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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR Staff in Geneva, 9 January 1978

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR Staff in Geneva, 9 January 1978

9 January 1978

First of all I should like to thank Mr. Mace for his very kind words of welcome and for the warm reception he gave me and my wife upon our arrival here in Geneva on Saturday.

Then I wish to thank all of you for the kind message you sent to me when I was elected and for all the kind words and smiles my wife and I have already been met with from the very first minute we arrived here. We thank you and we wish you all a happy new year.

My wife, Elsebeth, is with me to-day. In Denmark - when there has been a change of government and, at a small ceremony, you take over your ministry from your predecessor - you also always introduce your wife to your staff and the staff to your wife. Not that the wife involves herself in the politics of her husband, never, but we are a couple, and in some respects we shall share a responsibility and a challenge together. Therefore we find it natural that from the beginning we should both together meet you all, also that you might know what we both look like.

I am not going to speak to you this morning about the different aspects of refugees work. I am convinced that you will know more about the details of this subject than I do. But I would underline that it is important for the work we shall have to deal with in common that we come to know each other and understand each other.

When running a government it is my experience that it is important that you understand each other, that you can trust each other and that you have a common purpose, and I am sure that these things would apply even more so to an international organisation with all its national and cultural differences.

In the time to come it is my sincere hope that we shall come to know each other, and I intend to care for everyone on my staff, just as you will help me to care for all and every refugee group without prejudice.

I promise to be open to your views and advice but I also owe it to you to let you know what the policy is going to be once a decision has been taken.

When I became Foreign Minister one of my first functions was to call to Copenhagen all the Danish Ambassador around the world, partly for the sake of meeting them, partly to learn about their problems and partly to tell them the foreign policy of the new government. I realise that UNHCR is not a Foreign Ministry and yet there may be some similarities of a practical or even structural nature from which my past experience could be of some help to me.

Thus I would for example hope within the course of this year to have an opportunity of meeting the UNHCR Representatives from around the world, either in the form of regional meetings or in the form of a global meeting here in Geneva. That would indeed be very useful to me and I believe it would be for them too if such a meeting was well-prepared, as I am sure it would be, by those responsible.

When I took charge of the Danish Foreign Ministry I knew what the policy was going to be because I knew the problems in depth and had well founded personal views. Today as I take charge of this office I have too little knowledge of the details of the problems and I therefore intend to hold such meetings with the Representatives only later in the year after I have come to grips with the problems of UNHCR.

I have a general knowledge of the office and its overall problems. I have over the years personally and actively supported the voluntary agencies working with refugees in Denmark, and as Foreign Minister I received the previous High Commissioner in Copenhagen. I have so to speak met UNHCR form the outside. To-day I have come indoors, and my job is to test the problems from the inside.

I believe therefore that I shall need to travel quite a lot in the first few months and one of the very first problems I shall concern myself with is that of refugees from Southern Africa. Of course, I know the problem in general. I have visited some of the front-line States and had talks with some of the prominent African leaders such as President Kaunda and President Nyerere, but that was some years ago and I am fully aware that since then the complexity of the problem has changed dramatically for the worse. I therefore hope for a very early opportunity to visit this area to see for myself and to meet with the African leaders of Governments and Liberation Movements, and I look forward to the guidance I can receive in this respect from my African staff members, because I believe that the best man to tell you about the problems of a certain part of the world is a person of that region.

Another serious problem of great concern is that of refugees from Indochina, partly in Thailand and partly as "boat refugees".

I am also concerned about the refugee situation in Latin America, and as I understand that the two problems of Indochinese and Latin American refugees are closely linked to the question of places of permanent settlement, I hope to be able to visit the major resettlement countries in the early part of this year. I also intend, as early as possible, to call on most of the traditional supporters of UNHCR and here I am not speaking in terms of financial support only, but also of supporters in the field of legal protection, an aspect of the work to which I attach great importance.

I have studied with interest the documentation the Director of Legal Protection so kindly made available for my Christmas reading, and I look forward to discussion further with Mr. Jaeger and members of his division what needs to be done in the field of protection.

