25 January 2006
"International Community Could Face a Catastrophe in Darfur", UN High Commissioner for Refugees Tells Security Council
Says Bold Measures Needed; Full Involvement of UN, African Union Required
NEW YORK, 24 January (UN Headquarters) -- The threat level had been raised for staff of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in areas of West Darfur and the insecurity had now spread across the border into Chad, António Guterres, High Commissioner for Refugees said this morning as he briefed the Security Council on two urgent challenges facing the agency.
Describing Sudan-Chad as probably the largest and most complex humanitarian problem on the globe, he said that just a few days ago, armed rebels had taken several Government officials hostage and had attacked the village of Guereda, where the UNHCR cared for more than 25,000 Sudanese refugees. The increasingly unstable conditions in the border area, which was home to 200,000 refugees, had forced the relocation of part of the agency's staff. The situations in the Sudan, as well as the Great Lakes region, encompassed many of the cross-cutting issues on the Council's agenda.
"The international community could face a catastrophe in Darfur", he said. Averting it would require bold measures and the full involvement of the African Union and the United Nations. "If we fail, if there is no physical protection for those in need of aid, the risk is a much greater calamity than what we have seen so far", he stressed. Preventing a disastrous human toll in Darfur required a peace agreement, not as a solution to the problem, but as the start to a complex process of reconciliation. Reaching that required the full commitment of all Council members working together in support of peace and putting pressure on all the parties involved. "Who can defy you if you act together?" he asked.
He said that to the south, the voluntary repatriation of Sudanese refugees had begun last month with a first group of returnees from Kenya, while movements from Ethiopia and Uganda would begin in February and March. The aim was to return 50,000 Sudanese from refugee camps in neighbouring countries in the coming months. Given the dimensions of the operation, it could take three to four years to help all refugees return home to South Sudan. Eastern Sudan was less noticed by international observers, but its security situation was steadily deteriorating. A peace agreement was also imperative, even though stability in the region was closely tied to developments in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Tensions between those countries last year had already driven several thousand new Eritrean refugees into the Sudan and Ethiopia.
The Great Lakes region featured similarly complex challenges for humanitarian agencies, he said. Of particular importance to the UNHCR were the situations in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last year, 66,000 people had gone home to Burundi with the agency's help, but the rate of returns had slowed significantly over the past few months. The movement might stop altogether unless every measure was taken to build the confidence of prospective returnees in their reintegration. The Democratic Republic of the Congo found itself in a similar situation after years of unrest.
He said several repatriation operations had contributed to the decrease in refugees worldwide, led by Afghanistan, where more than 4 million people had returned home since 2002. The past decade had demonstrated that refugees must not be seen as uninvolved beneficiaries of a peace and recovery process. Sustainable peace and recovery were necessary to allow refugee returns, but they were every bit as essential to sustained peace and recovery.
Given the unbroken line between population displacement, peace and recovery, he said the failure to follow it steadily from relief to development ranked as one of the international community's most consistent failures. Links between humanitarian aid and development efforts were simply not working in most cases. The UNHCR was not a development agency, and did not intend to become one, but it was raising awareness of the need to include refugees and the displaced in national development programmes.
As a protection agency, he said the UNHCR faced two major challenges: preserving asylum in an age of mixed population flows; and stopping the rise of intolerance in modern societies. Preserving asylum required the ability to find those in genuine need of protection when they were concealed by mixed flows. Addressing intolerance was perhaps an even greater challenge. Fostered by populism, both in politics and the media, it often led the public to view terrorism, security problems and asylum and migration issues as shades of the same motif. Racism, xenophobia, ethnic conflict, violent nationalism and religious fundamentalism were unfortunately still very much alive and a serious threat to social cohesion in societies, as well as to peace and security in the world.
Council President Augustine Mahiga (United Republic of Tanzania), speaking in his national capacity, said his country had hosted and protected refugees from the Great Lakes and Southern Africa for the past 45 years, working with the UNHCR since 1964. The total of 500,000 refugees in Tanzania was still the highest number in Africa, despite the beginning of limited voluntary repatriation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. As a host country, Tanzania had experienced difficulties resulting from population flows and criminal activities by those using the asylum channel for socio-economic reasons.
