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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Management Symposium, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 25 May 1992

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Management Symposium, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 25 May 1992

25 May 1992

I am pleased to have the opportunity of addressing the International Management Symposium. Your meeting takes place at a time of great opportunities, but also at a time of considerable dangers.

Rarely before has history offered a generation a greater chance to contribute to the building of a more free, more prosperous world. Sweeping changes have smashed the rigid mould of the Cold War and revived new interest in peace, democracy and free market principles around the world. It has opened up new opportunities for international cooperation that the world has not known since the end of the Second World War and the birth of the United Nations itself. A rejuvenated United Nations has boldly put down aggression in the Persian Gulf, and courageously moved to promote peace in many diverse situations, spreading from El Salvador to Cambodia.

But let me also caution, rarely before has history littered the path of promise with so much peril. The wind of change which has brought new hope has also blown the lid off old ethnic and religious tensions, leading to bloodshed in parts of Africa and the Balkans on a scale unknown before. New sources of violence are evident as deep economic and social problems seethe below the surface.

The main characteristic of the post-Cold War era is this juxtaposition of opportunity and risk. The central challenge is how to develop a strategy to confront the dangers in a world in which ideology no longer determines allegiance nor states dictate the behaviour of people. The moral strength of an individual will more and more prove to be the driving force in domestic as well as international relations.

Nowhere more clearly do I see a juxtaposition of promise and peril as in the area of refugees and displaced persons. The subject of refugees and displaced persons is at the cutting edge of international concern today not only because of its humanitarian significance, but also because of its impact on peace, security and stability. I am convinced that the post-Cold war world cannot reach a new order without effectively addressing the problem of human displacement. Therefore, in my address I would like to share with you my analysis of the changing nature of the refugee problem in the post-Cold War era and the way in which we can develop an effective response to it.

For forty years, refugee policies and practices were determined by the predominant power struggle for global dominance, that was the Cold War. It was international support for victims of communist persecution and repression, which led to the creation of UNHCR in 1951 to protect and assist individuals who sought refuge in the free and democratic countries of the west. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, when struggles for national liberation and decolonisation produced massive population displacement in Africa and Asia, the Super power rivalry was a decisive variable in shaping international refugee policies. In short, during the last forty years it was the coincidence of political interest and humanitarian concern that helped some 28 million refugees to become integrated in their countries of asylum, repatriate to newly independent countries or find resettlement in a third country. If the Cold War gave an impetus to humanitarian solutions in the earlier years, by the 1980s it had become the major cause for the worsening of the refugee situation. The transfer of Cold War rivalries into a polarised and heavily armed Third World, exacerbated tensions and led to many regional or internal conflicts. These wars, fuelled by political repression, poverty, recurrent famine and environmental degradation, produced displacement on an unprecedented scale in and out of Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Indochina, Central America and Afghanistan, to give a few examples. The refugee population which was around eight million at the end of the 1970s had surpassed 17 million by 1991. The paralysis of international relations which marked the Cold War, impeded any resolution of these conflicts. Consequently, millions of refugees continued to stagnate in over-crowded camps in countries which had neither the political will nor the economic capacity to absorb these growing numbers. As for the international community, with little scope for pursuing either repatriation or integration of refugees, the best that could be done in most cases was to provide humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs.

Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War has not automatically translated into solutions for refugee problems. On the contrary, in some ways it has led to an intensification of the problem, as nationalistic, ethnic and religious violence, previously suppressed by authoritarian regimes, are revived, sometimes exploding into vicious internal conflict. A major characteristic of recent displacement is the very large numbers of people displaced within their national frontiers. It is estimated that there are some 15-20 million internally displaced persons. Protecting and assisting people in their own countries in the midst of violence and insecurity raises many thorny problems of law, policy and practicality.

In the Persian Gulf last spring, the confrontation between the Iraqi authorities and the Kurds led to one of the largest and swiftest population outflows ever. The Kurdish refugees returned to northern Iraq very soon afterwards, but found themselves displaced inside their country with others who had never sought asylum abroad. We had to provide protection and assistance to all of them. In Africa, ethnic strife and civil war have long been a major cause of refugee movements. Particularly in the Horn of Africa, there are large pockets of insecurity in Ethiopia, continued ethnic strife in southern Sudan and constant civil war in Somalia. With chronic displacement - internal and external - in the region, should we not try to protect and assist all those who are displaced?

Resurgent nationalism is raising its head with a vengeance elsewhere, particularly in Yugoslavia, where bitter ethnic conflict has led to the displacement of over a million persons within the republics of Yugoslavia, in addition to several hundred thousands to other parts of Europe. The mosaic of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities living in uneasy proximity in what was formerly the Soviet Union represent another fertile breeding ground for violence and displacement. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh could well lead to massive outflow of refugees. The dilemma of displacement appears to have come full circle in the 41 years of UNHCR's history: having started as a European problem and spread globally, it has come back to haunt Europe.

