Opening remarks by Ms. Mary Ann Wyrsch, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the meeting of the Standing Committee, 5 March 2002
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a privilege and a pleasure to welcome you, and to extend to you the greetings of the High Commissioner on the occasion of the opening of this Standing Committee meeting - the first in the new year of 2002.
We meet at a time when the repercussions of 9/11 continue to influence the global political, economic and social environment; when multi-lateral approaches to global problems appear to be under challenge and when the global economy still suffers from recession and stagnancy. In this regard, this weekend's vote in Switzerland to join the United Nations has been extremely heartening.
The work of UNHCR - as with all humanitarian action - is inevitably framed by global trends. While there can be no compromise on our humanitarian objectives, our resources and our manoeuvrability for action are inevitably affected by the vicissitudes of international developments. And so, as we rejoice in the international recognition that the UN has received through the award of the Centennial Nobel Peace Prize, we also increase our resolve to continue our work for the protection of all individuals uprooted by conflict.
The Standing Committee meetings provide us with a welcome opportunity to demonstrate our accountability to the international community and to be transparent in the approaches we have adopted in our work. UNHCR is making its own contribution to fulfilling not only our mandate but also the priorities of the U. N. Secretary-General's second term of office. We are committed to working more cohesively with our partners in the UN system and with governments and civil society in our primary task of providing protection and assistance to refugees.
And it is precisely for this reason that we have reacted with outrage and corrective action over the allegations of the sexual exploitation of refugee children in West Africa. While we will discuss this issue as a separate agenda item this afternoon allow me to spend a few minutes on it.
UNHCR and Save the Children UK last week jointly released alarming details of what appears to be a pattern of widespread abuse and exploitation of young refugees, allegedly by some members of our own humanitarian community.
The shocking allegations were elicited in the course of workshops on this subject designed to understand the past experiences of refugee women and children. Although unverified, the shocking accounts provided by refugees leaves no doubt that there is a serious problem - one that has required immediate, co-ordinated action and thorough investigation.
The magnitude of this tragedy must not be taken lightly. Yet we should not allow it to overshadow or discount the tremendous good that has been achieved in the region. Much progress has been made in the region with the help of hundreds of dedicated humanitarian workers - national and international - from scores of agencies and organisations. It is now extremely painful to see the enormous good done by our Sierra Leonean, Guinean, Liberian and international colleagues tarnished by these reports as they continue to face serious challenges.
In an environment of ever diminishing resources it is not unfair to state that UNHCR has found it increasingly difficult to implement its mandate fully and with optimum efficacy. Despite trying desperately to meet at least minimum standards the stark reality of limited resources has hit UNHCR hard. As the High Commissioner stated, "The tragic testimonies of these young people make it heartbreakingly clear that we have failed. We must do more and we must do it now".
Again, further to your request, we will be dealing with this very important issue later today under a separate agenda item and the High Commissioner and I look forward to hearing your views.
Our agenda at the Standing Committee meeting will include the adoption of the work programme approved at last December's planning meeting; an in-depth discussion on the allegations of the sexual exploitation of refugee children in West Africa; reports on our co-ordination mechanisms and a discussion on programme and funding. Presentations made at these meetings in the past have focused on policy issues and strategy and while the procedure has worked well we propose further streamlining in order to allow the Standing Committee to comment on the strategic direction of activities in the current year and to enable the Standing Committee to make an input into UNHCR's plans for activities in 2003. Thus we have provided you a summary of presentations to be made by the Directors of the Regional Bureaux ahead of this meeting.
One very important development since we last convened is that, following the Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees in December of 2001, the next and final formal event in the Global Consultations process will be a meeting from 22 to 24 May 2002 ("third track") focusing on women and children, as well as durable solutions.
