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Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR headquarters staff, 15 January 1969

Speeches and statements

Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR headquarters staff, 15 January 1969

15 January 1969

It gives me great pleasure to have this contact with you again for the first time since the meeting held three years ago when I had the privilege of taking over from Mr. Schnyder. This will give us a good opportunity to review in very general terms what has been achieved during that period. It is also a special occasion for me because, as you know, the General Assembly chose to re-appoint me for a new term which began on 1 January 1969. I should like therefore, to share with you some of my thoughts on the work in general and to give you, if possible, an assessment of the significance of our efforts, after which I would welcome questions or comments.

When I was watching television during the tremendous Apollo experience recently and saw the world as a tiny sphere, it seemed incredible that, after so many years, it had not learned to live in peace, that men were still fighting, perpetrating injustice, committing crimes against humanity and persecuting individuals. It is, as I say, incredible that despite all the tremendous progress which has been achieved, men still resort to violence instead of to mediation and dialogue, within or outside the United Nations, and that this violence should produce refugees.

If you look back on the past three years during which I have been in charge of the office, progress has been made in a number of areas. A great deal has been achieved in the field of protection, for instance, which remains the fundamental duty of UNHCR. This is shown, amongst other things, by the fact that 55 Governments have now acceded to the 1951 Convention and 29, including the United States, to the Protocol. Of course, if you compare the number of these Governments to the membership of the United Nations a whole, much has still to be done. We have succeeded, however, in establishing the principle that refugees, wherever they happen to be, in Europe, Latin America, Africa or Asia, should all be given the same sort of treatment. This is particularly significant since the world today is such a small place. Again using this example of the Apollo experience, it is not conceivable in philosophical terms that in such a small world, refugees should be treated differently from one continent to another, they all have similar problems. They have all been driven from their homes. They all have lost the protection which it is the duty of our Legal Division to give them again. They all need roots, and a chance to start a new life. The Convention and the Protocol remain the basis for this work, which must be strengthened in the future.

In the field of protection, we have to concentrate our efforts to a great extent on Africa and Asia. Although we have made progress there, it has been less than that made in Europe, where, because of the standards of development, and the existing institutions, there is an acceptance of the principle of protection as applied to refugees and the role and the specific responsibility of UNHCR. Of course, because European countries exercise their sovereignty we may disagree with a European government in questions such as eligibility. On the whole, however, a routine has been established which makes it easier to reach understanding. In many countries of Africa and Asia, this routine has not yet been established and the legislation which the African governments are presently framing to fit the needs of their country after independence has not been influenced by the long historical tradition of treatment of refugees as understood in Europe, where there have been refugee problems for much longer. In intensifying protection in Africa and in Asia, we face the problem of staff and representation. There is a need for competent UNHCR staff in the field to carry out protection. I hope that, despite the difficulties which the UN as a whole faces in terms of staff and administration, we shall in due course have someone on the staff of our Branch Offices in Africa and Asia with the specific responsibility of implementing and strengthening protection. In some areas, such as Tanzania, we already have a legal officer. The aim for the future is that this will be true of every Branch Office in Africa, and if necessary in Asia.

With regard to the programme, so much has been done in so many different areas that it is difficult for me to give you a detailed assessment. Our aim has always been to help refugees to cease to be refugees. UNHCR differs from an ordinary relief agency, whether intergovernmental or private, because we are responsible for seeking and elaborating permanent solutions, for which a programme is necessary. As the first High Commissioner stressed, you cannot help refugees simply by protecting them, you must have means to give them tangible assistance. The programme has there fore, as its fundamental aim and guiding principle, the elaboration of permanent solutions. When we are faced with a first request from any government for a new group of refugees, we should think immediately of the permanent solution to their problems that cannot be solved. If we were unable to solve problems definitely, there would be no point in our tackling them, because this is not our "raison d'être", because relief in itself is not a solution to human misery. Relief is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, to make sure that the refugee group or the refugee individual will sooner or later be able to lead a normal life. In Europe, the results are encouraging. Major aid is about to come to an end, although it has, in many ways, taken far too long. There have been problems such as the instability of certain countries, and changes of governments. The whole concept of the Current Programme is working well, and our phasing our of Europe, from a material assistance point of view though not of course with regard to protection, is also well on its way. I think this was the only choice we could make, and apparently governments agree with it, since none of them came out, in the Executive committee or the General Assembly, in opposition to this policy. How could the High Commissioner or anyone in his staff justify the spending of major sums in Europe when today in a small world like ours, we see crying needs and desperate human misery, such that which exists in Africa, in Asia, in the developing countries? This new policy is now well-established, but it still has to be consolidated, this requires the full support of all staff members, particularly in the field.

