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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Forty-fifth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 3 October 1994

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Forty-fifth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 3 October 1994

3 October 1994
Protection abroad: the quality of asylumProtection at home: the sustainability of solutionsA comprehensive approach: linking protection, solutions and preventionLooking ahead: safeguarding the mandate

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to welcome you to the forty-fifth session of the Executive Committee. I am delighted to see the delegation of Spain seated for the first time as a full member at a plenary session of the Executive Committee.

Let me extend a special word of thanks to the outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Boddens-Hosang of the Netherlands, for his strong commitment, unstinting support and valuable advice during the past year. May I congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, on your election and that of the new Bureau. It is befitting that this Committee should be chaired by the Representative of a country which has generously provided asylum to millions of refugees. Your wisdom and guidance will be of tremendous value to my Office.

I would like to welcome Ms. Catherine Bertini, the Executive Director of World Food Programme, as our guest speaker. Her presence here is testimony of WFP's indispensable contribution to refugee assistance, and our commitment to further strengthen that partnership.

The need for such partnership, Mr. Chairman, has rarely been greater. The progress towards peace in the Middle East and the birth of a democratic South Africa have been among the rare signs of hope in a year too often marked by genocide, ethnic conflict, and resurgent violence. As more and more people continue to be uprooted in almost every region of the world, their protection and assistance grow more problematic, solutions to their plight ever more elusive. Whether stranded in countries of asylum or displaced inside their own, the fate of the uprooted has become tangled with geopolitical realities.

Not surprisingly, a symbiotic relationship is developing between the UN's political initiatives and development activities, and its humanitarian action. The success of one is linked to the performance of the other.

Lying at a critical juncture between peace and conflict, relief and development, humanitarian action must retain its integrity, neutrality and impartiality. Its quest must remain the protection and well-being of the victims of war, violence and persecution. By protecting the individuals, we reduce the tensions in society and enhance global human security. It was this realization that gave birth to UNHCR's unique mandate.

Amidst political instability and economic uncertainty, protection remains the essence of our humanitarian challenge. I should like to discuss with you today the contours and constraints of that challenge: the quality of protection abroad and on return; the links between protection and solutions; the prevention of refugee flows; and the need for greater commitment, cooperation and capacity to meet these challenges.

Protection abroad: the quality of asylum

The crisis in Rwanda has highlighted the very serious protection problems inherent in large-scale emergencies. Ravaged by war and still reverberating with tensions, Rwanda, together with Burundi, has produced some two million refugees. Unfortunately, the human toll has been too high. But had it not been for the generosity of the people of Zaire and the United Republic of Tanzania, and the remarkable efforts of NGOs, donor government service personnel and United Nations humanitarian agencies, I fear the casualties would have been much higher. We have deployed over 220 international staff for the operation. The assistance situation has stabilized in the United Republic of Tanzania and the worst of the emergency has been overcome in Goma, though not yet in Uvira and Bukavu.

The volatile security situation in a region vexed by ethnic complexities has seriously threatened the capacity of the countries of asylum to protect refugees. In Burundi, political and ethnic tensions have endangered refugees and returnees alike. In August this year a UNHCR field officer was killed in northern Burundi. I hope that the Convention of Government signed by the Burundi political parties on 10 September 1994 will lead soon to the formation of a new Government which can reduce tensions.

The violence which gripped Rwanda has been transported by the human tide to the refugee camps in eastern Zaire, and also the United Republic of Tanzania. The lives of refugees and humanitarian staff have been endangered and the delivery of relief and essential services disrupted by armed elements from the former Rwandese army and militia. The aim appears to be to control the refugee population, block their voluntary return to Rwanda and build resistance against the government in Kigali.

I have conveyed my very serious concerns on the security situation of the refugees to the Zairian authorities and to the UN Secretary-General, and strongly urged the immediate removal of all armed elements from the camps. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General met with the Zairian authorities and discussions are now underway on how to achieve this objective.

Mr. Chairman, the problem of insecurity in refugee camps is not unique to the Rwanda crisis, but a deeply disturbing feature in many other countries too. As refugees flee the breakdown of political and social order in their country, they often find themselves in exile across the border in an environment not dissimilar to the one they fled, in remote areas outside the effective control of any Government. Overcrowded camps and the free flow of arms compound the situation. Refugee women and children are most seriously at risk, and open to abuse in the midst of violence.

UNHCR has tried to make a difference by establishing early presence in the field, de-congesting camps and locating them in safer areas, paying greater attention to the needs of refugee women, and providing training and support to government officials. But when refugees are threatened by armed gangs, former soldiers and militia, then, it becomes a matter of law enforcement. As this Committee has reiterated in the past, it is the primary responsibility of the country of asylum to ensure the personal security of refugees and maintain the exclusively civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements. While the principles are generally accepted, the political will, and more importantly, the capacity to implement them are often lacking. The international community must urgently examine how it can assist countries of asylum to take the necessary and concrete action to improve security in refugee camps.

