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Speech by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 14 October 2000

Speeches and statements

Speech by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 14 October 2000

14 October 2000
Humanitarian Action in Changing TimesChallenges of the Post-Cold War PeriodUNHCR's Future Directions

President Shim Yoon-Chong,
Colleagues of Sungkyunkwan University,
Dear Students,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking President Shim and Sungkyunkwan University for the great privilege of conferring an honorary degree. I feel especially honoured, knowing how deep respect for higher learning runs in Korea's rich culture.

I would also like to express again my profound gratitude to the Seoul Peace Prize Cultural Foundation for selecting me as this year's Peace Prize recipient. I am pleased to announce that the prize money has been sent to the Refugee Education Trust, which is being established as a lasting legacy of UNHCR's 50th anniversary. It will represent the first major donation to this important initiative.

I accept these personal honours knowing that they are also a recognition of the role that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) plays in ensuring protection and seeking solutions for refugees and uprooted people world-wide.

I would like to speak to you about UNHCR's fifty years on the humanitarian frontlines, the challenges facing my Office today around the world and the most important global issues for future action. My hope is that you will better understand the complexity of our mission, its relevance to the Republic of Korea and the importance of the support all of you can lend to our work.

Humanitarian Action in Changing Times

Refugee movements are indicative of a world in turmoil - rife with humanitarian crises. Indeed, the first High Commissioner for Refugees was appointed more than seventy years ago by the League of Nations at a time when Europe was still reeling from the destruction of the First World War, the disintegration of empires and the effects of the Russian revolution. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations was confronted with a similar tragedy of exile in a Europe divided by the iron curtain. This led to the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in December 1950.

Most refugees at that time were fleeing from totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Viewed as victims of persecution, they were readily accepted and integrated in the Western democracies. This comfortable convergence between humanitarian commitments and political objectives eased UNHCR's task of developing adequate legal structures for the protection and integration of refugees in countries of asylum.

By the early 1960s, refugee movements had changed in nature. The prevailing pattern started to be the large-scale exodus, as the process of decolonisation took its human toll, mainly on the African continent. There was strong solidarity for those fleeing the effects of national liberation wars and the large numbers of refugees who poured out of Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for instance, were hospitably received in neighbouring countries. International assistance was provided through UNHCR, and eventually UNHCR helped refugees return home when their countries gained independence.

The situation worsened dramatically in the following two decades as Cold War rivalries were played out in a polarised and heavily armed Third World, exacerbating tensions and leading to regional or internal conflicts. These wars produced displaced persons on an unprecedented scale in and out of Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Angola and Afghanistan, as well as in the regions of Indochina, and Central America. The refugee population, which had been around eight million at the end of the 1970s, reached 17 million by 1991.

Most of the refugees were not fleeing political persecution as much as violence, conflict and insecurity, fuelled by repression, poverty, recurrent famine and environmental degradation. The paralysis of inter-state relations that marked the Cold War period impeded any resolution of these conflicts. Consequently, millions of refugees continued to stagnate in over-crowded camps in countries that had no capacity to absorb these growing numbers. With little scope for either repatriating refugees to their countries of origin or integrating them in the countries of asylum, the best that UNHCR could do in most cases was to provide humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs.

Challenges of the Post-Cold War Period

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, opening up new opportunities for peace in many areas of the world. In Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique, as well as in Central America, UNHCR helped millions of refugees to return home. Also, many refugees started new lives through resettlement to other countries. The Republic of Korea played an important role in the lives of some 2000 Vietnamese refugees, by providing them with temporary stay under the Comprehensive Plan of Action until they could find permanent homes.

The end of the Cold War, however, also brought new and more complex patterns of conflict. Wars increasingly became internal struggles among ethnic, social, political groupings of the same state. Some, like in the Balkans, or in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, were particularly violent and destructive, but they were also so complex that traditional conflict resolution mechanisms were inadequate to address their root causes.

And the graver the conflict, the more dramatic were the humanitarian tragedies that resulted. Think of the over four million people uprooted at the peak of the Bosnian war, for example; or of the more than one million Rwandans pouring across the Zairian border in just four days in 1994; or the 850,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who streamed out of Kosovo in just a few weeks. As for the Albanians, they flooded back home with equal speed when Serbia withdrew its forces from the province.

These are the types of conflicts and of refugee crises that prevail today. And the situations which I have mentioned - exceptional as they may have been - indicate in a dramatic manner that humanitarian action alone cannot resolve fundamental social, economic and political problems. I hope that in due course, from the turmoil of this post-Cold War period of transition, a more effective approach will arise through the establishment of reliable conflict resolution mechanisms and bring greater stability. The crux of the matter, however, is that such processes are eminently political: humanitarian response can cure the symptoms of conflicts, but cannot tackle the root causes.

