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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 21 March 2001

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 21 March 2001

21 March 2001

Mr. Chairman,
Madame High Commissioner,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would first like to congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, and the Bureau upon your election. The Commission on Human Rights serves as a global conscience and ombudsman for the millions of people facing human rights abuses around the globe.

I also wish to pay tribute to Mary Robinson, my friend and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Over the past four years, Mary Robinson has served the cause of human rights with vision and forthright leadership. Her departure will be a great loss to the United Nations family, and I will miss her greatly.

Myself, I am a freshman in my new role as High Commissioner for Refugees. I very much welcome this opportunity to address the Commission for the first time. My predecessor made this annual appearance a tradition - one that I value and hope to see continue during my own tenure.

UNHCR and the Commission share the same fundamental objective - promoting and protecting the safety and dignity of the individual. The link between human rights and refugees is - from one optic - a relationship of cause and effect. We may even see the number of people on the move in search of protection as a fair barometer of just how well - or how poorly - human rights are respected in the world today.

We both work for human rights. We rely upon the same principles and standards. Together, we are in the business of protection, although with different ways and means. The Commission and its mechanisms focus on identifying, exposing and pursuing remedies for human rights violations. As a humanitarian organisation, UNHCR's approach has to be more operational. We are present in the field - next to the victims.

Respect for human rights - or the lack of it - is perhaps the main driving force in the cycle of forced displacement. Human rights abuses create refugees. UNHCR's mandated role is to protect the human rights of refugees during flight and in asylum. When refugees go home, the restoration of human rights and national protection lies at the heart of sustainable return.

Who are refugees? Refugees are people without a government to take care of them - to protect them. I can draw parallels with the problems of internally displaced people. In this respect, they are the same situation. We - the United Nations family - have a duty toward internally displaced people - especially where substantial numbers are involved, but only on certain conditions.

Let me elaborate. We need to have three "green lights" before getting involved in situations of internal displaced people. First, the Secretary-General must authorise UN involvement. Second, the government of the country where the people are displaced must consent - even where that government is itself unable to provide protection. This will avoid a debate over sovereignty. Third, our experience has taught us the importance of obtaining assurances of adequate funding. When these conditions are met, my Office will be ready to contribute to a United Nations inter-agency response - on a case-by-case basis - where our expertise is particularly relevant.

While speaking of internally displaced people, I would like to acknowledge the great contributions made by Francis Deng, who has been their tireless advocate. He brought the issue within a human rights framework and elaborated the principles. Now we need to become more operational and find ways to energise and improve the UN system's response in these situations.

With the World Conference Against Racism approaching in September, I also wish focus upon the link between forced displacement and racism, xenophobia and intolerance. It was certainly no accident that the drafters of the Refugee Convention made racial persecution a primary ground for refugee status.

Over many decades, UNHCR protected and assisted hundreds of thousands of refugees from openly racist regimes in Southern Africa. The fact that the Conference will be held at Durban in a democratic South Africa demonstrates just how far we have come in a short time. But we are still far from the day when racism and racial discrimination will be known only from history books.

Racism and related forms of ethnic and religious intolerance are often at the root of tension and conflict in society. Few States are racially or ethnically homogeneous today. But a single racial or ethnic identity is increasingly seen as the defining characteristic of nationality. I find this rejection of diversity deeply disturbing. It represents a retreat from modernity in a rapidly globalising world.

Governments have a fundamental responsibility to step in and mediate racial or ethnic tensions in society. The most chilling forms of persecution - such as "ethnic cleansing" - result when the government itself takes sides. If discrimination and inequality go without redress - or are exploited by irresponsible political leaders - conflict can erupt and displace masses of people.

For a decade now, UNHCR has been grappling with a chain reaction of ethnic persecution, conflict and displacement in the Balkans. Within the past few weeks, the violence has finally reached the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - threatening the stability of the entire region once again. From the Caucasus to the Great Lakes region of Africa to Indonesia - such unresolved tensions among ethnic communities are a leading cause of force human displacement today.

UNHCR's interests here are obvious. But we typically enter the scene only after displacement occurs. Human rights institutions - with other actors in the political and economic spheres - must take the lead in prevention. At the international level, the Commission and other human rights bodies can help by drawing attention to problems and abuses before racial and ethnic tensions spiral out of control.

National institutions - human rights commissions, human rights ombudsmen, the judiciary, NGOs and other elements of civil society - have great responsibilities as well. Ensuring impartial governance and protecting human rights, especially minority rights, is essential to prevent conflicts from exploding outside of government processes. Visible efforts to give all children equal access to education, for example, or to give substance to religious, linguistic and cultural rights can ease tensions by nourishing the hunger for respect.

The logic of prevention is clear enough. Actually preventing the descent toward persecution, massive human rights violations and open conflict is, of course, very difficult in the real world. But the possibility of averting such suffering - not to mention the enormous social and economic costs that typically follow - should justify and inspire our efforts.

Mr. Chairman,

Refugees searching for asylum face an uncertain welcome today. The communities where they flee may be hostile, seeing refugees as a threat to security, social stability and jobs. Even where local people receive them with understanding and compassion, large refugee populations can rapidly test the limits of human solidarity by placing strains on public services, housing, agricultural land and the environment. Such pressures create fertile ground for racism, xenophobia and intolerance to develop.

In many parts of the world, the entanglement of migration and asylum further complicates the picture. Globalisation has brought increased human mobility. People searching for protection travel alongside those just seeking better economic prospects. Concerned by the expense and difficulty of sorting out who needs protection, governments have created a daunting array of obstacles aimed at preventing migrants from reaching their territory.

