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Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council

Speeches and statements

Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council

10 December 2012

10 December 2012

As delivered

Monsieur le Président, Monsieur le Secrétaire général, Excellences,

Je voudrais tout d'abord vous remercier pour cette opportunité de m'exprimer devant le Conseil de Sécurité.

Il y a juste quatre jours, nous avons vu l'entrée en vigueur du premier cadre juridique contraignant sur les droits des déplacés internes - la Convention de l'Union africaine sur la protection et l'assistance des déplacés internes en Afrique, communément appelée Convention de Kampala. Plusieurs pays de la région du Sahel, y compris tout récemment le Mali, ont ratifié ce traité qui fera date.

This means tangible progress on the legal level for millions of uprooted people across Africa. The harsh everyday conditions facing most internally displaced persons on the continent today highlight how urgent it is for these positive legal developments to be transformed into reality on the ground. The Mali displacement crisis, which has significant consequences for the wider Sahel region, is a case in point.

Nearly 350,000 people have been forced from their homes since the beginning of 2012, many of them seeking protection in neighbouring countries. In a region where drought and prolonged food insecurity had already caused one acute humanitarian crisis, this massive displacement has now resulted in another emergency.

Almost 200,000 people are internally displaced, with the majority living in host families or spontaneous settlements. In the North, both the displaced and the communities sheltering them lack food and struggle to meet their most basic needs, with state authorities no longer present to provide essential social services.

Insecurity continues to hamper access by humanitarian agencies, with calamitous consequences for populations already drained by months of hardship. Protection concerns are growing, with widespread reports of serious human rights violations from sexual violence and child recruitment to stoning and mutilations of criminal suspects.

With the individual verification and so-called "Level 2" registration exercises soon to be completed, the number of Malian refugees in neighbouring countries is now estimated at more than 140,000.

But - as the Secretary General mentioned - we cannot look at the Mali crisis in isolation. It is essential to take into account the context of the region, the Sahel, which is facing enormous challenges from food insecurity to, in some cases, institutional fragility; from widespread poverty to security threats. It is the Sahel in its entirety, and not only the Malian people, that needs the attention and the support of the international community.

The countries of the Sahel are among the main victims of the accelerating effects of climate change. While drought and desertification are not new in the Sahel, their increased frequency and intensity are, and will likely get worse in the future as a potential source of conflict over scarce resources and a new driver of forced displacement. To help communities build resilience is, in this context, a clear moral obligation for the whole international community, and especially for those countries that contribute more to global warming and its consequences.

Resilience is key not only to better prevent and mitigate the impact of natural disasters, but also to adapt to the slow onset of desertification and other forms of destruction of an environment able to sustain human life.

The countries in the region - Algeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger and Togo - are to be commended for their generosity and the unwavering commitment they have shown to the principles of refugee protection. All of them have kept their borders open throughout the crisis, despite the enormous pressure this has put on their own often vulnerable communities and scarce resources.

The refugee hosting states need and deserve much stronger international solidarity to help them manage the additional strain created by the refugee influx.

The challenges facing UNHCR and its partners in assisting displaced Malians in the neighbouring countries are also significant. Most of the refugees are hosted in remote, arid areas. It often takes several days of driving on very poor roads to provide them with food, water and medical supplies.

In addition to these problems of access, insecurity, including a high risk of kidnapping, also hinders the aid effort in several locations, forcing humanitarian actors to move with armed escorts. With refugee sites located close to the border, refugees are potentially exposed to forced recruitment and other spill-over effects of the conflict.

Assisting a largely nomadic refugee population poses another set of unusual, complex challenges, requiring humanitarian actors to adapt their strategies for response in innovative ways that are better targeted to the specific character of these communities.

* * *


The humanitarian challenges I have mentioned are compounded by a number of complex interlinked factors which make northern Mali, in the very fragile context of the wider Sahel zone, one of the potentially most explosive corners of the world today.

An area bigger than the entire Iberian Peninsula, from which I come, is now without the presence of any state authority and controlled by armed extremist groups. The region's remoteness, poverty and vast, sparsely populated territories have made it an ideal operating theatre for actors engaged in highly lucrative organised crime including drug and arms trafficking, people smuggling and activities linked to terrorism.

This entails security risks at the national and sub-regional levels, but also beyond, potentially impacting all of West Africa, the southern rim of the Mediterranean, and ultimately Europe.

To be sustainable, a future political framework must include, but also go beyond the signing of agreements with those elements of the insurgency that are ready for dialogue. It must create the conditions for all communities, regardless of their ethnic and social composition and stratification - the Songhai, the Tuareg, the Arab-speakers, the Fulani and others - to fully participate in a reformed Mali state and in the socio-economic development of the region.

In this regard, the ongoing mediation efforts need full support. A lasting political solution can only be reached with the full engagement of all countries in the region, and a deepened and enlarged consensus at national, regional and global levels.

There are many steps required which only Malians themselves can take. But for their efforts to succeed, the international community will have to be fully engaged in an effective future development strategy that is fair, equitable and fully inclusive.

Poverty and underdevelopment, exacerbated by desertification and the effects of climate change, are being exploited by ideologies that are either based on ethnicity or religious extremism. But as a result of this, everyone is set to lose. It is a problem exacerbated in Mali today, but we cannot forget its regional implications.

If no comprehensive political solution is found, it risks triggering something much broader - a series of interlinked crises from Libya to Nigeria and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Aden, threatening the security and the stability of several countries. The humanitarian consequences of such a scenario would be devastating. I trust the Security Council to do everything possible in order to prevent this from happening.

* * *


We find ourselves today at a critical juncture for the stability of the Sahel region as a whole. I would therefore like to end in highlighting three key points relating to the action of my Office.

First, member states must give full consideration to the humanitarian dimension of this crisis as they consider the appropriate international response. Assisting the displaced and other affected populations is already highly challenging in the current situation.

We should not forget that in any military intervention, even when successful, tens of thousands more people are likely to be displaced in the beginning both inside the country and across borders.

Second, I urge all actors in the conflict, including a potential international force, to protect humanitarian space and ensure agencies have unhindered access to affected populations. In this context, the autonomy of humanitarian space, with a clear separation of the civilian and military spheres of any international presence, is of fundamental importance.

Third, planning for the political transition and post-conflict recovery must carefully take into account those who have been forced to flee.

For example, the electoral process should foresee such issues as voter registration of displaced populations, many of whom have lost their identity documents.

Similarly, future recovery and resilience strategies will be incomplete if they fail to include the dynamics of displacement. The potential for the safe and sustainable return of those who fled is one key concern to be firmly anchored in any roadmap for the future of the region. Adequate support to countries hosting refugees is another, including for example the rehabilitation of refugee-impacted areas once the displaced are able to return home.

I am confident that my old friend Romano Prodi's efforts to bring about a UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel Region will result in a successful framework to enhance that support.

Once again, I appeal to the international community to show to all countries of the Sahel the same solidarity they have offered to so many Malian refugees, totally disregarding the impact on their economy and society.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

Thank you again for this opportunity to brief you today.