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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 21 November 1963

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 21 November 1963

21 November 1963

Mr. Chairman,

The year now drawing to a close has once again been an important year for the High Commissioner's Office in respects. The Office is now completing the last year of the term which expires on 31 December 1963, and is preparing to enter upon the new five-year term for which it was continued by the General Assembly in its resolution 1783 (XVII).

This formal aspect of our work provides the background for a trend in our activities which has already been in evidence for several years and which has recently become still more marked. I refer to the simultaneous efforts which my Office has been making to settle the "old" refugee problems in Europe and to face new refugee situations in other parts of the world, mainly in Africa.

My Office has been trying to carry - out these diverse tasks in accordance with the terms of its Statute, as it has been interpreted and supplemented in the various resolutions subsequently adopted by the General Assembly. These principles of on action, to which I intend to refer later, have, I think, proved their worth in the light both of the results achieved and of our day-to-day experience; and this confirms my belief that the General Assembly has provided the High Commissioner with the directives that he needs for the satisfactory performance of his role of making and keeping the mechanism of international solidarity on behalf of refugees as efficient as possible, with the indispensable support of the Governments concerned.

The report before you (A/5511/Rev.1 and Add.1) gives a detailed description of the work of the High Commissioner's Office in the past year, and in this opening statement in your discussion I will therefore confine myself to the essential aspects of its work. This will also give me an opportunity of providing the General Assembly with some additional information on the period since my report was drafted.

The international protection of refugees, effected in close collaboration with the Governments of their countries of residence, is the basic task of the High Commissioner's Office. In a large number of countries the concept of the refugee has been recognized by the accession of the States concerned to international instruments affecting refugees and has been embodied in an ever-increasing number of domestic laws and regulations. The concept of "refugee law", which began to develop in a few countries between the two World Wars, has been affirmed and consolidated to a remarkable extent in recent years.

This development, I should say, is by no means of purely academic interest. On this contrary, it is absolutely essential to the long-term solution of the refugee problem, in that it provides the necessary conditions for the re-establishment of refugees in the countries which receive them. Our work on behalf of the "old" refugees - particularly in Europe but in other countries too - has made considerable strides in the past year, not only as a result of the economic and social rehabilitation programmes, with which you are familiar and to which I shall be referring again later, but also because of this institutional consolidation of the work of international protection, and particularly of the legal protection of refugees.

I am gratified to find that my Office can count on the continued interest of Governments in this matter, as was clear from the statements made, for instance, in the discussion of the report before you today during the thirty-sixth session of the Economic and Social Council.

Besides the mandate of my Office, the main instrument for the international protection of refugees is the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which was signed at Geneva on 28 July 1951. Since the seventeenth session of the General Assembly, six new States (Algeria, Burundi, Cyprus, Congo (Brazzaville), Ghana and Senegal) have acceded to the Convention, bringing the number of States parties to forty-two. The fact that the latest States to accede to the 1951 Convention have only recently joined the family of nations as sovereign States and that most of them are countries of Africa where new refugee problems have arisen in increasing numbers, is evidence of' this trend towards universality, which is one of the main features of the present development of international activities on behalf of refugees.

On the other hand, in view of the rapid development of our international commodity, some provisions of conventions, even of those which are relatively recent, gradually tend to lose their relevance as new circumstances arise. For instance, Mary individuals who are covered by the Statute of the High Commissioner's Office are not formally covered by the Convention, since they became refugees as a result of events which occurred after 1 January 1951. In existing circumstances, therefore, Recommendation E of the Final Act of the Conference of Plenipotentiaries, July 1951, that States grant these refugees the treatment for which the Convention provides, is becoming increasingly important.

In carrying out its mission of international protection, my Office is collaborating closely rot on y with Governments but also with regional inter-governmental organizations. The latter have already recognized the need for extending to refugees certain regional regulations, particularly on the subject of wage-earning employment. I hone that, the help of the Governments concerned, this development will continue in future, as it should make a further contribution to the economic wad social integration of refugees residing in the regions concerned.

With regard to the close collaboration between my Office and national administrations, I should like to take this opportunity of assuring Governments which require assistance of a technical nature from my Office in applying the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and in making the necessary arrangements for the protection of refugee in general, that the High Commissioner is always ready to provided the help they need.

