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Opening Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-fifth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 4 October 2004

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-fifth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 4 October 2004

4 October 2004
Emergencies and ReturnsOperational challengesProtection and durable solutionsPartnershipsHuman resources

(Check against delivery)

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
and in particular my friend James Morris,

I would like to welcome you all to the fifty-fifth session of the Executive Committee, particularly new members Zambia and Egypt.

Our outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Boulgaris of Switzerland, has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of refugees. Even before becoming Chairman he played an instrumental role in UNHCR's Agenda for 2004 and the years to come. We will go further with Convention Plus but, dear friends, it will not be easy without Ambassador Boulgaris. We wish you well on your retirement and thank you again.

As you know I am extremely grateful that your new Chairman Ambassador Herman Escudero Martinez of Ecuador made himself available at such short notice. I congratulate him and the incoming ExCom Bureau and wish them a productive year.

This year Jim Morris, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme and one of UNHCR's closest partners, is our special guest. I attended the WFP Executive Board meeting last year and am pleased he is now here with us.

Emergencies and Returns

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A week ago I was in Darfur, speaking with Sudanese villagers who have been chased from their homes. I spoke with the women, their daughters, the children. Listening to them, my eyes filled with tears and my heart with anger.

Six months ago I was in Chad as we worked desperately to help refugees who had fled Sudan. Our humanitarian colleagues were fighting desperately to get access in Darfur, as they had done month after month since darkness fell over Darfur late last year. In those days, November 2003, I travelled to Sudan and, with others, spoke out. It took the international community half a year to really wake up. During those months there was a great deal of talking at the North-South negotiations and a great deal of killing in Darfur.

There is now an enquiry into the allegations of genocide, rape, and forced displacement. But for many months the only response to this was that North-South peace was the priority.

The large-scale killing and clearing of villages has now ended. We finally have humanitarian access and UNHCR is also there. I listened to the victims and to my fellow humanitarians and was faced with this question: how to protect, how to reconstruct lives, and how to rebuild trust after this total darkness?

UNHCR will be there with the African Union monitors, human rights colleagues, the courageous non-governmental organizations and other UN colleagues. UNHCR's role complements wider efforts by the Secretary-General's Special Representative to Sudan. We will be there in order to rebuild a minimum of trust and confidence. We were asked by the authorities in Darfur to help them and I asked them in turn to put the victims at the top of their agenda. For UNHCR, the plight of the people of Darfur has become a reality of enormous and tragic dimensions.

I travelled to the area with US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Gene Dewey, State Secretary Stather of Germany, Ambassador Sato from Tokyo and Steffan Stenberg of ECHO. I am grateful to them and hope they will also spark the donor community. To oversee UNHCR's complex response, at mid-year I named Jean-Marie Fakhouri as the Director of Operations for the Sudan situation, including Chad. Tomorrow morning at my briefing I will go into greater detail on my mission.

Elsewhere in Africa, refugees are currently coming home to Burundi at the rate of around 10,000 a month. While we will continue to assist this movement there is a pressing need to consolidate the peace process. A stable Burundi is crucial for the future of the Great Lakes region. The massacre of more than 150 refugees at Gatumba in July, along with renewed flight from the Democratic Republic of Congo in May and June, was tragic evidence that there must also be a solution found for eastern DRC, where the fate of the Banyamulenge is equally important to regional peace. I would like to commend South Africa for its determined mediation on these issues. We hope the November conference on the Great Lakes will yield positive results.

I want to highlight the unprecedented number of repatriation operations in Africa. The three-year Sierra Leone return programme was completed this July after more than 280,000 people chose to go home. This past Friday we began an operation to help 340,000 Liberians repatriate as that country emerges from Charles Taylor's regime. In Angola, around 250,000 refugees have returned home since the signing of the Luena peace accord in 2002; another 200,000 remain in camps and settlements. In Eritrea, 230,000 people have repatriated in the past four years.

Each of these operations is marked by particular challenges. However, all in all, Africa is on the march with repatriation. This theme was echoed at the Ministerial-level dialogue here this March, where there was a renewed commitment to enhance voluntary returns and address protracted refugee situations. There must be a similar pledge to post-conflict reconstruction and sustainable reintegration in order to break the cycle of violence. But all in all, there is good news from Africa. At this point, I am very happy to welcome His Excellency Arthur Moody Awori, the Vice-President of Kenya.

