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CNN Insight

UNHCR - Passing The Humanitarian Torch

Aired January 24, 2001 - 4:30 p.m. ET


RALITSA VASSILEVA, INSIGHT (voice-over): Hope for the homeless. The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has been reaching out to the helpless for half a century. But the agency that prides itself on giving shelter has often found that its greatest challenges exist under its own roof.

Hello, and welcome to INSIGHT. I'm Ralitsa Vassileva, in for Jonathan Mann.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has to wear many hats - humanitarian, of course, policy-maker, fund-raiser and diplomat, just to name a few. It's a job that can be extremely rewarding and frustrating at the same time. It's also a job that has recently changed hands.

After a decade in charge, the tenacious Sadako Ogata has handed over the reins to former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers. On INSIGHT today - passing the humanitarian torch.

We'll hear from both Ogata and Lubbers. Bur first, we spoke to CNN's senior UN correspondent Richard Roth.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ralitsa, there are some 22 million refugees in the world today. One could argue that the person at the top of the agency the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has the most responsibility and could directly affect the lives of more people than any leader of any United Nations agency.

The new man, Ruud Lubbers, is the person who replaced Sadako Ogata, a career Japanese diplomat who was, until last December, the leader of the United Nations High Commissioner Of Refugees office.


(voice-over): A glittery gala for Mrs. Ogata, held by the International Rescue Committee in New York.

KOFI ANNAN, UN SECRETARY-GENERAL: Under her leadership, the High Commission office faced unprecedented challenges and demands. And under leadership, it met them successfully.

ROTH: The scenes at the black-tie event quite a contrast to the life led by the people Ogata's refugee group assists every day from border camps to mountain ranges.

WINSTON LORD, FMR. U.S. ASST. SECY. OF STATE: She has literally saved hundreds of thousands of lives, if not millions, around the world. And she is constantly looking ahead, trying to anticipate problems as well as dealing with day-to-day problems.

ROTH: A constant problem - the lack of political will from the United Nations countries. She made 12 appearances over the years before the Security Council.

SADAKO OGATA, UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES: I have not ceased calling for political support for humanitarian crises. I have repeated countless times that humanitarian action can only address not resolve political problems.

ROTH: Bureaucrats and warlords learned not to be fooled by her diminutive appearance.

ROBERT OAKLEY, FMR. U.S. ENVOY TO SOMALIA: My biding memory of Mrs. Ogata is meeting her in Berbera (ph) in Somalia, when things were all going to hell. And we brought in two Marine generals, and they were not disposed to help the refugees at all. By the time they finished talking to Mrs. Ogata, they said, "What can we do to help you?"

ROTH: But not everyone is so deferential to the aid workers. An increasing number have been murdered or assaulted. Before the peacekeepers arrive, it's often the humanitarians in harm's way with no back-up.


VASSILEVA: Richard, looking ahead at the job that Mr. Lubbers will have to do, what experience does he have?

ROTH: Well, he's rather untested. He's known as a good compromiser in his vast years in the political world. But refugee aid workers who we've talked to say that he's still sort of in uncharted waters. It does remain to be seen because he has not worked in this type of field.

He has dealt with crises as the prime minister of the Netherlands, but being the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is a totally different world than some of the clubby government boardrooms one has seen Lubbers deal with in the past years. Things move very quickly, and you're dealing with governments, warlords, refugees. It's a totally different combustible mix.

VASSILEVA: Richard, what challenges do you think he will face if he tries to expand the UNHCR's role to help internally displaced people?

ROTH: Well, the leader of UNHCR will always be butting heads with world governments. Sadako Ogata ran into a roadblock in the Balkans. She was in favor of Macedonia returning refugees back. She didn't like that Macedonia was closing the borders. The United States and other Western governments thought it was a different type of crisis due to what was happening there in the battle with the former Yugoslavia, and she ran into a lot of roadblocks.

In the great lakes region also, Sadako Ogata was accused by some of acting too slowly to deal with refugee problems there. For Ruud Lubbers, the biggest problem is going to be immediately IDPs, internally displaced persons. These are people who are, in effect, refugees, but they haven't crossed international borders.

Under United Nations charter provision, going back 50 years, refugees are given courtesies and given protection. But there is no description for how to take care of IDPs. U.S. ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke has been very forceful in his arguments, some in opposition to Mrs. Ogata's policies, that IDPs should be given a lot more attention. Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the UN says if the IDPs are added to the list of refugees, it would, quote, "break the back" of the humanitarian agency.

The big problem for Lubbers and the agency is money. It's got a budget of about $1 billion, but it faces a big budget shortfall. Lubbers has to run a tricky road of getting donations because this is, like many UN specialized agencies, a place which only functions through voluntary contributions.

