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"Addressing Humanitarian Crises Through Global Solidarity: Is It Possible? Is It Effective?" - Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California, 16 March 1999

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"Addressing Humanitarian Crises Through Global Solidarity: Is It Possible? Is It Effective?" - Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California, 16 March 1999

17 May 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a privilege to be a guest speaker here today and I am very grateful to the Commonwealth Club of California for inviting me. I am glad to be back in San Francisco also for personal reasons. Having studied and done research at Berkeley for my doctorate in the early Sixties, I have very fond memories of this unique area.

It is exciting to share my thoughts, ideas and concerns with people living in a state which so many continue to look to, and think of, as the "future". I am also very honoured to be in the heart of an area in which migrants and refugees have played such an important role, not only when settlers moved west, but also in recent years - California hosts one of the largest and most varied refugee populations in the world, and many of these refugees have made a substantial contribution to California's prosperity.

It is heart-warming to see that refugees can participate in the efforts, energy, and hopes of those who lived here before them, in building a common future. It is of great encouragement to my Office and to myself personally, to observe the extraordinary achievements of refugees in this part of the United States. That refugees and migrants can both share in, and contribute to, the West Coast spirit of openness, tolerance and freedom, motivates us to continue in our efforts to create the same spirit elsewhere. Please continue to uphold that spirit.

My Office, UNHCR, was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1951 to lead and coordinate international action for the world-wide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems. Over the years, with forced population movements becoming broader and more complex, UNHCR was requested to become involved with other groups, for example internally displaced people, returnees and stateless persons. In the world today, there are almost 23 million refugees and others who are of concern to UNHCR. This figure increased sharply in the early 90s, due, among other factors, to massive displacement caused by the Kurdish crisis in Northern Iraq, by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and by the events in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. On the other hand, the end of some long-standing conflicts - in Mozambique, Liberia, Mali and Guatemala, for example - more recently has allowed millions of refugees to voluntarily return home. The overall number of people of concern to UNHCR has therefore slightly declined in the last two years.

Ensuring the protection of all these people, including the provision of material assistance whenever necessary, is the core mandate of UNHCR. The search for solutions to refugee problems is the other fundamental aspect of our work. Traditionally, we promote three types of solutions: the preferred option is voluntary repatriation to their own country, when circumstances allow it. If this is not possible, the alternatives are integration in the country where they have sought asylum, or their resettlement to a third country.

UNHCR works in partnership with governments, international and regional organizations, and non-governmental organizations. Throughout its history, the relations of the Office with civil society have been very important - especially because of its key partnership with NGOs, but increasingly also through cooperation with the private sector, an area that we wish to further develop.

* * *

Perhaps a good starting point is to introduce a topic familiar to all of you - globalization - but looking at it from the opposite side, examining an equally powerful trend, that is of great concern to humanitarian agencies such as my Office, and which I would call extreme political localization.

The action of local forces and the use of local resources can of course be a positive tendency. A decentralized administration, for example, allows the concerns of people to be addressed from a closer distance. But localization can take different, exclusive and very radical forms. In its worst excesses, it negates ethnic coexistence, demonizes minorities, gives rise to extreme nationalism or regionalism, and engenders xenophobia. In some instances, this leads to the implosion of states, or to their fragmentation. In other cases, particularly in affluent countries, societies become isolated and inward-looking. Their governments have no political incentive to commit themselves to international responsibilities.

One may argue whether the globalization of finance, trade, communications, technology and culture, will not eventually counter the trend towards localization, by absorbing it. However, what we see in many different regions is rather a widening of the gap between the two trends. Internal conflicts are the worst such symptoms, as demonstrated by the former Yugoslavia crisis, some of the situations in the former Soviet Union, and the current conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Needless to say, this affects our work. It inflicts untold suffering on civilians caught up in conflict. It also often causes forced human displacement. One may say that refugees, increasingly, are also the result of a trend towards extreme political localization. But is this a purely humanitarian concern? Certainly not. I think that business, for example, which thrives on the open exchange of goods, services and information, must surely be as preoccupied as we are by this widening gap: on the one hand sweeping globalization, which in some parts of the world is creating the most open and inter-acting society in history; on the other, extreme localization, which in many places is producing not only violence and displacement, but also large pockets bypassed by economic progress and prone ultimately to become a liability to the prosperity of much larger regions. Isn't this what the conflict in the former Yugoslavia has caused in Southeast Europe? or the continued unrest in the Commonwealth of Independent States to a vast region including the Caucasus and Central Asia? Isn't this the consequence of ethnic conflict in the Great Lakes region, one of the potentially richest areas on the African continent?

