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Closing Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-sixth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 7 October 2005

Speeches and statements

Closing Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-sixth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 7 October 2005

7 October 2005
Congratulations to sovereign states with legitimately differing concerns on agreement on local integraitonRe protection in today's world, as an ex-prime minister, aware of importance to governments of public opinionHowever, "rather than bow to public opinion, we should aim to lead it"Mainstreaming Convention Plus

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank you all for such a positive and productive ExCom. I must confess that at the beginning of the week, looking at our programme, I was worried: with nearly 200 members, observers and participants and more than 100 interventions in the general debate, it seemed like this would resemble a typical session of the UN General Assembly.

From the first interventions, however, I sensed that this would be different. As I listened from the vantage point of the podium it seemed to me rather that there was a unity to the proceedings, and I found a common purpose in the discussion and exchanges.

What unites us is the strong will to protect refugees, to give them the best care possible, to put an end to exile with solutions that offer both dignity and the chance of ending displacement for good. The conviction that everybody is entitled to have a place she or he calls home.

This will was articulated in many ways and from different perspectives. There were differences of opinion and even the expression of legitimate contradictions. But it was all done in a constructive spirit. The constructive spirit that is the key for success when we deal with substantive, complex issues aiming at a meaningful consensus and not at a meaningless lowest common denominator. Many areas we took up this week are genuinely delicate for sovereign states. I particularly welcome the consensus achieved on the important conclusion on local integration. It is not an easy matter. It raises genuine concerns that need to be properly addressed for many of the countries involved. But nevertheless it won your consent. I want to express my gratitude to the Rapporteur and the countries involved.

Several countries voiced criticism of the way this Office has discharged one or another of its functions, or of a particular policy. I am glad they did so. To my mind, this is one of the roles of ExCom - in its capacity as an advisory body where views must be expressed honestly with the aim of correcting mistakes or misperceptions.

This makes me even more determined to engage with you. Ours should be more than a formal relationship. It should be a continuous dialogue where we work together in a constructive way to give shape and form to our collective will.

I would like to thank our outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Martabit of Chile, for so ably shepherding us through this week. ExCom was indeed conducted by you in a remarkable way. I take this opportunity to congratulate and welcome the incoming ExCom Bureau. I am very happy to see Ambassador Fujisaki of Japan presiding over our work, assisted by Ambassador Mindua Kesia-Mbe of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rapporteur Ann Blomberg. We are looking forward to a very productive year with you.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In our debate this week we went to the core of the issue: how to deliver protection in today's environment? Several of the most striking difficulties we confront were highlighted in interventions by delegations and in the statement yesterday by the Director of International Protection, Erika Feller.

I am aware of the difficulties governments face in confronting public opinion. I was a Prime Minister myself and know the real force it constitutes in most of our societies including, increasingly, on issues which we discuss in this forum. But rather than bow to public opinion, we should aim to lead it, holding firm to our values and principles, reaffirming our accountability to refugees. The institution of asylum must be preserved and cherished.

"rather than bow to public opinion, we should aim to lead it"

I noted the concern expressed by several delegations that asylum procedures need to be managed and administered in a credible manner. I could not agree more. The very credibility of the system depends on taking every possible measure to defeat fraud and abuse, and through the rightful application of the exclusion clause. This is also an area where we want to offer our assistance to states, and we do so in the most thorough, balanced and expert way possible.

But allow me to make two points here.

First, when you consider the nearly 10 million refugees on the globe at present, we have to recognize that they do not constitute a threat to our security. They themselves are the victims of persecution, war, ethnic conflict and intolerance. And let us be realistic. If someone wants to enter a country to commit a terrorist act, the most stupid way to go about it would be to ask for asylum on arrival.

"Let us be realistic. If someone wants to enter a country to commit a terrorist act, the most stupid way to go about it would be to ask for asylum on arrival."

Second, history tells us that where human rights are systematically violated, refugees can be branded as criminals or terrorists for purely political reasons. I do not need to look any further than to my own country for proof of this. Salazar labelled as criminals and terrorists many democratic political leaders we all admire today, as in the case of former President Mario Soares of Portugal, Presidents Chissano and Gebuza of Mozambique, and the list goes on.

We need to make certain that nobody who is a terrorist is granted asylum. But we need to make just as certain that asking for asylum is not a crime. We must all commit ourselves to safeguarding that distinction, whatever security imperatives our societies face, and with the same determination that we fight terror, whatever the reason invoked to justify it.

"We need to make certain that nobody who is a terrorist is granted asylum. But we need to make just as certain that asking for asylum is not a crime."

I took note also of the query on UNHCR's authority to undertake refugee status determination. My respectful but simple answer is that we carry out a function for which we are mandated by the Statute of the Office and the 1951 Convention. UNHCR's competence to determine eligibility for protection has no geographic boundaries and applies even in states that are not signatories of that Convention. Refugee Status Determination can be carried out at our initiative when we believe it is necessary for protection reasons.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many of you asked this week about the mainstreaming of Convention Plus and what this means in practical terms. Allow me to take a few minutes to answer this question.

