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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the First Meeting of the High Commissioner's Forum

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the First Meeting of the High Commissioner's Forum

27 June 2003

Geneva, 27 June 2003

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Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to welcome you all to this first meeting of the Forum. I would like to extend a particularly warm welcome to those of you who have travelled to Geneva from your capitals. It is encouraging to note the participation of so many international and non-governmental organizations. This is in keeping with my desire to provide a Forum for high-level and participatory dialogue on the many challenges facing refugee protection today.

When we talk about "Convention Plus", what we are referring to is an initiative which builds on the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol by putting in place new arrangements to complement these instruments and strengthen their implementation. The Global Consultations on International Protection recognised that there are a number of important aspects of the international refugee regime which the 1951 Convention does not address, and which are necessary to buttress the implementation of existing international law. The potential scope of "Convention Plus" is, therefore, very large.

In my three years as High Commissioner for Refugees, there is one central message I have heard so frequently that I have no hesitation as to what our first priority should be. The message is this: without the prospect of durable solutions, our common duty to protect refugees cannot be fulfilled effectively. Convention Plus means a stronger multilateral commitment to finding durable, sustainable solutions to refugee problems in a burden sharing framework.

The very existence of UNHCR is a manifestation of burden-sharing, and the expression of the intrinsic link between international protection and durable solutions - the two key elements of UNHCR's mandate. Through the Convention Plus initiative, I wish to offer UNHCR's assistance in mobilising and facilitating a genuine multilateral dialogue, taking the Global Consultations one step further and turning our common aspirations of achieving durable solutions into concrete, practical and shared commitments.

There should be no misunderstanding about UNHCR's position when it comes to enhancing protection in those regions that bear the brunt of the world's refugee problem. I say this because, in the run-up to the recently held European Summit in Thessaloniki, UNHCR's position was widely misrepresented in the media. I would like to make it clear that UNHCR's main interest is to encourage more imaginative efforts, within this Convention Plus framework, to find durable solutions for refugees. Access to a durable solution is the ultimate protection. Where hopelessness and despair pushes refugees and asylum-seekers into the hands of human smugglers and traffickers, we must act to address the causes, not to move the problem into a hypothetical "zone".

The need for burden sharing which is less ad hoc, more effective, and which does not simply amount to "burden shifting" - is a recurrent theme of the Agenda for Protection. Linked to this, is a need for a better management of refugee affairs - which includes giving sufficient attention to the search for durable solutions. Better management does not mean seeking to gain full control over issues such as refugee outflows, which are by definition sudden and hard to predict. Rather, it means a better apportioning of responsibilities amongst States. This can surely only increase the chances of ensuring peaceful solutions and improved security for States and for the refugees themselves.

UNHCR's Statute mentions "special agreements", and this is the language we have chosen to describe the form which these renewed commitments should take. Whether they turn out to be binding instruments or "soft law", what we have in mind is more than just vague declarations or lofty exhortations. If they are to give shape and content to States' stated commitments, these special agreements must be the result of negotiation, not just of consultation. Likewise, implementation of the agreements must be measurable.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This first meeting of the Forum is intended to set the Convention Plus process in motion. It is, in effect, the launching pad, not just for one, but hopefully for several components of the initiative.

For these initiatives to move forward, I am relying on what I have called "facilitating States". In this meeting we will hear expressions of interest by States that are willing to act as "facilitators" in the crafting of particular special agreements, in collaboration with my Office. At least one State - Canada - has already taken the step of preparing a discussion note for the Forum, in this case on the topic of resettlement.

I see the role of facilitating States as being the following: to propose elements that might form the basis of a special agreement; to work further with UNHCR and all concerned States to ensure that all views are canvassed in the drafting of the agreement; and to assist me in keeping the Executive Committee and the Standing Committee fully informed of progress made.

The Forum will be the place where the potential elements of proposed agreements are debated. However, when the process moves from discussions within the Forum to negotiating and drafting special agreements, responsibility will lie with those States that have a direct interest, with facilitating States in a lead role.

Clusters of States working on different aspects of Convention Plus will work closely with UNHCR, and will report regularly to the Forum. In this way, we will be able to ensure both consistency and cross-fertilisation between different Convention Plus initiatives.

I am sure that all delegations are familiar with the contents of our Questions and Answers document on Convention Plus and the Forum, which was updated last month and circulated again in preparation for this meeting. Still, it may be useful to recall those policy and activity areas that have been identified as lending themselves to Convention Plus agreements. These are:

  • Comprehensive plans of action to ensure more effective and predictable responses to mass influx situations;
  • Better targeting of development assistance, to enhance self-reliance of refugees and returnees in countries hosting large numbers of refugees, in refugee-hosting communities, as well as in countries of origin (in the reintegration context);
  • Multilateral commitments for resettlement; and
  • Developing frameworks to define to roles and responsibilities of countries of origin, transit and destination in "irregular" or "secondary movement" situations.