In Latin America, I think that our decision to assess the problem properly, through Miss Brissimi's missions, and to strengthen our staff, through sending Mr. Koulischer there, was wise one. There was a need to decentralize our representation in Latin America from Colombia, as the problems are mainly in Brazil and Argentina. We know what we must do in Latin America. We are concerned there essentially with an old case load, and so, provided there is no major upheaval there, our job with the old refugees should end. Inter-Latin American refugee problems are usually dealt with by Latin America, and fortunately we have never become involved in diplomatic protection and asylum there.

Turning now to Africa, the figures speak for themselves. We find that out of 850,000 to 890,000 refugee assisted by UNHCR, a large number are now settled and no longer receive rations, so the programme has worked.

There is, of course, the problem of these refugees who are concentrated in the urban centres. When we say that so many hundreds of thousands of refugees in Africa are settled, we are referring essentially to the rural areas. I wish we could be as satisfied about the cities, Dar-es-Salaam, Lusaka, Kampala, Nairobi, Dakar, where more and more refugees are facing serious problems. This will have to be carefully studied in the future. In this connection the establishment of the Organization of African Unity's Bureau of Education and Placement for Refugees in Addis Ababa is of great importance. Again, we must avoid becoming too deeply involved in this problem. If a non-operational agency such as UNHCR started a social assistance service for African refugees in the cities, the problem would be without end, and we would be creating other problems and political difficulties, with a growing number of refugees in the cities, and unwilling to leave them. This is an African problem and it must be solved according to African methods and African wishes. This is why the OAU, after the conference which we held in Addis, decided to establish the new Bureau for which they are responsible, with our assistance, according to our traditional philosophy of seeking operational partners. The OAU Bureau is in a sense an operational partner. We must help it to function satisfactorily. Therefore, on my recent visit, with Mr. Volfing, to the Scandinavian countries, I raised funds for the OAU Bureau, and I think, considering that it has been established only very recently and has already succeeded in solving some individual cases, we can look forward to its success in the future. We must, however, follow this up very closely, as it is the only way to solve the problem of the concentration of individual cases in the urban centres of Africa. This cannot be done from Geneva. When, in your contacts with people outside the office, you refer to what we are trying to do in Africa, you should mention the OAU Bureau.

Of course, there are other serious problems in some African countries, even in the rural areas. Our staff in the field will be faced in 1969, and in the future, with very difficult questions, as for example in the Congo, where there are so many refugees in different parts of the country, or the Sudan, where we have a very large number of new refugees, and have to establish them in the right place, so that they can make a new start in life. We must give our colleagues in the field every possible support in their tasks, which are also linked with the political, social and economic situation of the countries where they work.

In Asia, we have now received a clear cut request from the Indian Government to help them solve what remains of the Tibetan refugee problem in that country. This is a major development of political significance. India, first of all, is a very important country, and is geographically in a key position in Asia. Although we have an office in Nepal, it does not carry the political and diplomatic significance of the office about to be opened in New Delhi. Until now, the Indian Government had been reluctant to commit itself vis-à-vis UNHCR, because it was concerned about the possible political repercussions of placing refugee items of interest to India on the Agenda of an international organization. The fact that the Indian Government has found it possible to request the presence of a UNHCR representative shows that it has confidence in our impartiality and objectivity, and believes that we can help it to solve the Tibetan refugee problem. So far as you know, this programme has been financed from the proceeds of the fund-raising campaign of October 1966, but we had never been officially requested by India to open a branch office in New Delhi. From India, it will be much easier to follow what is happening in South-East Asia, where new refugee problems may arise, or may even exist already unknown to us. The contacts which I know my representative will make in that area will be very important for the position of UNHCR in Asia, as a whole, and in the General Assembly.

As we shall have to keep ourselves more informed about Asia than heretofore, I have decided to ask Mr. McCoy to undertake a fact-finding mission in that area. He will make contact with governments, to find out if there are problems there with which we might be requested to assist, and will inform Headquarters of the general situation in South-East Asia. As a result, we shall probably have to consider strengthening our presentation in these areas at some future time.

