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Address by Mary Ann Wyrsch, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, to the graduates of Webster University at the Commencement ceremony, Geneva, 11 May 2001

Speeches and statements

Address by Mary Ann Wyrsch, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, to the graduates of Webster University at the Commencement ceremony, Geneva, 11 May 2001

11 May 2002

Director-General Spencer, members of the Faculty, graduands, ladies and gentlemen,

To be able to have contact with Webster University here in Geneva is particularly pleasing for me given my own links to this institution via the original St. Louis campus. To be invited on this occasion to be the Commencement Speaker and to receive a Distinguished Alumna Award is a privilege for which I am deeply grateful.

I come to this podium both as a former graduate, and because of my present work as an international civil servant. The time between these two events has been an odyssey that has taken me from very memorable and enriching years in St. Louis, Missouri, to this internationally diverse campus on the shores of Lake Geneva, where others are preparing for similar journeys. I would like to use this occasion to pay tribute to the institution which prepared me - in and outside the lecture room - for the commencement of my journey through life. I am thrilled to be a witness and participate in a commencement ceremony that will launch so many journeys from Webster's Geneva campus.

Today, many of you have come to a significant point in your life's journey. Whether you are completing your first advanced degrees, or have completed Masters' work that provides you with additional credentials and skills, you have come to a point from which there will begin new experiences and challenges.

There are many precepts and platitudes that will be shared by commencement speakers all over the world as new sets of graduates participate in ceremonies such as this. I am reminded, as I stand here with you, of some cautionary words from the American writer, John Steinbeck, who once wrote, "No one wants advice, only corroboration!". So, aware of that caution, let me on this occasion which marks transitions, share some thoughts and ideas with you that may underscore or emphasise some of your own.

I have spoken of my own journey to this podium, and the fact that you are embarking on the next phases of your individual journeys. An old Spanish proverb states, "Traveller, there are no roads, roads are made by walking." Each of you has and will continue to do your own walking. In doing this, I hope you will see that in a very real sense it is the journey, and not the arrival that matters, so that savouring the experience of living, and contributing to your society (your family, your profession, your community), in accordance with the values and training you have received from this University is, and will be more important than achievements you may attain. The road that each of you makes everyday will be very significant, and I urge you to be aware of the opportunities you encounter as you continue on your way.

As each of you continue your own personal ways forward in the world, it is important to remember the larger context of the global society in which we live. When I graduated from Webster, on a sunny May morning in St. Louis, Missouri, over three decades ago, the world was very small for us. Our graduation speaker was Dr. Bennetta Washington, a prominent African-American educator who was recently appointed as an official of the Women's Job Corps - one of the programmes of President Johnson's 'War on Poverty' in the United States. She brought messages - to us who had lived in a very small world - of issues in my own country that needed addressing - issues sadly not dissimilar to ones that continue to affect global society today. Issues of high levels of poverty, of lack of opportunities for young people and of economic disparity.

As we find ourselves here along the shores of Lake Geneva amid a beautiful setting, we must be mindful of the conditions in which a large percentage of the world's population live, and the many, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles that are thrown along the road that is their journey.

As you know peace and stability, cornerstones of our life here in Geneva, are NOT taken for granted in many parts of the world, where the stark reality is that their absence has wreaked havoc in the lives of thousands of persons, creating crises that the United Nations system tries to address.

My own organisation - the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - works to protect and assist those who have no government to protect them.

The satisfaction that a day like today brings, should be savoured but reflected upon against the background of great disparities in opportunity and conditions of life that exist in our world.

As you know, many of these disparities are man-made. All too often UNHCR, as part of the United Nations system, has had to confront the consequences of a breakdown in peace and stability - the outbreak of conflicts, and the misery of its consequences - human displacement.

The last ten years have seen humanitarian crises across the globe from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Chechnya to the Sudan, from Colombia to Sri Lanka - all conflicts that have caused countless numbers to be uprooted from their homes and all situations in which UNHCR has been actively engaged.

My message to you is not to go forth and rid the world of all its ills. My message is that as you forward on your individual journeys, and make your own roads, that you be actively aware of the issues in the world around you, that you espouse an individual hope for a better world, wherever you may find it, and that you affirm a determination that individually and ultimately collectively we address these global challenges.

We can and must act on this everyday. There are things that we as individuals can do, in whatever small way. Amidst the crises the world and the UN are confronted with, and the misery that often accompany such situations, there are individual actions that shine through.

I spoke last week with a young UN colleague who had just returned from Jenin in the Middle East. I was struck by an inspiring story she related to me about a distraught woman who, after frantically searching through the pile of rubble that was her house, could not find her cache of life savings that she had earlier buried within the compound - a very modest sum for most but worth infinitely more to her. She appealed to relief workers ploughing through the rubble with bulldozers, cleaning up the devastation that had been wreaked by recent violence. They agreed to stop bulldozing and search by hand for a while. Miraculously, after some effort the cache was found and the woman, despite her destroyed surroundings saw optimism and hope not only in finding her life savings, but in the manner with which her appeal for help was answered.

