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Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 18 November 1968

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 18 November 1968

18 November 1968


It gives me great pleasure indeed to welcome the High Commissioner, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. I know that the Committee would wish me to convey to him our very warm congratulations on his re-election last Friday to the post of High Commissioner and to wish him continuing successes during his next five-year term of office. I may now call on the High Commissioner to present his Report to the Committee. I call on Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan.

High Commissioner:

Thank you very much Mr. Chairman. May I first be permitted to extend my sincere congratulations to you on your election as Chairman of the Third Committee, and also to congratulate the distinguished Vice-Chairman and the Rapporteur. I should like also to thank you for your good wishes on the occasion of my re-election, and to thank the delegations which took the floor in Plenary to speak to this item. I look forward to continuing to serve the United Nations, and particularly the Third Committee to which I have the privilege to report ever year.

Mr. Chairman, the detailed account of my Office's activities is given in the Report before you and I would, with your permission, limit myself this afternoon to outlining the main aspects of these activities, and also our main achievements in this year. I shall refer principally to the nature of our activities on the continent of Africa where most of our work is now concentrated, because, in general, our activities in Asia, Latin America and Europe are progressing satisfactorily. The period which has elapsed since the last session may be termed, I believe, one of consolidation and progress, as stated in the Introduction to the Report. Some very encouraging an successful trends have emerged, particularly in three fields, that of international protection, which remains the basic function of UNHCR; that of international co-operation in the widest possible sense, with particular reference to inter - agency co-operation, in which the Third Committee is very interested, and which was stressed in the debates during the Twenty-second session; and finally, in the rural settlement of refugees in Africa.

In the field of protection, the results have been particularly striking. Further States have acceded to the 1951 Convention, which remains the basic refugee charter. With the successive accessions of Madagascar, Finland and Botswana, the total number of parties to that very important instrument is now 55. The 1967 Protocol has now been acceded to by 27 States, the latest, in the following order, being Tunisia, the United Kingdom, the United Republic of Tanzania, Finland, Ghana, the United States of America and Botswana. I believe, Mr. Chairman, that for an instruments emphasizes again the significance of the legal status of refugees as the most important condition for their economic and social integration and, ultimately, for their complete assimilation. Indeed, it is also a very important element for voluntary repatriation. This has constantly been stressed, not only in the Statute of UNHCR but also repeatedly in General Assembly resolutions, since it is only when a refugee has a proper status that he can choose freely between voluntary repatriation, local settlement or emigration to another country, and, as emphasized in the Convention and in the Protocol, the refugee should always be given a free choice.

The protection function of UNHCR has been strengthened, Mr. Chairman, by a number of regional conferences, which have taken up the refugee problem. This is evidence of a greater general interest in refugee problems in wider spheres and geographical areas. I would mention first, the International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran, which I attended. I should like to stress how much we appreciate the resolution which was passed there, stressing the importance of non-refoulement - which remains the basic principle of refugee work - and of voluntary repatriation, family reunion and naturalization. This Resolution will help me in the accomplishment of my task, and I should like to take this opportunity of extending my sincere appreciation of the wide geographical sponsorship which it received, and also of the unanimity of the vote taken in Tehran.

I also attended the summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Algiers, where the atmosphere was very positive towards refugee work in general, and where a recommendation, passed first by the council of Ministers and subsequently ratified by the Heads of State and Governments, was made to governments members of the OAU, to adhere to the 1951 Convention and to the 1967 Protocol. It is noteworthy, I think, that 23 African States have acceded to the Convention and 9 to the Protocol.

The possibility of an African Regional Convention to improve to status of refugees in that area was also discussed. That matter has been postponed temporarily, but we believe sincerely that this regional African Refugee Convention would constitute an improvement on existing instruments, at the regional level, and we have been closely working with the Organization of African Unity, to co-ordinate its activities in this field with those of the United Nations.