In discussing the subject of the international protection of refugees, I must mention the importance I attach to the work being done by the United Nations, and particularly by the Third Committee, in drafting a declaration on the right of asylum. For the refugee, the possibility of obtaining asylum, and particularly the principle that he cannot be returned to his country of origin against his will, dominates any other provisions which have been, or may be, adopted at the national or international level. I should therefore like to express the hope here that the General Assembly find it possible to adopt a declaration containing a positive and clear-cut statement of a principle which is now widely practiced by States but has not yet been precisely formulated in any intergovernmental instrument.

One activity which is closely connected with my Office's work on the protection of refugees is the implementation of the Agreement concluded on 5 October 1960 between the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany and UNHCR concerning the indemnification of refugees persecuted by the national socialist regime on account of their nationality. Considerable progress has been made in the past year in administering the sum of 45 million DM which was placed at the disposal of Office. By the end of October 1963, decisions had been taken on nearly three-quarters of the approximately 40,000 applications filed. In the cases on which it has been possible to reach a positive decision, some 9,500 in all, considerable sums have in fact already been paid out.

With regard to the programmes of assistance for refugees in Europe, my Office is engaged in a number of closely related and complementary tasks. In the first place, with effective help from Governments and voluntary organizations, we are on the way to completing the programme on behalf of the "old" refugees, and particularly the programme on behalf of refugees in camps, which has been a major concern of the High Commissioner's Office for many years. The problem of the camps has virtually been settled in Austria and Greece; and it has only a residual character in Italy and Germany where, however, for reasons which are mainly technical, it will be some time before a final settlement can be reached.

Very encouraging progress has also been made with the programme on behalf of "old" refugees outside camps. The situation here differs somewhat from country to country, and I would refer you to the details contained in my written report. In general, however, and although the various measures contemplated cannot be completed before 1965, a major advance has been made.

In 1963, the High Commissioner's Office for the first time started a new "Complementary Assistance Programme", involving an expenditure of $1.4 millions. This complementary assistance programme is designed to help refugees in Europe who, owing to the nature of their cases, are not covered by the "programme for the completion of major aid projects", and also to give the High Commissioner the necessary facilities for meeting the needs of new groups of refugees, particularly in Africa.

With regard to 1964, I recently submitted to the tenth session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme a "programme for 1964" with a financial target of $2.6 millions.

As with all the programmes in which the High Commissioner's Office takes part, the figures I have just quoted only give an incomplete picture of their real scope. It is not the function of the High Commissioner's Office to take the place of Governments and the large relief agencies, and assume sole financial responsibility - which is of ten considerable - for the measures which have to be taken on behalf of refugees. In the future even more than as in the past, as the general standard of living rises and the resources available to Governments increase, the task of my Office will be rather to encourage Governments and large private organizations to undertake the necessary assistance programmes, and it will give this encouragement both by providing the general assistance which an organization specially equipped to deal with refugee problems can give and also by supplying initial or additional financial resources to get the machinery of assistance in motion or prevent it from coming to a halt. I think that Governments in particular are now more than ever conscious of important responsibilities they have towards refugees living in their territories and I am happy to note the excellent collaboration which exists between various national administrations and the High Commissioner's Office. As a result, refugees can now benefit from more extensive measures of assistance intended for particular categories of the population regardless of their origin and it is possible to prepare and carry out special programmes which make allowances for the particular circumstances of refugees.

I should like to emphasize the importance of the material assistance programme of the High Commissioner's Office - whatever the financial target may be for a given year - as a vital instrument without which my Office might be ineffective. This view is based on several years' experience. Material assistance programmes did not form part of the work of my Office until same time - albeit a relatively short time - after it was established; under the pressure of events, these programmes have considerably expanded with the result that the work of my Office has sometimes been looked at under the separate headings of protection and material assistance. But I do not think this distinction between protection and assistance is in keeping either with the spirit of the mandate which the General Assembly has given to the High Commissioner or with the day-to-day realities of our work or indeed with the needs of the refugees themselves. The work of the High Commissioner is an organic whole in which legal protection and material assistance complement one another, although in a given situation one of these functions may become more important than the other.

