Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by John Sanness, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the Peace Prize for 1981 to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

I take it that no one regards the award for the prize as exclusively – or primarily – a gesture of thanks for work well and truly carried out in the past.

Never have so many millions of people been driven from their native lands as the case is today. The great majority of these are to be found in other continents than the one to which our own country belongs.

They are people from countries situated far away, countries of which we know very little. If we wanted to, we could so easily close the portals of our senses and the road to our hearts. One particular group of refugees on which the attention of the world was focused some years ago, as a result of newspaper reportage, pictures, and TV programmes, comprises the so-called Boat People’ escaping across the sea in the waters off South-East Asia.

We read with satisfaction that our sea captains gave orders to heave-to whenever these wretched people were encountered in their leaky craft, take them on board, and transport them to some harbour. They did not choose the easy way out – closing their eyes and sailing past.

They acted according to the moral law of the sea: you are not allowed to sail past men, women, and children in peril on the sea, abandoning them to the perils of wind and wave, to hunger and thirst, to pirates and sharks.

On the occasion of this prize award the question we ought to put to ourselves is as follows: Is one law valid at sea, another law – or no law at all – in operation on land for all of us?

The award of the prize this year is one of the very few occasions on which one and the same organisation will be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for the second time. The first time this occurred was in 1955. But on both occasions the Norwegian Nobel Committee made its decision in accord with a tradition that has roots going far back in time. Before the Second World War, in 1938, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Nansen Office, which had been established by the League of Nations.

This office bore the name of the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen, the bold polar explorer, scientist, statesman, and humanitarian – a man who looms large in the history of his own country.

After the First World War he decided to devote his life and his energy first and foremost to international humanitarian aid for people in distress or suffering privation, in the first place refugees and people who had been driven from various countries. For this work he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. For countless homeless people, people deprived of legal rights, the so-called Nansen Passport provided a key that would open the door to a new life in a new country.

A strong wave of public opinion here in Norway supported Nansen in his new work – in admiration, in pride, and in a spirit of true humanitarianism. In making its awards the Norwegian Nobel Committee is never swayed by the hope of maximum popularity and general approval. It must never act under pressure from public opinion or from any form of political pressure. It is independent of all authorities, and its duty is to arrive at its decision in accordance with its best judgment and conviction.

Nevertheless, in making its award for 1981, as in 1955 and as in 1938, the Committee has done so in the certainty that in this instance it enjoyed the support of a tradition in our people which can truly be called a living tradition.

A tradition of this kind, however, among our people and in other countries, is a flame which must be kept alive if it is not to die down. When a flood of refugees has ebbed away, it is tempting to slacken in one’s efforts to provide aid and relief. The next flood arises, making the same demands on our conscience and on our willingness to make sacrifices. It is easy to be seized by feelings of helplessness and fatalism. What, we may ask, is the use of all this? Let us cultivate our own garden. And the prosaic questions arise: Can we afford it? Have we room? But even if there is plenty of room in our hearts, there may be a shortage of housing and of employment. Only on a broad international basis can effective refugee aid be organised.

It is precisely in situations of this kind that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has endeavoured to direct the attention of the world to the problem of refugees – in 1938, in 1955, and now today in 1981.

Fridtjof Nansen’s humanitarian work aimed to relieve the harrowing human tragedies that resulted from the First World War, and the violent upheavals that followed in its wake. His work benefited a great many groups of refugees, not least Russians and Armenians.

During the decade that ensued the Nansen Office made a substantial contribution to the solution or alleviation of the problems facing these refugees. This work was continued throughout the 1930s. New categories of refugees arose, but gradually interest in their problem lapsed.

After 1933, however, a new and frightening series of problems arose, this time involving first and foremost the stream of political and Jewish refugees fleeing from National Socialist Germany.

There is hardly a single country in Europe, our own included, in which we are able today with the best conscience in the world to review our conduct during these years, when a new stream of refugees knocked at our doors. Fear of competition in the labour market mingled with reluctance and hostility of various kinds towards these new strangers.

Faced with this situation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee considered it right and proper to rouse feelings of conscience and responsibility by awarding the Peace Prize to the Nansen Office, which was now faced with fresh tasks. Today we can only state, in the light of what then happened, that this was in the eleventh hour, in the twilight of world peace.

When the Second World War came to an end in 1945, Europe was strewn with human flotsam and jetsam – millions of prisoners of war, slave labourers, displaced, homeless people, many of them living in camps or wandering desperately around. The task of caring for these so-called displaced persons was one that fell to the Allied military authorities and to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

It was no easy matter to separate the refugees from the mass of displaced persons; and we know today that many refugees, against their will and without further investigation, were forcibly returned to the country in which they had lived, there to face an extremely uncertain future.

