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Oral Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR headquarters staff, 21 January 1971

Speeches and statements

Oral Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to UNHCR headquarters staff, 21 January 1971

21 January 1971

I am happy to have this opportunity of meeting you all again and would like to take the opportunity to officially welcome Mr. Mace, although he has now been with us for some time, and to say how much we value his presence and his co-operation, not only to strengthen United States support for our work, as we have already succeeded in doing, but also because of his tremendous experience in refugee work, U.N. affairs and in the field of administration, which we value very much. I should also like to welcome all those staff members who have joined us since we had our meeting last year, and all those who have returned to Headquarters from the field.

It would be impossible for me to give you even a brief outline of all the significant developments in the Office since our last meeting on 26 January 1970. I must therefore limit myself to the essentials, and share my thoughts with you on a number of questions which are of particular significance, such as the position of the Office in the United Nations generally, the opinion which governments have of our performance, and the difficulties we face, because there are not only successes and achievements, but also setbacks, which is perfectly normal. I should like to explain very briefly the reasons for these setbacks, what I feel are the problems and how we might go about solving them.

One of the essential and significant developments is the fact that we again obtained the unanimous support of the General Assembly. I should not like you to begin to consider this as a matter of routine. This is the third year that it has happened, and people get used to things very quickly. Perhaps we are all getting used to the fact that the resolution on the High Commissioner's Report to the General assembly is automatically passed by acclamation. I have no objection to this becoming a routine for governments, but it should not give us a feeling of self-satisfaction and complacency. The slightest mistake in political judgement, or in the way in which a problem is tackled, the slightest error in a protection problem, or in dealing with governments, could very easily bring about a change in this unanimous support of the General Assembly. If, in the future, the General Assembly were not to grant us this unanimous support for three years. Approval was again expressed by a great many delegations, and we once again received the accolade of all the governments. Some of you may have read the minutes of the statements, which are available.

Although we no longer report directly to the Economic and Social Council, in July this year ECOSOC took up certain items of direct interest to us, particularly the question of assistance to people from colonial territories, a subject which is also of great concern to the General Assembly. Here again we received the praise of many governments. UNHCR has also been praised in other forums of the United Nations, for example in the Fourth Committee which deals with decolonization. This is very encouraging. At the same time, we should not become too closely involved with areas which are by definition more political than is a traditionally social and humanitarian committee such as the Third Committee, and if we are so involved it should always be to provide humanitarian assistance. I have constantly stressed this to all our colleagues, particularly in the field, as we become more and more aware of the pressure which has built up in the last few years, and mainly in the last year, because of what has happened in many parts of Africa. On the South African issue and that of the Portuguese colonies, we see increasing pressure for the United Nations and its related agencies to do more, not only to assist the victims of colonialism and apartheid, but also to help the liberation movements. Here, clearly, UNHCR must maintain a purely humanitarian and social approach because any other policy would ultimately weaken the office and create controversy on the real objective of UNHCR which remains to help people in an unpolitical way.

One of our most significant successes, perhaps, is the fact that we have been called upon to assist in the repatriation of the Nigerian children. This is an area where UNHCR has been asked to play a diplomatic role. When we met in January of last year, I began my statement by saying that a great many people could not understand why the Nigerian people, uprooted within their borders by the war in Nigeria, had not been assisted by UNHCR. The war happily has ended, and I think it is an expression of the confidence which the governments had in UNHCR and its impartial and objective attitude, that they called upon us to arrange the repatriation of children who had been airlifted out of Nigeria during the war, and who, after the war, had to be reunited with their parents. Here I should like to express appreciation of the efforts our colleagues who are directly involved in this operation. Mr. Jamieson, who is presently in Lagos to discuss the final airlift for the completion of this family reunion scheme, prepared the ground admirably during his missions. Mr. Colmar was able to go to the Ivory Coast to prepare the departure of the children from there. I should also of course like to thank the team which subsequently handled the airlift, Mr. Woodward, Mr. Muller, and Mr. Zarjevski. This movement has gone so well so far, that, just as in the case of the unanimity in the General Assembly, we have perhaps taken it all for granted. When things go smoothly not much notice is taken and people are not as aware of the importance and significance of these things as they would be if there was a great deal of publicity. In this case it was very important for us however to keep in the background in order to facilitate the operation. As an expression of the confidence which governments have in our Office and its functions, this example will stand out in the future, and will go down as a significant development in UNHCR's recent history.

