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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 26 January 1990

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 26 January 1990

26 January 1990

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen:

I am pleased to be able to attend and address, for the first time as High Commissioner, an informal meeting of the Executive Committee. Although I took up my duties only ten days age, I have followed the important work of UNHCR and its interaction with the Executive Committee with a high degree of interest for some time now. I must say that my very brief time as High Commissioner has served to confirm what I had suspected all along: first, I have been most encouraged by the quality and commitment of the many UNHCR staff I have already met; and second, the strong interest that the Executive Committee takes in the work of UNHCR is a very valuable one for the Office; I believe that the combination of these two factors can only serve as an indispensable asset to any new High Commissioner - from which I will undoubtedly draw great encouragement and strength in discharging my duties.

An obvious example of UNHCR's mutually beneficial interaction with the Executive Committee has, of course, been the recent deliberations of the Working Group and its Task Forces. It is clear, and the meeting of the Working Group this morning confirmed this, that the Executive Committee has gained a more intimate and better insight into UNHCR's work - and has developed an understanding which will help us in the months and years to come. In the final analysis, it is the refugees whom we are duty bound to serve who will benefit from this enhanced cooperative effort.

Mr. Chairman, being new to the job and in this forum, I do not intend to make a formal and lengthy statement today. But allow me to share a few observations with the Executive Committee at this stage.

First and foremost, dramatic changes are taking place within the international community. As we move into a new year and a new decade, it is already evident that the world of the 1990s will look very different from that of the 1980's. For one, governments are placing a completely new emphasis on international co-operation. Foreign policy is increasingly seen in terms of developing joint policies which respond to common challenges and problems. Solutions to the common problems of environmental pollution, poverty and abuse of human rights are seen more and more in global co-operation. There is a growing international recognition that "security" has social and economic, as well as military and political dimensions. I say all of this because it is of utmost importance to ensure that the refugees issue appears on this new international agenda. The refugee issue simply can not remain a matter of charity alone. As this new era of international co-operation unfolds, we must together ensure that States have the political will to work together, resolving existing refugee problems and preventing new ones from emerging.

For UNHCR to play its proper role, it must possess the necessary internal clarity and focus as to its rightful place in this new international agenda. Accordingly, we have to make sure that we have the necessary structure to play that role. To this end, I am establishing shortly a task force to define UNHCR's place at other early stages of this new decade and its consequences in terms of structural needs. While this task force will be essentially an internal one, it will not work in isolation of the views of the Executive Committee. In fact, I see the UNHCR task force drawing positively on the deliberations of the ongoing ExCom Working Group, and in a sense, the former complementing the work of the latter.

Mr. Chairman, at the same time, I am aware of the Executive Committee's concerns about the need to streamline the Office and rationalize further the work of the organization. The need to achieve economies whenever possible is a reality that all international organizations and indeed civil services have to live with. I will pay personal attention and attach priority to this matter. In this respect, I am cognizant of the legitimate concerns of donors, who have contributed to UNHCR's programmes with generosity over the years. At the same time, it is a fact that in 1989 UNHCR only had half the resources for each refugee under its care as it did in 1980. This has meant that the burden on and sacrifices required of the refugees themselves and the asylum countries - which are in their own right generous donors - have reached alarming levels. In short, more refugees and less resources - that is one of the principal challenges confronting us all and which we need to be address. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not, in this connection, express my deep concern over UNHCR's well-known financial situation. We are prepared to do our part and I trust that we will be given the means to do so.

Of course. This is only one side of the story. It is just as important to consider the possibilities which lie ahead. The positive political developments taking place in many parts of the world could mean that we will eventually see a reduction in new refugee movements and enhanced opportunities for durable solutions - especially voluntary repatriation and under conditions of safety and dignity. I shall be vigilant and ready to seize these opportunities whenever they emerge.

Mr. Chairman, before I conclude my remarks allow me to share with you a few thoughts on the subject of international the raison d'être of the Office and thus my primordial task. In the end, UNHCR must be the guardian of the basic human rights of refugees. For us, everything else flows for this.

This humanitarian responsibility takes place, of course, against the backdrop of political realities. We can not be blindly idealistic, but even more importantly we can not compromise on the basic principles of protection for political convenience. There must be a frank and honest dialogue between UNHCR and governments on protection. We must strive to agree on what constitutes protection and who should be protected. I know only too well that governments have legitimate and overriding interests in this area, but I do not see the interests of he world's refugees and those of the world's governments as in contradiction. As I indicated earlier, refugees must, therefore, be on the political agenda of governments as part of the broader human rights issues facing all States, for which we have a shared objective.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, allow me to say how grateful I am for the trust placed in me by the international community. I have accepted these responsibilities knowing fully well the challenges and difficulties involved. At the same time, I feel fortunate to have taken up these duties, during a truly historical period - particularly for the United Nations - a period which should afford unique opportunities for solving many refugee problems and in preventing new ones from emerging.

Today, I invite all of you to join and support UNHCR to play its part in this effort, for millions of unfortunate human beings look to us to wage and win this battle on their behalf.

I thank you, Mr. Chairman.