For the years that followed, right up to the time of the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951, we are today in a position to state that major refugee problems were solved thanks to the work of governments, international organisations such as the provisional IRO (International Refugee Organisation), and voluntary organisations. Millions of refugees and displaced persons found a home and work in European and overseas countries. The same relief work also covered the new stream of postwar refugees in Europe fleeing from East to West. For refugees outside Europe special relief organisations were set up – for Arab refugees from Palestine and for refugees in Korea.

When the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees was set up in 1951, a great many governments expressed their reluctance and doubts. In their opinion the work of caring for refugees could now be left to governments and voluntary organisations. These, they confidently believed, could cope with the problems.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees was almost still-born: a large majority voted in favour of the proposal in the United Nations General Assembly that the Office should be established with a view to functioning for three years. During these years it was in receipt of a very limited contribution from the United Nations budget – between US$600,000 and US$700,000 – and it was expressly forbidden to solicit governments and organisations for voluntary contributions unless this had been sanctioned in advance by the General Assembly.

In 1953 the General Assembly voted to extend the life of the Office of the High Commissioner to January 1, 1959. Its future, however, was still uncertain. During these years refugee problems in Europe were numerically not so overwhelming as to convince everyone of the need for an institution under the auspices of the United Nations.

This was the position when the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 1955 decided to give the prize to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It was not awarded in gratitude for work carried out: it was given with a view to emphasising that the work must be continued, so that one would be ready to meet new refugee problems on the basis of the principles of humanitarianism and international justice on which the Office was built.

Hardly a year after this award of the prize, Europe was the scene of an as yet unforeseen flood of refugees, as two hundred thousand Hungarians escaped across the border in October 1956 and the following months.

At the same time a major refugee problem was developing on the African continent, as a result of the war in Algeria. The tasks taken on by the High Commissioner’s Office are a direct forerunner of the new situation that arose in the course of the 1960s and 1979s, and in which we are involved at present. The refugee problem was no longer first and foremost a European problem, but had become a global problem, and appropriately the year 1960 was proclaimed World Refugee Year.

Today, a quarter of a century after the event, looking back at the prize award in 1955 we can safely say that the women and men who at that time comprised the Norwegian Nobel Committee were not devoid of foresight and realism. But it was no easy task in 1955 to find general acceptance for this view.

The High Commissioner, Poul Hartling, who is present in the University Festival Hall here today in order to receive Nobel’s Peace Prize on behalf of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, expressed himself as follows when the Committee in October informed him of their decision: “I am happy and honoured to receive the prize on behalf of all refugees. For us in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this means that the voices of the world’s many millions of refugees have been heard and understood”. In 1955 the then High Commissioner’ expressed himself in similar terms. In both cases they presented a correct picture of the Committee’s purpose in making these awards.

A question that was discussed in the Committee in 1955, and which was then raised in the public and critical debate on this decision, was whether it was right to award the prize to an organisation that carried out the duties with which it had been entrusted as a result of a resolution passed in the General Assembly of the United Nations. It was dependent on the aid granted by governments willing to support this work – and not all of them were – and it received advice from these governments. Frequently – and to an increasing extent during the decades after 1955 – it was forced to resort to diplomacy and make itself inconspicuous, on occasions where others could assert their opinions, The status of the Office of the High Commissioner provided great opportunities, but also entailed limitations.

It would not have been difficult in 1955 to pick good candidates for a prize awarded in order to direct world attention to the fate of refugees and to the work of assisting them. There were statesmen and politicians who had made bold moves in order to help refugees generally or to assist particular groups of refugees. There had been heads of state who had shown generosity and hospitality. There were the many voluntary organisations that had carried on over many years self-denying, energetic, and patient relief work.

But prompting the Committee’s choice, and the reasons it gave at the time, a definite line of thought can be glimpsed. It harboured a vision of a world community in which the respect for man and human rights, on which all refugee work must inevitably be based, would succeed in achieving universal recognition and validity. A utopia, a great many people might say, in 1981 just as much as in 1955. But this attitude also runs as a leitmotif throughout the practical and realistic political work undertaken to solve urgent tasks more quickly and more efficiently. And in both its visionary and realistic form this attitude is linked, as a symbol and an instrument, to the United Nations.

In discussions on the urgent and difficult refugee problems that arose in the distant 1930s, in this country as well as in other countries, experts in international law maintained that the right to asylum was not a refugee’s right to asylum but the right of the individual nation to provide asylum and refuse extradition to the country from which the person concerned had fled. To what extent and in what way a government wished to exercise its right of asylum depended on legislation, political climate, and the fundamental ideals of one’s own country. According to international law it was under no obligation to practise universal rules.