Another noted characteristic of displacement is the closely inter-related nature of political and economic causes of displacement. In Albania, disastrous economic conditions, high unemployment and food shortages led to massive social discontent, recurrent riots and mass exodus of tens of thousands by boat to Italy last year. In the case of Vietnam, depressing economic conditions combined with political repression have sustained an outflow of boat people for the last 15 years. In the United States, Haitians have taken to boats to escape from the debilitating effects of poverty and repression at home. The recent military overthrow of a democratically elected government in Haiti serves to underline the fragility of democracy in many poor countries.

The boat people of Haiti, Vietnam and Albania are a stark illustration of the vicious circle of poverty, political repression and mass movements of people which will increasingly threaten the affluent world in the post Cold World era. Mass communications and easy international travel have made the world a smaller place for all. In an international context where impoverishment is the common lot of a large percentage of mankind, where income differentials between the developed and the developing world are widening, where the numbers living in absolute poverty are increasing, where more wars are being fought than at any other time in history, where mass violations of human rights are still rampant and where political barriers to emigration have been removed, it is hardly surprising that increasing numbers are on the move. The same countries which welcomed freedom of movement as the harbinger of change in communist countries is now looking upon it with deep concern, if not alarm.

The tightening of immigration policies and practices, the restrictions on the institution of asylum, the spread of racist feelings and xenophobia against refugees and asylum seekers - these are dangerous symptoms reflecting the moral dilemma confronting many countries which have long been - and still continue to be - the major financial and political supporters of my Office. It is a difficult dilemma: how do we preserve the principles of human rights, including the right to free movement, and traditions of humanitarianism, without jeopardising the security and stability of our own societies?

This dilemma is enhanced by the ideological vacuum created by the demise of communism. There is no longer a clearly defined enemy. The political and strategic value of granting asylum has diminished in a world which is no longer drawn along ideological lines. Security cannot be easily translated into tangible military terms. The new threats to security today are underdevelopment, environmental degradation and lack of progress towards democracy. By tackling them we may be able to promote security, stability and humanitarianism.

An effective response requires action at three main levels:

The first is peace. Preventing or resolving the political conflicts which cause refugee flows and creating the proper political conditions which can allow those who have been displaced to return home. Here, I see good prospects in the resurgence of international cooperation and the renewed confidence in the United Nations multilateral machinery for conflict resolution, not only between States but also within States. In one way or another the UN's political arm is actively engaged in resolving refugee-producing conflicts in Cambodia, Western Sahara, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is worth noting that the UN has launched more peace-keeping operations in the last 36 months than in its previous 43 years. Even more noteworthy is that these operations are not simply there to guard peace, but actively to build it, shifting from conflict management to conflict resolution. The multi-faceted and time-limited UN operation in Namibia which led the country to independence, and the observer mission in Nicaragua, which combined military verification and demobilisation with election-monitoring, were important precedents for the kind of operations the UN is now undertaking in Cambodia and El Salvador. In Cambodia, the UN is embarked on an ambitious plan of ceasefire, demobilisation, repatriation and reintegration of refugees, the rehabilitation of the displaced and elections for a constitutional form of government. In El Salvador, the UN broke new ground by mediating in a domestic conflict between the Government and the opposition FMLN.

By seeking to end conflicts rather than merely suspending them, the new generation of peace-keeping operations make possible the return of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of refugees in the near future. UNHCR is now embarked on an ambitious plan to bring back 350,000 refugees to Cambodia. We are also actively preparing for repatriation of millions of refugees to Afghanistan and Angola. As political settlements sprout in this new global environment of reconciliation, I see 1992 becoming the first year in a decade of repatriation for refugees. The return and successful reintegration of refugees themselves has an important effect in helping to heal the wounds of a politically divided society and promoting stability. Sometimes, however, solutions are not easily attainable, but nevertheless we have an important humanitarian role in supporting political action. At present in Yugoslavia, in the midst of continuing conflict, we are working in partnership with the United Nations peace-keepers protecting the displaced persons from forced evictions and trying to assure their voluntary return to safe areas. We have undertaken a major relief operation in close coordination with the other international actors, with the hope that cease fire agreements and political settlement will ultimately prevail.

The second point in a comprehensive approach is the strengthening of respect for human rights. Mass violations of human rights are a major contributing factor to refugee movements today.

Greater respect for human rights can help to prevent refugee flows. The promotion of democratic forms of governments as part of a multi-dimensional peace-making effort will undoubtedly help in this context. At the same time, strengthening of human rights monitoring mechanisms in conflict situations and promotion of national legislative and administrative measures to enhance respect for human rights and rights of minorities can do much to obviate the compulsion to flee.

