|Julia V. Taft
Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration
Address before the 49th Session of the
UNHCR Executive Committee
Geneva, Switzerland, October 8, 1998
Released by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, October 8, 1998
Mr. Chairman, protection is at the heart of UNHCR's mandate; it is at the core of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol; it is what UNHCR does best. But UNHCR cannot do it alone. Protection is the primary responsibility of states. We have all been disturbed by the recent threats to refugee protection and to the mission of UNHCR. We cannot allow UNHCR to be the scapegoat when states abandon respect for humanitarian principles and standards and protection fails. We governments must support UNHCR both financially and politically.
We are asked in adopting the protection conclusion before us to recommit ourselves to the importance of ensuring that refugees around the world receive the best protection we can give them, and to reinforce our commitment to upholding international refugee protection and international humanitarian principles. In this spirit, I would strongly appeal to those members of the Executive Committee who have not yet become parties to the 1951Convention or its 1967 Protocol to do so. It is important that we all operate from the same standards and principles as we work toward better responsibility-sharing.
I would like to highlight a few priority areas for my government.
Civilian Character of Refugee Camps
One of the most important lessons for UNHCR and for concerned governments is the need to ensure and protect the civilian character of refugee camps by locating them away from borders, disarming armed elements and separating military from the general population, and by deploying professional military or police units to perform the security function. The United States strongly endorses these measures. As we meet today, we remain concerned about the security of Sierra Leonean refugees in camps in the border areas of Guinea and Liberia. We strongly support the initiative of the Secretary General in his recent report on Africa to recommend the development of new mechanisms.
I have been dismayed over the past year to see the disparate "standard" of protection--and assistance--between different refugee populations. This is unacceptable. All refugees are entitled to be treated in conformity with international human rights standards. All refugees are entitled to basic standards of food, water, shelter, health care, and education. This is part of refugee protection.
Refugee Women and Children
It is essential to keep women and children at the center of protection and assistance planning and programming. While progress has been made in integrating the special protection and assistance needs of women and children, we would like to see these mainstreamed into every policy and program of the organization and carried out in the field by every representative, protection officer, and program officer. Programs to prevent the serious and widespread problem of sexual violence against refugee women and refugee children should be automatic and second nature to us all.
Security of Humanitarian Personnel
The increase in the killing and kidnapping of humanitarian personnel around the world, whose sole purpose is to provide relief and protection, demonstrates an unacceptable erosion of respect for fundamental humanitarian principles and international standards. We are greatly concerned about the continued captivity of Vincent Cochtel and others. We appeal to all state and non-state actors to comply with both the letter and spirit of international humanitarian law to ensure the safety of humanitarian relief workers everywhere.
The United States is pleased that UNHCR has recognized the importance of resettlement as an instrument of protection and welcomes UNHCR's efforts to work closely with us on our resettlement program, particularly for African refugees.
My government encourages UNHCR to continue its approach to work more closely with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other human rights institutions while maintaining a clear differentiation of mandates. We believe it is crucial for a comprehensive approach to a refugee problem to include human rights monitoring and action to address the violations which cause people to flee or prevent them from returning home in safety and dignity.
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