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Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on accepting the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, 4 July 1995

Speeches and statements

Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on accepting the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, 4 July 1995

4 July 1995

It is a great privilege and pleasure for me to receive the Liberty Medal. Through this award, you are honouring the courage and devotion of 5000 men and women who work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many of them are risking their lives daily in distant and dangerous places to protect and assist people who have been forced to flee their homes. As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, I also take this award as a recognition of the valuable work that many of the UN agencies have been carrying out over the past five decades.

Above all, by bestowing this tribute on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, you are expressing solidarity with 27 million refugees and displaced persons around the world. You are recognizing the plight of refugee children scarred by war, the innate strength of refugee women in adversity and exile. I thank you for that.

The United States of America is no stranger to refugees. From the earliest times, this land has given sanctuary to those fleeing religious persecution: the Quakers who settled in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley; the Puritans who came to New England, the Catholics from Ireland, the Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. You call some of the early settlers the Pilgrims, we would call them refugees. In this century alone, the United States has accepted more than two million refugees from central Europe, the former Soviet Union, Indochina, Latin America and the Caribbean. I commend the generosity of the communities which received them, and the skill and dedication of the agencies which helped them to integrate.

As you celebrate 219 years of democracy and freedom, let me pay tribute to you for having kept open your doors to others struggling for freedom. Let me thank you for the generous support which the American people and Government have consistently given to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ever since it was set up in 1951.

Your compassion and generosity remain indispensable, as daily on our TV screens we see the brutality and horrors of internal conflict and ethnic strife. Children deliberately targeted by snipers. Horrendous acts of rape and killing. More and more people forced to flee their homes and find sanctuary, often in precarious situations.

We cannot celebrate the independence of one nation without condemning in the strongest possible terms the strangulation of another. I speak of the bloodshed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. My Office is providing life-saving assistance to more than 3 million people in former Yugoslavia. Our airlift to Sarajevo, launched three years ago almost to the day, is the longest humanitarian airlift in history, and has helped to sustain the nearly half a million residents of the city. However, since 8 April this vital lifeline to Sarajevo has been cut. Our ability to provide assistance to parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina is being severely obstructed and manipulated by the parties.

Since April last year, we have been grappling also with one of the worst humanitarian disasters resulting from war and genocide in Rwanda. More than two million refugees have fled to the neighbouring countries of Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire, which feel threatened by the influx and are reluctant to host them. If we ignore the plight of the refugees or the burden of the countries which have received them, I fear we will pay a heavy toll in renewed violence. Conditions must be created urgently to allow the refugees to go back and live in peace and tolerance in their own country.

From Afghanistan to Angola, from Togo to Tajikistan, Rwanda to Russia, Burundi to Bangladesh, in 118 countries across the globe UNHCR is helping some 27 million people. Although the Office was originally established to help refugees who fled their home country, today we are caring also for those who have been displaced inside their own borders or have returned to war-torn countries and still need international assistance to settle down. Increasingly, we are having to work in or near conflict zones. For instance, one of our newest operations is in the republics neighbouring Chechnya in Russia, where more than 400,000 people have been displaced. Whether in the country of asylum or in the home country, our main concern is to make sure that people - most of them women and children - are safe, their basic human rights are respected and minimum material needs are met. We cooperate closely in our work with other UN agencies and private voluntary agencies, including many American ones.

People often ask me: are you not depressed and disappointed by ever-increasing refugee problems? My answer is no. I say "no" because refugee problems can be solved. Close to your own shores, you have seen the example of Haiti. Since my Office was created in 1951, we have helped more than 30 million people to return home, including more than 9 million in recent years to central America and Indochina, to Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Cambodia, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

The end of bi-polar politics and an improved climate of international cooperation have opened up new opportunities for resolving conflicts, and with peace comes the possibility for people to return home. In 1979, as Japan's Ambassador to the Indochinese relief operation, I had seen hundreds of thousands of Cambodians pouring into Thailand in search of asylum. In 1992, as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, I closed the last camps on the Thai border and watched the refugees return to their own country. More than 370,000 Cambodians went home with UNHCR's help, in time to participate in the democratic elections organized by the United Nations. Thanks to the Comprehensive Plan of Action launched in 1989, the Vietnamese and Laotian refugee problem is also almost resolved, with only about 41,000 persons still in the camps in southeast Asia. I hope that we will be able soon to bring a humane end to this tragic saga.

Two years ago, Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk received here the Liberty Medal for their role in creating a non-racial and democratic South Africa. The return of the South African exiles was a critical element in the process of national reconciliation. We are proud to have played a role by bringing them back home. The transformation of South Africa has been an uplifting and encouraging event, sending a positive signal to other countries in southern Africa.

