Opening Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, fourteenth session, 25 October 1965
HC Statements, 25 October 1965
During the past five years I have come to realize the vital role played by the Executive Committee in enabling UNHCR to carry out its tasks. The Executive Committee not only supervises the implementation of the aid programme and takes decisions on it. It also acts as a guide and counsellor of whom the High Commissioner has constant need, since it is the link between UNHCR and those Governments that participate most directly in its work. The opinions reflected here are therefore of the utmost importance to UNHCR; they enable it to direct its operations effectively, so as to meet the needs that arise but at the same time bearing in mind all the encouragement it receives, any criticisms which may be made and the material support on which it must be sure that it can rely.
Probably at no time has it been more necessary for UNHCR to give the dynamism necessary to a promoter a role which it is called upon to play by virtue of its statutory and humanitarian vocation – to the uncompromising realism imposed upon it by its limited resources and powers. Thus the programme for 1966 submitted today to the Committee for its approval reflects this perpetual search for a proper balance between what one would like to be able to do when faced with needs and distress which are only too real and too glaring, and what is reasonably possible an expedient within the general framework of the activities entrusted to UNHCR. If the scope of this programme is, as the Committee will have noted, considerably larger than that of last year, this is not of course the result of a change in the general policy or basic principles to which it is customary for us to refer; it is because of the situation itself and the fresh needs it has created. After all, it is the very essence of an aid programme like UNHCR's to cut down or expand according to the circumstances governing its action, however prudent and limited. Now Africa, as everyone is aware, is today, particularly in certain areas, the scene of events and changes one of the immediate consequences of which is the appearance of new and sometimes very large groups of refugees. The machinery for international co-operation which has been created there out of nothing and in the midst of countless difficulties has gradually developed; it has been strengthened and improved and is today better able to render the services expected of it, and in particular to encourage a liberal policy of asylum and assist Governments to give the refugees a real chance to resettle. All the same, UNHCR must continue to play to the full its catalytic and co-ordinating role and be in a position to assume its due share of the ever-increasing task devolving upon the international community.
Africa moreover is not the only part of the world where UNHCR has to be on the alert. Europe too has come to the fore with increased needs. We are in fact witnessing a substantial increase in the number of arrivals of new refugees in certain countries and must redouble our efforts there to prevent a fresh accumulation of non-settled refugees in and outside camps from becoming once again a source of serious concern to the international community.
Hence, in view of the present proliferation of refugee problems, the acuteness and growing magnitude of some of them, and the need to strengthen the co-operation machinery which has been gradually evolved, there is nothing surprising in the fact that the financial target of the aid programme has also had to be raised, although the size of the increase is, I think, reasonable and not excessive.
This, then, is the general background of the UNHCR programme for 1966. I should now like to review very briefly the main problems which are causing my Office particular concern. As certain African countries are today unfortunately, as I said just now, the main areas in which the tragic events which breed refugees are occurring, and it is there also that the resultant problems are most complicated, where the situation changes most quickly and is also most alarming, I shall restrict to those countries the rapid survey of the situation which I should like to make, without trespassing unduly on the Committee's time.
Generally speaking, I think that encouraging progress has been made towards a satisfactory solution of these problems. Where the situation was most unfavourable, one emergency following so closely upon another that the measures taken had to be constantly re-adjusted, their effects have at least been moderated, thus preventing them from taking a dramatic turn. Even in these extreme cases, in certain sectors of the Congo and Burundi for instance, the prospect of a permanent, constructive solution, which is still our ultimate aim, has at no time been lost sight of, despite the delays and postponements imposed by circumstances on joint action by Governments, UNHCR and the participating agencies.