* * *

Inward-looking and xenophobic attitudes have of course many dimensions besides the trend towards political localization. As participatory democracy progresses, people become more conscious of their role in their societies. Not any longer are public resources simply seen as belonging to an abstract and distant state. The sense of ownership of such resources by citizens has become stronger than ever. So have demands to have a say in how public resources are utilized. The concept of "no taxation without representation", one of the mottos of the American Revolution, is being taken much further than in the past. Economic prosperity and instant, total access to information mean that citizens are becoming increasingly demanding on those who "represent" them. This evolution certainly contributes to building a responsible and dynamic society. Greater accountability by the state towards its citizens can lead only to better governance. But it is a process which is not exempt from risks, especially with respect to the people of concern to my Office.

It is a very real paradox of contemporary democracy that it may lead to exclusion. As citizens develop a sense of ownership of their resources, they sometimes tend to perceive as a threat those with whom sharing these resources is necessary or desirable. In extreme cases, this perception can be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians. In certain Western European countries, for example, refugee problems have been politicized and have become campaign issues, justifying at times the worst xenophobic excesses. This has often led to increasingly restrictive immigration laws and regulations. It has also affected attitudes towards refugees. The focus of refugee policies in many industrialized countries has shifted from protecting asylum seekers recognized as refugees, to limiting and controlling potential abuses of refugee status. This is what the current European debate over asylum seekers from Kosovo shows once more. This is true even in a country like the United States. Despite its traditional generosity to asylum seekers and its large resettlement programme for refugees from many parts of the world, its reactions have been much more defensive, and control-oriented, when large influxes of refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean threatened to multiply, and complicate already substantial migratory flows from the same areas.

While preventing such abuses is of course legitimate, this trend is worrying. It identifies refugees, among others, as a threat to the welfare of citizens. In so doing, it causes industrialized societies to lose sight of the fact that providing asylum, in many cases, is the most fundamental form of protection - it can save people's lives.

This trend is seen not only in the industrialized world, but also in developing countries. The former President of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, explained to me that when he was in office, in the 70s and 80s, his country could not only provide asylum, but also give land and grant citizenship to thousands of refugees. Democracy has made significant progress in many parts of Africa since that time. This is of course very positive. One of the consequences of this progress, however, has been that the refugee issue has become politically charged, to an unprecedented extent. Those governing African countries 20 years later must reckon with nationalistic political forces - particularly at the local level - which oppose the granting of asylum to today's refugees, and make integration in host countries extremely difficult. This tendency is contrary to the centuries-old tradition of African hospitality, but it appeals to powerful ethnic feelings and localized economic interests, and as such it cannot be ignored.

* * *

The seeds of rejection and exclusion can therefore be sown also - and maybe particularly - in the positive contexts of economic progress and the consolidation of democratic institutions. Obviously, I am not saying that democracy is bad, but I strongly believe that a democracy devoid of solidarity is "incomplete". Democracy cannot be considered separately from other factors which provide all people with a sense of security. A window of opportunity still exists to limit the negative excesses of individualism that are mixed - perhaps inevitably - with the positive energies of economic development. We must learn to be inclusive. We must not consider weak, vulnerable groups - such as refugees and returnees - as an obstacle to growth, or as competitors for scarce resources. We must think of them as men and women capable of making valuable contributions to society: isn't that what this nation's history teaches us? isn't that what we see in this state, California, in the city of San Francisco itself? We must think of refugees as persons in whose exclusion lie dangers of instability, but whose inclusion leads towards true nation building.

Exclusion is not an abstract notion. Imagine that you have to abandon suddenly all that gives meaning to your life - family, friends, education, work - and flee from your home to another country. In refugee camps, I am always struck and moved by young people whose hopes and aspirations have been destroyed by discrimination and violence in their home countries. As refugees, they have little or no access to education and employment. Their best formative years are wasted. You can sense their despair, they cannot hope nor envisage their future. It is an oppressive feeling which is particularly acute in situations of prolonged displacement. While refugee camps provide protection and asylum to those in flight, they can also become a very concrete symbol of exclusion.

Refugees are especially prone to exclusion. They are by definition excluded from their own societies. They are often perceived as strangers, even intruders, by societies hosting them. Exclusion frequently becomes rejection, in different degrees and fashions. There is a social form of rejection - for example, barring refugees from jobs, education, social benefits. Sometimes rejection takes silent but subtly effective psychological forms and refugees are made to feel that they are unwelcome. Violent rejection also occurs - unfortunately quite often - and refugees are then harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes deported to the country they fled from. What we observe in many countries is that exclusion occurs not only when refugees flee to a host country, but also when they return to their own communities. (In Bosnia once a woman told me that her worst experience as a refugee was to go back home to discover that her neighbour, a friend from a different ethnic group, did not want to speak to her any longer.) This is made worse when forced displacement has been caused by internal, inter-communal or inter-ethnic conflict, and takes dramatic forms when - as happens with increasing, worrying frequency - displacement is one of the very objectives of conflict, and refugees return home to divided communities.

