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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Permanent Council of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna, 18 October 2001

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Permanent Council of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna, 18 October 2001

18 October 2001
Combating xenophobiaReaffirming the centrality of the Refugee ConventionStatelessnessFocus on solutionsFurther strengthening our partnership
Mr. Chairman,
Secretary-General Kubis,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be with you here today. I am grateful to Ambassador Bota for inviting me. I am particularly pleased to be able to address you at this critical time, when both of our organisations are faced with great challenges in the aftermath of the appalling and tragic events of 11th September.

UNHCR is privileged in Europe and Central Asia because it enjoys a long-standing, well-developed partnership with the OSCE. Indeed, it is gratifying to see how much progress has been made since my predecessor, Sadako Ogata, last addressed this Council. At that time, our two organisations signed a Memorandum of Understanding on enhancing our cooperation. It is clear that its objective of "achieving maximum synergy and complementarity" has been vigorously pursued.

I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the strong support that the Secretary-General, Ambassador Kubis, has given to the development of our partnership. I would also like to thank the OSCE Chairmanships of the last few years, all of whom have strongly supported this development. The action-oriented approach and vision of your current Chairman, Foreign Minister Geoana, who has also shown strong commitment to furthering the partnership with UNHCR, is also much appreciated.

There are a multitude of issues of common concern to the OSCE and UNHCR. Fields of co-operation include, amongst others, the prevention and solution of forced displacement, statelessness and citizenship issues, migration and trafficking in human beings, the situation of minorities, gender issues, human rights training, the development of legislation, institution and capacity building, civil society and NGO development. They also include co-ordination on issues such as staff security, human resources deployment and training. Regular as well as ad-hoc consultations are held both at the headquarters level and in some twenty countries where both our organisations are operationally active.

Over the last ten years, models of co-operation have been developed and refined, and many lessons have been learned. Our interaction has moved far beyond mere consultation and information sharing into joint analysis, planning and implementation. But we must continue to refine our strategic partnership if we are to succeed in addressing the many formidable challenges that lie ahead. I would like to use this opportunity to highlight some of the areas where I believe that we are facing particular challenges.

Combating xenophobia

In the aftermath of the barbaric terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, it is clear that we all need to guard against the rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance. I share the concern about anti-Muslim incidents that Chairman Geoana, as well as Ambassador Stoudmann, the Director of your Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and this Council have expressed. Refugees and asylum seekers are already the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are particularly vulnerable in the current climate. We should beware of those who claim to pursue the public cause but simply exploit racial instincts. Fighting against xenophobia must be a top priority for us all.

Afghans are particularly vulnerable. Even before 11th September, Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world, with some four million spread out between Iran, Pakistan and a multitude of other countries across the world, including many OSCE participating States. A war on terrorism must not become a war on Afghans. Also, under no circumstances must it become a war on Islam.

As you know, UNHCR is now setting up an emergency operation for the region. We are preparing for a worst case scenario of 1.5 million Afghans who may cross the border, mainly to Pakistan and Iran. We have sent emergency teams to the region, and our immediate target is to prepare to meet the needs of 300,000 refugees in Pakistan and 80,000 in Iran. Our contingency planning also extends to the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. I have called on all the countries neighbouring Afghanistan to open their borders to refugees. It remains a top priority to ensure that those in need are given the possibility of crossing the border, so that they can be given temporary protection and assistance.

Reaffirming the centrality of the Refugee Convention

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which - together with its 1967 Protocol - remains the foundation of the international refugee protection regime. Indeed, the fundamental principles and rights embodied in these instruments have provided a resilient protection regime within which millions of refugees have been able to find safety from armed conflicts and persecution. I am grateful for your reaffirmation of the relevance of the Convention and of the related role of UNHCR, as contained in the Statement you plan to adopt today.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Convention, UNHCR has initiated a process of Global Consultations on International Protection. The purpose of this process, on the one hand, is to seek to promote the full and effective implementation of the 1951 Convention, and on the other, to develop complementary new approaches, tools and standards to ensure the availability of international protection and durable solutions. The active participation of many OSCE participating States is ensuring the success of this process. Allow me to use this opportunity to renew my invitation to the first ever Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the Convention, being jointly organised by UNHCR and the Swiss government, to be held in Geneva on 12-13 December.

Indeed, almost all OSCE participating States are already parties to the Convention and Protocol. I greatly welcome the recent accession of one further OSCE participating State as well as the intent of another two to accede before the end of this year. Let me encourage participating States that have not yet done so, to join the fifty OSCE states that are currently party to the Convention and Protocol. I would also like to renew UNHCR's offer of supporting States Parties in their full and inclusive implementation of these international instruments.