While this is a story of individual action in a very specific circumstance, the spirit of focus on helping an individual is one that I want to emphasise.

While such individual portraits can be particularly transporting, other tangible examples exist that reflect the role of organisations like mine - UNHCR. Just this week, on 3 May, UNHCR was able to announce that more than 6,000 refugees returned to their homes in East Timor last month, the highest monthly return since March 2000. A total of 204,292 refugees have returned to East Timor from camps in West Timor since late 1999. UNHCR is now concentrating its efforts on facilitating the voluntary return of as many of the remaining 55,000 refugees as possible ahead of Independence Day on May 20. All this in a country which erupted into violence barely 2½ years ago.

Turning to another more recently turbulent region (and I understand there are some graduates here today from this region), normalcy is slowly returning to areas in and around Afghanistan. Thousands of displaced Afghans are returning to villages they fled due to the combined effects of war and drought. Already some 150,000 displaced Afghans have gone home with the support of UNHCR. Another estimated 400,000 are believed to have spontaneously returned to their villages since the fall of the Taliban last year. Just this week, UNHCR organised the first major movement from Kabul to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. Some 500 ethnic Hazaras who were forced to flee to Kabul in recent years have been transported home to Bamiyan in recent days. Much more needs to be done however to reach out to a bigger section of the over 1 million-strong population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan.

Just as we should not become complacent about peace and security in these tranquil surroundings, nor should we take for granted the economic 'head start' that many of us have benefited from, graduating from prestigious institutions such as this one. We live in a world where economic disparity abounds and often leads to rifts in societies that can tragically result in the kind of displacement that UNHCR is compelled to deal with. An analysis of the root causes must always be borne in mind.

The historic Millennium Assembly Report of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, issued in the year 2000, asked us to imagine the world as a village of 1000 persons. Here are some of the characteristics of this village:

  • Some 150 live in affluent areas, about 780 in poorer areas and another 70 in a transitional neighbourhood.
  • Just 200 dispose of 86% of all the wealth while nearly half live on less than $ 2 per day
  • 220 villagers - 2/3 of them women - are illiterate
  • Fewer than 60 people own a computer, only 24 have access to the Internet and more than half have never made or received a telephone call.

We in the UN system can report progress made by the efforts of many actors in addressing these issues. There has been progress: life expectancy in developing countries has increased from 46 to 64 years; infant mortality rates have halved; the proportion of children enrolled in primary school has increased by more than 80% and the access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation has doubled. And yet about 1.2 billion - 500 million in South Asia and 300 million in Africa - live on less than $ 1 per day. The world's leaders committed themselves in the momentous Millennium Declaration of 2000 to halve by the year 2015 the proportion of the world's people living in absolute poverty lifting more than one billion people out of their current misery. It has been done already in 2 decades by 15 countries for 1 - 6 billion people. This issue was also vigorously addressed recently in Monterrey, Mexico a telling testimony to the international acknowledgement of the dangers of such disparity.

Surely we can achieve these targets. We can achieve our target through making the benefits of globalisation reach all equitably generating opportunities especially for women and youth; we can achieve it through education with just $ 7 billion a year to provide primary education for 130 million children in the developing world.

Dr. Spencer, ladies and gentlemen, I have dwelt, and I hope for not too long, on these themes - UNHCR's role in assisting the displaced and addressing one of the root causes for conflict and displacement - economic disparity. My hope is that as you graduate today, commence your journeys, or indeed continue your journeys, you keep in mind the diversity that enriches us and the disparity that divides us. It is that collective conscience that can make the real difference. We can and should address these challenges, in providing hope to those who may have lost or never had the opportunities we have been privy to, and to strive towards a better world for the future - a world whose beauty surrounds us here in Geneva. Happily it is also in Geneva - at Webster University - that one can obtain the tools necessary to equip oneself for life's challenges and where your faculty have created centres of excellence, buttressed by several very strong programmes, engaging the United Nations and other international organisations, Governments and civil society institutions in a common endeavour to improve the world we live in. It is a world more connected than ever before. Your graduating class alone has some 50 nationalities. It is a world where every nation is the most indispensable nation and where no unilateralism or exceptionalism is possible.

Let us not forget that, except for the giants of history, most of us leave behind footprints in the sands of time which are soon swept away by the winds of change and the waves of time. Collectively though, what we leave behind in institutions remains greater than all our individual contributions put together. Thus it is with Webster University. Long may it flourish in the service of you, our global citizens.

Let me conclude therefore not by advising you but rather by corroborating what you had already known from a Tao saying that I have often heard quoted: "The journey is the reward". May your journeys therefore be both hopeful and rewarding both as good world citizens and as citizens of your own countries!

I wish you Godspeed and good luck!