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Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Meeting of Permanent Representatives in Geneva of States Members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 31 January 1986

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Meeting of Permanent Representatives in Geneva of States Members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 31 January 1986

31 January 1986
Language versions:

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In addressing you for the first time as High Commissioner, I would like to take this opportunity to sketch for you the major lines of action along which I intend to proceed at the beginning of the mandate which I have received from the General Assembly. The universality of the problem of forced exile, which today spares no continent, no sub-region, must be confronted directly. Intercontinental migration, irregular movements, massive influxes of refugees - often provoked by such disparate, and often multiple, motives as intolerance, internal warfare, international conflict, violation of human rights, natural disasters or economic crises - constitute a global reality which requires a common approach and joint efforts in order to identify possible solutions.

Whether in terms of numbers, concepts or geography, we find ourselves faced with a problem the dimensions of which have never before been experienced and whose consequences, if left unchecked, are limitless. Except for the situation of the immediate post-war period, the countries which, ten or 15 years ago, observed the refugee problem from a distance or experienced it in a regional context, are today confronted with migratory phenomena whose causes are far removed and difficult to control. The problem is no longer limited to a simple distinction between donor countries and receiving countries: it affects everyone and calls upon us to undertake a concerted search for new responses. We must confront these difficulties because that is the only way to create a climate which well allow us to deal with them squarely and to find solutions acceptable to the majority. It may be true that humanitarian questions have become difficult to separate from the other elements which characterize the interdependence of relations within the international community today. But we must not at any cost allow political walls to imprison humanitarian problems. The solutions will therefore emerge from a sharing or responsibilities based upon an acceptance of reality around us rather than its denial.

In gauging the present with the normative tools of the past, we are obliged to acknowledge that the definitions codified in the early 1950s no longer fully take account of the complexities inherent in the phenomena of exile which are evident today. The clarity of the established legal definitions has become clouded by the diversity of concrete situations and the multiplicity of objective and subjective motivations which lead a person or an entire community to uproot themselves. This, most emphatically, does not call into question the substance of the High Commissioner's Mandate or of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. My hope, on the contrary, is that this temporary disparity between the relevant norms and the reality we are experiencing today will encourage States - the ultimate guardians of international law - to resist the temptation to entrench themselves behind the limits of the existing texts, and to recognize the need, while reaffirming the basic principles, to adjust them to the new practical exigencies when the time comes.

The challenges of the present require on our part a flexible attitude which recognizes the diversity of refugee situations, even if some of them fall into "grey areas" from the legal point of view. If such an approach to reality were adopted with the necessary openness of mind, it would help perhaps, in the course of time, to reverse the great involuntary migrations of our epoch. Such results can only be attained by a common effort to understand the deep-rooted causes of exile and to negotiate pragmatically immediate solutions which respect the dignity and security of the people concerned.

If follows from what I have just said that protection remains the fundamental task of UNHCR. We find ourselves facing a choice between two temptations: either to deny reality in the name of juridical formalism, or to defer excessively to the expedient in disregard of humanity and of the law. This leads me a step further, to the hope that the co-ordinated efforts of Governments, UNHCR, and the other partners who are working for the refugee cause will lead to an interdependence between Action and Law in UNHCR's activities. In such a process, as you will all understand, the law would ultimately adapt itself to current practice in the field and to the resulting doctrine. In other words, the continuous elaboration of doctrine should complement day-to-day actions; only in this way can the haziness of the new situations, which I have referred to as "grey areas", be dispelled while respecting the humanitarian principles and the rules for action which the community of States has imposed on itself by adopting the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

I have said that the complexity of today's problems demands a common approach. This is all the more true as there is no ready-made solution: we will progress only by dealing with the problems in their entirety. For example, it is possible to couple assistance programmes which allow refugees to reside temporarily and with dignity in the first-asylum country on the one hand, with the immediate exploration of the possibilities for voluntary repatriation, on the other. When this option is not feasible in the short - or medium-term, more lasting solutions should allow refugees to meet at least part of their own needs. Such programmes would be drawn up in co-operation with those partners who possess "know-how" in the fields of agriculture and crafts. It seems to me a mistake to confound durable solutions in terms of self-sufficiency with permanent residence in the countries of first asylum. In fact, the desire to return home is directly linked to the refugee's dignity - a dignity which he retains only by not falling into a state of total dependence. The truth of this has been repeatedly demonstrated in the last 30 years. Finally, resettlement in a third country should remain, especially for the more sensitive cases, an option which it would be inconceivable to think of excluding altogether.