As I said on Monday, Convention Plus must become part of how we collectively address and resolve refugee problems today. In the policy area, this entails a recognition that while voluntary repatriation is still the durable solution of choice for the large majority of refugees, we will actively explore opportunities for expanding resettlement and engage in advocacy for those countries which want to allow local integration but need the support of the international community. Self-reliance is key to all solutions and will be integrated into planning and activities, recognizing the primary role of states.

Structurally, mainstreaming means that the Unit itself will conclude its work as planned by 1 January 2006. Durable solutions functions and the Strengthening Protection Capacity Project will be located in the new Division of Protection Services. The AHC Protection, working alongside AHC Operations and Regional Bureaux, will have responsibility for durable solutions. Policy-related functions will be carried out by the new Policy Development and Evaluation Unit.

Most importantly, the new phase of Convention Plus entails a chain of operational actions. Convention Plus is moving to the field. We pledge to undertake a yearly review of protracted refugee situations with a view to identifying opportunities for resolving part or all of long-running crises. Collaborative and comprehensive strategies will be developed and implemented as a result, involving a serious effort to bridge the gap between relief and recovery in cooperation with the countries, international development agencies, and the relevant donors. Specific examples at present are the initial consultations on the Somali Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Mexico Plan of Action and Comprehensive Solutions for Afghans. Next week we will begin discussions with UNDP on a new collaborative framework for durable solutions in Africa.

Convention Plus is not an exercise to close the borders of some states, keeping the refugees as far away as possible. No. Convention Plus is an instrument to increase and improve asylum everywhere, North and South, building capacities and making all solutions possible for the dignity of the refugees to be fully respected. In the Forum meeting on 17 November we will have a good opportunity for a frank and open discussion on the way ahead.

Another important question was raised about the impact of the asylum-migration nexus on the relationship between international protection and national interests. The complex challenges posed by this cannot be underestimated.

It is a fact that migration movements are often mixed. It is also a fact that migration channels are multiplying and flows are growing. This does not mean that we are seeking a greater role in this area. But it does imply - very clearly - that migration will require more and more attention from the international community in the years ahead, as the Secretary-General stated yesterday. Our role is to be vigilant of its effects on the right to asylum. I do believe that adequate procedures regarding asylum are completely compatible with responsible management of borders and the implementation of migration policies by modern states. We will take up the challenge to find innovative approaches to the problem and look forward to a continued, constructive exchange with you all.

"migration will require more and more attention from the international community in the years ahead"

I have gladly accepted the invitation to participate next Wednesday in the meeting in Luxembourg of the Council of Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs of the European Union.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I was impressed this week by the number of calls for UNHCR to remain involved in repatriation operations long enough to ensure that returns are for good. Most telling was that these calls came from refugee hosting countries and countries of origin in the developing world. One delegation said that the brightness of the "flicker of light at the end of the tunnel" for many refugees in Africa depends on the commitment of the international community.

I fully agree with this assessment. The interest here for UNHCR is obvious. While we are not a development agency, the impact of our actions is magnified or diminished by how development work is done. We will aim to ensure that refugees and displaced persons are automatically incorporated in recovery strategies of all types and we will redouble our efforts as an advocate and catalyst on their behalf. A revamped unit will provide active, expert support across the range of solutions and be the focal point for renewed partnerships. Care and maintenance simply keep the tunnel from collapsing: the light at the end comes from the sustainability of solutions.

I particularly welcome the ExCom conclusion on internal displacement and the decisions to create the post of Assistant High Commissioner for Protection and to enhance the independence of the IG's office. We will gladly implement these, taking good note of all your opinions and concerns - that, as a matter of fact, echo ours.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased that Wendy Chamberlin has accepted to continue working with us as Deputy High Commissioner. As you know, we have already opened a competitive and transparent process for the selection of a successor to Kamel Morjane, to whom I renew the expression of my gratitude and profound admiration. I asked David Lambo to assume Kamel's functions in the interim. To allow David to concentrate fully on his role in this complex transition period, I have decided to proceed now with the appointment of a new Director for Africa, a continent that represents almost 50% of our operations. I have the pleasure to inform you that Marjon Kamara has accepted to be the new Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa and will assume her functions on 15 October.

Simultaneously, to signal clearly the importance we attach to the improvement of our emergency response capacity, I will appoint Arnauld Akodjenou to replace her immediately as the Director of the Division of Operational Support, as a first step to assuming, in the near future, the direction of the new Division of Operational Services which will include the Emergency and Security Service, as reflected in the documentation shared with the Standing Committee.

Following ExCom's decision, we will also start the process of selecting the AHC for Protection with the same open and transparent procedure. The new functions will begin on 1 January 2006. There is not a single second to lose in our efforts to make things move, to strengthen the Office and to make it more effective in delivering protection and solutions to the people we care for.

Mr. Chairman,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a privilege to count on your active cooperation to meet these objectives. To fulfil my mandate, nothing is more important than your continued support and the dedication of all UNHCR staff members and partners.

Mr. Chairman, to you, to everybody who worked to make this ExCom a success, thank you very much.