November 15, 2000

Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Colleagues, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking Jessica Tuchman Matthews for that very kind introduction and also the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for hosting this event. The Endowment's International Migration Policy Program has been a true partner for my Office here in Washington. Let me also express my warmest personal gratitude to Kathleen Newland for her constant friendship, support and good advice over the years.

My address today will be my last in Washington as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I leave office at the end of the year--just six weeks from now. With this transition on the horizon, I would like to reflect upon the evolution of international humanitarian action over the past decade and to highlight some of the future directions I see for refugee work.

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, ending the Cold War and opening up new opportunities for peace in many areas of the world. In Namibia, Cambodia, and Mozambique, as well as in Central America, UNHCR helped millions of refugees to return home. In humanitarian terms, the real turning point came less than two years later--and only weeks after I became High Commissioner--with the crisis in northern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds brought a new dimension to the concept of displacement. They did not cross an ideological line--they fled an internal conflict, and they fled massively. The majority took refuge in Iran. Another large group fled to a volatile area in Turkey, where their presence was seen as a potential trigger for further conflict. An international military intervention was mounted to protect returnees, their host communities, and humanitarian agencies. Operation Provide Comfort gave rise to the illusion that in the New World Order there would also be, so to speak, a new "humanitarian order".

This illusion was short lived. In the early 1990s, the end of Cold War polarization resulted in countless confused and violent internal conflicts. In Somalia, the international community thought it would replicate the relative success of northern Iraq. But the troops sent in to support humanitarian agencies found themselves mired in a civil conflict of unforeseen complexity. The failure in Somalia affected all subsequent attempts to mobilize more decisive support for humanitarian action. In the former Yugoslavia, it was only its proximity to the West-- and the horrors of Srebrenica-- that convinced western countries to compel the warring parties to discuss peace at Dayton-- and this, three years after the conflict started. Last year's Kosovo refugee crisis once again demonstrated that human suffering must reach dramatic proportions--and be in NATO's backyard--before humanitarian efforts are backed up by more serious and sustained international engagement. The successive crises in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa reflect a failure to implement any kind of humanitarian order. The withdrawal of UN troops from Rwanda in April 1994-- at the very time when a multinational force was most needed--coincided with an explosion of genocidal violence, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. In refugee camps in Eastern Zaire, armed elements and political extremists were not separated from refugees. The few troops the international community was willing to send for a short period provided only logistical support to relief operations. In November 1996, the Security Council adopted a resolution supporting the dispatch of troops to help protect refugees in the war-torn areas of Eastern Zaire. It was never implemented. Among my most vivid memories is the rescue operation that we set up in the former Zaire in 1996--when all attempts at deployment of international forces failed, our staff had to go and search for scattered, hungry, and terrified refugees in the rainforest of that vast country, sometimes even on foot.

Ladies and Gentlemen, looking to the future, I regret to say that we must be realistic and prepare ourselves for several years of conflicts similar to those we have seen over the past decade. In many places around the world, a combination of secessionist or rebel movements and weak conflict resolution processes--as well as a lack of international engagement--create a spiral of violence and, as a consequence, refugee flows.

Wars and refugees have never been so inextricably linked as in recent years. This implies that UNHCR will remain necessary--an essential player in the international community's response to humanitarian crises. It also implies that--as we look to the future--we have to examine possible challenges with respect to two main areas: conflicts producing mass movements of refugees; and the post-conflict period, during which mass returns--equally complex and often problematic--usually occur. Let me start with situations of flight from conflict. Wars, as I have said, inevitably cause refugee movements across borders. First and foremost, we must therefore uphold the principle of asylum for refugees. This will remain, undoubtedly, our core mission. People in flight urgently need protection, and the institution of asylum is the most important refugee protection instrument available to the international community. The complexity of population movements is placing the concept and practice of asylum in an ambiguous position. Frequently, economic migrants resort to asylum because this is their only way to remain abroad and obtain employment-- both in industrialized countries and also, increasingly, in the developing world. This blurs the picture to the detriment of refugees and asylum seekers--who flee situations of conflict and persecution, and who are often lumped together with so-called "illegal immigrants." They are seen as intruders whose goal is to take away jobs and profit from an undeserved share of social welfare.

