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Adverse trends - widening inequality, deepening conflicts - placing dramatic pressure on Refugee Office, High Commissioner tells Third Committee

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GA/SHC/3934

Sixty-third General Assembly
Third Committee
35th & 36th Meetings (AM & PM)

Also Briefed on Progress Being Made Towards Durban Review Conference; Seven Draft Texts Introduced: Child Rights; Human Rights Education among Issues

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told the Third Committee today that an accumulation of adverse trends -- including a widening gap between rich and poor, climate change, deepening conflicts and extreme poverty -- was severely impacting the work of his Office and the support and assistance it could give to beneficiaries.

As the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian, Cultural) began its debate on questions related to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions, António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, the High Commissioner, told delegates that recent events had placed dramatic pressure on his Office's capacity and resources. In concrete terms, he referred to the emergency support provided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in more than 40 situations. Between 2006 and 2007, spending on emergencies more than doubled and, in 2008, that figure was expected to nearly double once again, to an estimated $150 million. In addition, global expenditures were expected to reach $1.6 billion in 2008, up from $1.1 billion just two years before.

"It would be tragic if the funds available to the humanitarian community as a whole, and UNHCR in particular, were to decline at the very time when the demands made upon us are increasing so dramatically," he said. While recognizing the challenges posed by the current financial situation on national budgets, he pointed out that the resources that were needed to support the 31 million people cared for by UNHCR was "very modest" when compared to the sums being spent on other global issues, such as bringing stability to the international financial system. UNHCR depended on Member States to continue to invest in protection, assistance and solutions for the changing needs of UNHCR beneficiaries, "the most vulnerable of the poor".

At the same time, he acknowledged the need for all concerned stakeholders, including UNHCR, "to do more and [...] to do better". To that end, his Office had embarked on a series of structural and management reforms to become more effective, efficient and agile. In particular, the streamlining of Headquarters functions would allow more resources and energy to be directed towards the field. Meanwhile, he encouraged all relevant parties to use the upcoming year to promote a serious and systematic debate about the international response to the growing scale and complexity of forced displacement, including consideration of what new norms, standards or instruments might be needed.

In an interactive dialogue following his remarks, a number of delegates raised questions regarding the impact UNHCR reforms would have on the ground. In response, Mr. Guterres said that, not only would specific programmes be more fully supported by his Office, UNHCR work would become more and more decentralized, with regional offices established to help coordinate efforts and provide platforms of support.

Opening the Committee's general debate, representatives of France (on behalf of the European Union), Angola (on behalf of the Southern African Development Community), Japan, Sudan, United States, Colombia, Egypt, China, Hungary, Norway and Canada made statements.

Earlier in the day, the Committee concluded its discussion on the elimination of racism and racial discrimination and the right of peoples to self-determination and heard from the Vice-Chairperson of the Preparatory Committee for the Durban Review Conference, Luvoyo L. Ndimeni. He updated delegates on the two substantive sessions held by the Preparatory Committee, which had resulted in agreements on the overall structure of the conference's outcome document and had established the Inter-Sessional Open-ended Inter-governmental Working Group to follow up on the Committee's work. However, he noted that limited financial resources were negatively affecting the participation of all stakeholders, especially those from the least developed countries, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations, and he called for greater financial contributions for the Durban Review process.

In the ensuing discussion, some delegates voiced concerns about how certain human rights issues were being treated with respect to the Durban Review. While offering her delegation's support to the Preparatory Committee, the delegate from the United Kingdom said her country would not accept any attempt to weaken the international framework for human rights, particularly with regard to the freedom of expression. Individuals were entitled to express views that were contrary to those of others, as long as it did not incite violence, in which case laws must be in place to offer sufficient protection.

The representatives of Guyana (on behalf of the Caribbean Community), Algeria, Syria, Chile, France (on behalf of the European Union) and Mauritania, as well as observers from the Observer Mission of Palestine, the Council of Europe and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also spoke in the general discussion on the elimination of racism and the right to self-determination.

Also today, the Committee heard the introduction of seven draft resolutions, including a draft resolution on the rights of the child that would stress the many challenges facing children and would urge States to undertake a number of measures to meet those problems. The representative of Uruguay, who introduced the text, said the draft also expresses a deep concern about the delay in the appointment of a new Special Representative on Violence against Children.