Turning now, Mr. Chairman, to international co-operation in the wide sense, at the last session of the General Assembly, I explained tat pursuant to a resolution of the Conference on the Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of Refugee Problems held in Addis Ababa in 1967, and African Bureau for the Placement and Education of Refugees would shortly be established there under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity, and with the co-operation of the Economic Commission for Africa, some of the Specialized Agencies and many voluntary agencies. Governments also which have a special interest in the field of education and vocational training on the continent of Africa have co-operated by means of financial contributions. The Bureau has now been established. As in the case of the Protocol, the results in one year have been most encouraging. The Bureau has already been able to assist a number of individual cases, and we believe it will be a basic instrument, growing in importance in the coming years, for a concerted effort within Africa to find suitable solutions for many individuals whose problems cannot be solved within the framework of projects for collective settlement in agriculture. As an expression of African solidarity, the existence of the Bureau, and the role it will play, are important from a political as well as from a practical point of view. We believe that it will be able to grant educational opportunities to a number of refugees in Africa, thus lessening the "brain drain", since these refugees will receive education and training, so hat they may become the future leaders of their countries. May I, in this connexion, express gratitude to the governments and people of Scandinavia for the great generosity and deep interest which they have displayed in connexion with the creation of the Bureau. May I also, as I did at the summit meeting of the OAU in Algiers, appeal to all African governments to co-operate with us by offering generous resettlement opportunities to the individual cases which we submit to them, so that they may be given an opportunity to further their education in an African country, in order to become useful citizens.

Mr. Chairman, inter-agency co-operation is no longer a goal but a practical reality. You will recall that the Third Committee of the General Assembly, at its Twenty-second Session, was almost unanimous in recommending that the High Commissioner should attend the meetings of the Inter - Agency Consultative Board. I have already attended such meetings, and we have benefited a great deal from the ensuing closer relations with other members of the United Nations system.

The United Nations Development Programme has now become a key element in rural integration of refugees in Africa. In Burundi, for instance, where, for a number of years, we have had a very large programme for refugees we have the first concrete and convincing example of what can be achieved through an integrated approach, with the combined help of some of the specialized agencies and UNDP. We hope very much that the procedure whereby refugees are included in wider zonal development programmes upon completion of UNHCR programmes, will be repeated in countries such as the Central African Republic, Uganda and possible Tanzania, as successfully as it was in Burundi. I must, of course, stress in this connexion that UNDP can take over only if requested to do so by the governments concerned.

A number of delegates at the last Session, particularly the distinguished representatives of Ghana and Iraq, stressed the importance of a closer co-operation with UNICEF. Here, also, progress has been most satisfactory. Following conversations with the Director-General of UNICEF, Mr. Labouisse, and as a result of such closer co-operation in the field between the UNICEF representatives and those of UNHCR, we have been able to give a fresh impetus to this co-operation. We are now obtaining from UNICEF $ 25,000 worth of medicaments for refugees in the Casamance Region of Senegal, and, in Uganda and in the Sudan, UNICEF is considering the possibility of supplying additional medical equipment for the benefit of refugees. The question of an extension of this aid to other countries is under investigation.

The aid given by the World Food Program, which makes the largest contribution of all, amounting to approximately $1 million in foodstuffs every year, is of course of vital importance during the whole pre-settlement period, and in any critical periods that may subsequently occur.

The World Health Organization continues to grant us indispensable assistance, particularly in the form of systematic vaccination, the establishment of medical posts, mobile clinics, dispensaries, the recruitment and training of health officers and also in the eradication of the tse-tse fly in the areas where the refugees are to be settled. We are also pursuing our contacts with the FAO and ILO, and are benefitting from their expert advice in the field.

Following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between UNESCO any my Office, and as a result of a detailed report drawn up by an expert seconded by the Director-General of UNESCO to my Office, we now have a much clearer idea of the educational needs of refugees, particularly in Africa. This is being followed up closely and I shall revert to the subject later in my statement, when I speak of our projects and expectations for 1969.

As a result of inter-agency co-operation, bringing with it the contribution of U. N. organizations concerned with economic and social development, the work of my Office in Africa has acquired new dimensions. Governments understand more clearly the contribution which refugees can make to economic and social development, and this, in its turn, facilitates the protection function of UNHCR. As each organization benefits from those activities of the others which are complementary to its own, the United Nations work and the U.N. system as a whole are strengthened. This is in conformity with the intentions expressed in the Secretary-General's Report on the Second Development Decade, and in line with the wishes of the Economic and Social Council and the recommendation of the A. C. C.

I had the pleasure of attending the meetings of the A. C. C. in Bucharest, and more recently here in New York, where a decision was taken that my Office should arrange a meeting wit other U.N. organizations in order to examine the possibilities of further strengthening assistance to refugees in Africa, with special reference to refugees coming from countries under colonial administration. This meeting. Which will be held in Geneva in January, is in line with Resolution A/2311 (XXII), adopted at the Twenty-second Session, which was discussed widely at the summer session of ECOSOC in Geneva. This is another example of the dynamic character of our activities and of the catalytic role which UNHCR can play in the framework of concerted United Nations action.