We have also to reflect on the success which we have achieved in terms of financial support. It is one thing to receive unanimous support and praise from the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and other committees of the United Nations, to receive requests for our good offices and to be able to deal in a humanitarian way with situations which are not classical refugee situations, where also we have been able to help, as with certain minority groups in the Middle East. But to get financial support from an increasing number of governments, and to achieve the financing of the programme more and more through governmental contributions, is quite another thing, and the two are not necessarily related. Frequently governments give us their political and moral support, but they do not necessarily give us money. You must realize the meaning of the support that we have been receiving since last year. Eighty governments contributed in 1970, as opposed to 75 in 1969, and 50 in 1966. If you consider this progression, and remember that, since our last general staff meeting in January 1970, we have had a 15% increase in governmental contributions to the programme, you will also appreciate the confidence which the Office has gained. It is very significant here also that many governments have contributed for the first time this year, and many have increased their contributions for 1971. Great credit is due to the way in which our fund-raising effort has developed, and Mr. Volfing deserves praise for what he has done since he took over. I believe that it must continue to be our aim that the programme is entirely financed by governments. I have stressed this repeatedly, it is still our objective, and I think we shall reach it. On the other hand, I am still very anxious to maintain the interest of the private sector, to keep alive people's interest in our work. For this reason I welcome campaigns such as those which are to take place in 1971 in the Scandinavian countries, because without such campaigns, people might be less aware of what the refugee problem means and what UNHCR is doing to solve it. Frequently people are not well informed of the international aid given by their governments. We must continue to be active in the fields of fund raising and information, even if fund raising is largely devoted to obtaining support from governments. The last time we met I mentioned that I had been striving for a substantial change in the United States contribution. Last year it was $1,000,000, we have every reason to believe that it will be $1,000,000 again this year, and we hope that there will be an increase in the future.

Something else which must be stressed among our achievements is that we have succeeded in obtaining the increased co-operation of other United Nations agencies. The UNDP and the specialized agencies have on the whole wished to work more closely with us, largely, I believe, as a result of the support we got from governments, and there is a very clear improvement in communication with these agencies. Although this has not always produced very good results in the field, this has not been the fault of UNHCR, and many people in UNDP are interested in using UNHCR as a partner in land settlement schemes which include refugees, particularly in Africa in the sense that they would sub-contract to us and our operational partners. The reason for this is that we have been able in certain specific situations to guarantee better results and a better use of the investments than have the specialized agencies.

We should also note that, for the first time in the history of the Office, the Advisory Committee for Budgetary Questions approved our administrative budget in 1971 without any cut. A cut was imposed subsequently by the ACABQ, on the initiative of U Thant because the whole of the United Nations budget was reduced across the board for political reasons. When we testified before the Advisory Committee, considerable confidence was expressed in the way in which the Office was running, and this was shown by the fact that they gave us what we asked. Here I should like to express gratitude and appreciation, in particular to Mr. Heidler, who has done a great deal to ensure that we no longer approach the Advisory Committee or the Fifth Committee with a feeling that we shall not be able to justify our requests. This is very important, because we can work properly only if we have the means to do so.

Another significant development is the increasing number of ratifications to our legal instruments. When I reported to the Assembly in November, we had 60 accessions to the Convention and 42 accessions to the Protocol.

