Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1981 by Mr. Poul Hartling
From Tragedy to Hope
Throughout the history of mankind people have been uprooted against their will. Time and again, lives and values, built from generation to generation, have been shattered without warning. Time and again, people in fear, individuals or whole groups, persecuted on account of their profound convictions, have had to make a most dramatic decision: to take the uncertain, even perilous road to exile, from home, community and homeland, from friends and often family, rather than bear the intolerable burdens of injustice and oppression.
But, throughout history, mankind has also reacted to such upheavals and brought succour to the uprooted. Be it through individual gestures or concerted action and solidarity, they have been offered help and shelter and the chance to become dignified and free citizens again. Through the ages the giving of sanctuary has become one of the noblest traditions of human nature and communities, institutions, cities and nations have generously opened their doors to refugees and – a fact which should be stressed – many refugees have, in their turn, been valuable assets to those who have taken them in.
It was only in the twentieth century, however, after the cataclysm of the First World War and the fall of empires, that governments came to realize the need to treat the refugee problem as an issue which, in nature and importance, went far beyond their national frontiers, and was a responsibility of what has come to be known as the “international community”.
A man of great renown and exceptional talents was needed to set the international machinery in motion – such a man was Fridtjof Nansen, the eminent Norwegian. In 1921, the young League of Nations appointed him High Commissioner for Refugees. At that time, when a universal definition of what is meant by the word refugee was still a long way off, he was to serve as High Commissioner for Russian refugees. Fridtjof Nansen headed the new body and brought life and inspiration to it. In 1922, a resounding tribute was paid to him when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Little by little, Nansen’s efforts were extended to include other categories of refugees, more particularly the Armenians in 1926. One of his key ideas was to create a passport for refugees. The Nansen Passport was much more than a purely functional document: it restored safety, dignity and hope to its holder and gave him back some of his lost identity. After 1930, the year of Fridtjof Nansen’s death, the League of Nations entrusted the protection of refugees to the Nansen International Office for Refugees, better known simply as the “Nansen Office”. Today, the spirit and memory of Nansen is still alive and is given practical effect when, once a year, the Nansen Medal is awarded for outstanding services to the cause of refugees.
While the Nansen Office was pursuing its endeavours, and was, in turn, awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1938, the Second World War was already looming on the horizon – a war that would annihilate millions of human beings, overwhelm entire countries and open the floodgates to new and tragic mass exoduses of the uprooted.
It is a strange truth, however, that man constantly strives to restore what man himself undoes. Thus, even in the darkest hours of the Second World War, refugees and displaced persons were not forgotten at the international level. As early as 1943, 44 nations gathered in Washington to sign the Charter of a new international body which was to be called the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. One of its prime tasks would be to help the uprooted and to repatriate them after the War whenever circumstances permitted.
With the end of the War in 1945, UNRRA started to tackle the task of voluntary repatriation. That same year, when despair was gradually being replaced by the hope of a better society for the future, saw the adoption on 24 October of the San Francisco Charter leading to the creation of the United Nations. The United Nations was born with the noble objectives of maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations based on the principle of equal rights and self-determination, and enhancing international cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems.
The Relief and Rehabilitation Administration completed its task in 1947 and, through its efforts, seven million persons returned to their homes. Thus, after years of anxiety in the ruins of war followed the emotional moment of return to life in peace.
Unfortunately, there were many other refugees or displaced persons who could not, or did not, wish to return to their countries; at the same time new refugee problems were emerging. A further major international effort was required, and in 1947 another temporary body, the International Refugees Organization, was set up by the United Nations. Within a limited period of time the IRO organized the resettlement of more than 1.5 million refugees in new host countries, often overseas.
