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"Solutions for Refugee Problems in Today's World" - Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Mexico City, 15 November 2004

Statements by High Commissioner, 15 November 2004

Deputy Secretary Olamendi,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am particularly heartened to be with you today because of what this gathering represents. This distinguished company government representatives, ombudsmen, jurists, leaders of civil society has gathered for a reason which is all too rare these days: to affirm a commitment to the rights of refugees. The Cartagena Declaration, which turns 20 this year, codified the historical and exemplary commitment of an entire region to refugee rights. These principles continue to guide us today.

It is the express willingness to go beyond a mere commemoration, however, which is the greatest encouragement to me. Rather than congratulating ourselves on what was achieved 20 years ago, the preparatory consultations for this meeting have demonstrated that the spirit of Cartagena is alive and well today in the will to look further for solutions. Our chosen motto, "Latin America: Land of Asylum and Innovative Solutions", reflects this and is why this meeting holds such promise.

I said that reaffirming refugee rights is a rare occurrence these days. By way of explanation, allow me to give a very brief overview of UNHCR's global challenges and priorities.

More than fifty years after the adoption of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, the causes of refugee flows and the urgent legal and humanitarian needs of refugees have unfortunately not subsided. Our world continues to be plagued by the proliferation of armed conflict and massive violations of human rights.
The emergency in Chad and West Darfur in Sudan is undoubtedly the largest crisis facing the humanitarian community today. The crisis in West Darfur has displaced up to 1.8 million persons. As in similar situations of sudden population displacement, UNHCR is fulfilling a key role by assisting the victims of violence, delivering aid, and establishing camps. The UN Secretary-General has also given UNHCR responsibility in West Darfur for the protection and return of internally displaced persons, providing an example of how the UN system can respond effectively and assist IDPs.

We now have access to victims in Darfur on a more-or-less regular basis, but the situation is still very difficult. How can we take care of more than 200,000 refugees in Chad with all the water and fuel problems? How can we protect more than one and a half million IDPs and prevent the displacement of even more, when our staff do not have full access to the population in need?

In many regions of the world, insecurity bars us from reaching people in need. Iraq and the northern Caucasus are examples of the continuing challenge of preserving humanitarian space in a deteriorating security environment.

Protracted refugee situations represent a different kind of roadblock. The situations of refugees in the Palestinian territories, Western Sahara or the Bhutanese in Nepal are powerful reminders of the terrible cost of allowing generations to grow up in exile, with little to do and even less hope. The emergency phase long past, these long-running refugee situations are no longer in the headlines. But they should not be treated with less urgency for that. The full range of durable solutions, including comprehensive plans of action for repatriation, self-reliance activities in host countries, and strategic resettlement, must be brought to bear to bring an end to such situations.

On a more positive note, large and successful repatriation operations in Africa, the countries of former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan have made 2004 a veritable 'year of return'. Return is happening on a large scale in Africa. Sierra Leone, Angola, Burundi, Eritrea and Liberia have all witnessed repatriation this year. The one millionth returnee in Bosnia was recorded in September, marking another milestone in South-Eastern Europe. Over three and a half million Afghans have gone home since 2001.

These returns are largely responsible for the significant decline in the global refugee population in recent years. Over the past decade, the number of people of concern to my Office has declined from 27 million people to 17 million.

The human suffering generated by new crises, as well as prolonged refugee situations, clearly demonstrate that the continued relevance of the international refugee regime. Yet, despite the falling numbers of refugees as compared to the previous decade, asylum policies in receiving countries are increasingly restrictive.

The term "refugee" unfortunately carries a stigma today. Attitudes in many countries have hardened towards refugees and asylum seekers. Facing the changed nature of conflict and the effects of globalization, many states have tried to redefine and limit their responsibilities towards refugees. The politicization of immigration and confusion between refugees and migrants has combined to sour public debate and water down legislation in many States. Instead of limiting responsibilities through new restrictions designed to shift the burden elsewhere, we need to strengthen the resolve of the international community to provide protection and find permanent solutions to refugee problems. This requires a spirit of solidarity and responsibility sharing.

