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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Thirtieth Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity, Tunis, 13-16 June 1994

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Thirtieth Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity, Tunis, 13-16 June 1994

16 June 1994

Mr. Chairman,
Your Excellencies Heads of State and Government,
Your Excellencies Heads of Delegations,
Distinguished Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity,
Distinguished Secretary-General of the United Nations,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Allow me, at the very outset, to express my deep appreciation to you, Mr. Chairman, and to all your Excellencies, for this privilege to address the thirtieth ordinary session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government.

Since arriving in Tunis two days ago, I have benefitted from the most generous hospitality extended to me by the Government of Tunisia and indeed the people of Tunisia as a whole. This has made my visit to Tunisia, the first in my capacity as High Commissioner for Refugees, an even more special occasion as it was in Tunisia where in 1957 UNHCR established its first Office in Africa. I should like to express to you, Mr. Chairman, my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation.

This Summit celebrates the arrival in the midst of the Organization of African Unity and of the international community, a South Africa that is at last democratically and racially free. My organization was privileged to play a modest part in this process when it organized the voluntary return of South African refugees and exiles between 1991 and 1993. Therefore, it is a source of great joy and inspiration for me to join your Excellencies in the warm congratulations which have been extended to His Excellency Mr. Nelson Mandela. I wish him, his Government and the people of South Africa every success in the challenges that lie ahead.

Mr. Chairman,

This Summit is also an occasion to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and its twentieth anniversary since coming into force.

The adoption by the OAU Heads of State and Government of that Convention in 1969 was a historic milestone in the efforts of the OAU Member States to address the problems of forced population displacements in Africa. In 1969, there were an estimated 700,000 refugees in Africa. Five years later, when the Convention came into force, this figure had risen to over one million. Today, there are over 7 million refugees in Africa or one-third of the total caseload. In addition, there are an estimated 15 million internally displaced persons. These alarming figures continue to rise due to events such as those in Rwanda which have horrified us these last two months. UNHCR is now caring for 1.1 million refugees and returnees in the region and is making emergency plans for an additional influx of 200,000 Rwandese refugees. We are making all efforts to deliver the humanitarian assistance and provide protection. A revised appeal will be issued shortly to cover the additional needs beyond the initial appeal for $56.7 million. The Rwanda and Burundi crisis is at the top of my concerns.

Indeed, this commemorative event coincides with probably the most dramatic refugee and displacement crisis that Africa has ever witnessed. The generous response by neighbouring states to the Rwanda crisis however, also underline even more the contribution the Convention has made and continues to do so toward providing protection, assistance and solutions to refugees. It has facilitated the reception and hosting of refugees in a way which has solidified, rather than jeopardized, the solidarity among African states. Member states, together with the OAU Secretariat and UNHCR have found solutions for millions of refugees and displaced persons. The liberal asylum policies of African States are not solely the result of meeting the legal obligations under the 1969 Convention, but more importantly, are the extension of traditional hospitality. Moreover, the principles on refugee protection as laid down in the Convention have been an example for other regional and national refugee norms. Therefore, I encourage states which have not yet acceded to the Convention to do so, as it provides the most appropriate legal framework to respond to the refugee movements.

Mr. Chairman,

These humanitarian efforts to protect and assist refugees, however, do little to address the root causes of the refugee flows, which I know this Organization is committed to. As the deliberations which have taken place here in Tunis this past week have all underlined, the principal challenges facing Africa will never be tackled effectively without decisive political action to prevent the causes of displacement. The fundamental questions that need to be addressed are well known to all of us: armed conflict and civil strife; gross violations of human rights; ethnic and religious intolerance; disrespect of the norms and principles which bind civil societies; and the uneven distribution social and economic progress.

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies,

I know that these are preoccupations that you and the OAU as a whole share most deeply. Allow me here to commend the OAU Secretariat for the important initiatives it has taken with respect to peace-making and conflict resolution, most particularly in Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia, Angola, Somalia and Mozambique. I wholeheartedly support the increasing involvement of the OAU in this field and greatly appreciate the cooperation and assistance my Office receives in the field.

The scope of the present crises call for determined and decisive leadership to turn the tide away from crises; war and conflict; the violent disintegration of societies; massive suffering of innocent women and children; and death. It is a time to invest in peace, reconciliation and national tolerance, respect for human rights, social progress and economic development. I wish to reiterate and underline the continuing support of my Office in your efforts to achieve these objectives.

The commemoration of the 1969 OAU Convention provides us an opportunity for further reflection on all these problems. To this end, the OAU Secretariat and the UNHCR are organizing a symposium to be held in Addis Ababa in September. I am hopeful that the OAU Member States will be represented at this symposium at the appropriate level. We must seize every opportunity to solve every aspect of the refugee problem, ranging from prevention, emergency response, protection, and solutions. If we fail to rise to these tasks, we will have failed ourselves, our children and future generations.

Thank you.