He said there was a need in the Great Lakes region, which had witnessed genocide in Rwanda, to protect civilian populations from that and other crimes such as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as well as to strengthen the protection of humanitarian workers in zones of conflict. The Peacebuilding Commission was a much needed institution for the consolidation of peace in countries emerging from conflict, especially in the Great Lakes. Hopefully, it would be adequately resourced to fill the development gap in post-conflict countries and stability in shattered societies.
Others speakers today were the representatives of France, United Kingdom, Greece, Argentina, Slovakia, Japan, Denmark, Congo, Russian Federation, Ghana, United States and Peru.
The meeting began at 10:10 a.m. and ended at 12:15 p.m.
Briefing by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Briefing the Security Council this morning on what he called "two urgent challenges" facing the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the situations in the Sudan and the Great Lakes region encompassed many of the cross-cutting issues on the Council's agenda. Sudan-Chad was probably the largest and most complex humanitarian problem on the globe. Six months ago, during his visit to the region, the situation appeared to be moving in the right direction. The peace deal had been reached in South Sudan. That held, even after John Garang's death, and had the potential for a positive impact in Darfur and the East. International security appeared to have a stabilizing effect in the former, with hopes that the Abuja talks would reach a peace agreement before the end of the year. Unfortunately, and although he paid full tribute to the African Union's efforts, the positive outcome did not come. The situation had taken a turn for the worse, and there was a risk the talks faced an impasse.
Today, he said, violence and impunity, never completely in check, were again everyday occurrences in Darfur. Humanitarian workers were regularly cut off from the displaced and those they were trying to help. This month, the threat level had to be raised for staff in areas of West Darfur, even as staff observed the systematic destruction of crops and rising gender-based violence. The insecurity had now spread across the border into Chad. Just a few days ago, armed rebels had taken several Government officials hostage and attacked the village of Guereda, where the UNHCR cared for more than 25,000 Sudanese refugees. The increasingly unstable conditions in the border area, which was home to 200,000 refugees, had compelled him to relocate part of his staff.
"The international community could face a catastrophe in Darfur", he said. Averting it would require bold measures and the full involvement of the African Union and the United Nations. "If we fail, if there is no physical protection for those in need of aid, the risk is a much greater calamity than what we have seen so far," he stressed.
He appealed to the Security Council today in the strongest terms, aware of the discussions under way on the evolution of a more robust security force, and the delicate question of its nature and composition. But, preventing a disastrous human toll in Darfur required a peace agreement, not as a solution to the problem, but as the start to a complex peace process of reconciliation. To reach that required the full commitment of the Council and all its members working together in support of peace and putting pressure on all the parties involved. "Who can defy you if you act together?" he asked.
To the south, he said, the voluntary repatriation of Sudanese refugees had begun last month with a first group of returnees from Kenya. Tripartite agreements for repatriation were being signed with the Governments of Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. Movements from Ethiopia and Uganda would begin in February and March, and the aim was to return 50,000 Sudanese from refugee camps in neighbouring countries in the coming months. Given the dimensions of the operation, it could take three to four years to help all refugees return home to South Sudan.
He said that repatriation was strictly voluntary, but even with the fragile situation in areas of the south, he could not overlook the courage and determination of the estimated 75,000 refugees who had already come home spontaneously. Tens of thousands of internally displaced persons had also returned to the south, mainly from Khartoum. International assistance was crucial. When he spoke with Sudanese refugees in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, he saw how much they wanted to go back. He would never forget listening to people of all ages talk about their hopes -- for a home of their own, for education, for peace. But in South Sudan, there were only 14 kilometres of paved road, almost no schools, no hospitals, and a civil administration that was extremely thin on the ground. He could not wait to answer the refugees' wish to return. Massive economic and political support to the transition was necessary now -- not when everything was in place and all the rules of conditionality were met. By then it could be too late, he said.