We shall also have to face the repercussions of the conflict in the Middle East, as we have done in the past. Here, we have two very distinguished and devoted officers, Mr. Goodyear in Beirut and Mr. Halim in Cairo, who are dealing with problems of singular magnitude, not so much quantitatively as qualitatively. In an area as disturbed as the Middle East at present, where the population has suffered so much, refugees are also not in a good situation. I am referring of course, not to the Palestine refugees of concern to UNRWA, but to those who come within our competence, the minority groups who may become the victims of internal upheavals following the Middle-East war, and the resultant instability. These problems are going to keep us very busy. Here too UNHCR must strengthen its presence so that we can help through our good offices to ensure that refugees are given the necessary protection. We must assist them to leave the area if they can, and make sure that they are re-settled once they leave.

As in many of these areas, it will be impossible to settle these refugees locally, the permanent solution for them will be resettlement. In many instances, this is going to create a major challenge for the Resettlement Staff, for, if we are faced with one individual case which we cannot solve, this is as bad for the Office as failing to settle 20,000 refugees in a rural settlement scheme in Africa. Governments judge our performance not only on the number of refugees that we are able to settle, but also on the way in which we deal with one single case, if it is of political significance, or difficulty to the country concerned. Most of these individual cases in the Middle-East and in other disturbed areas of the world are of this kind.

We have been helped a great deal in the programme, and in seeking and achieving permanent solutions by inter-agency co-operation. Now, in any UN body, there is a danger of using the same old words till they cease to have any meaning at all. We must not simply talk about inter-agency co-operation, we must consider what it means. To me this is very simple. Inter-agency co-operation means ensuring that UNHCR is able to hand over its programmes to another agency. If we cannot phase out, we shall not get the support of governments in the future. We have received the support of governments because we have succeeded in solving problems, and solving problems means getting out. However, in Africa, it is impossible just to move out without ensuring that someone else takes over. We have had, therefore, to intensify the process of handing over refugee problems to the UN economic and social development agencies. In the developing countries of the world we must withdraw when the refugees, with our help, have reached approximately the same standard of living as the local population. When the refugees can reap their own crops, send their children to the schools which we have helped build, and when it has been ensured through the health centres and dispensaries which we have helped to build, that health is as good as possible, then the time comes for us to seek a partnership, so that while the refugees are not abandoned, they do not develop into a separate group, always and forever the concern of UNHCR, except of course with regard to protection, where they always remain our responsibility until they either go home or become citizens of the country in which they find themselves.

Inter-agency co-operation is working well. In Burundi, for instant, UNDP has taken over, and we have not 169 appropriation for that country. This is very encouraging and is a further expression of the confidence in UNHCR. If UNDP is willing to take over from UNHCR, it must mean that it trusts our efforts and wants to work with us, even wishing to use us as a sort of sub-contracting agent, as they use ILO, FAO, UNESCO and the other agencies. This trend must be encouraged. We already have good indications that the same pattern will be followed in the Central African Republic and, we hope in Uganda, perhaps later also in Tanzania. Our attitude must be then, even as we get into a new refugee problem, to seek the appropriate partner among the UN development agencies, and to get them to take over. This principle has been accepted, and we have the backing of governments. They have agreed that I should participate in the Inter-Agency Consultative Board, and have approved my participation in the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination, which brings together the heads of all UN agencies twice a year, under the chairmanship of U Thant. The governments support us in this way because they know that we are not anxious to perpetuate ourselves in the developing countries, but that, as in Europe, we are trying to work ourselves out of commitments so that we shall be ready to face new problems as they arise.

