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Remarks by Mr. Gerald Walzer, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 28 April 1998

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mr. Gerald Walzer, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 28 April 1998

28 April 1998

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates,

It is once again my privilege and pleasure to address this Standing Committee. The High Commissioner asked me to extend her personal greetings to all delegates here today, and we would like to convey a very warm welcome especially to the delegates of Moldova, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Syrian Arab Republic who have joined the Executive Committee as Observers, as this Committee has just decided. As always, Mr. Chairman, the Standing Committee has a large agenda before it, and I shall therefore focus my remarks on developments since the last meeting of this Committee in early February that are of major operational concern.

Mr. Chairman, I feel compelled to begin this morning by sharing with you our continuing and profound preoccupation with the situation of our colleague, Vincent Cochetel, and by paying tribute to him, his wife and two daughters, and to all his family and friends for the courage that they demonstrate day in and day out as we continue to seek his release. As reported to you at our last meeting, Vincent was kidnapped at gunpoint in Vladikavkaz, Russian Federation, where he serves as the Head of UNHCR's office. He has been held for three months now. We remain determined and hopeful that in time he will be freed.

Every abduction, detention and act of violence against humanitarian aid workers makes us once again painfully aware of the risks and dangers to which our staff are exposed despite all our efforts to improve their security. In recent years in particular, our colleagues at the ICRC and in the NGO community, like UNHCR and the UN at large, have mourned the tragic loss of many colleagues who have sacrificed their lives in humanitarian service. It is a shocking statistic that, since 1992, 140 UN staff members have been killed. At least 50 UN staff members are presently detained or missing. Indeed, in recent weeks, a UNHCR national staff member was detained and brutally tortured by the authorities of his own country. We are greatly relieved that our colleague is now free, but we continue to monitor his welfare closely. UNHCR has expressed its outrage at this chilling incident through appropriate channels, and we have received assurances from the authorities concerned that measures will be taken to prevent a recurrence.

Tomorrow at noon, on the 90th day of Vincent Cochetel's captivity, UNHCR staff, the Cochetel family and friends and colleagues are organizing a silent march from UNHCR's building on rue de Montbrillant to the Place des Nations to show solidarity with all humanitarian organizations and to express our hope for the early and safe release of Vincent Cochetel and all hostages everywhere. Other UN organizations, the ICRC, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, and humanitarian agencies have been invited. Members of delegations here today, in their professional or personal capacities, are warmly welcome to participate.

Mr. Chairman, we condemn the continuing violence targeted against aid workers and urgently need action. The High Commissioner has consistently advocated UN system-wide initiatives to improve staff security, and important improvements have indeed been made. Whilst we shall continue to strive for new and more effective measures to safeguard our staff, the responsibility also rests on the various levels of national authorities everywhere to protect humanitarian workers. We appreciate that the Standing Committee has placed the Safety of UNHCR Staff on the agenda of its June meeting and are looking forward to an in-depth exchange with the Executive Committee on this issue.

Mr. Chairman,

Let me begin my review of major regional developments with the two operations on which the High Commissioner briefed the Security Council in New York last week.

In the region of the former Yugoslavia, Mrs. Ogata recently completed an extensive two-week tour that took her to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. She completed her mission gratified to have seen at first hand tangible results from the efforts of the international community to consolidate peace and reconstruct war-affected areas. During 1996 and 1997, some 400,000 people returned from exile to the former Yugoslavia. Yet at the same time, we remain acutely aware that much remains to be done: in 1998, two and a half years after the Dayton Peace Agreement, 1.8 million people from the former Yugoslavia continue to live away from their homes. Of these, some 800,000 people remain displaced in Bosnia & Herzegovina, 600,000 Bosnian refugees continue to live in exile abroad, and 350,000 Croats of Serbian ethnic origin are refugees in neighbouring countries.

UNHCR's overarching objective remains full implementation of the relevant provisions of the Dayton and the Erdut Agreements. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNHCR seeks a major breakthrough on minority return movements, defined at the December 1997 meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group as meaning at least 50,000 minority returns by June 1998. Since the beginning of this year, the Republika Srpska authorities have taken a number of positive steps to accelerate peace implementation and improve inter-Entity cooperation. There are now eleven Open Cities, four of which are in the Republika Srpska.

