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Nansen Medal Award Ceremony: Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the presentation of the Nansen Medal for 1993 to Médecins Sans Frontières, Geneva, 12 October 1993

Speeches and statements

Nansen Medal Award Ceremony: Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the presentation of the Nansen Medal for 1993 to Médecins Sans Frontières, Geneva, 12 October 1993

12 October 1993

Doctor de Milliano, Excellencies, Dear fellow members of the Nansen Committee, Dear Colleagues and Friends

It is a particular pleasure for me to address you on the occasion of the Nansen Award ceremony. This evening, we are both commemorating an exceptional man and recognizing the achievements of an exceptional NGO.

The Nansen Medal award was created in 1954. Seldom before, I believe, has the recipient of the award held so much in common with the Norwegian explorer for whom the medal is named.

Fridtjof Nansen was a man who defied all conventional boundaries in his search for knowledge and justice. As an explorer, he was constantly expanding the limits of scientific thought. He was truly a man "sans frontières". In 1921, in recognition of his involvement with the stateless and the displaced in the aftermath of the First World War, he was named High Commissioner for Refugees. Millions of people owed their lives to his unfailing dedication to their plight and constant interventions with Governments on their behalf. He left a legacy which serves today as the basis for the international protection and assistance of refugees.

Through the creation of the Nansen passport, the explorer ensured the free passage across borders of thousands of refugees. Now, as these same borders become ever more difficult for refugees to cross, the Nansen passport bears testimony to the unique vision of a man passionately committed to the basic liberties which still guide UNHCR's actions.

At the beginning of the 1920s, Nansen concentrated his efforts on bringing relief to the thousands of Russians displaced by war, threatened by famine and helpless before the onset of a sub-arctic winter. It is estimated that between six and seven million people were saved by Nansen's bold actions.

Seventy years later, on the very threshold of the 21st century, we seem to have come full circle. Images from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia remind us daily that once again war and winter threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Europe. And once again, only decisive action on the part of the international community can prevent humanitarian disaster.

Nansen owed his appointment as High Commissioner for Refugees to the initiative of NGOs and to the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who appealed to the League of Nations in February 1921 to appoint a Commissioner for Refugees and to define the status of "Russian refugees". The joint action of Nansen and the NGOs on behalf of those in grave need in Russia led to one of the most successful relief operations in the history of humanitarian efforts. Similarly today, joint action between NGOs and the United Nations Organizations remains the basic prerequisite for effective humanitarian action.

Today, I have the privilege of honouring a movement which perpetuates the spirit of Fridtjof Nansen. The NGO Médecins Sans Frontières was created in 1971 by a small group of doctors who refused to accept the inevitability of war and suffering. Twenty-two years on, MSF can be found working at the side of refugees in almost all humanitarian emergencies. MSF is now a major force in alleviating the plight of millions in need across the globe. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, MSF doctors and nurses regularly and without hesitation risk their lives to save others. Their actions demonstrate to Governments, to international organizations and to the public that despite the odds, conviction and initiative can make a difference. The Nansen medal serves as a symbol of the gratitude of the international community.

Through MSF, we also pay homage tonight to the whole community of NGOs. In combating man made and natural disasters their weapon is a sincere belief in our ability, in our duty, to build a better world. The NGO movement has thus become the symbol of our era for unreserved dedication to a noble cause. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and the recent Human Rights Conference in Vienna serve to underline the growing importance of NGOs in the formulation of international norms.

More than 1,000 NGOs are involved directly or indirectly with refugees. Whether in the sphere of early warning, emergency response, or the search for durable solutions, the NGOs play a significant role. In the very first stages of a refugee emergency, UNHCR depends on those NGOs already well-established on the ground to provide invaluable information about unfolding crises. Alerting the world to repeated violations of human rights, impending famine and rising ethnic tensions, NGOs play the indispensable role of the conscience of the world. More than exposing failures and abuses, NGOs seek tirelessly to sensitize politicians and the public alike to humanitarian issues, to influence international legal norms and to recommend political and humanitarian action.

The international community is however, too often too slow in responding. Thus, in the emergency phase of a refugee crisis, NGOs add rapid action to advocacy. Because of their size and flexibility, NGOs like MSF are able to intervene quickly to provide essential relief, saving innumerable lives each year. Once survival is assured, NGO volunteers provide, inter-alia, education, agricultural support and social services to refugees and play an active role in finding solutions to refugee problems and often accompany them home when refugees choose to repatriate.

In recognition of the decisive role played by NGOs in almost every aspect of refugee assistance and protection, UNHCR in collaboration with the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) launched this year the PARinAC process. PARinAC stands for Partnership in Action. The purpose of this initiative, which will culminate in a conference in Oslo, Nansen's birthplace, is to redefine and strengthen NGO/UNHCR partnership to meet the humanitarian challenges of a new decade.

The MSF movement is a model NGO in its efficiency and dedication to the alleviation of human suffering. Through its national federations MSF is active throughout Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. The positions MSF adopts on issues of international concern consistently serve to shake the world out of its indifference to human suffering. In 1921 Nansen in a similar manner tried to arouse the conscience of the League of Nations urging them to contribute in alleviating the plight of 30 million Russians dying from famine. In his speech Nansen underlined that when the lives of men and women are threatened, there is no place for politics. He concluded his address with a plea and a warning:

"In the name of humanity, in the name of everything noble and sacred to man, I appeal to all of you ... to imagine what it means to see women and children dying by the millions.... I appeal to Governments, to the population of Europe, to the whole world for help. Hurry to act before it is too late to repent."

Tragically, the sentiments expressed 70 years ago by Fridtjof Nansen remain ever more relevant today.

Thank you.

I now have the honour to present the Nansen Medal to Dr. Jacques de Milliano, President of Médecins Sans Frontières International...