It was in the light of these considerations, namely, the indispensability and complementary nature of the material assistance functions of the High Commissioner's Office, that the programme for 1964 has been drawn up. These considerations are reflected inter alia in the total figure for the 1964 programme. This total figure has been fixed on the basis of an already relatively long experience of what I might describe as the regular funds of our programme, aid on the assumption that such a stabilization - which is, of course, subject to any major developments which may occur during the year - will also facilitate the task of Governments which contribute to the activities of the High commissioner's Office.

In drawing up the programme of my Office for 1964, I took into account the continuing nature of the activities to be carried out on behalf of the European refugees. These activities are still needed because of the existence in Europe of a considerable number of persons with refugee status, and also because there is each year an influx of new refugees. The Governments of several countries which are members of the Executive Committee rightly emphasized at its last session that although most of the problems relating to the "old" refugees in Europe are on the way to solution, the refugee problem in Europe continues to exist and will in the years to come still require the constant attention of the body which the United Nations established for this purpose.

Generally speaking, the programmes of the High Commissioner's Office provide for the three types of permanent solution specified in the Statute of my Office, namely, voluntary repatriation, integration in the economic and social life of the host country, or if necessary, emigration and re-establishment in another country of final settlement.

So far as repatriation is concerned, numerous cases of voluntary repatriation were recorded in 1963, as in previous years, and here I am referring both to the new groups of refugees and to "old" refugees. Statistics on this point are somewhat unreliable and are in general lower than the actual figures. I would like to add that the High Commissioner, acting in accordance with his Statute, has facilitated the voluntary repatriation of refugees in all cases in which his assistance was requested and has even found it possible to defray repatriation costs in certain cases.

As regards the resettlement of refugees in other countries with a view to their establishment in the economic and social life of the country, either directly or after rehabilitation or - in the case of aged and sick refugees - with a view to their placement in suitable institutions not available in their country of present residence, this specific aspect of our work mainly concerns the "old" refugees, principally in Europe, in other countries in the Mediterranean area and in the Far East. The persistent and continuous efforts of my Office, in co-operation with Governments and other public and private organizations, among which I should like to mention in particular the Inter-governmental Committee for European Migration, have substantially reduced the number of "old" refugees to be resettled in other countries. According to figures available on 30 June 1963, the total number of such refugees did not exceed some 8,300. My Office has made a special effort to solve the difficult problem of seriously handicapped refugees, and I should like to take this opportunity once again to express my gratitude to the many Governments and voluntary organizations which have already agreed to accept over 500 refugees in this category out of a total of some 1,000 persons on whose behalf this special effort is being made. The measures for the resettlement of refugees, which will be continued under our programme, will not only have to cover cases which have already been identified but will also have to take into account the need to resettle in other countries some of the refugees who arrive each year in countries of first asylum.

The ability of my Office to undertake the 1963 programmes and, in particular, to secure pledges covering the bulk of the funds necessary to finance the "programme for the completion of major aid projects" is largely due to the special contributions made to the High Commissioner's Office by a large number of Governments in response to my urgent appeal. I should also like to take this opportunity to thank them once again for their action. I should similarly like to thank the Council of Europe which, both in 1962 and 1963, supported my approach to the Governments of its member countries by adopting resolutions whose effectiveness has been demonstrated by their results.

Although all the funds required have not as yet been collected, and although substantial efforts are still called for, I could nevertheless like to express the hope, and do so with some degree of confidence, that the High Commissioner's Office will eventually achieve the target of $6.8 million set by the Executive Committee for voluntary contributions for the 1963 programmes.

In addition to approaching Governments, my Office has done everything possible to keep alive public interest in the refugee problem and to secure the maximum financial contributions from the private sector. The most spectacular success in this field, I think, has been the world-wide sale of the "All Star Festival" gramophone record. As a result of the co-operation of the record industry and trade, of a very large number of private of a galaxy of well-known singers, and of a very large number of private organizations and government administrations, over a million copies of the record have been sold throughout the world and have so far brought in about a million dollars for the benefit of refugees.

