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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 51st Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 7 February 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 51st Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 7 February 1995

7 February 1995

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a welcome pleasure for me to address the Human Rights Commission for the fourth occasion as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. First of all, let me congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, and the Bureau upon your election.

Since we last met, the international human rights regime has witnessed important developments in two major areas.

I have in mind, first, the redoubling of international efforts to establish a more effective operational United Nations human rights capacity. Under different modalities, we have seen intensified human rights field operations in several areas, including the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Burundi and Guatemala.

The second major development which I want to refer to is the establishment of the international tribunals to prosecute the perpetrators of grave human rights and humanitarian law violations.

Both of these trends can only be welcome. The human rights regime must be translated into a visible and effective field presence, and documenting horrendous crimes must be backed up by effective redress to establish proper accountability and to remove the myth of impunity.

These developments - and, above all, the environment which led to them - challenge all members of the international community to a positive review of the framework and methods for our collective efforts in this area. In this context, allow me to review briefly the essential characteristics, and human rights linkages, of the humanitarian and protection action undertaken by UNHCR.

As I have previously emphasized to this Commission, human rights concerns go to the essence of the cause of refugee movements, as well as to the precepts of refugee protection and the solution of refugee problems. Refugee law and the international instruments for refugee protection are fundamentally based on human rights, as well as humanitarian considerations. The heart of refugee protection - asylum and non-refoulement - stem from the basic right of all individuals to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, as clearly embodied in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Similarly, the right to enjoy the protection of one's own country, and to return freely to it, is fundamental to the Declaration. The Statute of my Office is rooted in these human rights concepts.

UNHCR's action on behalf of refugees, returnees and, increasingly, internally displaced persons, also makes its contribution to the advancement of human rights. It does so in its own specific way, by virtue of the operational protection responsibility which is at the heart of my mandate.

UNHCR is involved in monitoring the basic rights of refugees in countries of asylum and of returnees in countries of origin. It is not uncommon for UNHCR today to provide protection and essential relief to displaced victims of conflicts, even while such conflicts continue to rage around them.

Protection of victims, as practised by UNHCR, is not just monitoring a set of legal standards; it is a daily and complex activity aimed at ensuring personal security and urgent material assistance to uprooted civilians and, beyond this, respect for basic economic and social rights. It is essentially - and please allow me to dwell briefly on each of these aspects - operational and humanitarian.

Our operational conception of protection means that UNHCR officers in the field are expected not only to observe human rights violations and report, but to act upon the information by seeking remedial action from the concerned authorities. In Tajikistan, our field officers monitor the well-being of returnees and are in close contact with local attorneys, with a view to ensuring that returnees enjoy the full protection of the law. In former Yugoslavia, UNHCR staff regularly visit areas where identifiable minorities may be at risk and protest acts of "ethnic cleansing", both at local and at central levels of authority. Where these attempts to prevent expulsion fail, as regrettably is too often the case, we assist the victims in their efforts to seek safety elsewhere.

In refugee camps, particularly in Africa, the primary purpose of our presence on the ground is often to identify potential threats to the personal security of refugees, with a view to proposing concrete measures of prevention and redress. As you may be aware, this has been a major preoccupation for UNHCR in recent months in the Rwandese camps in Zaire. Violence and general insecurity in these camps have not only cost the lives of a number of refugees, but have also been a major impediment to the promotion of safe and orderly repatriation to Rwanda. In view of the magnitude of the problems and without in any way supplanting the prime responsibility of the host authorities in this area, the United Nations and UNHCR, have undertaken a number of measures to redress this worrying situation. The end result is that, for the first time, UNHCR will be deploying a number of military and police advisors to work directly in support of the Zairean authorities in an effort to bring this exceptionally difficult problem under control.

Despite such measures, UNHCR's activities remain strictly humanitarian, driven by the needs of the victims, and measured by the yardsticks of impartiality and non-partisanship. Impartiality of humanitarian action is, indeed, a sine qua non of its effectiveness, as it is the key which gives access to those victims in need of protection and assistance.

In the broad arena of providing security to populations uprooted by human rights violations or conflict, humanitarian action and human rights mechanisms remain separate but mutually supportive.

The consequences of the appalling mass violations and bloodshed in Rwanda have brought into sharp focus almost all facets of this complex interaction between human rights and humanitarian efforts.

Rwanda has particularly shown us the vital importance of effective human rights monitoring in post-conflict situations, as an integral part of our collective efforts to establish the conditions enabling uprooted populations to return home in safety and dignity. I would like to pay tribute to the efforts of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Jose Ayala Lasso, and of the Centre for Human Rights, to deploy human rights monitors in Rwanda. I would urge that they be provided with the necessary support and resources to meet their onerous responsibilities. I am pleased that we have been able to provide some logistical and operational support for these activities in the initial phase. The success of this operation will be critical for UNHCR, both to prevent further population movements and to enable repatriation to proceed early with all proper assurances.

At the same time, it remains important that we guard against any confusion of mandates and responsibilities. It is, in my view, vital to the success of human rights missions such as in Rwanda, that a clear delineation exists, and be seen to exist, between two clusters of human rights functions: those linked to efforts to rebuild confidence and create conditions conducive to reconciliation and return, on the one hand, and those pertaining to the investigation and prosecution of human rights violations, on the other.

