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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection, 3 October 1977

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection, 3 October 1977

3 October 1977

Mr. Chairman,

Permit me first of all to say how pleased I am to be once again in a meeting of this Sub-Committee which, I trust, will contribute greatly towards the development and strengthening of international protection. I would also like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you our preoccupations before you begin your discussions. As I have stressed on several occasions, I have always valued the unfailing and effective support provided by the Executive Committee, not only in the current activities of my Office but also at difficult times when crisis situations called for mobilization of greater resources and urgent measures of assistance to meet the needs of refugees.

As for protection, it has long-term objectives as in the case of promotion of adhesion to international instruments by a maximum number of countries with a minimum number of reservation, or in the case of elaboration of new instruments to overcome the lacunae in the existing ones. It also has its daily problems when one is called upon to protect the very lives of refugees who appeal to us.

Since the Committee's last session, international protection has continued to be one of my major preoccupations. When considering the important tasks which still lie ahead, I am encouraged by the interest shown by the Executive Committee in international protection. This interest is evidenced by the establishment of your Sub-Committee which provides a particularly appropriate forum for discussion, in a more concrete manner, of specific questions leading to constructive solutions for protection of refugees.

When my colleagues and I attempt to evaluate developments in the field of international protection, it often proves difficult to draw a correct balance and to see true picture. Sometimes we are encouraged by the thought that the basic international standards established for the benefit of refugees - notably those defined in the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol - have indeed gained wide acceptance; that these standards are being effectively implemented in many States; that the vital humanitarian principle of non-refoulement is generally respected and that many States follow liberal practices in the granting of asylum.

On other occasions, however, we are forced to the realization that our feelings of encouragement may indeed be premature. Thus we thought that States facing serious refugee problems would accede to the pertinent international instruments. Many have not done so. In fact, only one State, Djibouti, has acceded to these instruments since the Committee's last session.

Additionally, accepted international humanitarian standards are in many cases not being adequately implemented and only too often actually violated. Refugees have been victims of violence and subjected to torture, subjected to unduly long periods of unjustified detention and to measures of expulsion or return in disregard of the principle of non-refoulement.

Last year I expressed my concern - which the Committee fully shared - at the frequent and repeated infringements of the basic rights of refugees. I am now obliged to report that such infringements have continued in many countries. A large proportion of our time is taken up by representations to authorities in respect of the infringement of the basic rights of refugees and asylum seekers - which in certain cases have led to tragic consequences for the persons concerned.

So when we consider more recent trends in regard to international protection, the resulting global picture at the present time leaves no room for complacency. On the contrary, it shows clearly that a major effort in the part of the international community is urgently needed to arrive at acceptable solutions for outstanding problems and to achieve a further measure of progress.

It is my sincere hope that the Sub-Committee will see its way to supporting my efforts to solve the various urgent problems described in the working papers submitted to you. These problems will be presented to you in detail by the Director of Protection but I would like to commend a few points to your special determining refugee status is a matter to which my Office - in the light of a quarter of a century of experience - attaches the greatest importance. Such procedures are necessary in order to identify persons who are entitled to claim the treatment defined in international instruments relating to refugees or the protection afforded by the principle of non-refoulement. Only too often persons who may have been refugees have been returned to their country of origin because their claim to refugee status has not been correctly examined or not examined at all.

In the documents submitted to you, special emphasis is placed on the question of asylum and on the grave consequences of a refusal of asylum. Such refusal may result in the asylum seeker being forced to return to his country of origin to face the risks which such action represents. At best, a refusal of asylum may oblige the person concerned to seek asylum from another State where his efforts to find a haven may be equally unsuccessful. The situation of the so-called "refugee in orbit" is indeed wholly incompatible with progressive humanitarian standards. These are unfortunately not merely theoretical examples, they are base in actual cases which arise only too frequently in the day-to-day work of my Office. It is therefore of the utmost importance that particular regard should be had by all States to the possible consequence of a refusal of asylum.

It is also essential that the principle of non-refoulement be scrupulously observed by all States, including those States which have not yet become parties to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol.

Finally, accession to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol constitutes an essential first step towards ensuring that refugees are treated according to standards defined in these instruments, which I would stress are not by any means a luxury but just an essential basic minimum. It is therefore very much to be hoped that States which have not yet become parties to these instruments will now give very serious consideration to the possibility of accession.

The solution of these and of other problems referred to you would form part of the major international effort to which I have referred earlier and for which I make an earnest appeal. Our experience has amply shown that progress in the field of international protection has been greatly facilitated when problems have been faced not by individual Sates but collectively by the international community as a whole. In the context of such collective action to face the future problems, the work of your Sub-Committee assumes a special importance. I wish you success and satisfaction in your deliberations.

Thank you.