This does not mean that the search for solutions must take place at the expense of immediate action even before a solution can be envisaged. In emergencies, which have multiplied so alarmingly these last 15 years, the capacity of UNHCR and its operational partners to intervene rapidly and efficiently must be strengthened. Furthermore, it has become necessary to establish with the Governments concerned, especially in the least-developed areas, medium-term plans of action which take into account the conditions and the needs of the local population.

In short, I will devote myself to the search for flexible and integrated solutions which, to succeed, would require the decisive support of Governments. Their political will to see UNHCR effectively carry out its mandate constitutes the real guarantee for the success of the Office's activities.

This will also obviously depend on the financial resources at the disposal of UNHCR. I strongly hope that the sacrifices borne by the refugees as a result of cutbacks in UNHCR's programmes will not again be required. I therefore appeal to Governments to provide UNHCR, from 1986 onwards, with the resources necessary to carry out the totality of our programmes, which this year amount to $330.4 million for the General Programmes and $92.16 million for the Special Programmes. The latter figure includes $17 million which covers for the first three months of 1986 the Special Emergency Programmes in Africa - Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan - but which excludes the remaining nine months, for which a budget will shortly be submitted to Governments.

For its part, UNHCR will try to ensure precision in the evaluation of needs, credibility in the formulation of programmes and rigour in the implementation of projects. The systematic application of these principles will reinforce the confidence which should exist between UNHCR and the countries supporting us. It is clear that the financing of the activities of an institution such as ours must be based on results achieved and not on an automatic process which in any case is being strained by successive appeals to the generosity of the international community.

In this perspective, I am conscious of the need to provide UNHCR, both at headquarters and in the field, with the working and management tools to enable us to attain our objectives efficiently. It is in the field that crises develop and it is in the field where the victims are. It is therefore in the field that UNHCR succeeds or fails. The structure of the institution must adapt itself to this fact. I have already stated that Action and Law are interdependent; hence, the Regional Bureaux must play their role, as co-ordinators of UNHCR's overall activities in the field. The various services (legal, programming, personnel, finance, external relations, and so forth) must provide support for these activities. In that respect, I will give particular priority in the coming months to adapting UNHCR's structures to modern management principles and to appropriate working methods. This will allow each staff member to understand the importance of his or her role and to contribute, with competence and motivation, to the global success of UNHCR's operations.

But this concern for the work in the field and the structural support it requires does not mean that UNHCR intends to do everything alone. The Office must continue to depend on operational partners while at the same time providing them competent guidance and a professional framework for their participation in refugee aid. UNHCR, which is committed to specific humanitarian principles and to strict methods in the implementation of its activities, will rely on operational partners who are disposed to practice impartiality with respect to the refugees, independence with respect to Governments and neutrality with respect to all controversies of a political nature.

I would not like to conclude this brief presentation of the main principles which will guide UNHCR without affirming before you my wish to maintain a continuing dialogue in an atmosphere of trust with the States members of the Executive Committee - and with any other State confronted with a refugee problem or in a position to contribute toward resolving one. In consequence, one of my major preoccupations will be to preserve and reinforce the consensus within the Executive Committee, the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly on UNHCR's work. I am conscious that this consensus is the true guarantee of the universal respect for the humanitarian principles which inspire the work of the High Commissioner's Office. My colleagues and I know that the unstinting support which we need must depend in very large measure on the rigour which we demonstrate in carrying out our humanitarian task and on the credibility which we thus establish. To this we shall dedicate our tireless efforts; we will never forget that 10 million innocent and suffering human beings expect us - and also of you - decisive action which will help them to survive, to retain their dignity, and to nourish the realistic expectation of returning to their own communities as masters of their own destiny. Together, let us mobilize our imagination, our energy and our will so that their hopes are not betrayed.