UNHCR has also scheduled, under the overall framework of the Executive Committee, an informal consultation focusing on the Agenda for Protection in the afternoon of 14 March. In addition to the Declaration of States Parties adopted at the Ministerial Meeting, we hope that the Agenda for Protection will be a legacy of the Global Consultations process and allow us to enter a follow-up phase on the basis of a clear game plan comprising activities for States, UNHCR, NGOs and other protection partners in the coming period. A first draft containing elements which might figure in the Agenda for Protection was shared with the Ministerial Meeting of States Parties as document HCR/MMSP/2002/06. The Director of DIP has envisaged two informal meetings on 14 March and possibly in May, for States to provide feedback on the draft Agenda. As it contains a synthesis of the main findings and recommendations of the Global Consultations to date, we hope to conclude the consultations during the June meeting of the Standing Committee and to obtain endorsement of the Executive Committee in October.
The High Commissioner has also called for a renewed emphasis on resettlement activities and on durable solutions for protracted refugee situations, to more fully engage resettlement countries (both existing and prospective) in exploring ways to employ resettlement as a catalytic element towards this goal, and in the discussion of managed migration more broadly. Also, Regional Bureaux have been engaged in developing strategies on resettlement as part of their regional comprehensive protection strategies, and in working more closely with DIP to identify ways to ameliorate protracted refugee situations.
I cannot sufficiently emphasise that we need to move beyond assisting refugees to actually solving problems. As resettlement is an important part of the solution, we have a strong commitment to strengthen resettlement operationally at the field level in terms of staffing, resources, well-defined procedures and accountability mechanisms to ensure that the durable solutions effort is conducted in a credible, transparent and fair manner.
While more must be done, several steps are currently being taken to increase accountability and send a strong message to all staff. Efforts continue to develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for resettlement functions in all field offices; a new training module combining RSD and resettlement is being developed and will be taken on the road to many field offices beginning fall; and the Resettlement Handbook is in the process of being amended to include sections on management controls. Addressing failures and safeguards of this important durable solution must remain a top priority.
Given that you will receive regional overviews from the Director of each of the Regional Bureaux, I shall refrain from commenting on operational developments. However, I shall touch upon one region that has had particularly significance in recent months.
Since we last convened in October, we have witnessed dramatic changes in the situation in and around Afghanistan.
I am pleased to report that UNHCR has been able to quickly deploy sufficient numbers of Emergency Staff in response to the Afghan crisis. We are even this week working through processes to finalise staff identification and deployment that will have identified staff reach Afghanistan before 1 May 2002.
The "Real Time Evaluation", a service provided by the Evaluation Unit (EPAU) has been a value-added initiative, identifying weaknesses and strengths of UNHCR's Afghan crisis response, addressing protection and operational issues.
Some problems continue. UNHCR is in the throes of identifying strengths, weaknesses and delays in the current international procurement system, including for telecommunications equipment and Non-Food Items.
On another point, the High Commissioner has made it his priority to ensure that human resources management in UNHCR is carried out in a more transparent manner and with a more humane approach.
A number of initiatives have been made to increase the professionalism and efficiency of its HR function. A special unit has been established to provide professional counselling and assistance to staff in between assignments in the short term while a workable and more humane strategy is being developed as a priority to address this phenomenon.
The postings process by which UNHCR assigns its staff is under constant review and has been further refined to increase its efficiency while remaining faithful to the principle of "the right person in the right place at the right time". A novel fast-track approach has been developed for the Afghan emergency and lessons learned from this exercise will inform future developments in this area. Work is in progress to harmonise all aspects of post management with a view to obtaining periodic comprehensive overviews of UNHCR's staffing requirements and profile to better meet the organisation's objectives. A competency-based approach to postings and performance management remains a cornerstone of UNHCR's human resources strategy.
Progress has been made in achieving gender balance at the lower grades but has been slower at the higher grades, where clearly more effort is needed if we are to reach the Secretary-General's target of 50-50 at all grade levels.
Meanwhile, as I am sure the Chairperson of the Staff Council will attest, close working relationships with the Staff Council have been fostered.
