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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 9 November 1994

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 9 November 1994

9 November 1994
Third CommitteeResponding to EmergenciesEnsuring ProtectionPursuing solutionsPromoting a preventive approachPreserving the humanitarian mandate

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I should like first of all to apologise for not having been present when the discussion on this item opened yesterday. I was asked by the Secretary-General to attend an important and urgent meeting in Geneva, which delayed my arrival in New York.

My annual report to the General Assembly is a vital and valuable link between my Office and the UN organ from which we derive our authority. It is therefore a great pleasure and privilege for me once again to address this Committee and to share with you the major preoccupations and prospects facing UNHCR.

In the past year, the number of refugees, internally displaced and other persons of concern to my Office has exceeded 23 million, confronting us with the dual challenge of massive emergencies as well as large-scale repatriations. On the one hand, we have assisted over 1.2 million Mozambican refugees to return home. On the other, we have had to respond to several successive emergencies in the Great Lakes region of Africa, which have produced over two million refugees. Risks of further displacement remain alive in a region vexed by ethnic complexities. Parts of west Africa, as well as Somalia, continue to present an uneasy contrast of crises and fragile hope, of sudden exodus paralleled by spontaneous returns. Turning to other regions, in former Yugoslavia my Office has continued its humanitarian activities on behalf of some 4 million refugees, internally displaced and besieged civilians. I was fearful that the outflow from Haiti earlier this year would open a new theatre for refugee operations, but thankfully, a solution is emerging. In central America and south Asia, too, there has been progress towards solutions but eastern Europe and central Asia remain a hotbed for coerced population movements.

As growing numbers of people are uprooted by internal conflict, ethnic tensions and resurgent violence, their protection becomes more problematic, solutions to their plight ever more elusive. In my statement I would like to explore the constraints and opportunities of exercising my mandate amidst political instability and economic uncertainty. I would like to expose the difficulties we face in pursuing a strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions and the dilemmas we confront as we operate in situations of conflict and peril, as well as the ways in which we have sought to overcome the challenges.

Responding to Emergencies

Nowhere have those challenges been more evident than in the Rwanda emergency. Despite the generosity of the neighbouring countries, and the remarkable efforts of NGOs, donor government service personnel and United Nations agencies, the human toll has been very high.

As this Committee well knows, the strengthening of UNHCR's emergency preparedness and response capacity has been one of my priorities since I became High Commissioner. I am proud to report that our capacity stood us well in the United Republic of Tanzania, when in April some 260,000 persons fled Rwanda in just over 24 hours. However, the scale and speed of the influx into Goma, Zaire, of almost one million people in the space of one week in July was overwhelming. We were compelled to devise innovative emergency assistance "packages", resorting to donor government personnel and facilities, including the military. Based on our experience in former Yugoslavia and Zaire, we are now actively examining the limited use of military support, while retaining the civilian control and multinational character of our humanitarian operations. Needless to say, we have followed with great interest the discussions in the General Assembly on the same subject.

Ensuring Protection

Although ensuring relief to victims is often the first line of response, the essence of the humanitarian challenge lies, not in assistance, but in protection. Brutal conflict and blatant violations of humanitarian law, the militarisation of refugee situations and the erosion of states' capacity to provide security complicate the protection of refugees, returnees and the internally displaced today. Overcrowded camps and the free flow of arms compound the situation. Refugee women and children are most seriously at risk.

Under such circumstances, the international protection provided by my Office has focused increasingly on promoting the physical security of refugees, returnees and the internally displaced. We have sought to establish early and massive presence in the field, de-congest camps and locate them in safer areas, introduce special measures for the security of refugee women, and train and assist government officials. Through such action UNHCR can support, but cannot substitute the governmental responsibility and capacity for law enforcement against armed gangs, former soldiers and militia who threaten refugees.

I am deeply concerned about the insecurity in the refugee camps in eastern Zaire, where the military and militia of the former Rwandan regime are endangering the lives of refugees and humanitarian workers, disrupting the delivery of relief and essential services and obstructing voluntary repatriation to Rwanda. At a meeting chaired by the Secretary-General yesterday, it was agreed that top priority will be given to this issue, and that concrete proposals would be worked out including international police and/or military deployment to be presented to the Security Council in the next few days.

If the quality of asylum has suffered in some countries, its availability has been restricted in others. While I am encouraged by recent developments to provide temporary protection in situations of large-scale influx, I am also disturbed at the growing reluctance of many states to keep their borders open. In the face of persecution, war and violence, we must continue to uphold the institution of asylum, at least on a temporary basis.