We must also ensure that the global fight against terrorism does not weaken the refugee protection regime. Above all, we must ensure that the UN Refugee Convention is not misrepresented as an instrument that provides a safe haven for terrorists. The Convention, when properly applied, does not offer safe haven to criminals, nor does it extend any immunity from prosecution to those engaged in terrorist activities. On the contrary, it is carefully framed to exclude persons who have committed particularly serious offences. This is echoed in UN Security Council Resolution 1373 of 28th September, which calls on States to work together urgently to prevent and suppress terrorist acts. While it is important to take the necessary steps to avoid abuse of the asylum channel, I would therefore like to stress that no unwarranted linkages should be made between refugees and terrorists. We need your help in conveying this message to governments throughout Europe and Central Asia, as they look for new ways of addressing legitimate security concerns. I hope that these concerns will be reflected in the forthcoming OSCE Plan of Action on Combating Terrorism.


Another area where I feel that we need to strengthen our partnership is in addressing the problem of statelessness and citizenship. As you know, UNHCR - in addition to its original mandate - has been requested by the UN General Assembly to also promote the reduction and prevention of statelessness, as well as to carry out activities on behalf of stateless persons. The links between forced displacement and problems of statelessness and citizenship are well documented. Less well known, but equally important, are the impacts these problems have on conflict prevention. Putting it simply: depriving a segment of a population of the possibility to acquire citizenship and the civic rights and duties that this entails, is asking for trouble. It will almost inevitably lead to social tensions, instability and conflict.

During the 1990s, UNHCR worked closely with the OSCE and the Council of Europe in promoting the adoption and implementation of adequate citizenship legislation in the OSCE area. This helped to avert or solve many of the problems that arose from the dissolution of countries such as the Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. UNHCR is particularly grateful for the excellent cooperation it enjoyed with your former High Commissioner on National Minorities, van der Stoel, in advancing solutions for certain populations at risk of becoming stateless. Today, I have the pleasure of meeting High Commissioner Ekeus for the second time already since he assumed this important office. I think we are both confident that, together, we can make progress in dealing with some of the problems that remain to be addressed.

Above all, I would like to call on your support in encouraging states, who have not yet done so, to accede to, and implement through national legislation, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons as well as the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. I warmly welcome the commitments to addressing problems of statelessness and citizenship in the Charter for European Security, which you adopted two years ago in Istanbul. You may have noticed the emphasis we put on raising awareness with potential partners, including in particular the OSCE, in our contributions to recent Human Dimension discussions. Very concretely, we have proposed the services of our experts - together with your experts - to offer you, here in Vienna, an informal technical briefing on these problems and ways of addressing them. I would also like to lend my support to the proposal of devoting one of your Human Dimension meetings or next year's Seminar to the avoidance and reduction of statelessness.

Focus on solutions

I believe that we can also refine our partnership in seeking durable solutions for people who have had to flee their homes. UNHCR has a mandate to ensure the international protection of refugees. But our work does not stop there. We also have a mandate to search for durable solutions to refugee problems. Voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement - these are the three solutions, and they are the best investment in peace and stability. I see this as the heart of my mission: not 'protection' alone, but 'protection and solutions'. For protection is not protection if there are no solutions.

Failure to provide solutions is not only demeaning for refugees but also has its dangers. It can also lead to a rise in crime and the threat of further conflict or instability. We must guard against this. The unacceptable alternatives when we do not provide durable solutions are more protracted refugee situations, more refugees languishing in refugee camps year after year, more refugees taking desperate measures to find safety and a better future, and more refugees being exploited by criminal smuggling networks.

In Europe and Central Asia, we rely heavily on the support of the OSCE in bringing about political solutions, and have engaged in comprehensive approaches addressing the human dimension of conflict. I will not attempt to provide a complete inventory of our joint action that has developed steadily, enhanced not least by the 1996 Geneva Conference. Instead, I would like to mention a few examples of 'best practices', where our activities successfully complement each other and where we benefit from each other's comparative advantages.

Let me turn first to the Caucasus. Following the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, UNHCR has supported humanitarian action for refugees and internally displaced persons alike, and has engaged in contingency planning with other partners, in support of a political settlement which is being pursued by the OSCE Minsk Group. Good progress was made in 2000 and early 2001, and this has been actively followed up by the Chairman-in-Office. I hope that both sides will keep up the momentum to ensure a peaceful outcome.

In Georgia, we have co-operated closely with the OSCE on issues relating to return, monitoring and property questions. I remain concerned, however, that the frustrations caused by the delay in achieving durable solutions for those who remain displaced is creating a fragile situation that can easily be exploited by criminals. The tragic incident last week, in which nine members of the UN observer team were killed when their helicopter was shot down over Abkhazia, illustrates the dangers that still exist. I deeply regret this development and call on all sides in the two conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to actively re-engage in the respective UN-led and OSCE-led peace processes.

In the case of Chechnya, the OSCE has played an extremely valuable role in helping to depoliticise the sensitive border situation with Georgia through intensive monitoring. On both sides of the border this has facilitated UNHCR's work to ensure protection and assistance to displaced populations in the Russian Federation (Ingushetia) and Chechen refugees in Georgia. Inside Chechnya, we welcome the return of the OSCE, which is now working on a programme which has been planned closely with UNHCR, to complement our protection and humanitarian activities and to contribute to creating conditions conducive to return.

