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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Fiftieth Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 9 February 1994

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Fiftieth Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 9 February 1994

9 February 1994

Mr. President, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honour for me to address the Human Rights Commission once again. First of all, let me congratulate you, Mr. President, and the Bureau upon your election.

Since I addressed this Commission a year ago, the world population of refugees and internally displaced persons assisted by my Office has increased by another two million to reach the staggering figure of 20 million. In what used to be Yugoslavia, bitter ethnic war, senseless killing, violence and ethnic expulsion have forced almost 4 million people to become refugees, internally displaced or otherwise affected by conflict. Almost 600,000 refugees fled violence and killings in Burundi last November. Somalia and parts of Africa, central Asia and the Caucasus are scenes of massive internal displacement and refugee exodus.

Most of the refugees and internally displaced persons are victims of the twin scourges of human rights abuses and internal conflict, often along ethnic and sectarian lines. Political instability and socio-economic inequities are leading to ethnic tensions, massive violations of human rights, violence and large-scale population movements.

The connection between the work of the Commission in promoting respect for human rights and the work of my Office, in protecting refugees and seeking solutions to refugee problems is clear. As I mentioned in my address to the Commission last year, human rights violations are a major factor in causing the flight of refugees as well as an obstacle to their safe and voluntary return home. Safeguarding human rights in countries of origin is therefore critical both for the prevention and for solution of refugee problems. Respect for human rights is also essential for the protection of refugees in countries of asylum.

It is therefore encouraging that the current forty-eighth session of the United Nations General Assembly, having noted "the relationship between safeguarding human rights and preventing refugee problems," has called upon my Office to increase its cooperation with this Commission, the Centre for Human Rights, and other relevant international bodies and organizations.

Mr. President, my Office was born in 1951 out of concern for victims of human rights abuses. Although in subsequent decades during the Cold War there was a tendency to keep human rights and refugee issues distinct, it has become evident that the promotion of human rights is of vital importance to the mandate of my Office. By seeking actively through its presence and programmes to protect the human rights of refugees, returnees and the internally displaced, UNHCR today is very much an operational human rights organization, albeit for certain specific categories of people.

In my statement I would like to highlight this growing human rights role of UNHCR and seek the support and cooperation of the Commission in our difficult and ambitious undertakings. Firstly, I will raise some concrete issues related to the international protection of refugees. Then, I will speak briefly on the human rights aspects of promoting a preventive and solution-oriented strategy to address refugee problems. Finally, I will discuss UNHCR's growing role with the internally displaced, which I see as an essential part of our responsibility for resolving and preventing the refugee problem.

Let me begin with the protection of refugees in the country of asylum. The principles of international protection are grounded in international human rights. For example, the principle of non-refoulement - the prohibition against returning a refugee to a territory where his or her life or freedom would be threatened - is the cornerstone of refugee law. It is linked both to the human right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, and to the rights to life and to freedom from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

While I am encouraged by recent developments to provide temporary protection in situations of large-scale movements, I am also concerned by some major reversals in the commitment to asylum. In too many cases, in too many countries, people who are fleeing violence and human rights abuses at home are confronted with closed borders or legal obstacles in their search for asylum. I therefore call upon the Commission to renew its call for protection to be granted to those who need it, even if only on a temporary basis.

Refugees and asylum seekers remain in a particularly vulnerable situation even after they enter a country of refuge. That vulnerability is compounded when they are members of ethnic, racial, religious, cultural or political groups who are already at odds with the authorities or the local community.

I am deeply disturbed by attacks on refugees and asylum seekers and incidents of xenophobia and racism, which appear to be increasing. If we do not show courage and political leadership in resisting these dangerous trends, the victims will not be just the refugees but also the very foundations of democratic societies.

In the context of the need to ensure the physical protection of refugees, refugee women and girls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The subjects of sexual violence against refugee women and girls and the personal security of refugees were discussed by UNHCR's Executive Committee last year. The conclusions adopted by the Committee, and endorsed by the UN General Assembly, contain detailed recommendations for concrete action to protect women and girls and to assist those who are victims of attacks. We are implementing special programmes in line with these recommendations. I have directed my staff to make every effort to ensure that the security and welfare of women and girls as well as of refugee children is included in the mainstream of UNHCR's programmes. As the Commission considers the appointment of a special rapporteur on the prevention of violence against women, I would urge the Commission to include in the rapporteur's mandate questions relating to displacement of women and such violence.