Governments have responded by making it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach their territory, by detaining people upon arrival, by interpreting their international obligations narrowly and by creating new and lesser forms of protection. Some have questioned whether the 1951 Convention still meets the needs of a changing world and more complex global population movements. But I strongly believe that governments, UNHCR, and refugees share a fundamental common interest in having an effective, universal international protection regime. To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention, we have launched Global Consultations aimed at revitalizing the international protection regime. One point should be clear: we do not intend to renegotiate the Convention. Rather, we intend to pursue its full and effective implementation. We shall therefore seek to reaffirm a renewed commitment, by states, to the principles of the Convention, and to its implementation. We will also search for a common understanding regarding areas in which the interpretation of the Convention is controversial, and areas which the Convention does not cover, with a view to developing new standards, tools, and approaches for filling these gaps. Independent experts and NGO advocates can--and must-- be important contributors to this process. Defending asylum, however, will not be sufficient to ensure the protection of people in (or around) conflicts. As we have seen in places as diverse as the former Zaire, West Timor, and Guinea, an insecure environment in refugee populated areas makes protection an impossible task. In these situations, sometimes, humanitarian action has unwanted negative effects--criminals, armed elements, and other people not deserving protection actually benefit from the assistance provided; and of course, humanitarian staff are exposed to grave dangers.

The brutal murders of our UNHCR colleagues in West Timor and Guinea last September was-- for me personally--among the most bitter and painful experiences of my tenure as High Commissioner. These despicable crimes also brought into focus the broader dimensions of the security issue. Refugees must be protected and kept safe. Humanitarian workers should not have to lose their lives. But neither should local people be jeopardized due to the presence of armed groups or the perpetrators of violence among refugees. UNHCR has paid dearly, but the refugees and other innocent civilians in West Timor have been paying a very high price since our departure. There is today an increased awareness that humanitarian agencies should not be left alone to confront difficult and dangerous situations. The question is, how do we ensure that? I have often spoken of the need to look at different options: not only full fledged peacekeeping, but also and especially measures intended to support local law enforcement capacity. The concept remains valid, but now we must move forward with implementation. Our objective is to operationalize "medium" options, such as the deployment of international civilian monitors or police. In parallel, we must act decisively to strengthen security for all humanitarian workers. Our work requires us to be with the refugees, often in very dangerous places. But we must stay alive to help.

Let me now turn to the other broad context in which the future challenges of refugee work are likely to present themselves: the critical phase that follows conflicts. Peace building in the immediate post-conflict period is a very weak link in the international cooperation system. But such efforts are vital to connect conflict resolution with development efforts-- a process parallel to that of protecting refugees fleeing conflicts, and identifying durable solutions to their plight. For years we have been saying that unless more attention is devoted to the consolidation of institutions and communities after conflict, peace will not hold. UNHCR, of course, has a very special interest in this process because of its mission to ensure that refugees return home and settle down in safety and dignity. And we have had very difficult experiences in countries emerging from conflict, with large numbers of people returning, and resources rapidly dwindling after emergencies have subsided-- as in Rwanda, Liberia, and Bosnia, just to mention a few examples. Our problem, as I have said many times, is that we do not have the resources, nor indeed the expertise, to run development programs-- and yet, development agencies are slow to come once emergencies have ended. There is a gap between emergency, short-term humanitarian activities and the implementation of medium to long-term development and reconstruction programs. During this gap, societies can unravel again very easily, and conflicts re-start.

