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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 20 May 2004

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 20 May 2004

20 May 2004
Forced Displacement and Peace and SecurityReturn and the Impact on Peace and StabilityOther Issues

(Check against delivery)

Mr. President,

Thank you for this opportunity to brief the Security Council. It has been over two years since I have had the opportunity to do so. While taking the opportunity to update you on a number of humanitarian crises. I will also address two main themes. First, I will underscore the link between forcible displacement and international peace and security. Second, I will address the issue of the sustainable return of displaced populations and the positive impact this has on creating durable peace and stability.

Forced Displacement and Peace and Security

Allow me first to focus on displacement and the implications on peace and security. Wherever there is displacement, there are movements across borders. Therefore by definition, conflicts that generate refugee movements necessarily involve neighbouring states and thus have regional security implications. As we have seen most vividly in the Great Lakes Region in the 1990s and more recently in West Africa, the lines of conflict frequently run across state boundaries due to the various ethnic and cultural ties of the affected communities.

This also leads to mixed movements of populations, including not only refugees but also armed elements seeking sanctuary in neighbouring countries. The presence of armed elements in refugee camps and settlements has a number of grave consequences for the security and welfare of refugees, including possible military incursions, forced recruitment, and sexual abuse. These factors create an unstable and insecure operating environment for humanitarian workers. In addition, the presence of armed elements poses security concerns for host communities and receiving states, and has an impact on regional peace and security.

I remember vividly my first visit to West Africa in February 2001, shortly after being appointed High Commissioner. At the time, there were RUF incursions into refugee-populated areas in Guinea from Sierra Leone and armed rebels from Liberia were also circulating among the refugee camps - some of which we had no access to at the time. During that visit I called on the RUF and on Charles Taylor for access to and for the secure movement of refugees. Despite the subsequent stabilization efforts in the region, we are still suffering today from cross-border armed movements in West Africa, with its many refugee camps. The Mano River region, with its cross border movements of armed elements and of arms, has nowadays expanded to include Côte d'Ivoire.

A current example, which concerns me greatly, involves parts of Sudan and the spill-over effect on Chad. In southern Sudan, positive developments in the peace talks give rise to hopes for the return of 600,000 Sudanese refugees currently in exile in neighbouring countries. Yet these developments are increasingly overshadowed by the situation in Darfur. UNHCR took part in the High Level UN mission to Darfur, which was headed by my colleague Mr. Jim Morris from WFP. As you know from his briefing to the Council, it is estimated that at least one million people have been displaced as a direct result of violence and suffered gross human rights violations. Currently my Office is working together with partners to assist the affected population in Darfur and to try to create the conditions for eventual return, but we must have access. If the situation does not improve, we will see further refugee flows into Chad. The international aid community may be quickly overwhelmed and there is the potential for destabilization of the sub-region.

The humanitarian situation is appalling on both sides of the border. I visited Chad in March. Since then, I received more and more news regarding the presence of armed elements near the border areas inside Chad. There are now strong indications that both Janjaweed militias and various groups associated with the Sudanese rebels are operating in these locations. In view of the increasing insecurity in the border areas, where tens of thousands of refugees remain scattered and without effective access to humanitarian assistance, my Office has been working tirelessly to move the population further inside Chad to safer areas. Despite the massive logistical constraints, more than 60,000 refugees have already been relocated. While there is of course no absolute guarantee that armed elements will not reach the new camp sites, and it is possible that even at a distance they may serve as a resting ground for combatants, distance does make the camps less accessible for the staging of active cross-border military operations. Despite the terrible situation in Chad, unfortunately, I am sad to report that it's the safest place for Darfurians today.

Returning to the theme of refugee security, although host governments are primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of refugee populated areas, the international community has a responsibility to assist states that lack the capacity and resources to do so themselves, as acknowledged in Security Council Resolution 1296 of April 2000, on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. The United Nations can help advocate that host countries assume their responsibilities and I encourage the Security Council do so in the case of Chad.

