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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the "Face to Face" Luncheon, Carnegie Endowment, Washington, D.C., 22 May 1998

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the "Face to Face" Luncheon, Carnegie Endowment, Washington, D.C., 22 May 1998

22 May 1998

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak at the Carnegie Endowment. I am completing today a week of discussions and exchanges, here in Washington, on the current problems my Office is facing, and on the future of refugee work. As always, these useful conversations have prompted me to reflect more broadly on humanitarian matters. I hope I can take this opportunity - being among friends, and being among thinkers and policy-makers - to share some of my thoughts with you. The events of the last few years - especially in the former Yugoslavia and in Central Africa - have posed some formidable challenges to the concept of humanitarian action. Despite efforts to prevent crises - as in Kosovo, for example - instances in which my Office will be requested to intervene will occur again - as in West Africa, where the number of Sierra Leonean refugees fleeing horrific violence in their country has swollen to half a million. We need to develop some new thinking if past mistakes are to be avoided. And as I always say, we do think - but we must think while we run. Let me therefore ask for your help to develop new concepts and ideas - I will offer you some food for thought, just to get the discussion going.

That the primary objective of humanitarian action is to save lives is a widely accepted, almost tautological statement. However, hard questions are being asked about humanitarian operations in the 1990s. Some of these questions grow from the perception that humanitarian efforts have come too little and too late, or have missed their intended targets, or have caused more harm by unwittingly prolonging war. We know that the reality is different. We know that humanitarian efforts have too often been left to stand alone, disconnected from the political and diplomatic action needed to end the crises that have placed people in danger. A perception of failure, however, persists. My main question for you today is therefore the following: how can humanitarian actors together recapture the powerful idea of "rescuing people", in order to recapture the imagination and the whole-hearted support of those who sustain our efforts?

Saving lives is a moral impulse, not a legal doctrine. In the international context, that impulse must be translated into reality through a system in which states are still the major actors. Under international law the sovereign state is the protector and guarantor of its own people, and of its fundamental rights. In reality, states very often fail to fulfil this obligation. In this frequent cases, the international community - which means other states, with my Office acting as facilitator, setting norms, providing support, and often operating on the ground - has two basic ways to rescue those at risk: facilitate their escape from danger and protect them in exile, or intervene to end the danger in their home countries. Asylum or intervention? National governments have become more and more reluctant to open their doors to asylum-seekers, especially when large numbers of people are involved. In the richer countries, exclusion and control measures meant to counter illegal immigration are making it extremely difficult for people in genuine need of protection even to make a claim for asylum. Poor countries subject to refugee flows from neighbouring states have become increasingly unwilling to bear the economic, environmental, political, and security costs of hosting large refugee populations.

Despite, or rather because of the narrowing of the asylum option, we must continue to defend it. On the other hand, the intervention alternative is not promising. The prohibition against intervention in the internal affairs of a state remains very strong. The record of actual interventions to suppress violence and restore peaceful relations among peoples at war within their own societies is not encouraging. Intervention is costly, in financial, political and human terms. And so the will to intervene, even in the face of horrific violations of human rights, seems to have faded as the decade has progressed.

The number of people in need of rescue, however, has not diminished. In fact it has grown. I am very deeply concerned about the diminishing observance of humanitarian principles by governments in many parts of the world. Many of the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, have long traditions of hospitality toward refugees. But even in some of these, the past two years have seen refugees forcibly turned away from the borders of states where they sought asylum, or forced to return home to unsafe conditions. We have seen humanitarian agencies denied access to people in great need, governments unwilling to separate fighters from refugees, and wanton disregard for the civilian character of refugee camps.

In the industrialized countries, not only has access to asylum been restricted, but the treatment of those who seek asylum has become ever more harsh, even for children. It is distressing to see people who are seeking refuge shackled and jailed like common criminals. This is common practice now in this country, even for people who already established a credible fear of persecution when they arrived. The new US "expedited removal" procedures are of grave concern to my Office, not least because other countries look to the United States as a leader, and cite this country's restrictive practices when defending their own. We are not naive. We know that would-be immigrants do attempt to misuse asylum systems. But the answer to this is fast and fair asylum procedures, not measures that prevent or deter even the most deserving from seeking rescue here.