Turning to Iraq, UNHCR has helped around 14,000 refugees to repatriate from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. Large numbers have also come back spontaneously, especially from Iran. Minister for Migration and Displacement Warda is here with us today. I extend a special greeting to her. My Office stands ready to assist in the humanitarian reconstruction of Iraq. Security conditions though must improve drastically before this can happen.

This Saturday, the population of Afghanistan will vote in their presidential election. This truly historic event is part of the transformation of that country, brought about in large part by the people who have decided to make it their home again. Although security has deteriorated in several areas and remains a serious concern, 775,000 refugees have returned home this year so far, bringing the total since 2002 to over 3.5 million. Last month, in agreement with the Government of Pakistan, the new camps established along the border in late 2001 were closed. It proved that such an operation could be done and - importantly - that along with many returnees, a certain number of Afghans want to remain in Pakistan. In Iran, we have reduced elements of our care and maintenance programme and increased transport assistance in order to enhance returns. Our task there is to encourage repatriation while ensuring that returns remain voluntary. These developments are moving us closer to the 'Afghanistan Plus' solution, which I will return to later in my statement.

Our Western Sahara challenge celebrated a breakthrough this March with the first exchange of visits between family members separated for decades by the conflict. I hope this confidence-building measure will lead to a political solution for the group which now has the unenviable distinction of being our oldest caseload.

In the Middle East, there has been no progress. This weighs heavily on our conscience and on that of many Arabs and Muslims. In an increasingly 'global' world, this situation complicates the challenge faced by Islamic States striving for modernity. My Office is addressing current crises and potential population displacement along the 'fault lines' where Islam meets non-Islamic societies, and I welcome the resolution of the Organization of Islamic Countries to organize a Ministerial-level meeting on refugee issues next year.

In Europe, last month we counted the one millionth returnee in Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is a remarkable achievement. The need now in former Yugoslavia is to consolidate the successes. While continuing returns for all those who aspire to it, we should abandon the artificial and counter-productive ambition to return all remaining uprooted people. Europe must reflect on how best to promote sustainability and stability in its south-eastern corner. The next chapter, with a different but fragile ethnic landscape, should include the prospect of eventual accession of all parts of the former Yugoslavia to the European Union.

To the east, in the 15 years since the end of the Cold War, our increased presence in the Russian Federation and the CIS countries has allowed us to find solutions to a range of problems, as well as to make significant progress in capacity building in the asylum field. UNHCR will pursue recommendations from the CIS Conference follow-up in Minsk this year. However, the North Caucasus continues to be plagued by insecurity and conflict. We were appalled by the despicable atrocity recently in Beslan in North Ossetia. In a difficult security environment, we will continue to work with the Russian Federation in responding to the situation of displacement from Chechnya. We are committed to supporting the voluntary return of those wishing to go back to Chechnya together with other solutions for those not yet ready to return. More broadly, the pressing question of Chechen asylum seekers also requires a coherent response from the EU, one that will both promote stability and protect refugee rights.

Moving to Asia, I am pleased at the recent development in Myanmar which provides a basis to plan for the eventual return of 120,000 refugees in Thailand. Conditions are not yet right for repatriation, but UNHCR has now been granted broad access to areas of refugee origin in eastern Myanmar. The government of Myanmar asked UNHCR to assist the reintegration of IDPs returning from border areas within the country, and the Secretary-General has endorsed my intention to include these groups in our programmes.

Less encouraging is the situation of the Bhutanese people in camps in Nepal. At ExCom last year I said that we cannot accept that they remain there indefinitely. Developments in Nepal since have only made it more urgent to find solutions for the group. We must now redouble the search for a way out of the impasse by examining all possible alternatives, namely voluntary repatriation, even if UNHCR is not present in Bhutan; resettlement, including to countries in the region; and gradual broadening of assistance to encompass refugee hosting areas.

In Sri Lanka, the suspension of the peace talks last year has led some donors to delay contributions to the programme. UNHCR is following the peace process closely and remains committed to ensuring a fluent transition through a '4R' programme.

The plight of North Korean asylum seekers is an abiding preoccupation of my Office. In China, we continue to request access to those North Koreans who are of concern to us and I would welcome the chance to discuss with Chinese authorities this issue and opportunities I see for China to assist the region.

Before moving on allow me to introduce Janet Lim as my new Director for Asia and the Pacific, replacing Jean-Marie Fakhouri.