Eastern Sudan was less noticed by international observers, he said, but its security situation was steadily deteriorating. A peace agreement was also imperative, even though stability in the region was closely tied to developments in Eritrea and Ethiopia. More than 100,000 Eritreans remained as refugees in the Sudan, one of the oldest refugee groups cared for by the UNHCR. Tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia last year already had driven several thousand new Eritrean refugees into the Sudan and Ethiopia. Any deterioration in relations between the two clearly threatened sizeable population displacement.
He said that the Great Lakes region featured similarly complex challenges for humanitarian agencies. Of particular importance to his Office were the situations in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last year, 66,000 people had gone home to Burundi with his Office's help, but the rate of refugee returns had slowed significantly over the past few months. The movement might stop altogether unless every measure was taken to build the confidence of prospective returnees in their reintegration. "And let us be honest, those conditions are not present yet", he said. Economic support to Burundi and to the humanitarian agencies was crucial for security and consolidation of the peace process.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo found itself in a similar situation after years of unrest, he continued. Repatriation continued from several neighbouring States. The country had also been selected as one of three to pilot the new, inter-agency cluster approach to internal displacement, through which the UNHCR had been asked to assume the lead in the areas of protection and shelter. A pioneering approach was being used in protection, which the UNHCR was leading, in close cooperation with the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). Stability and international support were crucial to the success of those humanitarian efforts. Just last week, however, as many as 20,000 people had fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and crossed into Uganda. Different displacement movements were going on in every direction. The UNHCR had sent relief aid and staff to the border area -- assistance, in fact, that was destined for repatriating Sudanese. The tragic killing of peacekeepers in Garamba Park, by the elements of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army, was a clear demonstration of the complexity of the problems he faced.
As with the Sudan, threats to peace and development in the Great Lakes region did not end with a single country or two, or even three, he said. Security and solutions could not be parcelled out one nation at a time. Both the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo underlined how crucial it was to employ, and for the Council to support, a regional approach to peacekeeping and political missions. The Council's forthcoming debate on peace and security in the Great Lakes was very timely.
Turning to refugee returns and sustainability, he said several repatriation operations had contributed to the decrease in refugees, led by Afghanistan, where more than 4 million people had returned home since 2002. Returns to African nations like Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and countries of the former Yugoslavia had also been, or were becoming, very successful. As the gunfire stopped and wars faded, millions of refugees and internally displaced seized the opportunity to begin life over.
But that picture was incomplete, he said, noting that the past decade had demonstrated that refugees must not be seen as uninvolved beneficiaries of a peace and recovery process, or simply as an afterthought. Sustainable peace and recovery were necessary to allow refugee returns, but they were every bit as essential to sustained peace and recovery. That was also the UNHCR objective in Iraq, where the agency remained engaged in close coordination with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) to find durable solutions, through return and reintegration as soon as conditions permitted.
Given the unbroken line between population displacement, peace and recovery, he said, the failure to follow it steadily from relief to development ranked as one of the international community's most consistent failures. Links between humanitarian aid and development efforts were simply not working in most cases. The UNHCR was not a development agency, and did not intend to become one, but it was raising awareness of the need to include refugees and the displaced in national development programmes. It would be a reliable partner in the United Nations Development Group.
Afghanistan had shown both the need and the possibility to engage in new ways with recovery actors, he said. That was why the decision to create a Peacebuilding Commission was one of the most important decisions of 2005. Too little of the international community's attention and resources traditionally went to rebuild societies that had been torn apart by war and violence. The UNHCR looked forward to working closely with the Peacebuilding Commission to address not only the relief-to-development gap, but the complex needs of societies emerging from conflict. The UNHCR would appreciate being seen by the future Commission as a relevant partner and intended to play an active part in its support office. Hopefully, the Peacebuilding Commission would also ensure that recovery processes continued long after international media attention had moved elsewhere. Humanitarian relief and development support must follow the real needs of the people, not the agenda of the television networks.
Emphasizing that the best remedy was prevention, he said vigilance was essential in all parts of the world. The UNHCR was watching closely the situation in the Central African Republic, where the spread of armed gangs and general lawlessness in the north had forced thousands of people to flee into Chad and Cameroon. Prevention was not an easy job, as proved by the situation in Côte d'Ivoire. The outrageous attacks on United Nations offices in Guiglo were a clear demonstration of the crucial need to find an effective solution to the four-year-old crisis there. The population displacement that would result from open conflict in that country was unpredictable in scale and impact.
