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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the forty-eighth Session of Commission on Human Rights, 20 February 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the forty-eighth Session of Commission on Human Rights, 20 February 1992

20 February 1992

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and honour to address the Commission on Human Rights on the problem that concerns me deeply - human rights and refugees. As one who has participated in the work of the Commission, as a representative as well as a Special Rapporteur, this is an opportunity to which I have greatly looked forward.

Mass movements of people pose a major humanitarian challenge in all regions of the world today. Political, economic, demographic and ecological trends inevitably reinforce refugee and migration pressures, calling for strengthened multilateral cooperation to develop appropriate responses. The Commission on Human Rights clearly has a major role to play in fostering this multilateral cooperation so that the rights and needs of the persons concerned are fully respected.

The Executive Committee of my Office, of which 43 States are now members, expressly called upon UNHCR during its annual session in October last year to continue to/contribute to the deliberations of international human rights bodies. This is a recognition of the close interrelationship between our responsibilities to protect and assist refugees and to promote and protect human rights.

UNHCR's traditional role to protect refugees, and to find solutions to their problem has evolved over the years. Today, in addition to our responsibilities for victims of persecution, we are engaged more and more in protecting and assisting victims of violence. In fact, the vast majority of the refugees in the world today are people who have left their country because their lives, security or liberty are threatened by generalized violence, war or internal conflicts. UNHCR is also asked with increasing frequency, by the General Assembly or the Secretary-General, to assume humanitarian responsibilities for persons displaced within their own country. To give some examples, since I took up office as High Commissioner in February last year, we have been involved with Iraqis of Kurdish origin in Northern Iraq and with displaced persons in Yugoslavia.

The connection between UNHCR's responsibilities and the expertise of the Commission on Human Rights is clear. It is broadly accepted that human rights form the overall basis for protection and assistance to refugees, and can be the key to finding solutions to refugee problems. Human rights violations are a major cause of refugee flows. Although the immediate cause of most refugee movements today is armed conflict or serious internal disturbance, human rights violations, combined with severe economic deprivation, usually lie at the root of the conflict or aggravate it. In situations where fear of persecution is the basis of flight, then the link between human rights violations and refugee flows is even clearer. From the point of view of this Commission's concerns, it needs clearly to be recognized that human rights violations are a major factor of many coerced departures and that their prevention is the best protection for refugees. Our challenge is to turn this recognition into a practical strategy.

With increasing emphasis in the UN on preventive diplomacy, I believe UNHCR should equally focus on what I might call preventive protection. When I speak of prevention, let me state clearly that I mean prevention of the circumstances which force people to leave. In this sense, prevention becomes another aspect of solutions. Consequently, UNHCR is focusing more and more on activities in countries from which refugees leave as a complement to the more traditional, but still important, role in countries which receive them. Indeed, we cannot relinquish our traditional protection role in countries of asylum as long as firmly established principles are being challenged far too often. Refugees are still being forced back against their will, border control measures are becoming increasingly restrictive in some regions of the world, refugees are being subjected to armed attack, detention and physical violence. One of my greatest concerns is the growing prevalence of xenophobic and racist actions in many countries. I see this as a profound political and human rights challenge for governments and for the international community as a whole.

At the same time, many preventive strategies could and should be pursued before people begin to flee. These include human rights monitoring by the international community, providing advisory services, establishing national or regional structures for protecting minority rights, promoting mediation as a means of conflict resolution, and encouraging tolerance for diversity and respect for human rights generally. I believe that we must involve ourselves more actively in such preventive strategies. Working with States and bodies such as this Commission, I am prepared to explore when and how we can commit resources, particularly to monitoring and to promoting national legislative and administrative infrastructures which are solidly based on respect for human rights. We have already embarked on such endeavours notably in countries in Eastern Europe.

The success of preventive strategies will in part depend on the effectiveness of early warning of developing problems. I am aware that this Commission is making an important contribution in promoting early warning systems at the national and international levels. For our part, we are actively cooperating with UN system-wide efforts to develop a UN early warning mechanism incorporating appropriate follow-up procedures.

A new challenge for UNHCR is to devise methods, where appropriate, to meet the security and protection needs of individuals prior to departure so as to obviate the need for flight. In-country protection may very well be feasible in certain situations, provided that it is fully consonant with international human rights standards and that guarantees for protection are present. These include the right of individuals to leave their own country, to seek and enjoy asylum or return on a voluntary basis and not be compelled to remain in a territory where life, liberty or physical integrity is threatened. The human rights at issue and their guarantees might well be an interesting issue for this Commission to look at, should it choose actively to discuss refugee generating situations and how best to respond to them. In this respect it may be of interest to evaluate the UN experience in Yugoslavia.

Prevention also requires more effective human rights protection and promotion. To this end, my Office is continuing to develop its ties with inter-governmental and non-governmental human rights bodies.

If I have emphasized the importance of prevention, it is because I believe this Commission has the potential to play a very valuable role in this regard. It is also because I am firmly convinced that a new multilateral order for cooperation on refugee, migration and humanitarian affairs is emerging, with prevention likely to take on a prime focus in a global, solutions-oriented approach.

Turning to solutions, I believe also that this Commission has a most important role to play in assisting States and my Office to achieve what is undoubtedly the most feasible and preferable solution in many refugee situations - that of voluntary repatriation. To return home in safety and dignity is the deep-seated and firm desire of the large majority of uprooted people. It can only come about, though, when circumstances permit, and, in particular, when the causes for displacement are removed or at least greatly lessened. Insofar as these causes are serious human rights violations, the agenda of this Commission provides a valuable basis for exploring ways to alleviate them.