Turning to the Americas, I would like to share two positive developments with you. The first is the commemoration next month of the 20th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. The event, co-hosted by the government of Mexico and UNHCR, aims to reaffirm the continued relevance of the Declaration and produce a plan of action for furthering refugee protection in the region. I hope that the spirit of Cartagena will produce a regional humanitarian response to the increased number of displaced in Colombia.

The second point is the assurance I received from the government of the United States of America that they are dedicated to increasing the number of resettlement places for refugees. We will work together to ensure that unfounded security concerns do not prevent deserving candidates from being resettled, and I thank the United States for this pledge as well as its continued broad support to UNHCR.

The Bureau for the Americas will also have a new Director with the appointment of Philippe Lavanchy to succeed Hope Hanlan as of 1 December. I would like to express my deepest appreciation to Hope for her outstanding service to the organization in many capacities, and wish her well in her retirement. I would like to applaud her.

Operational challenges

I turn now to global operational challenges. One of our priorities is embodied in the 'five commitments to refugee women'. As reflected in the Progress Report shared at the Standing Committee in June, we are continuing efforts to translate these commitments into action in all our operations. Participation of women refugees in food distribution is one example. A joint UNHCR-WFP study reaffirmed the need for refugee women, as better guarantors of household assets, to take part in distributions and to have individual identity documents. We will discuss the question of food security in more detail with Jim Morris during this afternoon's panel session.

We have made progress in cultivating a shared sense of responsibility for gender and age issues among staff, and reinforcing the accountability of senior managers. The multi-functional team approach to mainstreaming has now been piloted in 10 countries this year and will be applied globally in 2005.

To help the gender mainstreaming process I have gladly accepted the offer by the government of Norway to create a post of Senior Advisor to the High Commissioner on Gender. Her assignment is now in effect.

The Secretary-General has called for a review of the UN's global security management practices, resulting in a more integrated approach to security and its management. An internal working group led by the Assistant High Commissioner has completed a review of UNHCR procedures. The report makes 80 recommendations which complement the anticipated UN-wide changes. These will strengthen our ability to operate and perform in a safe way. UNHCR has charted a course which will enable staff to reach people in need while minimizing risk and casualties in what will remain, on average, a high-risk environment.

Most important to effect this is the training designed to help all colleagues make informed decisions about operating safely and effectively in areas of insecurity. Training projects have proven to be extremely beneficial for UNHCR staff and partners. To supplement these we will expand the eCentre project, an initiative by the government of Japan which gathers humanitarian staff from several agencies with elements of the army. The eCentre has been piloted in Asia and will now be conducted in the Middle East region and in Africa. UNHCR has good security procedures and we are determined to make them even better.

Last but not least, security also costs money - in the field, in offices, and in Headquarters. We trust that donors will respond favourably when we have to make additional requests, and we thank the Swiss government for its support in strengthening the physical security of our Headquarters buildings.

In November last year our Protection Officer Bettina Goislard was deliberately targeted and killed in Ghazni, Afghanistan. From the sadness at Bettina's senseless killing comes a renewed determination to do everything possible to minimize the risks to our staff.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Last year I described the outcomes of the UNHCR 2004 process. I am pleased that this undertaking culminated in the General Assembly adopting a resolution which affirms the steps we have taken to strengthen the capacity of the Office to carry out its mandate. I pledged to keep both the Secretary-General and the Executive Committee informed of the implications for the organization as we consolidate and build on this process. Let me now share with you the following.

Before the summer, as part of their regular work, the UN's Joint Inspection Unit presented proposals to UNHCR and its ExCom. The JIU highlighted three.

First, the JIU has suggested a UNHCR organizational structure comprising two Deputy High Commissioners rather than two Assistant High Commissioners and one Deputy. The JIU was not aware of the approval in principle of the Secretary-General for a two AHC structure. The Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions also views a second AHC positively but advises to await the results of our Headquarters review before establishing the post. I agree.

Second, the JIU advised that UNHCR moves towards a biannual budget, as does the ACABQ. I agree in principle but look forward to discussing with you the timetable for possible implementation.

Third, the JIU advised on the Inspector-General and his office. I have just assigned Kofi Asomani who, according to JIU criteria, has the perfect profile, to the position. Both he and I will consult with the Bureaux and, where needed, with the Standing Committee on the other recommendations. I would highlight also the recruitment of a Chief Information Officer and creation of a Division for Information Technology.

UNHCR has made progress as a measurable performer using standards and indicators. We are integrating the eighth Millennium Development Goal and making strides in the areas of universal primary education, health for refugees, and mobilizing partnerships for durable solutions. Finally, we have improved our programme-support ratio and are incorporating results-based management.

