Statement by Mrs. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the 24th Meeting of the Standing Committee (Geneva, 25 June 2002)
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Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates,
This is a significant meeting for us. In a sense, it formally brings the Global Consultations on International Protection to a close. Today we are beginning a new phase, centering on the consolidation of the results and how to follow-up. This is what the Agenda for Protection is all about.
Background of the Global Consultations process
We launched the Global Consultations process because there was a sense of growing disillusionment among a number of States about their capacity to manage contemporary population movements using the tools available - and, in particular, the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The Convention continued to be widely acknowledged as, historically, a significant instrument, but conclusions, which were in our view misguided, started to be drawn which put in question the ongoing relevance of the Convention and seemed to be calling for its complete overhaul, or even abandonment.
The quality of asylum was waning, State commitment to protection using the available instruments was faltering, and the gaps in the protection framework and the inconsistencies between regional approaches and international standards were becoming all too apparent. The Global Consultations were our effort to rise to these challenges, to shore up support for the international framework of protection, and to explore the scope for enhancing protection through new approaches, which nevertheless respect the concerns and constraints of States and other actors.
Importance of the Global Consultations process
The process has been long and intensive. Its objectives were our common ones and I believe it is fair to conclude that they have, to this point at least, been realised. The process was designed to promote better understanding of today's protection dilemmas, from the perspective both of the providers and of the beneficiaries of international protection. State interests and refugee needs have never been easy always to reconcile, but certainly the first step in this direction can only be taken when possibilities and limitations are properly appreciated. The Consultations were also conceptualised so as to realise better cooperation among all concerned. Best practices, or at least, baselines, for making asylum systems work more justly and efficiently, coupled with a firming up of political will to do protection better, not on an ad hoc and discretionary basis, but more predictably and consistently within the internationally agreed parameters, was an objective. So too was a more reasoned approach to responsibility sharing, to rationalise the assumption of responsibilities and balance the burdens in a more equitable manner. Finally the Consultations also had the goal of contributing to improved implementation of important framework principles, including by clarifying their meaning in a modern context.
Overall the Global Consultations process has encouraged a cooperative spirit in tackling refugee issues. It has aroused an interest in multilateral dialogue to find solutions to an increasingly internationalized set of problems. The process has confirmed a willingness to pool concerns and jointly point the way forward to the durable resolution of problems whose solution is within our collective reach. From UNHCR's perspective, the fact that so many delegations from all different continents participated so substantively in discussions on issues that strayed quite far from traditional national concerns was a major advance. The eclectic nature of the contributions to expert analyses was a guarantor of improved quality over past efforts in this area. The relationship to the non-governmental world benefited from procedures put in place to ensure its voice would be heard and understood; their replication is now worthy of consideration, resources, of course, always permitting.
And we have a truly joint agenda. We have not found ourselves bickering over small points and a spirit of consensus has been marking our efforts to finalise the text. I do hope it will continue. We are not here to draft an international instrument, not even the terms of an ExCom Conclusion. Rather, our task is in large measure more important. The Agenda for Protection will serve to direct the prioritising of protection activities for UNHCR. But it is not only about UNHCR doing its job better. It is about all of us, individually and collectively, doing better what we are mandated to do and what we have voluntarily committed ourselves to accomplish.
Significance of the Agenda for Protection
The Agenda for Protection comes out of the Global Consultations process. It is not an abstraction, a paper "wish" list, but is firmly rooted in today's realities, drafted against the backdrop of the real problems that it seeks to address. Where, for example, it encourages prevention of age-based and sexual and gender-based violence, or very concrete measures to empower refugee communities for their own protection, it responds, not alone but not least, to the bitter experiences of women and girls in the camps in West Africa. Where it calls for greater respect for the civilian character of asylum and sets the objective of clarifying standards and procedures - while improving cooperation to achieve this - it is responding, for example, to the militarization of camps in many parts of the world, which endangers the lives of their inhabitants and the surrounding community.
