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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and President of the Nansen Committee on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1979 to Mr. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, President of the French Republic

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and President of the Nansen Committee on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1979 to Mr. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, President of the French Republic

1 October 1979
Nansen Medal Award Ceremony 1979

In welcoming you here, Mr. President, to present you, on behalf of the Nansen Medal Award Committee, with this token of our appreciation, we are conscious of discharging a long-standing debt, for France has always been the country of asylum par excellence. Its age-old traditions; the ideals of freedom, justice and human dignity, proclaimed with such fervour and brilliance by its writers and philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment and so perfectly expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789; its geographical position at the extremity of Eurasia; its wide-open doors on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic; human warmth, tolerance - the combination of all these factors determined its calling as a country of asylum.

This natural predisposition, which France had often been called upon to display in the past, was manifested on a new scale in response to the demands made upon it by the events following the first major world conflict. Successive waves of refugees arrived in France, which had been ravaged and devastated by the war. Day-to-day administrative or material assistance apart, the need was soon felt to adjust domestic law and regulations to meet the uncommon situation of the refugee. Refugees, often lacking papers enabling them to establish their identity, were unable to perform the simplest legal acts, and even to marry. It was necessary to rescue them from this kind of "civil death", to innovate and to devise appropriate rules and include them in French law and thereafter, if possible, into international law. Thus, independently of specific internal measures, there was a succession of arrangements or conventions each concerned with a particular group of refugees.

The innovations introduced by the various rules thus formulated on the initiative or with the support of France were an epoch-making development in the history of refugee law. They marked the establishment of a procedure and form of international supervision known by the League of Nations as "legal and political protection of refugees". The concept of what is now called "international protection" was born. This concept, which was the original raison d'être of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and formerly that of the High Commissioner's Office of the League of Nations, is now sanctified by the accession of 78 States to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 28 July 1951.

However long ago these credentials may have been acquired, Mr. President, they are not unconnected with our gratitude. Since that time, however, they have been supplemented by many more, as events led the international community to concern itself increasingly with the fate of refugees. We are all mindful of the ravages and upheavals caused by the Second World War, whose after-effects are still with us today. After the victims of the hostilities came the victims of the post-war period: men, women and children swept away by the tempest, racked by anguish and fear, forced to leave their countries. Europe emerged from one nightmare only to be plunged into another. France naturally took its share of those hundred to thousands of refugees crammed into camps. In so doing, it opened its frontiers to refugees, lawful or other, without regard for the nationality, age, state of health, family situation or professional skills of these involuntary immigrants. The French Government granted the benefit of the 1933 Nansen Convention to the Spanish refugees who were once more flowing in their thousands. At the same time, homes for elderly and handicapped refugees, which may be regarded as models of their kind, were opened at the initiative of voluntary organizations and with financial assistance from the International Refugee Organization and, subsequently, the Office of the High Commissioner; the French Government assumed responsibility for maintaining and running these homes. Thanks to the support of one and all, and despite a still shaky economy and an acute housing crisis, the refugees settled down and were integrated into the French community.

However, a problem of this scale could be overcome only by the will and resources of all governments prepared to participate in a durable, comprehensive solution. Drawing on pre - and post-war precedents, it was decided to establish the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The French authorities' part in the establishment of this organization, the preparation of its statute and the definition of its responsibilities, was commensurate with France's unremitting interest in the task of providing assistance to refugees.

France played a no less vital role in the preparation of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 28 July 1951, as the discussions on the main chapters demonstrate. The same is true of the Protocol to that Convention, the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the various European agreements relating in particular to the abolition of visas for refugees.

Mr. President, the activities that I have just briefly described originated in the refugee problems that arose in Europe after the two wars of which it was the theatre. However, the course of events was not to stop there, or to leave other continents miraculously unscathed. Africa, Latin America and Asia, each in turn had the same bitter experience on a scale corresponding to their geographical dimensions and populations. Was Europe, and more especially France, to ignore such distant and sometimes sensitive and complex problems? Mr. President, that would have been contrary to your country's ideals, its deep-seated aspirations, its cultural and political influence in the world, and the role that it played in the past in some of the regions concerned. to cope effectively with problems of such magnitude in a generally difficult political, economic and social context, a massive effort by the entire international community was essential. Once again, the support of France was not wanting. After having supported in the General Assembly of the United Nations the resolutions that progressively expanded the competence of the High Commissioner's Office in order to adapt it to entirely new circumstances and needs, France promptly and generously opened its doors to large numbers of refugees seeking a distant but precious refuge on its territory. The figures bear eloquent testimony to these efforts: some 7,000 Latin American refugees, mostly Chileans, have been accepted by France - more than by any other European country; 72,000 refugees from Viet Nam and Cambodia have arrived since 1975. This is not, of course, to mention refugees from other origins who continue to be granted asylum. With 150,000 refugees on its territory, 45% of whom originate from South-East Asia, France is currently the European country that harbours the largest number of refugees, with a wide variety of origins. These facts, I think, speak for themselves.

