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"Assuring the Security of People: the Humanitarian Challenge of the 21st Century"

Speeches and statements

"Assuring the Security of People: the Humanitarian Challenge of the 21st Century"

14 June 1995
Eighth Olof Palme Memorial Lecture, by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm.

It is a great privilege and pleasure for me to deliver the eighth Olof Palme Memorial Lecture.

Mr. Palme was a great leader and a man of vision, who foresaw long before his time the framework of international cooperation which alone could bring peace and prosperity to a sharply divided and heavily armed world. He devoted his life to the quest for peace and development, both of which are of fundamental importance to the work of my Office. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1951 to protect and assist refugees and to find solutions to their problems. Refugees are a direct result of conflict, which is often aggravated by poverty and social inequities. The prevention and solution of refugee problems are therefore dependent on the promotion of peace and development.

The Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, chaired by Olof Palme, articulated the concept of "common security". Concerned by the arms race between the two blocs, the Palme Commission recognized that lasting security could not be attained unless the commitment was shared by all, and based on principles of equity, justice, and reciprocity. "International security", Olof Palme wrote, "must rest on a commitment to joint survival rather than a threat of mutual destruction."

Had Olof Palme been here with us today, he would have been impressed by the prevailing spirit of international cooperation. His call for common security has finally been heeded. But I believe he would have been appalled to find, that despite these measures, in too many countries, in too many parts of the world people are in greater danger today than ever before. I think Mr. Palme would have been among the first to agree that the concept of security must be broadened beyond the protection of national borders to also include the security of the people who live within those borders. This is one of the conclusions of the report of the Commission on Global Governance, co-chaired by Prime Minister Carlson, and in which I had the honour to participate.

In my lecture today I would like to focus on international security and the refugee problem from the perspective of the security of people, which I see as the major humanitarian challenge of the 21st century. Why is the security of people likely to be a major concern of the coming decades? How does it relate to the issue of refugees and displaced persons? How can the United Nations respond more effectively to refugee problems? How can a humanitarian perspective of security be utilized to develop more effective means of preventing conflicts which produce refugees? These are some of the questions I would like to address today.

"Soft" Security: Threats of the Twenty-First Century

Let me begin by examining the kinds of security threats which are likely to confront us in the twenty-first century.

Traditionally, international security has been interpreted as the survival of the nation state from external attack, and defined primarily in military and strategic terms. The protection of people within states was a responsibility of the state, and not an issue of international concern.

The uncertainties and upheavals of the post-Cold War world have brought a major reassessment of those concepts. Broader notions of what I would call "soft" security are emerging. Increasingly, it is being recognized that security threats are not only external, but also internal. They cover not only military aspects but also political, social and economic concerns, such as poverty and unemployment, population explosion and environmental degradation, resurgent nationalism and social tensions, uncontrolled migration and coerced displacement, the proliferation of narcotics, crime and small arms.

Existing borders are being threatened today, not so much by would-be hegemons from outside as by discontented ethnic, national, religious and other groups from within who are willing to take up arms to push their claims. Internal conflicts are not a new phenomenon, of course. In post-colonial Africa and Asia, the political process of forging and consolidating nation states led to prolonged civil wars in a number of countries. Converted into East-West confrontations during the Cold War by the super power rivalry of the time, the ethnic dimensions of many of these conflicts are now becoming more apparent. More dramatically, in Europe the demise of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union have revived ancient rivalries and opened up new divisions along ethnic and national lines, from the Balkans and eastern Europe through the Caucasus to central Asia. Exploited by unscrupulous leaders in pursuit of their own ambitions, they have generated enormous violence and untold human suffering.

Underlying these internal conflicts are long simmering problems of unbalanced development, economic marginalization and social inequities, often exacerbated by demographic growth and environmental degradation, and aggravated by inept and corrupt government. Some of the most bitter confrontations in Africa have been over diminishing land and water resources. The spasmodic outbursts of killings in Rwanda and Burundi are rooted in the conflict over land between the Hutus, a sedentary population, and the Tutsis, a transhumant, nomadic population.

The new breed of intra-state conflicts are fought not by regular armies but militias and warlords using small arms, with little discipline and total disregard for basic principles of human rights and humanitarian law. Violence and terror tactics are used deliberately to force one group of people to leave territory shared with another. Displacement is not only a consequence of the war but also some times its very objective, as former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus have shown. Women and children are the most frequent victims and targets of the brutality.