The Security Council's actions on the protection of civilians and displaced persons in particular were of great importance to the UNHCR, he said. The mandates of peacekeeping operations and peacebuilding strategies must include solutions for displaced populations. The safety of humanitarian workers must be ensured too, and the UNHCR welcomed the General Assembly's adoption of the Optional Protocol to the 1994 United Nations Convention on Staff Safety.
As a protection agency, the UNHCR faced two major challenges: preserving asylum in an age of mixed population flows; and stopping the rise of intolerance in modern societies, he said. Preserving asylum required the ability to find those in genuine need of protection when they were concealed by mixed flows. The challenge of identifying such individuals grew with their numbers and the risks they were willing to take, as seen in the Mediterranean and tragically again, last weekend in the Gulf of Aden. Credible protection must incorporate measures against fraud and abuse to safeguard the credibility of the asylum system.
He said the UNHCR stood ready to work with all Governments to support their efforts to improve legislation and asylum procedures and appealed strongly for a concerted crackdown on human trafficking and smuggling. Protection agencies also required tough punishment for those who profited from those irregular movements. The UNHCR also recognized fully the right of countries to manage their borders responsibly and define migrant policies. But it was essential that such measures not preclude the right, of those needing international protection, to physical access to asylum procedures and adequate refugee status determination, in accordance with international law.
Addressing intolerance was perhaps an even greater challenge, he said. Fostered by populism, both in politics and the media, it often led the public to view terrorism, security problems and asylum and migration issues as shades of the same motif. While there was a need to make certain that terrorists were not granted asylum, it was important to make just as certain that asking for asylum was not a crime. Racism, xenophobia, ethnic conflict, violent nationalism and religious fundamentalism were unfortunately still very much alive and a serious threat to social cohesion in societies, as well as to peace and security in the world. Preserving peace and security meant fighting the ills rooted in populism and intolerance. The UNHCR appealed to Council members to join together in confronting them.
MICHEL DUCLOS (France) said he knew very well the crucial importance of the High Commissioner and he was well aware of the duty to assist him, and more generally, to assist displaced persons throughout the world. The Security Council needed to have a strategic vision of crises in the world, and the refugee parameter was a very important dimension of its work. In that respect, the briefing this morning had supplemented the briefing by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland. The Council should be mindful of the several geopolitical maps throughout the world. There was the "relationship of forces map", of crises, and so forth. Experience had taught that a map relating to the protection of populations, including displaced persons and refugees, provided the Council with crucial information and with a serious picture to facilitate its job.
In light of the growing tension between the refugees in the camps in Chad with the local populations, he asked whether the Commissioner had any specific solutions to cope with that problem. Given the large returns of refugees, owing to the agreement between the Sudan, Kenya and the UNHCR, was the Commissioner contemplating other such agreements with other neighbours of the Sudan? The Commissioner had also talked about the refugee problem and the role played by the UNHCR in rebuilding countries in crisis, and he had referred to the relationship between the UNHCR and the Peacebuilding Commission. In that context, did the Commissioner think that cooperation between UNHCR and other United Nations agencies was developing properly? Were there any prospects in that area, particularly in the context of the authority to be enjoyed by the new Peacebuilding Commission? Concerning the link between the UNHCR and peacekeeping operations, did he think there was a role to be played here between the two, such as the major agreement that had been elaborated between the UNHCR and United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC)?
ADAM THOMSON (United Kingdom) said he wished to signal the value he attached to the important work of the UNHCR and to put on record, once more, his country's recognition of the importance of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol, as well as the need for States to comply with the provisions contained therein. The linkages between flows of refugees and internally displaced persons on the one hand, and peace and security on the other, were clear and of direct concern to the Council's work.