Last year in Zimbabwe, I saw refugees preparing to return to Mozambique, complete with belongings, animals and even birds. In Swaziland, I walked the length of an entire train carrying Mozambican refugees home. I saw them getting off the train in Maputo, their faces sparkling with joy. Today almost all of the 1.6 million refugees have returned to Mozambique, and we are assisting them to reintegrate in their home communities. I am optimistic that the peace settlement in Angola will pave the way for the 300,000 refugees to return home from the neighbouring countries. I am hopeful too that the peace process in the Middle East will soon bring to an end one of the most tragic refugee problems of our times.

However, let me temper my optimism by saying that before us lies a dappled landscape of hope and despair. There are clearly risks of new displacement or renewed outflows, both in Africa and in parts of the former Soviet Union. The challenge is to seize the openings for solutions and reverse the trend. We need a two-pronged approach: building preventive strategies, on the one hand, and promoting human solidarity on the other to protect and assist those who have fled and help them to return home. The United States must play a leading role in both areas.

Refugee problems are a symptom of deeper political, economic and social ills which plague the world. The international community needs to foresake the "band-aid" approach and vigorously attack the underlying causes. The tide must be decisively turned away from ethnic intolerance, violence and strife. Leading nations must show a stronger commitment to preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts in potential areas of conflict. They must be more decisive in their action to arrest violence and ensure respect for humanitarian principles. They must place a greater human rights emphasis in their foreign policy. The international human rights machinery, which was long paralysed by the ideological confrontation between the East and the West, should be used more effectively to hold governments accountable for abuses. States should be encouraged to set up democratic institutions, and to adopt laws and procedures which defend human rights and minority protection. Otherwise, minorities and other groups will feel increasingly marginalized and exploited, and could be driven into virulent forms of nationalism and sectarianism.

Freedom has little meaning for those who are hungry or homeless. Poverty and social inequity often contribute to unrest and upheaval which in turn lead to refugee flows, as Haiti has shown. Development assistance, with an emphasis on priority human needs, including job creation, poverty alleviation, education and health, is therefore indispensable for greater social stability. Investing in peace, democracy, rehabilitation and economic development is in the long run the best way of resolving refugee problems. It is also the best way of preventing new refugee problems from arising.

Experience, however, has demonstrated the limits of prevention in a world which is still grappling with fundamental political and socio-economic problems. Hence, the need to continue to provide protection and assistance to those who are compelled to flee persecution, war and violence. We must be comprehensive as well compassionate in our response to refugees, seeking an end to refugee flows but meanwhile, also helping those who are forced to flee. Although it may be tempting to turn one's back, rather than open one's door, those in need of protection must be given sanctuary. The United States has been a strong promoter of refugee protection in the past. Once again, it must take the lead role in upholding the institution of asylum.

Nor should we forget that some of the poorest countries in the world have given asylum to the largest numbers of refugees. International assistance is essential to sustain their hospitality. The United States contributes about 20 per cent of UNHCR's annual budget of 1.2 billion US dollars. In terms of gross contributions the USA is our largest donor, just ahead of Japan and the European Union. I am grateful for it and would urge that the level of support be maintained.

Cutting down on international humanitarian aid would be tragic. Perhaps the saddest casualty of all would be the refugees returning home after decades in exile, to places such as Afghanistan and Mozambique. Their villages have been devastated, their homes destroyed, their fields heavily mined. What kind of future will they face without help from the international community? The end of the Cold War has opened new opportunities. Are we going to miss them because of short-term, narrow interests? What would have been the fate of western Europe if there had been no Marshall Plan after the end of the Second World War? Or Japan, if it had not received massive assistance for economic recovery? We need to show the same courage and foresight today in rebuilding war-torn societies.

We must be both forward-looking and outward-looking. We must fight the mood of isolationism and advocate greater international involvement. Let me add that a concern with domestic priorities and a belief in a pro-active international role are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, to the contrary, they are closely linked in a rapidly shrinking world.

Refugees are much more than images of despair crying out for charity. Like immigrants, they are agents of change, of cultural cross-fertilization, of development and drive. Which country knows better than the United States the importance of granting sanctuary to those fleeing war and persecution? Which society knows better than the United States the benefits which refugees bring with them? How many of you here today, or your parents or grandparents fled repressive regimes? And had it not been for the talent, initiative and enterprise of the immigrants and refugees, would the United States have achieved its greatness today?

I call upon the United States to sustain its solidarity with refugees. I count on the compassion of the American people and the support of the political leaders. I welcome the establishment of "USA for UNHCR", an initiative of American citizens committed to the refugee cause. Through support to "USA for UNHCR", you can help my Office and our partners to help refugees help themselves.

The United States is a big country, big in geography but also in heart. America's support for refugees springs not only from the generosity of its national spirit, but also from its enduring love for liberty and democracy. What better place and time to be reminded of it than here and now, in front of Independence Hall on the fourth of July! As we celebrate 219 years of American independence, I call upon the American people and government to provide the leadership to create a better, safer world where the ideals of liberty and equality can be pursued by all, and people will no longer be forced to flee. Thank you, once again, for the Medal.