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Canadian National Committee for Humanitarian Law Inaugural Annual Lecture, by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, University of Ottawa, 4 November 1998

Speeches and statements

Canadian National Committee for Humanitarian Law Inaugural Annual Lecture, by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, University of Ottawa, 4 November 1998

4 November 1998
Humanitarian challengesUpholding refugee asylumThe importance of humanitarian interventionThe future of refugee and humanitarian work

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to be here at the University of Ottawa, and I am very honoured by your invitation to deliver the inaugural annual lecture for the National Committee for Humanitarian Law. The Committee was formed with the objective to create a broader and more vigorous constituency in Canada for humanitarian law. This is very important. My years as High Commissioner have convinced me that international humanitarian efforts cannot be sustained or ultimately succeed without the understanding, compassion and active support of ordinary citizens, particularly in countries such as Canada.

The Committee has the good fortune to be able to build upon a historical tradition of internationalism and humanitarian commitment in Canada. Recently, Canadian leadership played an indispensable role in two great achievements of this decade - the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines and the Rome treaty establishing the International Criminal Court.

Not all of Canada's humanitarian contributions are made on the grand international stage. In 1986, the people of Canada were awarded the Nansen Medal for their compassion and generosity toward the world's refugees. The Nansen Medal keeps alive the humanitarian spirit of Fridtjof Nansen, the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and honours distinguished individuals and organisations who have rendered exceptional service to refugees. The Canadians are the first and only people to have been honoured collectively with this award.

The Nansen Medal recognised the unique partnership between the Government, non-governmental organisations, church groups and individual citizens that ensures the successful settlement and integration of refugees in Canada. I believe that Canadians should be proud that they have met this challenge and continue to make an outstanding contribution to the cause of refugees, both at home and overseas.

Humanitarian challenges

The events of the past decade - especially in the former Yugoslavia and in Central Africa - have posed formidable challenges to the concept of humanitarian action. We have faced agonising dilemmas. In the former Yugoslavia, our choices were sometimes excruciating: to be an accomplice to ethnic cleansing by helping persecuted groups flee their areas, or to refuse this involuntary complicity, but let these people be killed. In the former Eastern Zaire, the only choice we could give to refugees whom we found in the rain forest was to either leave them at the mercy of killers, or help them return to Rwanda, to deeply divided, and sometimes hostile communities.

Much reflection and soul-searching followed the Bosnian war, the Rwandan genocide and the successive refugee crises they have engendered. World leaders have pledged that the international community would never again turn its back and allow such human suffering to occur. The terrible violence against civilians seen in many conflicts over the past two years seems to mock their words.

The mutilations and killings by rebel forces in Sierra Leone, including of women and children, are perhaps the most shocking example. The images of the Kosovo conflict reaching the world through television are also hauntingly familiar - tractors pulling flatbed trailers with entire families and the few possessions they could salvage - burned out homes and shops - and, worst, shocked and grieving parents at the funeral of a small child.

Among the first casualties of the Sierra Leone and Kosovo crises was our confidence that the international community had fully absorbed the lessons that past tragedies should have taught us. We need new thinking and approaches to both the political and humanitarian dimensions of such crises. We must approach forced displacement through closer international cooperation and solidarity, or we will surely witness a repetition of such horrors, somewhere, in the future.

The primary objective of humanitarian action is to save lives. This is a widely accepted, almost tautological, statement. Saving lives is a moral impulse, not a legal doctrine. In the international context, that impulse must be translated into reality through a system in which states are still the major actors. Under international law the sovereign state is the protector and guarantor of its own people, and of their fundamental rights. In reality, states very often fail to fulfil this obligation.

The international community - which essentially means other states - has two basic ways to help those at risk: facilitate their escape from danger and protect them in exile, or intervene to end the danger in their home countries. Sometimes this is presented as a choice between asylum or intervention. Experience has shown us, however, that an effective humanitarian response often requires a commitment from the international community to both asylum and intervention.

Upholding refugee asylum

Asylum is the cornerstone of refugee protection. At a time when the basic foundations of the international protection regime are being so directly challenged in Europe and elsewhere, we continue to promote the commitment of governments to the refugee status determination system based in refugee conventions - particularly the 1951 Geneva Convention. In the present situation, this is not easy. National governments have become more and more reluctant to open their doors to asylum-seekers, especially when large numbers of people are involved. In industrialised societies - but also increasingly in developing countries - governments adopt restrictive asylum policies and resort to a narrower interpretation of refugee law. The focus of legislation dealing with asylum has shifted from protection to control. States also tighten border controls in a more than legitimate effort to deal with terrorism and threats to security.