In the interwar years, too, governments entered into agreements and undertook obligations in this sphere. But after the Second World War the attempt was made to achieve a breakthrough, and this resulted in the drafting of a Convention related to the Status of Refugees. It was drawn up in connection with the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951, and came into force in 1954.

It established the right to asylum as a right enjoyed by the refugee in the land in which he was staying: no refugee could be handed over to a country in which his life or freedom was in danger on the grounds of his race, his religion, his nationality, his social group, or his political opinions. The Convention also establishes his rights as well as his obligations in the land that grants him asylum. It goes a step further by establishing in addition his social and economic rights, which will enable him to build a new and independent existence and to be integrated as an individual on equal terms with others in the community in which he is now living.

New provisions have subsequently been added to the Convention. By no means all governments have subscribed to the Convention or felt themselves bound by its provisions. But their number is growing markedly, among all the nations of the world outside Europe and North America. In a convention which in 1969 was adopted by the Organisation of African States on “special aspects of the refugee problem in Africa” it was firmly established that the Convention of 1951 is “the basic and universal document where the status of refugees is concerned”.

The two Peace Prizes which, in the course of a quarter of a century, have been awarded to the Office of the High Commissioner are therefore not merely a recognition of far-reaching work carried out by the Office in full agreement with governments and in collaboration with many other international and national organisations, both government-controlled and voluntary. These awards were justified by the resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations governing the High Commissioner’s Office and by the Convention on the rights of refugees. They represent both a symbol and a practical instrument in the long-term work carried out to ensure that the fundamental principles for this refugee work will achieve universal recognition and validity. This was the line of thought that inspired the Committee of 1955, and the Committee in 1981 has been no stranger to this approach.

Today a total of ten million refugees has been registered for the whole world. We know that in reality the number is greatly in excess of this. Conservative estimates put it at fourteen to eighteen millions. Only at one point of time were the figures higher – before the ten million refugees in Bangladesh were able to return when their country achieved independence in 1972. Other major refugee problems, too, have been solved wholly or partly during the last two decades. Here the High Commissioner’s Office has participated, often playing a vital role. But one flood of refugees has replaced another, and the number is on the increase. The majority are no longer to be found in Europe, but in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Half the registered refugees are in Africa, but in Asia a new overwhelming refugee problem has arisen as a result of the war in Afghanistan. Well over two million Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan – a developing country which, without the assistance of international organisations, is not in a position to tackle the problem involved in caring for these refugees. As yet we can see no solution to the problem that their future entails.

According to the terms defining the work of the High Commissioner’s Office as its commencement in 1951, its primary task was to provide economic and social help. The so-called stateless refugees still remaining in Europe were to be given the legal and diplomatic protection which the governments in the countries from which they had fled could not or would not give them. The High Commissioner’s Office, in fact, assumed the protective role which is normally the lot of governments in relation to their citizens. The most important task was now to find a final solution to the refugee problem: this would involve either the refugees voluntarily returning to the land from which they came, or their being fully integrated with the population of the country to which they had fled, or that they would be allowed to emigrate overseas. All this demanded a great deal of diplomatic cooperation with, and urgent appeals to, a great many governments.

It is impossible in the time at my disposal to enumerate all the categories and groups of refugees which exist in the world in this year of 1981, and not even in the Nobel lecture of the High Commissioner tomorrow will there be room for them all. The list is a very long one. This is also true of the states which have received refugees and helped to solve their problems, and the same is true of the list of countries in which conditions have been such that people have fled beyond their borders. As far as a great many of these groups are concerned, the work of the High Commissioner’s Office is of a traditional nature. But the very magnitude of the floods of refugees has necessitated a fundamental revision of the working methods of the High Commissioner’s Office and an extension of its sphere of activity. When hundreds of thousands, or even a million, people come pouring across the borders, the first urgent task is to provide the aid needed in order to safeguard their lives and health. We have all read accounts and seen pictures of families in desperate flight, and of the camps where they have suffered from shortage of water, food, shelter, and the most elementary medical care. Most refugees have made their way to poor countries incapable with their own resources of rescuing them and caring for them. It is here that the aid given by international organisations is directed; this must be done rapidly, often with improvised means, and the difficulties involved are so great that this work inevitably lays itself open to criticism. It has been the task of the High Commissioner’s Office and voluntary organisations to be prepared to face constantly new situations, and to ensure that the experience gathered from one crisis is not irretrievably lost before the next one crops up.

