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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, 12 November 1999

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, 12 November 1999

12 November 1999
Third CommitteeThe contextThe outcomes are polarized societies and communities, and crystallized refugee crises.The issuesThe importance of refugee protection

Mr Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The context

When I last spoke to this Committee, a year ago, I mentioned that conflicts were on the increase. The trend has not reversed - it may even be advancing. It has been a year charged with fresh conflicts and grave refugee crises. Civilians in many parts of the world continue to be forced to flee - mostly - by internal wars. As we have seen in places as diverse as Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region of Africa, the root causes of conflict and displacement very often lie in the failure to give due recognition to the aspirations and rights of ethnic minorities, or various social groups. This fuels separatist claims, especially in areas with a history of strong autonomy. Tribalism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism are exacerbated. In many cases separatist trends are severely repressed. Minorities are particularly targeted by this repression.

The outcomes are polarized societies and communities, and crystallized refugee crises.

On the other hand, refugee movements have also become a major source of instability and conflict: hence a demand for rapid solutions, sometimes at the expense of humanitarian and refugee protection principles, and sometimes requiring UNHCR and its partners to work rapidly and simultaneously in countries of asylum and of return.

This year's highest-profile crisis has been Kosovo. I will not re-tell you its well known history, but I wish to mention a few elements showing the complexity of the humanitarian and refugee protection tasks, a complexity that is indeed becoming a standard feature everywhere. The outflow of people during the spring was staggering. They did not simply flee, they were expelled from their homes. To address this exodus, we had to resort to services that only the military, particularly of NATO member states, could provide - air traffic management, camp construction, transport of refugees and goods. Return, when it occurred, only ten weeks after the outflow had started, was an even faster exodus in reverse. Managing these situations was tremendously challenging. Serious problems included logistics in Albania and securing admission for refugees in Macedonia. Despite the obstacles, the response to the crisis did meet immediate needs of safety and survival.

But I would like to make one point very clear. The Kosovo crisis is not over. Almost a million people have had their houses destroyed or damaged. One priority of the United Nations - including UNHCR - is to help these people through the winter. We are working hard, together with supporting governments and NGOs, to meet this deadline. But more intractable problems remain unresolved. Although KFOR has been indispensable in curbing the violence, attacks on the Serb and Roma minorities continue on a daily basis. The number of Serbs and Roma remaining in Kosovo has dwindled to less than half of the original population as a result of unacceptable revenge attacks. This is in stark contrast to one of the declared purposes of NATO action: to preserve the existence of a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo. We are trying to persuade ethnic Albanian leaders that the past suffering of the Albanian people is no justification for renewed ethnic cleansing, that violence exhorts violence and that any failure to speak out and to act will lessen the international community's sympathy and support.

Some of the consequences of the Kosovo crisis - and especially the fresh displacement of minorities - are linked to broader, unresolved problems in the former Yugoslavia as a whole. After four internal wars fought over a period of eight years, and four years after the Dayton agreement, we estimate that more than 1.5 million people live away from their homes in this region. Most minority people fleeing Kosovo, for example, are displaced in Serbia, where there are, already, ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The plight of all these people - about 700,000 in total - is dire in a country crippled by war, economic crisis and international isolation. They face a harsh winter. It would be very wrong to let them down.

This year's other major refugee crisis has been East Timor. While the situation in East Timor itself is being brought - gradually - under control, our most immediate concern are the people who have fled to West Timor - originally over 200,000 - of whom about 55,000 have now returned home in a UNHCR-coordinated operation, by air, land and sea. In September, I travelled to Indonesia and negotiated with the government the granting of access to refugees in West Timor for UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. Some progress has been made and we can now operate in field locations, although access to all refugees continues to be difficult, unpredictable and dangerous - there have been incidents in which humanitarian staff have been threatened and harassed. Many people were forced by militias to leave East Timor. There are reports of some who may be forcibly kept, hostage-like, in West Timor, under their control. Such reports are matched by the visible presence of armed militia elements among the displaced population.

The Indonesian government has promised to provide all necessary security measures for both refugees and humanitarian agencies, to maintain the civilian character of refugee sites, and to facilitate humanitarian assistance activities. Whatever option refugees will choose - return, remain or go elsewhere in Indonesia - it will have to be free and informed, impartially ascertained, respected and fulfilled. To meet these goals, UNHCR must continue to be present on the ground, and its access to refugees must remain free and secure.

Kosovo and East Timor were dramatic and massive refugee crises, but in both cases, the international community eventually responded. In other instances the international response is much slower, timid and peacemeal. This is particularly true in Africa.

In West Africa, half a million Sierra Leoneans still live in camps in Guinea and Liberia. I am very worried about the situation in Liberia, where there have been attacks by rebel groups in areas to which Liberian refugees have been returning, and where Sierra Leonean refugees are hosted. True, more than 330,000 Liberians have returned home, but recent outbreaks of fighting are discouraging the remaining refugees from repatriating, and - worse - may be forcing Liberians to flee again. There have been worrying cross-border rebel attacks into Guinea - a country which has generously born an enormous refugee burden. The situation in Sierra Leone itself is also fragile.