Not surprisingly, we are confronted with refugee flows and humanitarian emergencies on a scale rarely seen before. Today, UNHCR is responsible for some 27 million people uprooted by war, violence and gross violations of human rights. This number includes refugees who have been forced to flee abroad, returnees who have come home but are yet to be reintegrated and people who find themselves displaced inside their own countries or otherwise affected by war and violence. Since April 1994, the United Nations system is grappling with one of the worst humanitarian disasters in Africa: the aftermath of war and genocide in Rwanda. The fragile situation in Burundi may portend a deeper crisis. Humanitarian emergencies have also erupted in West Africa, a region with close to one million refugees, and in the Caucasus where some 400,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Meanwhile the crises in Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia and former Yugoslavia continue unabated.

On the part of receiving countries, the political incentive to grant asylum has diminished with the end of the Cold War, and refugee flows are being perceived as a major threat to the stability of the host society. Frequently people fleeing violence and human rights abuses at home are confronted with danger, rejection at frontiers or legal obstacles in their search for asylum. Too often there is pressure to create "safe havens" in conflict-torn countries or promote repatriation, rather than grant asylum abroad.

Whereas struggles for self-determination in the era of decolonization created new states, today's ethnic conflicts tend to destroy states and paralyse governance, as in Somalia, Afghanistan and Liberia. These failed states are in no position to protect their people, let alone receive and rehabilitate those who fled. Looking ahead at the twenty-first century, I see the numbers and categories of people in need of protection expanding. As the lacuna in national protection widens, more and more people will be compelled to flee their homes in search of safety elsewhere, endangering regional stability. The Great Lakes region of Africa, the Caucasus and the Balkans are ominous signs of what the future might hold.

This is why I believe the humanitarian challenge of the 21st century will be to ensure the security of people. Unless people feel secure in their own homes, the security of states will continue to be threatened by internal tensions and refugee flows.

People's Security: International Response to the Refugee Problem

What can we do to respond to these threats?

As refugees and the displaced become part of the global agenda for peace and security, the humanitarian strategy needs to be broadened and revitalized in the light of the new context within which we must work. On the one hand, the United Nations must be prepared to assure the security of people and meet the humanitarian needs of the victims, whether they be within national borders or across them. On the other hand, we must pursue solutions to the humanitarian problem and prevent new occurrences.

In the past, UNHCR waited for refugees to cross the border before providing protection and assistance. For reasons which I have explained, that reactive approach is neither adequate nor advisable today. Borders can no longer denote the parameters of international concern. Borders, like concepts of security, are becoming "soft" and more permeable. They are losing some of their tenacity either because of such benign influences as economic interdependence and information technology or more baleful ones, such as secessionist claims. Furthermore, there is growing awareness that grave violations of human rights and minority rights can have serious consequences for regional and international security, as shown by UN Security Council resolution 688 which was adopted in April 1991 in response to the Kurdish crisis in northern Iraq. The international community is not only willing, but actually beginning to encourage action to respond to humanitarian emergencies closer to the source.

In an effort to promote early solutions and pre-empt cross-border flows, UNHCR has shifted its activities from a bias on exile to a focus on the country of origin of refugees. We continue to emphasize the importance of asylum abroad, for instance through the notion of temporary protection for refugees from the former Yugoslavia in other European countries. But we are also concurrently working to improve the security of people threatened by conflict, violence and persecution in their own country.

UNHCR's growing involvement with the internally displaced is one indication of this change. The distinction between refugees and internally displaced is increasingly blurred in a world of declining states and shifting more permeable, "soft" borders. Refugees often return home to find themselves internally displaced. The internally displaced are likely to cross the border and become refugees if their protection and assistance needs remain unmet. This is why, in April 1991 I decided that UNHCR would assist the Iraqi Kurds who were stranded just inside Iraq. Faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of women and children perishing in the cold on the mountain sides, I felt that the border should not be interpreted legally, as a dividing line but, pragmatically, as an area in which there was no Iraqi sovereign authority able or willing to protect the people. Today, in Bosnia Herzegovina UNHCR is helping not only the displaced but also the entire war-affected population in the "safe areas".

