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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 24 January 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 24 January 1992

24 January 1992
Events in EuropeThe Middle EastAfricaCentral AmericaAsiaFinancial SituationEmergency Response capacityConclusion

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with a sense of deep regret that I am not able to be with you at this first informal meeting of the Executive Committee in 1992. I had looked forward to sharing with you in person the developments that have occurred since our last session in October and the achievements, challenges and opportunities that have emerged in the eventful intervening months. In view of the importance that we all attach to improving coordination and cohesion in the United Nations system as a whole, I felt it necessary to travel at short notice to New York to attend the first consultations that the Secretary-General is holding with heads of agencies today. Counting on your understanding, I have therefore asked the Deputy High Commissioner, to extend my greetings to you and to make this statement on my behalf.

It is not my intention to duplicate the information provided in the documentation submitted to you. Let me rather concentrate on a number of key developments that have occurred since last October and share with you some personal impressions from the missions that have taken me to thirteen countries in the interim, bringing to twenty-nine those I have visited since assuming office as High Commissioner.

Events in Europe

First a word about events which are occurring not so many miles from this conference room. We have followed with anguish the bitter conflict that has erupted in Yugoslavia unleashing massive problems of displacement on a scale that Europe has not witnessed since World War II. These tragic events are providing a testing ground for the three point strategy of, improved emergency preparedness and response, preventive action and voluntary repatriation that I described to you at our October meeting.

In Yugoslavia, we are working within the framework of intensive conflict-resolution initiatives of the United Nations and the EEC. As lead agency for the internally displaced, I have appointed a Special Envoy and strengthened our presence on the ground. We have geared up our action in such a way as to emphasize the prevention of displacements and to promote early return to places of origin wherever security conditions permit. In conjunction with UNICEF, WHO and the ICRC, and in close coordination with the EEC, we are monitoring events, particularly in so far as they concern the security of displaced persons. In addition, we are seeking ways to build confidence, defuse tensions and facilitate inter-communal contacts and dialogue. With respect to those displaced externally, notably in Hungary where refugee numbers continue to grow, we are helping the authorities provide basic assistance and conditions of security in anticipation of early repatriation, so as to avoid the formation of a group of long-term exiles. The success of this approach depends, of course, in large measure on the political will of the international community to continue its determined search for a peaceful solution to the underlying problems.

While not wishing to set ourselves up as prophets of doom in a situation which, for all its pitfalls and tragic aberrations, has released tremendous potential for human betterment, we are also extending this preventive approach to other parts of eastern Europe, notably the former USSR. We cannot close our eyes to the possibility of large-scale internal migration within the Commonwealth of Independent States if conditions of economic deprivation worsen and aggravate a climate of inter-ethnic suspicion and hostility. UNHCR has, over the past months, been in sustained contact with the authorities in Moscow. We have established a presence in the Russian Federation and contacts with other republics. Our primary aim is to assist the authorities to deal with refugees and problems of displacement through promotional activities, legal advice, and training programmes. A promising start has been made. However, if this strategy of prevention and preparedness is to succeed here and elsewhere in eastern Europe, it will require the strong support of donor governments, as well as ever closer contacts among agencies. Our recently launched joint information project with IOM in Albania is an example we intend to apply in other parts of eastern Europe.

The Middle East

Concerning the Middle East, I hardly need to remind you that, although the Persian Gulf war is now history, for many of the victims, the misery of conflict and confrontation continues. Of the approximately 1.7 million persons who fled Iraq in March and April 1991, the great majority have returned to their country of origin, though many remain internally displaced, while others endure conditions of widespread devastation, insecurity and economic deprivation. Parts of northern Iraq are experiencing a particularly severe winter and are faced by an ongoing economic blockade which is contributing to a steady deterioration in living conditions for large numbers of people.