I am often disturbed by what I see happening in developed countries. Great energy is spent in building wealth and power. I am not arguing in principle against materialistic and individualistic values - they are very useful in making a society solid, rich and stable. To a certain extent, they are the engine of economic development. I also know that what used to be called "charity", and which I prefer to call "solidarity" - although this term, too, may sound obsolete - cannot alone bring prosperity. Dealing with refugees, we know too well that aid may create dependence, which becomes an obstacle to economic growth.

But let me make a personal reflection and tell you that what I find distressing, particularly in rich societies, is the strong focus on the individual and his or her success, wealth and career. What disturbs me, as the chief of an agency which protects and assists extremely vulnerable people, is to see many societies - many individuals, I should say - seeking prosperity without solidarity, that is, without a sense of sharing. The absence of solidarity, not only as a value but also - most importantly - as a set of practical measures to protect the weak, inevitably excludes certain people. And in this exclusion lies a seed of division and conflict which will eventually erode societies from within.

Solidarity is not just a moral value. "Charity," said Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, "is realpolitik." Because the progress of technology is indeed making the interface between distant societies a daily reality, it is also essential to promote a concept of solidarity which goes beyond the boundaries of our own society, of our own country. Humanitarianism has always been international. Globalization may be giving it a new dimension, which we could call global solidarity.

* * *

In order to promote global solidarity, international organizations, including United Nations agencies such as my Office, cannot limit themselves to seeking support from governments, important as their role may be in this respect. Today, no effort towards solidarity can be effective without the active involvement of civil society. And I would like to insist on another point: business, as an essential, leading constituent of civil society, can make a crucial contribution in this area. To quote United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "the business of the United Nations involves the businesses of the world".

The private sector can play a central role in global solidarity. Business can of course contribute directly to the welfare of the disadvantaged in other societies, by providing material or financial assistance to aid activities. Business can also make a fundamental contribution to the economic development, and hence the stability of troubled regions - for example in post-conflict situations - by creating economic opportunities in these areas.

Civil society can play an essential role in creating a more positive image of refugees. In my country, Japan, for example, the concept of receiving and integrating refugees is comparatively new. If the public sector has been relatively prudent, the business community has on the contrary been instrumental in promoting and facilitating the integration of 10,000 Indochinese refugees in the last few years. And the same is true in countries with a longer, more solid tradition of refugee asylum, such as the United States or Western Europe. Small and middle scale enterprises in particular have been and remain key players in providing refugees with opportunities for work and thereby with chances for self-reliance. These experiences will ultimately give back to the refugees the dignity and respect which derive from being full members of a community - the dignity and respect that they lost when they fled their country.

But even more important, civil society - and I mean this in its broadest sense, including NGOs, academia, business, and so on - should work together with international organizations in countering inward-looking trends in governments and among citizens. As I said before, I am very concerned by such trends. My Office, as the United Nations refugee agency, is already facing some of the immediate consequences. On the one hand, it has become much more difficult to raise funds for our activities, which are financed through voluntary contributions by governments. This is true for most humanitarian organizations. On the other hand, the political vision and energy that governments require to address crises threatening global peace and stability become weaker and narrower. This means that the humanitarian consequences of such crises will linger and perhaps worsen.

There is an obvious link between unresolved conflicts, the instability which they cause, humanitarian problems, underdevelopment, and finally renewed conflict. This spiral of recurrent instability, almost inevitably, has humanitarian implications - most frequently, the forced movements of population. It also results in poverty, encouraging abuse and corruption, and discouraging enterpreneurship and investment. The link between the global impact of crises, and their humanitarian and economic consequences, is clear. Today, more than ever, no conflict is too remote not to be of concern to all of us - be it in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, or Afghanistan. Far from being purely a moral necessity, global solidarity therefore also has a political dimension. And I think that it is very appropriate to add, especially in this part of the world, that civil society is also on the frontline of creative, innovative progress in the fields of management, information and technology. I hope you will agree that such progress will be meaningful only if it is made in a spirit of solidarity. The refugees, whom we represent, long to be part of your vision and efforts.

Let me conclude by saying that we - international humanitarian organizations - and you - the civil society of one of the most prosperous regions in the world, and one that has made tolerance and understanding its key values - have a common goal in creating and maintaining open and stable societies. We always ask ourselves this question: can civil society and international organizations work together towards prosperity and wealth, and at the same time towards greater equality and global solidarity? I think the answer is clear. Yes, it is possible - it is actually vital - to find a balance between the pursuit of our own progress and prosperity, and solidarity towards the others. We must work together towards societies which are both competitive and compassionate.

Thank you.