At the request of the Secretary-General we are protecting and assisting the internally displaced in a number of countries, including Sri Lanka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and the Russian Federation. At its 48th session the UN General Assembly encouraged us to act on behalf of the internally displaced, particularly when there is a link to an existing or potential refugee problem.

We are equally conscious of the need to protect refugees when they return home. Although millions of refugees have successfully returned, for instance to Indochina, Central America and southern Africa, many others are going home to uncertainty and lingering insecurity. Some 2.6 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, some 400,000 refugees to Somalia and over half a million refugees to Rwanda. These countries have been devastated by war. Ensuring the security of those who return entails on the one hand, helping them to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency and, on the other, monitoring their physical safety and basic human rights. UNHCR is working closely with NGOs and development agencies to establish community-based quick-impact projects to reintegrate returning refugees and displaced persons. Given our capacity and competence, what we can do is very limited, while the needs of war-torn societies like Rwanda and Afghanistan are enormous. If the gap between relief and rehabilitation is to be reduced, then new mechanisms and methods must be devised to raise funds faster and earlier, and use them flexibly to meet the complex task of rebuilding war-torn societies.

Ensuring the physical security of the people is even more problematic than assuring their material security. The recent incident at the Kibeho camp in Rwanda illustrated the dilemmas inherent in protecting people in their own country. Legally, they are nationals under the sovereign jurisdiction of their state. Yet, the task of the United Nations peace-keepers and humanitarian organizations is to protect and assist them against possible violence by that very state. The issue is how to uphold the security of people when it conflicts with the security of the state. For the humanitarian organizations, the choice is clear, though the impact may be limited.

In the absence of adequate legal instruments or effective mechanisms, we have resorted to international presence as the main tool for protecting people in their own country. In northern Iraq, UNHCR assigned 180 staff members, augmented by international NGO personnel. In an innovative move, the UN deployed some 500 guards, as a confidence building measure. (Their presence was also useful in protecting Kurdish refugees during the recent Turkish action in northern Iraq.) In Tajikistan UNHCR has deployed mobile teams to monitor the human rights of the internally displaced and returning refugees and take action to correct abuses. In El Salvador, Cambodia, Haiti, Rwanda and Guatemala, we are working closely with UN human rights monitors and NGOs to boost international presence. In Somalia we moved desperately needed food and other relief goods in a cross-border operation from Kenya in order to enhance security and stabilize outflow through international presence and assistance.

The situation in former Yugoslavia, however, illustrates the limits of international humanitarian presence alone to protect people, despite the deployment of some 600 UNHCR staff, supported by 6,000 UNPROFOR troops. The UN intervention saved many lives, but did not really succeed in assuring the security of people. "Ethnic cleansing" and displacement have continued. The situation remains as grave as ever.

The United Nations has tried increasingly to deal with the security of people through a new generation of UN operations, which include peace-keeping or peace-enforcement measures in conjunction with humanitarian actors. Whether in Namibia or Nicaragua, Cambodia or Mozambique, Rwanda, Liberia or Georgia, the Security Council has consistently recognized the importance of resolving the humanitarian problem as part of its efforts to promote reconciliation and reach a political settlement.

However, the UN'S ability to achieve these dual goals has been mixed. The "peace plans" in Cambodia, El Salvador and Mozambique enabled millions of refugees and displaced persons to return home safely. Their return in turn consolidated the process of peace and national reconciliation and assisted rehabilitation. But even in Cambodia, where the UN operation was based on an agreement which supposedly ensured the consent of all parties, the UN found itself having to implement the agreement in the face of bitter opposition from one of the parties, and considerable non-compliance from the other. In Somalia, where the Security Council authorized military intervention for humanitarian purposes, the use of force without parallel efforts at nation-building offered no solution. In Bosnia, UNPROFOR was initially deployed with a humanitarian mandate under peace-keeping rules of engagement but has now been authorized to use force for certain limited purposes, which has complicated its humanitarian functions. Humanitarian action is predicated on principles of impartiality and neutrality, but authorizing the use of force against one or other party in a conflict is neither neutral nor impartial. Enforcement action, even when it has a humanitarian goal, is mounted as a result of political decisions and is directed by political actors. In such cases, UN humanitarian operations by virtue of their association with the military forces are unlikely to be viewed as neutral and open themselves to retaliation by one or more parties, as has occurred in Somalia and now increasingly in Bosnia.

