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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Rotary Award for World Understanding, Calgary, 25 June 1996

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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Rotary Award for World Understanding, Calgary, 25 June 1996

25 June 1996

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am greatly honoured to receive the Rotary Award for World Understanding 1996 today. I should like to thank the Rotary International for bestowing this tribute on me. It is also a recognition of the courage and devotion of the more than 5,000 staff of my Office, who are working in often dangerous and difficult conditions. At the same time, you are expressing solidarity with the millions of destitute victims of armed conflict and human rights violations around the world. You are recognizing the plight of refugee children scarred by war, and the innate strength of refugee women in adversity and exile. I deeply appreciate this.

On a personal note, this Award also has special significance for me. In 1951, thanks to the Rotary Foundation Fellowship, I started my graduate studies in the United States as a young political scientist. I belonged to a new generation of Japanese who, following the end of the Second World War, came to study in the United States and came to understand the generosity of America and the openness of its people. Through my contact with Rotary, I learned about the importance of community service: The Rotary motto of "service above self" has left a deep impression and has guided me since. I would like to express my profound gratitude to the Rotary Foundation for having given me that unique opportunity, and for having given me a solid foundation to lead the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a global service organization on behalf of those fleeing from armed conflict and persecution.

UNHCR was established in 1951 with a mandate to protect refugees and to identify solutions to their plight. From Afghanistan to Angola, from Togo to Tajikistan, from Rwanda to Russia, from Burundi to Bangladesh, in 120 countries around the globe, my Office is currently helping some 27 million people. They are refugees who fled their country, but also people who have returned to their homes and require our assistance and protection to rebuild their lives in peace and security. Increasingly, we also work inside countries following the outbreak of internal conflicts and assist displaced persons and other affected civilians, as in Burundi and in Bosnia. My main concern is to make sure that people - mostly women and children - are safe, with their basic human rights respected and minimum material needs met.

Today, we live in a rapidly changing world. On the one hand, there is a growing trend toward globalization, through technological advances, commerce and information sharing. The world is becoming a global neighbourhood. On the other hand, there are strong forces of fragmentation, giving rise to insecurity, isolationism and civil conflict. Nowadays, states are less threatened by hegemonic powers from the outside, than by discontented ethnic, religious, national and political groups taking up arms to achieve their aims. To force one group of people to leave their country is often the very objective of the terror and fighting, as witnessed in Bosnia, Burundi, Rwanda and the Caucasus.

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia has brought home dramatically the threats to freedom we face. Following the break-up of the former Soviet Union, the peaceful transition from authoritarian to democratic societies has been undermined by ethnic conflicts, religious intolerance, and political rivalries in the Balkans, in the Caucasus, Chechnya, and Tajikistan. An estimated 9 million people have been uprooted in the former Soviet Union since 1989.

Elsewhere too, internal conflict and ethnic tensions are causing new emergencies. The genocide in Rwanda has shocked the conscience of the world. It is unlikely that the 1.8 million Rwandan refugees in the camps in Zaire, Burundi and Tanzania will return soon. Progress toward reconciliation in Rwanda has been piecemeal. In Afghanistan, the prospects for an end to the longest refugee crisis and the return of the nearly nine hundred thousand refugees in Pakistan and the 1.5 million in Iran are slim indeed. Likewise in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the continuous fighting has terrorized the civilian population.

The news, however, is not entirely gloomy. To the contrary. New opportunities to bring long standing conflicts to a peaceful end have permitted the voluntary repatriation of more than 9 million refugees over the last five years, to Cambodia, Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique, among others. By the end of this month we will draw to a close the Vietnamese boat people saga. Many Rotarians have given assistance and have offered opportunities to refugees to resettle and start their lives again.

I am often asked what can we do to solve refugee problems or prevent them from occurring? How can individuals and organizations, big or small, assist? I do not believe there is a magic formula to solve or prevent refugee crises. I am convinced, however, that concrete steps can be taken.

First, we must ensure that people in need of asylum and protection receive it. A worrying trend is the hardening attitude of governments and the public to close borders, making it difficult for refugees to enter and to find safety. The restrictive policies of prosperous Western states are being copied by some developing countries, who traditionally have provided hospitality to the large majority of those fleeing persecution and war.

Second, humanitarian action should not be an end in itself, or a substitute for the political responsibility to identify solutions and to tackle the causes of refugee emergencies. Humanitarian action can alleviate human suffering by providing protection and assistance to people in need. However, if we wish to protect people from gross and systematic human rights violations, the international community must take more resolute action.

It is the lack of political will to take decisive action which is often the biggest challenge I face. For example, Burundi has been experiencing a spiral of violence since 1994. One hundred people are brutally killed on average every week. It is not a question of early warning but of early action to stop, or at least contain, the violence. Two weeks ago, three delegates of the International Red Cross were brutally murdered trying to provide water to 6 000 war affected victims. How long should humanitarian action continue, without putting the lives of staff and victims at risk with no solution in sight?

Third, more emphasis must be paid to the role of education to promote understanding, tolerance, and openness. Archibald MacLeish, the American poet, rightly said that: "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." UNHCR focuses considerable attention to education and the provision of community services in refugee camps and in return communities. Skills training within the context of income-generating projects helps refugees not only to earn money to improve their quality of life, but also raises their self-esteem and contributes to the economic base of the community, which in turn facilitates reconciliation. In Argentina, for example, the UNHCR office cooperates with the Rotary programme, called New Generation, to promote political and citizenship awareness amongst young people.

That is also why I submitted the joint project between my Office and the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment programme, or GLOBE in short, to the Rotary Foundation. The project will raise awareness among refugee children of the impact upon the environment of large scale forced population movements. In the Rwandan refugee camps in Ngara, Tanzania, some 9,000 trees, or 58 hectare of forest, are cut for cooking purposes on a daily basis. The cost in terms of deforestation, soil degradation, water depletion and contamination are considerable. We must help to address the consequences.

To achieve these objectives, I count upon you and your support. Partnerships with organizations, like Rotary, can assist in the development of community services. Through your extensive network, you can actively contribute to the protection of human rights worldwide and convince political leaders that action is necessary. You can contribute toward building a strong civic society in countries which have just emerged from civil conflict. For example, in Sri Lanka the Rotary has implemented several community infrastructure projects in cooperation with UNHCR. These projects have contributed to the return of refugees and created opportunities to rebuild their lives. Business leaders can also play an active role by employing, for instance, refugees, or investing in countries or areas hosting returnees. We have to examine new approaches. For example, UNHCR has launched an initiative, in cooperation with the business community, to fund small projects in either refugee camps or their home communities, such as water wells, schools, medical centres, or skills training.

At the international level, a strong civic society is also essential. Humanitarian action does not take place in a vacuum. We can do a lot, but can perform no miracles. Therefore, we must reach out to the multilateral political, social, economic and development institutions to assist our efforts. We must increase awareness of the linkages between development, human rights protection and prevention of humanitarian emergencies. That is why we need a strong and more effective United Nations: to help bring peace to conflict-torn states, to achieve reconciliation and to promote sustainable development. To counter the negative tendencies towards fragmentation, we require strong mechanisms to respond to the many transnational challenges facing us.

My Office stands for the same fundamental objective of service to humanity as Rotary International. While thanking you for the Rotary Award for World Understanding, I wish to call on you to join hands in the building of a world in which less people will be forced to flee, and in which refugees are protected until they can safely return home one day.

Thank you.