Mr. President,

This brings me to the subject of peacekeeping. In many countries where UNHCR works, the return and sustainability of refugees and displaced persons is directly dependent upon peacekeeping. This past Monday, the Council held an open debate on UN peacekeeping operations. The Secretary-General spoke about the integration of various elements - including the implementation of peace agreements, the management of political transitions, the return of refugees and IDPs, human rights programmes, and DDR - into mission mandates. I fully support his statement. The concept of multi-dimensional peace operations has worked well in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, and I am encouraged to see that it is coming together in Liberia - despite the enormous challenges placed upon the Mission there.

On this point however, I would like to make the plea that - given the nature of conflicts today - greater attention be devoted to finding a formula for peacekeeping missions to operate in cross border conflict situations, where appropriate and where endorsed by the affected Governments. All too often, conflicts become regional but the response thus far continues to be country-based. I would propose that you keep this point in consideration. Chad is an example in case. Perhaps we have had somewhat of a breakthrough in West Africa with respect to the cooperation between the various UN Missions in the region on a number of cross-border issues, and this can now be developed into a broader strategy for the future.

The Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, lead by Mr. Brahimi, states that "peacekeepers and peace-builders are inseparable partners." I very much agree with this statement. Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, and I have been putting in place measures that would allow us to better support one another in the common pursuit of helping countries torn by conflict to create the conditions for sustainable peace. I very much support his statement on Monday that peacekeeping operations must "draw on the sources and expertise of the whole United Nations system."

Thanks to the Security Council, important language has been incorporated in a number of recent peacekeeping mission mandates that recognizes the importance of engaging peace-keepers in monitoring the physical safety of displaced populations and returning refugees. Following the political unrest that has plagued Côte d'Ivoire since September 2002, I have been very concerned about the fate of the Liberian refugees who have been caught up in the conflict there. I was therefore particularly pleased when the Security Council tasked the UN Mission in Côte d'Ivoire with monitoring the situation of the Liberian refugees to help ensure their safety. I trust that you will consider a similar monitoring role related to returns for the expected UN Missions in Burundi, Sudan and elsewhere, as deemed appropriate.

I would also like to inform the Council that my Office has begun to support the various UN endeavours on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). We recognize that, while no one UN body has a specific "mandate" for combatants, it is in everyone's interest to come together to ensure the success of DDR. In many cases, there is a link between combatants and the family members who are in our refugee camps. Thus my Office can support the DDR efforts by ensuring the protection of families of the combatants, linking up with other actors such as the ICRC and UNICEF on family reunification, and including demobilized combatants in community-based reintegration programmes. For example, my Office has been supporting MONUC with the DDR efforts in the DRC, by ensuring the safe repatriation of family members of the combatants and monitoring their return and reintegration.

In West Africa I have been advocating for a regional approach to DDR, with cooperation with the UN Missions in the region, the Mano River Union countries plus Côte d'Ivoire and ECOWAS. The Conference of Mano River Heads of States, which should be taking place today, will provide a good opportunity to raise this issue again. Personally, I just returned from a visit to the region and was pleased to see the efforts my Office in Liberia has made to support the DDR efforts there. We are working on this issue as part of a "coalition" of actors, including UNDP and UNICEF, under the umbrella of UNMIL. However, I was disturbed to receive reports on Tuesday of riots in Monrovia related to DDR. Last year I called for Charles Taylor to step down and urged for an international peacekeeping force to fill the security vacuum. We have made a lot of progress since then but the Disarmament and Demobilization is still a challenge, and can only be successful if the necessary resources for Reintegration are made available from the beginning. It is the only method to ensure the prevention of the reoccurrence of conflict in the region.

By incorporating concepts such as DDR into the work of my Office, as I have explained above, we can create the conditions necessary for the return of displaced populations while also making a major contribution to the building of confidence, stabilization, and a climate of peace. One other endeavour in terms of our cooperation with UN Missions and support for the broader political process, which is worth mentioning here, is that of Western Sahara. As you know, we have put in place a package of confidence building measures that has helped to diffuse tensions in the area. A recent break through has been the family exchange visits. Over 400 people have had the opportunity to visit their long-lost relatives and thousands more are waiting in line to do so. The operation would not be possible without the excellent cooperation of all parties involved and especially MINURSO. I am hopeful that this may gradually lay the groundwork for political negotiations to finally resolve this long-standing dispute.

