Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Forty-ninth Session of the Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 3 March 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Forty-ninth Session of the Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 3 March 1993

3 March 1993

Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honour to address once again the Commission on Human Rights. Allow me first of all to extend my congratulations to the Bureau and to you, Mr. President on your election.

Mr. President, the phenomenon of coerced displacements of people has assumed distressing dimensions, whether we look at the cross-border movements of refugees, which are central to my mandate, or at the internal displacements for which my Office is increasingly called upon to extend its humanitarian expertise. Last year, while more than one-and-one-half million refugees returned home, another three million were forced to flee their countries, and millions more fled within their own countries from conflict and persecution. The effects of human rights violations, ethnic and sectarian conflicts and civil wars are aggravated by drought, famine, environmental decline and even total anarchy in many regions. Political instability, economic disruption, population growth and a widening gap between rich and poor countries and between the rich and poor within many countries create pressures and unleash hatreds that result in both human rights violations and the flight of refugees.

The issue of human rights and the problems of refugees are so inextricably linked that it is hardly possible to discuss one without referring to the other. Human rights violations are a major cause of refugee flows and also a major obstacle to the solution of refugee problems through voluntary repatriation. More positively, safeguarding human rights is the best way to prevent conditions that force people to become refugees;respect for human rights is a key element in the protection of refugees in their country of asylum; and improved observance of human rights standards is often critical for the solution of refugee problems by enabling refugees to return safely home. My Office is committed to a three-pronged strategy of prevention, emergency response, and solutions to deal with these three aspects of the refugee problem.

The need for close ties 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 has never been clearer, and one of my purposes in addressing the Commission today is to emphasize and strengthen those ties.

While seeking to prevent circumstances that force people to flee and to promote solutions to refugee problems, my Office of course continues to pursue the traditional protection work in countries of refuge that is at the heart of the UNHCR mandate. The right to seek and to enjoy asylum and the corresponding duty of non-refoulement are the cornerstone of international refugee protection. They must be reaffirmed, particularly in light of difficulties in many regions of the world. In too many cases, refugees are exposed to danger, rejection at frontiers or legal obstacles in their search for asylum. Working with the UNHCR Executive Committee, ECOSOC and the General Assembly, my Office continues to make every effort to build consensus and mobilize the support of the international community for the protection of refugees. I am grateful for the support of the Commission on Human Rights in this endeavour, and I welcome this opportunity to elaborate further on the inter-relationship between upholding human rights and protecting refugees.

It is in the areas of prevention and solutions - and thus primarily in our work with the countries of origin of refugees and potential refugees - that there is the most critical need for cooperation between UNHCR and the Commission on Human Rights, the Centre for Human Rights and other relevant human rights organizations. This cooperation has been strongly encouraged by the United Nations General Assembly as well as by the UNHCR Executive Committee. Our cooperation with the Commission and the Centre has increased during the past year, notably in our intense collaboration with respect to events in the former Yugoslavia, but given the scope of the problems we face, much more needs to be done.

In my statement to the Commission last year, I suggested a number of concrete measures for the Commission to consider in connection with the prevention of, and solutions to, refugee situations. The events of the past year have confirmed the urgent need for effective action by the international community to prevent violations of human rights that force refugees to flee and also block their return home. I would like therefore to return to the theme of preventive action, and also the human rights protection of the internally displaced, as well as to draw your attention to the concept of "the right to remain".

As new refugee problems have developed - or old ones have been aggravated - in recent years, one lesson that emerges very clearly is the need for earlier and more effective action by the international community to forestall potentially refugee-generating situations before flight becomes the only alternative. In the former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, the Horn of Africa, in Central Asia, despite very different circumstances, we see a similar pattern repeated:Simmering tensions caused by unresolved political, ethnic, religious or nationality disputes lead to human rights abuses which become increasingly violent and finally erupt into armed conflicts that eventually force people to flee their homes and often their countries in search of safety. By then it is too late to avert widespread human suffering, and more difficult to provide protection and assistance and to achieve solutions.

Early warning of human rights problems is a necessary first step in prevention. I support the efforts being made in this Commission and elsewhere in the United Nations system to strengthen the coordination of early warning activities in the humanitarian and human rights areas. As you know the Secretary-General in his report 'An Agenda for Peace', has called upon the United Nations system to cooperate with arrangements for synthesizing early-warning information with political indicators to assess whether a threat to peace exists and what action should be taken by the United Nations to alleviate it. Human rights problems are an important indicator both of threats to peace and of the risk of forced movements of people. In promoting early warning, the Commission could request existing mechanisms, within their mandates, to consider and report on human rights situations which may give rise to forced population displacements, or which prevent refugees and displaced persons from returning home. I would also request that Member States, observers and NGOs investigating and reporting on human rights problems pay special attention to their potential for creating refugees.