There are two ways of approaching multilateral discussions and the crafting of special agreements. While the two approaches are not contradictory, we need to assess which is likely to be more effective in each case. One approach is generic, while the other is situation-specific or caseload-specific. Generic special agreements might incorporate general principles and standard operating procedures, refer to legal standards, and define the roles and responsibilities of the actors involved. However, the less abstract and conceptual, the more valuable such special agreements will be. Situation-specific agreements would address the protection and solutions needs of particular groups of refugees.

Comprehensive arrangements to address specific refugee situations will normally take the form of plans of action, adopted by all States having a stake in the solution of these particular situations, such as countries of origin, countries of asylum, resettlement countries, as well as humanitarian and development actors. The roles and responsibilities of UNHCR and other regional and international organisations would also be delineated in such plans. Within these comprehensive arrangements, it should be possible to adopt agreements with a more limited scope; for example, tripartite agreements on voluntary repatriation, which have already been tried on many occasions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

UNHCR has considerable experience with comprehensive approaches to protection and solutions. For example, there was the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese Refugees (CPA), which resulted from the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees in June 1989. This has often been seen as a useful model. Five years after its inception, the CPA had succeeded in bringing the outflow from Viet Nam and Laos down to almost zero. Some 70,000 persons returned to Viet Nam, which for its part respected the safety assurances given to UNHCR and the international community. The CPA was a major investment, both politically and financially, and it proved to have a significant impact.

What the CPA introduced was a truly comprehensive mix of measures aimed at safeguarding the protection of refugees, while also enabling the repatriation of non-refugee migrants and the orderly emigration of those with links abroad. These measures included:

  • a mass media campaign within Viet Nam to deter clandestine departures;
  • the expansion of regular emigration through "orderly departure" procedures;
  • temporary refuge to boat arrivals in the region, including unimpeded access by UNHCR;
  • refugee status determination procedures in countries of first asylum;
  • the continuation of resettlement for those determined to be refugees;
  • the reaffirmation that rejected cases should return to their country of origin, and that all efforts should be made to encourage them to do so voluntarily.

In a different context, the CIS Conference on Refugees and Migrants, as it is known in short, was a similar attempt at addressing, in a comprehensive way, the complex population movements in the Newly Independent States of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The CIS Conference process is still ongoing, so it would be premature to draw too many conclusions from it. Nonetheless, some positive aspects of the process itself are worth highlighting, including the fact that, from the early planning stage, UNHCR engaged in active partnerships with IOM and the OSCE.

I would also like to refer to two comprehensive approaches to refugee problems, in Southern Africa and in Central America respectively, which both centered on voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration as the prime solution. Both of these initiatives were supportive of political peace processes. They also emphasised the necessary links between refugee repatriation and long-term development assistance.

In the case of Mozambique, UNHCR's programme followed the signing of the General Peace Agreement (October 1992). It involved the development of a solid legal and institutional framework for the repatriation of refugees through the establishment of Tripartite Commissions, with UNHCR, the Government of Mozambique and the Governments of six countries of asylum in the region. This coordinated regional approach to repatriation, and an integrated approach to reintegration and reconstruction, had a significant impact. Some 1.7 million persons, including refugees and IDPs, were assisted in returning to their homes. International aid amounted to US$ 145 million, including over US$ 100 million within Mozambique. The UNHCR programme eventually came to be seen as having made an important contribution to the stabilization of the country.

In Central America, the process known as CIREFCA (i.e., the International Conference on Central American Refugees) was probably the most ambitious effort in UNHCR's history to consolidate peace through durable solutions and integrated development. At the CIREFCA Conference in 1989, 56 participating States adopted a three-year Concerted Plan of Action - later extended by another two years - outlining solutions for the region's uprooted populations. The Plan of Action became an integral part of the peace, democracy and development agendas of Central American States. Amongst the many interesting features of the CIREFCA process were the following:

  • Programming links between development and refugee solutions were established early on. During the same session in 1988, the UN General Assembly approved the Plan of Economic Cooperation for Central America, to be overseen by UNDP, and asked UNHCR to organise an international conference.
  • Full operational partnership between UNHCR and UNDP was achieved through the establishment of a Joint Support Unit, which became the prime vehicle for implementation of CIREFCA projects.
  • In assessing needs, designing and implementing projects, a bottom-up approach was developed, giving a voice to the affected communities and encouraging local implementing partners whenever possible. Much of today's focus on the empowerment of refugee and returnee women can be traced to the FOREFEM initiative, which was part of the CIREFCA follow-up.