Despite the success of the IRO, however, it could not solve all the refugee problems of the post-war period, and in December 1949, while the IRO was still pursuing its activities, the General Assembly of the United Nations1 decided in principle to establish the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR actually came into existence on 1 January 1951 after the adoption of its Statute by the General Assembly in December 1950.2 UNHCR was founded on respect for human rights. How ironic then that the very violation of these human values has made of UNHCR a virtually permanent feature of the international community. Initially, UNHCR was established for a period of three years after which the General Assembly was to decide whether it should be prolonged. Three weeks from now, however, UNHCR, which is still not a permanent body, will have been in existence for 31 years. It forms part of the handful of organizations which, year after year, observe their anniversaries with a certain feeling of regret. Vision and foresight marked the foundation of UNHCR as a body to deal with refugee problems on a non-political and purely humanitarian basis – a fact that the United Nations can take pride in. But the fact that UNHCR has now existed for three decades is nothing to be proud of – rather, it is a sad reflection of our times: without persecution, without violations of human rights, without armed conflicts there would be no need for UNHCR.
It is worth dwelling momentarily on the actual definition of a refugee as contained in the Statute of UNHCR. A refugee is any person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear or for reasons other than personal convenience, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”. So, a refugee is someone who is a victim of intolerance, someone forced to break – often abruptly – his links with the past, with friends or even with family, with his environment, someone forced to cross an international border in search of safety, often taking practically nothing with him. What does a refugee who has lost everything, whose view of the world is temporarily clouded by despair, hope for? First, for physical safety. Looking back, he feels apprehension mixed with the turmoil and confusion of his departure.
By crossing the border, he hopes to find a safe haven. Little by little, his ambitions go further: he hopes to put an end to his undesirable status, to see the future other than with scepticism, to rebuild his life with the material and moral attributes that will restore him to a place in society.
In the United Nations the arduous and vital task of analyzing and endeavoring to eliminate the causes of exodus and flight lies with political fora. Whereas one may sometimes deplore the inability of governments members of the United Nations to tackle the causes creating refugees, one may take pride in the ability and readiness of governments to support the humanitarian bodies, such as UNHCR, dealing with the symptoms of the problems. Governments recognized long ago that, irrespective of the causes of the conflagration or of the accident, the victim must be helped until he is back on his feet.
How to go about it? First, by offering him asylum. On 10 December 1948, 33 years ago yesterday to be precise, the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is when these rights are violated that people are in danger and forced to flee. Article 14(1) of the Declaration embodies a key concept: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.
Secondly and closely interrelated is the principle of non-refoulement, that is to say, that a refugee must not be forcibly returned to his country or to any other country where he has well-founded reasons to fear persecution. Here we come to the primary function of UNHCR: international protection, which is designed to ensure that refugees enjoy a number of fundamental rights. Today, the idea has become firmly rooted that a refugee – who must, of course, comply with the laws and observe the public order of the host country – is entitled to certain recognized rights. Asylum and non-refoulement are the cornerstones of the system of protection. The forcible return of a single refugee to his country is – as a principle – as preoccupying and as disquieting as the return of a large group.
The concept of non-refoulement appears in two universally binding instruments: the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, supplemented by the 1967 Protocol. These instruments, to which 90 countries from every continent have acceded to date, lay down minimum standards for the treatment of refugees which should enable them, as far as possible, to lead a normal and independent life.
There are also conventions relating either to refugees or to asylum that form part of a more regional approach to these problems, such as the Organization of African Unity’s 1969 Convention governing the Specific Aspects of the Problem of Refugees in Africa, and regional legal instruments in Latin America and Europe.
To increase the number of accessions to international instruments, to make sure that national legislation fully reflects their clauses and, above all, to ensure that these provisions and a number of universally recognized values are effectively applied to refugees throughout the world – that is the substance of UNHCR’s task regarding legal protection. It is a strenuous effort at all times. Sometimes rapid interventions are required to save a person from unbearable hardship, persecution, or even death.
It is quite remarkable that the definition of a refugee, formulated in 1950 in an essentially European context and marked by the traumatic experience of the Second World War and the period of the Cold War, should still apply today to situations which, of course, could not have been foreseen 30 years ago.
Notwithstanding, the General Assembly has been obliged, by successive resolutions, to extend UNHCR’s area of competence. Indeed, UNHCR has had to keep pace with history in the making. The foundations were solid and remain unchanged, but the edifice itself has been shaped by time and circumstances. And the world has changed dramatically since the United Nations came into existence. More than a hundred new countries have become independent, sometimes at the cost of violent struggles. Developments – or lack of developments – in power relations throughout the world have given rise to tensions, disturbances and national or international conflicts. Under the impact of all these events, in the whirlwind of suffering that they have engendered, the number of refugees or displaced persons has been great – far too great. Was it then possible to make use of UNHCR, the body created by the community of nations under other circumstances? Indeed it was. UNHCR evolved and adapted to new situations. The operations for voluntary repatriation and now also rehabilitation of refugees in their countries of origin provide examples of new tasks that were added to UNHCR’s traditional list.
