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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the InterAction Annual Forum, Alexandria, Virginia, 5 May 1997

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the InterAction Annual Forum, Alexandria, Virginia, 5 May 1997

5 May 1997
I. The Refugee Problem TodayII. Humanitarian Action: Problems and ChallengesIII. Preserving Humanitarian ActionIV. Concluding remarks

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends,

I should like to thank you for the kind invitation to address you today. I accepted the offer readily given the unique opportunity to discuss with all 156 member agencies of InterAction the difficult dilemmas and challenges which UNHCR and many of you face on a daily basis and to further the dialogue among us. It is also an occasion to express my deep gratitude to all of you for the excellent work you and your colleagues have done to help alleviate the suffering of refugees and to work toward solving their plight. Your advocacy work has prompted greater United States and UN action in many humanitarian crises in the world.

Refugees are not just people crying in despair for charity. Like immigrants, they can be forces of change, of cultural cross-fertilization, of development and innovation. Which society knows better than the United States the importance of giving sanctuary to those fleeing war and persecution? Had it not been for the talent and enterprise of the immigrants and refugees, would the United States have achieved its greatness today?

On behalf of the 26 million people for which my Office is responsible, I would like to thank you. But on their behalf, I would also like to ask you to do even more.

I. The Refugee Problem Today

When I addressed the InterAction Forum for the first time in May 1994, we were all perplexed by the outbreak of the genocide in Rwanda. At that time, I could not foresee the complexity and the difficulties which we would still be facing today. Last week, I appealed to the member states of the Security Council to exercise pressure on the parties to the conflict to find a solution to the multiple humanitarian crises in the Great Lakes region. First, our efforts to repatriate the refugees from eastern Zaire have been repeatedly frustrated by the denial of access, the looting of relief assistance, threats to staff and logistical problems. The reports of human rights abuses and the killings of refugees among those hiding in the forests are horrifying.

Second, no immediate solution is in sight to the internal conflict in Burundi. More than 335,000 Burundi refugees remain in neighbouring Zaire, Tanzania and Rwanda. The public and policy makers often overlook their plight. In particular, the government policy of regrouping civilians, more than 300,000 persons in camp-like conditions, violates human rights and provides no guarantee for protection against armed conflict. Humanitarian agencies have been requested to provide assistance, but must not do so unconditionally. The access of human rights observers to the population concerned should be unrestricted, and, as a minimum, the government should deliver on its promise that the camps will be progressively closed.

Third, Rwanda is still struggling to cope with the aftermath of the genocide while trying to absorb an estimated 2.8 million refugees who have returned since 1994. Insecurity now prevents UNHCR monitoring of returnees and limits UN and NGO assistance programmes in many parts of the country. This is unacceptable. More than 100,000 people remain imprisoned, while progress is slow toward rehabilitating the judicial system, achieving full respect for human rights and building national reconciliation.

I have just returned from a trip to former Yugoslavia to assess the progress made since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement and to examine the opportunities for large-scale returns in 1997. Throughout my visit, I stressed that the international community expects now to see concrete implementation of the commitments made under Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Agreement making it possible for refugees and the displaced to return to their homes in an orderly and safe manner.

Last year, 90,000 refugees returned to Bosnia and we hope that more than 200,000 persons will do so this year. However, we must remain cautious. Political leaders still obstruct the return of some ethnic groups to their homes. I have three key concerns: First, faster progress on reconstruction, employment creation and community services is key if large-scale returns are to take place. Currently, a formidable gap of USD 300 million for housing projects exists. Therefore, UNHCR has proposed a soft loan scheme to facilitate construction and repair of homes.

Second, a breakthrough on the issue of minority return is essential both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Croatia. My Office will promote so-called 'open 'cities' in Bosnia. Local communities welcoming back former residents of all ethnic groups will be rewarded with targeted reconstruction assistance. However, as long as people cannot safely go back to their homes in so-called minority areas, my Office opposes deportations of Bosnians from abroad. The maintenance of security is our biggest concern, and the contributions of SFOR in this respect have been critical. A credible security arrangement will be needed beyond the announced withdrawal of SFOR in mid-1998. If not, I fear that the achievements of our hard work will have been short lived.