It is true that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the situation has changed comparatively little since the month of May last, the expulsion order made against the refugees from Rwanda not having yet been revoked, despite the promises made in this connexion. Now it is quite clear that the annulment of this measure is the necessary prerequisite to any attempt by UNHCR to facilitate the settlement of these refugees in the Kivu areas allotted to them. Hence the plans worked out in co-operation with ILO for the inclusion of these refugees in the zonal development programme for those areas are practically held up. I can only hope that this problem will soon be solved so that we can forge ahead and put an end to the prevailing uncertainty as to the fate of some 20,000 refugees and the often wretched situation which is their present lot.
In Burundi, despite the measures which the Government has, for security reasons, felt it necessary to take and which have a bearing in particular on the plans for the settlement of the Rwandese refugees, considerable progress has been made. Apart from the 5,300 refugees who are already settled and have been allowed to remain where they are, 21,500 Rwandese refugees out of the 25,000 for whom provision was made, are now together again in the Mugera area, where they are settling in. They include in particular those refugees who were previously assembled in the Murore centre, the clearance of which has now fortunately been completed. After a period of flux, the situation is steadily improving in the Mugera zone to which, in the rainy season, a further 4,000 refugees with their herds, will be sent. Equally encouraging reports are reaching us about the return to the localities in which they were initially settled of some 2,500 Rwandese refugees who, tempted by the distributions of provisions being made temporarily at Mugera, had gone to that area without permission. It is therefore to be hoped that the implementation of the ILO plans for the consolidation of the settlement of refugees in the former settlement zones can now be expedited.
In Tanzania, as in Uganda and Senegal, the implementation of the projects already approved by the Committee and the accompanying settlement of the refugees to whom they relate is proceeding fairly smoothly and without major difficulties. These three countries are, however, having to cope with further arrivals of refugees, sometimes in large numbers, as is the case particularly in Uganda with respect to refugees from the Sudan and in Senegal with respect to refugees from Portuguese Guinea. It has therefore been necessary to prepare further projects which are now before the committee or will be submitted later, under the programme for 1966. But if in these various countries as well as in the Central African Republic the influx of refugees, both old and new, has serious repercussions, compelling the Governments concerned to make constant financial or organizational efforts, it is encouraging to note that everywhere these Governments are most anxious to fulfil their obligations and that their liberal policy of asylum does not seem likely to be changed. That is a point on the importance of which I cannot insist too much and which will not, I am sure, escape the Committee's notice.
Along with the above-mentioned problems which come directly within the province of UNHCR, there is another question which also affects some of the countries already referred to and is and is deserving of special mention. I refer to the Congolese who have sought refuge in those countries on what appears in many cases to be a temporary basis. In Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania alike, the presence of these refugees, whose numbers range from a few thousands to several tens of thousands, is causing the Governments concerned great anxiety. They have several times approached UNHCR with a view to obtaining financial assistance in particular. But UNHCR's intervention was out of the question, in view of the special aspects of the problem, unless the basic facts from both a legal and a practical standpoint, could first be clarified. A good many of these Congolese apparently wish to be repatriated as soon as order has been fully restored in the parts of the Congo where their homes are situated. To enable us to obtain as accurate an idea as possible of the situation as well as to facilitate the search for a solution through the establishment of contacts between the countries of reception and of origin, the International Committee of the Red Cross has kindly, at my request, sent one of its most highly qualified representatives to the area. Moreover, I have recently learnt with satisfaction of the decision taken by the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to send a mission in the near future to Burundi to organize the repatriation of all its fellow-countrymen who wish to return home. Nevertheless, until such time as these measures begin to bear fruit, and having in mind what is at least the potential existence among these Congolese of a number who are likely to claim refugee status forthwith, I have, in accordance with the decision already taken in October last year with the Committee's approval, decided to make available from the Emergency Fund a further sum of 15,000 dollars for Uganda and 20,000 dollars for Burundi, leaving it to my local representative to see that it is used to the best advantage, mainly for the benefit of women and children. However, as the position of the persons concerned with respect to the mandate becomes clearer and if some of them are found to meet the requirements to which UNHCR action is subject, UNHCR will no doubt feel that it should consider the possibility of assisting in the implementation of constructive projects to facilitate the peaceful settlement of those refugees whose repatriation cannot be envisaged.
