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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Alan Kreczko, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration

Statement Presented on Behalf of Assistant Secretary Julia V. Taft
Lawyers Committee for Human Rights Conference on Refugee Protection in the 21st Century: Renewing Our Commitment
Georgetown University, Washington, DC, November 14, 2000

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Protecting Refugees in the Next 50 Years

I would like to begin by expressing Assistant Secretary Taft's deep disappointment that she couldn't be here to participate. Julia had some important issues she wanted to discuss with you today, taking advantage of this impressive gathering of the refugee community, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to deliver these remarks on her behalf.

It's an honor for me to follow High Commissioner Ogata to this podium. Mrs. Ogata's leadership has guided UNHCR for 10 years, and it is with tremendous admiration, respect, and gratitude that we say good-bye. Her legacy is immense, particularly when it comes to our topic today: refugee protection. Mrs. Ogata has been a champion of protection, expanding UNHCR's vision of how to provide protection to meet post-Cold War challenges.

When we were thinking about today's meeting, and what to say to this gathering of people who have dedicated their lives to refugee protection, we decided to start by focusing on all that's already been accomplished in the 50 years since the founding of UNHCR. We should be proud of the vital role that UNHCR has come to play in the protection of refugees since it was created in 1950.

Consider for a moment the impact that the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol have had on the world. They have transformed an ideal to a reality. Fifty years ago, refugees were still being dealt with in an ad hoc fashion; states generally responded to refugee protection issues as they saw fit, applying standards of their own making. Today, the Convention has become the baseline against which the practices of all countries toward refugees are judged. Its provisions have been incorporated into domestic laws worldwide, and they are the subject of daily deliberations by decision-makers in many of our countries.

Let's remember. UNHCR began as a very small organization, nothing more than a few staff in a handful of offices, working with a temporary mandate. In 50 years, it has evolved into one of the most visible and effective organizations within the UN family. Indeed, in some ways, UNHCR has become a victim of its own success, now charged with missions and invested with expectations, that often exceed its capacities. Yet we can all agree that UNHCR has saved the lives of millions of refugees during its short history, and we know that, with our ongoing support, it will continue to do so as long as the need exists.

As you begin your discussions this morning, we ask you to keep in mind the success stories in 50 years of refugee protection. Our message about protection, both what we say among ourselves as Americans, and to the international community generally, should take into account the achievements in enhancing refugee protection, rather than just highlighting the shortfalls. Yes, we need to do better, to do more, but we should also celebrate what we've already accomplished.

In the past few years, we've seen enormous change and challenge in humanitarian affairs. High Commissioner Ogata has identified some of the most difficult questions. We've had plenty of opportunities to improve our understanding of what makes protection effective. We've learned a few lessons in the process, and sometimes, we will admit, we've learned them the hard way.

First, and most fundamentally, we believe the international humanitarian community has learned from recent experience that protection issues cannot be compartmentalized. Humanitarian policies that do not consider all aspects of protection -- physical, legal, and durable solutions -- are unlikely to succeed. If we uphold the principle of nonrefoulement, but allow military elements to terrorize refugee camps, are we providing protection? Are we providing protection if a woman refugee fears rape every time she goes to collect firewood? If refugees languish for years in camps with no end in sight, sometimes for generations, are we providing protection? I think not.

During Assistant Secretary Taft's tenure, we've tried to give attention to all aspects of protection. We've shifted the emphasis in our refugee resettlement program to rescue, offering a home to those refugees who most urgently need protection. We've increased funding for programs to address refugees' physical security needs, including efforts to combat sexual and gender-based violence, and to provide policing and security in refugee camps. Here in Washington, the State Department has worked closely with colleagues in INS to strengthen the link between our international and domestic protection policies. And we are trying to develop a strong protection regime for internally displaced persons, who are among the most vulnerable in times of conflict. This is an urgent, unresolved, protection challenge for the international community.

Second, we've learned that to be effective; protection policies should be closely coordinated with larger foreign policy considerations. Protection is not just a matter of good programming and big budgets. We must look to diplomatic, and in some cases, political and military action, to address the root causes of forced movements, to ensure a safe environment for refugees, and to provide protection-based durable solutions. We have worked hard to make the refugee bureau a strong voice of humanitarian advocacy within the State Department, as well as in the larger foreign affairs community.

Third, we've learned that effective protection always includes government partnership with civil society. We rely on NGOs to help us with all aspects of U.S. protection policy and programming. This partnership, I expect, will become ever more important as we face the protection challenges of the new millennium. Governments and international organizations can't, and shouldn't, try to do it all.

Moreover, those of us in government who look at the world with a humanitarian perspective need the NGO community to sustain support for refugees. In many countries, "asylum-seeker" has negative connotations. In the United States, thanks in large part to the work of our advocacy community, I believe our national impulse is still a generous one.

Fourth, we've learned that effective protection requires that we address the security needs of humanitarian workers in the field. This has been a bloody decade for humanitarians. Since 1992, 198 civilians working for the United Nations alone have met violent death on duty. Just this year, we have seen the horrible murders of three UNHCR staff in Timor, including American citizen Carlos Caseras, and a UNHCR worker in Guinea. Security is first and foremost the responsibility of the host nations. But we must all work harder to find and fund practical measures to improve security of humanitarian workers in IOs and NGOs.