"Soft Intervention": a New Strategy of Prevention

Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia have many lessons to offer, but possibly the two major ones are, firstly, the conflicting relationship between the security of a state and the security of its people, and secondly, the limits of military intervention in ensuring both forms of security in today's world.

I believe we should draw on these lessons to develop a strategy to prevent conflicts through non-military means, which is ultimately the best way of ensuring security of people. I believe such a strategy can be built by exploiting in a positive manner the symbiotic relationship between humanitarian action, political initiatives and development assistance.

I would like to call this kind of an integrated approach "soft" intervention, to distinguish it from "hard", military intervention. Just as we now recognize that security threats cannot be fully explained in military or strategic terms, so too we need to acknowledge that responses to them cannot depend primarily on military means. To cope with the "soft" security threats of the kind produced by large-scale population displacement we require a notion of "soft" intervention.

"Soft" intervention should seek to strengthen the capacity of the international community to avert conflict before armed confrontation breaks out by drawing together the political, humanitarian and development actors into a coherent and coordinated framework of action. For UNHCR cooperation with the political arms of the UN is essential in order to resolve or prevent refugee crises. Prevention is an intensely political task. It entails international intervention in domestic disputes, and raises major concerns about sovereignty. It may be easier to allay some of these concerns if greater emphasis is placed on non-military, humanitarian measures at an earlier stage. The presence and activities of humanitarian organizations to protect and assist civilians in a neutral and impartial manner can help to stabilize fragile situations and buy time and space for political negotiations. Humanitarian organizations can make an important contribution to the peace-making role of the UN Secretary-General, his "good offices" function, and boost the range of preventive activities such as fact-finding missions, monitoring or mediation.

I would like to stress also the importance of integrating development and rehabilitation assistance in the concept of "soft" intervention, both to prevent the outbreak of a new conflict as well as to pre-empt renewed violence in post-conflict societies.

"Soft" intervention, unlike military intervention, would not necessarily require Security Council authorization, nor deployment of troops, and therefore could be undertaken discreetly and at a much earlier stage. It could utilize the early response capacity which agencies like UNHCR have already developed to field emergency teams at very short notice. Another attractive feature of "soft" intervention would be the relatively low cost. Humanitarian operations cost a fraction of what it takes to deploy peace-keepers.

In practical terms, "soft" intervention would mean that political missions and negotiations by the UN Secretary-General would be reinforced on the ground with the presence of UN humanitarian agencies, supported by development activities and supplemented, if necessary, with such civilian elements as UN guards and UN civilian police.

UNHCR's experience in various parts of the world has proven the restraining effect of international presence. Even a token international presence can sometimes give a sense of confidence and security. However, effective presence must allow not only for monitoring but also remedial action when violations occur. Protection, as practised by UNHCR, is not just monitoring a set of legal standards. UNHCR officers in the field are expected not only to observe and report human rights violations but to act upon them to ensure the personal security of uprooted civilians.

In order to be effective, the international presence must be operational and sustained over time. It must above all be strictly humanitarian, driven by the needs of the victims and fully respecting the principles of impartiality and non-partisanship. Respect of these principles is essential to the credibility of humanitarian action and hence to the ability to protect human beings and find solutions to their plight. It is only by building trust and confidence among the victims that humanitarian organizations can go where peace-keeping forces cannot.

In conclusion, let me say that the security threats to the traditional sanctity of national borders are coming today, not from external aggression, but from internal tensions. The dramatic transformation of our world will intensify those threats in the coming century, and conventional responses, based on the use of military force, will be both too little and too late an answer to them. We must look at new ways and means to respond to those threats which affect not only the security of states but also the security of people. "Soft" security threats must be met by "soft" intervention. The impulse of an inter-state system is to preserve borders, but within that system, the protection of people, particularly minorities, needs to be better assured. There must be greater political appreciation of the UN's dynamic humanitarian role and the potential it offers for prevention of conflicts. There must be better integration of political initiatives with humanitarian action and development. The time is ripe for the international community to examine the range of "soft" interventions in order to protect people. These measures will in turn contribute to the security of states. The ultimate challenge is to set up mechanisms that will integrate diverse courses of action into a common strategy and to mobilize the political will to act. From the perspective of a humanitarian organization, it is only when humanitarian action is integrated into a global strategy of international peace and security, human rights and economic and social development, that we will do to justice to the life and work of Olof Palme to create a more peaceful world.

Thank you.