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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Symposium on Issues of Global Governance organized by the United Nations University, Tokyo, 18 April 1994

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Symposium on Issues of Global Governance organized by the United Nations University, Tokyo, 18 April 1994

18 April 1994

It is a great pleasure and privilege to address this symposium at the UN University.

I see the governance of humanitarian crises as an essential component of global governance issues of the post-Cold War era. Northern Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have all shown that international humanitarian action is not only a matter of relieving human suffering and protecting human beings. It is closely related to the maintenance of international security and peace, and the promotion of human rights and prosperity for all.

Refugee movements are an inevitable and dominant part of humanitarian crises. My organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was created by the UN General Assembly in 1951 to provide protection and assistance to refugees, and seek solutions to their plight. During the Cold War, there was not much scope for solving the causes of refugee movements which were linked to the bi-polar politics of the time. UNHCR's work was thus concentrated in countries of asylum, that is, after the refugees had left their own country. Opportunities for returning home were limited, and the emphasis was on exile.

The end of the Cold War has dramatically changed the scene, calling for a major reorientation in the way humanitarian problems are tackled. There is growing realisation that the traditional emphasis on asylum is no longer adequate by itself and that more attention needs to be given to the situation in the country of origin. The causes, as much as the consequences, of displacement must be tackled, and they must be tackled closer to the source of the problem. In my presentation I would like to share with you the challenges which have emerged and the strategy I have advocated for addressing them. But, before I elaborate on that, let me explain the new imperatives and opportunities which demand such a comprehensive approach to the governance of humanitarian crises.

Such an approach is necessary because humanitarian crises have reached a scale rarely seen before. Today the number of refugees, internally displaced and other persons assisted by UNHCR exceed 20 million, having jumped tenfold in some twenty years. One emergency seems to succeed another in a horrendous spiral of human misery, the most recent being in Rwanda and Burundi where ethnic killings have uprooted 1.2 million refugees and displaced persons. Over a million refugees have fled anarchy and violence in Somalia. The war in former Yugoslavia has produced some 1.5 million refugees in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro. In addition, UNHCR is assisting 3 million displaced and affected population in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A more comprehensive response is needed because we are not only confronted with cross border flows but also with displacement within borders. It is estimated that there are some 25 million internally displaced persons in refugee like conditions.

Another reason for a more comprehensive response is the proliferation of internal conflicts, rooted in ethnic tensions which threaten even greater displacement. While tribal strife has long made Africa a scene of chronic displacement, it is in Europe that we are witnessing the most dramatic developments. For the first time since World War Two, Europe has become a major theatre of humanitarian emergencies. With the demise of communism, divisions have opened along ethnic and national lines, from the Balkans and eastern Europe through the Caucasus to central Asia, endangering the architecture of a whole region, and creating large-scale population displacement in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Georgia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Russia is gravely concerned about the movements of refugees, displaced persons and migrants that plague the vast country.

Last but not the least, I would say that the changed international climate supports the call for a more comprehensive approach to humanitarian crises. There is increasing recognition of the threat which humanitarian crises pose to regional and international peace and stability. There is greater willingness to address internal conflicts which produce refugees. Action by the UN Security Council to resolve conflicts and implement peace settlements are opening new opportunities for solving refugee problems. In the case of northern Iraq, former Yugoslavia and Somalia, the Security Council moved even further, justifying political and military action for humanitarian purposes.

As refugees become a part of the global agenda for peace and security, the humanitarian strategy needs to be broadened and revitalised in the light of the new context within which we must work. On the one hand, the international community must be prepared to meet the humanitarian needs of the victims, whether they be within their borders or across them. We must uphold and ensure their right to seek and find safety. On the other, we must pursue solutions to the humanitarian problem and prevent new occurrences.

I call it the three pronged strategy of preparedness, solutions, and prevention. Let me now touch briefly on what such a strategy means.

First and foremost is the challenge of preparedness: the capacity to respond rapidly when humanitarian problems erupt; the ability to address adequately humanitarian needs of those who are uprooted.