Despite this, the humanitarian impulse remains strong in public sentiment throughout the industrialized democracies. Increasingly, it finds expression through civil society. Ordinary people are often far out in front of their leaders in this respect. Most are not trying to be heroes, or even have the chance to be. But many are actively engaged as citizens and members of churches, advocacy groups, professional organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, political parties, neighbourhood or ethnic associations, and so forth, all promoting human rights and the humane treatement of people at risk.

As Dr. Jessica Mathews, the President of Carnegie, has pointed out, the growth in numbers and influence of non-governmental organizations is one of the defining phenomena of the post-Cold War period. This is however a tradition with historical roots, especially in the United States. Whenever humanitarian catastrophes occur, whenever the lives or fundamental rights of people have been in danger, private citizens in America have long been known to take the initiative to respond - in the face of indifference or resistance on the part of government.

This commitment of citizens, and their willingness to organize and support networks and institutions, have made non-governmental organizations a central pillar of humanitarian response. NGOs have exerted enormous influence on humanitarian doctrine in the post-War period. From the late 1960s, prominent NGOs increasingly have refused to accept the strictures of the Westphalian doctrine of non-intervention, if the consequences were to deny access to people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. During the Nigerian civil war, the French NGO Médecins Sans Frontières was formed as a protest against the Nigerian government's prohibition of humanitarian aid deliveries to Biafra (and other aid agencies' willingness to abide by that prohibition). This was a significant step beyond even the "duty to intervene" recognized in the Good Samaritan laws of the French legal code. Over time, states and intergovernmental organizations have come to accept the gradual erosion of the sovereignty barrier against humanitarian assistance. UN Security Council Resolution 688 of 1991, which opened the door of northern Iraq to humanitarian intervention, is probably the most explicit formulation to date. Humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR and - very prominently - many American NGOs, are frequently intervening to protect and rescue people whose lives are in acute danger, negotiating access sometimes with hostile governments, sometimes with rebel forces.

Humanitarian intervention alone, however, does not and cannot eliminate the root causes of the problems it addresses. In spite of its increasing "sophistication", if I may use this term, it remains a curative measure, unless it is part of a more comprehensive approach which includes, in particular, a political dimension. Operation Provide Comfort, in northern Iraq, gave rise to the illusion that the New World Order would include a New Humanitarian Order. We know, of course, how history challenged the overall concept of New World Order. Somalia, in particular, represented the failure of its humanitarian ambitions.

Former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes region of Central Africa defined the contours of this "humanitarian crisis" in the following years. In both, the combination of humanitarian intervention and political abstention was conspicuous. Proximity to the West, however, prompted the major powers, and the US in particular, to finally overcome this gap in the former Yugoslavia. Dayton, despite all its shortcomings, remains a very important model of comprehensive response to a crisis which is "humanitarian" in its effects, but not in its causes.

On the contrary, in Central Africa, the major powers did not see it as part of their responsibility (nor of their interests) to use force to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide, nor - later - to separate refugees from the military and political elements in the Zairean and Tanzanian camps, nor - in 1996 - to help humanitarian agencies rescue hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered in the rainforest during the Zairean civil conflict. Despite its repeated recognitions of its own multiple failures, and despite dramatic public apologies, the international community has yet to engage in an intensive and comprehensive effort to resolve the dangerous political and ethnic tensions that have caused the genocide, the controversial refugee exodus, and the Zaire conflict.

Academics and statesmen have often supported the idea of limiting humanitarian intervention only to situations in which vital national interests are at stake. I believe the Great Lakes region of Africa, like the former Yugoslavia, teaches us a vital lesson: that the national interest of a great power is broad and can in fact be undermined by too narrow a conception of what national interest is. "Good samaritanism" is often derided as a too-simple response to real-world complexity. In most of the circumstances today where intervention is needed to save lives, the actions of a single individual are indeed not likely to make much of a difference. Few find themselves in the position of a Wallenberg or a Schindler. Today's complex emergencies usually require large-scale relief programmes or military interventions. They require not individual acts of conscience but public outcry and political decisions. The resources involved will be collective ones - political will, tax dollars and national defense assets. Add to this that the issues surrounding any humanitarian crisis are rarely simple or obvious; in fact, they are usually complex and almost always subject to dispute.