We have made great progress in fund raising. This is one of the strongest expressions of confidence in our methods because it is becoming increasingly difficult for the multilateral agencies of the UN to get the support they ask from governments. There are constant cuts, and the whole of the UN is under close governmental scrutiny concerning their expenditures and the utilization of governmental funds. With UNHCR, however, the trend has been very much the reverse, and a greater number of governments is contributing to the programme than ever before, 67 in 1968 against 51 in 1966. This trend too must continue. Many governments have increased their support, and, in 1968, 77% of the target was covered by governmental contributions. If you compare that to the ratio in the past between governmental and private contributions, the figure is very encouraging. I would be of course, delighted if 100% of the target were covered by governmental contributions, and considering that the membership of United Nations is now close to 130,67 governments are not many. There is room for improvement, and my colleagues from the fund raising and information sector have a great deal to do. We must, for one thing, succeed in reviving interest on the part of the United States of America. The problem there is essentially one of communication, caused by the intricate chain of command in the US Government as a whole with regard to refugee programmes, by the question as to whether the bilateral or the multilateral channel should be used by US Government as a whole with regard to refugee programmes, by the question as to whether the bilateral or the multilateral channel should be used by US Government, by commitments UNRWA and ICEM. It has to be made clear how UNHCR fits into this very complex picture, involving not only the State Department, but also the Senate and the Congress, and public opinion in United States as a whole. We must not forget also that there is an order of priorities. It is easy to understand that in America today people are more concerned about Vietnam, the Middle-East or Nigeria, than specifically about the refugees within my mandate. At the same, a great deal has to be done in the United States with regard to our financial situation. We have decided that a major public relations effort is needed, with a professional approach, such as is necessary in America. We believe that this plan, together with the "World Star Festival" record, will improve our position in the United States. In addition, we shall be strengthening our information staff in America, and will continue to count on the help of people in Washington capable of exercising a more active lobby in favour of UNHCR. I feel very strongly about this because the level of the US contribution is a ceiling in many ways. With the exception of the Scandinavian Governments, which have such an extraordinary record of generosity, it is very difficult for me to persuade governments in Europe that they should raise their contributions if that of the United States is not raised, because the United States, rightly or wrongly, has always been considered the major contributor to any UN programme. So, for political and other reasons, it is essential that the US contribution be increased. I am, therefore, planning to go to Washington again in the near future, to make contact with the new administration, and again to review and, I hope, to revise the whole attitude of the United States vis-à-vis our programme.

Turning now to a fundamental question, the problems which are of special interest to the staff. First of all I would like to say that, as he was seconded to UNHCR by the United State Government for a limited period of time only, Al Bender, my Deputy High Commissioner, has unfortunately had to return to the United States. Mr. Bender will be with us in New York until about the end of February, after which he will resume his duties with the United States Government. I personally am very sorry that Mr. Bender could not find it possible to remain with UNHCR. I knew, of course, when he was appointed Deputy High Commissioner that his contract would continue only until the end of my first mandate, but I was hoping that it would be found possible to permit him to remain with me during my present term. This has not been the case and of course this means the appointing of a successor to Mr. Bender, about which you will be informed in due course. Mr. Bender's deep understanding and long experience of intricate problems of administration and finance, was very valuable to me and I regret his departure. I also would like to say that unfortunately my Special Assistant, Mr. Sadry, has now returned to the service of the Government of Iran. He also made a very valuable contribution, particularly in inter-agency understanding and in the difficult field of the political negotiation in preparation for the meetings of the General Assembly. It was very largely due to the diplomatic skill and political judgement of Mr. Sadry, that we were able to obtain the support of governments in the Third Committee, and he will be very greatly missed in the Office. Finally, I am very sad that we should have suffered the loss of Miss Jacobson, our Correspondent in Canada. Muriel Jacobson was here for the Representatives' Meeting. We all had affection for her, and knew her well. We shall now have to re-examine our position in Canada, which is a very important country for UNHCR, because of its generosity with regard to immigration, and also because of the contributions, which, owing to its economic strength it can give to UNHCR and to development in which it is now very interested.

With regard to Headquarters, we have made a great improvement in the fundamental question of geographical distribution. Like all UN Agencies, we need new ideas, and new people from the parts of the world where the problems exist. I am therefore delighted that we now have so many distinguished representatives from Africa and Asia in UNHCR.

