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Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 26 July 1976

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 26 July 1976

26 July 1976

Mr. Chairman,

I would first like to express my gratitude for this opportunity to address the Economic and Social Council.

My intention is not on this occasion to analyze in detail the various problems of refugees and displaced persons - who are the concern of my Office. These are dealt with in my annual report contained in document E/5853 of 2 June 1976. I would merely indicate that the form of this report has been modified to take into account the wish expressed by the General Assembly in its resolution 3271 (XXIX) of 10 December 1974 that I should in future report on the Special Operations entrusted to my Office in the same way as for other activities. I would rather, if you allow me, concentrate on the institutional evolution of my Office during this last quarter of a century, which has been so rich in events. As you know, in its resolution 319 (XI) of 16 August 1950, the Economic and Social Council proposed the creation of my Office and defined its Statute. More than 40 resolutions and decisions adopted since prove that the Council has never failed to give its support and advice with regard to the activities of my Office. It is therefore natural for me today to seek the advice of the Council at a time which appears to me to be important for the future of UNHCR.

The Council will recall that before the establishment of UNHCR, first the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and later the International Refugee Organization (KRO) were entrusted with the mandate to take care of both refugees and displaced persons. In 1951 UNHCR started its work within a limited framework and on the basis of a precise definition of the persons it was called upon to look after. The evolution of the world situation, especially during the past few years, has meant that, for humanitarian reasons, UNHCR has had to undertake activities in favour of certain categories of displaced persons which came outside the framework of its normal activities. This constituted, in some respects, a return to the original concepts adopted by the United Nations at a time when its activities covered uprooted persons as a whole.

As we know, events and their related socio-political problems do not necessarily fit into the established institutional framework. National legislation has thus to be constantly adapted to the development of situations as well as of ideas. The same need for constant adaptation has been seen within international organizations such as the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly.

Thus, shortly after the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the General Assembly introduced into its resolutions from 1957 onwards the concept of good offices which enabled the High Commissioner to intervene on behalf of groups of persons who did not strictly speaking come within the terms of his mandate as defined in the Statute of his Office in 1950.

This concept of good offices, at first applied by the General Assembly to specific cases, was gradually enlarged both in texts and in practice, in order to include in UNHCR's material assistance programmes categories of uprooted and displaced persons in need of international assistance. This concept of good offices has undoubtedly facilitated the work of the High Commissioner, has served the interests of the governments concerned and above all has enabled millions of persons to benefit from indispensable assistance. In agreement with governments, my Office continues to have recourse to this concept whenever a narrow legalistic approach would appear to be incompatible with the humanitarian objectives of UNHCR as defined by Member States.

In 1971 a massive movement of population took place, resulting in modes of action with I have since considered a turning point in the humanitarian approach of the United Nations Organization. I refer here to the displacement of millions of Bengalis to areas bordering on India. The Council will recall that at that time the Secretary-General requested the High Commissioner to act as "Focal Point" for the co-ordination of the humanitarian action of the United Nations to assist these persons. In this capacity, UNHCR, in co-operation with governments and non-governmental organizations, was able to mobilise massive assistance in a few months. This system of co-ordination has often been used since, in the humanitarian field as well as to promote solutions to major problems of a humanitarian and socio-economic character.

UNHCR also aims at participating in or implementing humanitarian efforts of a more general character as shown in various resolutions adopted by the General Assembly during recent years. Thus, in its resolution 2956 (XXVII) the General Assembly requested the High Commissioner inter alia to continue his humanitarian efforts in areas in which his Office "has particular expertise and experience". At its last session, the General Assembly in its resolution 3454 (XXX) reaffirmed the "eminently humanitarian character of the activities of the High Commissioner for the benefit of refugees and displaced persons." The Assembly thus reverted to the original definitions, which included displaced persons among those of concern to the international community.

The humanitarian actions, also known as "special operations", undertaken in the framework of the broader functions of UNHCR, followed, in many cases, international agreements or treaties bringing an end to situations of internal or external conflicts.

As a first example, I should mention the Addis Ababa agreement which in March 1972 permitted the establishment of an emergency and rehabilitation assistance network for returnees and displaced persons in Southern Sudan.

The first phase of this action was co-ordinated by UNHCR and more than half a million persons benefited from it. I have reported on several occasions to the Council which since its fifty-second session has adopted five resolutions on these "returnees and displaced persons."

