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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 24 March 1999

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 24 March 1999

24 March 1999
Human rights violations and forced displacementHuman rights as a framework to address concrete problemsThe Commission as catalyst for political support

Madam Chair,
Madam High Commissioner,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to address the Commission today and would like to congratulate you, Madam Chair, and the Bureau, on your election. Yours is a heavy responsibility, as the Commission's efforts can impact millions of people who face or have been subjected to human rights violations on every continent.

In this respect, working with refugees and other victims of displacement is a sobering experience. It serves as a reality check in a world where the rhetoric and theory of adherence to human rights standards is increasingly widespread. My Office has witnessed over recent years an intensification of human rights violations in countries of origin of refugees, and a noticeable decline in the level of protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in countries of asylum - all this at a time when the international community is taking not unjustified pride in the human rights framework it has put in place through a myriad of instruments and monitoring mechanisms. The plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees is always a graphic reminder of our inability to bring peace and security to the lives of too many ordinary people.

Human rights violations and forced displacement

As you have eloquently said, Madam High Commissioner, we have a sense of powerlessness from the extent of human rights violations, especially in situations of conflict - and even more so, in situations of internal conflict, which often pitch communities against each other, trigger senseless violence and result in massive displacement of civilians. Children, women, and the elderly, as well as men, have been severely affected. Let me give you just a few examples.

I will begin with the situation in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, which is once again at the centre of the international community's attention. During my trip to the area in September 1998, I asked President Milosevic to stop the use of excessive force against civilians. Following the subsequent agreement between the President and US Envoy Holbrooke, violence decreased and the humanitarian situation improved temporarily. However, when the fighting resumed between government forces and Kosovo Albanian paramilitary groups just two months later, so did the ruthless targeting of civilians, including the elderly, women and children. A chilling illustration of this situation was the massacre of 45 civilians in the village of Racak as reported by the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission in January. Many of the victims in Racak appeared to have been summarily executed, shot at close range in the head and neck.

Expectations of peace rose again with the Rambouillet and Kleber negotiations. But instead, the humanitarian situation on the ground is getting worse, and could quickly be approaching the level of humanitarian catastrophe that was narrowly averted in October. The fear of insecurity among Kosovo's population is now at least at the level of the worst period last year. The cease-fire under the Milosevic-Holbrooke accord has unravelled, and UN Security Council resolutions have been ignored on the ground.

I have made another personal appeal to President Milosevic, for violence against civilians to be stopped. I have also pointed out the plight of ethnic Serbs in the province, who are - to a more limited extent - targeted by violence and intimidation by the Kosovo Liberation Army. However, terrified civilians continue to flee the shelling of villages by forces that had been required to withdraw. The presence of government security forces in the province is increasing under the imminent threat of NATO intervention. The results of this situation, in terms of displacement, are appalling. Since the end of the Rambouillet talks on 23 February, well over 80,000 people have been newly displaced from their homes. Over 260,000 persons are now displaced within Kosovo. For the first time since last summer, we are once again seeing people spending the night out in the open.

The OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission left the province a few days ago. Last night, after running the last convoys with humanitarian assistance, UNHCR had to withdraw its staff from Kosovo, following the United Nations' declaration of Security Phase 5 - evacuation.

This decision, Madam Chair, was a tormenting one for my Office. It meant, as in other situations, that we would not be with the people we work for, at the time of their greatest need. I do hope that we can return to Kosovo as soon as possible - under improved circumstances - and help hundred of thousands of displaced people return home.

Sierra Leone is another, tragic example. Rebels fighting a democratically elected government have deliberately targeted women and children with close-range gunfire, and others have been summarily executed. As the conflict continues, there have also been reports of assault, harassment and detention of young men. I myself, on a mission to West Africa just a few weeks ago, saw horrific examples of deliberate attacks on individuals, including the rape and shocking mutilation of women and young girls. I also received deplorable reports of children being forcibly taken from their parents for recruitment as combatants.