In Central Africa, the extremely complex pattern of interlinked wars provides a fertile environment for the outbreak of smaller, violent sub-conflicts, invariably causing population movements. The humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is particularly worrying - thousands of people have fled to neighbouring countries, but at the same time the Democratic Republic of the Congo itself is hosting refugees from some of these countries - and this in addition to a large population of internally displaced people. The situation in Burundi is very fragile, as shown by recent episodes of violence, in which UN staff were targeted and killed. Conflict in Angola has pushed more refugees into neighbouring countries, and worsened the catastrophic situation of those displaced internally - perhaps the single worst humanitarian crisis in Africa.

The potential for fresh and sudden refugee crises is great in both areas. The Lusaka and Lomé ceasefire agreements raised hopes that peace would be at hand in Central and West Africa respectively. In both cases, my Office is very interested in seeing the ceasefires become lasting peace, because on this development depends the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees. On the other hand, I am very worried that insufficient resources are provided by the international community to fully implement the agreements - in terms of political pressure, support to peacekeeping arrangements, and development aid to back up peace-building. We may lose a window of opportunity painfully created by political negotiations, conducted mostly thanks to the efforts of some bold African leaders. Once again, we may be confronted with fresh catastrophes - like the exodus of Rwandans in 1994, or the massacres and mutilations of civilians in Sierra Leone in 1998. I urge all concerned parties to also pay particular attention to the humanitarian consequences of potential conflicts in these regions.

I would also like to mention the serious humanitarian situation on the southern border of the Russian Federation. here are well over 200,000 displaced people from Chechnya, mostly in the Republic of Ingushetia, but also in Daghestan, other regions and countries. I am very worried that this conflict, coupled with massive outflows, may further destabilize an already very fragile region. A few thousand people, for example, have sought refuge in Georgia - a country already severely affected by forced human displacement.

Several elements of this humanitarian crisis are very worrying. One is the climatic factor: winter in the North Caucasus is extremely cold, and there are many vulnerable refugees - women, children, elderly people - among those who have fled. Another is the closure of most border points, which prevents terrified civilians from actually crossing the border into safer areas. A third element is the presence of criminals threatening humanitarian agencies throughout this region: this makes our limited on-going operations very risky, and access to displaced people even more difficult and dangerous. UNHCR continues to discuss with the Russian authorities all these points and is ready to continue to cooperate with the government in providing assistance to displaced people.

This brief overview - which does not include other, worrying situations, such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Angola and the Horn of Africa - provides a grim picture of the direct relationship between conflicts and forced human displacement in many parts of the world. However, I would like to conclude it with a more positive note.

In July, I visited Mexico. Together with President Zedillo of Mexico and President Arzu of Guatemala, I participated in a ceremony marking the end of the Guatemalan repatriation programme. Some refugees opted to return, some chose to be naturalized, others to be allowed to remain in Mexico as immigrants. Mexico's acceptance of refugees, Guatemala's on-going and still difficult progress towards peace and reconciliation, and many years of creative and courageous work by committed staff of UNHCR, other UN agencies and NGOs, have been of invaluable support to the efforts made by refugees themselves to rebuild their lives, and hopefully to avoid forced human displacement in a region in which less than 20 years ago recurrent, dramatic refugee crises did not appear to have any solution. I was very encouraged by my trip to Mexico. I hope that the successful ending of the Guatemalan refugee crisis will be an example for resolving other refugee situations.

The issues

Mr Chairman,

The events of this decade - and, indeed, those of the past year - indicate very clearly that refugee issues cannot be discussed without reference to security. This is true in different contexts: security of refugees and refugee operations; security of states, jeopardized by mass population movements of a mixed nature; and security of humanitarian staff. I wish to dwell in particular on this last aspect, which we have been discussing in-depth here at the UN in the last few weeks. Humanitarian staff are threatened in many parts of the world - witness the recent, direct attack in Burundi, in which some UN colleagues lost their lives; but also attacks, harassment and threats in the North Caucasus, West Timor, and other situations. Humanitarian agencies - not only my Office, but also WFP, UNICEF, the ICRC and many NGOs - have become "frontline" organisations in many contexts of failed or inadequate political efforts - in which the only response provided by the international community is humanitarian.

Staff security must be addressed comprehensively - through political, legal, operational and even psychological means. It cannot be dealt with, however, without tackling the issue of security comprehensively. Today's refugee crises in fact concern all dimensions of security. Measures to address this problem have become an imperative necessity. They must, however, be concrete, and realistic.

