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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the eighth meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 24 June 1997

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the eighth meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 24 June 1997

24 June 1997

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

I am particularly pleased to open this session of the Standing Committee which will deal with asylum and protection issues, regional developments in Africa and the CIS Conference follow-up. In my brief statement I should like to concentrate on refugee protection, including developments in this domain in the Great Lakes region of Africa and in Central Asia which I have just visited. UNHCR's experience in both regions underscores the importance of asylum and of addressing refugee situations in accordance with international standards.

Conditions in the Great Lakes remain precarious. Violence seems to be spreading to neighbouring countries and we are very concerned about the recent fighting in Brazzaville and the unrest in Bangui. The Rwandan refugee situation is far from resolved. We continue to be worried about the fate of large numbers of Rwandans and Burundians who remain unaccounted for. Many other Rwandans have fled to Congo-Brazzaville, the Central African Republic and Angola. I highly appreciate the fact that some groups of armed elements among the refugees have been disarmed upon arrival. Especially as the political situation in these countries is volatile, we are indeed urging that all ex-military - which applies equally to elements of the former Zairean army - be disarmed and separated as soon as possible. To assist all countries concerned, we have proposed a mechanism for screening Rwandans who refuse to repatriate. I am of course pleased that we have been able to airlift 48,250 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo back to Rwanda since 27 April 1997. This was a life-saving exercise under extreme circumstances, to save people from near-certain death, whether by starvation, disease, or attack. I note the recent indications of a more cooperative attitude by the authorities in Kinshasa toward UNHCR, although our access is still restricted in parts of the country. I welcome in particular Kinshasa's pledge to cooperate with the UN human rights investigation team.

Mr. Chairman, we are shocked and outraged by the killing last week of a UNHCR driver, his wife and two children in north-western Rwanda, just a few days after the murder of two local WFP staff members. The growing insecurity in western Rwanda and our inability to monitor the treatment of returnees, require a review of the future of our activities in the country.

More positive news is coming from Central Asia, where during my mission I was pleased to note progress in establishing legal and administrative refugee structures in several countries. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are already parties to the Refugee Convention, and I am grateful for the promises by the presidents of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan that their countries will soon accede. In fact, since my visit the parliament of Turkmenistan has approved accession to the Convention and has passed laws on refugees, national minorities and migration. I am also very pleased at the recent breakthrough achieved with regard to the Tajik Peace Agreement, and I look forward to contributing toward its implementation, particularly as it concerns refugee repatriation from Afghanistan. As I discussed with the government, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and several UN agencies, it is essential that this be carried out in the context of a comprehensive and well-structured framework for peace-building, a subject I followed up during my talks last week in New York.

Turning now to the issue at hand, I would like to highlight two key points pertaining to refugee protection. Whether we consider legal or physical protection, be it in the North or the South, two priorities are evident. Access to asylum must be reaffirmed. Moreover, asylum must be managed in such a way that the safety of refugees as well as the security of countries of asylum and origin are not compromised.

First, on access to asylum. In a world where serious human rights abuses cannot be prevented, the least we can do is to ensure that those who have to flee find safety. The very inclusion of a right to asylum in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signals an acknowledgement of the failure to halt genocide during the Second World War. I am afraid that the future may hold more failures of both prevention and mitigation. Not providing asylum to those in need simply compounds earlier failures. Respect for the principle of non-refoulement, including non-rejection at the frontier, is a fundamental principle of refugee protection. It must be maintained. People seeking safety should not be returned or rejected at borders, before it has been properly determined that they will not be in danger.

As I have said before, the declining willingness of states to grant asylum is one of the most disconcerting issues on the international humanitarian agenda. Key standards, which you have established, are increasingly being interpreted so restrictively as to lose their meaning, and their purpose. As desperate people are forced to look elsewhere for their safety, the result is responsibility-shifting - not responsibility-sharing that is instrumental for maintaining the institution of asylum. While being pro-active in ending situations of exile, we must realize that when refugees are compelled to repatriate too early, there is a dangerous shifting of the burden back to the country of origin. Premature repatriation puts refugees at risk and may jeopardise a successful transition from war to peace.

Second, asylum must be properly managed in the interest of both refugee protection and of the security of countries of asylum and origin. That refugee problems can affect the stability of host states as well as their relations with countries of origin should be well-known from past experience in several parts of the world. In such situations the refugees' own safety is often at risk. But the various security dimensions have never been so intertwined and far reaching as in the Great Lakes region. There, exiled groups have been both instigators and victims of cross-border attacks. The circumstances of their presence has fuelled communal tension in refugee hosting areas. Armed conflict has spread and eventually engulfed an entire asylum country. Refugees themselves have been massacred, local people killed and returnees targeted.

Mr. Chairman, international refugee protection instruments enjoin states to do everything within their power to prevent the refugee problem from becoming a cause of friction between States. We need urgently a renewed commitment to two crucial 'ground rules'. The first is to place refugee camps away from borders. The second is for states to take responsibility for ensuring the civilian character of refugee settlements. In practice such assurance may imply demobilizing combatants and separating them from civilian refugees. We realize of course that there are enormous practical, legal and security risks involved in such an undertaking, especially in an emergency. And yet, ensuring the civilian character of refugee camps is crucial for safeguarding the humanitarian nature of asylum and for protecting refugee safety. By developing guidelines on the reception of armed elements, my Office is trying to make a useful contribution. I am also trying to gain backing for the development of a rapid deployment capacity in highly volatile situations when asylum countries need help.

Distinct, but equally important - and equally problematic - is the issue of excluding from refugee status those persons who are suspected of crimes against humanity. The principles are clear, and well-known; but implementation is fraught with difficulties.

I should also emphasise that refugees themselves are bound to respect national laws; and host governments are committed to ensure that they do. The international instruments are explicit on this point, and responsive to situations where refugees nonetheless remain threats to their local community or to national security. Mr. Chairman, last October I addressed the Executive Committee about the dilemma of refugee protection standards not being matched by observance in practice. Merely restating existing principles and obligations is not enough. They need to be implemented; translated into specific actions. UNHCR is asking states to reaffirm and reinforce the key role of asylum in international protection, above all through their own practice. First, in all too many situations, there is no alternative to saving people from persecution or conflict but to provide them asylum. Second, asylum should be viewed as a phase in the search for solutions. Denying asylum may be tantamount to denying the underlying problem. Third, the political and security risks present in some refugee situations can be prevented or minimised through observing certain ground rules. These risks should therefore not be used as an argument to deny or curtail asylum.

Mr. Chairman, recalling the recent tragic killing of our colleague in Rwanda, let me in conclusion come back to the issue of staff security. Humanitarian access is essential not only for the delivery and monitoring of relief, but also and especially for upholding protection. The Executive Committee has repeatedly reaffirmed this important principle. In all too many situations today access is, however, not only denied, but frequently undermined by attacking humanitarian staff. Aid workers are targets; the international symbols go unrecognised or even attract hostility. We are not even directly covered by the 1994 UN Convention on the Safety and Security of UN and Associated Personnel. I am grateful for the strong backing of the Secretary General and the Security Council, reaffirmed during the recent open debate in the Security Council on protection of humanitarian assistance for refugees and others in conflict situations and by last week's Presidential Statement. I hope that this Committee too will pay attention to the issues of staff security and unimpeded and safe humanitarian access. Without your full backing, and concrete support on the ground when needed, I fear that I will not be able to implement my mandate in the face of the excruciating challenges of today.

Thank you.