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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on accepting the Human Rights Award from the International Human Rights Law Group, Washington D.C., 8 June 1994

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on accepting the Human Rights Award from the International Human Rights Law Group, Washington D.C., 8 June 1994

8 June 1994

I am deeply honoured to receive the Human Rights Award, and would like to thank the International Human Rights Law Group for the recognition it has bestowed on myself and my Office. The Award is a tribute to the tireless efforts of more than 4,000 UNHCR staff members, many of whom are risking their lives daily to defend the human rights of those who are forced to flee their homes. It is an expression of solidarity and support for refugees and displaced persons around the world. Above all, the Award is an acknowledgement that the plight of refugees and the displaced is as much a human rights problem as it is a humanitarian one.

At a time when the problem of displacement has taken on distressing proportions, it is important to underline the connection between the promotion and defence of human rights, and the mandate of my Office to protect refugees and find solutions to their plight. Respect for human rights is crucial for the admission and effective protection of refugees in countries of asylum; improvements in the human rights situation in countries of origin are essential for the solution of refugee problems through voluntary repatriation; and safeguarding human rights in home countries is the best way to prevent conditions that might otherwise force people to flee and become refugees.

In my address this evening I would like to touch briefly on the realities and complexities of population displacement today and define the strategy which we are developing to address the problem. I will then outline the strong human rights focus of the strategy, making UNHCR essentially an operational human rights organization working to protect refugees and displaced persons and to find solutions to their plight.

It is a sad and ironic fact that, despite the resolution of many long standing conflicts in the post-Cold War era, despite the return of more than 5 million refugees to countries as far apart as Cambodia and South Africa, Mozambique and Afghanistan, the prospects for solutions to refugee problems are far from ideal. In many situations, there is no effective governmental authority. Returning refugees are confronted with uncertainty, instability, gross violations of human rights, even open conflict, as in the case of the 1.5 million Afghan returnees who went back to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran. Villages have been devastated and homes have been destroyed, with little hope of reconstruction or economic development. Even in places like central America, where the progress towards reconciliation has been impressive, peace remains fragile.

Internal conflicts and tensions continue to generate new emergencies. The end of Super Power control has rekindled ethnic, religious and tribal hatreds. Resurgent nationalism is sowing seeds of strife among insecure minorities in some states, particularly in the former Soviet Union."Ethnic cleansing" has become the new euphemism for gross violations of human rights. The tragedy of former Yugoslavia has been followed by the horrific massacres in Rwanda. Fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law are being flouted with impunity, and violations have reached levels of brutality rarely known before. Women and children are usually the most frequent victims.

Cross border displacement is paralleled by an even larger problem of internal displacement. Frequently, the internally displaced cannot obtain effective protection from their own government, either because it has lost control of part of its territory or because it perceives them as a threat. The plight of internally displaced persons is comparable to that of refugees. Yet, because they have not left their country, internally displaced persons cannot benefit from the mechanisms and instruments which have been developed for the international protection of refugees.

Furthermore, contemporary refugee movements are taking place against a background of larger migratory movements. In many instances, refugees are mingled with people who are moving, not in search of safety but of economic prospects. In other instances, political instability is exacerbated by problems of poverty, population pressures and environmental degradation, combining the political and economic motives for departure in a complex manner. Haiti is a clear illustration of the danger of trying to make facile distinctions between refugees and economic migrants.

The growing scale of the problem has placed a heavy burden on receiving countries, many of whom are increasingly reluctant to keep their borders open. In too many cases, in too many places, people who are fleeing violence and human rights abuses at home are confronted with danger, rejection at frontiers or legal obstacles in their search for asylum. Too often there is pressure to create "safe havens" in conflict-torn countries, rather than grant asylum abroad.

All these factors have given new prominence to the refugee and displaced problem. The links between peace, human rights violations and population movements can no longer be ignored. In April 1991, Security Council resolution 688 declared the gross violations of human rights and the consequent exodus of 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds to be a major threat to international peace and security. In former Yugoslavia, Somalia and, most recently, in Rwanda the Security Council has justified political and military action for humanitarian purposes.

There is growing support today for a comprehensive strategy which addresses the entire continuum of refugee flows from causes through emergency response, protection and eventual solution. This means not only responding to refugee situations in countries of asylum, but also focusing on the situation in the country of origin. It has challenged existing doctrines and dogmas and created new dilemmas. It has led to concern and criticism. Is the traditional mandate for refugees being watered down? Is asylum being replaced by in-country protection? In fact, I would argue to the contrary. A strategy which seeks to address causes as much as consequences of displacement rightly places the refugee problem in the human rights context in which it belongs. It enhances, not erodes, our protection mandate.

How does such a strategy retain its human rights focus? Let me outline three areas.

Firstly, it does so by ensuring that refugees continue to be protected, even on a temporary basis. All States parties to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol must apply these instruments fully and liberally. At the same time, I would also advocate a more temporary form of protection through which victims of war and generalized violence who are not covered by the Refugee Convention Protocol can find the sanctuary they badly need, while host governments can afford to be more generous in the expectation that they need provide protection only for as long as it is needed.