The most gratifying event for the great majority of refugees is precisely the possibility of returning home, to their own country, following a change in circumstances, for example, the end of a conflict, the restoration of peace and human rights, the achievement of national independence. The long-cherished dream comes true: with deep emotion, the refugees again cross the border – but this time in full daylight – to go back – to rebuild their homes in their own environment.
The Statute of the High Commissioner, which requires him to seek permanent solutions – today we prefer to say durable solutions – to the refugee problem, provides for such voluntary repatriation. But it has to be organized – it can often mean wide-ranging operations – and in many cases the repatriated refugees have to be helped to put down roots again, because they sometimes return to empty, even destroyed homes, with as little as they had when they left.
The General Assembly of the United Nations, the Secretary-General and the governments concerned have on many occasions turned to UNHCR, requesting the Office to organize the repatriation and initial rehabilitation of the returnees. Thus UNHCR, in the wake of national or international treaties can, and often does, through its humanitarian action, participate in the arrangements for consolidating a newly-acquired peace. UNHCR is also sometimes asked to extend its assistance to groups of persons who have been displaced within their national frontiers during conflicts and – at the same time as those repatriated – also return to their homes when peace has come. Example of large-scale UNHCR operations for the repatriation and return of refugees and displaced persons are plentiful. A rapid overview of these operations in chronological order will take us from one country and continent to another. It will be a reassuring exercise for it will show that all over the world – although new refugee problems continually arise – solutions to existing problems continue to be found. Many of the examples demonstrate that rapid solutions to refugee problems strengthen the forces for peace and, conversely, that failure to provide such solutions can lead to the shattering of peace.
The first of such large-scale repatriation operations in which UNHCR was involved took place in 1962 with the return of some 250,000 Algerians, who had fled to Morocco and Tunisia during the strife in their country. In 1972, some 10 million refugees returned home to their newly-independent state, Bangladesh, after months in relief camps in India. That same year, UNHCR helped to bring back some 150,000 Sudanese refugees from four adjoining countries and set up an operation for their rehabilitation. In 1973, UNHCR was instrumental in organizing a two-way movement of large numbers of people between Bangladesh and Pakistan – one of history’s largest airlift population exchanges. Then – beginning in 1974 -came the news of the independence of the territories in Africa formerly under Portuguese administration. Hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to their homes in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola; these were moments of history and emotion. In 1975, the General Assembly3 requested the High Commissioner “to intensify his efforts on behalf of refugees in Africa, notably those returning to their countries following independence…”.
In 1978, following an agreement between the two countries, UNHCR was asked to facilitate the repatriation and initial rehabilitation in their country of origin of 200,000 people from Burma who had taken refuge in Bangladesh. The repatriation of 150,000 Zairian refugees living in Angola also commenced in 1978. Conversely, in 1979, UNHCR helped to ensure the return home of approximately 50,000 Angolans in Zaire. In the same year, 100,000 refugees from Nicaragua who were living in Costa Rica and Honduras were repatriated. In 1979 and 1980, refugees returned to Equatorial Guinea, Kampuchea and Uganda and received basic assistance. Today the return of refugees to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, although still limited in numbers, is under way and negotiations are taking place in Bangkok and Phnom Penh to ensure the safe voluntary return and integration of further groups of Kampucheans. In the Horn of Africa the return movement of Ethiopia has begun, and plans are being worked out to extend the present repatriation program. The most recent repatriation operation brought to a successful conclusion has been the one which has seen 650,000 refugees and internally displaced persons go back to their homes in independent Zimbabwe. Finally, UNHCR has just embarked on a program for the return and initial re-adaptation of citizens from Chad who were uprooted during the troubles in their country.
This list shows important events in which governments joined forces under the umbrella of UNHCR, as the strictly non-political international body, to carry out some of the largest population movements in history and thus achieve the most desirable solution to numerous refugee problems. It demonstrates that the process of peace building can be dynamic when there are institutions through which the consensus of nations can be expressed.
