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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Seoul Peace Prize 2000, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 13 October 2000

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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Seoul Peace Prize 2000, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 13 October 2000

13 October 2000

Minister Kim,
Chairman Lee,
Members of the Peace Prize Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful to the Seoul Peace Prize Cultural Foundation for awarding to me the Seoul Peace Prize 2000. This is a great honour for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We at UNHCR take it as a welcome and valuable recognition of our work of fifty years with refugees and other uprooted people. It is also an honour for myself personally, because I come from Japan. Now at the doorstep of the 21st century, it is my pleasure to note that, having worked for close Korean-Japanese relations as a member of the bilateral 21st Century Council in the 1980's, the Republic of Korea and Japan have started to stride forward together towards a new era.

I am very pleased to be with you today. My Office shares the Foundation's important objective: to promote world peace and harmony. We strive to pursue this goal by protecting and helping refugees. Because refugees, in most places, flee conflict, our work is - I believe - one way to contain and prevent war. It is a daunting task but we take it with pride and commitment. We are therefore greatly encouraged by the award of the prestigious Seoul Peace Prize.

UNHCR started exactly 50 years ago. Our longevity is an indication that, unfortunately, half a century after the visionary decision to create an office tasked with the protection of refugees, the world is still struggling with problems of forced human displacement. The Office's mandate has been repeatedly renewed, and its activities have expanded. With nearly 5,000 staff in 120 countries, UNHCR today works with some 22 million people worldwide - refugees, internally displaced people, returnees and other uprooted groups.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Eleven years ago, the Berlin Wall came down ending the Cold War. East-West relations moved to a new era of peace and prosperity. In the Korean peninsula, we may soon be witnessing similar dramatic changes. I am following with great expectations and hope the policies of unification unfolding on the Korean Peninsula. The meeting of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il heralds a new era, finally closing the Cold War divide in Asia. The humanitarian implications are already becoming clear. We look forward to separated families being reunited and refugees returning to their places of origin.

But elsewhere in the world, unfortunately, internal conflicts caused by ethnic tensions, secessionist and terrorist movements are threatening peace, fragmenting solutions and spreading human misery.

Many contemporary wars are deeply rooted in inter-communal tensions, and very often, deliberately, target innocent civilians - we have seen it in Rwanda during and after the 1994 genocide: in the Balkans, particularly during the Bosnian conflict and later the Kosovo crisis; in Sierra Leone, where targeting civilians takes the cruel and barbaric form of amputations; in the Northern Caucasus and particularly in Chechnya, where thousands of people, many of them old, were left homeless by the indiscriminate destruction of houses; in East Timor, anti-independence militias last year killed thousands of civilians and forced others to flee.

Saving refugee lives, ensuring their protection and finding solutions to their plight are our global objectives. We deal essentially with consequences of conflicts and cannot cope with their root causes. However, if peace, in simple words, is not made and built, our own humanitarian work cannot be sustained.

There are fundamental areas in which - I believe - the broader context must be addressed, in order for UNHCR to carry out its basic mission. In this respect, let me make two points.

First, refugee work can be effective only if states strongly back my Office. This means concrete political efforts to resolve conflicts. Time and again, I have stressed this point: without political commitment (and, may I add, financial backing to UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations) our efforts will not be sustained.

Second, we need to address the specific requirements of the transition phase, which follows the end of conflicts, but precedes a consolidated peace. Resources come readily for high-profile humanitarian emergencies. When investments are required to consolidate returns of refugees and rehabilitation of infrastructure, we have a much more difficult time getting the world's attention. Sometimes, scenes of misery and death seem to be a prerequisite for international interest. As a result, many post-conflict situations today are festering, when it is during this crucial phase that, very often, peace can be consolidated and further refugee movements can be prevented.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The time is too short to elaborate on these important points, but I wanted to use this opportunity to briefly illustrate the complexity and importance of refugee work. Refugees are people crossing many lines: first of all because they flee across borders; but also, in a different sense, because their plight is often mixed with that of economic migrants and other people on the move; and, in yet another illustration of the complexity of refugee movements, their humanitarian suffering is inextricably linked with the political, social and economic causes of their flight. Most conflicts today produce refugees. Refugees, one could say, are at the centre of today's tragedies.

And yet, they remain outcasts - a poor, marginalised group, whose rights are often denied, and with little means to sustain themselves. In many countries, both developing and industrialised, there is a prevailing conception of refugees as people who take away jobs, houses and social benefits; of people involved in criminal activities; of impostors that must be sent back to their country. We must fight this perception and restore a sense of urgency to the efforts to provide protection to those fleeing persecution and conflict.

On the occasion of UNHCR's 50th anniversary - which we will start observing in December - an independent Refugee Education Trust will be launched, with two purposes: first, to give young refugees opportunities for post-primary education; second, to help create an image of refugees as promising people who - if they are given the opportunity, especially through education - can make positive contributions to communities hosting them, and to their own country if and when they return home.

I share these thoughts with you because, in closing, I would like to inform you that I have decided to allocate the money of the Seoul Peace Prize to the Refugee Education Trust. Your generosity will help many refugees build a better life - and will help my Office establish a lasting legacy in support of all refugees but particularly young refugees who can make contribution to peace.

Thank you.