Before concluding this very rapid survey of our work in Africa I should like to say a few words about the principles and considerations governing UNHCR activities in those countries where problems of under-development outweigh the much more modest ones coming within our province and as it were constitute the background against which particular aspects of a rapidly evolving historical situation stand out clearly. These principles, needless to say, have remained unchanged, because they stem from the very concept of the task entrusted to this Office under its mandate and the resolutions authorizing it to undertake assistance, as well as protection activities, directed towards the search for permanent solutions to refugee problems. In short, these principles establish the primary responsibility of the host countries, implying substantial participation of their part in the financing of programmes; and the complementary nature of the assistance furnished by UNHCR, whose task in this respect is more to promote co-ordinated action and to combine all the efforts available rather than to act as the main supplier of funds. In any given situation, therefore, the criteria determining the action taken by UNHCR must be based on these principles. Such action varies of course, both in degree and in scope, according to circumstances and needs; in some cases it is the Government itself which devises the plan of action and assumes responsibility for its implementation; in others it is UNHCR which suggests and participates in the preparation of the plan, its implementation being entrusted to an intermediate agency, public or private. In any event, however, the Government remains in charge and nothing useful can be accomplished without its consent or co-operation. If I may say so, the golden rule followed by UNHCR in any given situation is first and foremost to ascertain whether any other agency, governmental or otherwise, is in a position to defray the cost of a project or a certain proportion of a project; as to the project itself, it must, if it is to receive UNHCR support, be strictly confined to the limited objective in view, namely, the immediate solution of a refugee problem; there must be no simultaneous attempt to resolve problems of a different kind which may be of general concern to the local population or economy. This incidentally, is why a very sharp dividing line to our activities has been drawn from the outset, and why the co-operation of other specialized bodies, such as the ILO, FAO, etc., is requested as soon as it becomes necessary to finish off the work, in many respects of an improvised nature, which we endeavour to promote.
No matter how modest and cautious we are in our approach, there is a certain minimum below which we dare not go without failing in our duty. The programme submitted to you reflects, in broad out line, that absolute minimum. It is therefore not surprising that today I should appeal to Governments, urging them, with an earnestness and conviction born of a desire to accomplish a task whose magnitude and difficulties will certainly be appreciated, to ensure that full financial provision is made for this programme. In this respect our Office is at present passing through a particularly critical period. We are faced with a considerable deficit for 1965 and do not yet know whether, or how, we can make ends meet without effecting substantial reductions in projects at the cost of their efficiency. Moreover, it is already apparent that, in order to meet our obligations, we can hardly hope to avoid the withdrawal, at the end of the year, of a substantial amount from the fund that we are trying to build up so laboriously as "reserve fund" or "revolving and guarantee fund". The fact that we shall, at the present time, have to draw on this fund, which should if possible have amounted to $1 million by 1 January 1967, is clearly a very bad omen. This withdrawal would take place at the very time when with limited financial resources we have to face a programme for 1966 which, despite a keen eye to economy, we are obliged to propose should be fixed at $3.9 million – an amount which is $400,000 greater than that fixed for 1965. We are, moreover, fully aware that, even with this increased amount, we shall find it very difficult to cover all the essential needs for which we must be prepared to assume responsibility in 1966. No matter what steps we take to increase the number of contributing countries, it is quite clear therefore that, without an additional effort on the part of the major countries associated with this humanitarian task of international solidarity, the minimum targets we have set ourselves cannot be obtained.
Does this mean, Mr. Chairman that we are not seeking sources of financing other than the Governments themselves? As you know this is not the case. On the contrary, we are trying to encourage all those who, on a private basis, are concerned with the fate of refugees to initiate action likely to help meet their most basic and pressing needs. At this very moment, some promising plans are taking shape at the European level. These efforts, however, should be directed primarily towards supporting and rounding off international co-operative action as a whole, by strengthening the activities of the voluntary agencies that are called upon to assume increasingly heavy burdens. They should, for the same reasons, enable UNHCR, apart from the amount earmarked for the regular programme, to finance certain projects which, although of obvious importance, could not be included in the programme. In other words, what we can expect from any outside action will not be enough to set our minds at rest in this connexion. This is because the problem posed today which will become even more acute tomorrow concerns the normal and regular financing of our assistance activities.