Mr. President, the ultimate objective of international protection of refugees is not to institutionalize exile, but to achieve solutions to refugee problems. Voluntary repatriation, whenever possible, is the ideal solution. This is why it is important to stress the refugee's right to return home in safety and dignity.

A corollary to it is the responsibility of the country of origin to do what is necessary to enable refugees to freely exercise this right. Today many refugees are returning home to situations that are far from safe. I am thinking in particular of the over one million Afghans who have returned to Afghanistan. But I am also thinking, this time with a degree of optimism, of the 370,000 Cambodians whom my Office helped to return to Cambodia last year.

While UNHCR has a responsibility to monitor the safety of returning refugees, UNHCR's role can only be a limited one, linked to the condition of displacement. For the sake of the returning refugees as well as the communities to which they return, it is important to develop adequate and effective human rights systems which can contribute, on a longer-term basis, to an environment of confidence and stability. In this context, the establishment of an operational presence by the Human Rights Centre in Cambodia was an interesting and important development. I hope the Commission will examine its impact and explore and encourage similar initiatives in other countries to which large numbers of refugees have returned and which are in the fragile process of institution-building.

The efforts of the international community, Mr. President, cannot be limited to mitigating the consequences of flight, but must seek to address the causes. A common thread in most displacement today is that of persecution and, sometimes, expulsion of minorities. The oppression or denial of the rights of particular groups in society often results from the perception on the part of other groups that they are themselves threatened. For the effective protection of minorities, it is essential for all the groups in a society to be secure in their rights. The prevention and reduction of statelessness is an important aspect of securing minority rights, particularly in the context of redefined national boundaries and national identities of the newly independent States.

The Commission has long been concerned with the issue of minorities and has made considerable achievements in standard-setting. The continued work of the Commission for the protection of minorities would be of great value in promoting a preventive approach to refugee flows and displacement.

Greater stress should be put on public information and education programmes to promote tolerance for people of different origins and backgrounds, including respect for their human rights. All elements of society need to be mobilised, public and private, governmental and non-governmental. Non-governmental organizations and the media in particular have crucial roles to play in this regard.

Mr. President, refugee flows are often an indicator of potential human rights problems. It may be useful for the Commission to examine and address, through the various mechanisms at its disposal, human rights situations in countries of origin that have or threaten to give rise to coerced displacement of people. Such action may contribute to the international efforts to prevent and resolve refugee problems. You may wish to consider this proposal when you discuss the reorganisation of your agenda and method of work.

Let me now turn to the third aspect of my statement, which is the issue of the internally displaced. In seeking to address the refugee issue in a preventive and solution-oriented manner, UNHCR is increasingly providing assistance and protection to internally displaced persons, so that they are not compelled to flee across borders. It occurs frequently in the context of refugee repatriation programmes, as in the Horn of Africa, where returning refugees are intermixed with internally displaced persons re-establishing themselves in the towns or villages they had fled. Increasingly, UNHCR has sought to address the problem of internal displacement as part of its strategy to prevent refugee flows, for instance in northern Sri Lanka, former Yugoslavia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Aside from some 1.2 million refugees who have fled to the neighbouring countries, in Bosnia and Herzegovina we are helping some 2.7 million of internally displaced and besieged population affected by war and the most appalling violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Continued fighting and lack of access remain our most serious concerns, particularly in parts of central Bosnia.

Last December, the United Nations General Assembly reaffirmed its support for my Office's efforts to provide protection and assistance to the internally displaced, in situations calling for UNHCR's particular expertise, especially where such efforts could contribute to the prevention or solution of refugee problems. The resolution indicates that UNHCR's efforts should be based on specific requests from the Secretary-General or the competent principal organs of the United Nations and with the consent of the concerned State, taking into account the complementarities of mandates and expertise of other relevant organizations.

