intend to begin implementing the 30% Base Level model with those countries that wish to apply it. I will keep you regularly informed on this pilot project. As for UNHCR's share of the United Nations Regular Budget, I count on the continuing support of Executive Committee members to support additional incremental increases.

One of the indirect outcomes of both "UNHCR 2004" and the Global Consultations process is the "Convention Plus" initiative. This is all about enhancing burden sharing and achieving durable solutions for refugees through special agreements. Since the inaugural meeting of the Forum in June this year, we have made considerable progress. Denmark and Japan will shortly co-host a meeting amongst a number of interested States on the targeting of development assistance to help achieve durable solutions for refugees in regions of origin. Switzerland has agreed to facilitate discussions on how to deal with secondary movements of asylum-seekers and refugees, and Canada will soon co-host a meeting on how resettlement can be used more strategically.

We are also making progress in developing criteria for identifying specific situations which may become Convention Plus initiatives, drawing on lessons from recent experience in places like Afghanistan, Angola and West Africa. A range of situations are already being considered on the basis of these criteria, including new refugee emergencies, major repatriation operations and protracted situations. I am confident that a number of these lend themselves to the development of multilateral special agreements. I intend to convene another meeting of the Forum in conjunction with the first meeting of the Standing Committee in 2004, and I look forward to a detailed discussion of these issues on that occasion.

Performance and management

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In all our operations, our effectiveness depends on our ability to ensure quality performance and management. Let me end, therefore, with a few words on this.

On human resource management, last year I announced my intention to conduct a thorough review aimed at improving existing policies. I am pleased to report that we have made significant progress in this area. I recently approved a new human resource policy which includes an enhanced role of the Appointments, Postings and Promotions Board, the introduction of an annual promotions session, revised policies on contracts, postings and rotation, and a new strategy for recruitment.

The new policy clarifies the joint responsibilities of staff members, managers and the Board to ensure that vacancies are filled in a timely manner and that the most suitable candidates are appointed. It introduces new mechanisms to minimize the number of staff members in between assignments and to maximize the contribution of staff members who occasionally find themselves in this situation. In revising policies on promotion and on indefinite appointments, the bottom line has been that of ensuring that good performance is rewarded and that underperformance is properly addressed. The recruitment policy includes the establishment of a roster, which will make it easier for those who have already gained valuable experience as General Service staff, Junior Professional Officers or United Nations Volunteers, to be appointed to posts in the international professional category.

We have taken a number of steps to enhance transparency and accountability in the management of our operations, by strengthening our internal oversight capacity. My Inspector General's office now has a dedicated investigative capacity and is currently looking into some 60 allegations of misconduct involving either our own staff or the staff of implementing partners. The tenfold increase in this area in recent years is a reflection of the improved mechanisms we now have in place. I believe it is also a result of the increased confidence of staff, partners and refugees in bringing forward complaints. Through the Inspector General's office and our internal auditors, we will continue to send a strong message of deterrence to those whose actions may otherwise damage the reputation of the entire Office. This applies equally to misconduct, mismanagement and waste of resources.

We recently launched our revised guidelines on preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence. The revised guidelines are intended not only for UNHCR staff but for all humanitarian and development partners working with refugees and other displaced people. They are an important milestone in our attempts to ensure better delivery of protection and assistance to refugee women and children. Accountability and the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence are also prominent themes in regional protection management workshops now being conducted by our Department of International Protection.

We have also made progress in revising our administrative systems. The Management Systems Renewal Project, for example, is a crucial part of our ongoing efforts to modernize and strengthen management capabilities through the latest technology. It also reflects our continuing commitment to ensure the most efficient use of the resources provided to us by donors.

On financial management, let me start with some good news: there has been a modest but steady increase in contributions since 2001. This is encouraging, and I am grateful for all your continued support. The increase in contributions is partly a reflection of the large Supplementary Programmes that we have had. I am particularly grateful to those donors who have increased their total contributions to UNHCR over this period. I also appreciate the efforts that donors have made this year to make their contributions to UNHCR early on. This has facilitated our work.

The bad news is that we had to make two budget cuts this year. Unlike last year, we made these two cuts early in the year. First, we reduced the level of allocations by US$ 54 million and froze some US$ 37 million of the Operational Reserve. Then we made additional cuts to compensate for increased costs of some US$ 42 million due to exchange fluctuations and UN salary increases. Even though Headquarters and administration took the brunt of these reductions, they also inevitably had a negative impact on our protection and assistance activities.

Although we are in a better position than we were this time last year, we still need US$ 56 million in fresh contributions toward the 2003 Annual Budget if the risk of further cuts is to be completely avoided. I appeal to you to assist in closing this gap. We cannot afford to make further cuts this year.

In the past, donors have on many occasions offered additional funds for activities not specified in the UNHCR budget. This year, in cases where such activities are in line with our mandate and would clearly be beneficial to refugees and other persons of concern, I intend to accept such funds and implement the programmes. Internal procedures have been adjusted for this purpose on a pilot basis for 2004.

The 2004 Annual Budget that I am presenting to the Executive Committee for approval is US$ 955 million. This is significantly higher than in recent years. The main reason for this is that many of the activities which have been funded through Supplementary Budgets over the last few years are being absorbed into next year's Annual Budget, in accordance with our financial rules.

While the overall level of contributions to UNHCR has steadily increased each year since 2001, the amount of funding received for the Annual Budget has remained relatively constant. This trend will need to change if next year's higher than usual Annual Budget is to be adequately funded. I count on your support in funding the 2004 Annual Programme Budget.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Over the last three years I have set in motion various initiatives aimed at strengthening UNHCR's partnerships. An important innovation introduced this year was that of inviting partners at the country level to work more closely with UNHCR in assessing needs, setting objectives and preparing budgets. The idea is to move away from the resource-driven budgeting of recent years towards a more needs-based approach.

In planning next year's activities, I have asked staff in the field to focus on three key areas: first, making better use of services provided by partners in cases where they are able to carry out activities in a more cost effective manner than UNHCR; second, exploring opportunities for partners currently funded by UNHCR to continue the same activities with funding from other sources; and third, supporting - other than financially - projects aimed at meeting unmet refugee needs not included in the UNHCR budget. A copy of the message that I sent to staff describing this process is available. Ultimately, this is not just about funding; it is about adopting an entirely new approach to the whole concept of partnership. It is about putting refugees first, and institutional needs second.

We will continue to strengthen our relations with the NGO community and international organizations, drawing on their expertise and capabilities and looking for further ways to enable them to provide input into our policy-making. I would like to thank NGOs for the many constructive ideas put forward at the "Pre-ExCom" meeting last week, which I was sorry to miss.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Finally, as many of you already know, Mary Ann Wyrsch, my Deputy High Commissioner, will be leaving us in December. Mary Ann informed me of her plans to leave UNHCR for reasons which are both personal and professional in nature, and I have agreed to her wishes, although not without regret. I would like to thank her for the vital contribution that she has made to the work of the organization, particularly on the management side, over the last three years. We will all miss her. On behalf of everyone in UNHCR, I wish her every success in the future.

Thank you.