Although I cannot touch on all the marry voluntary efforts made in different countries of the world, I should like in this connexion to refer to the fund-raising campaign recently organized in the Netherlands. The representative of that country will no doubt be able to give us more in formation on that subject.

Simultaneously with its work for the European refugees, the High Commissioner's Office has continued its efforts to deal with new refugee problems caused by events by events in other countries of the world, and particularly in Africa.

I already reported to the General Assembly last year that the problem of Algerian refugees in Morocco and Tunisia had been satisfactorily settled. Since their repatriation these refugees have been provided with assistance, co-ordinated on an international basis by the League of Red Cross Societies, which was so closely associated in the work of helping these refugees during the period when they were outside their own country. The generous support received from Governments even provided the High Commissioner with an opportunity to furnish, under the terms of resolution 1672 (XVI), considerable financial assistance to the Algerian Government, the League of Red Cross Societies and other voluntary organizations, in order to supplement their own resources.

Another refugee problem was solved during 1963, namely, the problem of refugees in Togo. The Government of Togo drew my attention to this refugee problem in September 1961, A re-settlement programme was undertaken with the help of Governments and various organizations, in particular the League of Red Cross Societies. As described in detail in my written report, assistance to the refugees in Togo came to an end in March 1963, after almost 4,000 persons had been integrated into the local economy. However, the Deputy High Commissioner's recent visit to Togo disclosed the fact that a small number of refugees, most of whom were living in urban areas, were in difficult circumstances. We are studying the situation with a view to deciding whether we should add what I might call a postscript to a chapter of the recent history of our Office, a chapter which, generally speaking, we can certainly consider a success.

With respect to the refugees from Angola in the Republic of the Congo (Leopoldville), I indicated in my statement last year that I regarded as completed the work my Office undertook on behalf of some 150,000 refugees from Angola who arrived in 1961. I also mentioned the arrival of several thousand new refugees for whom I said that supplementary measures might be necessary. Indeed, during 1963 my Office made various grants to voluntary organizations as well as to the Congolese Red Cross, to enable them to carry out a number of new projects on behalf of the refugees from Angola. The amounts distributed by my Office were in addition to the much larger sums provided by the organizations which assumed responsibility for carrying out the projects. It became evident, however, that the problem of the Angolan refugees could not be dissociated from the economic and social situation of all the inhabitants of that area of the Republic of the Congo. In these circumstances, the problem is less a matter for my Office than for the Government directly concerned, as well as for ONUC, the specialized agencies and the large private relief agencies, whose attention was drawn to this question in the report I prepared in January, 1963, for the member States of the Executive Committee and for other governments and organizations (document A/AC.96/189).

The main refugee problem in Africa at present being dealt with by the assistance programmes of my Office is, however, still the problem of the refugees from Rwanda in Burundi, the Republic of the Congo (Leopoldville), Uganda and Tanganyika. According to the most recent estimates, there are over 130,000 of these refugees.

The geographical situation of this group of refugees and the urgent nature of the problems which their presence raises and will continue to raise in the near future led no to establish a regional mission in Africa with headquarters at Bujumbura the capital of Burundi, while retaining the representatives of the High Commissioner's Office at Leopoldville and in Kivu Province. In the same connection, and in order to strengthen co-operation with the African Governments, the Deputy High Commissioner recently visited several African countries, where he was received by the Heads of State and Government and where he discussed with the competent authorities the various refugee problems confronting the African countries.

The work of assisting the refugees from Rwanda has continued without interruption and on a large scale within the framework of the now firmly established machinery for co-operation between Governments, the League of Red Cross Societies, other large relief agencies and the High Commissioner's Office. In addition to emergency assistance to the refugees, attention has been given to rural settlement projects, including the bringing of new land under cultivation, the establishment of primary schools and dispensaries, and various auxiliary measures. Apart from the sum of over $500,000 allocated in 1962, my Office made allocations of over $700,000 for the benefit of refugees from Rwanda in 1963. Much larger sums have also been made available for dealing with this problem by the Governments directly concerned, by other Governments under bilateral arrangements, as well as by voluntary organizations. Considerable progress in the local settlement of these refugees has been made in Uganda. In the other countries, the programme is in the process of execution. It is clear that in this case, as indeed in all other cases, the success of our work depends very largely on co-operation with Governments and the competent local authorities, and particularly on the maintenance of public order in the region in which the refugees are living. I do not wish to conceal from you in this connection that the situation which at present appears to exist in North Kivu Province is causing us serious concern.