The New Delhi agreement, adopted in August 1973 by the three countries of the Asian sub-continent, provided the necessary conditions for the transfer of groups of populations from Pakistan to Bangladesh and from Bangladesh and Nepal to Pakistan. The High Commissioner was then designated by the Secretary-General as the Executing Agent responsible for this operation which enabled 250,000 persons to return to normal living conditions.

Another example concerns UNHCR assistance to displaced persons in Indo-China. Following the 1973 Paris Agreement, it became possible to prepare a programme for Viet Nam. In September of the same year, as a result of the Vientiane Agreement, conditions enabled the launching of a programme in Laos on behalf of displaced persons, who represented one-third of the population. The aims of these programmes were to allow the displaced persons to return to their areas of origin and, in some cases, to start a new, normal, economic and social life in areas seriously affected by the war. These UNHCR assistance programmes have contributed in a very significant way to the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in Laos and in Viet Nam. In this connexion, the General Assembly, in its resolution 3455 (XXX) adopted last year, requested inter alia "the international community further to strengthen its support of the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees" on behalf of the "Indochinese displaced persons".

As a last example of a humanitarian assistance action implemented by UNHCR, I should like to mention the programme of co-ordination of United Nations humanitarian assistance to Cyprus. This action is not the result of any agreement or international treaty, but rather was launched in order to assist the affected populations pending the solution, through negotiations, to the conflict which caused their displacement.

Another aspect of the extension of the original mandate of UNHCR is reflected in the resolutions of the General Assembly which request the High Commissioner to assist repatriates to settle within their country of origin. As in other cases, this expansions in the activities of UNHCR was a consequence of this exigencies of the situation. Already in 1961, in its resolution 1672 (XVI), the General Assembly requested the High Commissioner to assist, "as soon as circumstances permit", in the rehabilitation of Algerian refugees returning from Tunisia and Morocco to their country of origin. Since then, similar assistance has been required from UNHCR on a number of occasions. This was the case in the South Sudan operation in 1972 and more recently in the case of territories in Africa formerly under Portuguese administration which have now gained independence. Thus, since last year, my Office has launched sizeable programmes of rehabilitation in Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. A similar programme is now under way for Angola. The General Assembly has on several occasions emphasized the role of the High Commissioner in this domain. More recently, in its resolution 3454 (XXX) of 9 December 1975, it requested the High Commissioner "to intensify his efforts on behalf of refugees in Africa, notably those returning to their countries following independence".

It goes without saying that the various activities to which I have just referred required, for their completion, the necessary administrative and financial means. This is an important practical aspect which needs special mention. Mr. President, the confidence of States in the activities of an international organizations expresses itself in the most tangible way in the form of financial contributions to its programmes. We in UNHCR are gratified that governments have always provided adequate means to carry out the tasks undertaken by my Office. This is all the more significant in view of the fact that due to the growth in situations throughout the world requiring UNHCR's intervention, there has been an increase of more than two hundred per cent in the overall annual financial requirements during the last three years.

Over a period of five years starting in 1971, the annual programme of material assistance required a total input of some $60 million. As compared to this figure, contributions in cash and kind to UNHCR for its "special humanitarian tasks" in favour of refugees and displaced persons amounted to over 350 million during the same period; that is say, almost six times more than the input for the traditional activities of UNHCR throughout the world.

These figures show on the one hand the importance attached by the international community to the needs of millions of persons, victims of man-made disasters, whose material situation is often analogous to that of refugees. They also, I believe, indicate the confidence of the international community in the ability of UNHCR to handle such situations.

As for the administrative structure, I believe governments will be pleased to know that, despite the considerable expansions in activities and the increase in financial means, UNHCR has remained a relatively small team. It is our experience that an increased in staff does not necessarily and automatically mean an increase in efficiency. In fact, I dare say the contrary is often true.

In the context of programme-budgeting, an understanding was reached by UNHCR with the Secretary General that, during a period of four years ending in 1977, the regular budget of UNHCR would remain constant in real terms. I am glad to be able to say that my Office has been able to abide fully by this understanding, which means, in fact, no increase in staff costs under the regular budget. The needs that have hitherto arisen for extra expenses have been covered without difficulty from voluntary funds. The budgets for special operations likewise contain a programme support component which allows temporary staff to be engaged for the duration of each operation. The average cost of programme support during the five-year period stating in 1971 has been about 5 per cent of the total input. This is less than half the average programme support normally used.