I should add that considerable effort is being spent on ensuring that important contributors to UNHCR's work are suitably represented in the workforce, while paying due attention to achieving as wide a geographical balance as possible.
The security of its staff is of paramount importance to the organisation given the tragic events of the recent past. A close collaboration exists between our security service and human resources management and considerable attention is paid to conditions of service of staff, particularly in emergency situations. UNHCR remains a leader in this area within the UN Common System and many agencies have adopted UNHCR's policies on mental health and options to encourage mobility, particularly in difficult or non-family duty stations.
I will touch only briefly on our funding situation - Mr. Anne-Willem Bijleveld of DCI will elaborate on this issue later on during the Standing Committee. Suffice to say we continue to realign and prioritise our activities in order to address the limited resources at our disposal. There continue to be some fundamental needs that we are unable to meet globally, not least in West Africa but elsewhere where scant resources have very visibly taken their toll.
I should also like to inform you of our work in trying to enhance performance. Efforts are underway to respond to the calls by members of the Standing Committee for greater efforts by UNHCR in terms of setting priorities and moving towards a results-based approach to programming.
The High Commissioner has stated as one of his clear priorities that we improve performance and quality of our work. The Department of International Protection, for example, has embarked on a thorough assessment of how to improve the management of protection at the field level. This assessment includes areas of staffing, procedures and management involvement, oversight and accountability. A series of initiatives are underway in order to carry through this priority, including the updating of the RSD manual, the establishment of adequate internal procedures for RSD and resettlement, some of which I have mentioned but also including the design of protection strategies and the development of indicators to measure progress or improvement against established objectives for protection in the field.
Similiarly the Regional Bureaux, other Divisions, and ESS, along with the Inspector General and the Heads of EPAU and ITTS are developing strategies for 2003/2004. These Strategy Papers will form the basis of discussion within the house on global objectives and the expected impact of UNHCR for this period. This work on a global strategy for UNHCR will be used to provide further clarity on priorities for resource allocation for 2003, used to inform the analysis of 2003 Field and Headquarters submissions prior to the May ORB, and will be presented during informal consultations to be held with the donors in mid-April, and to the Standing Committee in June.
As the overall global strategy we expect our work on prioritisation will complement our discussions on the budget. Prioritisation is a key factor in this strategic process which I hope will build upon Actions 1-3.
When I last spoke to you at the Executive Committee I had been Deputy High Commissioner for barely 6 months. Now, nearly one year into the job I have come to appreciate the challenging task before this organisation: to do more, better and with significantly less resources than ever before.
While we can continue to fine-tune our strategic planning, our corporate strategy, let us never lose sight of our raison d'être - our clients, the refugees themselves.
In my first trip to the field last year, I travelled to the East and Horn of Africa - specifically to Eritrea, Uganda and Kenya. Throughout my mission I was struck by the resilience, determination and resourcefulness of the persons of concern to us, whether they were refugees or returnees. While some of the donors I met alleged that providing certain standards in protracted refugee situations in Uganda and Kenya were 'magnetising' the camps I strongly disagreed. Refugees in the camps want to go home - the moment the security situation would permit. In the interim period it is our mandated responsibility to provide them with protection and at the very least, basic amenities. As we have been reminded by what the information in West Africa has recently revealed, we have fallen short of this mandated responsibility. I appeal to you again, please help us in providing these very basic essentials of life so that persons of concern to UNHCR can live in a safer and more secure environment.
While I was on mission in Africa, I was also struck by the hard work and dedication of our staff, often working under extremely challenging conditions. I fervently hope that while the dark cloud that currently hangs over humanitarian workers on the West Africa issue, we continue to pay tribute to the tremendous good work that our staff do in the field. As we shift gears and move forward into 2002 we will have to work closely, more than ever before, to forge ahead, through the sometimes almost insurmountable obstacles that we find across our path, towards finding a better and brighter future for refugees.