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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 21 January 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 21 January 1993

21 January 1993
Europe: testing the limits of preventionCentral Asia: the spread of ethnic tensionsDevelopments in Asia: movement towards solutionsAfrica: crisis and hopeThe situation in the AmericasFunding of UNHCR activitiesConcluding remarks

Mr. Chairman, distinguished representatives, ladies and gentlemen:

It is a pleasure for me to be with you today at this informal meeting of the Executive Committee and to share with you some of the current preoccupations of my Office. As in the past, I hope that the informal nature of the occasion will allow us a frank and open exchange of views on developments that have occurred since we met in October last year. Without duplicating the extensive information provided in the documentation prepared for this meeting, I would like to draw your attention to recent challenges and opportunities, to situate them in the context of our strategy of prevention, emergency response and solutions, and to highlight a number of key concerns in the areas of assistance and protection.

Europe: testing the limits of prevention

I turn first to Europe, Mr. Chairman, not because it tops any regional hierarchy of preoccupations but since it illustrates so many of the dilemmas and concerns that confront my Office in its efforts to come to grips with increasingly complex refugee crises and solutions.

In 1992, an estimated 700,000 persons sought asylum in Europe as opposed to 30,000 each year in the 1970s. As a result, the innovative approaches adopted by my Office, with their increased focus on prevention are being continuously put to the test, revealing their possibilities, but also their limitations.

The tragedy in former Yugoslavia has been the first major test of our preventive strategy with its increased focus on pre-emptive protection and assistance in countries of origin. Over the past year, my Office has been engaged in a massive effort to bring assistance and protection to affected populations and prevent or mitigate the impetus to flight. The provision of life sustaining assistance has been closely linked with a range of protection activities aimed at monitoring the treatment of displaced persons and limiting the abhorrent practice of ethnic cleansing.

I have spoken much about my preoccupation with these terrible events in the Balkans and it is not my intention to repeat myself here. Suffice it to recall that over two and a half million people have been forced to flee their homes as a result of war, massive destruction, killings, torture, rape and persecution. In Bosnia and Herzegovina almost a million more are in immediate jeopardy. Recently, the conscience of the international community has been shocked by reports of widespread atrocities directed against women and the extensive and cynical use of rape as a weapon of war and an instrument of ethnic cleansing. Within the next few days, I will be paying a working visit to the area to take stock of the situation in which the horrors of war are now being cruelly compounded by the rigours of winter.

In these terrible circumstances, the unstinting efforts of national and international humanitarian organizations have undoubtedly saved lives. Alone, however, they cannot prevent the massive and unspeakable suffering induced by conflict. Here there is no substitute for the primary responsibility of political leaders to care for their people and to ensure respect for their human rights.

As the Yugoslav crisis clearly demonstrates, Mr. Chairman, lack of respect and protection for the rights of minority groups breeds insecurity and fear that can all too easily feed the inter-ethnic tensions and conflict that have become the common denominator of problems of displacement on all continents. Rising ethnic tensions and violent conflicts in States groping to define themselves in the post cold war world provide the common link with situations occurring further east, be it in Europe and Central Asia or, indeed, on other continents.

If we are to prevent the occurrence of other Yugoslavias, Mr. Chairman, the international human rights machinery must be used to greater effect and specific mechanisms developed to protect the rights of the internally displaced. There is a clear need, in my view, for further exploration on these issues and I welcome the increased attention they are receiving on the agenda of the Human Rights Commission.

In the meantime, we have intensified our preventive efforts in the fields of training and institution building throughout eastern Europe and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Eleven seminars have been organized to date on refugee law, human rights, statelessness, nationality legislation and migration-related issues. Nevertheless, since we last met in October, the situation in a number of regions has deteriorated. In the Transcaucasus, additional displacements of population are occurring in a conflict which has not been stayed by the onset of winter. In early December, we established a presence and launched emergency assistance operations in Armenia and Azerbaijan in view of the rapidly worsening situation there.

Faced with the obvious limitations of in-country protection, Mr. Chairman, it is essential that we safeguard the heart of international protection - the institution of asylum for those obliged to flee. In a world where persecution, massive human rights violation and armed strife remain a fact of every day life, protection through asylum is indispensable to our humanitarian work. I firmly believe that our approach must lie in combining preventive protection in areas of origin with international protection when people have to flee to ensure their safety. And I appeal for your continued support in both respects.

I have been encouraged by the response of European governments in providing temporary protection to persons fleeing conflict in former Yugoslavia. Over 600,000 persons have found temporary refuge in countries outside the immediately affected region. I particularly welcome the declaration of European Council on 30 November, committing the Community to flexible application of visa and entry requirements, to the temporary protection and non-refoulement of those at risk and to the evacuation of those with special humanitarian needs. In respect of the last category, this commitment has been helpful in finding resettlement places for more than 6,500 ex-detainees and may be necessary for further resettlement of detainees and rape victims. Nevertheless, at a more general level, I am concerned that persons from former Yugoslavia are increasingly subject to visa restrictions, depending on their nationality and the passports they hold.