You understand, then, why the opportunity to reaffirm refugee rights here in Mexico City is welcome. It is from this perspective too that I wish to examine innovative answers for refugees and displaced persons. UNHCR is making important progress in identifying solutions for refugees through the Convention Plus initiative, where protection and durable solutions meet, and I look forward to a discussion here which will consider the same issues from a regional perspective, taking into account the history of asylum in Latin America.

Distinguished delegates,

The Latin American asylum tradition preceded the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The 1889 Montevideo Treaty on International Penal Law laid the foundation for the progressive development of the Latin American institution of asylum. This and other key regional instruments of human rights are precursors to subsequent multilateral instruments in the field of asylum, such as the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Latin America played a fundamental role in drafting the provision on the right of asylum enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which draws upon the earlier American Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man. The 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention on the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa is both a precursor to Cartagena's "expanded" refugee definition and an adaptation of the 1951 Convention refugee definition to realities on the ground.

At the height of the Central American crisis, close to 150,000 refugees were being assisted by countries in Central America and an additional 1.8 million had been affected by conflict. Convinced that a pragmatic, multilateral response was needed to resolve the plight of refugees, displaced persons and others caught up in the conflicts, the Central American countries with the support of the Contadora Group, comprising Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela, launched a series of political and humanitarian initiatives to deal with the Central American crisis. These initiatives culminated in a meeting in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, in November 1984 where government representatives of ten Latin American countries and experts from the continent adopted the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, an instrument containing important basic principles deriving from the three branches of international law and predicated on improving the protection of victims of the conflicts.

The Cartagena Declaration, together with the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA), provided a humanitarian and solution-oriented framework to underpin the Procedures for a Firm and Lasting Peace in Central America formally known as the Esquipulas Peace Accords which paved the way for solutions in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Distinguished delegates,

The Cartagena Declaration is an important Latin American contribution to the international refugee protection regime. It contains a number of far-sighted provisions for the protection of refugees and persons of concern. More importantly, it emphasizes the need to address root causes as a means to lay the conditions for voluntary repatriation.

Far from advocating a "business as usual" approach, Cartagena's pragmatic and solution-oriented spirit is as relevant today as it was when adopted in 1984. The Declaration stresses core human rights principles, confirms the peaceful and non-political nature of the grant of asylum and strongly reaffirms the principle of non-refoulement, including prohibition of rejection at borders. Cartagena was one of the first documents in Latin America to raise the situation of internally displaced persons and to call on national authorities and international organizations to provide them with protection and assistance.

The Cartagena Declaration is also very important insofar as it reiterates the crucial role of the human rights organs of the Inter-American System in the protection of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR.

As of today, the Cartagena Declaration's expanded refugee definition has been included in the national legislation of ten countries, is applied in practice in three and used as an instrument of interpretation in another. But Cartagena is more than just a set of legal standards and a regional refugee definition.

The Declaration also emphasizes the importance of durable solutions, particularly voluntary repatriation, but also local integration, and recommends granting refugees social, economic and cultural rights. I am convinced that this is one of the most important long-term contributions of Cartagena: recognizing that refugees are human beings with dignity, whose first concern is to attain a level of self-sufficiency and to avoid dependence on hand-outs and humanitarian assistance. Placing the individual needs and potential of refugees at the forefront of efforts to find durable solutions was also called for throughout the preparatory process for this commemoration. This recognizes that the quality of asylum depends on the effective enjoyment of rights by refugees.

In commemorating the 20th Anniversary of Cartagena, UNHCR wished to analyze jointly with governments, refugee experts and civil society representatives, the main challenges confronting refugee protection in Latin America today, and to identify lines of action to support asylum countries in providing effective protection and assistance to refugees. I view the 20th Anniversary not just as a commemoration but as an opportunity to reaffirm the relevance, endurance and validity of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees and to launch a process aimed at implementing the Agenda for Protection in Latin America.