As a consequence, many asylum seekers resort to unscrupulous criminal trafficking and smuggling networks - becoming victims yet again. Fair asylum systems must be an essential component any strategy to combat migrant trafficking and smuggling. The choice is between a world of law and the law of the jungle. UNHCR can help governments to build and strengthen their governance capacity in refugee matters.

Today, refugees and economic migrants - along with this criminal element - have become seriously confused - even sometimes assimilated - in the public mind. Extremist politicians have been quick to exploit public fears - stereotyping refugees as economically motivated, a burden, a danger to public health, a social threat. Irresponsible media often join the chorus. Perhaps, to a certain extent, this is inevitable in an open society. But a sad turning point comes when mainstream political leaders seeking short-term electoral advantage adopt - and thereby legitimise - these views.

Once intolerant attitudes have taken root, they are not easy to overcome. Nor can their consequences be controlled. The deteriorating public discourse on asylum and migration issues in some European countries, for example, has been accompanied by a rise in violent attacks on foreigners, including refugees. These cowardly acts have included firebombing, beatings and murders. Many of the victims were visibly not ethnic Europeans - making the racial element of these hate crimes clear.

Determination and real leadership is needed to overcome these tendencies and to de-dramatise and de-politicise what are essentially humanitarian issues. Working together, we must promote better public understanding of refugees and why they deserve our protection. The right to seek asylum in other countries - as found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - should be widely understood as one of the hallmarks of a just world.

Human rights institutions can contribute in a fundamental way by exposing the abuses that are at the root of the problem. Effective justice also sends an important signal to the public - as does impunity. The human rights community has an important responsibility to push for tough sanctions against those who incite racial hatred, intolerance and xenophobia.

National human rights bodies can also make a difference by joining public information and educational efforts. For its part, UNHCR has participated in the European Union's integration programme aimed at promoting tolerance toward foreigners. In South Africa today, we are contributing to the imaginative "Roll Back Xenophobia" campaign launched with the South African Human Rights Commission and the National Consortium for Refugee Affairs.

Mr. Chairman,

We have adopted the theme "respect" to mark UNHCR's 50th anniversary - respect for the dignity of refugees as human beings, respect for their abilities and potential and respect for the contributions they make to the communities where they live. Einstein was a refugee. Not all refugees are so exceptional, but many do bring amazing capacities and talents - not just a small bundle of belongings.

The human rights tradition calls for tolerance among people - an acceptance that others can be different. The idea of tolerance speaks to the relationship between groups in society. But I want to stress that beyond tolerance lies respect - respect based upon an appreciation of each individual's dignity and worth. Refugees achieve durable solutions one at a time - individually. They must be empowered to restart their lives. This is why we emphasise respect - beyond mere tolerance - for refugees.

Racism and xenophobia can present serious obstacles in the search for solutions to refugee problems through local integration and resettlement. When the solution for refugees is to go home - voluntary repatriation - the same racial, ethnic or social tensions that led to persecution, conflict and flight can also be real obstacles to successful reintegration.

The restoration of effective national protection lies at the heart of sustainable return. In some of the most challenging returnee situations today - such as East Timor and Kosovo - the international community must create basic institutions of national protection that never before existed. These include a credible framework of laws, an independent judiciary, professional public prosecutors and a well-trained police force that reflects the ethnic composition community it serves.

The institutions of government must be - and be seen to be - fair and inclusive. They must have the capacity and resilience to mediate the very same social tensions that caused their initial breakdown. They must also manage the delicate balance between justice for the victims and reconciliation. This is a tall order.

National human rights institutions - with support and encouragement from the international community - must encourage the development of solid institutions and the rule of law. We also look to them to help returnees realise their rights in practical ways - by recovering their homes and property, proving their nationality, obtaining identity documents, collecting pensions and getting their children back to school.

Rebuilding trust and confidence among people - and between people and their government - takes time. UNHCR's limited mandate requires us to leave the scene early - before true reconciliation can occur. The important work of human rights bodies continues long afterward.

Mr. Chairman,

Before concluding, I wish to note that this 57th session of the Commission falls during a time of special significance for my Office. We marked UNHCR's 50th anniversary on December 14th last year, and we are now in the 50th anniversary year of the 1951 Refugee Convention - the foundation stone of refugee protection.

The Refugee Convention and its Protocol manifest the collective commitment of States to safeguarding the rights of a special group of non-citizens - refugees. Most people can look to their own governments and state institutions to protect their rights and physical security, even if imperfectly. Refugees cannot. I see the consensus among States that produced the Convention as something of a miracle.

The 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention is a time for serious reflection, not only on past achievements, but on the work needed to ensure the relevance of the refugee protection regime for the next half-century. To this end, UNHCR has launched Global Consultations on international protection, which formally began two weeks ago here in Geneva. I would like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, for drawing the Commission's attention to this important initiative in your opening remarks.

The Global Consultations will promote the full and effective application of the Refugee Convention and its Protocol. They will seek greater consistency in interpretation and, hopefully, will also lead to new approaches for addressing gaps in the current protection system. In my view, however, they must go further. To be truly successful, the Consultations must also inspire a renewed commitment to refugee protection as an international responsibility and a fundamental human value.

The Refugee Convention is - in its essence - a human rights instrument. I encourage you to see the Convention - and its continued strength and vitality - as falling squarely within your concern. We look to the Commission to send a strong message of support for the Refugee Convention - in its 50th anniversary year - and for the important human rights it enshrines.

Thank you.