Central Asia: the spread of ethnic tensions

Mr. Chairman, in recent months the situation in Tajikistan, one of the poorest of all the former USSR republics, has reached critical proportions with an estimated 10 per cent of the total population reportedly displaced and additional numbers continuing to flee fighting in the south and eastern regions. The potential for larger scale displacements and their far reaching social, economic and political consequences for regional and international security cannot be overstated.

Already some 60,000 have crossed the border into Afghanistan where we have, under extremely difficult conditions, mounted an emergency relief operation to assist them. As tens of thousands more are reportedly in the border area, where they have been receiving assistance from the ICRC, we have recently dispatched teams to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an effort to prevent further displacements through assistance and contacts with parties concerned. In this connection, I strongly underline the importance of an integrated approach by the United Nations system, encompassing peace-making, peace-keeping and humanitarian components along the lines advocated in the Secretary-General's Agenda for Peace. While the opportunity for early prevention through an integrated strategy of this sort has clearly been missed in Tajikistan, we may, nevertheless, be able to contain the situation and to prevent further displacement and escalation of tensions while addressing immediate needs and long-term solutions.

Developments in Asia: movement towards solutions

Mr. Chairman, I have spoken before of the problems and uncertainties of repatriation into situations of instability and economic devastation. I have, nonetheless, been heartened by the continuing respect for the voluntary nature of the repatriation of Afghan refugees. In this context, I am pleased to say that a trilateral agreement has recently been concluded with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Afghanistan, laying down a formal framework for the repatriation process which includes the fundamental principle of voluntariness. A similar agreement is under discussion with the Government of Pakistan. We would expect no less than two million refugees to return home to Afghanistan this year, posing enormous challenges for their successful reintegration and requiring the concerted support of the international community to foster the all too fragile process of reconciliation and peace and facilitate reintegration into a devastated economy.

Further east, the momentum of the voluntary repatriation of Cambodian refugees continues in the context of the comprehensive and ambitious United Nations operation. Close to a quarter of a million refugees have returned to date, largely from the border camps in Thailand which are now emptied of seventy per cent of their population. It is expected that repatriation will be complete by the end of March, when I intend to visit Thailand in the hope of closing the last remaining camps for Cambodian refugees.

I nevertheless follow with concern recent cease-fire violations which have, for the first time, affected a number of returnees, raising the question of how we can better protect them in situations of political volatility. A good measure of determination will still be required of the international community to bring this complex process to a successful conclusion and thus ensure the long term protection and well-being of returnees.

In stark contrast to such positive developments, Mr. Chairman, the situation of the quarter of a million Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh has been a source of deepening preoccupation in recent months. I regret to say that there has been no breakthrough in our efforts to gain access to areas of origin in Myanmar or to negotiate guarantees of safety for returnees. Since November last year, the hard-pressed Government of Bangladesh has stepped up the pace of repatriation. In recent contacts with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, I have been reassured by their commitment to the voluntary nature of repatriation and by their wish to establish a genuine partnership which respects the protection mandate of my Office and our role in the process of voluntary return.

Africa: crisis and hope

Even more than other regions, Mr. Chairman, Africa is marked by a patchwork of complex crises and equally challenging solutions that require flexible and innovative approaches.

The disintegration of law and order in Somalia and the collapse of government authority there has left my Office caring for close to a million Somali refugees in neighbouring countries. We hope that the United Nations supported military intervention in Somalia will usher in order and the prospect of reconciliation. Nevertheless, it would seem that for an operation of this nature to be successful it is essential to have clear objectives for engagement, as well as an established framework for disengaging without endangering results achieved. I believe that further concerted thinking is required in this respect.

We have been encouraged by the results of our preventive, cross-border Operation from Kenya into the Gedo region of southern Somalia and are in the process of expanding relief and rehabilitation activities and our presence on the ground. A similar cross-border operation into Northwest Somalia from Eastern Ethiopia and Djibouti is planned in order to take advantage of the impetus to return among long-standing refugee populations. We are, moreover, reestablishing our presence in Mogadishu in order to coordinate closely with the United Nations operation. In view of the rapidly evolving situation in Somalia, we have attached great importance to the preparation of contingency plans for massive repatriation. But here I must sound a note of caution. While it is essential that we are prepared to seize opportunities, we must also avoid precipitation or any forcing of the pace of repatriation into a situation which is still intensely volatile. I will be visiting Kenya in the first part of February to assess the situation there, including prospects for voluntary repatriation.

For all the magnitude of ongoing crises in the Horn of Africa, there has been some encouraging progress towards solutions. Some 16,000 refugees have recently returned from Kenya to Ethiopia and it is hoped that a tripartite agreement can be signed later this month concerning the repatriation of Ethiopian refugees from the Sudan. While a breakthrough is still awaited, contacts are being pursued with the Eritrean authorities concerning the involvement of my Office in the repatriation of Eritrean refugees.

Elsewhere, processes of political reconciliation have moved forward dramatically, as in Mozambique, or haltingly, as in South Africa, while suffering serious setbacks in Angola or continued frustration in Liberia. Almost daily we are challenged to develop practical and flexible ways to address new dilemmas and often complex and rapidly changing realities.

