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Note on Promotion and Dissemination

Executive Committee Meetings

Note on Promotion and Dissemination

16 August 1988

I. Introduction

1. The promotion and dissemination of refugee law is an essential activity of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There is a direct relationship between the promotion of refugee law and the international protection of refugees. The ultimate aim of this activity is to contribute to the solution of refugee problems and an intermediate objective is to secure better treatment of refugees, in accordance with established legal standards and basic humanitarian norms, by those authorities and agencies concerned with refugee problems.

2. The focus of this paper, therefore, goes beyond what may be ordinarily suggested by its title to encompass a broad series of educational, informational and advisory activities aimed at promoting the international protection of refugees, It seeks to explore the importance and objectives of the promotion of refugee law, its legal foundations, UNHCR's experience and proposed activities in this field, and the responsibilities and role of States and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It identifies areas of future activity in which the general support of States is required.

3. These activities are carried out against a background of a complex and serious contemporary refugee problem whose changing character requires not only a fuller understanding of the purposes of international co-operation but also new and more effective forms of co-operation in the solution of this problem.

II. Legal Basis

4. Responsibility for the implementation of refugee law rests primarily with States, whether or not they are parties to the relevant international refugee instruments. For this purpose, States must ensure that the relevant authorities are fully aware of the basic requirements of refugee law. UNHCR, too, has specific responsibilities in this regard as spelt out in its Statute, which stipulates in paragraph 8, as among the primary international protection functions of the Office:

"Promoting the conclusion and ratification of international conventions for the protection of refugees, supervising their application and proposing amendments thereto;"

5. As in other areas of UNHCR's mandate, the Statute establishes a reciprocity of obligations between UNHCR and States. Thus, General Assembly Resolution 428(V) of 14 December 1950 to which the Statute is annexed, calls upon States to co-operate with the High Commissioner in the performance of his functions, especially by, inter alia :

"Becoming parties to international conventions providing for the protection of refugees, and taking the necessary steps of implementation under such conventions;"

6. It is noteworthy that the first substantive Conclusion of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International- Protection in 1977 was on the subject of international instruments. It noted that a large number of States had not yet acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and/or its 1967 Protocol and "recommended that the High Commissioner undertake a concerted and determined initiative at the highest level to promote further accession" and "the withdrawal of the geographical limitation" where it still existed. Every year thereafter, the Conclusions have contained a reference to the promotion of refugee law. Last year, for example, in its General Conclusions on International Protection, the Executive Committee:

" ... reiterated the importance of promoting a wider knowledge and understanding of refugee law and noted with satisfaction the efforts of the Office in this regard, in particular in the training programmes instituted for UNHCR staff as well as government officials."

III. UNHCR's Approach

7. Most of the methods used by UNHCR in carrying out its responsibilities in the promotion of refugee law are characterized by information sharing. Some are directed at officials and institutions dealing directly with refugees, while others are aimed at the public at large or specific sections thereof. They may be briefly summarized as follows:

a. Promoting accession to the existing international refugee instruments;

b. Promoting implementation of international instruments at the national level and the development of new and more appropriate norms at the international level;

c. Disseminating international principles, norms and rules for the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers, through publications, documentation, conferences, etc.;

d. Training government and NGO officials dealing with refugees, on the principles and practice of international protection;

e. Sensitizing the public at large, as well as specific groups (e.g. academics, lawyers, students) to the plight of refugees and the basic issues of international protection through teaching and informational activities;

f. Assisting governments, other United Nations agencies, international organizations and NGOs in promotion-related activities.

8. Notwithstanding the need to promote an understanding of the principles of refugee protection as widely as possible, UNHCR has identified the following target groups for promotion activities, with priority to be given to the first four groups within the limits established by staffing and financial resources of the Office. They are :

a. Middle to high-level government officials in policy-making positions related to refugee affairs;

b. Government officials directly involved in refugee affairs on a day-to-day basis, e.g. police and immigration officials;

c. Staff of voluntary agencies and UNHCR operational partners who deal with refugee matters;

d. UNHCR staff members, regardless of their functions;

e. Refugees and asylum-seekers themselves;

f. Universities and other academic institutions which are responsible for training decision-makers and other professionals;

g. Secondary school students.

9. Each of these target groups possesses and requires different types and levels of knowledge of refugee law. It was with a view to meeting the various needs of these groups that UNHCR has endeavoured to diversify its promotional methods into an appropriately broad range of activities.