Return and the Impact on Peace and Stability

Let me now turn to the second theme on which I want to focus - return and the impact on peace and stability. We have already established that population movements across borders have clear peace and security implications. But what are the peace and security implications if populations cannot return to their homes or if they do so without the capacity of the collapsed state to absorb them? In fact, the popular notion of a 'post-conflict situation' is in many senses misleading. Countries where internal armed conflicts have come to an end are frequently characterized by deep social divisions, chronic political instability, damaged infrastructure, high unemployment and trauma. As a result, they remain dangerously perched between the prospect for continued peace and the danger of a return to war.

UNHCR's experience is that the longer refugees and internally displaced persons are forced to stay away from their homes, the more embittered they become. In most cases where there are refugee movements, displacement is either forced or coerced in some manner. And even if displacement was not the original intention of the conflict, it sometimes becomes an overriding factor and, indeed, further exacerbates the conflict. As time goes on, the camps and settlements where they find temporary shelter may become breeding grounds for despair and the refugees themselves become more vulnerable to political and military manipulation. In such cases, the prolongation of displacement can itself become an obstacle to peace and the achievement of lasting solutions to conflict. Yet despite this, political negotiations often fail to address the grievances of populations that have been forced from their homes, which can in turn hinder the success of the peace process.

The critical factor is to determine the conditions for the safe and sustainable return of refugees to their homes. Peacekeeping alone cannot sustain peace; it can only create the space in which peace may be built. There is the transition from war to peace but also the transition from a break down in state institutions to the Rule of Law. We often talk about he differences between internally displaced persons and refugees who have crossed an international border. But the border itself is not the issue. In fact the defining characteristic of both is the lack of state protection, either because the state is unable or unwilling to do so. Therefore in the transition from war to peace, it is critical that the protection and rights of all groups within the state, including those who fled during the violence, is guaranteed in the peace agreement. It is also essential for reconciliation.

Mr. President,

Although my mandate is Refugees, I have also come to be known as, "the High Commissioner for Returnees." Since I was appointed High Commissioner in January 2001, I have been focused on finding durable solutions for refugees. The problem is that in post-conflict situations, the return of large numbers of refugees and IDPs needs a balanced and integrated approach to make returns durable and part of sustainable peace-building. War-torn communities, which often suffer just as much or more than refugees, cannot be expected to absorb large numbers of returnees without an immediate improvement in their capacity to meet basic needs. This is the critical period where international development agencies need to make the investment in reconstruction and reintegration programmes. It is not only about repatriation. In areas of return local communities, as well as returning refugees and IDPs, deserve integration and rehabilitation projects.

These programmes need to be incorporated systematically into post-conflict relief efforts and planning should in fact begin at the outset of any emergency. With this in mind, UNHCR became a member of the United Nations Development Group with the aim of ensuring that refugees and returnees are included in the formulation of post-conflict policies as well as longer term development programmes. I have also personally launched a number of initiatives to try to address this issue, working in partnership with UNDP, UNICEF, WFP, other United Nations agencies, the World Bank and bilateral development partners. One such initiative called the "4 Rs" helps to connect the transitions between Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction. In doing so, we also practice Reconciliation - it's about return and reconciliation. We are now building on the success of pilot projects in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone, and hope to implement similar initiatives in Liberia, Burundi, and eventually in Sudan. I mentioned disarmament earlier - however it is worth noting here the importance of also incorporating ex-combatants who have been demobilized into reintegration programmes.