The Agenda's encouragement to strengthen protection capacities at the national level or build responsibility- and burden-sharing into more comprehensive approaches, reflects the very real inequalities marking assistance and protection obligations among States, respectively, in the developed and the developing world. Where the Agenda strives to promote understandings on protection safeguards in rescue-at-sea, this serves to buttress a time-honoured tradition which is again, and not for the first time, in jeopardy in the Adriatic, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and elsewhere.
The ideas in the Agenda for promoting consolidated and better harmonized asylum procedures, and for strengthening asylum systems generally, are partly in response to the high cost of the systems and the reality of their abuse. The Agenda's focus on strengthening the search for durable solutions and on improving the planning and implementation of repatriation programmes must be seen in the context of programmes like the Afghan, Angolan or Ethiopian repatriation operations.
Mr. Chairman, I have just chosen a few examples to make the general point that the practice of protection is very much at issue in all our deliberations on the Agenda. It is an ambitious undertaking and its realisation will have to be progressive, over time. The challenge is in the detail. We need both to finalise it and to reflect upon how to go about its implementation.
There are a number of priority areas in it for UNHCR. A first priority is to strengthen implementation of the 1951 Convention by improving our own delivery of protection. The Agenda offers a number of important pointers in this regard, not least as regards better protection of women and children. A second priority is to promote new models for increased and predictable burden-sharing with countries of asylum. The Agenda acknowledges the crucial importance of burden-sharing for the doing of protection, as well as for durable solutions. We hope to work on possible arrangements to trigger burden-sharing, with capacity-building and a much broader financial platform built into comprehensive packages for better handling of refugee influxes, for bringing of protracted refugee programmes to a successful close, or even for reduction of secondary movements. The promotion of political and financial backing for packages of measures for protracted refugee situations is a particularly compelling responsibility.
A third and perhaps linked priority is to contribute to reducing migratory pressures on asylum systems. The return of unsuccessful asylum-seekers to countries of origin, based on recognition of the obligation of States to receive back their own nationals, needs to be given a stronger legal and operational underpinning, for example, through multilateral burden-sharing agreements, in which the readmission of asylum-seekers would be offset by tangible dividends and accompanied by protection safeguards. Yet another, but not the last, priority for us is to implement the Agenda's ambitious programme of standard-setting.
Sustaining the momentum of the process
We share the views of those who have said it is important not to lose the momentum of the Global Consultations process. The High Commissioner mentioned in his opening remarks the proposed periodic fora for high-level dialogue on protection themes. This idea has attracted broad support, even while some delegations are still seeking clarification on how this relates to the work programme of this Standing Committee. The Standing Committee is where protection problems facing UNHCR's operations should be closely examined. We are proposing that the Committee have an annual item, routinely on its agenda, providing for discussion of problems confronting implementation of protection responsibilities. There is, though, a need, in tandem, for delegations to be able to step back from operational exigencies, to set them in their broader context and explore how the larger problems, of which the problems are a symptomatic and often very serious manifestation, can also be tackled. There is presently no forum for such expert or "think tank" analysis. Of course, the High Commissioner can, at any time, take initiatives in this area. But protection is a partnership activity which benefits from improved partnership not only in the doing of protection, day to day - this is clearly the first priority and for the Standing Committee to promote - but also in the strategizing for protection for the future. This is what, in essence, the Global Consultations process has been about, and it is what the protection forum idea should help to further.
The High Commissioner called, yesterday, for a "firm commitment to use and implement the Agenda." It is our hope that discussions are now so advanced that this end is realistically in sight. We have all had many months to reflect on its ideas and proposals, originating as they did in the year-long consultative process we have now concluded. In compendium form, they were on the table before you, first as "elements" submitted to the Ministerial Meeting in December, and then as a draft Agenda, the first version of which you had in March. We have had three informal consultations on this Agenda, beginning in March, as well as several additional briefings on it in the month of May. To take advantage of the various suggestions made at the last informal meeting, over one week ago, an addendum to the document was circulated ahead of this meeting. We do not imagine that the addendum will pose insurmountable problems. It is fair to say that the amendments contained in it are not in the category of substantive changes. They relate more to improving the Agenda's readability and clarity or to giving greater emphasis to the non-binding nature of its terms. In UNHCR's assessment, therefore, we are basically "there" in terms of an Agenda which can endorsed at this meeting.