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 Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 10 November 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 10 November 1992

10 November 1992
Third CommitteeTowards preventive strategiesA multi-dimensional response to emergenciesThe complexity of solutionsBuilding operational partnershipsConcluding remarks

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and a privilege for me to be here today to report to you on the state of the world refugees and to share with you the current preoccupations of my Office.

At the outset, it is important to reconfirm that, acting under the authority of the General Assembly, the two main functions of my Office are to provide international protection to refugees and to seek durable solutions to their problems. The unique and universal nature of our mission to extend international protection to refugees distinguishes UNHCR from all other organs of the United Nations. International protection can only be discharged through and in cooperation with Governments. To be successful in this cooperation, the High Commissioner must be fully recognized as speaking on behalf of the international community as a whole, representing a universal, non-political, humanitarian concern for refugees.

With refugee problems becoming increasingly complex and truly universal, affecting all continents and global security, the special link between my Office and the General Assembly that created it has never been of greater importance. As the continuation of my Office comes before this forty-seventh session of the General Assembly for consideration, I therefore count on your indispensable support.

The last year has been a turbulent one. Three million refugees have been forced into exile, while a million and a half have returned home. Worldwide, refugees have continued to increase inexorably, reaching no less than 18 million, and presenting ever-increasing challenges for my Office.

As lead agency in the former Yugoslavia, we have been striving to provide humanitarian assistance to some three million refugees, displaced persons and affected population. We have grappled with a new and massive haemorrhage of refugees, now exceeding 420,000 in Kenya, mainly from the disaster in Somalia but also from Ethiopia. We have seen the numbers of refugees from Mozambique swell yet further, reaching 1.5 million as influxes continue into Malawi and Zimbabwe in the context of the worst African drought in recent memory. And we have been confronted with the arrival of a quarter of a million refugees who, for the second time in little more than a decade, have fled from Myanmar into generous but poverty-stricken Bangladesh.

Simultaneously, my Office has been faced with the demands of massive repatriation movements to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, Ethiopia, Angola and South Africa. The refugees are returning, but to situations of devastation, to conditions of uncertainty and at times of insecurity. Never has the experience of my Office in meeting the protection and assistance needs of refugees and returnees been so intensely relevant and so extensively tested.

Unprecedented demands on my Office have been matched by unprecedented financial support. During the year, we have received more than 900 million US dollars from Governments in response to total needs exceeding the billion dollar mark for the first time in our history. I would like to express my warm appreciation for this generous response.

Mr. President, the scale and complexity of humanitarian crises confronting us is a reflection of the uncertainty and instability of the period in which we are living. Resurgent nationalism, coupled with the serious economic and social consequences of the collapse of the old world order, has led to a multiplication of conflicts. Ethnic tensions have become a common denominator underlying population displacements, whether in the Horn of Africa and the Sudan, in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans or in the Middle East and parts of the Asian sub-continent.

In such circumstances, my Office is faced by a number of fundamental challenges that go to the very heart of its mandate. How can we ensure that the victims of contemporary events are accorded asylum and protection until they can return home in safety and dignity? In situations of continuing uncertainty and volatility, how can we make voluntary repatriation a truly durable solution? And, in response to the burden on asylum States, how can my Office further develop the preventive dimension of its operations, so as to reduce the impetus to flight? I cannot claim to have all the answers, Mr. President, but I am confident that, given its unique mandate, its experience, its demonstrated capacity to innovate, and the indispensable support of Governments, my Office will continue to adapt with flexibility and innovation to new challenges while preserving the established principles of international protection.

Mr. President, in the old, bi-polar world, there was only limited scope for addressing the causes of refugee movements which often resulted, directly or indirectly, implicitly or explicitly, from rigid ideological and political confrontation. International refugee policies were, perforce, focused primarily on countries of asylum. In today's radically changed international environment, new opportunities and new imperatives have emerged, not only for responding to refugee situations but also for preventing and resolving them in the countries from which refugees originate. Last year I presented to you a three-pronged strategy of prevention, preparedness, and solutions. The past twelve months have tested that strategy, and I would like briefly to share with you that experience and the evolution in our approach.

Towards preventive strategies

Let me begin with prevention.

The root causes of refugee flows are, of course, inextricably linked with political conflict and violation of human rights. Consequently, my Office has sought to enhance its cooperation with the human rights machinery of the United Nations and with other relevant organizations. At a different level, our preventive efforts have taken the form of enhancing legal norms through extending technical advice, training, information and institution building, particularly in countries confronted by actual or potential refugee problems. With the cooperation of the Governments concerned, we have greatly stepped up such activities in eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

But prevention, Mr. President, has also meant direct engagement in situations of acute crisis or open conflict. It has involved us in extending protection and assistance to internally displaced and other victims of conflict in an effort to limit, to the extent possible, the impetus to flight. It has challenged many existing principles and premises. In former Yugoslavia, for instance, our presence in the middle of a conflict, the very objective of which is to uproot people, has confronted us with a real dilemma. How far can we persuade people to remain where they are in order to prevent displacement and"ethnic cleansing"? By doing so, are we not exposing their lives to danger? These are the kind of choices that daily confront our staff in the field. I wish to emphasize that even in such conditions of extreme risk, however, international presence does make a difference. Prevention, in many ways, is presence. In Somalia, for example, we have begun to move desperately needed food supplies across the border from Kenya in order to enhance security through international presence and to stabilize population movements. Eventually, when the conditions are ripe we shall be promoting repatriation. As these examples show, Mr. President, prevention is hands-on action, dependent on direct presence, and linked to emergency response and the search for solutions.