If the quality of asylum has suffered in some countries, its availability has been restricted in others. I am very grateful to countries which, despite political and economic constraints, have continued to receive refugees generously. Keenly aware of the burden of host communities, we have pressed for greater assistance to them. But I am also disturbed at the growing reluctance of many states to keep their borders open.

Except in western Europe where asylum applications have steadily declined from 700,000 in 1992 to about 550,000 in 1993, the numbers of those seeking asylum are on the rise. In the face of persecution, war and violence, we must continue to uphold the institution of asylum. Indeed, I have sought to stress its temporary nature in an effort to broaden its availability. Asylum is not necessarily synonymous with an enduring solution. More often than not, it is a measure of interim protection, which buys time for solutions.

This was the reasoning behind the safe haven concept which UNHCR urged for Haitian asylum-seekers. My Office has closely collaborated with the United States and other Governments in the region to ensure temporary refuge for Haitians until they can return home. Recent developments may be leading to that stage.

In somewhat different circumstances, the concept of temporary protection has been applied to refugees from former Yugoslavia. By providing immediate safety to victims of war and emphasizing eventual return, it addresses the needs of individuals as well as the concerns of States. With ever growing numbers in need of international protection, I believe we must debate the wider and more consistent application of temporary protection. As we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the OAU Convention and the tenth anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration, it is opportune to examine the lessons of the broader protection offered by these regional instruments.

In this changing context, resettlement remains an important tool of protection. I am very grateful to countries which continue to provide resettlement places.

Protection at home: the sustainability of solutions

There is an inherent link between protection and solutions. Frequently, the availability of protection abroad is affected by the possibility of solutions back home. Nor can solutions be sustained, if the conflict and violence which provoked the exodus continue, and the security of the returnees is not assured.

This is why the search for solutions to refugee problems is not simply humanitarian but deeply dependent on political initiatives. Thus, the peace process in Mozambique has encouraged over a million refugees to return home. Positive developments in the Middle East may bring forth humanitarian solutions, in which my Office stands ready to play a role, if called upon, in line with our competence and our expertise, and in cooperation with other organizations.

I am very pleased that over 100,000 Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh have registered for repatriation, and that the pace of returns has significantly accelerated. I welcome the continued bilateral dialogue between the Governments of Bhutan and Nepal and would like to initiate separate discussions with them on modalities for implementing solutions for the 80,000 persons in the camps in Nepal.

I am disappointed, however, that prospects for solutions have been foiled by renewed violence in Liberia, Mali and Somalia. Also, the situation of over 2.5 million refugees who returned to Afghanistan remains extremely precarious with intensified fighting in Kabul and elsewhere in the country. Sadly, the number of returnees this year has been the lowest since the operation began in 1990. There are still some 3.3 million refugees in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan.

In former Yugoslavia, too, the future remains highly unpredictable. We are watching developments closely, as they will determine the course of our own operation. So too will donor support. For unless we receive the funds we need, we will have to cut down our activities.

In every repatriation operation, basic issues of security, and the political commitment and capacity of the country of origin to provide it, are critical factors. If those who return do not feel that their lives and liberties are safe, then, far from bringing about a solution, repatriation may actually precipitate another outflow.

This is why UNHCR is emphasizing the need to create an environment of confidence and security in Rwanda, and has taken a cautious policy on repatriation. As Cambodia and El Salvador have shown, a greater operational human rights role of the United Nations can be a valuable confidence building measure in such situations. Urgent financial and personnel support should be given to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in his efforts to deploy human rights monitors in Rwanda. Furthermore, my Office stands ready to support any initiatives for the reconciliation and rehabilitation of a society traumatized by ethnic killings on a genocidal scale.

I welcome the establishment by the United Nations General Assembly of the Human Rights Verification Mission to Guatemala. Mr. Franco, currently my Director of International Protection, has been appointed by the Secretary-General to lead the mission, and I know you join me in wishing him success in his new assignment.

Mr. Chairman, if yesterday's repatriation is not to become tomorrow's emergency, then the international community must show greater commitment to post-conflict rehabilitation. I am disturbed by the fragility of Cambodia. I am disappointed at the lack of interest among the international community to consolidate our efforts in Tajikistan. The sustainability of solutions is one of my major concerns.

In an effort to assist communities which receive returnees, we have both widened the application of our community-based micro-projects or "QIPs" geographically from Mozambique to Myanmar, as well as deepened our understanding of them conceptually as a rapid, visible and viable contribution to reintegration. But our efforts can only be meaningful if they are placed in a larger framework of national rehabilitation, economic and social development and democratization of war-torn societies such as Mozambique.