A substantive human rights problem that I believe merits special attention in connection with early warning and prevention is statelessness, in particular the withdrawal of the right to nationality. This has historically been an important factor in generating refugee flows.

But early warning must be followed by early and effective response. How can the international community promote effective preventive action before violations of human rights reach a massive scale? A regular and generalized system of human rights monitoring and factual reporting would be of great help in this regard. Balanced and impartial factual reporting by non-political and, ideally, independent bodies can be useful not only to warn of problems but also to persuade both the national authorities and the international community to take remedial steps. The tools available to the Human Rights Commission, such as special representatives, rapporteurs and working groups, may require strengthening by supportive infrastructure to improve their effectiveness in reporting and monitoring. Human rights monitoring in the context of United Nations peace plans, provides some possible models. In El Salvador, for example, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 693, UN observer missions were deployed to verify the undertakings by the parties to respect human rights. The appointment of a CSCE High Commissioner for Minority Rights is an interesting example of a regionally-based multilateral initiative. Resolution 1993/7 on The Situation of Human Rights in the Former Yugoslavia, recently adopted by the Commission, exemplifies several of the strategies that I have mentioned, including international observers, the use of regional arrangements, and the inclusion of different elements of the United Nations system in an integrated approach to protecting human rights. It would be good if similar action-oriented, pragmatic measures could be adopted to safeguard human rights in other regions of the world before disaster occurs.

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. Protecting people against forced displacement thus requires a comprehensive and integrated approach, encompassing development assistance as well as humanitarian action and protection of human rights. The preventive diplomacy advocated by the Secretary-General in his Agenda for Peace unquestionably has a role when internal as well as external conflicts loom, and peace-making, peace-keeping and peace-building activities are often required to resolve the all-too-frequent situations where displacement of populations results from the outbreak of armed conflict. More attention and thought need to be given to the role of international human rights machinery in this integrated approach.

Although I have referred to causes today primarily in terms of prevention of refugee problems, the same logic applies to their solution through voluntary repatriation. To be successful and permanent, repatriation also requires an integrated approach, including on-going attention to the human rights situation in the country of origin. I was therefore pleased to learn that the Commission has adopted a resolution requesting the Secretary-General to appoint a special representative and to ensure that the Centre for Human Rights assumes an operational presence in Cambodia. The Commission's interest in other countries where refugees are returning would be valuable, even more so where repatriation is not part of a comprehensive peace plan.

As part of efforts to develop effective strategies of prevention, the Commission may wish to examine how best to organize its deliberations to address the problems of the root causes and human rights implications of displacement. It might consider the possibility of bringing together on its agenda the various aspects of human rights and population displacement, both within and across state borders, so as to allow a more sustained and comprehensive focus on the subject.

Let me now move to the issue of the internally displaced. At this session, the Commission has considered the report of the Secretary-General's Representative on Internally Displaced Persons. The Report, to which my Office contributed, provides a valuable review of the present situation and makes many interesting and extremely useful observations and recommendations. The factors which compel displaced persons and refugees to leave their homes are similar, if not virtually identical. Like refugees, the internally displaced are in a very vulnerable situation. Like refugees, they need protection, assistance, and a solution to their plight. Although UNHCR does not have a general mandate for the internally displaced, the interrelationship between their situation and that of refugees has meant that my Office is frequently called upon to assume responsibilities on their behalf, particularly in situations where the need for humanitarian assistance is coupled with a need for protection. I reiterate UNHCR's willingness to extend its humanitarian expertise to internally displaced persons in appropriate cases, in response to requests from the Secretary-General or the General Assembly. But I must emphasize that the magnitude of the problem of the displaced far exceeds UNHCR's resources.

UNHCR's work with the internally displaced has traditionally been in the context of voluntary repatriation programmes where displaced persons are intermingled with returning refugees as well as the local population. This was recently the case in northern Iraq, and is currently the case in Ethiopia, in Afghanistan and in Central America, under CIREFCA, where we participate with other United Nations agencies in community rehabilitation programmes which include returning refugees and the internally displaced, as well as the local population.

Increasingly our humanitarian action for the displaced has been oriented towards prevention as we seek to protect and assist people before they have to cross a border. In the former Yugoslavia, UNHCR was initially requested by the Secretary-General to assist internally displaced persons and help prevent further displacement of the population, although as the situation has deteriorated our work in former Yugoslavia has increasingly involved refugees who have had to flee their country. In northern Sri Lanka, at the request of the Government and of the Secretary General, the Open Relief Centres originally established to assist returning refugees now provide humanitarian assistance and a form of protection to internally displaced. In Rwanda and in Georgia we are examining how we, together with other humanitarian agencies, can best assist people uprooted inside their country by ongoing civil wars. Here again, our involvement with the displaced will be oriented not only towards providing immediate relief but also towards prevention and solutions.