I have talked to many of my colleagues, including members of the Staff Council, and it seems that the whole system of promotion is now being dealt with in a more equitable and effective manner than in the past. Three years ago, when I had the privilege of meeting you all, there was a feeling, justified I think, that UNHCR staff were under-privileged in relation to other UN staff, inter alia as regards transferability, that the promotions system was not as satisfactory as in UN. There was some insecurity among the staff because we are not a permanent agency, or at least not in theory. I think that all these matters have been improved. Personally, I welcome contacts with the representatives of the staff, and should like to see them more of ten if this would contribute to the satisfaction of the staff in general. I would of course also welcome more contact with my professionals. The problem is that today we have more professionals of a higher grade than we had in the past, and we are faced with the problem of finding a room which is not too small without being so big that the staff feel they cannot bring up the questions which interest them. I should like to improve the situation on contact with my colleagues. Is the solution for the professional staff to visit me, section by section, so that they can discuss problems of specific interest to them and contribute new ideas? Is the solution to have periodic meetings such as we had in the past? I would welcome further consultations on this. Although we are all very busy, I want everyone to feel that they have access to the High Commissioner, if they have a specific problem which they want to bring to my attention, particularly when it concerns the work and the refugees. I would welcome suggestions on this which can be channelled through the Staff Council, or presented to me individually.

As I have stressed in the past, we are a small office and this is what makes us effective. Because we are a small office however, we have to be very mobile. People should not feel that they must always remain in Geneva. It is very challenging and exciting, as I think these who have been to the field can testify, to go elsewhere for a change. It also sometimes gives an individual a chance to discover new things, to develop new qualities, and new assets, and to widen his horizons. All of you should consider this when an opportunity arises.

In this period of contestation in the world in general, I am told that we have a contestation here about working hours. I do not want to minimize this, as I think the staff has a perfect right to make its feelings felt, as long as they're based on a valid argument. This is an area where it is difficult to make everybody happy. I understand that the 8.30 to 5.30 arrangement was preferred by a majority of 64%. While 64% is of course a majority by democratic standards, this means that there is a relatively important percentage of people who do not feel this to be the best arrangement. It is very difficult to enforce that everybody should arrive at 8.30 and leave at 5.30. on the other hand, a great many people in any case stay much later. We must obviously find an arrangement which brings this debate to an acceptable conclusion. As a result of the return to the old hours of 9 to 6, I understand that some of you wanted to review the matter again. I discussed this with Dr. Bayer and with Mr. Heidler and realize that it is a real problem for some of you, to which we must find a satisfactory solution. I propose therefore, to meet the UNHCR Representatives on the Staff Council, and come to an agreement.

In conclusion, I would say that the political significance of our work can best be seen by reviewing what happened in the Twenty-third Session of the General Assembly. At a time when the world is torn by so many conflicts; when Czechoslovakia revived the atmosphere of the cold war, and although countries of origin, and countries of asylum in the field of refugees have such differing interests, it is of tremendous significance that the General Assembly should have passed the Resolution concerning my report unanimously. For the first time all the countries accepted the philosophy, the approach of UNHCR, and the results of UNHCR. We have been recognized as impartial, objective and humanitarian. Even if governments disagree with each other about the nature and background of refugee problems, and about the manner in which they should be solved, even if they quarrel among themselves, at least no government quarrels with UNHCR about refugees. Governments acknowledge the right of UNHCR by virtue of its Mandate, to deal with refugees or to extend its good offices to prevent more serious situations from occurring. They recognize the usefulness of having an independent, uncommitted humanitarian agent as an intermediary. The fact, also, that the Executive Committee has agreed to meet only once a year, instead of twice as in the past, is a mar of trust on the part of governments in the way we work. We must deserve this confidence now and in the future.

Politically and diplomatically, therefore, we have, I think, established a position and become full members of the UN. At the present time, the UN is going through a major crisis. People have some doubt about the United Nations and what it stands for. There is a certain tendency everywhere in the world today towards a return to a form of isolationism - people are looking inward. The UN is suffering from this, from the point of view of its finances, and in its position as the forum for major discussions on world problems. Both Vietnam and the Middle-East are being discussed, and we must hope, solved outside or hopefully inside the UN. Many questions which would normally have been discussed and solved by the UN have, sadly in fact, been removed from it. The reasons for this are very complex, and are linked with UN's composition and extended membership. This causes difficulty in communication between the various UN agencies, with the danger of duplication, and governments react against this weak organizational structure. It is also linked with political considerations. However, although, the UN is going through a difficult time, UNHCR has not suffered from this. It is perhaps the only UN agency which is today held in greater esteem by all governments than ever before. Here also we have cause for satisfaction and for encouragement, and we must continue to deserve the confidence and the support of governments in the future.

In wishing you all a very Happy New Year, I would like to thank you, as I have thanked my representatives in the field, for your co-operation which is a source of tremendous encouragement to me and to my Director.