The speed of response has become a major issue, given the rapidity with which contemporary emergencies unfold. In April 1991, 1.7 million Kurds had fled their homes within a fortnight. Equally rapidly, within 6 weeks, by June 1991 most of them had returned to northern Iraq. Frankly speaking, we were far behind in coping with the situation. It was as a result of that experience that I decided to strengthen UNHCR's emergency response capacity. Today UNHCR is equipped with five emergency teams, an emergency fund, relief stockpiles, and arrangements with NGOs and governments for rapid deployment of staff and goods. They have been put to effective use in a number of countries, including Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and most recently in the Burundi crisis, which produced 600,000 refugees in the space of a week last November.

Augmenting our capacity has led us into collaboration with the military for logistical and communications support, adding a new dimension to humanitarian work as well as to the role of the military in the post-Cold war world. Working under UNHCR supervision, as part of a civilian humanitarian effort, military teams provided by donor governments, as well as military staff seconded to UNHCR have helped to sustain our airlift operation to Sarajevo and our land convoys in Bosnia-Herzegovina. UNPROFOR supports humanitarian activities by ensuring security at Sarajevo airport, providing protection for some of our convoys and for the "safe areas", as well as undertaking such tasks as roads and utilities repairs and demining. I am convinced that our efforts together have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced and affected people.

Let me emphasise, however, that emergency preparedness and response are much more than delivery of relief. An integral aspect of the humanitarian response is the protection of refugees and displaced persons. The end of the Cold War has diminished the political incentive for granting asylum and many governments are reluctant to receive refugees. Preparedness for UNHCR has meant, therefore, being prepared to intervene with governments when borders are closed, boatloads of asylum seekers are interdicted or refugees are pushed back. Conscious of the legitimate concerns of governments in face of large-scale influx, we have sought to promote the notion of temporary protection, most particularly for refugees from the former Yugoslavia to other European countries. Such an approach encourages receiving countries to be more generous towards refugees while recognizing the right of refugees to return to their homes when the conditions so permit.

Preparedness also means willingness to address the problem of the internally displaced. The distinction between refugees and internally displaced is increasingly blurred in a world of shifting borders and declining states. Refugees often return home to find themselves internally displaced. The internally displaced are likely to cross the border and become refugees if their protection and assistance needs remain unmet. Although UNHCR does not have a general mandate for this group of persons, at the request of the Secretary-General we are protecting and assisting the internally displaced in a number of countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka. At its 48th session the UN General Assembly encouraged us to act on behalf of the internally displaced, particularly when there is a link to an existing or potential refugee problem.

The protection of the internally displaced is fraught with problems, legally because they are nationals within the sovereign jurisdiction of their state, operationally because they are usually in the midst of war and violence, marked by gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

In the absence of adequate legal instruments or effective mechanisms for their enforcement, international presence has become the most practical tool for protecting the internally displaced. In northern Iraq, UNHCR assigned 180 staff members, augmented by the international NGO personnel. In an innovative move, the UN deployed some 500 guards, ostensibly to guard UN property but in reality as a confidence building measure to enhance security. In Tajikistan we have mobile teams to monitor the human rights of the internally displaced and returning refugees and take action to correct abuses. In former Yugoslavia we have posted more than 660 staff members. While international presence has not succeeded in preventing forcible displacement, it has nevertheless allowed for international monitoring of humanitarian treatment and has had a restraining effect. UN peace-keeping missions are also increasingly including a human rights monitoring component, e.g. in El Salvador, Cambodia and most recently agreed upon for Guatemala.

When direct access has been difficult to establish, we have had to mount cross-border operations. In Somalia we moved desperately needed food and other relief goods from across the border in Kenya in order to enhance security and stabilise outflow through international presence and assistance. We are right now in the process of organising a cross border operation from Burundi into Rwanda.

I have spoken extensively of emergency preparedness and response, because I see it at the heart of an effective humanitarian system. However, such humanitarian action, if it is to be effective, should not become an isolated exercise, but should be flanked with efforts at solutions and prevention.

