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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twentieth session, 20 October 1969

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twentieth session, 20 October 1969

20 October 1969

May I be permitted first to extend my sincere congratulations to you, Mr. Chairman, for your election to the chairmanship of our session, and also to extend my congratulations to the distinguished Vice-Chairman, Ambassador Oviedo, and to the Rapporteur, Mr. Kandemir.I look forward to working in close contact with the officers of the Committee and I am sure that this is going to be a stimulating and interesting session. I should also like to associate myself with what the outgoing Chairman said about the serious floods which took place recently in Algeria and Tunisia and convey to the distinguished representatives of those countries, and through them, to their Governments, the condolences of my Office and its sympathy to all the victims for the plight which that are suffering.

Mr. Chairman, a year has gone by since our last meeting and the state of the world has not improved. Much to the contrary, I fear, and this has also had repercussions on the refugee problems which we are called upon to try to solve. In Africa alone, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees has become a millionaire ... not in terms of funds, but as far as the number of refugees is concerned. In Europe also, we have been following developments with concern and, whereas in past years we hoped very much that there would no longer be a major European refugee problem, we have become aware recently of the existence of a certain problem in Europe which we have to follow very carefully indeed.

With your permission, Sir, I would like to limit myself to taking stock and try to assess where we have come to in international refugee work, because the international community has been tackling this problem now for nearly twenty years and meanwhile many developments have taken place. In the days of Fridtjof Nansen, the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who has always been a symbol to us and whose memory we were honouring again recently in this very room at the time of the Nansen Medal Award Ceremony, international protection, which is still the fundamental responsibility of UNHCR, was at its very beginning stage. It is interesting, I think, to recall that, at that time, refugees really did not have the rights and status that they have today. There were, broadly speaking, two categories of people: nationals and foreigners - and you could treat foreigners more or less as you wished. At least they could go back to their countries, but legally there was no such person as a refugee and even the issue or recognition of the Nansen passport, which we all remember, did not constitute a binding obligation for Governments. Even upon the inception of UNHCR activities in 1951 and later, refugees were considered to some extent in the context of East-West relations and basically it was a slow evolutionary process for the Office to get the necessary legal instruments adopted to define the rights of these refugees. Many developments have taken place since then. The 1951 Convention defines the rights of refugees; it has been completed by the 1967 Protocol. The recent figures of accession to these two instruments are fifty-seven for the Convention and thirty-four for the Protocol, the most recent accession coming from Zambia, and I am happy to announce this very important new accession. We hear that more ratifications are to be expected and we look forward to further announcements, perhaps even during this session.

Furthermore, a Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of refugee Problems in Africa was unanimously adopted on 10 September 1969 in Addis Ababa during the recent summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity. The adoption of this Convention is a great step forward. It defines in precise terms the responsibilities of States with regard to asylum. It stresses the sacrosanct principle of non-refoulement. Also, it defines the need to control and contain subversive activities, which is a fundamental aspect of any work for refugees not only in Africa, but indeed in any areas where such activities may jeopardize relations between States and create serious problems for member Governments.

Among the basic legal instruments, there is also the Declaration on Territorial Asylum, which was adopted unanimously in the General Assembly, and which again strengthened the principle of asylum. After all, it should be recalled that the essence of asylum is that a country accepts a fellow whether it likes him or not, and this is precisely what this Declaration stipulates.

So good progress has been achieved and today it is our responsibility and our duty to see to it that what has been subscribed to in writing is, in fact, practiced and implemented; in other words, that we practice what we preach. Governments today have a bad conscience about refoulement, about sending refugees back to a country where they fear for their life. But, when it comes to ensuring that these same refugees are actually granted rights in the host country where they have received asylum, then sometimes there is a slight difference between theory and practice. Sometimes, in some of the countries where I have had the opportunity of raising problems of international protection, this is not so much a matter of whether existing legal instruments have been signed. It is more a question of an attitude of mind, a question of approach to refugee problems. This varies from one country to another, from one continent to another. So the role of UNHCR, it seems to me, is to try to continue this educational process.

If we simply limited ourselves to international protection and legal assistance, then, of course, we would be of little use to the refugees themselves who are in need, and this is why we have a programme. In fact, this very programme is the raison d'être for our gathering here today, since this Committee is the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. And, if you look at that Programme, you become aware of the developments which have taken place. In the early days of UNHCR, there was no Programme, and the first High Commissioner for Refugees was desperately trying to raise voluntary contributions to finance material assistance projects for the most needy refugees and more to finance material assistance projects for the most needy refugees and more specifically to start the Programmes of the United Nations Refugee Fund (UNREF), which included property for housing in the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria, and which some of the Committee members present today may still remember. Today, over forty UNHCR delegations and correspondents all over the world attend to the implementation of programmed, sometimes small, sometimes large, in more than fifty countries. These programmes comprise a great variety of complex activities and have a great meaning for the refugees themselves. As an illustration, let me recall that, while we are implementing individual care projects for handicapped refugees, old people, for instance, in some European countries, we are also pioneering large-scale rural development schemes in Equatorial Africa. At the same time, we are helping Tibetan refugees in the heights of Nepal, in Asia, and we are implementing programmes of education and vocational training for Zanzibaris in the sweltering heat of the Persian Gulf. These are just a few examples of the programme activities which can be linked with significant development in the history of international assistance to refugees.

