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Remarks of Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Conference on Promoting Respect for International Humanitarian Law, Brussels, 16 September 2008

Speeches and statements

Remarks of Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Conference on Promoting Respect for International Humanitarian Law, Brussels, 16 September 2008

16 September 2008

Commissioner Michel, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for organizing this meeting. It comes as one of a series of other important initiatives taken by the European Union, including the adoption of the Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, which is an important landmark in making questions related to the nature of humanitarian aid central to the work of the European Union.

I would like to concentrate my remarks this morning on the question of humanitarian space. This space is narrowing not just because there are "villains", but because of a number of structural problems and contradictions. Indeed, humanitarian space has become a victim of the evolution of the debate over state sovereignty and the "responsibility to protect". Let me explain what I mean.

In the 1990s, there was an energetic discussion about balancing the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of the individual. The environment is different today. This is not only because some states, such as Sudan or Myanmar or Zimbabwe, limit humanitarian access and fall short of their responsibility to protect their own citizens, but because they can do it with impunity and sometimes with the complicity of others - and the international community is powerless to intervene.

How did this come to pass? It failed in part because of the way the concept of R2P (the 'responsibility to protect') was put forward. It should be more emphasized that this responsibility is an integral part of state sovereignty. There was, in my opinion, an excessive focus on military intervention in the R2P discussion. Not enough attention was given to the responsibility to prevent - and to rebuild. This led to a situation whereby democracies in the South like Brazil or India or South Africa have been reluctant to back this concept. Moreover, the war in Iraq reinforced this hesitation with fears that R2P could be a pretext for hidden agendas.

We must overcome this lack of political will and encourage democracies in the developing world also to assume the responsibility to protect as their cause. I am particularly encouraged by the effort of the African Union to draw up a Convention on the Protection of Internally Displaced People. If this effort succeeds, it will be an unprecedented development and will show that it is possible for R2P to re-emerge with a universal character.

Questions of perception are of course central to this discussion. UNHCR is part of the broader United Nations system. Perceptions of the UN differ widely around the world. In some parts of the United States, for example, there are those who think the UN is controlled by the G-77 countries. Others see the UN as a tool of "the West"; in extreme cases, even of "the crusaders". The perception of the UN as a tool of "the West" is worrisome, especially at a time when the organization has become a target and when humanitarian action itself has become a target rather than being a shield.

How can we change the perceptions? How can we ensure the universality of human rights and of international humanitarian law?

Humanitarian space is also narrowing because of the changing nature of conflicts - they are more and more asymmetric. States fight insurgents, militia and bandits. In these conflicts it is hard to know who is who. And some see humanitarian aid linked to military action, a tool in their battle for "hearts and minds".

The situation is equally complex when we look at peacekeeping operations. There are ever more peacekeeping operations without a peace to keep, where peacekeepers become part of the conflict.

This generates tensions between the drive to integrate UN missions and the need to preserve the autonomy of the humanitarian space - Afghanistan and Somalia are two good examples of this tension. This is clearly not just a UN problem, but one which affects all humanitarian actors. It is essential to affirm humanitarian principles in complex situations. And sometimes the only way to preserve them and the integrity of our mandates is to withdraw.

We must be unyielding on two key issues: the universality of human rights, and the independence of humanitarian action. The stakes are high. If we abdicate on matters of principle we will fail.