I have only a short time left to deal with one aspect of our activities which, despite its basic character, does not at the moment make it necessary for me to consult the Committee specifically. Protection, that routine activity of UNHCR which is discussed daily and occupies such an important place both in our internal work and in our outside activities is, by definition, a continuing and long-term task, whose objectives are clearly stated in the mandate, and in respect of which the High Commissioner does not, in principle, have to rely on the Committee's decisions. However, we are highly gratified by the keen interest shown by the Committee on several occasions in these maters whose apparently abstract nature makes a tangible and profound reality. We have accordingly endeavoured to see that the progress made, the difficulties encountered or the hopes glimpsed in this vital field are reported regularly to the Committee.
Without recapitulating the information furnished in document A/AC.96/295, I should like to mention two points to which it would, I think, be useful for representatives to draw the attention of their respective governments. The first point concerned the letter I recently sent to all Governments signatories of the Convention as well as to Governments members of this Committee in connection with the Colloquium held in April 1965 at Bellagio on various problems relating to the protection of refugees and in particular the dateline stipulated in the Convention. As you will remember, the report on this Colloquium was circulated at the spring session. A method, the simplest possible, of closing the gaps or removing the discrepancies between the existing texts was suggested, and my Office would be glad to have the views and advice of the Governments concerned, directly and as soon as possible, on the proposed procedure. Indeed, we attach the greatest importance to the continuation of this task in accordance with the views and wishes of the Governments concerned in this field where, more than in any other, their co-operation is necessary.
I personally had occasion, during a series of lectures given in July 1965 at the Hague Academy of International Law on the current legal aspects of the refugee problem, to review the situation as regards the development of legal status of refugee law during the past decade. I was led to clarify the meaning of certain concept, such as the idea of good offices, as applied in this connection. An analysis of the relevant texts clearly showed that development mainly of a pragmatic nature had taken place which had enabled UNHCR to adapt its activities to fit the needs of the moment. Yet at no time has there ever been any question of a revolution in its functions which, in essence, are still defined by the original mandate. Initially conceived for specific groups of refugees on the fringes or outside the scope of the mandate, the good offices procedure has, since the adoption of General Assembly resolution 1673 (XVI), acquired a new meaning. It enables UNHCR to extend the benefits of its protection and assistance activities as a whole to groups of refugees which, in point of fact, satisfy the basic requirements to be met by refugees under the mandate. In accordance with the line of reasoning developed in my lectures at The Hague, the use of the "good offices" procedure is therefore, in this context, tantamount to a prima facie decision of eligibility under the mandate applied collectively to the refugees comprising such groups. Furthermore, this point of view is, it seems, fully in keeping with the practice followed in countries where new refugee problems arise. As it is impossible, for practical reasons, to examine the eligibility of each of these refugees in turn – an eligibility which, so to speak, remains in abeyance – the Governments concerned are nevertheless prepared to consider them collectively as refugees within the meaning of the mandate or the Convention.
In any case, I thought it useful, with the kind consent of The Hague Academy, and in order to clarify for Governments members of the Executive Committee the precise meaning of a concept which, owing to the way it was normally used, might here give rise to some confusion, to send them copies of that part of these lectures dealing with good offices and the social function of UNHCR as it emerges from existing texts. It is, of course, only a personal analysis of a legal and rather involved situation, and the passages in question reflect only the opinions of their author.