These historical precedents continue to guide us today. They remind us that resolving refugee problems is never easy, but that it can be done if we seize the right opportunities and invest adequate resources in a timely manner.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today we are faced with new opportunities. But are we ready to seize them and follow through with them? This is the question before us today. In the background document sent out before this meeting (FORUM/2003/03), we listed seven current refugee situations where real opportunities exist. The list illustrates the point, but it is not by any means exhaustive.

Take a look at Afghanistan. Over a quarter of a million Afghan refugees has so far returned home this year, bringing the total to well over two million returnees. On the ground, our 4R's strategy is being successfully tested, with strong partnerships with Afghan ministries. An update on the implementation of the 4R's strategy, not only in Afghanistan but also in three other countries of return, has recently been produced, and it is available at the back of the room.

UNHCR and the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan have signed tripartite agreements with France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and a similar agreement with Denmark is soon to follow. The sustainability of these returns, however, is far from guaranteed. If the world's attention shifts too far away from the tremendous needs in Afghanistan, the consequences may be catastrophic.

A comprehensive solution to the decade-long Afghan refugee problem must also address the continuing needs of refugees still being hosted by neighbouring countries. The Refugee Hosting and Rehabilitation Programme in Pakistan is being developed in this light. Also, while we must continue to prioritize voluntary repatriation, a broader strategy is required, which includes the exploration of other potential solutions, such as a framework for regularizing migration.

I could speak about many other situations in which imaginative solutions are being implemented, including Sierra Leone, Angola, Zambia, Eritrea, Sri Lanka and many more. For details on these, I refer you to the background document which I mentioned earlier.

What do all these solutions-oriented initiatives have in common? The two key objectives in each case are equitable burden-sharing and sustainability of the solutions. To achieve these objectives, we need to ensure a balanced combination of different solutions, expanded and strengthened partnerships, and in particular institutional bridges with development actors. It is also worth noting that in four of the seven situations mentioned in the background document, the UN has a significant presence based on Security Council resolutions giving it a mandate to play a critical role in the consolidation of peace. In such instances, efforts to ensure the safe and sustainable return of refugees - and in many cases also IDPs - benefit from an integrated UN approach.

Through all these initiatives, the Convention Plus concept is already being put into effect. Our challenge now is to seize the new opportunities as they present themselves.

Iraq is now in the spotlight, and as part of the overall UN operation there, UNHCR will have a key role to play in facilitating the return and reintegration of uprooted people - refugees and IDPs alike. But we should not forget other equally pressing needs, as well as new opportunities for solutions, in Africa. Refugees are in the process of returning to the safer parts of Somalia, namely Somaliland and Puntland. In Kenya, we have welcomed the Governments recent announcement of its intention to promote the self-reliance of Somali refugees in camps on its territory, pending their return to the southern part of Somalia, which remains unstable. The peace process in Somalia has been a slow and arduous one, but it is important for it to continue, and the humanitarian dimension of refugee and IDP returns could usefully be introduced into these talks.

In the case of the Sudan, there are hopeful signs that the on-going peace talks between the Government and the SPLM, under the Machakos peace initiative in Nairobi, will lead to a peace agreement. This would open up possibilities for the voluntary repatriation of almost half a million Sudanese refugees who are currently living in neighbouring countries. The return of refugees to southern Sudan would be a real test case in terms of partnership. There would be not only returning refugees but also returning IDPs. There would be a need, therefore, to put in place a comprehensive and co-ordinated programme for the reintegration of all war-affected populations. Within the IGAD-sponsored peace talks, UNHCR will work with all parties to ensure that the needs of returning refugees are integrated in the discussions. This could be included in the peace process in the form of what I call a "humanitarian protocol".

Whether in the case of Iraq, Somalia or the Sudan, voluntary repatriation will remain the preferred durable solution. However, in each case there may be a residual caseload of refugees for whom voluntary repatriation is not the solution. There remains, therefore, a critical need to review with both Governments in the region and outside the possibilities of achieving self-reliance, local integration or resettlement.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to invite all of you to reflect on ways in which, in all of these situations, the most desirable solutions might be facilitated or accelerated through the development of comprehensive plans of action, in the Convention Plus framework.

Comprehensive approaches can bring about solutions where, without them, there is no solution on the immediate horizon. Such approaches require commitment, imagination and courage, but I believe that are well worth the investment. Maintaining the status quo, or allowing situations to stagnate, is in nobody's interests: not the refugees, not countries of first asylum, and not the donor countries, many of whom are experiencing secondary movements. There is now, I believe, sufficient political will to move forward with this. Let us seize this opportunity.

Thank you.