In these conditions, one might ask whether the time has not come to define in a more systematic way the overall criteria applicable to humanitarian actions of the United Nations which the latter has asked UNHCR to carry out in the past and will probably continue to do in the future. In this regard, I would like to point out three fundamental criteria:

(i) the needs to be met and the necessary action to be undertaken should be of a strictly humanitarian and non-political character.

(ii) a request to UNHCR must be made by the government or governments concerned. This, of course, applies to the material assistance programmes and not the protection functions for which it is essential that the High Commissioner retains the initiative entrusted to him under his mandate. A request by a government is required since no assistance programme can be implemented without the agreement of the State exercising sovereignty over the territory concerned. Moreover, the effect of such a request is that the responsibility of the State concerned is at least implicitly involved, whilst its collaboration in the humanitarian work creates the necessary conditions for the participation of other governments.

(iii) the status of the persons for whom the assistance programmes is to be implemented.

There is obviously no problem when the persons concerned are groups of refugees coming within the terms of the UNHCR Statute. In other cases, there is one condition: the beneficiaries of the assistance programme must be in a situation analogous to that of refugees. In other words, their hardship must arise from an uprooting, a displacement beyond their control, resulting from events or circumstances attributable to a man-made disaster. Such situations are often the result of international conflict, civil war, general political and social instability, etc.

In the context of special operations, these fundamental elements which constitute the basis of UNHCR's intervention, must be supported by circumstances in which the general consensus of the international community is already, more or less, present. Furthermore, a special effort to ensure a co-ordinated approach of the United Nations system is obviously necessary.

One can see that none of these conditions is entirely new. The novelty lies rather in their application to a range of situations which are far more varied than those originally envisaged and which do not necessarily belong to the earlier narrow framework of UNHCR's activities related to persons fearing persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinions. The overall criteria that I have just enumerated undoubtedly reflect an extension in UNHCR's competence as regards persons benefiting from its assistance, since the category of displaced persons is now added to that of refugees. It is also an extension to the extent that UNHCR is now called upon to co-ordinate important humanitarian programmes of the United Nations in the case of problems arising out of man-made disasters and whose principal characteristic is that persons affected by such events are, as a result, uprooted.

It is hardly necessary to add that nothing has changed as regards the statutory protection functions of the High Commissioner. These functions, which were originally the very basis or UNHCR's existence, continue to be important and pertinent at a time when the world is facing crisis after crisis arising out of violence. It would, perhaps, be appropriate to recall that UNHCR's duty is not to help or protect those who, through their activities contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations, place themselves outside the framework of humanitarian work. Article 2 of the 1951 Convention explicitly mentions the duties and obligations of refugees who are required to respect the laws of their country of asylum. The purpose of UNHCR's activities is to integrate refugees in the framework of a community enabling them to lead an active and peaceful life.

The relatively rapid institutional evolution of the function of my Office which I have endeavoured to outline, is in no way abstract or theoretical: it is the result of events. The international community could not, in fact, ignore the considerable magnitude of such events. In confirming and consolidating the initial competence of UNHCR, the General Assembly has also, in a prudent and empirical way progressively extended the sphere of competence of the Office to the extent that if has become one of the principal instruments of humanitarian policy. The result is that UNHCR is today better equipped to meet the demands of our time and satisfy the wishes of the international community whenever a problem concerning uprooted persons arises as a result of a "man-made disaster".

Mr. President, I deemed it my duty, at this stage of the evolution of my Office to share with the Council my thinking and to draw attention of governments to new and important aspects of the activities of UNHCR. We are at the service of governments and it is up to governments to decide how best to use an institution such as ours to implement international humanitarian policy. Having defined its objectives, the General Assembly proceeded to acquire the means to attain time. In this regard, I can hardly over-emphasize the importance of institutional problems. The efficiency or our work is, in a large measure, linked to them just as it is dependent on the confidence placed in us. It is gratifying to note in this regard that despite considerable expansion in our activities, this confidence in us has remained intact. In sharing with the Council today the broad lines of UNHCR's evolution and in seeking once again its guidance which it has always provided us, my hope is to see confidence and support of governments further strengthened since they are the very basis of the success of our activities.

Thank you.