There is a somewhat similar notion of temporary protected status (TPS) in the United States. The concept of temporary protection deserves wider recognition as a legitimate tool of protection in large scale exodus situations, both to avoid the practical problems of individual screening as well as to ensure protection to a wider group of persons. The basic principles of temporary protection should include admission, respect for non-refoulement or prohibition against return to danger, humanitarian standards of treatment, and repatriation when conditions so allow in the country of origin.

The second way in which the human rights aspect is upheld is through the protection of the internally displaced. It should be perceived not as an alternative to asylum, but as an important complement, easing the protection of refugees, rather than undermining it. The issue of the internally displaced is often linked to that returning refugees, either because returning refugees have become internally displaced, as in Afghanistan or because internally displaced are present in the areas to which refugees are returning, as in Ethiopia, or because internally displaced can spill over the border and become refugees. Thus, the protection of internally displaced is of paramount importance, not only for the alleviation of human suffering but also for prevention and solution of refugee problems.

Although UNHCR does not have a general mandate for the internally displaced, we have assisted in specific cases, at the request of the Secretary-General, in northern Iraq, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, central America, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now in Georgia. Our action on behalf of internally displaced persons has been encouraged and endorsed by the 48th session of the UN General Assembly, giving us a selective and limited mandate for this group of persons particularly where their plight is linked to refugees. The scale and scope of the problem, however, goes beyond the capacity of one organization alone, and more effective means must be found for a cooperative and collaborative approach to the problem.

Effective protection of the internally displaced requires not only further development of international legal norms against forcible displacement and for the protection of the displaced, but more importantly, mechanism to improve implementation and compliance. Ways and means must be found to strengthen respect for the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols. States have a primary and collective responsibility to redress this appalling situation. Their responsibility does not diminish as a result of their non-involvement in, or their remoteness from, a conflict. All belligerents are ipso facto bound by conventional as well as customary law of armed conflicts and other norms which have acquired a binding force through universal recognition. It should also extend to non-State entities, as well as to States which have considerable influence, if not control, over them. No belligerent must be allowed to behave as if it were immune from the imperatives of humanity and exempt from national and international accountability.

Moving from the legal to the pragmatic level, international presence is often the most effective means of protecting displaced and other local population. The presence of UNHCR and staff of other international and non-governmental organizations has been of critical importance in protecting and assisting refugees, displaced and affected populations in such places as northern Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia, El Salvador, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Such presence has usually been based on negotiation, improvisation and innovation, for example through cross-border operations, rather than legal principles. However, in my view principles of human rights and humanitarian law create a presumption in favour of humanitarian access, and an international consensus should be built on the issue gradually, based on international practice.

National sovereignty is an obstacle to humanitarian access in some situations but, possibly, a more serious obstacle is not sovereign authority but the lack of it. Without some order, humanitarian action is paralysed. This is precisely the problem confronted by the UN in Somalia and now in Rwanda. Respect for human rights and humanitarian law is based on the concept of viable States. As countries break up into republics, and republics into territories of competing warlords, who can be held accountable for the protection of the people? How do we deal with situations where the state is in crisis?

The third and final aspect of the human rights approach to refuge problems is the promotion of human rights so that people are not forced to flee, and those who have left home can safely return.

We must prevent refugee flows, not by building barriers or border controls but by defending the right of people to remain in peace in their own homes and their own countries. When people have to leave their homes to escape persecution or armed conflict, a whole range of human rights are violated, including the right to life, liberty and security of person, the right not to be subjected to torture or other degrading treatment, the right to privacy and family life, the right to freedom of movement and residence, and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary exile. How do we secure people's right to remain at home, how can we promote tolerance and defend the human rights of all those who live among us: these are urgent questions facing the international community, to which, I regret to say, we have yet to find an adequate response.

Securing the right to remain at home in peace - and the right to return home in safety - requires ensuring respect for the human rights of everyone. UNHCR's objectives of preventing and solving refugee problems thus depend on the efforts of the international community as a whole to promote and protect human rights, and on the willingness of states to accept responsibility for their own citizens. How can the international community help states to resume their responsibility? How do we promote tolerance for diversity? How do we control abuse of State power? How do we foster responsibility as well as accountability of States as regards the treatment of their own citizens?

The UN Secretary-General's Agenda for Peace recognizes the importance of a commitment to human rights and of an effective United Nations human rights machinery in order to support peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-building efforts. The challenge is to translate the rhetoric of human rights into practical measures. In this context the International Human Rights Law Group is to be commended for its projects on training and institution-building in emerging democracies and developing countries. Helping to foster national reconciliation, heal inter-communal wounds, build democratic and human rights and minority protection mechanisms are important ways in which to build state responsibility. International human rights observers and reporting mechanisms may be useful also in some situations, particularly in a peace-making situation as happened in El Salvador and Cambodia. The task of restoring responsible statehood is not easy. It certainly goes beyond the mandate and capacity of my Office, but it is absolutely critical. I therefore call upon the human rights organizations to address this issue through operational and imaginative measures.

In conclusion let me stress that refugees and the displaced are the victims of twin scourges of war and violations of human rights. Peace and development are indispensable for the full enjoyment of human rights. And peace, together with respect for human rights, is essential for the protection of refugees, for the solution of refugee problems and for the prevention of future refugee situations.

In the hope of a more peaceful and just world in which people will not be forced to flee, I accept the Award in the name of the world's 20 million refugees and displaced persons.