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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 31 October 1996

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 31 October 1996

31 October 1996

Madam Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

More than 26 million people are of concern to my Office. Just over half of them are refugees, the remainder being returnees, internally displaced persons and war affected populations. While there is a small reduction in numbers compared to last year, the international environment remains highly volatile. In the last few months, people have again been uprooted by armed conflict in Burundi, the Caucasus, Iraq, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan and most recently in eastern Zaire, which is on the brink of calamity. Progress has been made towards durable solutions in many parts of the world but enormous challenges remain. The mandate for protection of refugees and solutions to their problems given to my Office by the General Assembly over forty-five years ago is as valid today as ever before.

Faced with a heavy burden, countries of asylum as well as donors, from their different perspectives, have become increasingly concerned about the costs of providing refugees with indefinite protection and assistance. In addition, there is heightened concern for security when refugee movements pose a threat to national, regional and even international security. Moreover, these movements often contribute to economic and social instability in the countries of asylum. Despite these difficulties, I am grateful that many States have continued to open their borders to large numbers of refugees.

Today, my Office has two fundamental and closely related concerns. The first is to ensure continuing commitment to the core values of refugee protection, in particular upholding the principle that people should not be forcibly returned to situations in which their lives might be endangered. We are often confronted by the dilemma of trying to provide protection to innocent victims when asylum is being abused for political, economic or even military ends. My Office has followed closely the debate on measures to combat terrorism. While recognizing the importance of fighting this danger, the issue of terrorism should not jeopardize the institution of asylum for persons in genuine need of protection. The second concern is to secure effective solutions to refugee crises. Here too, dilemmas arise as we search for solutions to problems of displacement caused by bitter and divisive conflicts, often in the absence of the political will required to initiate and sustain true reconciliation.

There could be no better illustration of these complex challenges than in the Great Lakes region of Africa. There is a clear link between the humanitarian and political and security crises in eastern Zaire. The lack of progress in repatriating Rwandan refugees has exacerbated tensions in the region. Before the recent wave of violence erupted, about 1.6 million Rwandans remained in the camps in Tanzania and Zaire - which consisted of an explosive mixture of innocent refugees, intimidators, militants and perpetrators of genocide. As fighting has spread, once again, hundreds of thousands of refugees and Zairian civilians are fleeing for their lives. We have no access to well over half a million refugees and find ourselves on the brink of another humanitarian catastrophe. What steps can be taken to contain this crisis? A cease-fire should be negotiated immediately to obtain access to the refugees, to provide assistance, and to protect the security of the humanitarian aid workers. In the intermediate-term, the political roots of this cycle of violence must be effectively addressed so that the difficult transition is made to reconciliation and lasting peace. As I briefed the Security Council last Friday, I am convinced that only a major and fully sustained political settlement can bring this dreadful catastrophe to an end.

Notwithstanding the progress made since Dayton, Bosnia and Herzegovina also illustrates the daunting challenges of refugee repatriation and reconciliation. A quarter of a million people, mostly internally displaced persons, are estimated to have returned to or settled notably in areas where their group is the majority. Returns across the different entity lines have been few and continue to face serious obstacles. We must insist that people have the right to return to their homes, but at the same time recognize the need to search for alternative solutions within Bosnia or in the region. In the meantime, return should not be imposed on those unable to go back safely to their home areas. I am disappointed that the planned municipal elections have had to be postponed again as they could have provided vital opportunities for reconciliation and confidence building. A clear signal needs to be given to the parties that the international community expects them to live up to the commitments made at Dayton. How long can we continue providing support to authorities which consistently oppose our humanitarian mission?

Madam Chairman, the difficulties in the Great Lakes and Bosnia should not obscure progress in resolving forced displacement elsewhere. During 1994 and 1995, some three million refugees returned to their countries, the largest numbers to Afghanistan, Mozambique and Myanmar. Return movements have continued this year as well. In Mozambique, the peaceful reintegration of 1.7 million refugees has been successfully achieved, and in July we were able to end our operations there. The Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese refugees has also come to an end, and we are closing the last chapter of a refugee problem that spanned two decades. In Central America, a solution is in sight to the last remaining refugee problem, that of Guatemalans in Mexico thanks to Mexico's recent praiseworthy decision to offer them possibilities for integration. Experience gained in Central America, South-East Asia and Mozambique have shown how political, economic and humanitarian initiatives can be interwoven to support and sustain the processes of reconciliation. How can we best ensure that these lessons are applied in other regions?

Madam Chairman, in many cases it is only real progress toward peace that can open up space for solving refugee problems. This holds true not only for the Great Lakes region of Africa and for Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is equally true for the Caucasus, where we have been discussing proposals for the return and reintegration of more than a million refugees and displaced persons, who fled as a result of the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. It also applies to Liberia. Although peace requires first and foremost the political will of those directly involved, international involvement can often play an indispensable role in bringing it to fruition. I appeal once again for increased international support to the efforts of ECOWAS in Liberia, so that the predicament of the three quarters of a million Liberian refugees will finally end.

Countries traumatized by conflict need help to make the complicated transition from war to peace, that eventually leads to development. Many refugees are returning to countries where the infrastructure and institutions have been devastated by years of conflict. In some cases, they go back to countries where peace has not yet been fully secured. Through our community-based assistance programmes, my Office seeks to improve the fragile conditions in their countries of origin. UNHCR promotes quick impact projects to accelerate the rehabilitation process, and we must ensure that they are sustainable once we leave. One of the lessons confirmed by our recent experience in Mozambique is that joint planning and early collaboration by all international agencies involved can be of tremendous benefit. My Office is fully committed to forging effective and close collaborative relations to ensure smooth and timely linkages between relief, rehabilitation and development.

Madam Chairman, while vigorously pursuing solutions for refugees, I also believe that my Office needs, within the limits of its mandate, to play a role in averting unnecessary displacement. We need to examine with all partners how to prevent, manage and solve displacement through comprehensive regional initiatives, such as the CIS Conference which we organized together with the OSCE and IOM earlier this year. We are now actively following up the implementation and monitoring of the various country programmes.

Madam Chairman, the fulfilment of UNHCR's role in an ever more complex environment depends on a number of critical factors. First, it is necessary to ensure respect for our unique mandate of refugee protection. Second, it is essential to commit ourselves collectively to respond to emergencies and to resolve humanitarian crises. Lastly, it is vital that, through its ongoing process of institutional reform, my Office fully equips itself with the capacities, structures and procedures to carry out our mission. UNHCR has therefore embarked upon an internal reform process, called Project Delphi, which should lead to greater delegation of authority to our operations in the field, strengthened planning capacity, and streamlined human resource management. We owe our donors, the heavily burdened countries of asylum and, first and foremost, the refugees, maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

The responsibility is heavy at times, as during the last several weeks, and I regret not being able to attend the whole session of the Third Committee. The crisis in eastern Zaire necessitates my urgent presence in Geneva and I will be leaving tomorrow. I count on your invaluable support to meet our objectives, however difficult they may be.