IV. Specific Activities


10. Promotion of accession to the international refugee instruments is a primary aspect of UNHCR's activity. The importance of accession to the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol has been stressed by the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme on several occasions. More particularly, at its thirty-seventh session, the Executive Committee adopted two Conclusions: No. 42 (XXXVII) on Accession to International Instruments and their Implementation and No. 43 (XXXVII), known as the Geneva Declaration on the 1951 United Nations Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. The latter, in particular,

"Expresses the hope that by the 40th Anniversary of the adoption of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of Refugees all member States of the United Nations will have acceded to these instruments."

11. At present, the number of States Parties to the Convention and/or its Protocol is 104, the most recent being Malawi. UNHCR is currently preparing a global strategy to promote further accessions to the principal refugee instruments.

12. The Office also attaches importance to accession to regional instruments. Next year will be the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa. This occasion will provide a suitable opportunity to recall the significance of accession to and implementation of this Convention.

Implementation and Development

13. Implementation at the national level of the refugee instruments is also a major concern of UNHCR. In this regard, Conclusion No. 42 (XXXVII) of the Executive Committee:

"Recommends to States which have not yet done so, to consider adopting appropriate legislative and/or administrative measures for the effective implementation of the international refugee instruments, making the necessary distinction between refugees and other aliens."

14. The Office is always ready to assist States in the preparation of new national laws or administrative measures so as to carry out effectively its mandatory function of ensuring the full and satisfactory implementation of international protection standards. It considers such consultations as one of the most important areas for international co-operation in the protection of refugees. Recently, the Office has advised on legislation and administrative regulations being prepared in various African, European, Latin American and South Pacific countries.

15. A number of States have indicated the wish to have UNHCR advice in the formulation of implementation measures. For this purpose UNHCR remains willing to provide technical and practical advice based on its experience in other countries and, if appropriate, to bring government officials for briefing missions to Geneva. It is also proposed to commence, as soon as possible, an updating of the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status, which was first published in 1979, and to elaborate more fully suggested procedures which should normally be followed in this important area.

16. Another major and related area of the Office's activities is the promotion of the progressive development of refugee law. This activity encompasses the advocacy of new principles, the inclusion of clauses for the protection of refugees in new instruments as well as promoting the elaboration of new refugee law instrument, including at the national level. For example, the Office has been active in the drafting of relevant articles of the United Nations draft Convention on the Rights of the Child. UNHCR has also contributed to and commented on draft resolutions affecting refugees being considered by such diverse bodies as the Asian-African Legal Consultative Committee, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States (OAS), the OAU, and the European Parliament.

Dissemination: Publication, Documentation and Conferences

17. The most direct promotional activities are those consisting of dissemination and sharing of information on refugee law. These are also the activities which can potentially reach the largest number of target groups, from officials, academics and students to refugees themselves. Traditionally, this has taken the form of making available a number of documents, such as the Collection of International Instruments concerning Refugees, the Handbook of Criteria and Procedure for the Determination of Refugee Status, the Decisions and Resolutions of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) concerning UNHCR and the Executive Committee Conclusions on the International Protection of Refugees. Reports of a selected number of seminars and round tables which might be of general interest are also available to a variety of groups concerned with refugee law. In these areas, the need for the future is to update some of the existing publications, promote their translation into other languages and to expand the publication programme and strengthen dissemination mechanisms.

18. Another aspect of dissemination is the range of bibliographic services offered by the UNHCR Centre for Documentation on Refugees (CDR). The Centre itself is the result of the consolidation, in 1986, of three previously existing services. As the Centre covers documentation on all aspects of refugee questions, refugee law documentation is only a part, though an important one, of its overall current services. The Centre has continued to expand both its holdings and its services to UNHCR staff and to outside individuals and agencies as well as governments. To this broad range of users it makes available the use of its computerized database, its holdings and its own publications. It is currently co-ordinating the development of an international network of refugee documentation centres and is developing an internationally agreed multilingual thesaurus of refugee-related terms. It is expected that this thesaurus will be used by an increasing number, of documentation and information centres.

19. Among current publications of the CDR is Refugee Abstracts, a quarterly bulletin with a circulation of some 1,000. It contains bibliographical references and abstracts of recent documents, the full texts of certain basic documents, book reviews, announcements of meetings and other such information. Other publications of the CDR include an International Bibliography of Refugee Literature (January 1985), A Selected and Annotated Bibliography on Refugee Women (July 1985) and A Selected and Annotated Bibliography on Refugee Children (published in co-operation with Save the Children Alliance, January 1988). In 1987, the CDR dealt with 949 requests for specific information (double the previous year), and 1,287 consultations (six-fold increase) and distributed 27,262 documents in response to requests for specific documentation. Whether this level can be maintained and even increased will, of course, depend upon the availability of resources.