Nevertheless, much has been achieved under these difficult circumstances. By the end of this month, not a single returnee family will remain under canvas; all will have been provided with solid shelter. My Office remains fully committed to providing assistance and protection to returnees in Iraq. But we cannot continue to shoulder the burden of reintegration indefinitely, nor should we be held hostage to political problems which impede the regular delivery of international assistance. While maintaining our protection responsibilities, we plan to scale down our presence in northern Iraq from the end of April 1992. The support of the international community is urgently required to involve other international organizations in longer-term recovery and rehabilitation work.


Another area in which we need the support of governments to promote reconciliation, peace and reconstruction is the Horn of Africa which has continued to be plagued by humanitarian crises on an appalling scale. Countries in the region, long familiar with the phenomenon of refugee crises, have increasingly experienced returnee emergencies as populations spill back across borders, fleeing insecurity in their asylum countries.

In the context of the Special Emergency Programme for the Horn of Africa [SEPHA], the UN agencies have been collaborating in recent weeks to draw up integrated programmes of assistance for this troubled part of Africa. However, I am deeply concerned that the widespread insecurity in much of the region could prevent their effective implementation. UNHCR's programmes in the area have been subject to increasing disruption that both endangers the lives and well-being of beneficiaries and exposes personnel to unacceptable levels of risk. Only last week, I learned with shock and deep sorrow of the loss of four staff members of our German operational partner in an ambush in western Ethiopia. In this connection, I am gratified by ongoing efforts in the Security Council to deal with the link between peace and humanitarian aid in this volatile and troubled area.

I have been heartened by developments in another part of the African continent, South Africa, where progress towards full respect for human rights and social justice augurs well for the establishment of a truly democratic society.

In late December, I had the privilege, at the request of the Secretary-General, of leading the United Nations delegation to the historic Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) in Johannesburg. I was impressed at the open, constructive and democratic debate that characterized the Conference. I believe that an irreversible process has indeed been set in motion and I am optimistic that the positive spirit of CODESA will continue to gather momentum when the Conference reconvenes at the end of March to consider the reports of its various Working Groups.

My optimism was reinforced by the meetings that I had during my visit with President de Klerk and other members of the South African Government, as well as with Mr. Nelson Mandela and leaders of the racial majority, all of whom manifested a strong commitment to the ongoing process of reconciliation and reform. But there can be no denying that enormous obstacles still remain to be overcome. During the day that I spent in Soweto, I witnessed at first hand the tragic consequences of tension and violence. But at the same time, I was struck by a sense of solidarity that, at best, cut across racial and communal divisions, by the great dignity of ordinary people and by the strength of their aspiration for a decent life and a better future. On more than one occasion, I was profoundly touched by the spontaneous expressions of gratitude I received from former exiles for the work of UNHCR.

As you know, we have now established an official presence in South Africa and our repatriation programme is already under way. In the history of my Office, there can have been few moments of such intense satisfaction as to see the victims of long and bitter exile returning home to help fashion the future of their country. The registration process that we have been carrying out has revealed that numbers to be repatriated are considerably less than originally anticipated, a fact that will be duly reflected in our budget. And yet, in a context of social, political and economic dislocation, the problems of reintegration will be immense and the continued support of the international community will be needed to help provide the returnees with the future that they deserve.

Central America

My visit to Central America, Mexico and Belize in October and November last year also gave me much cause for satisfaction. In all, I was able to visit seven countries in an area which was one of the major refugee trouble spots in the 1980s but in which returnees now outnumber refugees. I met with seven Heads of State, visited refugee camps and returnee settlements and observed with intense satisfaction the achievements of the peace process in the region. I was able also to appreciate the benefits of the integrated approach to problems of displacement and return pioneered by the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) with its emphasis on the broader developmental aspects of problems of displacement and its call for a coordinated, inter-agency approach to solutions.

Since my visit, yet one more seemingly intractable problem has seen further decisive steps towards a solution, with the El Salvador peace agreement bringing to an end twelve years of conflict. While welcoming this historic breakthrough, we must not now risk jeopardising the prospects of enduring peace by underestimating the effort needed to bring about reconciliation and reintegration. This process will inevitably be a delicate one, requiring careful nurturing and scrupulous monitoring.

