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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 46th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, 22 February 1990

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 46th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, 22 February 1990

22 February 1990
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Madam President, Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dramatic recent changes in Europe and steady progress elsewhere - in Southern Africa and in parts of Latin America, regions which have been at the centre of this Commission's attention in the past - have led to an unprecedented level of confidence and co-operation where formerly there was antagonism and fear. These developments encourage new vigour and energy in resolving other humanitarian problems. Some of these have such a magnitude that only determined, global cooperation can lead to their solution. The international refugee situation is a reflection of the world's political health. And the international community's ability to cope with the refugee situation is a reflection of its moral health. There are some 14 million refugees in today's world and their stories, individually or as a whole, attest to a disturbing degree of violations of fundamental rights, political and ethnic conflict, economic disequilibrium and ecological disaster. In its origins just as in its impact the refugees problem is multifaceted and cannot be divorced from other major political challenges facing our world community. To appreciate this is to understand also the need to broaden the response to the problem so that this response becomes equal to the task of dealing with refugee issues effectively, with the rights and aspirations of the individuals concerned remaining the central focus.

Madam President, if we want in this way humanely and effectively to address refugee issues, our response must take account of the full range of factors which impel people to leave their countries. Persecution is fundamental, but there are other factors, which alone, or more often in combination, exert a parallel pressure. Situations of war or man-made disasters, absence of minimum living standards of any meaningful economic prospects and environmental destruction are all key in this regard. In addition, refugee movements have their own impact. They may become a source in themselves of instability and international friction. They can exacerbate environmental problems and can place serious strains on already fragile and heavily burdened national economies. Realism requires that all these elements be recognized even while - and let me emphasize this - the capacity of any one body or organisation, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to develop a comprehensive response is necessarily limited by mandate, resources and relevant experience. This makes it imperative, in my view, that the response capabilities of the multilateral system as a whole be appropriately mobilized to ensure a comprehensive approach. It is for this reason that I judged it a priority responsibility for me to address your Commission at this very early period of my tenure.

In such a comprehensive approach there is an important role for human rights institutions generally and, in particular, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Human rights are as much the basis for treatment of non-citizens as they are of nationals. As the principal body within the United Nations system which takes stock of human right situations world-wide, which calls States to account and which promotes on a cooperative basis a more moderate, secure and just international climate, this Commission and its activities are of considerable significance in the search for solutions to refugee problems, with regard to their prevention and to their solution where they occur. Violations of human rights are a major cause of refugee exodus and in its effort to curb such violations this Commission also contributes to the prevention of refugee flows. Violations of human rights also create complex problems of protection in countries of asylum. The fundamental rights of individuals, either in their breach or in their protection, are a basic element in any refugee situation. Finally, too, restoration of acceptable human rights situations in countries of origin can be the key to successful resolution of long-standing refugee problems. It is clear that human rights considerations are central across the spectrum of the refugee problem, for departure, through refuge to the realisation of the lasting solution.

It follows that the proper context for approaching refugees issues is their humanitarian and human rights context. This may appear a self-evident proposition in this forum, but it is the optical one of association between refugees seeking asylum and unauthorized border-crossers of whatever other character, including the least desirable. Refugee arrivals become from this perspective, a problem of irregular migration, to be handled within the framework of immigration and border controls. Refugees are, however, not migrants in any sense which suggests free choice and voluntary departure. The refugee problem is not one of a migratory influx. The origins of heart of the problem are to be found in the conditions within the country of origin which impelled the departure. If the refugee problem is to be solved, the solution must be conceived basically in terms of these conditions. This means in part that the international community must address itself with greater urgency to the underlying or root causes.

Strengthened observance of civil and political rights, but equally of economic, social and cultural rights is fundamental in this regard. Human rights are no longer only a question of personal freedoms or the minimum conditions for an existence in human dignity, but now embrace all things considered necessary for human development. Without wishing to enter the debate on development and rights, it is nevertheless clear even from the statistics - with the large majority of the world's refugees living in and originating from developing countries - that an important element of development is central to solutions to refugee problems. In dialogue and policies on development and through development aid there is, I believe, considerable potential for active promotion of human rights in a way which should make no small contribution to alleviating the conditions of individuals and making it possible for those who have left to return voluntarily. May I suggest that these are among the issues which might well be addressed by this Commission in the context of its debate on the nexus between violations of human rights and mass exoduses. They are also issues which could well be examined by the Working Group on Solutions and Protection, to be convened in coming months, at the request of the Executive Committee of UNHCR, to look at solutions and refugee protection in a comprehensive way.