On the immediate protection agenda, UNHCR has launched a year-long process of global consultations on international protection. The consultations will include a legal "stock-taking" of the Convention, but will also look at the issues which fall outside the scope of Convention obligations -- the so-called "protection gaps."

The United States wholeheartedly supports this process and commends UNHCR for undertaking it. We are aware that some in the NGO community fear that the consultations could result in a weakening of the current protection regime. This is an understandable concern, but one that we believe can be overcome. Let me take just a few minutes to explain how the U.S. intends to approach these discussions.

We believe the consultations will lead to a strong reaffirmation by the international community of the relevance and inviolability of the Refugee Convention and Protocol. The United States will be among the Convention's strongest defenders, and we are confident that the overwhelming majority of States Parties strongly oppose reopening the Convention for negotiation.

In a recent speech Assistant Secretary Taft gave to your European counterparts, she drew an analogy between the Convention and the United States Constitution. Our constitution is a relatively simple document, but it has preserved and guided us for more than 200 years.

Similarly, when it comes to protecting victims of persecution, we believe that the refugee definition in the Convention offers us durable and flexible guidance. The Convention's first article, for example, which includes "particular social group" within the categories of protected individuals. This phrase has given the U.S. Justice Department the interpretive flexibility necessary to address a broad range of circumstances, including cases involving gender-related harm and persecution based on sexual orientation.

Some issues still challenge us. We face a difficult task in balancing our commitment to refugee protection with our duty to enforce our immigration laws, particularly in the context of mixed -- and sometimes massive -- migratory flows. We continue to grapple with the needs of our youngest refugee applicants and asylum-seekers. We are also working to ensure that human rights abusers are not allowed to take advantage of the protections offered by the Convention.

We are proud of the United States' generous interpretation of the Convention. We believe we can continue to apply the Convention's key provisions in ways that will respond to the changing needs of those who are forced to flee their countries of origin. We are, I must admit, troubled by the increasing trend in some countries toward arbitrary interpretations of the Convention's refugee definition. We know that the NGO community shares this concern. I want to assure you that one of our main goals in the UNHCR consultations process will be to build consensus for a generous and inclusive interpretation of Article 1.

These consultations will also review a range of protection-related issues that fall outside the scope of the Convention. To be honest, we are still thinking about what we'd like to see emerge from this part of the consultations. The United States does not want this initiative to be overwhelmed by developed countries debating procedural issues related to asylum and irregular migration. The developing world, long-time hosts to the world's largest refugee populations, must have an equal voice in the consultations.

We do have a few priorities, however, even at this early stage. The United States will emphasize paying more attention to the needs of the most vulnerable, and making improvements in the physical security of refugees. We are also very interested in the consultations' review of protection-based solutions to long-standing refugee crisis.

In identifying these priorities, I don't mean to suggest that we are not interested in multilateral work on asylum. Of course this is a concern. The misuse of asylum regimes by economic migrants is an undeniable threat to protection. I've heard an estimate that the developed world spends 20 times more money on status determination procedures than on support for UNHCR worldwide. This is a statistic that should give us all pause.

In response to the tremendous costs associated with asylum in developed countries, we are hearing suggestions that there should be more formal multilateral, global responsibility for managing asylum and migration flows. This type of arrangement would involve a stricter adherence to the principal of refuge in countries of first asylum, and perhaps expanded international resettlement activities. UNHCR would have an important role in any such effort.

This issue may well come up in the global protection consultations. It is not our idea, and we will have to see what others have in mind. I can, however, tell you this. We would be deeply concerned about placing new demands on UNHCR resources, both human and financial, at a time when the organization is facing serious budget shortfalls. We also want to ensure that any activities are consistent with UNHCR standards, and that persons processed under these procedures are provided with truly durable solutions or are returned in a humane fashion.

Last year, the United States contributed $240 million to UNHCR. Our priority as a donor is strengthening protection for refugees. We believe one of the best ways to do this is by putting more UNHCR protection officers in the field to work directly with the refugees themselves. So to those who want to increase UNHCR's involvement in large-scale migration management and protection regimes, we say, "show us the money."

I want to close by touching on an issue that's very important to Assistant Secretary Taft, and I think to you too, and that is the involvement of NGOs in the UNHCR consultation process. You can have full confidence that the United States will support a meaningful role for NGOs.

For NGO input to be meaningful, however, it must also be manageable. To maximize your impact in the consultations, I urge you in the American NGO community to work together as a chorus. Reach out to your counterparts in other countries, identify the issues that unite you, and prioritize your concerns. Be realistic, and practical, in your goals.

Frankly, I ask you to recognize that government must be responsive to a variety of legitimate interests. We will support you when we can, but there will be times when we will, respectfully, disagree. We will always, however, share common goals: to provide a welcoming home in the United States for the persecuted, to meet human suffering with compassion and relief, and to protect those unable to protect themselves.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak, and I wish well in your deliberations today.

[end of document]

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