Pursuing solutions

Mr. Chairman, the ultimate objective of international protection of refugees is not to institutionalize exile but to buy time for solutions to refugee problems. Voluntary repatriation, wherever possible, is the ideal solution.

The search for humanitarian solutions to refugee problems is deeply dependent on political initiatives and sustained political commitment. Thus, while the peace process in Mozambique has encouraged the vast majority of refugees to return home, the sustained efforts of the international community to maintain the impetus towards a peaceful conclusion will finally bring an end to a long-standing refugee problem.

Noting that the Identification Commission of the United Nations Commission for the Referendum in Western Sahara has started its work, we have begun to review our plans for the Western Sahara repatriation programme.

As in emergencies, so too in repatriation operations, while our predominant concern very often may be logistics, our most difficult dilemma is protection. Too often refugees are returning to situations of acute crisis, if not open conflict, as in Liberia, Somalia and Afghanistan. If those who return do not feel that their lives and liberties are safe, then, far from bringing about a solution, repatriation may actually precipitate another outflow. Thus, voluntary and safe repatriation is as much in the political interest of reconciliation and peace, as it is humanitarian.

This is why we are pleased that the government of Myanmar has given UNHCR full access to the returnees, encouraging more than 35,000 refugees to return home voluntarily under UNHCR auspices in recent months. This is why UNHCR is emphasizing the need to create an environment of confidence and security in Rwanda. The recent signing of the Tripartite Agreement between the Governments of Rwanda and Zaire and UNHCR is an important first step. Furthermore, my Office stands ready to support any initiatives for the reconciliation and rehabilitation of a society traumatized by genocide and ethnic killings.

As Cambodia and El Salvador have shown, a greater operational human rights role of the United Nations can be a valuable confidence building measure in post-conflict situations, and also have a preventive impact. I urge the international community to support the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to deploy human rights monitors in Rwanda. I also welcome the Human Rights Verification Mission to Guatemala, and hope that all parties will cooperate so that a solution can be found for the refugees and displaced persons.

The promotion of human rights is of vital importance to the work of my Office. Human rights violations are a major factor in causing the flight of refugees as well as an obstacle to their safe and voluntary return home. Safeguarding human rights, including minority rights, in countries of origin is therefore critical for the solution, as well as the prevention of refugee problems.

Consequently we have sought to intensify our cooperation with the UN human rights machinery and shared our relevant experience and expertise with the High Commissioner and the Centre for Human Rights. However, I must point out that unlike human rights actors, UNHCR's task is not to expose the perpetrators but to assist the victims. Our role is not judgemental but humanitarian. We must not only be non-political, we must be perceived to be so. Thus, as with the peace-keepers, so too with the human rights monitors, we must work closely while respecting our distinct mandates.

The promotion of solutions requires not only a greater emphasis on human rights but also on economic security. The handover of the CIREFCA process in central America from UNHCR to UNDP this June reflected a successful transition from reintegration to reconstruction. The community-based micro-projects or "QIPs", which we first launched in central America, and then expanded to Cambodia, have now been extended to Mozambique and Myanmar, as a rapid, visible and viable means of bridging the gap between relief and rehabilitation.

However, our efforts can only be meaningful if they are placed in the larger framework of national rehabilitation, economic and social development and democratization of war-torn societies. Thus, we have continued to press with development and financial institutions to ensure that the implications of human displacement are recognised on the development agenda.

Mr. Chairman, if yesterday's repatriation is not to become tomorrow's emergency, then the international community must show greater commitment to post-conflict rehabilitation. I am disturbed by the fragility of Cambodia. I am disappointed at the lack of interest among the international community to consolidate our efforts in Tajikistan, although the operation has been hailed as a rare success of the UN's integrated approach.

The socio-economic causes of displacement must be recognized and redressed energetically. I hope that the World Summit for Social Development next year, like the International Conference on Population and Development last September, will help to focus attention on the links between social disintegration and human displacement, and serve to mobilise greater support for a preventive and solution-oriented strategy to refugee problems.

Promoting a preventive approach

Obviously the best solution to refugee problems is the prevention of causes which force people to flee. Prevention in this sense is a massive undertaking going far beyond the capacity of UNHCR. However, I believe the Office has played a useful role in developing regional approaches which offer a window of opportunity, as for instance in the Comprehensive Plan of Action in southeast Asia and the CIREFCA process in central America.

We are prepared to use this experience in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, and in this context, have taken note of the General Assembly resolution 49/7 on a regional conference on assistance to refugees, returnees and displaced persons.