To that end, as I indicated last year, we have sought to forge new alliances with development and financial institutions. Our efforts have begun to pay some dividends already with grants from the World Bank and the African Development Bank. We have also received a grant from IFAD for rehabilitation of environmental damage by refugees which will enable us to assist countries such as the United Republic of Tanzania.

A comprehensive approach: linking protection, solutions and prevention

As refugees become part of larger, more complex movements of people, Mr. Chairman, neither the solution, nor the prevention of refugee problems can be effectively promoted without addressing the plight of the internally displaced. Thus, within the limits of our capacity and resources, my Office remains willing to assume responsibility for the internally displaced where there is close link to an existing or potential refugee problem, as in Georgia, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka. This in line with the Executive Committee Conclusion of last year, endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly.

In Rwanda, we are assisting internally displaced persons, within the framework of the United Nations Emergency Relief Operation. Concentrating in the south-west, in the so-called former French zone, I believe our activities, together with those of others, have contributed towards preventing a further outflow.

Recognizing the enormous scale of the humanitarian problem in countries of origin, we support a division of labour within a clear structure. However, in carving out responsibilities, the United Nations must remain sensitive to the fundamental protection needs of the victims and to the protection mandate of my Office, if the goal is viable solutions.

Just as protection is linked to solutions, so too solutions and prevention are two sides of the same coin. They demand a more comprehensive and substantive effort to address the causes which force people to flee, as was done in the CIREFCA process in Central America, which was successfully completed in June this year. The Comprehensive Plan of Action in South-East Asia has also contributed in stemming the flow from Viet Nam. I call upon the countries in the region to make all efforts to ensure that the CPA will be completed by the end of 1995.

I have frequently advocated a regional and comprehensive approach for Europe. Particularly in the former Soviet Union, seething ethnic tensions, aggravated by political and economic restructuring, have created a hotbed for coerced movements. The range and scope of our involvement have grown, from traditional protection activities to emergency management training and capacity building in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, assisting refugees and displaced persons in the Caucasus, organizing the safe and voluntary return of displaced persons in Georgia, and monitoring returnees in Tajikistan.

Piecemeal approaches are not the answer to the diversity and complexity of the challenges in that part of the world. Therefore, I have been encouraged by the request of the Russian Government, asking me to initiate a comprehensive strategy for the region. My Office is consulting with the relevant Governments and organizations on preparations for an international meeting next year. Let me caution, though, that a regional strategy, whether in this part of the world or elsewhere, can only succeed if there is unequivocal and sustained commitment of the Governments of the region, based on which the international community can make its contribution.

Looking ahead: safeguarding the mandate

Mr. Chairman, I have briefly outlined the challenges confronting my Office today in protecting refugees and resolving their plight. We cannot play our role in isolation. Our action must be part of a global strategy for international peace and security, human rights and economic and social development. But that brings new pressures and constraints on my Office, reducing our humanitarian space. In such situations, how do we defend the rights of the victims? Not only are human lives at stake. In the end, peace and progress are also the victims of humanitarian disasters.

I believe our humanitarian mandate can be safeguarded only through greater commitment, cooperation, clarity and capacity.

Firstly, commitment of Governments to the basic humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality. Respect of these principles is essential to the credibility of humanitarian action and hence to our ability to protect human beings and find solutions to their plight. By building trust and confidence among the victims, we can go where peace-keeping forces cannot, we can buy time and space for political action, we can contribute to reconciliation. We need your political and moral support to maintain our distinct humanitarian mandate.

We also need your sustained financial support. Funding has been more regular this year than in the past, and I am grateful for this to the donors. I am particularly pleased to note the growing and significant support from the European Community's Humanitarian Office (ECHO).But we are still short of at least US$ 325 million in net contributions in order to reach our budgetary target of US$ 1.3 billion this year. I hope the commendable donor attention to the Rwanda/Burundi crisis will be sustained because our requirements there are likely to continue for some time. Meanwhile I must urge you not to overlook the needs elsewhere. Mozambique has been a bright spot in a gloomy year - please give us the support we need to complete that operation. For Guatemala, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, we have received only half the funds we need. To make solutions a reality, we need your support.

Secondly, cooperation with international and non-governmental organizations. Ms. Bertini's presence here is indicative of our deepening collaboration with WFP as we jointly work to meet the basic food needs of refugees, returnees and internally displaced. Our cooperation with ICRC is expanding in conflict situations. We are also working closely with UNDP and IOM to concretize our partnership in the field. With UNICEF we share a common concern for refugee children. As a former professor, I have been particularly pleased by the initiative of UNICEF and UNESCO to provide emergency education kits to refugee children in the United Republic of Tanzania so that their schooling could resume at an early stage of the emergency.