Protection and durable solutions

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Turning back to refugees, in the past few years the politicization of immigration, confusion between refugees and economic migrants, and fears of criminal and terrorist networks have combined to erode asylum legislation in many States. Paradoxically, this has taken place against a backdrop of declining numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers. Although we have made significant progress in the two years since the Executive Committee endorsed the Agenda for Protection, the environment we are working in now must be described frankly as less friendly to refugees.

One of the main objectives of the Convention Plus initiative is to explore more equitable ways of sharing - not shifting - the 'burden' of asylum. The Agenda for Protection and Convention Plus is where burden sharing and permanent solutions come together. Last Friday I convened our third Forum meeting on Convention Plus. I will be brief on this. Notwithstanding new emergencies, in particular Darfur, we are finding solutions for more and more people. Step by step, the links between development assistance and refugees, self-reliance and 4R programmes are gaining acceptance.

The Multilateral Framework of Understandings on Resettlement was completed this June. We are particularly grateful to Canada for seeing this process to a successful conclusion. Now it must to be put into practice.

To address the issue of irregular secondary movements of refugees and asylum seekers there is a need to understand it better. The Swiss-led survey of secondary movements of Somali refugees and asylum-seekers, which is well underway, will be instrumental to that. It will also provide inputs to the proposed Comprehensive Plan of Action for Somali refugees. The political evolution in that country has given us hope that there is momentum for a durable peace.

We have produced a document entitled Basic Propositions on Irregular Secondary Movements. The elements set out there may be developed into a wider agreement on key issues to reduce irregular secondary flows, such as the allocation of responsibilities of States for refugees and asylum-seekers who move through several countries, early registration and timely access to durable solutions.

The government of Denmark hosted a meeting on the targeting of development assistance, the third component of Convention Plus. The interventions by UN agencies, the World Bank, the OECD Development Assistance Committee, NGOs and donors reflected the broad support that exists for the inclusion of displacement in aid policies. In July, ECOSOC specifically encouraged States to support and fund the implementation of the 4Rs and other tools to facilitate the transition from relief to development.

Targeting development assistance should also be linked to the Japan-led concept of Human Security. Our approach to durable solutions is built on the same fundamental principle - that individuals must be empowered and able to rely on themselves.

Generous funding is needed to improve protection and solutions. Now in its second year, the Convention Plus unit will continue work in 2005 with the results being mainstreamed from the beginning of 2006. It has already proven effective on burden sharing and solutions and has given rise to related projects, such as the important project of registration.

The Afghanistan Comprehensive Solutions initiative began with consultations with the governments of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan on the management of movements of Afghans after the expiry of the current tripartite agreements. Its goal is three-fold: define arrangements for future return and reintegration; elaborate the rights of Afghans with protection needs and other legitimate reasons not to return; and explore provisions for temporary labour migration. Initial discussions have been promising and we hope to expand aspects of the initiative to non-neighbouring countries hosting Afghan refugees.

The European Union has laid the foundation for a common asylum system through a series of Directives based on the Tampere conclusions and the Treaty of Amsterdam. While these instruments now need to be implemented, the EU should also move ahead and create a genuine European asylum space. This is needed since the existing arrangements do not provide a balanced way of addressing flows of asylum-seekers, one based on responsibility and burden sharing. We are looking at various ways the EU could give substance to a common system of asylum throughout the Union which would be in the interest of both refugees and the Member States.

Next year a 2005 edition of State of the World's Refugees will focus on the results of the Agenda for Protection, the Framework for Durable Solutions and Convention Plus.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Statelessness is a source of insecurity for millions of people and contradicts the universal human right to a nationality, yet just 57 States have acceded to the Convention. We will have a panel discussion this Wednesday on the question, looking specifically at practical solutions to protracted situations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I followed carefully the discussion in the Standing Committee on my proposal to create an AHC for Protection. It clearly aroused a lot of interest. It remains my firm conviction, from all I have seen and experienced during my tenure as High Commissioner, that the creation of this post will make a real and qualitative contribution to how UNHCR practices its protection mandate. We need to reinforce our protection strategy - and policy-making to ensure that protection considerations are properly identified and advocated for in UNHCR's operations. We need to ensure also that refugee protection considerations are strongly present in the policy deliberations and processes of the UN system. This is the rationale for the proposal, and I trust you will see it this way so we can move - in consultation with you - ahead with it.