Frequently the internally displaced cannot obtain effective protection from their own government, either because it has lost control of a part of its territory or because it perceives them as a threat and supports or condones violations of their rights. Since they have not left their country, the internally displaced do not qualify for international protection as refugees. Their protection needs must be met through the general provisions of human rights and humanitarian law, and through ad hoc operational arrangements. How to secure observance of the norms of human rights and humanitarian law for the internally displaced is one of the most important challenges facing the international community. Meeting this challenge will require the development of institutional and practical mechanisms to protect the human rights of the displaced and to ensure their access to humanitarian assistance. I am pleased to note that the growing recognition that human rights are of legitimate international concern is gradually allowing greater scope for international bodies to monitor the situation of the internally displaced than had previously been possible. I trust that the decisions taken by the Commission following the debate on Professor Deng's study and the related items of the agenda will result in an appropriate follow-up mechanism that furthers the development of concrete legal and practical measures to meet the need of displaced persons for protection, humanitarian assistance and solutions.

Mr. President, the prevention of refugee flows and of internal displacement requires protecting the right of people to remain in safety in their homes. There are unfortunately too many instances where human rights have been or are being deliberately violated with the aim of expelling whole groups of people from their homes and from their country. The former Yugoslavia provides a particularly graphic and painful example. There, UNHCR is providing assistance not only to refugees and the displaced, but also to people who are under a direct threat of expulsion either through military attack or through the form of persecution referred to as "ethnic cleansing". The atrocities that are the instruments of this policy include murder, torture, mutilation and rape. Despite all our efforts, they continue even now. And this unfortunately is only one example of the threats worldwide to the human right to remain.

In speaking of "the right to remain", I mean to underline the need to protect the basic right of the individual not to be forced into exile and to emphasize an aspect of human rights that deserves further development in connection with our efforts to address the causes of refugee flight. The right to remain is implicit in the right to leave one's country and to return there. In its simplest form it could be said to include the right to freedom of movement and residence within one's own country. It is inherent in Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary exile. It is linked also to other fundamental human rights because when people are forced to leave their homes, a whole range of other rights are threatened, including the right to life, liberty and security of the person, non-discrimination, the right not to be subjected to torture or degrading treatment, the right to privacy and family life.

If I, as the High Commissioner for Refugees, emphasize the right not to become a refugee, it is because I know that the international protection that my Office, in cooperation with countries of asylum, can offer to refugees is not an adequate substitute for the protection that they should have received from their own Governments in their own countries. The generosity of asylum countries cannot fully replace the loss of a homeland or relieve the pain of exile. In this period of heightened tensions between various groups within countries and growing threats of conflicts whose primary aim is to force one group of people to leave territory shared with another, the question of how to enforce people's right to remain, to have their rights respected where they are, and not have to flee to find protection, has become urgent. I invite you to consider human rights situations from the standpoint of the right to remain because I am convinced that there will be no end to the plight of refugees until the international community has found ways to deal effectively with the root causes of forced displacement.

The basic right not to be forced into exile implies the concomitant duty of the State to protect people against coerced displacement. The international system to ensure the protection of the individual against violations of human rights, and the international system for the protection of refugees, rely first and foremost on the cooperation and the commitment of States. Acting on behalf of the international community as a whole, the Commission's task is to encourage States to fulfil their obligations to the individuals in their charge, reminding them of their responsibilities but also assisting them to protect the human rights of everyone.

I look forward to the upcoming World Conference on Human Rights, which will provide an opportunity to explore ways of strengthening implementation of the full spectrum of human rights standards and improving the effectiveness of U. N. human rights mechanisms. Many of the subjects to be considered at the conference, including the relationship between democracy, development, and the universal enjoyment of human rights, are of particular relevance in addressing the root causes of refugee flows. My Office has contributed actively in the Preparatory Committee and regional meetings, and I hope to be able to participate at the Conference in Vienna.

In conclusion, Mr. President, the Commission and UNHCR have a basic commonality of purpose, in that our fundamental objective is to ensure that people in need of protection receive that protection. The problems of refugees cannot be solved unless we address the root causes, which means, ultimately, ensuring respect for human rights. The right to remain, and the right to return home in safety and dignity, must be given equal importance with the right to seek asylum. Your deliberations, and the work of the Centre and other human rights institutions, including that of the NGOs, are thus of vital importance not only for the refugees of today but also for millions of people who may be forced to become refugees if their human rights are not respected. In pursuing that goal, we must have a clear sense of purpose and the courage to stand by our principles and take effective action to ensure that the people who depend upon us receive the protection they need.

Thank you.