This involves not least people fleeing from war and chaos in their homeland. These may be wars that constitute various stages in the discontinuance of colonial rule, or wars between newly created states. They may be civil wars or wars of secession in which ethnic groups are frequently opposed to one another. Or again, there may be conditions of anarchy in which large sections of the population are bereft of all security and safeguards for life and property. These conditions will often result in widespread famine, and occasionally it may be difficult to establish which catastrophes are the work of the natural elements and which are the work of man.

The great bulk of refugees hope to be able to return to their land of origin. Refugees fleeing from countries struggling or at war with colonial powers have returned once independence has been achieved. This was true of the refugees from the war in Algeria, which was to comprise a turning-point in the activities of the High Commissioner’s Office. In the 1970s yet more hundreds of thousands have returned to the one-time Portuguese colonies. This has also been the case in Zimbabwe after the cessation of white colonial rule. In Bangladesh, too, repatriation was the obvious solution after secessionary wars. This ensued, too, after the civil war or secessionary war in Sudan had been concluded with an amicable compromise settlement. In this case the return of the refugees also involved what has been called “internal refugees” -people who have fled from their homes and sought refuge in remote areas within the boundaries of their native land. The aid that had been made available for the refugees was continued in order to assist them to return and rebuild their lives after resettlement.

The decision on the part of refugees to return home may, of course, be an expression of the resignation and desperation provoked by their life as refugees. This may be true of refugees today returning to Ethiopia or to Laos and Cambodia. In such cases the important task is to assist them materially, and, if possible, to protect them against persecution. But the High Commissioner’s Office has maintained the fundamental principle that no refugee must be repatriated against his or her will, or under any form of coercion whatever, and in cases where this has taken place it has been in direct violation of the wishes of the High Commissioner’s Office.

There are also refugees who have little or no hope of ever being able to return to the land from which they came – or at any rate not unless this were made possible as a result of a war conducted against the government in their land of origin. This applies in Africa, e.g., to refugees from Rwanda and Burundi. In such cases the expulsion of ethnic groups, rather than flight, may be involved. Many of these and other refugees in Africa have been assisted to start a new life in the adjoining countries to which they have fled. Often, but by no means always, refugees have been received with hospitality on the other side of the border by a population belonging to the same ethnic group. In other respects, too, there are grounds for expressing our profound gratitude for the hospitality that a large number of African states have shown. Many of these refugees have been given grants of land to cultivate, and Tanzania has set an excellent example by giving over 30,000 refugees full citizen rights.

The opportunities for permanent settlement in the host country are far more limited in South and Southeast Asia, where there is a shortage of land and extreme population density. The settling of ten million refugees from Bangladesh in the Indian border areas was never a feasible proposition. Special historical reasons made it possible for 700,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to be granted asylum in western countries, in the first place in the United States, but also in France and a number of other countries. In the 1980s, however, there will be limits to the number of refugees from Asia and Africa who can be received and integrated in the industrial countries. Economic crises and unemployment have created a situation very different from the one obtaining in the 1950s and 1960s. This also applies to refugees who are more difficult to integrate than is the case with refugees in postwar Europe.

Dealing as it does with a great many governments, whose cooperation is desirable, in many cases as well governments in the countries from which the refugees come, the High Commissioner’s Office has had to make use of diplomatic channels. It has been in a position to offer what might be called “its good offices” as arbitrator and go-between in relations between governments with different interests to safeguard. But throughout this activity consideration for the refugees themselves and their fate has been inevitably the one and only guiding principle.

We may well entertain a vision of a world without refugees – a world in which men and women are never in jeopardy on account of their religion, their nationality, their political views, or their membership of any group, of a world in which people need never flee from war and civil strife. But this is not the sort of world in which we live. We can so easily be seized by despair or cynicism, by the wish to cultivate our own garden and to be sufficient unto ourselves.

In the years that lie ahead, too, we shall encounter men and women on the run. It is beyond the capacity of mankind to predict where and when new refugee problems will arise. But we possess the fundamental ideas on human rights and a sense of fellow feeling that goes beyond countries and continents, religions, cultures, and racial borders. We live in a world community of states, as reflected in the United Nations. But we are living, too, in the world community of men and women – many of them men and women who are stateless.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is a bridge linking the world community conceived as a community of states and the world community conceived as a community of men and women. We have a duty to the refugees, and this is a duty to ourselves and the very basis of our own existence.

We thank the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for all it has done for countless refugees, and we should like to express the hope that in the troubled times that may lie ahead the High Commissioner’s Office will carry the flaming torch that Fridtjof Nansen once lit in our country and in other countries, and that the Office will turn to us again and again and challenge us to do our duty.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1981

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