Despite these positive developments, substantial hostility to minority return persists in many areas. As just one example, minority return movements of Serb displaced persons and refugees to the Croat-controlled municipality of Drvar in the Federation have been plagued by over 40 instances of arson since the beginning of this year, mob violence, stone-throwing and other forms of harassment, including, most regrettably, the savage murder of an elderly returnee couple on the 16th of April. Mob violence against Serb returnees occurred again last Friday in Drvar. Turning to Croatia, incidents of harassment and violence directed against Croatian Serb displaced persons in the Danube region, as well as in areas of return in other parts of Croatia, have triggered what the OSCE has termed a "silent exodus." Croatian Serbs continue to arrive in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. About 1,700 have requested asylum in Norway. UNHCR will continue to work closely with the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), SFOR and the International Police Task Force (IPTF), the OSCE mission in Croatia, the European Community Monitoring Mission and the "Article 11" Commission and other partners both to lay the ground for return movements, as well as to ensure that they take place in conditions of safety and dignity.

Developments in the Kosovo region of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia since February of this year have raised widespread international concern. UNHCR estimates that security sweeps in the Drenica triangle on 28 February and 5 March have led to the internal displacement of some 20,000 people, some 5,000 of whom have gone to Montenegro. New incidents in municipalities along the Albanian border have fanned fears of refugee movements and a further deterioration of the situation, which remains very fluid. UNHCR and other UN agencies, as well as partners, are updating contingency arrangements in the region and are channelling assistance to the displaced in need.

During her travels in the former Yugoslavia, the High Commissioner emphasized to leaders that durable solutions need to be pursued on a region-wide basis, in view of their complexity and inter-linkages. UNHCR plans to present a region-wide strategy on durable solutions to the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council in June of this year. Mr. Rene van Rooyen, Coordinator of the Former Yugoslavia Liaison Unit at headquarters, will provide the Committee with a detailed review of UNHCR's programmes in the former Yugoslavia later in the agenda.

Mr. Chairman,

If I may turn now to the Great Lakes region of Africa, close to eighteen months have passed since the majority of Rwandese refugees repatriated, yet the situation in the Great Lakes continues to evolve in unforeseen directions, with often tragic results. The escalating violence in Rwanda, ongoing conflict in Burundi, and unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remain amongst the most deeply troubling of the region's dilemmas.

In February, the High Commissioner undertook intensive consultations with African leaders, travelling to nine countries in three weeks, consulting also with the current chairman of the OAU, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, as well as the OAU Secretary General, Dr. Salim.

The mission provided an opportunity for the High Commissioner to listen to the views of the concerned governments on a broad range of refugee and humanitarian issues, and to strengthen our relations with them. In expressing her concern about the erosion of respect for humanitarian principles for the protection of refugees, the High Commissioner found a clear consensus amongst leaders that the fundamental principles of the international and regional refugee conventions remain valid. She also found wide acknowledgement that the problems result from failure and inability to apply the law, particularly in regard to excluding those undeserving of protection. For this reason, in addition to allocating further resources to strengthen our support for screening and refugee status determination in countries continuing to host Rwandese refugees and asylum seekers, the High Commissioner is urging the international community to establish a mechanism, including the possibility to call on military or police support, to separate refugees from combatants, war criminals and génocidaires, and to deal with those who are undeserving of protection by the international community.

An important positive development during the High Commissioner's mission was the agreement of the Governments of Tanzania and Burundi to join in tripartite discussions with UNHCR to address operational issues concerning ways to facilitate voluntary repatriation of Burundians from Tanzania. Last month, the first such meeting was held in Mwanza and the next is scheduled for Bujumbura in May. I am also pleased to report that today, in Tanzania, Queen Sofia of Spain is visiting Burundi refugee camps in Ngara, where she is accompanied by the Chairman of the Executive Committee and the Assistant High Commissioner. Ambassador Skogmo will report on his visit to the region to the Standing Committee at its June meeting.

Delegations are already aware of the ministerial level meeting on refugees and security issues which President Museveni has agreed to host in Kampala and which will be co-chaired by the Secretary General of the OAU and the High Commissioner. All nine countries visited by the High Commissioner agreed to participate in the meeting, which is scheduled for the 8th and 9th of May. The meeting will be conducted in the manner of an informal workshop to permit the most open possible exchange of views, and the High Commissioner is hopeful that it will result in concrete initiatives to ensure refugee protection and find solutions to the continued forced displacement in the region, at the same time taking into account the importance of security and stability in the countries concerned. As the High Commissioner indicated at the meeting of the HLWG in early March, she will continue to keep all interested governments fully informed about the process and outcomes of the Kampala meeting.