20. A new tool for the diffusion and development of refugee law will be the forthcoming publication of the International Journal of Refugee Law. It is intended to stimulate research and writings on refugee law and to act as a vehicle to disseminate them. It will be published as an independent journal by Oxford University Press with UNHCR support. The first issue is scheduled to be published in January 1989. The journal, which will contain articles on refugee law and protection, will also provide information on recent developments in this field. It will be of value to a broad range of users, including academics, legal. practitioners, government officials and UNHCR staff.

21. The Journal will also draw from public material available in UNHCR's legal databases which are scheduled for implementation over the next several years. One of them, the national legislation database, will contain easily retrievable information on legislation relating to refugees in individual countries. Another, the case law database, will carry abstracts of precedent-setting cases in refugee law of public decisions taken by national and international courts. The information contained in these databases will be available to governments, to UNHCR staff and to those involved in judicial or administrative procedures affecting refugees.

22. Dissemination of refugee law is also promoted through the holding of seminars and training courses addressed to government and NGO officials. One of the objective of such seminars is to share information with a view to stimulating a more favourable disposition toward refugees and refugee protection and, where appropriate, to encourage accession to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. Regional seminars are currently planned for South Asia and the countries of the Horn and East of Africa. The intent in the future is to plan more systematically the holding of such seminars in each region on a longer-term basis. it is also intended, if adequate resources are available, to have more such events on a national level and to envisage inter-regional seminars, so that the participating regions benefit from each other's experience. Proposals from governments as to the need for such seminars in different regions would be welcome.

23. Finally, more attention needs to be devoted to the refugee population as a special target group. It is important that refugees and asylum-seekers be well aware of their rights and obligations. In a number of countries in Europe and North America, information brochures containing relevant information are made available by the national authorities to refugees and asylum-seekers. In a number of other countries in the same regions, voluntary agencies have issued similar information leaflets. UNHCR Field Offices in Europe have been instructed to approach the respective governments with a view to promoting the publication and distribution of such brochures elsewhere in the region. Similar measures have also been taken in other regions and will continue to be supported and encouraged by UNHCR.

Seminars and Training Courses

24. Two refugee law courses for government officials have been organized this year in co-operation with the International Institute of Humanitarian Law at San Remo. One is in the French language and the other in English.

25. With regard to the training of persons dealing with refugees, four target groups have been identified: operational-level government officials and NGO officials dealing with refugees, UNHCR staff and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) staff who act on UNHCR's behalf. The objective is to impart knowledge and skills in the area of refugee law and protection in order to ensure better treatment of refugees and respect for internationally accepted standards.

26. Although the training element in the regional and inter-regional seminars may be upgraded in the future, UNHCR is placing greater emphasis on organizing or participating in national training courses for immigration, aliens service or eligibility officials. In 1988 national courses have been undertaken or are planned to be held in Canada, Malawi, Portugal, the Sudan, and the United States.

27. The Office also supports the training of lawyers involved in the protection of refugees at the national level. In this context, UNHCR is assisting the European Legal Network on Asylum (ELENA). a sub-secretariat of the European Consultations of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), which provides support to asylum-practitioners in Europe, in organizing a training workshop for lawyers involved in representing refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe.

28. For UNHCR staff, the Office has prepared a programme of protection training courses, seminars, workshops and lectures for staff at all levels in Headquarters and in the field. In particular, since the end of 1987, the training of non-protection UNHCR staff has been taking place on an organized and systematic basis. This is an area of high priority for UNHCR which it hopes to enhance in the coming years. The recent establishment of the UNHCR Training Service has greatly facilitated this task. It is also intended that UNDP officials who provide protection and assistance to refugees on behalf of UNHCR in countries where the Office has no presence, should be trained in the future. Training modules aimed at these different target groups are in various stages of preparation.

Teaching and Research

29. In the longer term, it is also necessary to reach the public at large and to target specific groups, such as pupils and students of secondary schools, vocational schools, colleges and universities. Human rights curricula can be a vehicle for the introduction of refugee law and protection notions. Alternatively, the latter can be presented on their own. UNHCR has already collaborated with a number of academic institutions for the introduction of refugee law courses or notions of refugee protection in their curricula and is exploring other possibilities in this area. The Office is strengthening co-operation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the field of teaching and dissemination of refugee law, and is participating in the United Nations Institute for Training and Research's (UNITAR) International Law Fellowship Programme.