Another part of my Christmas literature was the previous High Commissioner's statements to the Executive Committee meeting in Geneva, last October, and the Pledging Conference in New York, in November. From this reading I clearly gained the impression that we are in an extremely difficult financial situation and that special measures must urgently be taken. I shall to-day and to-morrow discuss this matter further with Mr. Mace and the Directors and with the Chairman of the Executive Committee, but I understand that a special meeting of the Ambassadors to the Executive Committee, has been called for 20 January to be followed by a fund raising appeal later this month.

With such a heavy schedule ahead of me I shall indeed need the support of all of you in order that the office may function well while I get some extensive on-the-job training through visiting refugee areas, resettlement countries and other countries of importance to the work of the office. That, of course, will only be possible if stability and continuity prevail at Headquarters and I feel confident that you all will assist Mr. Mace in ensuring that this will be the case.

This office is said to have the most devoted staff and to be the most efficient organisation within the United Nations family. I trust that we shall succeed in preserving and perhaps even improving that reputation.

Sometimes the voluntary agencies imply that any United Nations organ is by definition a bureaucracy geared to a specific complex of problems but which not capable of concerning itself with the human problems of the individual. I am sure this does not apply to UNHCR, for what is a refugee but an individual with a number of very personal problems, some of them very obvious like his material needs or his legal status, others more hidden within his personal and very private conflict with life.

My wife is a medical doctor, teaching nurses, and I have for many years been the Headmaster of a teachers' training college. I think we all know that on some occasions the individual concern of the nurse can be as important to the patient as her medical qualifications. And I always taught my students at the teachers' college that there is more to pass on to children than knowledge, and the influence a good teacher can have on a child's life goes well beyond the programme of study.

I would imagine that it is seldom that we here in Geneva meet a refugee, but even so refugees must always be thought of not as statistics, not as technical problems only, but first and foremost as individual human beings with personal problems and a need for help beyond the dry text of all the resolutions governing the work of our office.

This office and this staff is in many respects like other offices and other staffs. It is here as elsewhere important that we understand each other and that we trust each other.

All the same this office is different from most other offices beginning their work in the new year, as we begin to-day. It is different because our purpose is an exclusively humanitarian one, it is different because we endeavour with all our might to render ourselves superfluous, it is different from most other offices because our job is not to earn money, but to spend money.

In this context I think we should all be budget-minded in the sense of feeling responsible for other people's money entrusted to our care. Whether UNHCR receives its funds through the collection cans of a voluntary agency, or whether we get the funds through taxation in the donor countries, somehow, for every dollar we receive there is somebody, somewhere, who earned that dollar and entrusted it to us, either voluntarily through the collection cans or perhaps less voluntarily through tax bills. But in all cases, it is a sign of trust that UNHCR receives that dollar, and that again is a commitment to spend it properly. It is a commitment to the donor but even more so, it is a commitment to the refugees for whose benefit we received it.

I do realise that I am, in many respects, hampered by succeeding an outstanding personality like Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. I am the fifth United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I have the highest esteem for my four predecessors. Only few of you have served under all my predecessors, but many of you will be able to compare with two or three of the previous High Commissioners. As you know, comparisons are odious.

I know about a senior staff member in a voluntary agency who, when retiring after nearly 50 years of devoted service, was asked who of the eight Secretaries-General under who he had served had been the best man. That, of course, is always a tricky question, and especially in this case, as three of them were present at that farewell party - but, after a moment of serious reflection, he answered that the Organisation had always had the privilege in each period of time to have the right Secretary-General for that period.

I wish for UNHCR and for the refugee cause that it can always by truly said that this office had the right High Commissioner at the right time.

That is also the wish I have for the task I take over to-day.

We start our sail in common. We belong to the same crew, we have to understand and to trust each other. But more important: we have a purpose for our journey, and we - the staff in the UNHCR office - must never forget that we are not here for our own sake. We are here with a mandate of service to refugees and that alone is our reason, our justification for being here.

In the Preface to the book "The American Heritage" the late President John F. Kennedy wrote: "A knowledge of the past prepares us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future".

I shall try speedily to gain the necessary knowledge of the past in order to better understand the crisis of the present and you and I will then together meet the challenge of the future.

Thank you.