Conditions of stay in countries of asylum are a consequential problem of the basic one, which is forced departure. Nevertheless, the right to seek and enjoy asylum remains a fundamental right. Its refusal can have very serious consequences for the individuals involved. Amongst the many serious protection problems facing my Office, there are a number in the area of asylum which would benefit from a closer focus by the Commission in their human rights context. Principal among these are the practice by some States of expulsion and refoulement of refugees, push-backs at borders, unwarranted detention, on occasion in wholly unacceptable conditions, and serious threats to the security of refugees in asylum counties, including through military or armed attacks on camps, or through forcible recruitment of refugees into armed forces. Social and economic rights of refugees are also by no means always guaranteed. In addition, refugee women and children face particular problems which my Office has developed policies and programmes to address, but their rights are particularly vulnerable to abuse and deserve a special human rights focus. Indeed this has been realised by this Commission, for example, in negotiations which produced the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Madam President, these problems have been raised at past sessions of this Commission by the Director of Refugee and Law and Doctrine. It suffices here to emphasize that they remain of continuing concern and that some greater concentration on them in this forum would be beneficial. There might, for example, be scope for their reflection in appropriate resolutions. They might also be made more directly relevant to the special procedures and reporting mechanisms of this Commission.

Under the most widely accepted international legal definition of refugee, the status of refugees is granted to those outside their own country who, due to a well-founded fear of persecution, are unable or unwilling to be protected by their own country. As I have already mentioned, however, a significant number of those who flee their country do so not because they are persecuted but as a consequence of ethnic or social unrest. Many of them do not meet this legal definition of refugee, but they are equally uprooted and in need of protection. Their problem is no less deserving of a humanitarian response, and the Office of the High Commissioner has found it necessary to provide them with humanitarian protection. Their situation is particularly precarious because they fall outside the international definition of refugee and are on the margin of institutional mandates. Here, I believe, is a real scope for multilateral action within a human rights framework, both in regard to their protection while outside their country and monitoring their situation when they return.

The important advances in the field of human rights of which this Commission is eminently aware are to be capitalized on with energy and vigour over the coming months as the international climate continues to ease and the process of change towards political orders based on individual rights consolidates. Against this background, from a refugees perspective, the promotion of refugee protection principles and global accession to refugee law instruments takes on a heightened significance for my Office. In addition there is considerable scope for strengthening the existing mutually beneficial collaboration between UNHCR and human rights bodies, in particular the Centre for human Rights, to promote positive approaches to refugee problems in general and the compatibility of national policies and procedures with international human rights and refugee law standards.

I am personally convinced that non-governmental organisations, a number of which are represented here today, also have an indispensable role in promoting refugee protection. UNHCR relies on the cooperation of NGOs in many different ways, including as implementing partners, as donors and as advocates to mobilize community support and assistance. The Office will be constantly exploring new modes of cooperation appropriate to the circumstances.

In conclusion, Madam President, international cooperation in and international accountability for the promotion and protection of individual rights are underlying premises essential for the proper operation of human rights and refugee law. My Office will continue to do all within its capacities and resources to protect refugees and to world for lasting solutions to their problems. We have been mandated by the international community to undertake these tasks and will do them to the best of our abilities. However, I reiterate, the problems in all its facets in broader than UNHCR's mandate and outside our reach alone. There is an even more pressing need, in this increasingly interdependent world, for an innovative approach which draws on the capabilities of the UN system as a whole. This Commission has an important contribution to make in promoting a more humane world, not only for nationals, but for non-citizens as well. In one sense, the refugee is a telling point of encounter for States with their own human rights policies. Individuals outside their own national support structures have little basis other than international human rights law - and here I include refugee law - within which to frame their request for refuge. Human rights and refugee protection principles should determine the response; obligations at the national level will not. In this sense the credibility of a State's professed commitment to human rights is put directly to the test.

Thank you Madam President.