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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 62nd Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organization of African Unity, Addis Ababa, 21-23 June 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 62nd Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organization of African Unity, Addis Ababa, 21-23 June 1995

23 June 1995

Mr. Chairman, Honorable Ministers, Your Excellency the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity, Distinguished Members of the Diplomatic Corps, My Colleagues of the United Nations System, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today's meeting of the OAU Council of Ministers comes at a time when the refugee scene in Africa is marked with both promise and peril. An impressive number of refugee problems have been resolved, but widespread insecurity and violence, aggravated by poverty, population pressure and environmental degradation, continue to produce new outflows.

When I first had the honour to address this august body in February 1992, peaceful and democratic changes were emerging in several parts of Africa, creating opportunities for large numbers of refugees to return to their homes. Thanks to impressive leadership and statesmanship, many of these hopes have been realized.

These positive developments, however, should not obscure the fact that people are returning frequently to uncertainty and insecurity, occasionally even to open conflict, to villages which have devastated and homes which have been destroyed.

Nor can the large-scale repatriation operations overshadow the even larger humanitarian crises which continue to erupt in various parts of the continent. The exodus from Rwanda last year was unprecedented in magnitude and profile. Nearly two million refugees sought asylum in the neighbouring countries of Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Zaire. The situation in the Great Lakes area remains extremely fragile, and displacement continues. Refugee flows also continue in other parts of Africa, most notably Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan, with little hope of an early solution. Furthermore, in almost every part of the continent, large numbers of persons remain internally displaced in refugee-like conditions, without international protection or assistance.

With the numbers of those in need of protection and assistance growing daily, the traditional generosity towards refugees in Africa has become strained. Asylum is under threat, and more restrictive policies and practices are becoming evident in a number of countries.

I do not, however, wish to overlook the costs of hosting large numbers of refugees. UNHCR has sought to extenuate the burden to some extent by providing international assistance to meet the basic material needs of refugees. I am very conscious of the fact that the scope of international refugee assistance does not extend to the collateral impact of refugees on the host country, in terms of the damage to the physical environment, the burden on the social and economic infrastructure of the local communities and accompanying insecurity.

In the Great Lakes region, for instance, the presence of former soldiers, militia and the planners and perpetrators of genocide had created major problems for the safety and voluntary return of the refugees, as well as the security of the host community and the humanitarian workers. In collaboration with the countries of asylum, UNHCR has put in place security arrangements in Tanzania and Zaire to enforce law and order in the refugee camps. Mr. Chairman,

Whether in the challenges of protection or the constraints of solutions, the problem of refugees and displaced persons in Africa is indeed grave today. It is both complex and multi-faceted, and will not yield to piece-meal efforts. I believe the time has come for African leaders, together with the Organization of African Unity, to develop a comprehensive refugee strategy, based on African values, designed to meet African needs and buttressed by international solidarity and humanitarian principles.

What would be some of the major elements of such a strategy? Let me put forward five points.

First and foremost, the strategy must seek to address the underlying causes which force people to flee. The links between stability, security, respect for human rights and the prevention of refugee flows are obvious. Refugee problems, though humanitarian in consequence, are political in cause, and African governments must address with zeal and determination the tensions and conflicts underlying forcible displacement. I also believe that civic life should be founded on respect for human rights, the rule of law and accountable governance.

Secondly, the strategy must vigorously promote the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons. In the absence of an early solution, large-scale population displacements pose a serious threat to regional peace and security, as the situation in the Great Lakes region daily reminds us. A strong emphasis on solutions therefore must be a key element in our strategy to tackle the refugee crisis in Africa today.

Voluntary repatriation cannot be achieved without political action to promote peace and national reconciliation. The government of the country of origin must play the paramount role in building trust and confidence and ensuring the safe return of refugees and displaced persons. However, I believe that UNHCR and international humanitarian, human rights and similar bodies can make an important contribution to these efforts.

Thirdly, the strategy must include the protection of refugees. I must appeal in the strongest possible terms to Governments to continue receive refugees and to provide them with the safety and protection they need, in accordance with internationally recognized principles. Asylum and humane treatment of refugees have an obvious humanitarian purpose, but they also have a political value. Borders must remain open to refugees at all times, and a safe and secure environment must be created for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Fourthly, international assistance should be provided, both to host countries to enable them to receive refugees, and to home countries to assist them to reintegrate and rehabilitate those who return. States cannot be expected to fully meet their obligations to refugees without the necessary financial support and solidarity of the international community. UNHCR, for its part, strives to maintain a level of assistance commensurate with the needs and, despite a changed dynamic in the flow of international aid, nearly fifty per cent of all UNHCR's resources are earmarked for programmes in Africa.

Finally, let me stress that these various elements must be brought together in a coherent and comprehensive manner through political will and international solidarity. There can be no meaningful solution to refugee problems of the magnitude we have in Africa without the strongest cooperation and closest collaboration between states, international and regional organizations, most particularly the OAU and the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations. The Bujumbura Plan of Action is a good example of such a concerted and comprehensive approach. Mr. Chairman, I must take this opportunity to urge every measure necessary for the effective and speedy implementation of the Plan of Action. As we have heard so far in this Council, the clouds of another catastrophe loom darkly over the region yet again. Indeed even now, sustaining a refugee crisis of more than 2 million people is proving to be a difficult task and may soon become an almost impossible one.

Let me end my statement, Mr. Chairman, by expressing my deep appreciation to you personally, to His Excellency the Secretary-General of the OAU and to the OAU member states for their support which is indispensable to the work of my Office in Africa. I count on the OAU leadership and the member states to bring hope to the refugees of Africa. The humanitarian challenges which daily confront all of us in Africa make it imperative to forge a strategy to alleviate the plight of the uprooted, a strategy which is both comprehensive in nature and courageous in outlook, and will be implemented with vigour and vision. My presence here is testimony to my Office's commitment to support you in this humanitarian endeavour.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.