Repatriation is not, unfortunately, the automatic result of all efforts made to help refugees. In some cases they have to settle for long periods – or perhaps forever – in the countries in which they were first received, also called the countries of first asylum. The task to assist them in such circumstances can be overwhelming, since the countries that are geographically or geo-politically situated in the “front line” for refugees are frequently developing countries – some of them belonging to the group of the least developed. More often than not they take in refugees with magnanimity and generosity, but they have to contend with their own economic and social problems and, in the beginning, the presence of refugees can be a heavy burden on them. This is particularly true in some countries where many factors may hinder the early integration of refugees or make it difficult, even illusory: lack of arable land, water or pasture in the countryside; lack of job opportunities in the towns; lack of an infrastructure capable of absorbing these new groups when already burdened by a very difficult situation; psychological, social and political problems. Refugees in need, wherever they are, can generate tension with the local population that is also poor or, at the very least, fears competition for limited resources. In many ways, the mere presence of refugees may give rise to suspicion, unrest and agitation with numerous repercussions; and the situation may become even more disturbing when the refugees have nothing, are deprived of support and are apprehensive about their future. Will they be helped? Will they be heard? This is where concerted national and international efforts can make for less anxiety, bring stability to a situation fraught with danger and prevent minor or major conflicts from breaking out. It is in such situations that UNHCR can help to encourage a decisive display of international solidarity. Programs – sometimes of considerable magnitude – will be worked out, financed and implemented in order to provide refugees with relief to meet their immediate need for housing, food, health, or long-term settlement leading to self-sufficiency, the ultimate aim of all UNHCR programs.
Whenever refugees cannot return freely to their own countries or stay in the country of first asylum, UNHCR has a role to play in resettling them in third countries. It is a delicate operation because in some sense it consolidates their uprooting. But, here again, forces unite to try to ensure the success of the operation: governments, non-governmental organizations, individuals, all will play their role, endeavoring to work in harmony and help their fellow man in need. Thus, in September 1973, as a result of events in Chile, UNHCR found itself charged with an urgent resettlement operation. A few years later, the Office could look back on an operation which had found solutions for more than 25.000 refugees. But, while that chapter was being closed, a new drama requiring speedy solutions unfolded in South East Asia. Again the international community rose to the occasion. As of today, 700.000 Indo- Chinese refugees – including 400,000 “boat people” whose odyssey still moves the world – have been resettled over the last five years. Many of them have been reunited with members of their family, thus ending the ordeal of separation.
However, in spite of the many achievements we shall not forget the many refugees who still await a solution.
I have met refugees in Pakistan, their tents erected in the rough deserts in an imposing setting at the foot of bare mountains, who are longing to return to their own country; the authorities tell us that there are more than two million of them.
I have met “boat people” in the camps in South East Asia, very often suffering from the shock of arduous or horrifying journeys, anxious to rebuild their future as soon as possible, in calm and confidence; some 50.000 in six different countries still await a solution. “Boat people” continue to arrive but fortunately there is the possibility that the number of departures organized from Vietnam can be increased, which should reduce the number of those who risk the journey by sea.
I have met refugees in countries and regions with scant and limited resources, refugees for whom relief and emergency assistance operations continue over the years: approximately 40.000 in Djibouti, hundreds of thousands in Somalia and many thousands in similar conditions in the Sudan.
In Central America, I have met refugees trying to understand their plight, proclaiming their right to survive, waiting for a positive outcome to their situation.
These refugees have their suffering, their daily struggle, in common. But each one views his problem through his own sensibilities, his own aspirations, his own background. In numbers, the refugee problem is ten million people: what this really means, is ten million problems. Statistics are only reference points for reality. We can summarize ten million lives in a short sentence but, eventually, we must deal with the individual human problem. In the final analysis it is a matter for the individual to safeguard his personality, his dignity and his future.