UNHCR's Future Directions

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You may then ask, what is the role of UNHCR? What are the concrete actions to be taken to overcome the challenges we are facing today? I would like to make three points. And I trust that - with Korea's own experience with conflict and human displacement, as well as your hopes for a peaceful and prosperous future - you will understand and relate to these problems.

First, we must uphold the important principle of asylum for refugees. Clearly, instability and conflict continue in many parts of the world. More persecution and human rights violations, more wars and violence against civilians are likely to occur, at least for some time. As a consequence, it is easy to foresee that more people will be forced to flee their homes. People in flight need protection - and the institution of asylum is the most important refugee protection instrument at the disposal of the international community.

The complexity of population movements is placing the concept and practice of asylum in an ambiguous position. Frequently, economic migrants resort to asylum because this is their only way to remain and obtain employment - both in industrialised countries and also, increasingly, in the developing world. But this blurs the picture, and genuine refugees are often identified with illegal immigrants. They are seen as intruders whose goal is to take away jobs and profit from an undeserved share of social welfare.

Yet, refugees fleeing conflict and persecution have legitimate claims. They harbour real fears that if they were to be sent back, they would be jailed or killed. Very often they are severely traumatised, having suffered or witnessed terrible acts of physical and psychological violence. In these cases, literally, giving them asylum may be the only way to save their lives.

My second point is that, having affirmed the importance of asylum, we must look at refugee problems in a broader context. During the Cold War, when refugees crossed ideological and not just political borders, it was relatively simple to recognise and treat them as a special category of people in need of international protection and assistance until such time as they could return home or be integrated in a host country.

But the global situation today is much more complex. Refugees are mixed together with millions of internally displaced people uprooted within their own countries. In Liberia, for example, Sierra Leonean refugees live alongside returning Liberian refugees, displaced Liberians and war-affected people who have managed to remain in their own homes.

Moreover, as in Eastern Congo and more recently in West Timor, the tragic consequences follow when refugees are left together with military and militia elements. Similar trends are emerging in West Africa where innocent civilians are threatened by perpetrators of violence. To bring law and order to refugee camps and settlements, I have advocated looking to a "ladder of options" between the extremes of fully fledged peacekeeping on the one hand, and the absence of any security measures on the other. The concept remains valid but now we must move forward with implementation. Our objective is to operationalise "medium" options, such as the deployment of international civilian monitors of police, with a view to strengthen local law enforcement capacity. In parallel, we must forward decisively the safety of our staff. We need to be next to the refugees to protect them but we must keep the staff safe, working in often very dangerous places.

The last of my three points is extremely important. It concerns the urgent necessity to assist communities affected and divided by conflict to rebuild their lives together in a spirit of coexistence. Promoting coexistence and, eventually, reconciliation is an increasingly important area of UNHCR's work with refugees in many parts of the world

Most refugee movements today are caused by conflict. And contemporary conflicts are - mostly - of an internal, inter-communal nature. When fighting ends and repatriation becomes possible, refugees very often return to live with the very people they fought against - from Bosnia to Rwanda and from Liberia to East Timor, this is the dynamic that prevails in most large returnee situations. I could describe to you many situations in which UNHCR is struggling not with a refugee crisis, but returnee crisis - almost a contradiction in terms!

Reconstruction in situations of refugee return is, therefore, more than just rebuilding houses, roads, and factories - it also means rebuilding communities, and restoring the complex web of social, economic and psychological relations destroyed by war and exile. Unless this is achieved, no amount of material reconstruction will be sufficient to eliminate the causes of conflict. In places where this has been at least partly achieved - in many countries of Central America, or in Mozambique, for example - inter-communal tensions have eased.

If granting refugee asylum is the responsibility of states, and addressing problems causing refugee crises, such as conflict and poverty, is the task of political actors and developmental organisations, a crucial role in helping people coexist can be played by humanitarian agencies, and especially grassroots groups.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have tried to give you a broad picture of the challenges UNHCR has faced historically, those confronting us today and of the directions in which we should move in the future to resolve refugee problems worldwide. As I stated earlier, ensuring asylum, maintaining security in refugee cams and settlements, and promoting co-existence and reconciliation in post conflict situations are the major challenges we face today.

UNHCR will mark its 50th anniversary in December this year. But our longevity is no cause for celebration. UNHCR remains necessary and has grown because persecution and conflict force ever-greater numbers of people to flee their homes. So in our anniversary year, we are not celebrating UNHCR but rather refugees - their courage, their determination and their capacity for survival against all odds.

Protecting refugees and finding solutions for their problems is a shared responsibility. The Republic of Korea recently stepped forward and assumed new responsibilities for global refugee affairs by becoming a member of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee at its 51st session earlier this month. I very much welcome this greater engagement and look forward to the Korean Government's active participation in our ongoing efforts to revitalise the international refugee protection regime.

But refugees and UNHCR need support not only from states, but also and particularly from civil society - from academics, students, business people and the public. Your understanding and compassion for the plight of refugees is ultimately the foundation for our work - both globally and here in Korea.

Thank you.