These programmes have now been strengthened and consolidated, not only through the generous support of Governments, but also as a result of the recent developments in interagency co-operation. A debt of gratitude is due in this connexion to the members of the United Nations system dealing more specifically with economic and social development, many of whom are represented in this room. This is also an important new development. In many ways, the strengthening of the programme through interagency co-operation is something which we have to develop further, because, if UNHCR is to be able to phase out, if we are to be able to establish a cut-off date in certain developing countries, it will be, as previously discussed in the Committee, through the strengthening of interagency co-operation. Important new procedures for this co-operation were planned and determined at the Inter-Agency Meeting, which we convened in January 1969, where, through the concerted efforts of representatives of the specialized agencies and of the United Nations programmes, we succeeded in determining what the roles of the various agencies would be in assisting UNHCR in the developing countries.

The UNHCR programme has also been strengthened as a result of what has been done in the field of primary education. We should also note the important measures taken outside the programme in respect of post-primary education through the Education Account. Without education, both primary and secondary, we could not really speak of integration, and we could not equip refugees so that they might become self-supporting. I must stress here that, had it not been for the very generous support of the Scandinavian Governments, our activity in the field of education would have remained largely theoretical.

With regard to resettlement through migration, a large step forward has been made. The immigration quotas are no longer so restricted that they impose hardship on refugee families whose members were sometimes placed before the difficult choice between remaining together and accepting resettlement opportunities overseas. Thanks to the smooth machinery of resettlement, the admirable efforts of the Inter-governmental Committee for European Migration, the unstinting support of the voluntary agencies represented here in this room, and through the generosity of the countries of immigration which have always, in recent year, taken a humanitarian attitude to the special needs of refugees, we have been able to contain situations which otherwise would have become very difficult to handle, and I refer particularly to the situation which arose recently as a result of certain developments in Europe. It is because of the special measures taken by countries like Switzerland, and by countries of immigration like Australia, Canada and the United States of America, that the movement of people has been assured, so that we are not faced again in Europe with the situation of the post-war days, when there was an enormous accumulation of misery in camps. And we must make sure that this movement continues. This is why I must appeal to all the Governments that can play a role in the very important field of resettlement to continue to be liberal in welcoming refugees in response to the requests which we put to them, in order also to help to the countries of first asylum which have so generously opened their doors to those in search of asylum and which might well find themselves in a very difficult situation without the help of the Governments of immigration countries. should like to recall that, if the movement cannot be kept up, we shall soon be faced with political and financial problems which would be much more difficult to solve in the countries of first asylum, because, if these countries cannot count on the smooth resettlement of the caseload, they will be bound to request UNHCR for assistance in its local integration. This means that ultimately I might have to come back to the Committee with a request for a financial contribution for assistance to refugees in Europe which, as we all know, is something we would like to avoid, because we face so many other priorities in other parts of the world.

Now, of course, in a dynamic programme of this kind with so many different problems in different parts of the world, we are bound to have to present you with occasional readjustments, and to face occasional setbacks. In Ethiopia, where we have had indications recently that a very important programme is about to be implemented, after some delays, for which no one is responsible, it is possible that the 1969 programme might have to be slightly revised. Adjustments may also be necessary, for example in the United Republic of Tanzania and other countries of Africa, in view of continuous arrivals of new refugee groups. In the Democratic republic of the Congo, large rural integration schemes had to be held in abeyance until we could get the necessary arrangements made with a view to this implementation. The 1970 Programme may have to be adjusted to take this development into account. In the field of interagency co-operation, we have also occasionally to face some delay in arranging for other agencies to take over where we leave off. We cannot always count, as we did in Burundi, on a smooth take-over by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the specialized agencies, and further investments on the part of UNHCR may be indispensable. This is owing to the fact that sometimes Governments in the developing parts of the world, in Africa, are rather reluctant to give priority to refugees in the long-term economic and social zonal development plans. They are a little slow therefore in appealing to UNDP and the agencies for a take over. Sometimes, also, the mechanism itself is rather complex and more expeditious measures would be helpful. This is why I always try to participate fully in the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination and this is why I value the efforts made by the Economic and Social Council in seeking further to improve the United Nations machinery.