Turning now, Mr. Chairman, to the settlement of refugees in Africa, as you know, the key solution for the great majority of African refugees is rural integration. Here the figures speak for themselves. Out of more than 850,000 refugees on the continent of Africa today, only 70,000 still need daily food rations. This does not mean that all others are definitely settled. Rural settlement is a long process, especially when one has to begin by clearing uncultivated land, and afterwards has to face a number of difficulties, such as shortage of water, the arrival of new refugees and so on. Nonetheless, it is comforting to realize that more than 80 per cent from among these large groups of refugees, are, after, a short time, already at work and in a position to take care of themselves and of the daily needs of their families. It is encouraging to know that the competent UN agencies will take over and will consolidate our work, at the stage where the integration of refugees depends on development plans. This objective had been achieved already in Senegal, and also in Burundi, for which we have no allocation in the 1969 programme. It is essential that projects should be taken over in this way, to avoid any regression, whereby past efforts would be wasted.

Mr. Chairman, I have tried to give you an indication of the progress achieved in the past year. What are the new facts, and the new problems confronting us in 1968?

In Africa, unfortunately, the main fact is the steady increase both in number of refugees and the scope of the refugee problem. The number of new arrivals of refugees for whom host governments have requested assistance in various African countries since the beginning of this year, amounts to 40,000. This figure, of course, does not include displaced persons within the territory of their own country who are victims of internal strife, but jot refugees within the competence on UNHCR. This continuous trend, which characterizes the present situation in Africa, is of great concern to my Office and it will certainly influence its activities during the coming year.

As regards Europe, Mr. Chairman, it was my view, shared, I think, with the Third Committee at the Twenty-second Session, that, thanks to the governments concerned, and in view of favourable economic conditions, the refugee situation was no longer a burning issue. As a result, my Office has been able to concentrate more and more on Africa, and to transfer available resources to developing areas, where there is a much greater need for assistance. However, following the events in Central Europe last summer, there were a number of persons in neighbouring countries, who were awaiting developments and who needed time to decide about their future. A certain number of them have asked for asylum in the countries where they were, whilst others have chosen to emigrate overseas. The Government of Austria, where most of these people were, faced with the necessity of providing them with temporary assistance, requested help from my Office which I was immediately able to provide. Since then, I have remained in close touch with the Austrian Government, as well as with other governments, in order to ensure, within the responsibilities entrusted to my Office, that the human problems of the persons concerned are adequately dealt with and speedily solved, either through voluntary repatriation, or through local integration or resettlement, as might be required. We believe, Mr. Chairman, that this is clearly in the interest of the international community. I should like to state here that our objective and impartial efforts would be greatly facilitated if my Office could count here also, as in Africa, on the direct co-operation of all the governments directly concerned.

Turing now, Mr. Chairman, to our objectives for 1969, in general we wish to pursue our activities in the fields of protection, material assistance and inter-agency co-operation. Protection remains a fundamental task and in the 22 countries which I have had the privilege to visit since the beginning of this year, I had frequent opportunities to stress the importance of the granting of asylum and of an adequate legal status to refugees, and also to emphasize the need, not only to adhere to international instruments relating to refugees, but also to implement the essential provisions of these agreements in every way. This applies not only in Africa, or in Europe, but also in Asia, where we have many problems.

With regard to Africa, I feel that the amount of assistance that we have been giving to refugees, and the fact that they have undoubtedly contributed to economic and social development, will make it easier for the African host countries to grant them a proper status. If, through a global approach to the refugee problem, we can bring economic and social development to the rural areas where the refugees are settled, the corollary would be for the governments of these countries to grant the refugees a status completely in accord with the provisions of the international instruments defining the minimum treatment to be extended to refugees.

In the field of voluntary repatriation, Mr. Chairman, the first solution in the order in which they are listed in the Statute - we propose to continue our efforts so that this solution to the problems of refugees may be limited in some areas, may give the impression that this is a theoretical rather than a practical solution. I am, of course, aware of the obstacles which sometimes impede repatriation, although one should realise that in Africa, some 16,000 refugees have repatriated since the beginning of the year, a figure, Mr. Chairman, which is by no means negligible. But we have to increase our efforts, and I should like to state that I have no intention of abandoning the search for means of removing the obstacles to this solution, whenever necessary.