Other new refugee problems have also been drawn to the attention of my Office, problems caused by the historical changes at present taking place on the African continent. Complex developments are occurring on that continent; phenomena are making their appearance which have their origin in a number of historical factors and each must be examined in the light of its own special characteristics. I am following all these developments closely and with interest, in order to obtain an accurate knowledge of the situation. I am also maintaining the necessary contacts in order to determine the responsibilities that may devolve upon me as well as possibilities of useful co-operation.

Perhaps the time has come to refer again to some of the principles which my Office follows when - as has so often happened in recent years - it has had to face new refugee situations. It is hardly necessary for me to say that any action by my Office is strictly humanitarian and non-political in character. Any steps which the High Commissioner may take are therefore independent of the events which have given rise to this or that refugee problem, and are merely part of the machinery of international solidarity which has - I think - already proved its worth in Europe, where the activities of my Office were concentrated during the first years of its mandate. This machinery is now beginning to take shape on other continents, and particularly in Africa, as I was saying just now. I am glad to note in this connection that the understanding of the humanitarian character of my Office's activities has for some time been coming increasingly profound as well as increasingly widespread; and I hope that this understanding - which is essential if the High commissioner's work is to succeed - will continue to gain ground. If the High Commissioner's efforts to make conditions of asylum less precarious and to ensure the welfare of refugees are to be fully successful, the first essential is that all countries of asylum should take an interest in these efforts and should, in a generously humanitarian spirit, display an understanding of the problems of refugees "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status", to use the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In order to warrant concerted relief action by the international community, of which my Office is in this case the agent, a new refugee situation must of course be of a certain scope. Further, no action by the High Commissioner's Office can be considered unless it is usefully possible, having also regard to the support which the High Commissioner is likely to receive from governments and inter-governmental or non-governmental organizations. Any aid which the High Commissioner can provide to refugees depends on the possibility of mobilizing voluntary support. The object of the task performed by my Office is not only to ensure the rational and effective use of the funds placed at its disposal but also, by exercising the discretion required in work which is humanitarian and non-political and by remaining within the limits which an organization such as ours has to observe, to maintain the confidence of Governments and large public and private organizations in our activities.

In this connection, I should like to say again how anxious I am always to act in co-operation with the Government of the country of asylum. Any material assistance which the High Commissioner may consider providing for refugees is impossible - and I would even say unthinkable - unless the action contemplated is in keeping with the views and wishes of the Government of the country of asylum. In accordance with the principle of he sovereign authority of States, it is the Government of the country of asylum which retains the primary responsibility for refugees living in its territory, regardless of the scale or methods of assistance provided from outside. According to the only acceptable interpretation of the High Commissioner's role, I think that his task is to help the Government of the country of asylum to deal with problems created by the presence of refugees in the country and particularly with the social aspects of these problems.

If the necessary efforts and energies are to be mobilized, it is essential that international activities on behalf of refugees should always be directed towards an objective which is as practical and as immediate as possible. The objective can be summed up in the following words, which are often used but have lost none of their force: "Help the refugees to help themselves". The concerted action in which the High Commissioner's Office is taking part should not be a mere charitable exercise, but should from the outset be designed to provide a genuine solution to the problem in question.

In the Light of these considerations we have made particular efforts in the early stages of our activities on behalf of new refugees - and indeed in the majority of cases to - establish new rural communities on land made available by local authorities. By distributing seeds and implements to the refugees and giving them the resources they need to live until the first harvest, we are trying to help the refugee to help himself and make a living rapidly by his own efforts.