I might also mention the flow of applications for jobs with UNHCR which are received from people in other agencies, in government services and elsewhere, which is also an indication of the fact that UNHCR is known among increasingly wide circles of people.

Let us now consider the setbacks. The main and most important setback is the difficulty we are experiencing in solving individual cases. In Europe, in the past, when the problems were essentially those of individual cases, we managed to solve them, though it took us a long time. It was difficult, especially with some of the handicapped cases in the camps. We had to adopt various techniques. We had to appeal to governments to show generous humanitarian consideration, and to liberalize their criteria. We used the services of Dr. Berner and of Dr. Jensen, but at long last we saw results. In Africa, and to a lesser extent in Asia, individual cases are increasing, and we have not as yet been able to find a solution. This problem has taken such dramatic proportions that one of our dear colleagues, Miss Bertschinger, even sacrificed her life for it - for an individual case. It is not easy to pinpoint the reasons for our difficulties. They are largely due, I think, to the fact that there is no infrastructure in African capitals to deal with these individual cases. We suffered in the past from the illusion that there were no individual cases in Africa and that we could concentrate on land settlement, and we did not foresee and prepare for this tremendous challenge. We had given this question thought, but insufficient thought. Perhaps we also placed exaggerated hopes in regional organizations. I still feel that the OAU Bureau must succeed to a greater extent than at present. We cannot however allow this caseload to increase in every city and alternative solutions to the OAU Bureau may have to be sought. This has been a setback, and as I have also informed governments, the performance of the Office is not judged by the number of refugees whom we settle on the land, but by whether or not we can solve individual cases. This is even truer today, as host governments become more and more aware of the problem of individual cases in the African capitals. The authorities and members of the Diplomatic Corps see these individual cases much more than they see the people who are cultivating the land and producing their crops, without creating many problems, far from the capital. They see the individuals who knock at the doors of the Ministries, of the specialized agencies, of the UNDP Resident Representatives, and of the UNHCR Representatives, asking for solutions, scholarships, and cash, who complain that they cannot find jobs, and criticize UNHCR because they feel that we cannot solve their problems. This is the real challenge today.

We suffer from a lack of infrastructure in the African cities and from the fact that, being non-operational, we need partners to assist us in solving problems of this kind. The voluntary agencies were very active in Europe, but they are still singularly inactive for individual needs in Africa, and it is very difficult for us to establish a network of operational partnerships or counselling. The difficulties of African individual cases are also very different from those faced by European individual cases, and we have not always been able properly to access this. When a social worker, specializing in counselling, interviewed a European refugee, in a European Branch Office, the pattern was fairly clear. The well-founded fear of persecution could be assessed. The man's physical or mental handicaps could be diagnosed. The language was usually no problem, or at least there was adequate interpretation. The society which the man had left was known to the social worker. Often, the social workers had background links with the refugees' countries and could understand the problem of readaptation, of seeking a job or educational opportunities, of getting the right diploma, of curing the refugees' mental or social handicap.

But who today, in places like Addis Ababa, Dar-es-Salaam, Lusaka, Nairobi, or Dakar, can tell us about the social background, the cultural uprooting, the fear of persecution, the aspirations and hopes of an individual African refugee? What does the UNHCR representative or the social worker know about the tribal background of the refugee, of what it meant to him, of what it is like for him to have left the countryside and to be suddenly in the city. This is a highly complex problem, and in this field of African sociology, we have been amateurs. Sometimes we feel that other U.N. agencies are making mistakes in the developing countries. But we may also make great mistakes because we do not understand the local situation and the needs of the people whom we are trying to help. We are now investigating this problem, which I have classified as a setback in our progress because it is taking too long to solve. I am not sure that the answer lies in strengthening the Branch Offices. Temporary assistance like cash grants is certainly not the answer because the refugees simply return for more. We cannot create jobs in areas where there is rampant under-employment or unemployment. We cannot put people in university when they have not completed secondary school. We face a deadlock here, and have to find a pragmatic solution to these problems, which will not be too costly or complex or take 20 years to implement, like in Europe.