As I said, the refugees' choice between repatriation and provisional or final settlement in another country must be truly free. This implies, Mr. Chairman, on the one hand that no pressure, direct or indirect, should be exerted upon the refugee by the authorities of the country of asylum in order to oblige him to return to his country of origin; and, on the other hand, that the refugee should be informed, as accurately as possible, about the living conditions that he may find in his country of origin if he chooses to return there, so that these conditions may, in fact, be acceptable to him. This is another reason, Mr. Chairman, why we are very grateful to these countries of origin of the refugees who initiate contacts, or respond to initiatives made by my Office, to discuss the possibility of repatriation. Clearly the High Commissioner is not in a position to promote repatriation unilaterally. He must be able to count on the co-operation of the country of origin. In Africa, where the question of repatriation must be explored further, I shall endeavour also to ensure the availability of all forms of aid needed to promote repatriation such as documents, or transportation for those refugees who wish to return to their countries. Also I am ready to extend my Good Offices to governments, so that specialized agencies of the United Nations system may initiate economic and social development programmes in the countries of origin, which would no doubt be in many instances a valuable incentive for refugees to return, so that this element of free choice can always be maintained. This would also depend, needless to say, on the request of governments.

Where repatriation is precluded by circumstances, Mr. Chairman, or by the refugee's own wish, the best alternative could well be, for the refugees, in due course, to acquire the nationality of the country in which they are settled. This is the logical outcome of a truly realistic and constructive resettlement policy. Since its inception, my Office has endeavoured to promote the granting of increased facilities for naturalization by governments. In 1969, we must continue to encourage naturalization as a permanent solution for those refugees who have been residing in countries of asylum for a long time. This does not, however, depend exclusively on governments. An approach will therefore be made to the refugees themselves, to induce them to take full advantage of the facilities which are afforded to them in the field of naturalization. In this connexion, Mr. Chairman, we rely heavily on the voluntary agencies, and I should like to express the hope that they will continue to help us, as in the past, in an impartial and objective way, to reach the refugees and to advise them of the possibility of naturalization.

Another important objective among our 1969 targets is an increased effort in the field of education. The education of refugees, Mr. Chairman, is not a luxury. It is an important element of integration, of which refugees feel the need perhaps more keenly than other people. To be illiterate in our modern world is, in fact, to be disabled. If the refugees are to receive the place to which they are entitled in the economic, social and cultural life of their adoptive country, or of their country of origin should they return there, they must, of course, enjoy the same facilities for education as those accorded to nationals. In the developing countries, however, this implies outside aid at the start, since there can obviously be no question of creating educational structures specially intended for refugees. On the contrary, the aim is to integrate them as rapidly as possible into the existing national educational system. It is on these realistic and, we believe, modest foundations that we began with primary education, which is now included in the regular programme of my Office. In accordance with their commitments, countries such as Burundi, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have already taken over responsibility for the primary schools set up in areas where refugees have been settled. We must new expand our efforts to secondary and vocational education. This has been clearly pointed out by our representatives in the field, and also by the UNESCO Report on the Educational Needs in Africa. Thanks to the generous contributions already made available by the Scandinavian countries for our Education account, we shall be able to embark actively upon this task in 1969, in close co-operation with UNESCO, UNICEF and all the competent authorities. The question of education was discussed in great detail at the recent meeting of my Executive Committee in Geneva and a resolution was passed which, inter alia, requested the High Commissioner " ... continue to emphasize the need for educational assistance to refugees in the framework of inter-agency co-operation and to bring to the attention of UNESCO and other members of the United Nations system the need for educational assistance to refugees to be taken into account when drawing up their education and training programmes, particularly in the developing countries, so that these programmes may benefit both refugees and nationals."

It also requested governments and member States of the Executive Committee and other interested governments to support the action of the High Commissioner in this respect.

Needless to say, Mr. Chairman, this subject will be discussed in much greater detail at the fathoming meeting of members of the UN system initiated by my Office, to which I have just referred. We shall also continue our efforts in the field of inter-agency co-operation generally. No effort will be spared to strengthen co-operation with all the interested members of the United Nations system. May I also express the hope that we may one day co-ordinate our efforts in developing countries with those made in respect of bilateral aid. In many of the African countries, where we have been implementing programmes, there are wide-spread bilateral programmes of development aid and technical assistance which might on occasion benefit from a closer co-ordination with UNHCR, as indeed our programmes would benefit from them.