This two-day meeting will, in fact, be the beginning of a process in which UNHCR hopes to achieve two ambitious goals: reinforcing and further developing refugee protection in Latin America and applying the pragmatic spirit of Cartagena in addressing humanitarian needs in the region.

The preparatory process has already generated broad consensus on the main challenges confronting refugee protection in Latin America and initiated a dialogue on potential humanitarian responses to current refugee issues. This consensus has been translated into the draft Declaration and Plan of Action to Enhance International Refugee Protection in Latin America that will be the focus of our attention during these two days. It aims to improve protection and durable solutions. I would like to underline the invaluable participation of the civil society in the preparatory process. I hope this partnership with governments and experts will be replicated in the implementation of the plan of action.

In the field of protection, we hope that the commemoration will bring into sharper focus the link between refugee protection and human rights observance. It will also be a vehicle to attract donor support to build Latin America's capacity to receive and protect refugees. As for durable solutions, we hope that the plan of action will address the two main refugee issues faced in Latin America; an increasing number of refugees concentrating in the main urban centres struggling to achieve self-sufficiency; and a larger number of Colombians in need of protection mainly in border areas of neighbouring countries, but also in other countries of the region.

The preparatory process has recognized that the commemoration and the Plan of Action provide an opportunity to address the situation of the growing number of Colombians seeking protection abroad. Colombia's government continues to be genuinely concerned about the fate of its citizens and has reiterated a call for the protection abroad of Colombians fleeing conflict in many international fora. It has also played a welcome, active role in the preparatory process. I am heartened by the willingness of countries receiving Colombians to work together in a more concerted fashion.

Our effort should therefore be viewed as one in which we are seeking to address the humanitarian consequences of a situation affecting a number of countries. I see the key as being how we can all work together in improving protection and finding pragmatic, durable solutions.

I view the Declaration and Plan of Action as providing an opportunity to better define the nature and scope of the concerns deriving from the presence of large number of Colombian and other asylum-seekers, refugees and other persons of concern in Latin America. The Declaration and Plan of Action synthesize the many suggestions coming out of the preparatory process and enjoy a good measure of political support, which augurs well for its implementation. In the follow-up to this event, specific projects will be produced to implement the Plan of Action. I can assure you that UNHCR is ready to provide technical support to all concerned countries in this process of translating objectives into concrete action.

As you all know, this commemoration is taking place against the backdrop of growing national security concerns, the fight against terrorism and increasing migratory controls. This has prompted the adoption of restrictive asylum policies in some regions of the world. I am heartened to note, however, that throughout the consultative process Latin American countries have reaffirmed their commitment to uphold high standards of protection and to seek durable solution in the spirit of responsibility sharing underpinning the Declaration we are commemorating today. I therefore see Latin America as a close ally of UNHCR in our quest for more effective protection. It is also an example to other regions of the world.

Twenty years ago countries in Central America demonstrated their ability to resolve their own refugee problems working together, in concert with the international community. This spirit of solidarity, responsibility sharing and cooperation is best reflected in the proposal launched by Brazil and supported by other countries to implement a Latin American resettlement programme aimed primarily at refugees from Latin America. This in-region initiative has been welcomed by countries receiving large numbers of refugees as an instrument of solidarity which will help alleviate some pressure. This and other commitments demonstrate that, indeed, Latin America continues to be a Land of Asylum and Innovative Solutions, as the commemoration slogan underlines. I urge donors not to forget Latin America and its willingness to address the humanitarian concerns within its boundaries.

The Cartagena Declaration remains an innovative and pragmatic regional approach to provide protection to those in need and to promote durable solutions, which builds on the long-standing and generous asylum tradition in the Americas. In rising to refugee challenges in Latin America, the 'spirit of Cartagena' is as much needed today as it was 20 years ago.

Thank you.