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, 6 November 2000

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, 6 November 2000

6 November 2000

Madam Chairperson,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to address this session of the Third Committee of the General Assembly, which will be my last as High Commissioner. Therefore, before turning to the challenges we face today and the priority areas for future action, I would like to begin with a brief reflection on the past decade.

When I became High Commissioner in 1991, the Cold War had just ended. The changes for the better were extraordinary. People spoke of a new world order. But the times became very complicated, not least in our field of work.

Within weeks of my arrival as High Commissioner, almost two million Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran and Turkey. And in the following years, especially in the Balkans and Central Africa, we were constantly challenged to rethink our strategies and approaches. New patterns in conflicts made forced population movements more fluid and complex than ever before. The times also demanded innovative approaches to asylum. We broke new ground - and saved many lives - by promoting temporary protection for refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We faced terrible ambiguities and dilemmas, frequently alone. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, real international engagement came too late, and only after human suffering had reached dramatic proportions. When the failure of political and diplomatic initiatives eventually triggered a military reaction by the international community, we entered a confusing new era of so-called "humanitarian wars" - a term that troubles me greatly - and a more crowded humanitarian space. Worse, in the Great Lakes region of Africa, violence of genocidal proportions and massive forced displacement provoked no meaningful international engagement, other than humanitarian work.

In spite of all difficulties, we have had our successes. We have seen that complex refugee problems can be solved when governments are committed and resources are available. UNHCR helped millions of refugees to go home - in Mozambique, in Indochina and in Central America. But a key lesson we have learned is that real and lasting solutions take time, effort and sustained international engagement.

Let me now discuss the current challenges facing my Office. Time will permit me to focus only on the most significant situations, and I will start with those where solutions may be at hand.

For example, minority returns are finally becoming a reality in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. People are even returning to towns in Bosnia that were virtually synonymous with ethnic cleansing during the war. Tensions have subsided, security is better and the obstacles to return are now often more practical than political. But these welcome trends are not irreversible. More money is needed now to build houses and create jobs that will anchor returns. As UNHCR scales down its humanitarian operations, the international community must channel new resources through the Stability Pact framework.

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has also reached a real turning point, with the election of President Kostunica and the admission of the country to the Stability Pact and, last week, to the United Nations. We must move quickly to support and encourage these positive changes. Half a million refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia - the largest refugee population in Europe - have placed enormous strains on the battered Yugoslav economy and the nation's deteriorating public services. My Office will work to speed up repatriation for refugees who want to go home, and will explore new possibilities for those who do not wish to integrate locally. UNHCR's repatriation strategy will focus on ensuring freedom of movement, accelerating the property restitution process and making quick impact interventions to fill gaps and facilitate returns.

We must recognise, however, that the welcome changes in Belgrade have not brought us immediately closer to a political settlement in Kosovo or the return of some 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians displaced from the province. The massive international relief operation in Kosovo is winding down. No one died of exposure or starvation last winter. This was no small achievement. UNHCR's primary focus in Kosovo is now on protecting and assisting Serbs, Roma and other non-Albanians. Minorities live in a virtual state of siege in mono-ethnic enclaves under heavy KFOR guard, sustained by UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. We must overcome the cycle of violence and revenge and the climate of impunity. Enabling the few remaining non-Albanians to stay in Kosovo will be the first step toward return as a solution for those who have left.

In Africa, Rwanda is making progress in healing its deeply wounded society. UNHCR's reintegration activities are ending, but development actors are expected to step forward more decisively with the investments needed to consolidate returns and foster reconciliation. The government must also have the vision and the will to resolve the fundamental problems of power sharing and democratisation.

Burundi too is at a crossroads. The choice is between peace and an intensified conflict that would certainly cause massive displacement. President Mandela has given new momentum to the Arusha process, but the continued fighting is deeply discouraging. If peace does come, UNHCR is prepared to help more than half a million refugees go home from Tanzania, and the agencies on the ground are ready for a concerted reintegration programme.