Cooperation is not a luxury but a necessity. Indeed, it is in this spirit that we launched PARinAC, or Partnership in Action with NGOs, last year. Now we must all work to implement the recommendations adopted at Oslo, particularly in the area of capacity building and training of local NGOs. I hope that your meeting with our NGO partners for the first time last Friday has helped to consolidate your support for PARinAC. Without your support, the full potential of our partnership cannot be realized.

Partnerships are most successful when they are built on complementarity of mandates and expertise. Thus:

Thirdly, we need clarity of roles and responsibilities. As the political, military and humanitarian mandates interact in multifaceted United Nations operations, it is essential that all actors understand and respect each other's mandate, roles and responsibilities. Structures must be clear and established early. Relief needs to be coordinated but our protection mandate is clear and should be respected. I support the role of the Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Department of Humanitarian Affairs to allocate responsibilities in complex emergencies, in consultation with the Inter Agency Standing Committee. Needless to say, field level coordination should be kept lean to avoid bureaucratic layers.

Fourthly, we need innovative approaches to capacity building and management. While UNHCR's emergency response stood us well in the United Republic of Tanzania, the scale and speed of the influx to Goma was overwhelming, compelling us to search for more innovative means of building capacity. Thus was born the idea of "service packages", under which donor Governments provided funds, facilities and services in sectors where our capacity and that of our partners were totally overwhelmed. We hope soon to invite the participants to review together the lessons learned with "service packages".Having seen the way military expertise can turn the tide of human suffering, we are actively examining the varying use of military support in a civilian-controlled multilateral humanitarian operation. Military assets could be a "force multiplier", to use a military term, in other words, not a long term involvement but a critical input to fill gaps in our response capacity. I am following with interest the current debate in the General Assembly on similar issues.

At the end of the day, capacity, Mr. Chairman, often translates into quality of staff. The commitment, competence and courage of UNHCR staff are truly impressive. As promised last year, we are investing in a Career Management System, which, together with other reforms, should give UNHCR a human resources management system which the organization needs and the staff deserves. I would like to pay a special tribute to UNHCR staff and those of our partners who have risked or lost their lives in situations of peril and conflict in the past year. In this connection, let me express the hope that the Draft Convention on the Safety and Security of United Nations Staff and Related Personnel, currently being discussed in New York, would be extended to United Nations humanitarian staff and to our NGO partners. Our people are in no less danger than the peace-keepers, our tasks no less meritorious.

Management is not just about staff and money. It is about thinking and planning. As traditional responses prove inadequate, we must search for new ideas and approaches. We must assess the lessons of history so that we can better predict the trends of the future. As you pointed out last year, Mr. Chairman, we must access the wide range of thinking in academic, policy research and other circles. We have actively contributed to the debate on population and development at the Cairo Conference. We have much to say on the issues of social integration and role of women on which the Social Summit in Copenhagen and the World Conference in Beijing will focus. These are all issues which deeply affect, and are affected by the dynamics of displacement. We must play a leading role in the international discourse on humanitarian issues.

I believe UNHCR's capacity for strategic thinking and planning needs to be enhanced. Planning should be linked to operations, so that our programmes can reflect our strategies. Thus, I intend to create a policy planning function in UNHCR at a senior management level and link it with the operational sectors of the house. I am considering the various administrative options of how to do so.

Simultaneously, we need to strengthen our ability to monitor the quality of our management. I have proposed the creation of an inspection and evaluation service, reporting directly to me, "feeling the pulse" of our major operations and field offices from time to time. Policy planning on the one hand and management oversight and evaluation on the other should give us a good balance.

As we enhance our thinking capacity internally, we must broaden our perspectives externally. With this objective in mind, I have extended a personal invitation to a small group of eminent, non-government personalities, representing a broad spectrum of today's society. We would meet informally about twice a year during the course of my mandate. The purpose would be to share insights and ideas so as to gain a better understanding of the global context in which humanitarian crises emerge and must be resolved.

To conclude, Mr. Chairman, today's humanitarian challenges are manifold and expanding. Emergencies that we once described as unprecedented are becoming the norm. Protection principles that were once clearly recognized are now being questioned. We are moving into situations from which we would have once evacuated. Our budget and our staff have doubled in four years. Our offices are spread over 250 locations. As our world and our work change, we must reexamine our premises and policies, we must review our management functions and structures. We must ask: where are we going? and how do we get there?

The cataclysmic change in the role of the United Nations has given our own work a new dimension. When peace breaks down and development fails, humanitarian action is moving in to stem the human suffering. But as ethnic conflicts spread and political solutions become more elusive, there is a risk that humanitarian operations could become prolonged, draining limited resources and causing untold suffering. To avoid that, we must develop a strategy of vision and a plan of action. Complementing an Agenda for Peace and an Agenda for Development, the time may be ripe to launch an agenda for humanitarian action.

As we move forward, I know I can count on you to support our challenging but satisfying mission.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.