In Nicaragua, the challenge we now face is also one of reintegrating returnees in a country where socio-economic conditions have been seriously disrupted by years of conflict, where lands are mined and where social and physical infrastructure is poorly developed. Together with UNDP and in close cooperation with the Government, we are implementing a range of Quick Impact Projects in returnee communities to improve infrastructure and support productive activities.

The most serious refugee problem remaining in the region is that of Guatemalans in Mexico. While in Guatemala, I concluded with the President a Letter of Understanding on potential voluntary repatriation movements which seeks to promote the creation of conditions of security for returnees. Much, of course, will depend on the evolution of the general human rights situation and on the progress in the search for peace in Guatemala. But we now have a framework which will allow us to take an orderly and planned approach as the situation develops. My Office has drawn up a Plan of Action for Repatriation which includes the strengthening of our presence in areas of expected return to monitor progress on questions of refugees safety and access to land. Earlier this month we launched an appeal for US$ 5 million to cover the eventual return of 4,000 refugees during an initial phase.

My Central American visit reinforced several fundamental convictions concerning approaches to be applied also in other parts of the world. Firstly, it confirmed my belief in the importance of political initiatives in resolving the underlying causes of refugee problems. Humanitarian assistance to refugees and returnees can be an important contribution to the reduction of tensions and to the promotion of reconciliation but it cannot substitute for political solutions. Secondly, the Central American experience convinces me that humanitarian aid must be linked more effectively to longer term development. My Office must be able to work closely with development agencies in regions that have been devastated by years of conflict, as we are doing with UNDP under the auspices of CIREFCA.


The Asian continent, where I have just completed my first official visit as High Commissioner, has in recent months been the theatre of both positive developments and disturbing new trends. We have seen the influx of boat people in the first-asylum countries of South-East Asia fall to a historic low, with only sporadic arrivals registered. Meanwhile, the numbers of those returning to Viet Nam have reached record levels. It appears that this long-standing and complex problem that has mobilised the attention of the international community over so many years may now be drawing to an end.

In some other parts of the Asian region, however, events have not taken such a positive turn. In spite of contacts with the respective governments, my Office has still not been able to reach satisfactory arrangements with regard to refugees from Myanmar in Thailand or in Bangladesh. Nor have we been able to exercise our mandate in the repatriation of Tamils from India to Sri Lanka. Further north, a growing influx of ethnic Nepalese fleeing from Bhutan into Nepal is another source of deep concern.

My recent visit to the South-East Asian region was undertaken in the context of plans for the repatriation of Cambodian refugees and displaced persons, an operation that promises to be one of the most challenging that my office has undertaken given the enormous political complexity of the situation.

Following the signature of a Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding between the Governments of Thailand, the Supreme National Council of Cambodia and UNHCR on 21 November last, we have intensified our preparations for the repatriation exercise. In order to speed up the process, I have recently appointed one of my most senior and experienced staff as my Special Envoy to supervise this operation in the region. we hope to be able to begin repatriation movements in March or April at the latest, though the exact timing will depend on secure conditions for returnees in their country of origin.

In Thailand, I held talks with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and was impressed by their constructive approach and their sensitivity to the concerns of my Office. I was particularly pleased at the agreement of the authorities to play a role in the urgent process of demining in Cambodia and in upgrading the road from Poipet to Sisophon so as to facilitate repatriation movements. In my visits to the border camps, I found the registration of the refugee population well on the way to completion and staging posts for repatriation movements ready at all three camps.

It will come as no surprise that I found a far more intricate situation inside Cambodia itself, where I was nevertheless gratified to receive assurances of support from members of the Supreme National Council, including Prince Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen. It is essential, I believe, in a situation where deeply rooted friction and mutual suspicion can erupt at any moment into open hostility, for the international community to retain the initiative. For our part of the operation, as for others, a rapid deployment of the full United Nations presence is crucial to preserve momentum with demining operations and other aspects of reintegration. For this, the sustained political will and generous financial support of the international community will be absolutely indispensible.

