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"Preparing for the Future: Knowledge in Action" - Opening Speech for the 1994-95 Academic Year at the Graduate Institute for International Studies, by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, 25 October 1994

Speeches and statements

"Preparing for the Future: Knowledge in Action" - Opening Speech for the 1994-95 Academic Year at the Graduate Institute for International Studies, by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, 25 October 1994

25 October 1994

I am delighted to address the Institute's opening meeting for the new academic year. Your hearts must be full of joy and expectations as you start a year of learning and adventure. I come from the old building across the lawn which also houses the Institute's library in the basement. As I walk in and out of the building, I always feel a pang of envy, as I think of you spending your day in the serenity of concentrated reading in the library. My own day is usually broken into bits and pieces by visitors, meetings, disturbing news and, the inevitable responsibility of having to make difficult decisions.

What I would like to discuss with you briefly today is how decision-making or policy-building binds knowledge with action. Or to take the euphemism of the building, how the thinking of the basement is linked with the activities of the top floors.

You probably know that your neighbour, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees was created by the United Nations General Assembly in 1951 to provide international protection and assistance to refugees and to find solutions to refugee problems. Then, there were one million refugees, mostly originating in Europe. Today, the global refugee population exceeds 20 million. From Rwanda to Russia, Guatemala to Georgia, from Burundi to Bosnia, in 109 countries across the globe, UNHCR is helping refugees, returnees and displaced persons, responding to their emergency needs for food, shelter and health, ensuring their protection as best as we can and assisting those who wish to return home.

Today, UNHCR, more than ever before, has to reach out to the community of research and thinking in order to cope with these enormous challenges. Why do we need to do so? The reason is not only because there are many more refugees than ever, nor because the refugee issue is on the international political and security agenda. It is primarily because the international context surrounding the refugee problem is in a transitory and turbulent state.

In the past, during the relatively stable international environment of the Cold War, the parameters of UNHCR's work were well-defined. Clear policies, principles and practice had developed, according to which we provided international protection and assistance to refugees in neighbouring countries of asylum. We helped them to seek integration in the host communities, particularly in Africa, and occasionally, as in the case of the Indo-Chinese refugees during the 1970s, helped to resettle them in third countries that extended helping hands. Sometimes, we were able to assist them to return home, for example when countries like Algeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Guinea-Bissau gained independence from their colonial rulers.

The end of the Cold War has dramatically changed that scenario, bringing both uncertainties as well as opportunities. When I speak of uncertainties, uppermost in my mind is the situation in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, where over two million people have fled to neighbouring countries to escape conflict and ethnic killings. In April, some 250,000 people crossed into Tanzania from Rwanda in the space of 26 hours. Some months later, within a week in July over a million people fled from Rwanda to Goma in Zaire. In one afternoon alone more than 150,000 persons crossed the border in a human river 25 kilometres long.

While new crises emerge in one part of the world, political settlements elsewhere are leading to the solution of some long standing refugee problems. As a result of the Paris Peace Accord of 23 October 1991, some 370,000 Cambodian refugees who had lived on the Thai border since 1979 were able to return home in time to participate in the elections that established the new Cambodian Government. It was my great pleasure to close the last of the Thai border camps on 30 March 1993, fifteen years after the first refugees sought sanctuary there. Similarly, the Peace Accord agreed in Rome on 4 October 1992 between FRELIMO and the RENAMO opened the prospects for the repatriation of some 1.5 million Mozambican refugees from six neighbouring countries. More than a million people have so far returned in what is undoubtedly the largest repatriation operation ever undertaken in Africa. With elections scheduled for 27 and 28 October, the birth of a new democratically-elected government will, I hope, accelerate the way towards national reconciliation and development.

If the availability of refugee solutions is determined by political settlements, their sustainability is dependent on socio-economic rehabilitation and the building of democratic institutions. While political accords concluded between a government and other parties undoubtedly facilitate the humanitarian solutions to refugee problems, the task of rebuilding the war-torn and poverty-stricken societies remains a formidable one. I visited Mozambique and the neighbouring countries earlier this year and can attest to the need for innovative thinking and courageous decision-making to overcome the enormous challenges.