A third example is provided by Indonesia, where there is growing concern over ethnic and religious violence. Tension mounted in 1998 and has intensified this year following the country's economic problems. Clashes have left people brutalized and villages raided. Over the last weeks people have been killed and houses have been destroyed in the island of Borneo. The fighting has involved indigenous Malay, Bugis, Dayak and ethnic Chinese against Madurese immigrants, causing fresh displacement. The situation is of grave concern to my Office given the risks of a major displacement and refugee crisis if violence against minorities does not stop.

These are just a few examples of the brutality of human rights violations in different areas. Their close relationship with refugee flows, of which they are frequently the main cause, is an illustration of how the issues debated by this Commission are not abstract matters, but concrete problems - problems which affect women, men and children; problems which demand urgent, concrete solutions. It is also an illustration of the close link that exists between the work of the Commission on Human Rights, and our own work on behalf of refugees and other displaced people. As I said in previous years, and I wish to repeat once more, your efforts are of great support to ours.

Human rights as a framework to address concrete problems

I wish to emphasize one point in particular. The international community has a shared responsibility not only to address the broader peace and security concerns raised by forced displacement, but also to mitigate its humanitarian consequences - its often tragic impact on the lives of millions of people. In this respect, internationally agreed rights represent a powerful framework within which to address the needs of uprooted people. These rights - and especially those upheld by the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - cannot be simply dismissed as utopic aspirations. Their realisation for refugees and other displaced people can make the difference between success and failure of our humanitarian efforts. In this respect, I would like to give you some examples, referring to specific sets of rights.

The situation in Kosovo, for example, clearly shows the link between the work of the Commission and concrete situations of displacement caused by massive violations of human rights and humanitarian law. If people cannot cross borders to safety, then they must be able to find effective safety within them. More than half of the displaced people are still within the province. They have been uprooted by the same conflict as refugees who have crossed the border and their need of protection and assistance is equally acute. For them, the work of the Commission and the Secretary-General's Special Representative, Francis Deng in promoting the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, is of great importance. These Principles now need to be followed by concrete action and UNHCR is making its own active contribution to these efforts.

The basic purpose of humanitarian assistance is first of all to ensure that people can enjoy physical safety, and that they are then able to sustain themselves in dignity. By organising humanitarian work around the core rights to safety, food, clothing, medical care and education, we are able to provide a coherent basis on which family and community life can be rebuilt. This is a valuable approach and I would encourage the Commission's further work in this area.

Another legal reference point in our common efforts to help displaced people is provided by the right to adequate shelter and housing. Almost by definition, forcible displacement will have involved the arbitrary loss of people's homes and possessions. On the short term, humanitarian efforts can provide temporary shelter for refugees and displaced people but any sustainable rehabilitation must also start to address people's right to adequate housing.

For returnees in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, the implementation of the property provisions in the Dayton Peace Agreement remains problematic. Many displaced people are still unable to return to homes they claim were rightfully theirs - notably in areas where they will now be an ethnic minority. Progress has been painful and slow but UNHCR recognises the value of a clear legal framework that has equitable mechanisms to resolve difficult issues such as restitution or compensation.

Another example is Georgia, where we found that restitution of real property and compensation for the loss of personal property were essential for the sustainable return of ethnic Ossets. In practical terms, UNHCR was involved in projects to rebuild damaged houses and to promote a legislative framework for claims to be resolved.

I am under no illusions that the resolution of these issues will be a complex and time-consuming task - especially in countries where the individual "ownership" of property has no legal basis or tradition. I also know it will place a heavy burden on the resources and test the political commitment of states. Nevertheless, it will be crucial to the sustainable return of displaced people and central to any plan to heal the scars of communities riven by conflict.

A set of rights which is of particular concern to my Office is that of refugee and displaced families. The first priority for all families is to stay together through the ordeal of displacement. All states recognise the family's legal right to protection as the "natural and fundamental group unit of society" and the special legal obligations that this places on them. And yet, even this basic principle is often under threat. Asylum and immigration policies of some states do not allow for separated refugee families to be reunited. Others regard family unity as a "pull factor" that should be discouraged rather than protected. They ignore the fact that families who are able to stay together, or those whose separated members are swiftly reunited, have greater resilience to overcome many of the hardships of displacement and exile. In UNHCR's experience, these policies tend to overlook the fact that a functional and self-sufficient family will also be less burden to the host society itself. We have seen that by protecting this right of the family, states can also serve their own interests at the same time.