We have noted that additional efforts are often required to consolidate this initial settlement, and my Office keeps a constant watch on the situation. We also take into account the fact that the refugees - far from being an obstacle to the development of the country which has received them - should rather be given the opportunity of integrating themselves in overall programmes which also - or rather mainly - affect those who have been long established in the country. This approach has obliged us to strengthen our relations with other United Nations bodies and with the various specialized agencies of the United Nations family, and to try, with them, to find the best methods of bringing the refugees into these wider programmes. I should like to pay a tribute to these bodies and agencies - the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO, the Technical Assistance Board and UNICEF, to mention only the main organizations with which we have established very valuable relationships,

The High Commissioner's Office has also established closer relations with the International Labour Organisation. In response to requests from the Governments of Burundi and Congo (Leopoldville), the ILO is now preparing to take a special interest in the economic and social development of the parts of these countries where there are large groups of refugees from Rwanda. I intend to do all I can to ensure that the efforts which my Office is making under its statutory responsibilities and the wide and more general activities of the ILO, succeed in bridging the gulf between the problems particular to refugees as such and the more general development problems, so that refugees can at last rid themselves of the feeling that they are refugees.

As I have tried to show, the objectives of the High Commissioner's Office are essentially practical. This is also true of the international protection aspect of new refugee problems. Although the mandate which the General Assembly has given to the High Commissioner is universal in scope, it must be pointed out that most new refugee problems are problems of assistance rather than of protection. We a material assistance problem arises, I deal with it under the "good offices" functions vested in me by the General Assembly. I think that, by giving priority to this type of action, it is possible to keep the situation in hand in such a way that no problems of protection, in the narrower sense of the term, will arise. This approach should normally help the Governments directly concerned - and I am referring both to the Governments of countries of asylum and to the Governments of the refugees' countries of origin - to appreciate the strictly humanitarian character of our work. But this does not mean that my Office is not giving careful attention to the protection aspect of new refugee situations. As I told the Third Committee two years ago during the sixteenth session of the General Assembly, if problems of legal protection were to arise in any of these new refugee situations, I should not hesitate to consider them in the light of the term is of my mandate, as it is indeed my duty to do.

I would like to take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude once again to the non-governmental voluntary organizations which, in conjunction with public authorities and organizations, have from the outset helped us in our international work on behalf of refugees, The award of the 1963 Nansen Medal to the International Council of Voluntary Agencies was a formal way of paying a glowing tribute to all the voluntary organizations, large and small, which are constantly working on behalf of refugees throughout the world.

This assistance, like that provided by Governments of Countries of asylum and other Governments which support our work, is all the more essential in that the High Commissioner has only limited resources at his disposal. As I see it, it is not the function of the High Commissioner's Office to assume sole responsibility for work for which my Office is neither designed nor equipped. The work of the High Commissioner serves essentially as a catalyst and a stimulus. Its purpose is to encourage, mobilize and coordinate assistance to ensure the maximum efficiency. The aid programmes carried out by the Office are the framework and the mans which enable us to discharge this function; and, as I was saying earlier, the modest material resources at the disposal of my Office do not in any sense reflect the actual volume of our various tasks or the scale of the problems we are called upon to solve.

I am deeply grateful for the support which the General Assembly has always given to the work of the High Commissioner's Office and for the way in which it has moved to adapt the Office to the requirements of new situations and to strengthen the universal character of the international work on behalf of refugees. This trend toward universality has also been reflected in resolution 965 (XXXVI) adopted by the Economic and Social Council in July 1963. As a number of delegations pointed out in the course of the Council's discussions, it is precisely because the work of the High Commissioner's Office has now extended to other continents, and precisely in order to increase the representation of States which have joined the Organization in recent years, that the Economic and Social Council is requesting the General Assembly to enlarge the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme from twenty-five to thirty members.

The universal character of the work on behalf of refugees is also confirmed by the increasing number of States which are yearly giving tangible proof of their interest and sympathy by contributing to my Office's voluntary funds. To ensure the future of our work, it is particularly important that, in a financial sense too, it should receive widest support from as many different quarters as possible.

Mr. Chairman, I should like to conclude these remarks by expressing the hope that, with the constantly increasing under standing of Governments, it will be possible to preserve the vitality of the work of the High Commissioner's Office by constantly adapting it to the changing requirements of our present-day world. I am convinced that, if my Office carried out its work on behalf refugees in this way, it will continue to be a useful instrument in the service of our Organization and will go on translating into reality the noble humanitarian principle of the United Nations.