Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 54th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 19 March 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 54th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva, 19 March 1998

19 March 1998

Mr Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am particularly pleased to address the Human Rights Commission during this anniversary year when we commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Let me begin by congratulating you, Mr Chairman and the Bureau, on your election.

This forum also gives me an opportunity to express my appreciation to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, for the vision and active engagement to human rights protection which she has demonstrated since taking office.

For UNHCR, the 50th Anniversary is of particular importance because the cornerstone of its mandate, enshrined in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration, states that "....everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries, asylum from persecution....". This clear and simple provision belies the complexity of refugee and other forced human displacement and the tragedy it visits upon communities, families and individuals. And yet its value as a fundamental principle of human protection is as valid and imperative today as it was in 1948.

The Anniversary is also a fitting moment to reflect not only upon the remarkable progress that has been made in defining human rights standards and principles - but, more importantly, what we have yet to achieve.

Today, human rights remain an unfulfilled promise to millions around the world. As we look towards the new millennium, our challenge must be to translate the Declaration into a "living instrument of protection." We must find ways to ensure that the rights have a direct impact upon the lives of the women, men and children world-wide, who need them most.

On a daily basis, my Office is witness to the successes and failures in implementing human rights standards. In previous years at this Commission, I have described how the whole refugee experience - from forcible displacement, provision of asylum and the search for solutions - is related to the protection of human rights.

First, the root causes of refugee displacement are inextricably linked to conflict, persecution and the denial of human rights. The very existence of refugees and other forcibly displaced people, is therefore a barometer of a society's incapacity to resolve its problems by peaceful, rather than violent means.

Factors such as acute poverty and the effects of cumulative discrimination, often reflect a society's unequal distribution of its wealth and privileges. These factors can, in turn, lead to civil and political instability which lie at the root of forced displacement. That is why it is important to mainstream human rights in all our work - whether it be of a humanitarian, political, or developmental character.

Second, the physical safety and human dignity of those forced to flee over their national borders is preserved through the principle of asylum. Regrettably, in the last twelve months, we have again seen further erosion of the principle of asylum in many parts of the world. Refugees have been prevented from seeking effective protection and have been returned to countries where their lives are in danger. I am concerned that these fundamental human rights principles are being undermined in some asylum countries. And there have been unprecedented attacks and abuses on humanitarian and human rights workers themselves.

The events in the former Zaire during the first half of last year were extremely taxing. Never before have so many people - both refugees and others - been killed or deported, despite the efforts of the humanitarian community. What was most distressing was the inability to offer any kind of choice to refugees threatened with certain death in the rainforests. The only option was repatriation - or should I say evacuation - under far from ideal circumstances.

To overcome this trend, I see the need to engage governments in a serious debate about humanitarian principles and standards for the treatment of refugees and other persons of concern to my Office. In this context, I recently made an extensive visit to nine countries in Africa. All the leaders I met, expressed their strong commitment to humanitarian principles. While some expressed legitimate concerns about abuses by refugees and others in countries of asylum, all leaders recognised the linkage between refugee movements and efforts to maintain regional peace, security and development.

Therefore, I remain convinced that the principle of asylum remains of fundamental importance. Any failure lies in the implementation of the right, not in the principle itself. If respected, it serves a dual purpose. It provides a predictable and structured legal framework for the international protection of those whose safety is most at risk, while also defining those who do not deserve or need that protection. At the same time, it gives different "actors" on the international, regional and national stage, the "breathing space" to explore solutions which resolve not only the plight of those who have been forcibly displaced, but also the underlying causes themselves.

Third, human rights standards are also of great importance in the search for, and implementation of lasting solutions for refugees and other forcibly displaced people. In the return of refugees to their own countries, the standards help to define the conditions for safe and dignified repatriation and re-integration; they give guidance in the search for ways to re-build the human rights protection capacity of those countries; and they provide a principled framework within which the delicate processes of reconciliation can be nurtured.

Mr Chairman, during my years as High Commissioner, I have witnessed at first hand, the misery of those displaced by violence in their communities. I have seen that the only legacy of violence is further violence - and that only a careful measure of justice, forgiveness and reconciliation can break what inevitably becomes an inexorable cycle of violence and displacement.

Today, there is an impressive array of international, regional and national human rights standards and structures. These standards and arrangements must continue to evolve to ensure that gaps and weaknesses are identified.

For example, the Guiding Principles relating to Internally Displaced Persons, developed by the Special Representative, Francis Deng, are of considerable importance to UNHCR's work. Similarly, the recently appointed Special Representative on the impact of armed conflict on children, Olara Otunnu, will be an important advocate for the rights of this vulnerable group.

The work of the Commission during this session is also important to ensure that the monitoring role of the UN treaty bodies is more effectively implemented. This will improve accountability of states to their treaty commitments and will lend credibility to the human rights system as a whole.

Equally, the process of accountability should not be limited to states but should also extend to individual perpetrators of serious human rights violations. I value the initiative to establish a permanent International Criminal Court, following the experience of the two special International Criminal Courts for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. These institutions are important to ensure that human rights violations cannot be committed with impunity. Accountability through justice is imperative within any comprehensive approach towards peace and reconciliation.

Through these various activities, we must ensure that the threads of human rights protection, refugee protection and international humanitarian law effectively reinforce each other in conflict torn states, and that they provide the framework within which humanitarian and other action takes place.

However, Mr Chairman, even these positive developments, cannot, of themselves, bring human rights to fruition. If the 50th Anniversary is to have any vitality and resonance in the next fifty years, then the international community must find innovative and practical ways to help states take responsibility for their own populations. Human rights are owned by the people, not by states or governments - so it is upon the people we must focus.