I am convinced that preventive activities can help to contain the dimensions of human catastrophe by creating time and space for the political process. But prevention must be seen in the broader context of questions still to be answered by the United Nations system at large. How can massive violations of human rights be most effectively tackled by the international community? What further measures can be taken to expedite political processes or to speed up the deployment of peace-keeping forces? How can we strike the right balance so that sanctions serve as a political tool but do not become a lethal weapon against the weak? How can the interface between humanitarian action, peace processes and peace-keeping forces be best managed, so as to fully safeguard the essential, non-political and strictly humanitarian role of UNHCR?

A multi-dimensional response to emergencies

While making renewed efforts to strengthen preventive measures, we have learned all too often the tragic consequences of failed or delayed attempts to address crisis. Emergency response is therefore the second prong of our humanitarian strategy.

I have sought, over the last year, to strengthen further the capacity of my Office to prepare for and respond to emergencies. We have installed five emergency teams, increased our training, made arrangements for stockpiles of relief goods and rapid deployment of staff. We have also reinforced links with other agencies, Governments and NGOs.

At the same time I believe that once the emergency phase is overcome, and the refugees are reintegrated into their communities, UNHCR should rapidly phase out and hand over its activities to other appropriate international or national organizations. After a little over a year in northern Iraq, during which we accomplished the difficult task of protecting and assisting some 1.7 million returning refugees and displaced persons against severe climatic and intense security threats, I am pleased to report that we have withdrawn from the area. Our staff of some 180 persons who worked in Northern Iraq are now deployed in other emergencies - in former Yugoslavia, Kenya, Mauritania, Bangladesh, Nepal and Yemen. The nature of refugee operations are such that UNHCR must have both the capacity to respond effectively and the ability to withdraw rapidly. Unlike some others in the United Nations system, ours is not, and should not be, a regular, on-going programme.

Emergency response to refugee crises is, however, much more than delivery of relief. On the contrary, when the legitimate concerns of severely burdened countries of asylum come into conflict with those of refugees, we must attempt to balance the interests of States with the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. We must intervene in situations of great delicacy on the basis of our non-political and humanitarian mandate.

The complexity of solutions

Moving to solutions, which is the third aspect of the humanitarian strategy, prospects for further repatriation have opened up in various parts of the world. However, in many instances, conditions in the countries of return are such that, if not addressed properly, they could reverse the impetus to return. Large numbers of refugees are going back to countries laid waste by war, areas which have been heavily mined, or situations where the national reconciliation process is precarious. The fragility of the peace agreement in Cambodia, continuing conflict in Afghanistan, extreme volatility in Angola, drought and insecurity in parts of the Horn of Africa, violence and harassment of returnees in South Africa, all demonstrate the still precarious nature of voluntary return.

Therefore, like emergency response, repatriation is not simply a question of logistics and relief, Mr. President. It calls for a range of closely related and mutually reinforcing responses to cover the protection and assistance needs of returnees until they can be reintegrated in their national communities.

Protection and security concerns predominate when refugees repatriate to situations of ongoing conflict or violence, as in Afghanistan, Ethiopia or Angola. Negotiating guarantees of safety, monitoring the security of returnees and ensuring basic reintegration assistance are among our tasks in Cambodia where I am proud to report we have so far helped close to 200,000 refugees to return safely. We hope to undertake a similar operation for some 1,5 million refugees when they go back to Mozambique.

Building operational partnerships

Operationally, Mr. President, the complex nature of refugee situations today requires a concerted and multi-faceted response from the international community and the United Nations system. For this reason, my Office has been forging increasingly close operational partnerships with other agencies. In former Yugoslavia, as the lead agency designated by the Secretary-General, my Office has established close cooperation with UNICEF, WHO, the ICRC and UNPROFOR. In the Horn of Africa we have sought to develop collaborative and innovative inter-agency approaches to problems that go beyond the mandate of any one organization. In parts of Ethiopia and on the Kenya-Somalia border, assistance is being provided to all those in need - to refugees, internally displaced and affected local population. I believe the Cambodian operation under UNTAC illustrates a successful system-wide framework for cooperation and coordination, which ensures coherent political and humanitarian endeavours, as well as closely linked repatriation and reintegration programmes which blend into longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Coordination is essential in rationalizing and streamlining the activities of the United Nations, in identifying gaps and eliminating overlaps. Therefore, my Office has welcomed the initiative of the Secretary-General to reinforce system-wide coordination through the establishment of a Department of Humanitarian Affairs. Our collaboration with this Department continues to evolve positively.

Coordination, however is not a panacea. It cannot substitute for the individual or collective capacity of agencies. Nor should we, in our pursuit of improved coordination, lose sight of unique mandates such as that entrusted to my Office under its Statute and in the framework of the 1951 Convention. On the contrary, coordinating efforts must be carefully focused so as to clarify the division of responsibilities and enhance the comparative advantages and expertise of individual agencies.

Concluding remarks

Mr. President, in the face of the new challenges of displacement and return, we must be ready to take creative and innovative steps towards prevention, preparedness and solutions. At the same time, however, I must emphasize the continued importance of the institution of asylum. In a world where persecution, massive human rights violations and armed strife remain an every day reality, protection through asylum is all the more important to our humanitarian work. Refugees must not be held hostage to the lack of political solutions, nor must they become the victims of political expediency.

In the brief period of euphoria that followed the end of the cold war, Mr. President, there was a tendency to regard the refugee problem as well on the way to solution. History, it seems, had other intentions. As today's world clearly shows, never has the unique mandate of my Office to provide protection for those fleeing persecution or conflict been so severely tested. And never, Mr. President, have we so greatly needed the support and guidance of the international community and of its universal forum, the General Assembly of the United Nations.

I thank you Mr. President.