Mr. President, we are all aware of the vital role played in the reception and resettlement of refugees by a number of French voluntary organizations, whose names are familiar to all and who have no need of further commendation. Last June, you yourself made a point of emphasizing - and I quote your actual words - "their outstanding quiet and devoted efforts to integrate Indo-Chinese refugees into the national community". On this occasion, I feel duty bound once more to convey to these associations the admiration that I feel for the untiring work they perform alongside the French authorities. While decisions relating to acceptance and financing lie with those authorities, the voluntary organizations, in France as elsewhere, are the inspiration and mainspring of this great work of charity and human solidarity. In 1965, the Nansen Medal was awarded here to Mrs. Chevalley, who for many years was the head of the Social Service for Assistance to Immigrants, where she put her intelligence, her heart and her boundless energy into the cause of immigrants in general and refugees in particular. There is no need for me to tell you how grieved we are to learn of her recent death. However, I know that this great lady has many emulators of proven drive and matchless devotion in the various associations with which our representative in Paris is in daily contact. I would hereby like to convey our appreciation to all those concerned.

Mr. President, I have so far spoken of France as a nation - in other words, of its people, its leaders and all those whose daily work brings them to take an active part in the efforts on behalf of refugees. I think that the time has come to mention your personal endeavours as President of the French Republic. You have not been content simply to respect the great tradition that you have inherited and are set on maintaining. As Jaurès said, "Maintaining traditions does not mean preserving the ashes but keeping the flame alight." Sensitive to the distress of human beings swept up by the tide of events that, as you yourself have said, sometimes assume the tragic character of a veritable population transfer, you have repeatedly taken a clear stand and provided the stimulus and precise directives for an active, generous and constructive contribution by France to the solution of the most grave and pressing problems. The impassioned address, accompanied by specific proposals, delivered in this very hall by Mr. Jean-François Poncet, French Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the International Conference of 20 and 21 July concerning refugees in the Indo-Chinese peninsula, gave witness to this. Similarly, Mr. President, under a policy that you yourself defined, important steps have been taken in recent years to improve still further the quality of the reception afforded to refugees; the assumption by the Ministry of Public Health of all accommodation costs in the reception centres; the granting to all refugees of work permit valid for ten years and the submission to Parliament of a bill proposing simply to eliminate the work permit requirement as far as they are concerned; the extension to all of the existing provisions concerning vocational, accelerated and further training; the payment of benefits to those seeking employment; the financing of university scholarships; and the new facilities granted to refugees for the exercise of the medical and paramedical professions.

Finally, Mr. President, you personally took the decision last June to accept a group of 5,000 refugees from South-East Asia, soon followed by two further groups of 5,000 persons. By this action, you showed the way, which other governments were not slow to follow. Predictably, the movement of solidarity that your personal intervention set off spread beyond the bounds of your country. The deliberate effort that you made to increase still further international consciousness of the need for assistance commensurate with needs and to mobilize world opinion to that end was not in vain. Mr. President, we are aware of the sustained attention with which you are following developments in the situation of refugees throughout the world. It betokens valuable support, on which we know we can count and for which you have our infinite gratitude.

Everywhere in your writings, and in various of your addresses and speeches, Mr. President, there is evident concern - one might almost say obsession - with human rights and the freedoms that are their sole guarantee. Yours is no abstract conception of human rights, but a clear awareness of the rights to be granted to every individual and of the bounds to be set to the actions of the public authorities, and the precautions to be taken to avoid arbitrariness in their decisions. As you are aware, refugees are more exposed to official arbitrariness that anyone else. This is why we so greatly appreciate such an attitude, which is the only means of remedying the situation.

As you may imagine, it is no accident that the presentation of the Nansen Medal coincides with Human Rights Day, which is being celebrated today in the United Nations. Because they have to some degree been denied to the refugees, their fate is closely connected with their observance or restoration. The personal attention that you pay to this point, Mr. President, is a source of encouragement and comfort for the refugees and for us. What else can one say of your vigilant and tenacious efforts in the cause of understanding between men, other than that they are part of that global effort, which also determines the well-being of those who are our responsibility? Where understanding and peace are absent, there - unfortunately - refugees are likely to be found. This is why we ourselves are striving, in our more circumscribed area of action, to facilitate comprehension, dialogue and understanding. Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to see that the actions of the High Commissioner's Office, as a purely humanitarian and apolitical institution, have sometimes helped to attenuate, however little, or to defuse or event to prevent a particular dispute of which refugees may be the centre or the origin.

You once remarked that idealism and realism must go together. Nothing could be closer to the celebrated maxim of Fridtjof Nansen, reproduced on the medal that bears his name, according to which "Love of man is practical policy". In our word, which is in search of new structures and new disciplines, this statement assumes particular significance; what better rallying point could there be for people in our time than love of man?

Your compatriot, Georges Clémenceau, a man whose courage and boldness in his country's service are legendary, once said, when reflecting on the past, "One must fight against spiritual indifference". It is that indifference that we fight against day after day when we appeal to governments and to world opinion to assist refugees.

Because France and you yourself, Mr. President, do not remain insensible to this appeal, because of your deliberate and stubborn refusal to lose hope and to give up in the face of all the tragedies of the modern world, I should like once more, in presenting you on behalf of the Committee present today with the medal bearing the effigy of Fridtjof Nansen, to convey to France and to you personally our deep and heartfelt gratitude.

Following a decision taken this year by the Nansen Committee, the Award now carries a prize of 50,000 dollars to enable the Laureate, or his country, to participate in a particular project of assistance to refugees. The award of the Medal thus also provides the possibility of bringing relief to refugees who find themselves in a particularly precarious situation.