The further priority for family members displaced inside or outside their national borders, is to find a place of physical security away from the threat of conflict, persecution and human rights abuses. All too often humanitarian assistance efforts have failed because they took place in conditions and places of relative insecurity - both for the beneficiaries and for those who delivered the assistance. UNHCR attaches great importance to the legal regime of asylum precisely because it places clear legal responsibilities on states to protect refugees outside their countries of origin and away from conflict. Regrettably, this important "escape route" of asylum is increasingly blocked - either by parties to conflict on one side of a border or the restrictive asylum practices of some states on the other.

Violations of family rights in contexts of displacement deeply affect another group of particular concern to the Commission - I am speaking of refugee children. With displacement, their established support from family, schools and friends will collapse. Children separated from their families by conflict are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses. The Graça Machel Study commissioned by the United Nations Secretary-General in 1996, gave voice to a real but inadequately addressed problem - that children are no longer innocent bystanders to armed conflict. They are now the calculated subjects of genocide, forced military recruitment, gender-related violence, torture and exploitation on a systematic and massive scale.

In responding to the protection needs of refugee children, UNHCR has gained maximum effect by linking its policies and programmes directly to the rights protected by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. By placing children's right to education into the framework for the return of families to Liberia, for example, the Liberian Children Initiative focuses on the rebuilding of an education system shattered by seven years of conflict. This has two goals. An invigorated education system for the country's youth is a way to break the inevitable cycle of violence being passed down to future generations. And a credible system of education for children and adolescents is a catalyst for the decision of refugee parents and families to repatriate.

I am also deeply concerned by the high level of violence and abuse against refugee women and girls. This year, UNHCR has launched a project to combat sexual violence for refugee communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. It involves the community in putting an end to violence against women and girls. This approach has also been put to good effect in the special income and economic empowerment programmes for women returnees in Rwanda and Bosnia. These projects are guided by the fundamental rights of women - notably those re-affirmed in the Vienna Declaration in 1993 and the Beijing Platform of Action - and provide the building blocks for the return and rehabilitation of displaced families at the grassroots level. By contrast, in Afghanistan, the Taliban's denial of women's basic rights to work and education poses an obstacle to the return and rehabilitation of more than two million refugees currently in Pakistan and Iran. This is the sort of issue on which the Commission could take a strong and resolute stand.

The Commission as catalyst for political support

Madam Chair,

I am mindful of the constraints under which we work. Many asylum states are grappling with their own political or social priorities. They have insufficient resources to satisfy their own needs, let alone any surplus to fulfil the rights of displaced people. Many important rights cannot be realised overnight and will require attention over a long period of time. Our work is in the field, with refugees and displaced people, and we are realistic enough to appreciate that resources are clearly a limiting factor, not least for us. However this should not be the reason for not making the effort. Rather it should serve as the incentive or rationale for joining forces in a common effort.

However, we must learn from the lessons of Bosnia and the Great Lakes of Africa: humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for timely and firm action at the political level. Kosovo, for example, is a political problem with devastating humanitarian consequences, for which there is only a political solution. That solution is vital. Without it, and with Kosovo sliding into catastrophe, even the most determined and effective humanitarian action would very soon be unable to keep pace with the ever greater humanitarian needs.

Political support is crucial at a time when much of our humanitarian work is carried out in or near areas of conflict. We must have effective, safe access to displaced people if we are to assist and protect them from the worst excesses of conflict.

I believe that the work undertaken by this Commission and by your Office, Madam High Commissioner, have a vital role to play. Clearly, important progress has been made but what is missing is the will to transform the theory into practical rights-based policies and to regard the norms, so carefully constructed, as carrying the responsibility to implement them without qualification. The monitoring and supervisory functions of the Commission - together with your voice of public disclosure and censure - can support accountability for the violators of human rights and help to mobilise the necessary political support for our own humanitarian efforts.

Thank you.