The first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. van Heuven Goedhart, said the following on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to UNHCR in 1954: “… Peace is more than just absence of war. It is rather a state in which no people of any country, in fact no group of people of any kind live in fear or in need…”. Today, more than ten million refugees live in fear or in need. On our road towards a better future for mankind we certainly cannot ignore the tragic presence of those millions for whom peace does not exist. Whenever we solve one single problem we have contributed to peace for the individual. Whenever we bring peace to the individual we are making our world a slightly better place in which to live.
Today, while clashes in the world and violations of human rights continue, while calamities still infest the earth, we are meeting here for the best of all causes: the cause of peace. In 1954, when UNHCR first had the great honor of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the life of the Office had just been extended by the General Assembly of the United Nations for the first time. It then had a staff of some 100 people working mainly in Europe or for European refugees in the Middle East and the Far East, with a budget of little less than US$5 million. Fifteen countries had acceded to the 1951 Convention. It was consolidating the basis for its role of protection and assistance and was seeking durable solutions to the problems. Today, when the great honor of the Nobel Peace Prize is conferred upon us once again, it is distressing to see how much the refugee problem has grown. Problems have indeed grown, but so have solutions. In 1954, there were some 2.2 million refugees in the world, today there are some 10 million. But, during the same period many millions have ceased to be refugees. Thus, we must not despair. Problems that appeared insoluble have indeed proved to be otherwise.
It is on behalf of my Office that I came here to receive this Nobel Peace Prize, a symbol that has long enjoyed universal recognition. Allow me therefore to pay tribute to my colleagues, with a special word of praise for those who have worked, or are working, outside Headquarters – in the field – in daily contact with the refugees, frequently in very difficult conditions.
I would also like to pay homage to my predecessors in the post of High Commissioner for Refugees for the immense work they accomplished, constantly adapting the Office to its responsibilities and its new tasks.
For the honor conferred on UNHCR we are beholden to a large number of governments and peoples. My thoughts turn to the many countries in the Third World which, while dealing with their own problems, generously open their doors to groups – sometimes very large groups – of uprooted people, giving them land and assistance as well as the human warmth which is one fundamental need of the refugees. I think of the economically developed countries and their sustained and energetic efforts, often on a very large scale, towards the planning, financing and implementation of assistance programs that have constantly grown larger. May these countries continue to provide a response that is equal to the challenge. I think of those countries that display a vital understanding of our role in protection, support UNHCR and enable the voices of the refugees to be heard in national and international fora, the countries that, each in its own way, promote a cause that is just. I cannot enumerate them all. I would simply say that Norway stands out as a model in this respect: it is a spirited spokesman for the rights of refugees wherever they are; it participates in programs all over the world; it welcomes refugees to its soil and offers them a future.
I would also like to stress how much UNHCR and refugees owe to other international organizations and, in particular, to non-governmental organizations which, through an increasingly comprehensive network around the world, assist refugees with a willingness, competence and dedication often – and rightly so – described in the most eloquent terms. In this field, we are shown the way by the prominent role played for years by a Norwegian agency, namely the Norwegian Refugees Council.
Finally, I should like to pay tribute to those thousands of men and women throughout the world, some in high – others in humble – places, who with devotion and perseverance give their time, energy and action to the cause of the world’s refugees.
Today, the voices of millions of refugees in the world are being heard. Voices seeking belief in man, in human dignity, in basic human rights. Voices praying for justice, freedom and peace, pleading for love and generosity. Voices calling on the governments of the world to use reason rather than force.
Permit me to address myself directly to the refugees of the world – wherever they are – and say: Yes, this Nobel Peace Prize bears witness to the fact that your voices are being heard! If we have allowed ourselves to stop for a moment to rejoice in the memory of the achievements of the past, we realize that the challenges of the present are no cause for joy. They need to be addressed and met with urgency and determination. But today the world is focusing on your plight and today it renews its commitment to help. This gives us reason to send you a message of hope for the future.
From this platform of peace, I would like to appeal to all those in whose hands the future of mankind lies, to use their power not to destroy or kill, not to create suffering in a grasping search for selfish objectives, but to help alleviate the plight of the needy; to aim at justice and freedom for the individual.
And I appeal to each and everyone. Let us never cease to feel compassion for those in want. Let us never tire of helping the victims of injustice and oppression. He who puts his faith in the restoration of human dignity cannot be wrong.
Nobel Prizes and laureates
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