In the Horn of Africa, fighting earlier this year uprooted nearly 1.5 million Eritreans and 350,000 Ethiopians. Determined international efforts, however, produced a cease-fire and helped avoid the worst consequences of the latest drought. Deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission is now underway. My Office has helped to repatriate some 24,000 Eritrean refugees who fled to Sudan this year, and has aided many internally displaced people to go home. Reaching a final peace settlement is essential to open the way toward solutions, both for people displaced recently and for refugees from previous outflows. Consolidation of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea would be an important stabilising factor in the Horn, where we see other encouraging signs, as in Somalia.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, solutions to refugee problems remain elusive. In most of these situations, a combination of secessionist or rebel movements and weak conflict resolution processes - as well as a lack of international engagement - create a dangerous spiral that makes solutions very difficult to achieve. I would like to focus first on Africa, where I have visited 31 times since 1991, and which continues to demand the greatest share of my Office's concern, attention and resources.

In Congo, for example, amidst a complex clash of political, military and economic interests, people are suffering, and little is done to address their plight. It is a paradox that Congolese continue to seek refuge outside the country - and 1.8 million are displaced internally - while over 300,000 people from neighbouring countries have sought refuge in the Congo itself! This shows the regional dimension of the crisis, but also the profound despair of people seeking safety. During my visit to the region in June, I repeatedly appealed to the leaders: don't forget the people and, as you negotiate, don't ignore the human cost of the war.

In West Africa, repeated setbacks in implementing the Lomé agreement keep half a million Sierra Leonean refugees from coming home. Thousands more are displaced within the country and receive little aid. We also see worrying signs that the conflict is expanding in the region. Cross-border attacks into Guinea are continuing - the Head of UNHCR's Office in Macenta was killed during such an incursion in September. The escalating instability poses a severe risk of massive displacement, with refugee flows becoming a vehicle for the conflict to spread.

Humanitarian efforts in West Africa must be coupled with security support. I am deeply troubled that international backing for the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone appears to be weakening, just when they are needed most. Peacekeeping efforts need to be fortified, particularly in border areas, if we are to prevent war from engulfing the region, and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

The plight of the East Timorese refugees in West Timor, too, worries me deeply. Throughout the year, my colleagues worked in harrowing conditions, extracting 170,000 refugees from the camps and helping them repatriate in the face of harassment, intimidation and violence from the pro-integration militias. When three UNHCR staff members were brutally murdered in early September, we were forced to abandon some 125,000 refugees. Many would choose repatriation. All of them need a solution. But we cannot go back until the authorities disarm and disband the militias, and arrest and prosecute the killers of our colleagues. I hope the forthcoming Security Council mission to East Timor will help realise these conditions, so that we may be able to help the refugees.

We must not forget either that two and a half million Afghan refugees remain in exile. Renewed fighting is adding to their numbers daily, while the intense drought is making it difficult for returning refugees to remain in stable areas of the country. During my visit to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran in September, I was shocked by the impact that funding constraints have on both our ability to meet the basic needs of refugees and to help them return and re-establish themselves. In my discussions with the Taliban authorities, I also stressed the negative impact that some of their policies - for example on the employment of women and the education of girls - are having on the return of refugees.

Some 170,000 people are displaced within Chechnya, with another 170,000 displaced in the neighbouring republics of the Russian Federation. Very dangerous security conditions render our humanitarian work extraordinarily complicated. I travelled to Moscow two weeks ago and discussed the situation with President Putin. He assured me again that any return to Chechnya would be voluntary. My Office will continue providing assistance and seeking to improve conditions for displaced people in Ingushetia - hoping that this, their second, will be their last winter in exile - while seeking to provide greater levels of emergency shelter materials to vulnerable people inside Chechnya itself.

The list of situations where solutions remain elusive is frustratingly long. I have not mentioned the more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees spread across several African nations; over half a million people displaced by Sri Lanka's long internal war; the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Colombia; the 100,000 Bhutanese refugees still waiting in Nepal; or the 100,000 refugees I recently visited in over-crowded camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. And there are many thousands more uprooted people in need of protection, assistance and a solution on every continent.