Under the theme of returns, I would now like to take the opportunity to provide you with some encouraging news regarding Africa. I am pleased to report that never before have there been so many opportunities for durable solutions in so many parts of Africa. There is enormous potential for resolving long-standing conflicts, consolidating peace and putting an end to longstanding refugee and IDP situations. In Eritrea, Angola, and Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of refugees have gone home over the past few years. In Sierra Leone, over 240,000 refugees have been able to return home thanks to the presence of UNAMSIL and the broader stabilization efforts of the international community. We hope to complete the Sierra Leone repatriation during the course of this year. In Liberia, we have a long way to go, but we hope to begin repatriation for the more than 320,000 refugees who fled the country, as well as for hundreds of thousands of IDPs (we are now involved in 20 IDP camps) once the situation further stabilizes. In Burundi, progress on the political front has enabled UNHCR to facilitate the repatriation of 35,000 refugees since the beginning of this year, and many will follow.

We have a common responsibility to reduce the risk of conflicts from recurring and to ensure that this progress continues. The opportunities are there but the question is, "will we seize them?" Many challenges lie ahead: peace processes must be strongly supported at all levels; efforts must be made to ensure the effectiveness of programmes aimed at the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants, including youths; comprehensive strategies should be developed to support peace-building and reconciliation efforts; humanitarian agencies must be given adequate resources to help refugees and IDPs return home in safety and dignity; and the social and economic aspects of post-conflict reconstruction must be addressed in a timely and coordinated way. There will be no peace and development in Africa without reintegrating uprooted people and making them productive once again.

Here I would like to raise concern about the inequity of resources that are committed to Africa. While our emergency teams struggle to move tens of thousands of refugees from the border areas in Chad, this life-saving operation and the funds being sought to prepare the ground for eventual repatriation to Sudan remain seriously under-funded. Our operations in Liberia also face severe shortages. I realize that the Council is not seized by funding issues - however, this is also a political point and one that needs to be addressed if we are to end the hostilities in Sudan and sustain the peace process in Liberia. The pledges for Liberia at the Donor's Conference here in New York earlier this year, were generous. But pledges have to be translated into effective funding and into concrete action.

I would like to turn now to another part of the world. In Afghanistan the situation has begun to improve since the end of 2001 and more than 3 million refugees and internally displaced Afghans have returned to their homes. My Office is actively working with the Governments of Iran and Pakistan to facilitate the return of one million more this year. I would like to add here that Iran and Pakistan have shouldered a great burden in hosting Afghan refugees for more than 25 years. Their generosity and observance of the international protection and asylum principles must be recognized as an example for other nations.

Despite the progress that has been made on returns so far, it is estimated that there are still around 3 million Afghans remaining in both Iran and Pakistan. In the tribal areas of Pakistan, neighbouring Afghanistan, there are about 200,000 refugees. I recently had the opportunity to return to the region during the month of April. During that time I ensured that my Office is focused more than ever on the repatriation effort. In particular we will aim to accelerate the closure of the refugee camps in the border areas in order to help alleviate the security liability for Pakistan and the international community at large.

That being said - the lack of security inside Afghanistan is clearly one of the key factors preventing or discouraging the return of Afghans. This is particularly evident in areas where factional fighting continues to create a negative climate for resolving displacement. Disregard for the rule of law and other factors such as forced recruitment, illegal taxation, house and land occupation, also prevent returns from taking place. These problems must be addressed with high priority. When I visited the region in April I met with refugees and IDPs to discuss their prospects for return. When asked what would enable them to go home, the overriding response was the deployment of international troops to their areas of origin. I am aware of NATO's plans to expand ISAF to a number of locations, including the establishment of more PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), which should actually be provincial stabilization teams. I welcome these plans. However I recently wrote to the Secretary-General of NATO to express concern about the modest troop pledges made at the Berlin Conference and the slow pace of the expansion. ISAF expansion is of crucial importance to the successful completion of the Bonn process. It is also a key issue for the return of refugees and displaced persons - particularly leading up to elections.