Migrant trafficking has also become a serious concern for States. But traffickers in human beings do not discriminate between people fearing persecution, people seeking jobs and those with a criminal intent. Mixed flows do not justify the intentional confusion of refugees with others. All too often, the word "refugee" appears in the media in close proximity to words such as "illegal migrant" or, worse, "criminal" or "terrorist." We are not naive. We know that would-be immigrants and even criminals attempt to misuse asylum systems. But the linking of refugees in the public consciousness with persons who have committed criminal acts disturbs me greatly. Refugees are, by definition, the victims of human rights violations and violent conflict, not the perpetrators. More than one half of the world's refugees, after all, are children.

We look to Canada for leadership and constancy in these troubling times. I was very gratified that Minister Lucienne Robillard, in her recent speech to the International Association of Refugee Law Judges conference in Ottawa, called upon Canada to keep its doors open to asylum-seekers who need protection and to uphold the spirit and the principle of the 1951 United Nations Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Canada's steadfast commitment to a Convention-based refugee status determination system is heartening. As Canada's ongoing immigration legislative review process moves forward, we will count upon you to hold the line.

The importance of humanitarian intervention

Asylum alone is not a sufficient response to today's complex humanitarian emergencies involving large scale forced human displacement. The international community must continue to resort to humanitarian intervention to respond to the regional and internal armed conflicts that have proliferated in the post-Cold War era, and to the refugee crises which have followed. The track record on this score, however, is not altogether promising. Over time, states and intergovernmental organisations have come to accept the gradual erosion of the sovereignty barrier against humanitarian assistance in conflict situations. UN Security Council Resolution 688 of 1991, which opened the door of Northern Iraq to humanitarian intervention, is probably the most explicit formulation to date.

Prohibition against intervention in the internal affairs of states, however, remains very strong. The results of actual interventions to suppress violence and restore peaceful relations among peoples at war within their own societies have been mixed. Intervention is costly, in financial, political and human terms. And so the will to intervene, even in the face of horrific violations of human rights, seems to have faded as the decade has progressed.

Operation Provide Comfort, in Northern Iraq, gave rise to the illusion that the New World Order would include a New Humanitarian Order. We know, of course, how history challenged the overall concept of New World Order. Somalia, in particular, represented the failure of its humanitarian ambitions. This affected all subsequent attempts to mobilise military support to humanitarian action. The international community is increasingly reluctant to intervene in a significant manner - that is, by sending armed forces - to help victims of conflicts, if and where such conflicts are ongoing. Interventions, when they occur, are usually constrained by limited mandates. This has very negative consequences in humanitarian, but not only humanitarian, terms. In former Yugoslavia, a conflict of particular violence and complexity, it was only its proximity to the West, and the horrors of Srebrenica, which convinced western countries to dispatch troops with a more decisive mandate than UNPROFOR's, and to compel the warring parties to discuss peace at Dayton.

The withdrawal of UN troops from Rwanda in April 1994 coincided with an explosion of genocidal violence, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. In refugee camps in Eastern Zaire, armed elements and political extremists could not be separated from genuine refugees. In November 1996, a Security Council resolution supporting the dispatch of troops to help protect refugees in the embattled areas of Eastern Zaire was not implemented - despite the very strenuous efforts of the Canadian Government. The flight and death of thousands of unprotected refugees in the rainforest, which is recent history, was the result of that failed intervention.

Faced with such challenges, I would argue that to remain effective, humanitarian intervention must be both well planned and compassionate. This may mean at times confronting painful trade-offs between short-term and long-term goals. In my view, however, the presumption must be strongly in favour of helping people to survive - when choices are limited as they were in the former Zaire - in order that they may be able to make their own choices later. Because humanitarian organisations have developed considerable expertise in providing food, water, sanitation and shelter, saving lives at least offers the morality of a relatively sure option. As much as humanitarians must guard against over-reach, we should also guard against over-caution, and not be afraid to do what we can.

The future of refugee and humanitarian work

The history of recent humanitarian crises clearly shows that it is only when the international community takes global responsibility in conflict resolution that tragic consequences of forced displacement can be averted or at least mitigated. Humanitarian intervention does not and cannot eliminate the root causes of the problems it addresses. In spite of their increasing "sophistication", if I may use this term, humanitarian responses can only make a sustainable contribution to peace when they occur as part of a more comprehensive approach which includes, in particular, a political dimension. Foreign Minister Axworthy articulated a hopeful view in his recent speech to the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Stating that the "international community is at a cross-roads in the management of global affairs," he said:

"The principles of state sovereignty by which we have been guided for so long have by no means withered. But increasingly these traditional notions are being challenged - in some cases outweighed - by the need to act in support of purely humanitarian goals, in defence of the security of the individual."