It is very important also to see how to disengage the office from certain situations in which it has become involved.

I am going to India and Nepal where there is a relatively small group of Tibetan refugees to whom the Office, and many other sources of goodwill have contributed large amounts of money for many years and where for the time being no phasing out or ultimate solution has been defined. This should not be allowed to become a quagmire for the Office. I do not object when, as in Africa, we help new groups of refugees in settlements which have already been in existence for some time, because then we are helping new groups to reach the same level as others who had already been helped, in the same settlements. It is very serious however when the caseload remains the same, and year in and year out we continue to put to the Executive Committee new requests for the same group of refugees. This is the problem which I have in mind.

With regard to general working conditions, I have followed your discussions with great interest, particularly those of 19 January in the Staff Association, which I am told were productive and stimulating. On the question of transferability, I believe, as you do, that this is essential. I have repeatedly said in many forums that the United Nations staff rules generally, and particularly those in respect of transferability, should be completely reconsidered. We cannot do this alone, and there are many factors involved, some of which are of course political. I believe, however, that in contact with your representatives and with your support in the form of a resolution, I might be able to obtain from the United Nations an undertaking whereby UNHCR staff interested in working in other sectors of the organization could be considered without regard to the nationality quota. I shall also continue to strive for equality in the treatment of our staff in relation to those of other members of the United Nations system, particularly with regard to general conditions in the field, where the housing, transportation, office space, supporting local staff, allowances and benefits given should be the same as is enjoyed by the staff of the other field operations of the United Nations. This would also be an additional incentive for those of you who are thinking of going to the field. Here I should like to say that I have been somewhat disappointed, as have my colleagues among the senior staff, that we have not received more applications for work in the field. I know this entails many problems and difficulties for personal or family reasons. However, we try to provide as many incentives as possible. For one thing I think the responsibility is an incentive which you should value and not fear.

In terms of material interest, the fact that you go to the field facilitates promotion and special post allowances. It seems to me too that a change is always a good thing. If one stays too long in one place, particularly in Headquarters, one tends to lose some of one's awareness of the reality of the tangible concrete problems, and this is even more true of those who do not have the possibility of going on mission. Those of us who go on mission feel when we return that even a short trip abroad has opened our eyes to a great many new elements of which we were not aware. So I would again encourage you to come forward and express your interest in field assignments.

In this connexion I think there should still be some upgradings, although we have improved our situation in terms of promotion. It is with this in mind that I stress the need for a really adequate management survey, which we have never had. While a survey of UNHCR will be made, particularly in relation to the upgrading problem, the Office is doing so well at present that it will not be on the priority list. We shall however continue to work for this. Although upgradings may be deserved, the present budgetary policy of the United Nations is, as you know, very restrictive, and even with the support of a management survey, taking into account the mood of the Advisory Committee, and the fact that governments have placed a ceiling on expenditure, we should not expect to achieve too much at the present time.

I hope that I am right in saying that the working conditions generally at Headquarters have improved. I recall, a year or two ago, the work load, or the way in which we tackled it, imposed many extra working hours on a number of you, and some people could not go on home leave. I believe that the situation is better in this respect. We still have the problem of lack of space, and you have been asked to show understanding about this much too long. Our Legal Division still has to move every year, Resettlement and Public Information remain isolated in Villa Horngacher, and people still do not have adequate space to work. This is a general complaint in Geneva. We hope, at the end of this year, or the beginning of next, that we shall move into the new building, where we have guarantees of adequate space on the 7th floor. Until that time we shall just have to continue to be patient.