From our side, my Office has supported the Government in the establishment of a Return Commission, including the participation of both UNAMA and UNHCR, to address the issue of IDP returns and specifically Pashtuns to the north. The Commission is actively working with the local leaders in the north in order to try to prevent any further displacement and to create the conditions for sustainable returns to take place. But again, we need your support on the security issue and the expansion of ISAF, along with the provincial teams, in order to succeed.

Other Issues

Mr. President,

I cannot conclude without mentioning my concern for the situation in Iraq, an issue that also continues to preoccupy the Security Council. As you know, the war in Iraq caused no massive refugee movements. But the power vacuum and unremitting turmoil has led to the collapse of public services and insecurity for the majority of Iraqis. Although the opportunities for the refugees to return home to a situation of instability remain bleak, my Office is working to help those Iraqi refugees in Iran who are interested in repatriation to return home. Repatriation convoys started last November - many of them to Basra. Although operations were halted in April due to fighting and security concerns, they were able to resume two weeks ago. These are cautious, small steps, but I hope in some measure that they will contribute to the future stability of Iraq. Issues of internal displacement including in the north, where UNHCR will assist with the return and reintegration of displaced Kurds, are now being addressed with what I call, "Plan B". Plan B is being carried out through national staff and NGOs only. I hope to go back, as soon as security permits, to "Plan A". Plan A means international staff working in Iraq in order to realize further humanitarian assistance and reconstruction; to undue the terrible wrong - doings of Saddam Hussein; to assist the victims of the Arabization campaign and the Marsh Arabs; and to ensure the rights of the Faili-Kurds. We will work with the Iraqi Minister for uprooted people - with Iraqis and for Iraqis.

I also praise the efforts of the UN national staff members for their courage and dedication. Through them, and in cooperation with international and national NGOs such as Première Urgence, Islamic Relief and Intersos, we have been able to continue life-saving activities. For example, together we distributed emergency supplies to more than 50,000 people who have been caught in the recent upsurge of violence in central and southern Iraq. But I would like to repeat that I also eagerly look forward to the day when international staff will be able to return to Iraq to complete their mission.

This brings me to a final point on the security of United Nations staff members. With more than 4,000 UNHCR staff members currently working in the field - often in very remote and dangerous locations - this issue is of particular concern to me and my Office. The bombing of the United Nations Office in Baghdad last August, was a tragic reminder of the risk that staff members take in the name of peace and justice. What lessons shall we draw from this? The answer is certainly not what I call, "Iraqization" - by this I mean the tendency to believe that the whole world is like Iraq. I disagree with the notion that the UN should start operating in a radically different way in every country in which it operates, on the basis that it is now a terrorist target everywhere. My Office cannot operate from a fortress - we cannot and we should not. If it comes to that, we might as well pack up and go home.

As you know, the Secretary-General has set up a team to look into the issue of staff safety and efforts are currently underway to improve the security of United Nations personnel around the world. From my part, I am determined to ensure that - whatever changes are made - the system allows for and indeed encourages, a differentiated country-by-country approach. Security Management Teams established in the field must be empowered to take decisions on the ground relevant to the local circumstances. This should not be eroded by the bureaucratization and centralization of our security management system. I support that the highest UN official in the country should have the ultimate responsibility for the security of all UN staff in that country. In short, "operate in a secure way" - this must be our leitmotif. I will stop here, but ask for your continued support in helping us ensure the safety of United Nations staff members.

Mr. President,

UNHCR's ability to protect refugees and to find durable solutions depends largely on the effectiveness of its partnerships. This includes partnerships with other entities of the United Nations system, international organizations outside the UN system such as the ICRC, regional organizations and initiatives such as the OSCE and NEPAD, and NGOs. Because of the link between refugees and international peace and security, a strong relationship must also exist between UNHCR and the Security Council.

I outlined today a number of initiatives that my Office is taking to work in support of the current peacekeeping endeavours. Likewise, the Security Council's influence and ability to take decisive political action is critical in helping to avert humanitarian catastrophe. It is important that the Security Council continues to provide the leadership and direction in bringing together the different domains of the UN system - including peacekeeping, peace-building, humanitarian action and even development.

Thank you.