By the same token, UNHCR is not and should not be actively involved in investigatory activities on the ground. While UNHCR's mandate clearly excludes from protection as refugees those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the safety of those for whom we are responsible, as well as that of humanitarian personnel, could be jeopardized if our staff were identified with the investigatory side of the United Nations human rights effort. Humanitarian action must remain broadly non-judgemental, while human rights efforts require determination of legal responsibility.

This brings me back to the establishment of the international tribunals. We can all only welcome an effective international mechanism to bring to justice those responsible for grave and massive human rights violations of the kind we have witnessed in Rwanda and in former Yugoslavia. I would like to see, however, much clearer signals that the international community will muster the necessary will and determination to make these mechanisms truly effective. Moreover, let us not stop at the point where justice is done, but let us make sure that justice is genuinely restored within the countries concerned. The early rehabilitation of the judicial and civilian police systems, in Rwanda as in other war-torn countries, must be made an integral part of the international response to such crises. How can we expect the voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of uprooted people to be a sustainable, durable solution unless it is accompanied and followed by longer-term efforts at reconciliation and the restoration of the rule of law ? Such efforts necessarily include a crucial component of institution building and rehabilitation in the human rights area. These are beyond the mandate and capacity of UNHCR, but their absence may well make our humanitarian endeavours short-lived.

Mr. Chairman, the approach I am advocating acknowledges the complementary but distinct nature of humanitarian and human rights mandates. This approach can assist us in identifying and addressing persisting deficiencies in the international protection regime. Large segments of populations in need of international protection are not adequately covered by existing standards. Persons fleeing from persecution or conflict receive international protection once they cross recognized borders. However, the inadequate protection coverage afforded to internally displaced persons fleeing from similar causes continues to be of concern to my Office.

UNHCR's recent involvement with displaced persons from Chechnya is a case in point. We have moved in swiftly with emergency relief at the request of the Russian authorities and the Secretary-General but, of course, remain fully conscious of our wider protection responsibilities as we carry out assistance programmes. UNHCR has supported the work of the Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Francis Deng, in his efforts to delineate the guiding principles for the protection of internally displaced populations, especially under the sort of circumstances we face today. The early elaboration of universal principles for this purpose by the Commission would be most welcome.

Stateless persons are another category in need of international protection, for whom UNHCR has a special responsibility . My Office has been designated as an intermediary between States and stateless persons under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Most recently, UNHCR has been requested by its Executive Committee to place the matter of statelessness on its agenda this year. We will explore promotional and preventive activities to which UNHCR can contribute in collaboration with concerned States. There is an obvious link between the loss or denial of national protection and the loss or denial of nationality. On the plane of rights, the prevention and reduction of statelessness is an important aspect of securing minority rights.

During 1994, my Office has been increasingly involved in the work of the human rights treaty bodies, and other UN human rights mechanisms, through information sharing, exchange of views, and promotion of human rights standards which augment the protection and assistance provided to victims of forced displacement. I have noted with appreciation the important contributions of many such bodies and Rapporteurs to the report of the Secretary-General on human rights and mass exodus, which this Commission will consider.

Another tangible result of this cooperation is that, following my address to this Commission in 1993, in which I drew attention to "the right to remain" and "the right to return", the Sub-Commission during its last session adopted a resolution on "the right to freedom of movement", referring to these basic concepts. Needless to say, these rights must be seen in a continuum with the basic right to seek and enjoy asylum recognised in the Universal Declaration. This resolution urges governments to cease all practices which may lead to forced displacement, population transfer and ethnic cleansing. I trust that the Commission will take appropriate measures to provide an effective follow-up to this resolution.

Similarly, many other items on the Commission's agenda this year are of direct interest to UNHCR. I would like to confirm our support and active involvement in the issues of children's rights and violence against women. In this connection, I wish to express our appreciation to the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, for her useful and comprehensive report. My Office is finalizing its own guidelines on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence Against Refugees. Torture, racism, as well as the deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights, are of constant concern to the daily work of my Office, and I would like to assure you of our full support and cooperation on these particular issues.

The development of international respect for human rights must be addressed at different levels. Education is a key area which deserves our sustained attention. The devastating consequences of vicious forms of intolerance are all too clearly embodied by millions of persons driven out of their homes. In the face of this alarming trend, as well as of rising xenophobia affecting too many refugees and asylum-seekers, education and enhancing public awareness are of paramount importance if we are to promote a culture of human rights, tolerance and peace. To this end, UNHCR welcomes the proclamation of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education at the recent session of the General Assembly.

Mr. Chairman, the need to safeguard basic human rights is increasingly demonstrated by the dramatic increase in the magnitute and intensity of coerced displacements throughout the world. A more effective international human rights machinery is essential to strengthen early warning, monitoring, and investigation, and to seek redress within the context of post-conflict rehabilitation. These are all areas of direct relevance to UNHCR's activities. At the same time, humanitarian action has a unique and irreplaceable role to play, and our collaborative efforts to build in these areas must be based on full conceptual and operational clarity, and respect for the different mandates of all concerned.

Fundamentally, of course, the combined efforts of the United Nations and its various bodies, together with other international and non-governmental organizations, must be aimed to support - and never to supplant - the essential responsibility of States in this area.

The humanitarian and human rights challenges which we face in all regions as we approach the end of this century, at times threaten to overwhelm us. I remain convinced, however, that with the combined efforts of States; the United Nations and its agencies; inter-governmental and non-governmental agencies, we have the capacity to address successfully the vast array of issues which currently face the international community. The deliberations and the decisions of this Commission are an important part of this process, and I wish you every success in the weeks ahead.

Thank you.