In conclusion, I think the relationship between Headquarters and the field is perennial problem in any organization, international or private. Foreign Ministries invariably have misunderstandings with their ambassadors, and missions abroad always think that the Foreign Ministry does not understand their problems. When you are in the field you tend to criticize Headquarters - when you are at Headquarters you expect the field to do better. I am convinced that the problem can be solved only through an effective desk system, and no one has suggested an alternative solution. We should also endeavour to have representatives in the field who can exercise sound independent political judgement and take decisions without always referring them to Headquarters. The country desks must be stronger, and it seems to me that everybody has a role to play here. The question of hierarchy should not be so important that people can express their point of view, or contribute new ideas only according to their grade or their position within the desk. If we really want to back up our representatives in the field, and if we are to be judged, as I believe we are, by our work in the field, not only for individual cases, but also in terms of the programme, and in terms of relations between our branch offices and the governments to which they are accredited, the country desks must produce quick answers and give full support to the representatives. The desk officers must be fully informed and know every detail about the areas for which they are responsible. They should be able to follow developments in the political, economic and social areas in these countries, and this can only be done through their own initiative. This information cannot come from the field, because the representatives in the field have already enough to do with their daily wok. I therefore appeal to all of you to help me to strengthen the efficiency of the country desks.

I think this is also true of protection. I have stressed the recognition which governments have given us by acceding to international instruments such as the Convention and the Protocol, but this means nothing if protection cannot be implemented in the field. This can be done only if our representatives have the necessary support from the Legal Division at Headquarters. Senior colleagues of course go on mission, but a mission, by definition, lasts a short time, after which the representative is again alone with the daily problems, both as regards protection and the programme.

I know that many of the younger members of our staff, some who have come back from the field, others who are here, who have perhaps been recruited recently, may sometimes feel that their potential is not fully utilized. This is normal, and is I think easier to solve in a small office than in a big one. We are fortunate enough in UNHCR to be relatively small in terms of the number of staff at Headquarters. There are, I think, very few offices in the United Nations where the staff know each other as well as we do. In organizations such as FAO in Rome and UNESCO in Paris, people can work in the same building for ten years without meeting, but this is not the case here. This should make it easier for people who have something to contribute. It seems to me that here also we should not be too concerned with problems of hierarchy. If people have good new ideas, these ideas should be expressed. It is difficult for me to receive people to talk about these things, but it seems to me that the person himself, if he has something to contribute, must make it known so that it can be considered. Hierarchy should not be used as an excuse which people give themselves for not having succeeded as they had hoped. Bearing this in mind, I have decided to call upon some of you, in a very informal way, depending on the type of problems on which I want clarification, to ask you to contribute to specific areas which should be explored more fully. My aim is to create a kind of informal brain trust or nerve centre, and, occasionally, I might so call upon staff members back from the field, who have had specific experience in some area, who have come from a country about which we need information in depth, to contribute, either alone, or as a team, towards the solution of a specific problem. Do not therefore be surprised this year if some of you are given an assignment to contribute towards my policy on a specific issue. We all, I believe, have a very heavy work load, in particular senior staff members, and many of us do not have time to consider the deep consequences or philosophy of policy questions. The day to day routine often prevents us from assessing the full significance of entering a new refugee situation. It prevents us, before we accept a government's request for a programme, from studying the matter in depth from the political, sociological, and environmental point of view. These matters cannot be closely studied by people who already have their hands full, who travel a lot or who are busy with the daily management of the office. This is the kind of situation in which I think young talent will be able to contribute a great deal, and I shall certainly take full advantage of this in 1971.

I should like to end with an expression of gratitude to all of you, not only those at Headquarters but also those in the field for your performance and your work. The Office is only as good as its staff, and I believe that we have reason to be proud.

We have reached a very satisfactory point in our performance as a humanitarian organization of the United Nations, judging by the way in which governments give us their support, by the unanimous vote of the General Assembly, and by the financial situation. We have earned a good reputation. It is very important for all of you to realize that, when you have reached such a point, you cannot go very much higher, and may begin to go down if you are not careful. We must ensure that we remain at this level, and continue to perform in such a way as to maintain the high standards which the international community expects from UNHCR.