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Remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the European Union Humanitarian Affairs Committee (HAC), Lisbon, 30 October 2007

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Remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the European Union Humanitarian Affairs Committee (HAC), Lisbon, 30 October 2007

30 October 2007

Mr. Cavaco, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to be here today, to participate in your discussion about "situations of fragility." Rather than taking a systematic or theoretical approach to this topic - particularly as this is the third occasion I have had to address it in an EU forum during the Portuguese Presidency - allow me to be provocative:

If there is one thing which the international community does not know how to do, it is to take preventive action - whether prevention of conflict, or prevention of environmental degradation. There is no compelling will to take preventive action, and few resources are devoted to prevention. I believe that the EU, including the membership of this Committee, can make a significant contribution to ensuring that prevention is taken seriously.

A second provocation: The international community has not devoted enough attention to problems caused by the absence of national consensus among communities within a State. This is not just a problem in Africa, it is also a problem in our own democracies: Northern Ireland, Belgium, Canada. Yet where there are solid institutions, we can tackle this problem. In places like Burundi or the DRC, which lack rational institutions and frameworks, and where national identity and national consensus are absent, we face grave problems for which there is no quick fix - and therefore no exit strategy for us.

Now, let me submit to you six challenges which we (UNHCR, ECHO, the international humanitarian community) face in operating in situations of fragility.

First, the challenge of what I would call security vs. operability. In the aftermath of the attack on the UN office in Baghdad, managing risk has become a nightmare for the UN. It is important to have a serious discussion on this. We cannot be entirely focused on avoiding risk. We cannot work in fortresses. We need to keep contact with the people we are trying to assist. In my view, ICRC's independence permits it to manage risk better than is the case for the UN.

Second is the challenge of security vs. impartiality. We need to be able to work in a secure environment, and therefore the use of military forces to provide security may seem an obvious solution, at least in the framework of UN integrated missions. But this is difficult where the UN forces themselves are actors. We need to preserve the autonomy and impartiality of humanitarian action at all costs - even if it means that sometimes we do not act. This question may also arise for EC humanitarian action, in the context of the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Third is the challenge of the responsibility to protect vs. national sovereignty. In the 1990s, after Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor, there was an emerging recognition of the linkage between the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of the human being. The right of humanitarian intervention was on the table. The Canadian government-sponsored Commission produced a Report on the Responsibility to Protect. This notion was finally endorsed by a General Assembly resolution - but by then it was too late. For ever since the intervention in Iraq, we witness continuous reassertion of national sovereignty, and not only on the part of dictators. Many democracies the South are reluctant to accept the notion of a Responsibility to Protect, seeing potential interference with national sovereignty.

It may take time to re-establish a global consensus on the Responsibility to Protect. To do this, we will need to mobilize actors beyond the developed world. We need support of the big democracies of the developing world, so that this concept is not seen as masking a hidden agenda of the West.

In the meantime, national sovereignty puts major limits on our action. For instance, we are in a difficult situation in Darfur. The UN wants UNHCR to extend its action as cluster lead for protection, camp management and emergency shelter to North and South Darfur, but the government opposes such involvement, asserting strongly that these actions are their sovereign responsibility.

It will be important to mobilize actors in the developing world, if we are to counter politicization of humanitarian problems, which limits our action. The African Union will be an important player. Some observers suggest UNHCR's mandate should be formally extended to cover internally displaced people. Yet we have received a clear "no go" sign on this from many governments, which insist that internal displacement falls within the domain of national sovereignty. We are engaged in discussions with the African Union on a possible African Union Convention on Internal Displacement. This would be a very significant development.

A fourth challenge is the sustainability of solutions, especially of returns. We have helped 650,000 refugees to go home this year, but for how long? Even if their return is safe and voluntary, we have to ask: is there a future for them? The reality is that the international community does not know how to deal with the transition from war to peace, from relief to development. We need not only to engage in capacity building but also in ensuring capacity to build. In other words, people have to be able to see the peace dividend. There need to be some quick wins.

Southern Sudan is a very dramatic illustration of this. A year and a half after my first visit to the region, I recently returned. Little had changed. The road from Juba to Yei to Uganda is the region's lifeline, but it is in terrible shape. Trucks can go at a maximum of 5-10 km/hour. A year and a half has not been enough, apparently, to rebuild this key road. Now the government is giving the World Food Programme $65 million to build roads, although the WFP is hardly a road-building agency.

The establishment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission was an attempt to tackle the issue of transition and early recovery, but frankly, we are not yet there.

I would suggest that what we need is to combine in each specific country the efforts of the key bilateral donors, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and key UN agencies. If we could really work together to address bottlenecks - for instance, the construction capacity - we could make progress. This kind of cooperation would have to get around the usual rules of development cooperation.

Often we hear that governance problems are the main obstacle. But the international community also has to find better ways to work together. The transition from war to peace, from relief to development is a key priority for UNHCR. We are not a development agency but we come under a lot of pressure from the states we work in to show results.

A fifth challenge is the need to take a situational approach. In many situations, a country-based approach will not work. Think of Darfur-Chad-Central African Republic. Or Ethiopia-Eritrea-Somalia. Or the Great Lakes region. In North Kivu, there is the problem of General Nkunda. In the same region, there are Hutu rebels from Rwanda. When we tried to help refugees to return from Zambia, a rumour started that we were bringing back Tutsis, and the situation got so dangerous that UNHCR and WFP had to leave. Rwanda is watching carefully what is happening. In Burundi, the FNL has walked away from the peace agreement and may be operating in tandem with other Hutu groups across the border. To all of this there are no national solutions, yet all of us - bilaterals, UN Country Teams, pooled funds - are organized to work on a country-by-country basis. We need to find new ways of managing our work around situations.

Finally, let me say a few words about the new challenges of forced displacement. People are on the move today for many reasons. Some move because they want a better life. For them, there are not enough possibilities of legal migration. Others are forced to move. UNHCR's mandate is for refugees - people who have a well-founded fear of persecution. Yet what should be done in a case like Zimbabwe - where people are forced to flee because they are hungry? How should we handle this? We have been discussing the situation with the government of South Africa, appealing to them not to force people back to Zimbabwe and to grant them a temporary status.

I fear we will see more and more situations where extreme deprivation combines with environmental degradation and sometimes conflict to compel people to move.

I fear we will see more and more situations where extreme deprivation combines with environmental degradation and sometimes conflict to compel people to move. These causes are interconnected and hard to disentangle. Darfur is a prime example. The population in this region has been increasing over the past ten years. Rainfall has been decreasing. Competition for water between farmers and herders has been acute. As the janjaweed attack farm villages, people flee, and the control over water passes from one group to another. There can be no political solution without a solution for the competition over scarce resources. Yet the international community is not prepared to address such situations of fragility. I fear we will see rising forced displacement because of drought and the only instrument at our disposal is humanitarian aid. It will not be enough. The central question is: how to cope with forced displacement in today's world?

Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to our discussion.