He welcomed the active role to be played by the UNHCR in the support office of the Peacebuilding Commission and in the Commission itself. He also welcomed the work the UNHCR was doing to ensure that refugees and displaced persons were incorporated into recovery strategies. Their returns were integral to the solution, as well as part of the problem. That perception and the Commissioner's related support would help the Council as it looked at peacekeeping missions and the increasing role they were playing in refugee returns. He asked whether there were any lessons to be learned from UNHCR experiences in ensuring the safety and sustainability of refugee returns, with a particular focus on the challenges in Darfur and Chad.
He said that the presence of armed elements in the camps posed a number of grave consequences for the security and welfare of refugees, including the potential for sexual abuse and forced recruitment. Those factors created an unstable and insecure operating environment for humanitarian workers and gave rise to security concerns for host communities and receiving States, thereby impacting regional peace and security. On conflict prevention, he welcomed the Commissioner's reference to Security Council resolution 1625. The UNHCR did have an important role to play in early warning and in helping both to signal and to address the root causes of conflict, especially where those triggered displacement.
The Council should carefully note the Commissioner's remarks about Eastern Sudan and the Central African Republic, he added. While the Council was paying increasing attention to the regional dynamics of conflict, that posed challenges both for it and the UNHCR in that warning role. Did the UNHCR feel it had sufficient capacity to do the sort of monitoring on which the Commissioner's comments must have been based, and what systems were in place to ensure that his efforts in that area were coordinated with other relevant actors, within and outside the United Nations system?
ADAMANTIOS VASSILAKIS (Greece) noted the complexity of the agenda that dealt with the numerous refugees seeking asylum. Many of the conflicts were in Africa, and, in the Sudan, more than 200,000 people had fled the country and more than 2 million were now internally displaced. Did the potential exist in the United Nations system to devise and implement a mechanism to deal with crises as they emerged, in order to immediately dispatch humanitarian assistance? In refugee situations, to what extend would intensified cooperation between the UNHCR and regional organizations give new impetus to UNHCR work, particularly in identifying and dealing with asylum seekers? He was very interested in that question because, each year, Greece received a large number of illegal migrants and refugees. It wished to grant asylum to those entitled to that, but it also sought to protect its borders from the terrorism threat.
He said he looked forward to the establishment in Europe of an asylum system by 2010, to be set in The Hague. Increasing the voluntary repatriation of refugees was the best solution, but only when linked to an environment of stability, security, reconstruction and development. Hopefully, the Peacebuilding Commission would ensure, along with the UNHCR, the protection of refugees and their reintegration in post-conflict societies.
CÉSAR MAYORAL (Argentina) emphasized the need for the Security Council to pay appropriate attention to displacement since refugees and internally displaced persons were particularly vulnerable in the context of armed conflict. The Council's 9 December debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict eloquently underlined the difficult situation of displaced persons. The mandates emerging both from thematic and country-specific resolutions of the Council in areas such as access of humanitarian personnel to populations in need, the safety and security of humanitarian personnel, the situation of children and women in armed conflict and protection of civilians were particularly relevant to UNHCR work.
Underscoring the importance of including clear mandates concerning the protection of camps for internally displaced persons in the establishment or renewal of peacekeeping missions, he said that reported rapes of refugee women as a weapon of conflict and the abduction and humiliation of refugee children continued to be routine features of displacement situations. The violation of human rights of displaced persons was especially relevant in the context of the Council's mandate to assess situations where civilians were targeted or humanitarian assistance to them was deliberately obstructed. Special attention should be paid to situations constituting war crimes, crimes against humanity and other crimes where the Council had been given a responsibility to protect.
Regarding refugee returns, he said that the various contexts within which they took place were very different and included such factors as security considerations, which affected, in a positive or negative sense, the sustainability of the returns. While some of those factors fell within the Council's competence, it was clear that a broad engagement of different United Nations bodies, including the Peacebuilding Commission, was also crucial.
PETER BURIAN (Slovakia) said that strengthening the overall international capacity to protect civilians affected by armed conflict was one of Slovakia's foreign policy priorities. The treatment of internally displaced persons had been one of the failures of the international community in the past. Slovakia welcomed the UNHCR efforts to address that problem and wished to hear what changes the Agency proposed in that area.