I have often spoken about our idea to resort to a "ladder" of options to address the "ladder" of insecure situations, in the context of conflict resolution efforts. We are continuing to work on this issue. Earlier this year we presented a paper to the Standing Committee of our Executive Committee, with some proposals. We now need your support in making them easily accessible and implementable. I would like to stress in particular the importance of "middle" options: equipping the local police, for example; or providing training; or deploying liaison officers. While "hard" options are essentially the responsibility of states, and "soft" ones that of humanitarian agencies, "medium" options must be implemented through a collaborative effort between states and agencies. I hope that we shall soon launch a few pilot projects. I count on your engagement, advice and support.

Providing security, however, is not enough. Security must be durable. This is particularly true in situations of divided communities to which refugees return after conflicts have ended; or in long-term refugee situations. In the absence of development assistance, situations that we have often called of "fragile peace" deteriorate, and cause new insecurity and human displacement. The approach to post-conflict recovery, or to the rehabilitation of areas affected by refugee flows, must be as comprehensive as possible. Some innovative attempts are being made. In Kosovo, for example, all major aspects of a society's reconstruction have been brought together in one integrated structure for the first time.

Some of the experiences of Kosovo can provide useful models to tackle other situations in which the gap between humanitarian and reconstruction activities is very wide, and in which refugee or returnee issues play an important role - as in Rwanda, Liberia, the Horn of Africa, and East Timor, just to mention a few examples. There are legitimate concerns about the international community's apparent lack of interest in addressing this problem. On our side, I can assure you that together with the World Bank and UNDP, and a number of concerned governments, we have promoted discussions on how to set up coordinating and funding mechanisms to facilitate the transition from humanitarian to development aid. These discussions, the so-called "Brookings" process, have yielded some interesting ideas, which we plan to implement in selected countries in support of existing transition arrangements.

Stabilization and post-conflict recovery are essential, today, to address the consequences of many conflicts, including situations in which people remain displaced, or return under precarious conditions. The Kosovo crisis, for example, has made it clear that only through a comprehensive international effort - at the political, economic and social levels - will the Balkans be able to move from chronic conflict to stability, development and progressive integration within Europe. The Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe - if swiftly implemented - may provide a valid model of regional cooperation in tackling reconstruction comprehensively. A similar approach could be very useful in other regions trying to emerge from a spiral of conflict, poverty and human displacement.

And finally, let me say a few words on what I consider a very crucial problem, central to the refugee debate today - that of the coexistence and reconciliation of divided communities. If further refugee flows are to be prevented, communities that have been torn apart by fierce violence, including former refugees who have returned home, must be brought together again. They must learn to coexist - and perhaps, later, they can be reconciled.

Restoring judicial systems, and bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity, are of course extremely important tasks. But we must go further. We must call for more support - and, may I add - more creative thinking, in designing and implementing projects aimed at reconciling divided communities. In a world in which a majority of refugees and displaced people are victims of communal conflicts, and in which returnees usually go back home to extremely polarized societies, a systematic and professional approach to reconciliation - devising concrete "coexistence projects" - may well be one of the directions we must pursue to prevent and resolve refugee flows. I intend to work very seriously in this direction.

The importance of refugee protection

Mr Chairman,

UNHCR's mission has a very precise identity, which cannot be substituted by other, more generic forms of humanitarianism. I would like to be clear on this important point. UNHCR's mandate is not simply "humanitarian", because it is rooted in the protection nature of refugee work. Today, the operating space of UNHCR and of its partners in ensuring protection is at times threatened. Not on our behalf, but on behalf of the millions of people of our concern, it is essential that we better define and defend it.

Whenever international crises have a refugee component, the mode of response must be based on the principles of refugee protection. If the international community - that is, all of us - has a global responsibility in addressing local crises; if it has a global responsibility in addressing and resolving the plight of refugees which are the result of these crises - and I believe it has - the principles of refugee protection are very clearly the expression of such responsibility. They are - precisely - global. But the broad scope of their implementation - from the granting of asylum, to providing assistance, to searching for solutions, and even making efforts to prevent refugee flows and reconciling divided communities - ensures that their universal character can be adapted to local situations, so that any response brings, as much as possible, concrete benefits to refugees, communities and states.

In the year 2000, UNHCR will observe its 50th anniversary. And there is something of our own work that we should be especially proud of as this important anniversary approaches. It is our renewed ability to offer refugees opportunities, and the means to achieve these opportunities. This will help them not to be a burden, and not to be seen as one. It will help them make positive contributions to the communities giving them asylum. And once their plight is solved, back home, or in a new country, it will help them be fully part of their own communities. To help at least some of them be better prepared for the future - even during their hard period of exile - we are planning to allocate all funds raised through activities related to the 50th anniversary to a Refugee Education Endowment.

We do not want to celebrate UNHCR's birthday next year. Our Office was created to resolve a problem, and its longevity is a very bad sign. But refugees - yes, I think we should celebrate refugees! We should celebrate their courage, resilience and determination. We should celebrate the contributions they make to our societies and communities throughout the world.

In so doing, we can give them back - at least in part - what they lose when they flee: self-confidence, dignity, and hope.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.