Although I was able to observe progress in physical preparations for the reception of repatriants, many problems remain, above all the need to identify sufficient mine-free land for the settlement of returnees. Surveys in this respect are not yet complete but results to date reveal the difficulty of this undertaking. There will therefore be a need for us to maintain flexibility in our approach.

I am deeply grateful for the generous donor support, amounting to US$ 25.8, which we have received for the first phase of our Cambodian repatriation programme. We are now in the final stages of revising the plan of operations and related budget which will be the subject of a new appeal in the near future. We will need the continued commitment of the international community if we are to succeed in carrying out one of the most challenging operations undertaken by my office.

Financial Situation

Turning now to the financial situation of UNHCR, let me express my deep gratitude for the extraordinary support that my office received from Governments in 1991. While some - and among them the most economically disadvantaged - continued to provide asylum and to receive refugees generously, others made an unprecedented effort to secure the necessary funding for our activities. A total of 878.8 million dollars have been received in voluntary contributions for our 1991 programmes. This support demonstrates your governments sensitivity to refugee needs and is proof of renewed confidence in UNHCR. At the same time, however, achieving the most cost effective, efficient and timely programme implementation is a challenge for the organization and our implementing partners worldwide. I am hopeful that during the year and at the forty-third session of the Executive Committee I will be able to report back to you that UNHCR has lived up to this challenge and that further improvements in programme delivery have been achieved.

Mr. Chairman, as you have reviewed in the recent meeting of the Sub-Committee on Financial and Administrative Matters, the needs we foresee for 1992 are again staggering. If, as we hope, all the voluntary repatriation operations do indeed materialize in 1992, the financial support required would equal that of 1991. We are fully aware of the multiple 'demands on your governments. Therefore, priorities will have to be set to establish an adequate balance between requirements and expected income. Before any special programme can be given priority, we have to guarantee, as a first priority, the full funding, through voluntary contributions, of General Programmes which are approved in the amount of 373.1 million dollars. We must never lose sight of this basic responsibility and I would like to urge you to announce your contributions for 1992 General Programmes as soon as possible. At this moment, approximately 6 months of General Programmes are funded and early pledges are required to plan our activities effectively throughout the year. I am deeply grateful for all the support my office will receive from you in 1992.

Emergency Response capacity

My Office is firmly committed, as you know, to system-wide efforts to improve coordination in emergencies and enhance delivery. But we must not lose sight of the fact that coordination is no substitute for the emergency capacity of the various agencies. I cannot end, therefore, without a word about the progress we have made since October in implementing measures to improve UNHCR's own emergency response capacity. Five Emergency Preparedness and Response Officers have been selected and will assume their functions on February 17th. Selection of the Emergency Response Teams and the Emergency Roster is also under way. Complementing this effort, a Memorandum of Understanding has already been signed with the Swedish Rescue Services Board to make available personnel and material support to the UNHCR teams. Separate agreements have been signed with the Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils to provide UNHCR with standby capacity, enabling the Office to tap human resources or secondment in an emergency. I am also pleased to report that a number of measures with respect to emergency training and the establishment of an emergency stockpile have progressed significantly.

UNHCR is convinced that cooperation with other UN agencies is a necessary corollary to its own ability to deliver in an emergency. WFP, UNV and UNHCR are discussing ways to converge their responses, particularly in the deployment of personnel, and joint needs assessment. I also attach great importance to a meeting with NGOs scheduled for next week which will focus on possible cooperation in the areas of needs assessment and programme implementation, further enhancing quick and appropriate responses to emergencies through stand-by arrangements with these important operational partners. Additional measures will be reported to you in the coming months.


We have begun 1992 on the basis of my three-point strategy. Preventive action is being explored in various parts of the world and tested in Yugoslavia. Measures to enhance our emergency response capability are being rapidly put into place and solutions are under way in many parts of the world, notably in South-East Asia and South Africa. With your support we will continue on this course during the challenging year ahead of us.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.