I see the internally displaced as an important priority issue for UNHCR, when they are in need of international protection.

UNHCR's protection activities on behalf of the internally displaced are not dissimilar from those we undertake for refugees. We monitor their human rights, and intervene with the relevant authorities to seek corrective action. Let me cite an example from a short situation report dated 31 January 1994 from Banja Luka:

"A flurry of serious protection problems have come to our attention this morning, including a case of multiple rape, the severe beating of a senior citizen, forced evictions, and the rounding up of Muslims and confiscation of their goods at the Banja Luka market. As of today Muslims are denied the right to sell their goods and belongings in the market, which often provide the last means to raise funds before fleeing the area. This is just a sample of problems encountered between 8 and 10 this morning."

Throughout the conflict, my Office has intervened with authorities and alerted governments and the public on human rights abuses which have taken place on all sides of the conflict.

As you can see from the example cited, through presence and monitoring we prevent human rights abuses, involuntary return of the internally displaced to areas of danger, and facilitate their right to return home if conditions are conducive. As in the case of refugee protection, we have found international presence and access to the victims to be the most effective means of ensuring protection against abuse of human rights.

Even though the essence of our work for refugees and the internally displaced are similar, the legal framework is considerably different, as is the context. Refugee law provides an extensive framework of protection for refugees, and an internationally recognised role for UNHCR. For the internally displaced, the national context in which international protection must be provided create certain limitations. However, although refugee law is not directly applicable to internally displaced persons, UNHCR is applying some of its principles in practice, by analogy. Unlike refugee law, humanitarian law, specifically the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II, contains provisions which are applicable to the protection of the internally displaced. These provisions, however, have certain limitations. Thus, it is left to human rights law to provide the necessary protection to internally displaced persons. Yet many of the human rights are subject to derogation, or do not address the specific vulnerability of internal displacement. Furthermore, the most flagrant abuses on this very continent have shown the limits of implementation of human rights and humanitarian law.

I believe the Commission in its work to strengthen the protection of the internally displaced must seek to bring about a convergence of refugee law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Although the origin, development, content as well as means for implementation of these respective laws are different, each have a useful contribution to make to the protection of the internally displaced. The growing dimension of international humanitarian action in intra-state, as opposed to inter-state situations, require a more holistic approach of law. It is only through such convergence that the lacuna in the law can be addressed.

The lack of clarity of legal principles have not proved an obstacle to effective action, where the cooperation or consent of the relevant authorities has been forthcoming. Thus, while the development of international legal principles and norms is desirable, it is well to keep in mind that humanitarian access depends, in practice, not so much on the elaboration of legal norms, as on the ability and political will of the international community to persuade States to accept responsibility for the welfare of the people within their territory.

Needless to say, the enormity as well as the complexity of the challenge of internal displacement will require continued and enhanced cooperation between the various actors. Indeed, the UN General Assembly has called upon my Office to engage in further consultations with appropriate international organizations and bodies including the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We greatly value such cooperation in our joint endeavours to improve the international response to the problem of the internally displaced.

Let me conclude, Mr. President, by saying that human rights violations are a major factor, but they are not of course the only one in coerced population movements. Preventive strategies must take into account the full range of factors that compel people to leave their homes: political, social, economic and environmental. Thus a comprehensive and integrated approach is required, encompassing political action, development assistance as well as humanitarian responses and protection of human rights. In this process, more systematic attention should be given towards including an international human rights component in UN's operations to address internal conflicts. The international community must build on the lessons learned in the UN operations in El Salvador, Cambodia, and Haiti to develop a greater operational capacity in the UN for addressing human rights problems.

The human rights challenge is formidable. In every region of the world, the most appalling violations of fundamental human rights, the gravest breaches of humanitarian law are occurring. Too many people are forced to flee their homes, and too few are able to return home safely.

As I begin a new term of five years as High Commissioner for Refugees, I look forward to the strengthening of the UN human rights machinery, including the establishment of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The challenge is to translate rhetoric and resolutions into action on the ground. I stand ready to cooperate with the Commission, the new High Commissioner and the Human Rights Centre in order to promote concrete, practical and action-oriented measures, so that people will no longer be forced to flee.