We shall also, in 1969, continue our efforts to facilitate the integration of refugees. This must be reactivated in areas where internal difficulties have so far prevented our action from developing according to plan, particularly in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sudan. We shall also continue our efforts in the field of integration in Asia, particularly in India, where the Government has requested UNHCR to open a Branch Office in New Delhi, to co-ordinate and finalize the task of integrating Tibetan refugees. We also plan to pursue our efforts in Latin America where in the light of a recent survey my staff has been strengthened to promote the integration of the handicapped and aged refugees.

In view of the necessity to pursue, or to intensify our material assistance, especially in Africa, and in the light of increased needs, we have had to increase our financial target for 1969 by $1 million, so that it now amounts to $5,600,000, 58 per cent of which will be earmarked for Africa. Even so, the programme, which represents the minimum needs of refugees, could only be kept at this level by paring it down considerably. I should like to recall that our target is always determined according to the need, and not according to what we hope the governments will contribute to our voluntary programme. In this connexion, I remember the remark made at the Twenty-second Session of the Assembly by the distinguished Representative of Australia, who stressed that it would be difficult to accept successively higher budget targets if the governments were not more generous in the future so that their contributions followed the same trend. We are pleased that the governments have increased their contributions to our programme and, therefore, we are pleased that the governments have increased their contributions to our programmes and, therefore, we have good hope of finding the necessary support to discharge our duties in 1969. Indeed, Mr. Chairman, a new and very encouraging development is to be reported. In 1968, 20 governments substantially increased their annual contribution to the programme. I should like here to extend special tribute to the Scandinavian governments of their quite remarkable generosity. Indeed, at the nineteenth Session of the HCR Executive Committee the Scandinavian countries announced spectacular increased in their contributions. As a result 75 per cent of the UNHCR programme is now covered by governmental contributions, as against 63 per cent in 1967. I should also like to report that 63 governments are now contributing to the programme, the highest number ever registered. May I recall the remark of the distinguished representative of the United Kingdom at the last session when he stated that the main support had to come from the governments themselves. The present trend. I believe, shows that we have made considerable progress in this direction. May I also recall the remark of the distinguished representative of Algeria who said last year that aid to refugees is a duty for all men and all States. Let us hope that this trend will continue and further develop in 1969 so that the vital needs included in the programme are fully covered.

Although I appreciate that consideration of our administrative budget does not fall within the competence of the Third Committee, I fell it is my duty to emphasize the impact of my steadily-increasing tasks on the amount of work devolving upon my very limited staff. If the General Assembly wishes those tasks to be satisfactorily carried out, or even perhaps expanded, pursuant to its own resolutions, the necessary qualified staff must be made available to my Office. May I therefore express the hope that the other competent organs of the United Nations will take account of this situation, and of the imperative and changing nature of my activities, which are intended merely to cover minimum needs and enable the refugees to lead a decent life.

Mr. Chairman, I hope that this statement, although it has not described in detail the many aspects of what is inevitably a very diversified action, will enable your Committee at least to place this action in its true perspective - since it cannot be dissociated from UN activities in general, on behalf of progress greater well-being for individuals, rational utilization of human resources, human rights and peace. It is hardly necessary for me to revert to what has been stated in previous years about the beneficial outcome of this action, to enable thousands of men, women and children who have often been brutally uprooted, once more to live a normal, peaceful and active life, and to do so in the shortest possible time at a minimum expense - is not this a concrete, realistic and inspiring objective? And is it not worth some small sacrifices on the part of States compelled to devote so much of their resources to other, often less profitable, purposes. However that may be, Mr. Chairman, my Office is prepared to continue and indeed to strengthen its efforts, within the framework laid down by the General Assembly. In so doing, its constant desire is to serve as a bridge between various countries, the country origin of the refugees, often so painfully affected by the vicissitude history; the country of asylum, whose generosity and merit can never sufficiently praised; and lastly the countries which, faithful to the ideals, are giving financial, moral and political support to the work UNHCR. Mr. Chairman, to the extent to which UNHCR can thus gain the confidence and friendship of all countries, as it hopes to deserve the friendship of the refugees themselves, it considers that it is perform useful work for peace. Thank you.