Welcoming the High Commissioner's information regarding progress in repatriating refugees to Burundi and Liberia, he said in that connection that his country shared the view that the UNHCR should become an important partner in the activities of the Peacebuilding Commission and its support office.
Regarding recent developments in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 15,000 refugees were living in the open, he asked whether the High Commissioner could provide more details about those refugees who were on the border with Uganda. What actions was the agency undertaking to alleviate their situation?
KENZO OSHIMA (Japan), expressing deep concern over the persistence of heavy refugee caseloads, particularly in Africa, stressed the critical importance of cooperation between the UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing assistance and security. In the agency's recent experience, had the UNHCR experienced difficulty in that connection?
Assistance to local communities hosting refugees should not be forgotten, he said, pointing out that the international community should assist them in the spirit of burden sharing and solidarity so as to prevent the destabilization of entire regions. Whenever the prerequisite for refugee returns was met it was important to ensure that conditions were in place for a return to normal life and a seamless transition from relief assistance to development aid. The notion of human security was important, and refugees should not be seen as a burden to the communities to which they returned. They should be allowed to make their valuable contributions to those communities.
Noting that the number of internally displaced persons continued to rise in comparison to that of refugees, he said the United Nations must, as a priority, strengthen its capacity to assist them. Hopefully, interested parties would engage in an active debate in that connection.
ELLEN MARGRETHE LØJ (Denmark) said she supported the ongoing humanitarian reform process, particularly regarding internally displaced persons. As the largest vulnerable group globally, they must be better protected. The need for protection was clearly evident in the events unfolding in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Uganda, and elsewhere. For that reason, she welcomed the decision of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee to implement a cluster approach, and she commended the UNHCR for taking on some major tasks in that regard. The financial implications of the new cluster approach, however, were still uncertain.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR was right to appeal to donors to contribute to rapid interventions, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. She understood that it currently faced financial difficulties, however, because it could not get "up front" money before the new humanitarian emergency fund became operational in mid-March. She asked, therefore, how he assessed prospects for financing additional activities.
Stressing that refugees and internally displaced persons were victims of conflict and that their safe return must be a priority in post-conflict peacebuilding, she said the Security Council had a specific responsibility, not only to include civilian protection in the mandate of the missions it authorized, but to find sustainable solutions. Durable solutions for displaced populations must be integrated into the work of the Peacebuilding Commission and the Peacebuilding Support Office as well, once their work commenced. The UNHCR partnership with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to create better conditions for safe returns as part of integrated peacekeeping missions was an important step towards sustainable peacebuilding, but the High Commissioner had also stated that many voluntary repatriations might not be doable.
How could more doable activities be ensured? she asked. More donors should support the "convention plus" projects, and she counted on the UNHCR to continue its advocacy role in that regard. Noting the collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for a so-called framework solution in Africa, she asked how the Commissioner envisaged getting other United Nations agencies involved. The sustainability of returns should be ensured, for which a stronger agency presence was needed in the field.
LUC JOSEPH OKIO (Congo) said he was aware of the magnitude of the task, as well as difficulties in the field in providing humanitarian aid to refugees and displaced persons, but the efforts made thus far had been commendable. The Commissioner's first working visit to the Great Lakes region was an indication of the fact that, despite some sketchy progress, the overall refugee situation remained quite troubling and was not improving in any significant way. That was why he asked that particular attention be paid to emergency situations, such as those in the Great Lakes and the Sudan, where violence co-existed with impunity. In that context, he supported the Commissioner's appeal for international pressure on the various players. That could help to reverse the current negative trends. He welcomed the UNHCR efforts regarding refugee returns, and he encouraged the consolidation of processes under way in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the situation remained quite unstable.
Stressing that the situation of returnees deserved particular attention, he called for optimal conditions to be provided in that regard. He also called on donors to support important UNHCR activities to assist people returning home. Security problems, including those that affected humanitarian workers, would be alleviated somewhat by devoting special attention to the causes of conflicts in Africa. He asked where things stood with the "convention plus" initiative, which had been discussed for many years in Geneva. He also asked about the Commissioner's expectations with respect to the sustainable "installation" of refugees in their receiving countries.