Humanitarian action often involves agonizing dilemmas. In the former Yugoslavia, we faced excruciating choices: to be an accomplice to ethnic cleansing by helping persecuted groups flee their areas, or to refuse an involuntary complicity, but let these people be killed. In the former Eastern Zaire, the only choice we could give to refugees whom we could find in the rain forest was to either leave them at the mercy of killers, or help them return to Rwanda, to deeply divided, and sometimes hostile communities.

The complexities of humanitarian disasters dictate that, while the impulse to save people in danger may be simple, the act of rescue is not. Our actions may - in fact almost certainly will - have unintended consequences. At times, they may end up harming some of the very people they were intended to help. Humanitarians have often been charged with naivete, and worse - with allowing themselves to be manipulated by parties to a conflict. If the disasters of this decade have had any positive outcomes, dispelling this kind of naivete may be one of them. But it would be futile if naivete were replaced by cynicism or paralysis.

Humanitarianism has to be smart, effective as well as compassionate. This may mean at times confronting painful trade-offs between short-term and long-term goals. In my view, however, the presumption must be strongly in favour of helping people to survive - when choices are limited, as for Rwandans in the Zairean forest - in order that they may be able to make their own choices later. Because humanitarian organizations have developed considerable expertise in providing food, water, sanitation and shelter, saving lives at least offers the morality of a relatively sure option. As much as humanitarians must guard against over-reach, we should also guard against over-caution, and not be afraid to do what we can.

There are dangers in operating with an overly simplistic model. The parable of the Good Samaritan is just a parable. It is not a guide to operations. The victim in need of rescue is not often completely passive and helpless. Refugees and others who have been subject to violence and persecution have some responsibility for their own fates. Nevertheless, the passing stranger who saves a life and then moves on, asking nothing in return but leaving no continuing relationship, should not be devalued. A commitment to rescue does not preclude the political and diplomatic hard work that must go into bringing about peace, and then helping war-torn societies achieve reconstruction and reconciliation. In Central Africa, the awareness of having been abandoned by the international community has made governments suspicious and cynical in the face of current international efforts to engage in protection and human rights monitoring. This may eventually undo the humanitarian work of years, as we have seen in Somalia and, I fear, may be seeing in Cambodia.

We have long realized that most refugee crises have their origin in abuses of human rights, and we were greatly encouraged by the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many governments, however, support strong human rights positions, but do not seem to grasp the contradiction between that and a highly restrictive asylum policy, for example. Affirming the principles of asylum, putting those principles into consistent practice, and cooperating with other countries to do the same is perhaps the most important step that governments can take to help people in danger.

I am convinced that in order for the international community to be rescue-capable, as the military might say, a standing rapid police and/ or military deployment capability is urgently needed. This conviction is a product of my experience in dealing with the long-term instability, displacement and suffering following short, sharp, violent attacks on civilian populations. Génocidaires in Rwanda took less than three months to kill half a million people. Bosnia was effectively dismembered in a few short months. The current procedures for raising and equipping a multilateral force are simply too slow to be effective in the face of this kind of onslaught. Such a standby police or military capability should be equipped to protect civilians and support the delivery of assistance in extreme situations and, if necessary, to prevent armed elements from establishing themselves in refugee camps.

When President Clinton visited Kigali in February, he pledged that the United States would not stand by and allow genocide to be perpetrated. That commitment could be tested at any time. It is incumbent on everyone with a commitment to save the lives of people in danger, not just the President of a single country, to search for ways to fulfil this commitment, when it is needed. Individuals, private organizations, governments and international institutions will find that there is more than pure altruism in this effort - there is the prospect of a more stable and peaceful world.