Madam Chairperson,

Meeting these challenges will require boldness, foresight and planning. Looking to the future, I see a number of areas where we must reflect and take concrete action - emergencies, security, complex forced displacement and post-conflict situations.

First, we must continue to strengthen UNHCR's emergency preparedness and response capacity, which lies at the heart of our ability to save lives.

The emergency mechanisms we established in 1992 dramatically improved my Office's ability to respond to crises. But the humanitarian environment has changed since then. UNHCR's initial response during the Kosovo refugee crisis was particularly revealing. All of us, including governments, need to learn from what happened. Drawing from the recommendations of the independent Kosovo evaluation, we are implementing - within the constraints of available resources - a plan of action to increase our "surge capacity". The Head of UNHCR's new Emergency Services reports directly to me and also handles security and military liaison.

This brings me to the second area where intensified efforts are needed - creating a secure environment for refugee-populated areas and humanitarian operations.

In Eastern Congo and more recently in West Timor, we have learned painful lessons about the tragic consequences that follow when refugees and perpetrators of violence are left together. Similar trends are emerging in West Africa. Since 1997, I have advocated creating a "ladder of options" between full-fledged peacekeeping, on the one hand, and a reliance upon existing local capacities, on the other. The concept remains valid, but we must move forward with implementation. Our objective is to operationalise "medium" options, such as the deployment of international civilian monitors or police, with a view toward strengthening local law enforcement mechanisms. The Brahimi Panel's report on UN peace operations is a welcome step, and we are contributing actively to the Secretary-General's efforts to implement its recommendations.

In parallel, we must move decisively on staff safety. It is essential for UNHCR to be next to the refugees - often in very dangerous areas. But we must balance this need with the requirement that our staff be kept safe. We appreciated the sympathy that governments and the public expressed when our colleagues were killed in September. We were also encouraged by the strongly worded decision on the safety of humanitarian personnel adopted by UNHCR's Executive Committee in early October. But your support must be translated into concrete political action and financial measures. The Secretary-General's report to the General Assembly lays out plans for strengthening UN system-wide measures. My Office will also have additional needs. Staff safety costs money. We need your help, and we need it urgently.

The third area where we have to take action is in developing new approaches to complex forced population movements, based on a reinforced international refugee protection regime.

I see the issue as having two key aspects - ensuring asylum for refugees and meeting the needs of internally displaced people more effectively. UNHCR is fully engaged in efforts to strengthen the UN's inter-agency collaborative approach. The new Special Co-ordinator of the Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement is seconded from UNHCR. I spoke on the issue of internal displacement earlier this year. Let me here focus on asylum.

We face an extraordinary challenge responding to the globalisation of migration and forced displacement. People on the move today have a variety of motives. Asylum seekers fleeing human rights violations and violence are mixed together with people seeking better economic opportunities and those uprooted by environmental and other disasters. As a consequence, asylum and irregular migration have become seriously confused in the public mind. People are also increasingly troubled by perceived abuse of the system and the cost of giving asylum. Governments have responded by making it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach their territory, detaining people upon arrival, interpreting their international obligations restrictively and creating new, lesser forms of protection.

We cannot ignore valid concerns. But I strongly believe that governments, UNHCR and refugees share a fundamental common interest in having an effective, universal international protection regime. To this end, we are launching Global Consultations with governments. Our purpose is not to renegotiate the 1951 refugee Convention. Rather, we hope to promote its full implementation and to develop the new approaches, tools and standards needed to ensure its continuing vitality and relevance. I am pleased that governments have responded so positively to this initiative - the Executive Committee welcomed the Global Consultations in its Conclusion on International Protection.

The fourth area I wish to highlight is the need to pay much more attention to the critical phase that follows conflicts.

Many post-conflict situations today are chronically under-funded. Resources come readily for high-profile humanitarian emergencies. When development investments are required to consolidate a fragile peace and refugee returns, we have a much more difficult time getting the world's attention. Sometimes, scenes of misery and death seem to be a prerequisite for donor interest. We consulted governments on this issue in 1999. They called for greater co-ordination on the agencies' part. We made efforts, together with the World Bank and UNDP. As yet, this has not led to more political backing or financial support.