ANDREY DENISOV (Russian Federation) said he supported the UNHCR as the lead agency for providing international protection to refugees. Today's meeting was especially important, as the information provided in the briefing and the figures cited were truly impressive. Still, the list indicating that millions of people had been compelled to flee their homes to sometimes unsafe areas of their own country or seek asylum in neighbouring States was far from exhaustive. That massive displacement was having a very negative impact on the economies of recipient countries and often destabilized the countries of origin. Banditry, murder, looting and rape were familiar practices in all conflict areas.
Of particular importance, he said, was the coordination of the activities of United Nations peacekeeping operations, particularly in Africa. A good example of coordination was that being done by the African Union's mission in the Sudan, which, despite its complexity and problems, still had made it possible to reduce the level of violence against refugees there and against internally displaced persons in Darfur. He supported the initiatives of the top management of the UNHCR, which sought to enhance its effectiveness. He also favoured the retention of existing principles for voluntary funding programmes. In 2005, his country had made another voluntary contribution to the UNHCR budget, and if possible, it would try to expand its participation in international humanitarian activities.
ROBERT TACHIE-MENSON (Ghana) said that the number of vulnerable people in need of assistance and protection was endless. The question now was how well placed the UNHCR was to handle the situation. Two main objectives were to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees, and their access to safe havens. The challenge was to seek the cooperation of Member States in order to ensure that the issue was regarded as one of human rights rather than one of migration. The UNHCR must work with Member States to combat the gradual erosion of refugee rights under the guise of enforcing law and order or combating illegal migration.
WILLIAM J. BRENCICK (United States) said that his country was a strong supporter of the UNHCR and the multilateral approach to the issue of refugees and planned to continue its generous support for the agency's work. While the United States also supported the need to assist internally displaced persons, however, the agency's work with them should not detract in any way from its work with refugees.
VITALIANO GALLARDO (Peru) said the UNHCR faced many challenging tasks which resulted from new emergencies around the world due to intolerance and conflict. There were also cases like Darfur and others that forced the agency to find imaginative ways to resolve emerging problems. Regarding internally displaced persons, it was unfortunate that they were excluded from the refugee protection system.
AUGUSTINE P. MAHIGA (United Republic of Tanzania), President of the Security Council for the month of January, said his country had hosted and protected refugees from neighbouring countries in the Great Lakes region and Southern Africa for the past 45 years. It had worked with the UNHCR since 1964. Currently, there were more than 500,000 refugees in Tanzania -- still the highest number in Africa, despite the limited voluntary repatriation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, which had begun. Tanzania viewed the granting of asylum as a political imperative, and it had learned the importance of tolerance and compassion to those in distress. At the same time, as a host country, it had experienced difficulties emanating from population flows and criminal activities, and those using the asylum "channel" for socio-economic reasons. In a region of growing pressures, that could be a very complicated exercise.
He said host country areas of concern included: assistance levels for refugees; pressure on the environment and infrastructure; the deterioration of public safety and security due to the circulation of arms and light weapons; inadequate funds for repatriation activities; and poor receiving capacities of returnees in countries of return. In his region, there was also the need to protect civilian populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as well as to protect humanitarian workers in conflict zones. The refugee programme could be eased by addressing the root causes of conflicts and by heeding early warning signals, such as those issued by the UNHCR in eastern Sudan, and by resolving ongoing conflict in the region. Countries in the region should be encouraged to support Security Council resolution 1625 (2005) and rise up to the crisis in Darfur, where humanitarian action had to be accompanied by sustained coordination and political security-related action by the Council, in partnership with the African Union.