Solutions is the second prong of my humanitarian strategy. The search for solutions must start right from the beginning of a crisis, even in the midst of an emergency. Solutions succeed best when humanitarian action is paralleled with initiatives at the political and socio-economic levels, as has occurred in central America.

Political action to resolve many long-standing conflicts have made voluntary repatriation a reality for millions of refugees in recent years. The return of refugees has been not only a humanitarian solution for the individuals; it has helped to heal the wounds of politically divided societies, e.g. in Namibia, Nicaragua and El Salvador. UNHCR assisted 370,000 Cambodian refugees to repatriate from Thailand in time to participate in national elections to establish a democratic government last year. Currently UNHCR is embarked on an operation to assist 1.3 million refugees to repatriate to Mozambique from six asylum countries in southern Africa.

Prospects of repatriation should be tempered, however, with the reality that large numbers of people are going back to countries devastated by war, which are heavily mined and often prone to insecurity. Continuing conflict in Afghanistan and Angola, violence in south Africa, fragility of the peace agreement in Tajikistan, all demonstrate the precarious nature of solutions.

Like emergency response, repatriation of refugees or return of internally displaced to their homes is not simply a question of logistics and relief. It is essentially a question of protection and reintegration, of negotiating guarantees of safety, monitoring the security of returnees and assisting them to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency. Comprehensive peace settlements and international support for them, thus, provide a vital framework for the pursuit of solutions.

Rehabilitation of war-torn societies is an important component of solutions. While UNHCR has launched small, quick-impact projects - we call them QIPs - to strengthen basic infrastructure and provide economic opportunities for returnees and their communities in central America, Cambodia, and now Mozambique, an enormous gap remains between the short-term assistance which we can provide to returnees and the longer term development needs of the areas to which they return. Unless return is accompanied by more sustainable economic development, there is a risk that it could undermine, rather than reinforce, the prospects for peace. Deprivation and competition for resources can spark off new tensions, and derail fragile political achievements. Conversely, socio-economic development can sustain political reconciliation and cement return. It can encourage regional stability and prevent further outflows.

This is just one illustration of the link between solutions and prevention of humanitarian problems. Prevention is the third aspect of the humanitarian strategy. By prevention, I do not mean building barriers to stop victims of persecution and violence from leaving their homes, but rather tackling the causes which compel people to move. Like solutions, prevention requires an integrated approach, balancing political, socio-economic, human rights and humanitarian elements. Prevention is an ambitious undertaking, demanding a profound analysis of root causes, a clear understanding of their inter-linkages and a strong political commitment to address them.

A preventive strategy requires a human rights focus. It involves encouraging states to set up effective institutions, laws and procedures that enshrine the principles of human rights and minority protection. It requires examining modalities for better monitoring of human rights, particularly during international disturbances and tensions.

It calls for a better comprehension of the impact of poverty and inequity on political tensions which flare into violence which then uproot people, and action to address the problem through aid which targets basic human needs.

A humanitarian strategy of preparedness, prevention and solutions demand a greater commitment to preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts within countries prone to political violence and ethnic tensions. There is a need to strengthen the UN's capacity to promote an integrated approach in which political, peace-keeping and humanitarian action are undertaken simultaneously to defuse tensions or promote early solutions. Given resource and political constraints, the possibilities for large, integrated operations of the kind undertaken in Cambodia or Mozambique are likely to be limited. Therefore, more attention should be given to smaller but carefully balanced operations combining humanitarian, political and military components, as in Tajikistan.

In conclusion, let me say, as inter-ethnic conflicts spread against a background of declining state power, and the media expose human suffering, the public pressure for humanitarian action will increase. However, the call for humanitarian action is unlikely to be accompanied always by the necessary political will or action to resolve the conflict. In such situations there is a risk that humanitarian action could become a camouflage for political inaction. It could lead to prolonged humanitarian operations, draining our limited resources, which, unlike peace-keeping, are almost entirely based on voluntary contributions.

Without peace, humanitarian assistance alone cannot avert disaster. There is no other substitute for the political will to find a political solution. Such political commitment is essential for effective governance of humanitarian crises.