The consolidation of the peace process in Mozambique as a result of the 4 October peace agreement opens up the way to repatriation, in coordination with other United Nations agencies and NGOs, of an estimated 1.6 million refugees. We are now in the process of drawing up a Plan of Action to ensure that repatriation is carried out in accordance with internationally accepted principles and procedures. A consolidated plan of operations will be ready by February, though major movements are not expected before the end of the rains in March or April. In the meantime, may I also say how encouraged I am by the request of the South African government that my Office become involved with the large numbers of Mozambican refugees in that country who have formerly been deprived of international protection and assistance.

In Mozambique, as in many other parts of Africa, the success of the peace agreement will be greatly determined by the willingness and ability of the international community to deal in a comprehensive way with the problem of internally displaced, demobilized soldiers and drought victims as well as returning refugees and, beyond this, to commit itself in both political and economic terms to a long-term process of stabilization and rehabilitation.

Similarly, I would hope that severely pressured African countries, such as Malawi and Kenya, can commit themselves not only to keeping open their doors but also to maintaining the quality of the asylum they have offered until refugees can return home in safety and dignity. This, indeed, would be in keeping with the tradition of unrivalled generosity towards refugees that has been a hallmark of the African continent.

The situation in the Americas

No region has demonstrated better than the Americas, Mr. Chairman, the close inter-connection between political processes and repatriation movements on the one hand and the value of concerted regional arrangements in promoting solutions on the other. In Central America, the ongoing peace process has provided a context in which voluntary repatriation has become a truly durable solution for refugees who have often returned to fragile situations of national reconciliation. The formal termination of hostilities in El Salvador last month has provided another welcome step forward in this respect.

Despite the ongoing conflict and associated human rights concerns there, a first group of some 2,500 refugees returned to Guatemala yesterday. A further movement is expected in the next few days. The repatriation follows intensive negotiations between representatives of the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico and the Government of Guatemala leading to the establishment of a framework for return. Nevertheless, my Office continues to have a number of concerns regarding the way in which the repatriation has taken place at the insistence of the refugees themselves.

Elsewhere in the region, fears have grown that the exodus of refugees from Haiti may again gather momentum. In consultation with countries in the region, the United Nations and the Organization of American States, we have therefore been seeking to promote a comprehensive strategy of prevention, protection and solutions. Such an approach should, we believe, ensure observance of the basic international principles of refugee protection, including the fundamental principle of non-refoulement and the right to seek asylum. In order to be successful, it must, of course, also be accompanied by forceful initiatives to find a political solution to the causes of the outflow as well as economic measures to assure the livelihood in their country of those seeking to leave for economic reasons.

Funding of UNHCR activities

Mr. Chairman, the developments that I have described today, the simultaneous pursuit of emergency response, prevention and solutions, have obvious implications in terms of resources. As we are all painfully aware, my Office has passed through two very exceptional years from a funding point of view. Programme budgets and income have passed the one billion dollar mark. I am most grateful that our donors have kept pace with this trend and again express my warm appreciation.

Unfortunately, 1993 will be the third consecutive exceptional year that UNHCR will require an outstanding response by the donor community. Thanks to your agreement at the meeting of the Executive Committee in December last year, the General Programme target is now set at $ 413 million. Special Programmes will bring UNHCR's total requirements to well over one billion dollars by the end of this year. In terms of funding priorities, I must stress the extreme importance of fully and promptly funding the 1993 General Programmes. These are my Office's ongoing activities for millions of refugees world-wide. In the midst of tragic crises in Somalia and former Yugoslavia we must not lose sight of the essential protection work and assistance programmes financed under the 1993 General Programme. I therefore appeal to traditional donors to maintain and, wherever possible, increase their contributions.

For my part, I commit myself to continuing my efforts to broaden the donor base. Yesterday, I returned from what was the first ever official visit by a High Commissioner to Saudi Arabia and hope that this may have helped to lay the ground for the eventual involvement of a new region. I have similarly been encouraged by what may well be the largest ever private contribution to a humanitarian agency in the form of fifty million dollars donated by the philanthropist George Soros for assistance to victims of violence in Yugoslavia.

Concluding remarks

Mr. Chairman, the scale and complexity of refugee problems today cannot be addressed through financial resources alone. I need the continued generosity of the governments represented here today and who have responded so magnificently in the face of unprecedented demands. But, in order to be successful my Office must also equip itself with a management capability which ensures that refugee situations are addressed with maximum efficiency. We owe this to our donors and, above all, we owe it to the world's refugee. This is why I have made management and programming improvements one of my major priorities for 1993. I have already launched an intensive internal review of how to strengthen our support services in the areas of personnel and programming and would hope that some preliminary conclusions can be reported to the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters in March this year. Finally, Mr. Chairman, I also need the fully committed support of Governments not only in ensuring that the assistance needs of refugees are met, but also in safeguarding the very cornerstone of the work of my Office - the hard won principles of international protection.

I thank you Mr. Chairman.