30. As part of teaching and training, UNHCR has its own internship programmes for those interested in working in the area of refugee protection. Nine stagiaires were selected for the first half of 1988, and six more have been selected for the second half. Financial assistance is provided for participants from developing countries. In the last two years, stagiaires have been selected from some 15 different countries under this programme.

31. In the area of research and academic activity related to promotion and dissemination, the Office is playing an active role. It has co-organized with the International Institute of Humanitarian Law of San Remo the Fifth Seminar on Humanitarian Law in the Contemporary World which was held in Sofia, Bulgaria from 22-24 June 1988. Experts from East European and the Nordic countries and the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria participated. It is also co-organizing a second Seminar of Arab Experts on Asylum and Refugees. In addition, it will co-organize and participate in the Thirteenth Round Table on current Problems of Humanitarian Law which will be held in the San Remo Institute in September 1988. This year's Round Table will particularly address itself to problems of possible improvement of international instruments relating to refugee trends and developments and to a review of family reunification problems.

V. Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

32. Paragraph 8 of the Statute of UNHCR, partially cited above deals in its two final sub-paragraphs with the co-operation between UNHCR and NGOs. The role played by private organizations in the protection of, and assistance to, refugees has traditionally been considerable. It has, in many instances, included the promotion of refugee law in all its aspects by organizations exclusively dealing with refugees as well as by universities, research centres and human rights organizations. NGOs play an indispensable role of advocacy as well in regard to the formulation and implementation of legislation. Of particular importance are the efforts of various NGOs in monitoring legislative and regulatory proposals of governments, studying and commenting on them, and generally promoting their conformity to international standards for the protection of refugees.

33. The preparation of manuals of refugee issues and of training modules for government officials dealing with refugees are further concrete examples of the practical contribution to the promotion of refugee law and protection by NGOs. A recent example is the Dutch Refugee Council's manual of refugee law for legal counsellors. Another recent example of co-operation with NGOs is the emerging international refugee documentation network, in which an agreement is being worked out on the use of bibliographic standard formats, indexing rules and agreed terminology.

34. UNHCR is also promoting the exchange of information between NGOs, lawyers and asylum practitioners on judicial and administrative decisions affecting the protection of refugees. In co-operation with the Zentrale Dokumentationsstelle der Freien Wohlfahrtspflege für Fluchtlinge e.V. (ZDWF), the Office is establishing a database which will contain important and precedent-setting case law. In this endeavour, the provision of information and co-operation of non-governmental organizations as well as States is crucial.

35. A further area in which non-governmental organizations play an important promotional role is through the formation of national and international advocacy networks. One such network is the European Consultation on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and its sub-secretariat, the European Legal Network on Asylum (ELENA) with which UNHCR is actively involved.

VI. Conclusions

36. The promotion of measures designed to enhance the enjoyment by refugees of basic rights and to improve their overall situation is recognized by UNHCR's Statute as one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Office. It is an area in which the Office has been traditionally involved but in which much remains to be done.

37. ln undertaking the various activities referred to in this Note, UNHCR is attempting to meet this responsibility. It is hoped, however, that UNHCR's role in this area, as well as that of States and non-governmental organizations, can be substantially expanded in the coming years so that this responsibility can be met in full. It is clear that the support and co-operation of States and the provision of adequate resources is crucial if this objective is to be achieved.

38. With regard to specific activities, there is a need to expand the role of the Office in the area of promoting accessions to the international refugee instruments through a worldwide campaign. Similarly, there is a need to strengthen UNHCR's capacity to advise governments on national legislation and other implementing regulations. It is important to improve a variety of dissemination activities, including through the development of an international network of refugee documentation centres. A particular area which calls for increased support is in the development of legal databases which again requires the active support of States. Likewise, State support, as well as that of NGOs, is important in the development of a case law database on judicial and administrative decisions affecting refugees.

39. Training activities, both for officials and for agency staff, need to be given a special impetus and national, regional and global training programmes must be developed further in order to meet the needs of those involved in the protection of refugees. This is an area which again calls for the full support of States and NGOs.

40. For UNHCR to carry out a strengthened programme of promotional and disseminational activities proposed in this Note, it is clear that sufficient resources must be made available to the Office. This includes not only the provision of adequate financial support but also the availability of qualified personnel who can be assigned by UNHCR to the field and at Headquarters to co-ordinate the various activities foreseen. With this support and the active involvement of governments, UNHCR hopes to be able to achieve a quantitative and qualitative improvement in the area of refugee protection through the promotion and dissemination of refugee law and doctrine.