The new Peacebuilding Commission was a much needed institution for consolidating peace in countries emerging from conflict, especially in his region, he said. He hoped it would be adequately resourced to fill the development gap in post-conflict areas and help stabilize and rebuild shattered societies. He asked about the status of UNHCR funding for its refugee programmes, especially given he newly acquired responsibility of the cluster approach to internally displaced persons, as well as the constraints in meeting the requirements of returnees, specifically in countries like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Summary of Response by High Commissioner
In Chad, Mr. GUTERRES said, the "extreme poverty" of natural resources had caused inevitable tension between the local, poorer people and the high numbers of refugees sharing those same resources. There were two types of initiatives there: the creation of a joint population refugee commission to manage the problems; and several initiatives in refugee camps to lessen the impact on natural resources, particularly water, through new types of water use, the introduction of timber techniques to reduce the quantities of wood needed, and so forth. Tripartite agreements were being negotiated with all neighbouring countries, he added. There had been difficulties in coming up with a solution for the Sudan, but those agreements could now be established. A new cooperation framework was recently developed, together with the UNDP, to find sustainable solutions for Africa, but, the gap between humanitarian assistance and development assistance could not easily be resolved through inter-agency cooperation alone. The countries themselves had to assume leadership and had to want decisively to contribute a solution.
Noting that France's representative had raised the central issue of the relationship between humanitarian agencies and peacekeeping operations, he said he recognized the need to maintain the civilian nature of humanitarian activities, but he sought strengthened cooperation with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and he was prepared to cooperate with peacekeeping forces, within respective mandates. Unless a minimum of security was guaranteed in the trouble spots, however, it would be "absolutely impossible" to do any kind of effective humanitarian work.
The cluster approach was new, he replied to another question, and that required a lot of flexibility to succeed. Care should be taken not to transform that into a cumbersome, bureaucratic approach, and it should become effective as soon as possible on the ground. Problems were already emerging, despite the very relevant work done at the Headquarters level. For example, it was inconceivable to be involved in Pakistan and to ignore the natural disaster there, but with so many refugees on the ground, it was unclear who was responsible for water in the camps, and so forth. The cluster approach was a basic concept, which had to combine with the reality in the field and with the necessary capacities for action. If everyone stuck to a rigid framework that did not reflect reality, the cluster approach would surely fail.
He said that the Sudan-Chad problem was the biggest humanitarian problem facing the world today. The key question was to "make it move in the right direction" by achieving a peace agreement in Darfur as soon as possible. All pressure should be brought to bear by all countries willing to be involved in that situation, and no more time should be lost. If a peace agreement was not reached, the situation could trigger a much worse development in the near future. A peace agreement was the beginning of a solution to a large and complex problem, requiring a lot of reconciliation afterwards. A force needed to have the necessary resources behind it -- "and let's be honest -- the African Union had not been provided with enough resources". The force also needed to be a deterrent.
Among his other responses, he said that, in terms of early warning, the UNHCR had its own mechanisms, which were slim, but it had a very good dialogue with other United Nations agencies. For repatriation to succeed, there needed to be security and ability for reintegration into society, with jobs, schools and other conditions and services allowing for a dignified life. Afghanistan was probably the most successful repatriation movement ever to be supported by the UNHCR. The concept of human security was probably one of the richest in that regard, and he was deeply grateful to Japan for its support of that concept. Denmark was also an extremely active and staunch supporter of UNHCR activities worldwide.
Regarding the financial implications of internally displaced persons, he said the UNHCR wanted to be fully engaged in a predictable way around the world, but it would not make sense to divert resources from refugees to support internal displacements. A "double accountability" was needed on the part of both agencies and donors, and donors must be very clear when they took a decision about where their money was going and where it was coming from. He had seen funds diverted from operations in Africa to support the operation in Pakistan. To be very frank, an open and transparent dialogue between agencies and donors must be ongoing so as not to undermine the needs of one population group at the expense of another.
In closing, he said that the United Republic of Tanzania knew better than the Commissioner how difficult it was to ensure that conditions in the camps did not become unacceptable. Even when there was not enough funding, he would not interrupt support of returns because "if there is something noble in our work, it is to help people go home, and the overwhelming majority of refugees want to go home", he said. There was an idea that refugees everywhere had as a main objective to migrate to the developed world. In complex population flows, there were true refugees and people in need of protection, but their main concern was to go home. And for that purpose, bridging the gap between relief and development was crucial, and the Security Council had a key role to play to make those things work.
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