The challenge of finding and providing solutions for refugees around the globe is a daunting one. To face it with any chance of success we must recognize that we, UNHCR, are not alone in the humanitarian arena and build that recognition into our operating, funding, programming, and implementing processes to mobilize others and make better use of partnerships.

Along with the Agenda for Protection and Convention Plus, practising partnerships is the way we will move UNHCR forward. In June, as an example, UNHCR became the 10th co-sponsor of UNAIDS, joining other members of the UN family and the World Bank in the fight against HIV/AIDS. UNHCR will now be able to advocate more effectively to integrate refugees into host countries' HIV programmes.

We are currently evaluating the revised MOU between WFP and UNHCR. Since the MOU was signed in 2002, WFP has assumed responsibility from UNHCR for food distribution in six countries. The results of the joint review will be used to chart the best way forward.

We have seconded a senior staff member to OCHA to continue the work of improving implementation of the collaborative approach to IDPs. I am pleased that the IASC has endorsed a set of revised policies on IDPs, which will be important for Humanitarian Coordinators and Country Teams. UNHCR has introduced procedures to make our own participation in IDP situations more predictable. My Office remains fully committed to supporting the Emergency Relief Coordinator and Country Teams in this area.

We have introduced measures which will give NGOs an expanded role in our protection and programming activities. A five-month Protection Learning Programme for UNHCR partners is now in its final stages. I have emphasized this inclusive approach in a recent directive to all Representatives calling for regular dialogue and cooperation with NGOs on protection matters. We will increase consultations with operational partners, both before and again after Operational Review Board reviews, in order to allocate available resources most efficiently. Donor involvement will also be enhanced in the second round of the operational review process in order to reduce gaps in humanitarian response. By opening our books to partners and inviting them to do the same, we will be better prepared to meet the needs of refugees.

I have already mentioned our Headquarters Review. This important initiative is in response to your requests that we take a fresh look at organizational methods and processes at Headquarters. A core team is working with a well-respected consulting firm, experienced in work with other UN organizations, to examine our larger workforce management policies, our budget and resource allocation process, senior management decision-making, and excessive reporting requirements. To strengthen the credibility of Headquarters with governments and with our own offices, the review will look at Headquarters with a "field eye". At the request of the last Standing Committee the review will explicitly include the envisaged AHC for Protection.

I am pleased to report that for the first time in recent memory UNHCR is not in a funding crisis, at least not the Annual Budget. The organization has achieved a certain measure of financial health and stability due primarily to your generous support but also to improved financial management. UNHCR has significantly improved financial planning and expenditure controls in the past few years. However, emergencies have forced us to launch several supplementary appeals this year which are still underfunded. Let me urge our donors again to support our SBs with additional contributions which are not diverted from the Annual Programme.

The funding levels over the last three years indicate that donors have responded to our commitment to enhance the performance of the organization, which I have made a central theme of my tenure. I trust this trend will continue. While UNHCR performs I would ask States to act on the principles of 'good donorship' by making predictable, consistent contributions early in the budget cycle. The refugees under our care deserve and need it.

Human resources

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The health of the organization depends fundamentally on how we manage our human resources. It is fitting that I close with a few remarks on staffing.

During my tenure we have made significant progress in the management of human resources. Still, there are ways we can do better. My goal remains to improve the performance of the organization through policies which motivate and provide more certainty for staff.

To provide certainty we will review our assignment process to improve vacancy management. All staff members should be clear on their next posting when they complete their assignments. This will help us in addressing the problem of staff in between assignments, the SIBAs. We will provide more security training and need committed staff who are conscious that the proportion of hardship and non-family duty stations has increased to over 50% in recent years. Lastly, with the introduction of Fixed-term appointments for new recruits, the Office is in a better position to adjust the required workforce at any given time.

To build on our strengths, UNHCR will draw on new blood by recruiting talented individuals through the Roster system. We will ensure that through the Roster we enhance gender parity and geographical diversity. Staff and managers will be accountable for performance and conduct through the systematic use of performance evaluations and a new 360-degree appraisal system. We will apply vigorous sanctions for misconduct.

We want to reward excellence, not merely longevity. Our annual promotion session takes place later this month and both managers and the board have been instructed to recognize excellence. Merit must be the primary basis for advancement.

In conclusion, my goal of individual empowerment - every person counts - goes hand in hand with my goal of encouraging performance.

Thank you.