I have personally made efforts to coordinate a joint initiative with two key international development partners of UNHCR--the World Bank and UNDP. This initiative was launched here in Washington in January 1999 under the auspices of the Brookings Institution--and I am very grateful to its President, Ambassador Armacost, and to his staff, for having provided indispensable encouragement and support. The initiative, which became known as the "Brookings process" and which stimulated important discussions in many different fora, was aimed in particular at filling the gap in funding, and the gap in responsibilities and operations. I believe it also prompted governments and organizations to re-focus on the "gap"-- or "gaps". On the other hand, in some countries we have initiated interesting and creative projects, for example with the World Bank in war-affected areas of Sri Lanka. In others, such as Sierra Leone, we have made proposals for pilot projects involving all three agencies. We are now examining opportunities elsewhere--Burundi, if a peace agreement is eventually implemented, would be a possibility. On our side, we have made great efforts--yet, the response by governments and organizations has been very timid, and raising funds for post-conflict activities remains a very difficult and uncertain exercise. Efforts continue at the working level. I hope that this worthy initiative will progress and, in due course, bear fruit.

Let me add that for us at UNHCR, peace-building is not an abstract concept. We see the concrete, sometimes desperate needs of returnees in devastated areas or in areas where communities continue to be deeply divided. We are doing our part to address these needs. In the 80s, we initiated "quick impact projects" for emergency rehabilitation in areas of return. In some places, we were criticized for having gone beyond our mission--but in countries like Rwanda, for example, could we have afforded to withdraw, when returnees still lived under plastic sheeting? When schools had no roofs, no books, no teachers? Having dealt with mass refugee return to situations in which communities remain affected and divided after conflicts have ended, I see another major challenge of refugee and returnee work. That is the need to rebuild returnee communities together in a spirit of coexistence. When fighting ends and repatriation becomes possible, refugees very often return to live with the very people they fought against--from Bosnia to Rwanda and from Liberia to East Timor, this is the dynamic that prevails in most large returnee situations. Kosovo is perhaps the starkest example. During my last visit in May, I was dismayed to see children going to school under NATO military escort. We have therefore decided to explore new avenues in the promotion of community coexistence as a first step towards reconciliation. We have launched a pilot project, in returnee areas of Rwanda and Bosnia, called "Imagine Coexistence," and consisting essentially of support to small, community based inter-ethnic income-generating activities, around which we would like to build clusters of other activities branching off into the community--sports, theatre, culture, dialogue. This is one of the innovative approaches that we are taking. But its impact, once again, will be limited, unless there are more rapid and comprehensive efforts towards peace-building at various levels.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have highlighted some of the challenges I see facing UNHCR, as my term of office draws to a close. Of course, the new High Commissioner, Mr. Ruud Lubbers, will develop his own sense of the priorities and will set the organization's course for the future. But the broad issues that I have outlined today undoubtedly will remain prominent on the humanitarian agenda. Before concluding, I wish to emphasize once again the critical importance that the United States has for the work of my Office. The United States is at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to resolve virtually every refugee-producing conflict around the world. The United States also is--by far-- the largest donor to UNHCR's humanitarian programs and--again, by far-- resettles the greatest number of refugees. Asylum seekers by the thousands look to the United States for refuge each year, and other countries see the treatment they receive as the standard of comparison for their own protection practices. When I say that United States leadership is essential to UNHCR, I am not referring only to the United States government. Over the past ten years, I have developed a keen appreciation for the unique role that civil society--NGOs, community, and church-based organizations, and "think tanks", such as the Carnegie Endowment--all play in Washington's complex political and policy formulation process. Your continued interest and involvement is indispensable to my Office. Your understanding and compassion for the plight of refugees is ultimately the foundation for our work--both here in the United States and globally. UNHCR reflects the international community's collective will to protect, sustain and give hope to some of the world's most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. It has been a privilege and a great honor to serve this cause as High Commissioner.

I would like to thank all of you here today who--in many different ways--have contributed to my work during the past decade. I do hope that you will extend to my successor, Mr. Lubbers, the same support and encouragement that I have relied upon so much over the last ten years. Thank you.