Third, a durable solution for the refugees and the displaced rests with a comprehensive regional approach, taking into account the linkages among the various situations in the former Yugoslavia. I am pleased that the elections in eastern Slavonia in Croatia took place without major incidents, but I hope that the scheduled withdrawal of the United Nations peace-keeping operation in Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) in June will not prompt a large exodus of ethnic Serbs from Eastern Slavonia. Although the situation in Albania has eased following the arrival of the multinational force, I remain concerned about the potential impact of the crisis upon neighbouring countries.

In other parts of the world too, major humanitarian emergencies require our urgent attention. Another "refugee" crisis flared up on the Thai-Myanmar border recently, where Karen refugees have been refused asylum. The Assistant High Commissioner is in southeast Asia and will hold consultations with the authorities on this issue. In Afghanistan, the war continues to generate more displacement and suffering. In Taliban-controlled areas, severe restrictions have been imposed on the rights of women and girls, restrictions which hamper humanitarian programmes.

Despite these difficult tasks, there are also many positive developments. Last month I visited South Africa and I was reminded that the return of the refugees and political exiles had been a critical element in the country's process of national reconciliation. If peace holds in Angola, over 300,000 refugees can return home in the near future. More than 300,000 Sierra Leoneans may be able to return home soon, and the United States and the United Nations are working jointly to consolidate the fragile peace in Liberia to enable more than 700,000 Liberian refugees to end their suffering.

In southeast Asia, the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) has come to a successful conclusion, despite the many difficulties which often seemed insurmountable. Except for Hong Kong which is still hosting some 1,300 refugees pending resettlement and 2,700 boat people - of which 2,000 persons have already been cleared for return and 300 persons have been rejected by Vietnam as they are considered non-nationals - the Vietnamese camps have been closed and the Laotian refugee issue is almost resolved. It is the end of a saga and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many NGOs who have contributed toward resolving the Vietnamese boat people crisis, and for their efforts to resettle and integrate more than 1 million Indo-Chinese refugees in the United States.

II. Humanitarian Action: Problems and Challenges

In the years to come, I sense that our work will become even more difficult and complex. As ethnic and religious intolerance appears to be on the rise, the number of internal conflicts will increase, causing more human displacement. The readiness of states to intervene in these internal conflicts may wane, unless their interests are affected. The mixing of refugee and migratory movements will continue to lead states to restrict entry, undermining protection and asylum. Solutions to humanitarian emergencies following inter-group conflict will become more complex, especially when the question of justice has not been addressed in a satisfactory manner.

Therefore, we require a better appreciation of the causes and dynamics of ethnic conflict. We must also try to understand better the dilemmas and problems we are facing. Let me illustrate my point by a few examples.

First, refugee protection and asylum are becoming more and more difficult to preserve Many countries are closing their borders, adopting restrictive policies and returning people to countries were their lives may be in danger. There is an unfortunate 'asylum fatigue'. Refugee policies are being discussed in an exaggerated crisis atmosphere. The United States has a special responsibility as other countries follow its examples both good and bad. Resettlement continues to be the only solution for many refugees. The United States through its generous admission policy continues to provide positive leadership in this area. At the same time, however, the United States has adopted restrictive measures, such as the expedited removal procedure at ports of entry for those arriving without proper identification and the reductions of assistance to non-citizens, which I fear may impact harshly on the elderly and the disabled refugees.

Poorer countries, hosting the largest numbers of refugees, fear the adverse impact of refugee flows - insecurity, disease, political or racial tensions, and environmental problems. How can I continue to appeal to these countries to grant asylum, while rich Western countries are closing their borders? If the core values of safe and adequate refugee protection and asylum are not upheld, it will become very difficult to work toward resolving refugee crises and developing preventive strategies.