From UNHCR's perspective, I am convinced that on the difficult road to post-conflict reconstruction and normalisation - in which the return and re-integration of forcibly displaced people is often an integral part - our greatest contribution will be at the "grass-roots" level of affected communities.

Our experience in both the Great Lakes region of Africa and the former Yugoslavia confirms the importance of this approach. It is through adequately resourced, operational engagement within the communities themselves - where human rights standards and refugee protection principles offer a predictable and principled framework. - that our humanitarian efforts should be directed.

First, we must support local efforts to rebuild confidence and respect for the process of law. In Central and Eastern Europe, UNHCR has worked closely with members of the judiciary to strengthen not only the protection of refugees, but also confidence in the system of justice available to the whole community. In the Ukraine, my Office has helped Tatars returning to the Crimea region obtain citizenship and reclaim property. Through the appropriate legal measures, issues such as compensation and restitution of property, rights to education, housing and employment can be resolved fairly and impartially - to the benefit of returning refugees and the resident populations alike.

In these efforts, we hope to encourage a healthy respect for the rule and process of law. A national legal system that is fair, impartial and immune from political pressure, will attract wider community support. It will assist in the re-integration and rehabilitation of refugees, and it will contribute toward the prevention of future forced displacement.

Second, a community-based approach can often circumvent or mitigate the worst effects of political obstruction at the national level.

Despite the explicit terms of the Dayton Peace Agreement, our efforts to repatriate refugees and displaced people to areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina where they would live as ethnic minorities, have been thwarted by political blockages, legal barriers, and administrative practices. Political promises have been made and broken with alacrity. Although more than 400,000 refugees and displaced persons have returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than 1.4 million people have not yet been able to do so.

In an effort to break this impasse, UNHCR has launched the "Open Cities" Initiative with the aim of re-establishing multi-ethnic, open and tolerant communities. To date, ten communities have been declared as Open Cities after meeting UNHCR's basic criteria. Municipal and cantonal authorities must pledge themselves to the principles of openness, freedom of movement and return, and to basic human rights. In practical terms, the criteria require the adoption of fair laws relating to property and occupancy, amnesties, and opportunities for returnees to be employed, housed and educated. Underpinning these conditions is a commitment to the principle of non-discrimination against returnees and to mechanisms for monitoring compliance. In recognition of their efforts, the designated Open Cities receive preferential and expeditious international assistance.

Third, a community-based approach should support projects that "add value" to efforts already underway. They should supplement and complement the rehabilitation and reconciliation efforts that may already exist in the community. In Rwanda and Bosnia, UNHCR has promoted special initiatives for women returnees. These include income generation and economic empowerment programmes because women are often the primary breadwinners and caretakers of the family.

In conflict torn societies, where the wounds of hatred and suspicion are deepest, women have a key role to fulfil if community divisions are to be overcome. I am particularly upset that women are denied their basic rights in many parts of the world. In Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban's refusal to allow women to work and to be educated, is not only a violation of their basic human rights, but it also seriously hampers humanitarian efforts to return the more than 2 million refugees presently in Iran and Pakistan.

We must, therefore, continue to find creative ways to engage the natural desire for peace and reconciliation which is inherent in any community. If "grass-roots" initiatives gain popular and widespread support, then they will have a dual purpose. They will positively influence developments at higher national levels and they will provide the building blocks of sustainable peace amongst the people of a society, based upon the rule of law.

Mr Chairman, it is clear that such efforts require the collaboration and support of a broad range of "actors" - each bringing its own particular mandate, area of specialisation and expertise. We share a common vision to implement the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration, but we must also recognise the distinctness and separateness of our various responsibilities and strengths.

In this spirit, I am pleased that UNHCR has already had constructive and practical discussions with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office. We will continue to explore ways in which our distinct but linked mandates can best complement each other - particularly at the operational level. We also follow with interest, the human rights treaty bodies, and those working groups and special Rapporteurs who are studying issues relevant to our mandate.

With the non-governmental community - our essential partners - we are forging closer ties at the international, regional and local levels. Again, we place great importance on community-based organisations because a healthy local NGO community is a good palliative against the root causes of refugee displacement.

With states, we are seeking a broad re-affirmation of their moral and legal commitment to refugee protection - while at the same time, acknowledging that refugee populations can create economic and social burdens, and legitimate security concerns for some states.

Mr Chairman, I must also emphasise that if humanitarian action is to be effective and human rights protected, the safety of humanitarian and human rights workers must be guaranteed. All too often, they are the victims of intimidation, abuse and direct attack. No agency is immune. Indeed, as I speak to you on this, the 50th Anniversary, one of my staff members, Vincent Cochetel, enters his 50th day in captivity, after being abducted in the Northern Caucasus. I would like to express my heart-felt support to his wife and two small children, and I urge his captors to release Vincent safely and without delay.

In conclusion, let me say that unless protagonists to conflict renounce violence and embrace a common vision of peace and reconciliation, then the effective implementation of human rights will never be possible.

Our challenge is to find creative ways to support those communities where confidence and trust have been shattered. We must define agenda of common interests and ensure that they are implemented within an agreed and principled legal framework where human rights standards define the parameters of options and solutions sought.

We clearly cannot under-estimate the magnitude of these challenges and there is a great deal we can do to deliver the promise of bringing "human rights to the people".

Finally, may I appeal to you, the representatives of the international community of sovereign states, to provide the political, material and security support that must underpin all of our efforts. Only in this way, can the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration be of true value and relevance to their intended beneficiaries.

Thank you.