A related concern is promoting co-existence in divided communities. When fighting ends and repatriation begins, refugees often return to live alongside the very people with whom they fought. Kosovo is perhaps the starkest example. During my last visit in May, I was dismayed to see children going to school under NATO military escort. We must devise ways to bring people back together. We have learned in many places the unifying, or dividing, power of a school, of a well, of a playground. When planning or implementing projects, we must ask ourselves: does it promote or undermine co-existence? This - I believe - is one of the fundamental humanitarian questions of the next decade. To move forward in this quest, UNHCR has launched an initiative that we call "Imagine Co-Existence", and we are starting with pilot projects in Bosnia and Rwanda.

In order to meet these challenges, UNHCR has to be managed, trained and equipped for a faster, technologically advanced and globalised environment. In Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of people fled for their lives and then returned home within a period of weeks. Such rapid onset emergencies - and the pressure for quick solutions - put new strains on our capacity to manage staff and resources. Modernising and upgrading UNHCR will cost money.

Unfortunately, the financial situation of my Office is not encouraging. We have become a chronically under-funded organisation. By early this year, we could already project that contributions would not match our budget - the budget approved by our Executive Committee the previous October. Meanwhile, new emergencies added nearly 100 million dollars to our requirements. The shortfall is greater than in past years.

We have undertaken great efforts to make our needs clearer and our operations more transparent. We have also, repeatedly, prioritised and reduced our budget - several times this year. The cutbacks have extended to activities that impact directly upon UNHCR's policy priorities - women, children and the environment. The lack of reliable funding has made long-term planning impossible, diminished UNHCR's credibility and strained relations with refugees, governments and our NGO implementing partners.

I would like to be clear: UNHCR will be critically weakened if an urgent response to our funding situation is not forthcoming. The fresh contributions that we have received since the Executive Committee met in October will not save us from ending the year with a severe shortfall. I deeply regret that this may happen as a new High Commissioner takes the leadership of the Office. Let me also add that Friday's Pledging Conference will provide an opportunity to begin fulfilling commitments for 2001 and establishing a solid foundation for UNHCR's global operations.

Madam Chairperson,

UNHCR marks its 50th anniversary in December this year. But our longevity is no cause for celebration. UNHCR remains necessary because persecution and conflict force an ever-greater number of people to flee their homes. So in our anniversary year, we are not celebrating UNHCR but rather refugees - their courage, their determination and their capacity for survival against all odds.

On December 14th, the independent Refugee Education Trust will be launched as the lasting legacy of UNHCR's 50th anniversary. The Trust will give refugees in developing countries opportunities for post-primary education. The focus will be on providing quality education to the largest number of refugees where the needs are greatest. I would encourage you all to find ways to support this important initiative.

I also hope that the General Assembly will take up the recommendation of UNHCR's Executive Committee to designate June 20th each year as "World Refugee Day", to coincide with "Africa Refugee Day".

The General Assembly gave UNHCR its Statute and has defined its mandate. This body has also three times elected me High Commissioner. I would like to thank you most sincerely for entrusting me with these profound responsibilities. UNHCR represents the international community's collective will to protect, sustain and give hope to some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people on earth. It has been a tremendous privilege and a great honour to serve this cause.

I hope - and trust - that you will continue to support UNHCR. After ten years, I can tell you confidently that my staff - to whom I am so indebted for all its support and its often-heroic efforts - is remarkable.

Finally, in closing, I would also like to express my gratitude to the Secretary-General for nominating, and the General Assembly for electing Mr. Ruud Lubbers as the next High Commissioner for Refugees. Mr. Lubbers will bring to the Office an extraordinary wealth of experience as a statesman, as well as new insights from the business world and NGO community.

I will leave office in December secure in the knowledge that the future of UNHCR is in excellent hands.

Thank you very much, Madam Chairperson.