My survey is thus complete; I should have liked to make it even shorter, but I have tried as usual to present a concise picture of the most urgent aspects of the problems of these refugees for whom UNHCR is responsible. I have told you what I am mainly concerned about in this autumn of 1965, when the world is unfortunately still confronted with a surging tide of refugees. Although our programme has, I think, become stabilized in the new context imposed by conditions in the developing countries, and although it has, on that whole, already given proof of its effectiveness, we are still gravely concerned about the future. And this anxiety will continue until the international community, on which wee depend, shows a willingness to take resolute action to cope with requirements which, for the time being, are going to keep on increasing. I do not doubt that this willingness exists, at least under the surface, but I think that during the months to come it will have to be shown more clearly, in a more concrete form and above all on a broader basis than that to which we have become accustomed. Similarly, it will be necessary to improve still further, and at the local level in particular, that co-operation which had already given such good results. This is true, of course, of Governments as well as of the various specialized agencies of the United Nations which have shown that they were prepared to assist the High Commissioner's Office in its task, so far as their powers and resources enabled them to do so, and then possibly to take over that task themselves when UNHCR had reached the limit which could not be exceeded by it without betraying its mandate. It is also true of the voluntary agencies whose role in carrying out the humanitarian activities for which they are so well fitted has already proved to be of vital importance. When I think of the task which the Lutheran World Federation, for example, is already about to undertake in Tanzania for the resettlement, in what has hitherto been an uncultivated area, of several thousand refugees, or the action which the National Catholic Welfare Conference has agreed to take in connexion with the programme in Central African Republic or some other African country, I cannot help but think that this represents the start of an undertaking of much wider scope which the voluntary agencies, in general, are better able than anyone else to carry out successfully. In any case, I should like to express to them once again my esteem and appreciation. I should also like to pay a special tribute to those agencies which up to now have been most closely involved in our assistance activities in Africa: the ILO, FAO and the World Food Programme, whose extensive and daily assistance is one of the basic elements on which we have now become accustomed to rely.
To revert to Europe, which although it has not occupied a large space in this account of what we are mainly concerned about at the moment, has nonetheless not been forgotten in our daily activities, or in the programme itself; I should like to say a few words about a trend which has had some impact on the refugee problem in various countries where for some time there has been an appreciable increase in the number of newcomers. This unexpected influx has not failed to give rise to some perplexity, not to mention certain difficulties which have to be overcome. The main concern of UNHCR – a concern which unfortunately in certain countries is of a very concrete nature – is obviously to make sure that refugees who have legitimate reasons for seeking the asylum under the mandate are not improperly expelled. Needless to say we shall continue to devote to this question all the attention it deserves. In this connexion, I am very glad to note the recommendation recently adopted by the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, dealing more especially with the right of asylum. As the representative of the council of Europe will no doubt inform you, that assembly also adopted another recommendation for granting to refugees the benefits resulting from certain intra-European agreements. The aims of such a recommendation and the solicitude it reveals are, I need hardly say, fully in accord with the constant efforts being made by this Office to improve the status of refugees, thus facilitating their full and rapid integration into the community receiving them.
I should also like to assure the Committee that this Office has not lost sight of the important question of the indemnification of those refugees who were found eligible after the dateline of 1 October 1953 and were persecuted because of their nationality. Although up to now we have been unable to obtain the consent of the authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany to the establishment of a new fund which would make it possible to indemnify those refugees who have sustained damages other than those provided for in the law recently adopted by the Federal Parliament, we are still actively pursuing the negotiations and strongly hope that a satisfactory solution will be found for this problem.
Before closing I should like once again to refer to the important part which is still going played by the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration in connexion with the resettlement of refugees and more particularly of those who wish to emigrate overseas. In this field, ICEM is one of the essential cogs in this machinery of international co-operation to which I have so often had occasion to refer when addressing you, and on which, in the last analysis, the actual work of the High Commissioner's Office is dependent. I should also like to express my very great satisfaction at the recent announcement by the President of the United States of America of the new and more liberal immigration act, which will undoubtedly make it easier for the numerous refugees who are hoping to make a new life for themselves in that country to gain admission.