Although much has been achieved by the United Nations in standard-setting of human rights, in terms of implementation by governments the record has been poor, and few effective means have been found to improve compliance. Too many States continue to hide behind the veil of domestic jurisdiction and national sovereignty on issues of human rights violation within their own borders.

Nevertheless, here, as in the field of conflict resolution, I believe a gradual but significant evolution is taking place as a result of revitalisation of the United Nations. Greater emphasis is being placed internationally on obligations of sovereign governments towards their own people and greater recognition is being given to the notion that sovereignty carries with it certain responsibilities. This view was reinforced by Security Council resolution 688 on Iraq, which clearly linked repression of national civilian population to threat to international peace and security. Although the resolution was never accepted by Iraq, it has established a precedent for collective responsibility in enforcing respect for human rights. UNHCR and other agency staff established a massive presence in northern Iraq to monitor human rights violations. In an innovative move, UN guards, who normally safeguard UN offices and property, were used as "moral observers".

The most innovative effort for protecting nationals in their own country has been taken by the UN in El Salvador where UN observer missions (ONUSAL) were deployed even before a full political settlement had been reached, to verify the undertakings made both by the government and the FMLN to respect human rights. UNHCR which is responsible for monitoring the safety of refugees who have returned to El Salvador works closely with the ONUSAL. Improved humanitarian and human rights practices in El Salvador through the deployment of ONUSAL human rights observers gave an impetus to political negotiations, leading to the conclusion of the Peace Accords in January this year, which in turn has helped to stabilise the situation of the returning refugees.

The responsibilities of UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia also include developing a human rights awareness programme, generally overseeing human rights as well as investigating and intervening on abuses during the transitional period. It remains to be seen how effective the UN will be in ensuring respect for human rights in Cambodia. It is encouraging however to see human rights as part of a larger mandate of the international community to promote peace and stability.

The third and final point is that of economic development. Given the close inter-relationship between the social and economic and political factors that produce refugees, an important element in the overall strategy to prevent and resolve refugee problems must be development. A comprehensive, long-term strategy embracing trade measures, increased development assistance and debt relief is urgently needed if we are to have any real hope of redressing the situation. It must, however, be closely linked to the peace-making and human rights dimensions of the comprehensive approach. Development strategies must be formulated in such a way as to promote democratic forms of governance and better compliance with international human rights standards. Indeed, they must recognise that failure in development is a dangerous threat to democracy and freedom.

Economic development is important not only for tackling the root causes of displacement but also for promoting solutions, particularly voluntary repatriation and national reconstruction. As High Commissioner, my first exposure to voluntary repatriation was during my visit to Ethiopia last July. I was deeply impressed with the political commitment and sincerity of the leaders of the new government of national reconciliation whom I met in Addis Ababa. I then went to the eastern province to meet Ethiopian refugees who had returned from Somalia. I was appalled at their situation. Forced to come back to Ethiopia because of civil war in their country of asylum, they found themselves hungry and homeless on return. A year later we are still coping with a protracted emergency in the Horn of Africa.

The first 6,000 Cambodians have been escorted home from Thailand by UNHCR. How will they fare in a rural Cambodia, devastated by war, littered with mines, infested with malaria, burdened with demobilised soldiers and the internally displaced, almost totally bereft of any infrastructure, expertise or resources? Conditions in Angola, Somalia and Afghanistan, to name just a few of the potential countries of return, are going to be no better. I believe large scale repatriation can only succeed if there is a concerted and comprehensive effort to create proper conditions of return - politically as well as economically. If the process of political reconciliation is to be sustained it must be accompanied by a comprehensive national development programme with a human dimension. A multi-dimensional concept of peace must include not only freedom from war but also from want. Without that, people may come home, but for how long? - and at what cost to the peace process itself?

The complex problem of displacement and refugees illustrates the need for a new order defined by international cooperation and solidarity. Humanitarianism alone cannot withstand the pressures of groups and peoples asserting their individual claims. The result can only be disastrous. This brings me back to my opening point. We are living a time of danger, but also of opportunity. The danger is of introspection, of moving away from the global village to our own little village in the absence of any clear ideological imperative. But, I am afraid, the challenge is too great, the stakes are too high for us to turn our backs on the chance which history has given us to mould a new world. We must seize the opportunity to exploit fully our freedom from the Cold War.

Freedom not only in political and economic terms, but freedom from ideological constraints, freedom to define a new code of global morality, in which peace and security, democracy, human rights and sustainable development can become truly universal values. It is only by redefining international solidarity in these terms, that we can hope to solve the problem of refugees and the displaced. It is only then that our world will have reached a new order.

Thank you.