We also, of course, suffer occasional problems as a result of the development of new situations, and we are at present receiving a number of new requests, particularly form Governments in West Africa as a result of the situation in Nigeria and particularly of the fact that some individuals have been uprooted and have overflowed into neighbouring countries. These are now contacting UNHCR to discuss the problems on their merit.

It is also true that, as the Committee knows, we have witnessed an accumulation of individual cases in urban centres in Africa. This also occasionally necessitates adjustments to the programme. It is for this reason that we value so much the creation of the Bureau for the Placement and Education of Refugees within the Organization of African Unity and the successful start of its operations. We are gratified that Ambassador B, who is the head of the Bureau, is with us today and will be here for the session. It is clear that the Organization of African Unity and the Bureau will be very largely responsible, together with UNHCR, for the effort to eliminate this accumulation of individual cases in the African urban centres. It is also clear to me that the Bureau will mainly be able to place people who are already technically qualified, or have some kind of educational background or skill, and who will be welcome in African countries in whose economic life a place can be found for them. For the others who are not trained, who do not have a skill or a profession and who have no educational background, a programme may need to be put into effect.

In considering the progress which has been achieved in both protection and material assistance, we must remember that before it sets up these programme activities, the Office continues, in line with General Assembly resolutions, to promote voluntary repatriation, which remains one of the best, if not the best solution to any refugee problem. The figures speak for themselves. Since the Office started its activities, we have repatriated nearly 200,000 refugees. So the principle of voluntary repatriation must also be kept alive.

If you consider all these aspects of our work, what then are the effects on the political and diplomatic role of UNHCR? Here again I think we have to take stock of the progress which has been achieved. In the early days of the Office, the Governments of the countries of origin of refugees had no relations with UNHCR. Within the United Nations family, UNHCR was considered to deal with very difficult highly sensitive problems in which other United Nations agencies did not want to get too involved. Today the situation has changed considerably. A certain amount of unanimity has developed around UNHCR's action. The Governments of countries of origin discuss with UNHCR the problems of their nationals who, because of unforeseen circumstances, find themselves outside the borders of their country. We can now exercise protection for these nationals and, at the same time, maintain contacts with the Governments of the countries of origin. Furthermore, the United Nations agencies, as I said, are now ready to associate themselves with UNHCR's activities and find that this may sometimes enable them to fulfil some of the responsibilities devolved upon them under certain United Nations resolutions. I think it is interesting to note also that Governments have understood the role that UNHCR can play towards the establishment of better relations between neighbouring States by solving refugee problems quickly and quietly, without publicity. This is precisely what we want - to create an atmosphere which contributes to the general interest of States Members of the United Nations. It is probably for this reason that UNHCR received what I consider its greatest tribute from the General Assembly since its inception, that is, the adoption by acclamation of the UNHCR annual report submitted to the Assembly at its twenty-third session, and this, at a time when the world was going through considerable difficulties. Let us hope that this resolution can be translated into concrete facts and that it will be an inspiration for the future. Indeed, the United Nations is frequently criticized because of the sometimes academic nature of the debates. This kind of criticism cannot be levelled at this Executive Committee. The Committee is dealing with human problems in a concrete way, and, during the coming week, you will be called upon to discuss concrete solutions to these problems. This is the reason why I am sure that this meeting will be stimulating and productive.

You will forgive me if I have touched upon some rather philosophical considerations. The work of the Office is, as you know, of a strictly humanitarian and non-political character. This is the very essence of my mandate, and it is this, probably, which allows the Office sometimes to solve highly political problems in a non-political way. I believe that the record speaks for itself. Unfortunately, many examples have to go unmentioned, but I hope that the results achieved will convince Governments in other parts of the world, where the refugee problem is as yet undefined, or has not fully come to light, to call upon UNHCR for assistance, if we are in a position to give it.

All this, Mr. Chairman can be done only if the structure of the Office remains financially strong, and here also a great improvement may be reported. More Governments contribute than heretofore and many increases in contributions have been announced. In 1969, for the first time, seventy Governments are participating in the financing of the UNHCR Programme. However, as stressed previously, the Programme should be fully financed through government contributions. This would be possible if a few more Governments agreed to increase their contribution and if Governments which had never contributed were to do so. It would be easy if some Governments, which contribute such considerable amounts in terms of bilateral aid, devoted a small proportion of these amounts to the multilaterally financed programme of UNHCR.

To sum up, I believe that UNHCR has set a certain pattern. However, our thinking must go beyond this pattern and just as the refugee concept has developed, just as refugees now have rights, can we not hope and pray that one day States will no longer produce refugees so that one day peace and justice will prevail and the Office may no longer be needed. For indeed, Mr. Chairman, civilization may mean, above all, the right of an individual to live in his own country. Thank you.