Prospects for solutions to refugee problems remain remote in other parts of the world. I am referring particularly to the situations in Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, Liberia and Rwanda. Particularly in the case of Rwanda, there is a newly-established government in the country but the vanquished leaders and military of the former regime have fled to the neighbouring countries, together with some two million people. In spite of calls by the Government for the refugees to return, they seem hesitant because of the uncertain security situation at home and of the tight control of their community leaders in the camps. The United Nations, my Office and concerned Governments are searching for measures to solve the fate of nearly two million refugees, as well as to prevent the spread of conflict and unrest to the neighbouring countries.

As emergencies proliferate, the international community is searching for new ways to contain humanitarian crises quickly and decisively."Humanitarian intervention", "safe areas", "safe havens" are some of the ideas being widely debated.

Discussions over new solutions to humanitarian crises are matched by intense inquiries into preventive measures to avert humanitarian crises in the first place. Development of early warning systems has received much attention, especially in academic circles. Extensive examinations into the root causes of conflicts are also underway. Ethnic tensions and human rights abuses, political and economic restructuring, poverty and social inequities, population pressure and environmental degradation - these are all well-known factors which contribute in one way or another to social and economic unrest, political tension and perhaps even to deadly conflicts, which in turn lead to massive refugee flows. The challenge, however, is to specify the cause and effect of the various factors in given situations.

Today, refugees are often part of a much larger and complex movement of population globally. In many instances, particularly in the industrialized countries, refugees are mingled with other migrants who are moving, not in search of safety, but of better economic prospects. The needs of both groups must be met, but their differing needs demand different responses. Refugees are victims of conflicts, but there are other victims of conflicts, too, notably the internally displaced. Refugee problems can neither be prevented nor resolved unless the issue of the internally displaced is also tackled. Whether stranded in countries of asylum or displaced inside their own, the fate of the uprooted has become tangled with geopolitical realities. Population displacement, whether internal or international, has gone beyond the humanitarian domain to become a major political, security and socio-economic issue, affecting regional and global stability, as the crises in former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda have clearly shown.

Thus, international refugee studies are no longer confined to the traditional genre of sociological or legal examination of refugee groups. They are drawing the interests of scholars of collective security systems, transnational issues, peace studies, human rights, sovereignty and state responsibility, to cite a few examples. I welcome the trend. It is exciting for a political scientist to sit in a refugee organization and see the academic world move around it.

The expanding horizon of knowledge will, if properly tapped, certainly help strengthen the capacity of my office to plan and to develop policy. However, let me say very frankly that no amount of information on early warning, nor development of data bases nor delineation of root causes can, in themselves, lead to policy planning and action. While they certainly provide impetus for policy making, the latter is ultimately the result of judgement and choice. Policy decisions are based, on the one hand, on the specification of the causal relations among the myriad of information and events, and on the other hand, are related to the perceived mission and objectives of the organization. The personal experience and preferences of the policy maker are therefore of enormous relevance.

Particularly in an agency like UNHCR, the insight gained from field exposure and operations forms the most important basis for policy making. Institutional memories and collective values of an organization are of overriding relevance. Moreover, hindsight has the added advantage of presenting decisional outcomes after the passage of time. I think the study of history, more than any other discipline, should be recognized for the special insight that it provides to the understanding of human judgement and choice. I attach particular importance to proper records management of any organization. Well-established archives are not only treasured research sources for scholars, but assure credible institutional memory to successive generations of policy makers. UNHCR still has a long way to go in building its records and archives management. Indeed, one of my cherished aims is to leave the organization with proper archives.

As the international situation surrounding refugees rapidly changes, the institution must adapt to the new realities as well as adopt innovative approaches to confront them. Just as academic studies of refugees are attracting new disciplines, and cutting across them, so too, policy-making has taken on a more comprehensive facet. Finding solutions to refugee problems and promoting measures to prevent outflows require a comprehensive approach. Causes must be specifically linked to the desired effects. Varied components must be woven into an overall framework with a view to meeting the needs of the victims.

To explain what I mean about the challenge of developing such comprehensive strategies, let me give you an illustration: the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees.

The outflow from Vietnam began in 1979. For more than a decade, "boat people" fled Vietnam, were granted temporary asylum in camps in Southeast Asia and resettled in western countries. By the late 1980s, the exodus was still going on, although the situation inside the country had become somewhat more relaxed. It was evident that most of the "boat people" were economic migrants, not refugees, lured by prospects of resettlement abroad rather than persecution at home. Resettlement offers dwindled, and asylum-seekers were "pushed off" by increasingly reluctant asylum countries in the region.