Let me turn now, Mr. Chairman, to other operations in Africa, where UNHCR's efforts toward solutions are meeting with some success. Since the commencement of organized repatriation for Liberians in April 1997, a total of 22,178 Liberian refugees have returned to their homes under our auspices, in addition to over 140,000 who have returned spontaneously since January of last year, according to best estimates. Over 90,000 refugees have formally expressed their desire to repatriate. As the return movement gains momentum, we are increasingly hopeful that by the end of 1998 most of the 470,000 Liberian refugees in the main countries of asylum will have returned.

The repatriation programme of primarily Tuareg refugees to Mali and Niger is taking place as planned and will be completed by the end of June 1998. So far, 126,000 Malians have been repatriated, while some 2,000 out of 4,000 refugees from Niger have returned to their country. Let me also bring to your attention the positive development represented by the return of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal and Mali, some 30,000 of whom have since 1996 benefited from reintegration assistance. The three Governments concerned should be commended for their efforts to pursue return and reintegration of all Mauritanian refugees.

In the Horn of Africa, with peace gradually returning to some parts of Somalia, important progress has been made in the repatriation of Somali refugees, with some 16,500 persons having been repatriated since the beginning of the year. It is foreseen that a total of 60,000 refugees will benefit from the operation in 1998. I am also pleased to report that the presence of large numbers of Ethiopian refugees in camps in the Sudan is at last coming to an end, with the completion of the operation anticipated at the end of May. Since May 1993 some 65,800 Ethiopian refugees have been assisted to repatriate from the Sudan.

In Angola, the challenges for achieving solutions are more complex, but the accomplishment of most of the political tasks for consolidating peace is advancing in the right direction. Although the security situation in some of the provinces in the country remains preoccupying, approximately 130,000 Angola refugees have returned home from neighbouring countries and received assistance in the form of individual packages as well as community-based projects. We aim to support the reintegration of a further 160,000 returnees in Angola before the close of the year.

Despite these positive developments, UNHCR continues to be confronted by refugee outflows on the continent. In Sierra Leone, whilst positive developments have allowed us to facilitate the return of 6,500 Sierra Leonean urban refugees from Conakry to Freetown, indiscriminate acts of violence by remnants of the ousted junta against the civilian population have forced some 110,000 Sierra Leonean refugees to flee into Guinea and Liberia, where UNHCR has been assisting the concerned Governments to receive them. We estimate that there are now a total of some 462,000 Sierra Leoneans in neighbouring countries.

In Asia, Mr. Chairman, we have witnessed what may be the first tangible manifestations of the impact of the financial and economic turmoil on people crossing borders. Malaysia has engaged in a vigorous action to curb illegal immigration which unfortunately has also affected refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom have been forced to return to Indonesia. This situation, which provoked 22 Indonesian nationals to force their way into the US Embassy and UNHCR compounds in Kuala Lumpur, with others having entered and been removed from other diplomatic missions, prompted the High Commissioner to appeal to the Malaysian Government to suspend the deportation of persons who have fled their countries of origin due to a fear of persecution and authorise UNHCR access to those who are in detention pending deportation. In Cambodia, UNHCR has followed recent political and military developments very closely, and we continue to collaborate with the Royal Thai Government in tending to the needs of some 60,000 Cambodians who remain in camps on the Thai side of the border. The re-establishment of peace and stability in Cambodia is the necessary condition for the safe return of the refugees presently in Thailand. We hope that this will materialize soon in order to allow the returnees to participate in the elections scheduled for July 1998.

In Afghanistan, the fighting has continued to generate more suffering, and we like others are closely following the peace talks which have been taking place in Islamabad since Sunday. Following several physical attacks on UN personnel by Taliban officials and the imposition of unacceptable conditions on the UN by the Taliban administration, the UN system has withdrawn all international staff from the Kandahar region, thereby suspending all operations in the south of the country. A UN team will meet the Taliban leaders in Kabul to negotiate the working conditions and relations between the UN system and the Taliban administration. If the UN international staff withdrawn from Kandahar and previously from Mazar-i-Sharif cannot return to these duty stations, obviously it will affect the rehabilitation of infrastructures and re-establishment of services and will impede further returns to these areas.

In addressing the problem of Afghan refugees in the Central Asian sub-region, UNHCR in collaboration with the Kyrgyz authorities, organised in February a CASWAME sub-regional meeting in Bishkek. The governments represented at the meeting agreed upon measures to collect and exchange information regarding the Afghan caseload including their numbers, legal status, access to local employment, impact on the local economy and possible solutions. The Bishkek meeting was followed in March in Ashgabad by the second meeting of the regional consultations on refugees and displaced populations in Central Asia, South West Asia and the Middle East, the so-called CASWAME Consultations. The meeting, which was attended by government representatives from 12 countries in the region, adopted a series of recommendations to advance voluntary repatriation and reintegration on behalf of Afghan and Tajik refugees.