Another draft resolution, introduced by Benin, would draw attention to the International Year of Human Rights Learning, which would begin on 10 December 2008, with a view to maintaining interest in the subject and placing human rights within the context of education. Sweden's delegate introduced a draft resolution on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, which had been updated from a previous version to include questions raised by the Special Rapporteur on the issue, such as the need to highlight the protection of witnesses. Another text, introduced to the Committee by the representative of Mexico, would welcome the coming into force of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Protocol, which some 136 States had signed so far.

Other draft texts introduced today would highlight the role of Ombudsmen and mediators, regional arrangements and national institutions in the promotion and protection of human rights. Those texts were introduced by the representatives of Morocco, Belgium and Germany, respectively.

The Committee is expected to meet again at 10 a.m. Wednesday, 5 November, to continue its discussion on the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions.

Background

The Third Committee (Social, Cultural and Humanitarian) met today to continue and conclude its consideration of the elimination of racism and racial discrimination and of the right of peoples to self-determination (for background, please see Press Release GA/SHC/3933 of 3 November) and to begin its consideration of the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions. The Committee was also expected to hear the introduction of seven draft resolutions on the rights of children, the rights of persons with disabilities, and human rights questions, including alternate approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms.

The Committee had before it the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(document A/63/12), which provides an account of the work carried out by UNHCR between January 2007 and mid-2008, in response to the needs of 31.7 million people of concern. It also describes major developments and reviews partnerships with other concerned entities, both within and outside of the United Nations system. Refugee numbers increased for the second consecutive year in 2007, as did the number of conflict-induced internally displaced people to whom UNHCR extended protection or assistance activities. In addition, the causes of displacement are becoming increasingly complex, with more and more people forced to move because of extreme deprivation, environmental degradation and climate change, as well as conflict and persecution.

Though the report states that returning home became a reality for 2.8 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the past year, the joy of going back was often tempered by enormous challenges. Efforts to support the reintegration of returnees were frequently cancelled out by a lack of infrastructure or sustainable development measures. As well, the complexity of today's displacement goes well beyond the asylum-migration nexus and the report anticipates that many more people will be forcibly displaced in the coming years, some because they are escaping from civil strife caused by climate change. The global rise in the price of staple foods has also had an alarming impact on the lives of refugees and internally displaced persons and many of the countries most affected by the rise in food prices are hosting the largest numbers of refugees.

According to the report, notable progress was made in achieving the three durable solutions during the reporting period: voluntary repatriation; local integration and resettlement. Though UNHCR remains engaged in its structural and management change process -- which began in February 2006 with the aim of enhancing the organization's responsiveness and cost-effectiveness -- the report states that the changing dimensions of challenges are stretching humanitarian resources and response capacity more than ever before. Indeed, UNHCR's recent moves to measure the total global needs of populations of concern reveal that the resources made available to the Office cover barely half of the most basic requirements. The need to find new criteria, strategies and solutions in managing the burgeoning environmental and humanitarian crises is an inescapable responsibility. For UNHCR and the United Nations, this means finding the right balance in partnerships, bilateral or multilateral collaboration like the cluster approach, the Delivering as One initiative, or other coordination mechanisms.

The Committee also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on assistance to refugees, returnees and displaced persons in Africa (document A/63/321), which demonstrates that, while certain post-conflict situations had stabilized and allowed a significant number of displaced persons to return home, displacement by armed conflict and other situations of violence in Africa increased during 2007, with the total number of uprooted people growing by approximately 1 million. It also draws attention to regional issues, such as the 15 per cent increase in the overall number of refugees in East Africa and the Horn of Africa due to conflict and natural disasters, and progress made in finding durable solutions for refugees in some camps in Central Africa and the Great Lakes region.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations including, among others: the adoption of new approaches to resolving forced displacement at the upcoming African Union Special Summit; greater integration of the protection and assistance needs of displaced persons in peace agreements, post-conflict transition frameworks, development plans and poverty reduction strategies; and the conclusion of the African Union draft convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons in Africa.

The Committee was also expected to consider the report of the Executive Committee of the Programme of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (document A/63/12/Add.1).

The draft resolutions to be introduced to the Committee included: a draft text on the rights of the child (A/C.3/63/L.16); on the role of the Ombudsman, mediator and other national human rights institutions in the promotion and protection of human rights (A/C.3/63/L.20); on regional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights (A/C.3/63/L.21); on national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (A/C.3/63/L.23); on International Year of Human Rights Learning (A/C.3/63/L.24); on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (A/C.3/63/L.35) and on Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol thereto (A/C.3/63/L.37).