The second challenge facing my Office is related to the first; namely, how to handle refugee situations that include considerable numbers of armed and criminal elements, who abuse humanitarian action and the refugees to further their own political and military objectives? Under what circumstances should protection and assistance activities cease?

In eastern Zaire, UNHCR was criticized for failing to separate the armed elements and those responsible for the genocide from the civilian population in the camps. We were accused of assisting the génocidaires. From the outset, I appealed for the separation of the armed elements and the intimidators from the civilian camp population. No country came forward to help us.

I do not believe that UNHCR had the option to suspend or cease its protection and assistance operations. Humanitarian agencies were the only remaining link between the refugee population and the international community given the absence of any political initiatives to address the problems over two years. Our withdrawal would have abandoned more than 2 million Rwandan refugees, the majority women and children, to a cruel fate, and would have marked the abdication of our protection mandate.

This leads me to the third challenge, namely, humanitarian agencies are increasingly left alone to deal with complex situations, in the absence of the necessary political will and consensus, to intervene and negotiate a solution. International responses to internal conflicts are primarily of an ad-hoc and reactive nature, subject to the interests, or the lack thereof, of the major regional states and powers.

Large-scale refugee movements are often seen as threats to national security and stability by governments. In the absence of political initiatives, UNHCR faces increasing pressures to support repatriation which is neither strictly voluntary nor strictly safe. Either safety in the country of asylum cannot be guaranteed, because of armed conflict or insecurity in the refugee camps, or asylum is being withdrawn by the host government. Although there may still be problems back home, returning in such situations may be better than staying. Return is often 'the least worse option' in a 'no win situation', both for the refugees and ourselves.

Whereas we must seek to take a principled approach even in situations where we face stark political realities, the options are often reduced to a choice between remaining to assist the needy or leaving. This choice is difficult - but there are occasions when we have to come to terms with the dilemmas we face, work with the contradictions, if we are to contribute to a long term solution.

III . Preserving Humanitarian Action

How can we overcome these challenges to ensure that the core functions and principles of humanitarian action are preserved?

More attention must be given to the prevention of humanitarian crises. Political leaders must show a stronger commitment to preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts in potential areas of conflict. They must be more decisive in their action to arrest violence and ensure respect for humanitarian principles by putting greater emphasis on human rights in their foreign policy. When necessary, the international community should be ready to dispatch a rapid deployment force to provide security to humanitarian workers and protect the civilian population in emergencies. This means we do need a strong and effective United Nations.

To convince our political leaders of the necessity of preventive strategies, we must all work to strengthen our awareness and advocacy work. Non-governmental agencies are among our most important partners and we must work together to develop common policies and strategies. In this respect I commend the work done by InterAction, particularly through the Advocacy and the Migration and Refugee Affairs Committees. The United States has always been a strong supporter of UNHCR, but I am concerned that the public mood favours a declining degree of international involvement. That is why my Office supports the work of the 'USA for UNHCR', an InterAction member, to build wider support in favour of refugees.

But we must also look at ourselves and examine ways in which we can work better and adapt to the changing realities. That is why I am looking forward to the outcome of this Forum, focusing on the importance of "Investing in People" and the need to learn from each other. We must examine jointly ways to strengthen our partnership by enhancing the quality of our dialogue while respecting each other's mandates and unique strengths. That is why my Office has initiated an assessment of the PARinAC process, and is seeking to jointly identify priority areas for action, e.g., the preparation of a Partnership Agreement, coordination of field operations and security issues.

IV. Concluding remarks

Ladies and gentlemen, as a refugee crisis fades from CNN and the front pages of the newspapers, we witness an evaporation of international concern, financial contributions and political involvement. No international humanitarian organization or NGO can solve political conflicts. We can protect people, provide assistance, build confidence, buy time and promote solutions. But, we need the political will, the involvement of governments and their leaders and of the United Nations to maintain and build peace.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I wish you a most successful conference and urge you to continue your advocacy and work on behalf of the world's victims of intolerance, human rights abuses, persecution and war.

Thank you.