For UNHCR the time seemed ripe for a change - for a more varied strategy which took account of the evolving political scene, the changing motives for departure and the different humanitarian needs. We began by negotiating with Vietnam a Memorandum of Understanding which allowed the safe return of asylum seekers. Then we sought a more comprehensive arrangement involving not only Vietnam but also the countries in the region and western countries. Eventually, in June 1989 the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees adopted the Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The objective was three-fold: firstly, to protect "genuine" refugees; secondly, to stop the flow of boat people out of Vietnam; and thirdly, to find a "humane" solution for non-refugees. Aimed at managing a mixed population of refugees and economic migrants, the CPA sought to reduce clandestine departures and accelerate orderly departures. It provided temporary refuge and access to all those arriving in first asylum countries, but established procedures for distinguishing refugees from non-refugees. Refugees would be resettled in third countries, mainly in the West, while non-refugees would be encouraged to return to Vietnam. Parallel to the CPA, and with UNHCR's assistance, the EC set up a limited assistance programme in Vietnam for those returning as well as those who might feel inclined to move.

One of the most controversial aspects of the CPA has been the concept of "screening" refugees from non-refugees, and international monitoring by UNHCR of the "screened out" persons who return to Vietnam. Vietnam has scrupulously observed the "guarantees" on safety of returnees, and has given UNHCR full and free access to monitor their well-being. In April this year, I paid an official visit to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and was deeply impressed by the extraordinary changes that have taken place in that country.

A side-product of the CPA has been mass information campaign conducted by UNHCR in Vietnam to discourage migrants from leaving Vietnam, which was so successful that it was re-produced, with modifications, in Albania, in conjunction with IOM.

The most significant success of the CPA has been to stop the exodus from Vietnam. Obviously, the growing sense of optimism and confidence which the Vietnamese people now hold for the future of their country has also been critical in stemming the human tide.

All parties showed a remarkable degree of cooperation and political will, without which the CPA could not have been adopted nor implemented. It is clear, though, that the dynamics of US/Vietnam relations dominated, and continues to dominate the CPA. The willingness of Vietnam to accept responsibility for its own citizens was key to the implementation of the CPA. It was undoubtedly influenced by Vietnam's desire to normalize relations with the western countries, primarily the United States. UNHCR played a pivotal role of "honest broker" in a highly charged political environment. The CPA became the catalyst for change in a situation which was "ripe" for change.

Like the CPA, but possibly in an even more far-reaching manner, UNHCR exploited the peace process in central America to launch a strategy to address the plight of the uprooted in a comprehensive manner. Humanitarian initiatives for refugees and the internally displaced were linked with socio-economic efforts in order to cement the peace-making and peace-building process in the region. In June this year we handed the initiative, called CIREFCA, to our sister agency, UNDP, to ensure the continuum from relief to development.

It is with the lessons of Southeast Asia and Central America in mind that my Office is looking for 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 UNHCR's involvement have grown from virtually zero to refugee protection, 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.

Piece-meal 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 regional conference. I see the conference as the vehicle for developing a comprehensive strategy of prevention, preparedness, protection and solutions with respect to population movements in the region. My Office is currently consulting with the governments in the CIS and Baltic States, and other interested governments and organizations. 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 political commitment of the governments of the region, based on which the international community can make its contribution.

In conclusion, let me say that UNHCR's work has evolved with the changing world. The new historical and social contexts have affected the nature of our work. Emergencies that we once described as unprecedented are becoming the norm. Traditional concepts of asylum and assistance are changing. More and more we find ourselves working in zones of conflict. Our budget and our staff have doubled in four years. Our offices are spread over 250 locations. As our mission takes on new dimensions, there is need for us to expand our own horizon of knowledge - not only to deepen our understanding but also, most importantly for an operational agency, to improve our action. Concurrently, I would like to encourage scholars from a wide variety of disciplines to engage in a deeper analysis of the changes that are revolutionizing the humanitarian regime. Herein lies the relationship between the library in the basement of the Centre William Rappard, and the floors above.

As you embark on a new academic year, I invite you to explore this new horizon of intellectual challenge.