States can contribute to achieving and maintaining peace and human security on many levels, acting both independently and in concert with the international community. I would like to highlight four areas, from UNHCR's viewpoint, where the input of Canada and other supportive nations is critical.

First, asylum must not be abandoned. Many refugee crises have their origin in abuses of human rights. Some of the governments that strongly support human rights abroad do not seem to grasp the contradiction between this attitude and restrictive asylum policies at home. Affirming the principles of asylum, putting those principles into consistent practice and cooperating with other countries to do the same are perhaps the most important step that governments can take to help people in danger.

Second, let me repeat once again a point on which I have insisted for many years. Humanitarian intervention is not a substitute for political action. I am aware that this has been stated and restated so frequently that it has almost become a slogan. Unfortunately, in spite of this, the lessons of Bosnia and of the Great Lakes region do not seem to have been learned. Although the recent events in Kosovo give cause for cautious optimism, the only significant intervention by the international community in most conflicts is still of a humanitarian nature. But even worse are the expectations placed on humanitarian action, with little or no consideration of the need for political backing. Unless humanitarian efforts take place within the political context of a global peacemaking effort, they will obviously be unable to solve the root causes of the displacement problem, and may eventually fail to address even the basic humanitarian problems which made intervention necessary.

Third, one of the characteristics of situations of forced human displacement, as I have said, is insecurity. It is therefore essential to promote more effective and accessible security arrangements in support of humanitarian interventions. Working in situations of conflict, we often have to leave unarmed humanitarian staff facing grave security risks to which governments are not even prepared to expose their military forces.

My Office, in close coordination with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, has developed the concept of a "ladder", or range of mechanisms to deal with insecure situations of forced human displacement, without limiting ourselves to the traditional, large, costly and politically complex multinational peacekeeping operations. While the concept is fairly clear in theory, it is now essential to give it practical implementation. One option may be to identify stand-by human and material resources, ready for deployment at short notice. Establishing lower profile mechanisms - capacity-building for national police forces or the judiciary, for example - may also help make the provision of external security support to humanitarian operations more acceptable to governments. They may see it as reinforcing, rather than infringing upon, their sovereignty and authority. I am counting on Canada's peacekeeping and humanitarian tradition to provide support to this initiative.

Fourth and last, I believe that the international community must pay greater attention to post-conflict situations. Without a commitment of resources and political will to ensure stability in post-conflict situations, peace and the process of reconciliation simply cannot take hold. The changing nature of war means that the nature of peace is changing as well. The outcome of internal conflicts is very often a rather fragile peace, prone to renewed conflict and hence to fresh displacement - the examples of Cambodia, Angola, Bosnia and Rwanda come easily to mind. In divided societies emerging from violent inter-communal clashes, rehabilitation work should include efforts to bring communities together more concretely and systematically than is the case at present. Rehabilitation should indeed have a preventive dimension.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Before concluding, let me say a few words about a situation which sums up many of the problems and challenges I have attempted to describe - I refer to the conflict and the refugee crisis in Kosovo, a political problem with devastating humanitarian consequences. As I said before, a high price - in human lives and suffering - has already been paid for having allowed the extension and aggravation of a conflict which observers had predicted for years. We must hope that the arrival of the OSCE Verification Mission, and NATO security guarantees, will give people the confidence to return home and begin rebuilding their lives.

In the last few weeks, the response to this crisis has been comprehensive. NATO has provided essential backing to diplomatic negotiations by threatening to use force. This prompted the unilateral declaration by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that it would withdraw its military and police forces, largely responsible for the worst acts of violence against civilians. Meanwhile, the international community decided to mobilize, through OSCE, civilian compliance verifiers; and to press ahead with negotiations aimed at obtaining a durable political settlement for Kosovo.

I have said many times that humanitarian action is ineffective without political support: the Kosovo example proves that the international community can, if it has the will, provide such support. Although the objective of reaching a political settlement has not yet been met, we have at least been able to accelerate humanitarian work - and, in spite of the tremendous difficulties, with a sense of not being alone, and of participating in a broader effort to bring peace to this area.

The road ahead in Kosovo is full of uncertainties. The task of reconciling the contradictory agendas of the Yugoslav government and of the Albanian majority in Kosovo is formidable. The comprehensive framework I have described must remain in place, and be strengthened: with winter setting in, meeting the basic humanitarian needs of the people of Kosovo will be a challenge, especially in the very crucial area of shelter reconstruction.

The possibility that the current fragile situation can deteriorate is clear. At the same time, we have no choice but to accept this challenge, since the consequences of failing to do so are clearly worse.

In conclusion, though it is still difficult to predict, I very much hope that the response to the Kosovo crisis will indicate new ways for the international community to address and resolve conflicts in which civilians are displaced and killed.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.