With regards to Western Sahara, UNHCR is well advanced in its preparatory work for the voluntary repatriation of Saharawi refugees eligible to vote and their immediate families, as provided for in the UN Settlement Plan. Pre-registration, mine awareness, logistics and physical planning and a public information campaign to build confidence amongst the refugees are being conducted in the Tindouf camps. In northern Iraq, UNHCR has been responding to the emergency needs of some 6,000 Turkish refugees after the entire Turkish Kurdish refugee population of Ain Sufni moved spontaneously on 14 February 1998 to Sheikhan, approximately 2 kilometres southward, leaving behind an empty and destroyed site. On a positive note from the region, I am pleased to report that at the end of February the Government of Turkmenistan became the third Central Asian state, after Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

In the Americas region, steady progress has continued toward achieving lasting solutions for Guatemalan refugees both through repatriation to Guatemala and permanent settlement in Mexico under the government migratory stabilization plan, thanks to which another 114 naturalization cards were granted to refugees in the state of Quintana Roo at the end of March. UNHCR is now engaged in the scaling down of its involvement in the repatriation and reintegration of Guatemalan refugees. We continue to be concerned, however, by the escalation of violence in Colombia and the forced displacement, particularly in the departments bordering on Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. Consistent with previously announced plans, arrangements are now underway to open a Liaison Office in Bogota, which will report to the UNHCR Regional Office for Northern South America based in Caracas.

Mr. Chairman, as foreseen on our agenda, UNHCR programmes in Europe will be the subject of a detailed review by the Committee later in the meeting. With the shortness of time, and with your permission, I will leave developments in Europe to Mr. Hasim Utkan, Deputy Director, whom I know shall ably provide you with a comprehensive update.

Mr. Chairman, as we will soon move into our agenda, I would like to mention briefly, for those delegations who may not be aware, some recent changes at UNHCR's senior management level. The High Commissioner has appointed Nicholas Morris as Special Envoy and Director of our operations in the former Yugoslavia. He is being succeeded as Director of the Division of Operational Support by John Horekens. In turn, the High Commissioner has appointed Anne Willem Bijleveld as Director of UNHCR's Regional Bureau for Europe. Let me also mention, Mr. Chairman, that this will be Ernest Chipman's last appearance at the Standing Committee for the time being, as the High Commissioner has agreed to a request by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs to release Ernest to serve in a senior position at OCHA, not an easy decision at this time in particular. We wish Ernest the very best and express our gratitude for his important contributions as UNHCR's chief fundraiser for the past five and a half years.

Mr. Chairman, I should also note that John Horekens, who brings to his critical new functions also his responsibilities for change management, shall update you later in the agenda on our activities in that area, in particular progress in the development of the OMS, the protection database, and on efforts to mainstream the change process within the work of the responsible units. Organizational improvement and management of the change process continue to remain high priorities for UNHCR.

Before closing Mr. Chairman, I must share with you and the Committee our grave preoccupation in regard to the funding of our activities in 1998. As you will have seen from the update in Conference Room Paper 11, our projected needs for all voluntary funded activities total US $ 1.1 billion, that is both General and Special Programmes. Including carry-over from last year, our best projection in terms of funds available in 1998, however, do not exceed US $ 830 to 850 million. We are in the process of reviewing our staffing arrangements throughout the organization both at headquarters and in the field, and we are adjusting programme plans and implementation arrangements to the level of income anticipated. This is proving to be a very painful exercise for us and our partners, NGOs and governments alike, as we attempt to soften the impact, trying to reformulate and reprioritize projects so as to continue to address in a meaningful way the crucial needs of the many beneficiaries for whom we are to provide protection and assistance.

But even with drastically reduced programme levels, Mr. Chairman, some of our operations, particularly repatriation programmes in many parts of Africa, are threatened with disruption for lack of new contributions. With the very limited carry-overs from 1997 already exhausted, and after full recourse to any contingency funds, a number of programmes, including programmes aimed at durable solutions to refugee situations, will have to be halted if funds do not reach us immediately. We have held briefings with the donor community, and we remain available for any consultations with donors, as a group or individually, to explore all avenues for funding. The situation is indeed very serious, and the High Commissioner appeals for your urgent and generous support.

Mr. Chairman, my colleagues and I shall remain at your disposal throughout this meeting. Thank you.