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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the World Food Summit, Rome, 13 November 1996

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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the World Food Summit, Rome, 13 November 1996

13 November 1996

The High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs. Sadako Ogata much regrets that at the last minute she was unable to be here. She directed me to deliver her statement and thus I quote:

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Over the last several weeks my Office has faced one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in recent years. The conflict in eastern Zaire has forced a million Rwandan and Burundi refugees to desert their camps and many thousands of Zairians to flee their villages. As a result, an unknown number of women, children and men have died in recent days, through lack of food. I am therefore extremely grateful for this opportunity to address the World Food Summit. The commitments, objectives and actions laid down in the Plan of Action are of fundamental importance to the work of my Office to protect and assist refugees and to find solutions to their plight.

Today there are more than 26 million refugees, internally displaced and other persons of concern to my Office worldwide, victims of persecution and conflict. As we have experienced in many regions, poverty, famine, and unfair land distribution policies, frequently linked to social discrimination and bad governance, risk leading to social instability and may exacerbate ethnic and other communal tensions. Ultimately, they may cause outright conflict and large-scale refugee movements.

Today, I should like to draw attention to the linkages between food security and forced human displacement and make three points.

First, providing effective food assistance must remain a priority in managing humanitarian emergencies. Timely relief action is of course crucial to save lives. Through improved cooperation between UNHCR and WFP significant progress has been made. However, as the situation in eastern Zaire painfully illustrates, humanitarian agencies cannot operate if access to the victims of conflict is blocked for political or military reasons or when security is not assured. The right of the victims to receive food and other humanitarian assistance must therefore be constantly re-affirmed. A linked preoccupation is the manipulation and even diversion of food aid. We must also give greater recognition to the impact of large-scale forced movements of people upon the food security of host communities in asylum countries.

Second, it is vital that food security be established as early as possible in states emerging from conflict if we are to achieve solutions to humanitarian crises. This in turn will contribute to national reconciliation and durable peace. Humanitarian relief, including food aid, cannot be a long term response. Solutions to large-scale forced human displacement must be identified and promoted, especially voluntary repatriation. Greater efforts are necessary to facilitate the early transition from humanitarian relief to sustainable development so as to establish food security and facilitate the reintegration of displaced persons, as the experiences in Cambodia, Mozambique and Rwanda illustrate. In many instances, my Office has provided relief assistance to refugees returning home, including seeds, farming tools and basic shelter materials. In addition, short-term quick impact projects aim to re-integrate the returnees and to promote communal self-sufficiency, including through land cooperatives, water wells, and animal husbandry projects. Let me briefly draw your attention to some of the obstacles we face. The presence of land-mines frequently poses a threat to returnees, rendering valuable arable land unusable and forcing people to move again in search of the basic necessities of life. Among the returnees are many female-headed households, women who may not be able to reclaim property, especially land, because of discriminatory inheritance traditions. We must indeed emphasize the role of women in achieving food security, and ensure their full participation in the development of policies and implementation of programmes.

Third, the long-term food security of vulnerable populations must be assured if we are to prevent humanitarian emergencies. For example, the famine in Somalia was a major factor in the flight of more than 1 million people to neighbouring countries. Emergency responses and solutions to humanitarian crises are by definition only reactive. More active preventive policies must be pursued, in which efforts to eradicate poverty are combined with the promotion of responsible governance and respect for human rights.

Mr. Chairman,

Ensuring food security is not only a development issue but is also of utmost concern to humanitarian agencies. I fully commit my Office to support the Plan of Action and to implement the provisions relevant to the work of my Office. I feel bound to note, however, that the best efforts of humanitarian agencies to help save civilians from famine and to prevent or mitigate humanitarian emergencies will not be enough without the exercise of the political courage and the resolute action necessary to address their causes. The knowledge that thousands of our fellow human beings, the great majority women and children, are now dying unnecessarily in eastern Zaire is hard to bear. It should focus us all on the urgent tasks that this Summit seeks to advance.

Thank you.