UNHCR is actively pursuing voluntary repatriation possibilities which have been opened up by the resolution of many regional and internal conflicts e.g. in South Africa, Cambodia, Angola and El Salvador. We face many problems however, ranging from demining to guarantees for the safety of returning refugees. UN's role in monitoring the safety of returnees can be crucial, particularly when refugees return to areas where security is still fragile as in northern Iraq. New monitoring possibilities for the UN generally, including for my Office, - for example in Vietnam, South Africa or El Salvador - have recently opened up and offer positive prospects. This is all the more important as over the last year we are aware, even where we have not been given access, that in certain countries returnees have experienced harassment, or have been arbitrarily detained and have even disappeared. On occasion, repatriate communities have been the object of direct aggression by military forces. Disappearances, arbitrary detention and physical security of persons are all of direct concern to this Commission, and Commission members might wish to consider how their own monitoring mechanisms might be employed to complement UNHCR's efforts to promote the safety and dignity of returnees.

Linked to the problem of returning refugees is the situation of those who are internally displaced. This Commission has before it a report on the situation of internally displaced persons, including their protection needs. I have on a number of occasions reaffirmed my strong commitment to all efforts to promote and protect the human rights of internally displaced persons. The work of my Office with returnees has clearly shown the substantial commonality of protection problems experienced by repatriating refugees and by the internally displaced. Moreover, we have seen many refugees return home to situations of internal displacement, as in northern Iraq. This experience has convinced us that the protection of internally displaced persons is a key factor in the prevention of refugee flows and in ensuring the durability of voluntary repatriation and the reintegration of the returnees. Protecting and assisting persons inside their own country who are caught up in conflict or fragile security situations is, however, a very complicated task. Our work in El Salvador has shown that in order to be effective, monitoring must include some mechanism for more direct action to protect the human rights of individuals.

I hope, that on the basis of the report currently before it, this Commission will be able to agree on an appropriate follow-up mechanism which will contribute significantly to the protection of the internally displaced. There will be a need, in this context, to examine how to structure a mandate for international protection and assistance to the victims, how to ensure humanitarian access to those in need, without ignoring the issue of sovereignty, and how to protect aid workers so that the task of saving lives does not have to wait for political resolution of the conflict.

Another area where there is scope for establishing a meaningful relationship between UNHCR and the Commission is in regard to the problems of minorities. Many of those who are displaced by conflict today are ethnic and religious minorities. The Commission has long been concerned with minorities, and has made great strides in protecting their human rights. The draft declaration on the rights of minority groups is an encouraging development in the process of standard-setting, including as it does the notion that affirmative measures may be called for in order to protect minority rights. UNHCR has found that problems of minorities are at the heart of many forced movements of populations, and must be addressed if we hope to avert such flows in the future.

Through this brief survey, I have endeavoured to highlight a range of refugee problems and concerns which I believe lend themselves to active Commission involvement. There are other specific activities which the Commission may wish to reflect in any relevant resolution it decides to adopt addressing the human rights of refugees and displaced persons.

Reliable information on situations which cause population movements will assist United Nations organizations, including my Office, to determine how best to assist, and where necessary protect, the persons involved. Toward this end, all Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups of this Commission could be requested to focus to some extent on circumstances which create flows of refugees and displaced persons. The Commission may also wish to examine at some point whether the existing mechanisms are adequate in this regard or whether a more direct focus on refugee generating situations would be desirable through the creation of a specialized reporting mechanism.

Similarly, the Commission could encourage treaty bodies such as the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to include examination of human rights violations causing refugees and displaced persons or preventing their return as part of their evaluation process. In considering specific country situations under agenda item 12, Commission delegations might also choose to highlight situations which produce flows of refugees and displaced persons or which prevent their return home.

In the area of standard-setting, acknowledgement by the Commission of the customary and binding nature of the international law principle of non-refoulement would be a valuable expression of international solidarity and understanding. The Commission could also supplement the efforts of my Office to encourage States to accede to the Refugee Convention and Protocol. I am pleased to note that 40 members of this present Commission have already formalized their commitment to respecting the human rights of refugees by becoming States party to these instruments. I would be even more pleased if I could inform you next year that all 53 members have acceded to the Refugee Convention and Protocol.

We would welcome active consideration by the Commission, when rationalizing its agenda, of the possibility of a new agenda item which would allow a more thorough and focused examination of violations of human rights and population displacements. One contribution which my Office could make to provide a basis for the examination would be a report on the state of the world's refugees, which I hope soon to be able to institutionalize on a regular basis.

The Commission may also wish to consider how refugees and displaced persons may be put on the agenda of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. UNHCR has already suggested to the preparatory committee that several issues be included in the agenda for the World Conference. The first is the right of freedom of movement. A person who is compelled to leave his or her own country or denied the right to return is a person whose basic right of freedom of movement has been violated. The second issue is the right to a nationality. States, including particularly new States, have the responsibility to reduce statelessness and to provide for the possibility for individuals to enjoy the normal rights of nationality. Finally, we have suggested that the World Conference reflect on the topic of human rights and mass exoduses, particularly as regards the responsibilities of countries from which people are forced to flee.

Before concluding, I wish to express my conviction that non-governmental organisations, many of which are represented here today, also have an indispensable role in prevention and solutions of refugee problems. UNHCR relies on the cooperation of NGOs in many different ways, including as implementing partners, advocates and donors to mobilize community support and assistance. The Office will continue to explore new modes of cooperation, particularly with regard to solution and prevention-oriented activities.

I would like to close by extending my congratulations to the new members of the Commission on Human Rights. The Commission's increasingly inclusive membership underlines the universal character of human rights concerns and promises new potential for effective action by the United Nations. The 48th session of the Commission is a particularly important gathering because of the challenges posed by major changes taking place in the world and the opportunity they present for multilateral action in the field of human rights. UNHCR looks forward to working with you in these important endeavours.