Joint field planning exercises have been introduced routinely this year between UNHCR, the OSCE, and other actors such as IOM and the Council of Europe. The first regional Head of Mission meeting for the Caucasus took place in Tbilisi only two weeks ago, and another one will take place in Tashkent soon to provide opportunities for joint planning in Central Asia.

In Central Asia, UNHCR's links with the OSCE go back to the very beginning of our operations in the early 1990s, when the Tajik repatriation operation was put in place. It has continued to the present, with complementary programmes aimed primarily at capacity building in government and civil society. As regards the current crisis in and around Afghanistan, UNHCR is taking into account the needs of the Central Asia countries bordering Afghanistan, and is consulting closely with the OSCE in preparing for possible outflows from Afghanistan. However, it is anticipated that the larger outflows are likely to be in the direction of Pakistan and Iran.

Turning to the Balkans, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, OSCE monitors have been playing a crucial role in terms of human rights reporting and confidence-building in areas where people fled their homes. In August, I wrote to the OSCE Chairman-in-Office to share my perspective on the situation and to ask for more monitors, as I was convinced that their presence would help to restore confidence among the population and create the conditions necessary for returns to take place. I would like to take this opportunity to applaud you for the deployment of these monitors, which - together with the follow-up NATO force - are so crucial to stabilising the situation. At the same time, I know you share my concern that monitoring should not be seen as a substitute for security. I hope that the government of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will show restraint and that the stabilisation process will be given time to run its course. In the meantime, I would like to encourage the OSCE to accelerate its efforts regarding the establishment of a multi-ethnic police force. This, I believe, will play a significant role in determining whether or not those who are still displaced feel it is safe to return to their homes.

In southern Serbia, the deployment of OSCE monitors, working side by side with UNHCR, greatly contributed to a peaceful solution of the conflict. In addition, the commitment by the OSCE to assist in the establishment of a multi-ethnic police force led to the disarmament agreement and a cessation of hostilities. May I take this opportunity to express my deepest gratitude to the OSCE for these interventions, which have allowed thousands of displaced persons - including many who fled in 1999 - to return to their homes.

In Kosovo, the relationship between the OSCE and UNHCR on protection and human rights issues has been excellent and should serve as a model for future co-operation elsewhere. As we are all too aware, the end of the conflict for the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 led to the displacement and isolation of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Roma, and other minority groups in Kosovo. I am pleased to report that our co-operation on improving conditions for these populations, contributed to the first return of Serbs to Kosovo last month, after more than two years of displacement. I am confident that our organisations will continue to work closely together and that the return programme can be expanded.

Finally, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the close co-operation between UNHCR, the OSCE and the Office of the High Representative has led to significant progress in the Property Law implementation. Out of some 260,000 claims, over 80,000 re-possessions have been made possible. This has finally opened up real opportunities for 'minority returns', including to urban areas. I am pleased to report that since 1999, 160,000 so-called 'minority returns' have been registered in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is real progress and UNHCR is committed to continue facilitating the return of all those who opt to start a new live in their places of origin.

UNHCR is working very closely with the Governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to eliminate the still remaining legal and administrative obstacles to refugee returns. My Regional Coordinator for South East Europe is, as you know, the Co-Chairman of the Regional Return Initiative of the Stability Pact. I am confident that through this mechanism more tangible results can and will be achieved in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.

Further strengthening our partnership

Mr. Chairman,

I hope that we will be able to build on the excellent partnership that already exists between the OSCE and UNHCR. I believe that it is vital for us to continue to work at defining our respective roles and responsibilities, to ensure that we remain predictable and reliable partners. I hope that we will continue to base our cooperation on the principle of our complementary and mutually supportive roles, to avoid unnecessary duplication and blurring of responsibilities between our two organisations. In a more and more crowded humanitarian space, I believe it is vital to ensure a clear division of labour, respecting our complementary roles and different mandates. For our part, we will continue to contribute our expertise and support in matters related to refugees, asylum seekers, returnees, internally displaced persons, stateless people and others of concern. At the same time, we will continue to rely heavily on the important role played by the OSCE in searching for political solutions, peace, stability and the protection of human rights.

Let me conclude by once again expressing my gratitude for the support that the OSCE has regularly extended to UNHCR, and for the initiatives that it has taken to strengthen our partnership. Let me also reaffirm my offer of UNHCR's liaison services to your regular decision making processes here in Vienna, as well as to the preparation of your Ministerial Councils and Summits. I strongly support the reform process that your current Chairmanship has initiated in areas that are relevant to the UNHCR's mandate, and we look forward to an efficient follow up of recommendations derived from Human Dimension discussions. We share your keen interest to seize all opportunities to advance relevant international commitments or standards, and we are ready to continue offering positive contributions to relevant discussions of this Council.

Finally, one of my main purposes in coming here today was to offer you an opportunity to share with me your ideas on how to further develop the partnership between the OSCE and UNHCR, and especially between my Office and this Council. I am looking forward to engaging in this exchange with you.

Thank you.