Possibly the biggest challenge for a regional approach in prevention and solutions today lies in the CIS and the Baltic States. Therefore, following contacts with several governments, my Office is actively examining the possibility of convening an international conference next year, which could be the vehicle for a comprehensive strategy to address population movements in that region. Let me caution, though, that the success of the process will depend on the commitment of the Governments of the region, as well as on the contributions of the international community.

I believe that fundamental to the prevention of refugee problem is the issue of the internally displaced. Therefore, I am grateful to the General Assembly for its endorsement and encouragement of our activities on behalf of the internally displaced, particularly when they have been linked to existing or potential refugee situations, as in Georgia, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Although the human suffering in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains horrendous, I am convinced that our activities, together with those of UNPROFOR and other organisations, have helped to save lives and contain a humanitarian crisis which threatens the stability of Europe. However the future remains highly unpredictable, with continuing displacement, obstruction of humanitarian access, worsening security and the onset of a third winter of war. I would like to urge governments to respond generously to our outstanding financial needs for 1994 as well as to the United Nations appeal, which is being launched today, for humanitarian assistance in former Yugoslavia for the first half of 1995.

Mr. Chairman, the volatile situations which have endangered the protection of refugees, returnees and the internally displaced have also affected the safety of UNHCR and other humanitarian staff. I should like to thank the delegations which have supported the application of the Draft Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel to UN humanitarian staff. At the same time, I am disappointed that many UNHCR staff and those of our NGO partners who have been killed recently or are daily risking their lives in the course of duty would not be covered by the Draft Convention as it currently stands. Our people are in the same danger as the peace-keepers but less protected, although our tasks are equally meritorious.

Preserving the humanitarian mandate

Mr. Chairman, I have briefly outlined the challenges confronting my Office today in protecting refugees and resolving their plight. Fully realizing that we cannot play our role in isolation, we have sought to deepen our traditional cooperation with our sister UN agencies, as well as with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration and NGOs. You will recall that last year we launched a process of consultations with the NGOs called Partnership in Action or PARinAC. Now we are in the process of implementing some of the recommendations adopted at the PARinAC Global Conference at Oslo last June.

At the same time we have forged new partnerships in the political and military arena, both within the UN, as in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as with regional organizations and entities, as in Tajikistan and Georgia.

Mr. Chairman, with the refugee problem impacting on issues of international peace, stability and economic progress, a symbiotic relationship is developing between the UN's political initiatives and development activities, and its humanitarian action. The success of one is linked to the performance of the other. It is through political initiatives that refugee problems can be resolved or prevented from arising. It is through socio-economic development that humanitarian solutions can be cemented. Conversely, humanitarian action can buy time and space for political action. It can create an environment conducive to political negotiations.

While political initiatives are essential for our work, we must not become a hostage to politics. Nor must we be politicized. The non-political, impartial and neutral nature of our mandate must be preserved and perceived as such by all. This is essential to the credibility of humanitarian action and hence to our ability to protect human beings and find solutions to their plight.

As the political, military and humanitarian mandates interact in multifaceted United Nations operations, it is crucial that all actors understand and respect each other's mandates, roles and responsibilities. Otherwise, not only the efficiency of the operation but the essence of our humanitarian mission might be lost.

A clear structure and division of labour must be established at an early stage of a multi-dimensional UN operation. The Emergency Relief Coordinator should act rapidly to allocate responsibilities in complex emergencies, in consultation with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. However, in carving out and coordinating responsibilities, the United Nations must remain sensitive to the fundamental protection needs of the victims and to the mandate of my Office to ensure that protection.

By protecting and assisting the individuals in a neutral and impartial manner we meet two goals. Firstly, we enhance human welfare, which has a crucial value in itself. But equally importantly, we help to reduce the tensions in society and contribute to reconciliation. This is the reason why the General Assembly established UNHCR's mandate of protection and solutions, and why UNHCR's mission is distinct from others in the UN. We need your political and moral support to maintain our unique humanitarian mandate.

We also need your generous financial support to sustain our humanitarian programmes. The pledging conference on Friday, 11 November will provide governments with an opportunity to express that support.

In summing up, Mr. Chairman, let me stress that we face opportunities as well as uncertainties; possibilities but also pressures on our mandate. The challenges confronting the United Nations have given a new dimension to our activities. When peace breaks down and development fails, humanitarian action moves in to stem the human suffering. But as ethnic conflicts spread and political solutions become more elusive, there is a risk that humanitarian operations could become prolonged, draining limited resources and causing untold suffering. To avoid that, we must develop a clear strategy of vision and a bold plan of action. Complementing an Agenda for Peace and an Agenda for Development, the time may have come to focus on an agenda for humanitarian action.

As we move forward, I know I can count on your support and guidance.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.