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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Open Debate on the Secretary General's Report on the Situation in Africa, New York, 24 April 1998

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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Open Debate on the Secretary General's Report on the Situation in Africa, New York, 24 April 1998

24 April 1998

Mr President,

I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the Secretary-General's report on Africa - a comprehensive, timely and insightful document. With seven million people of concern to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Africa continues to be the continent with the largest global number of refugees and internally displaced persons. Since the end of the Cold War and the settlement of some long-standing conflicts, however, my Office has been increasingly involved in repatriation operations. Today - despite many problems - solutions are foreseeable for many refugee problems in Africa.

The report recognizes that addressing and resolving refugee problems is an indispensable contribution to peace and stability in the continent. Not only are forced population displacements a grave violation of human rights, they are also a factor which threatens the stability - and ultimately the peace and prosperity - of entire regions. The uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans between 1994 and 1997 sent dangerous shockwaves through the entire Great Lakes region, and beyond. I should also mention the current crisis in Sierra Leone, which has displaced almost half a million people; the continued displacement of almost 300,000 Burundians; and the unresolved crises in the Horn of Africa.

Mr President, given the exhaustive nature of the Secretary-General's report, any further point on the matters it raises would be redundant. I would however like to draw the attention of the Security Council on one issue which I consider of fundamental importance.

The mixed nature of groups hosted in refugee camps - refugees coexisting with fighters, criminals and génocidaires - has been the greatest challenge to the work of my Office throughout the Great Lakes crisis. I am concerned that this trend will expand further, if no measure to deal with mixed groups in a rapid and effective manner is designed and implemented soon. I have already highlighted this major problem at the informal meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday.

Maintaining the civilian character of refugee camps is the responsibility of host governments, as clearly stipulated by the 1969 OAU refugee Convention. However, different situations may require a variety of responses - rather than setting up a single "mechanism", I would like to speak of a "ladder of options", a ladder of which the deployment of international police or military forces would be the step of last resort. Let me elaborate on this issue.

In what I would define normal situations, adherence to certain basic principles of the OAU Convention is sufficient to ensure that camps are not used for military purposes - for example, locating them away from borders, or prohibiting the circulation of arms.

In situations in which it may be difficult for host governments to implement the required principles, international assistance is needed in building their capacity to enforce law, for example through the provision of equipment and other logistical support for police forces. My Office has been involved in this type of support in African countries, for example Kenya, for some years. At yet another level, capacity building may involve training and even financial support for police forces. This is what my Office is currently doing in Tanzania, in refugee camps at the Burundi border. Let me remind you that in the former Eastern Zaire this support went further, and included supervision by international officers and a very close operational relation between UNHCR and military forces responsible for the maintenance of law and order in camps. While this arrangement did not ensure the separation of refugees from criminals, it did contribute to improving security, and should be considered when examining different options to maintain the civilian character of camps.

There are situations, however, in which building or supporting local capacity are inadequate to maintain the civilian character of camps. Separation of refugees from criminals can then become an important security requirement, and there may be no other option but to deploy international police or military forces. In such cases, I would like to express my strong support for the Secretary-General's call for the creation of an international mechanism to assist host governments in maintaining the civilian character of camps. I hope that the Security Council will give concrete follow-up to this recommendation and will examine the possibility - for example - to create a stand-by international force in support of humanitarian operations. Given the delicate and specific nature of any "separation" of refugees from criminals in a camp situation, my Office stands ready to help develop procedures and techniques for police and military forces to carry out this type of activity. It is essential to also define principles and decide on a division of work for dealing with those who will be separated and excluded from international protection.

There are of course other issues of interest to my Office in the report, to which I would briefly like to draw your attention: the negative effect of sanctions on vulnerable groups, including returnees and internally displaced persons; the social and environmental effects of the presence of refugees and the importance of rehabilitation work in areas affected by massive human displacement; the need to address the continued gap between humanitarian assistance, and the long-term reconstruction and development of war-torn societies; and last but not least, the essential focus on civil society in African countries. The challenge more specifically is on developing grassroots activities to promote community reconciliation in post-conflict situations - and ultimately contribute to the prevention of further conflicts.

Thank you.