So on the one hand, Lubbers needs money from the very countries that at times do not want to allow IDPs to cross borders into their own lands.

VASSILEVA: Richard, thank you.

In a moment, Sadako Ogata reflects on her experience as the UNHCR chief and talks about the challenges that remain. Stay with us.


VASSILEVA: Over the last decade, we have seen the small, frail- looking frame of Sadako Ogata in some of the world's most rugged places. Her aim was to draw attention to the plight of the refugees and gain support from the international community.

I recently spoke to her about that difficult task.


OGATA: Well, the last 10 years was really a very turbulent 10 years, and I think we had to face one crisis after another. In that sense, I am happy that we lived up to the crises most of the time, and we were able to talk on behalf of the refugees and bring the cause of these people to the forefront of not only international community, but to the international - they were on the international political agenda.

Humanitarian issues became a main political agenda.

VASSILEVA: Speaking of political agendas, your job has sometimes been described as a balancing act. How have you managed to stay, to retain the image of impartiality?

OGATA: Oh, impartiality between rival forces, and that is very certain. But I think the bottom line is that those who are most deprived, most in danger, we had to push their cause. And so there was nothing impartial about that. I had to bring their cause to the attention of those who are violating or who were ones who were causing this deprivation.

So it is impartial in terms of rival conflicting groups, but there was never impartiality in terms of presenting their causes.

VASSILEVA: Some have said that the UNHCR has moved over the past decade, moved to help in war zones, which has made the job of the refugee worker much more dangerous. You have lost people - for example, most recently, in West Timor. How do you look at this? Was it worth it? Is it worth it?

OGATA: Well, UNHCR colleagues have to be near the refugees, whether they're in camps or in settlements, in order to protect them. There's an enormous sense of confidence if we are helping them and by being nearby. And this is what our colleagues have been courageously undertaking.

At the same time, today's conflicts are mostly internal conflicts, intercommunal conflicts, and there is no way of taking the refugees out across international borders, setting up very, very secure refugee camps. Most of the refugees are mixed up in zones that are full of continuos conflict. And this has been our biggest dilemma, trying to be with them - at the same time making their security of the refugees upheld, but also looking after the security of our own colleagues.

This has been one of my biggest challenges. In many places, all during the Bosnian war, we had victims. And it was a very, very heavy toll that we suffered. At the same time, we have been trying and we will continue to try to uphold the security of our staff.

VASSILEVA: Do you have a sense of frustration about how many hundreds of millions of refugees on several continents remain outside their countries' borders and how many remain internally displaced? For example, in Afghanistan, we have refugees who have been - people who have been refugees for two decades.

OGATA: Yes. Oh, it is - these are the most, the biggest worries. Because the international community tend to forget about them. They're forgotten refugees. The largest group, I would say, are the Afghans - 2.5 million still, and it's down from more than five million.

At the same time, the countries that are hosting them pay a very, very heavy toll, and the burden-sharing is hardly there. So I was in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan recently trying to arouse international attention to their cause, trying to help those who want to go back by improving the conditions inside Afghanistan so that they can go back with security, some hope and their rights observed.

VASSILEVA: You have been very vocal and critical of the European Union, of major donor countries, saying that they've been very selective - some of them have been very selective in the aid that they give. They give when it's up to their interests to avoid certain situations, refugees at their borders. How do you see the future of donations and whether this situation will be improved?

OGATA: Well, my office is funded by voluntary contributions, mostly from governments. And it is true that the European Commission, which funded us very, very generously during the large emergencies of Bosnia and also of the great lakes in Africa, their contribution has really gone down. It's about a quarter now of what they gave.

And this affects the programs of our office enormously, and in proportion, have the major European donors to the European Commission increased their contributions? No, they have not. And therefore, I have been really consulting, requesting and trying to have a better dialogue of funding because most of the European countries are major supporters of humanitarian causes? And this is a major effort.

I have been really doing a lot of fund raising in my last year.

VASSILEVA: What kind of advice would you give to your successor?

OGATA: My successor, the high commissioner-elect, comes from Europe, and I think in this sense he has good contacts with the European government. I hope he will continue my fund-raising efforts. The United States has been a very generous donor to the refugee cause, and I hope the United States, Japan, the Nordic countries will continue to fund as well.

Because funding is vital if we want to carry out, carry on effective programs for the refugees. But also, we have to always try to reach solutions for their fate. It is not good to keep refugees in camps for 10 years, 20 years. It is not fair to those people who are there because their own sense of self-reliance will tend to get weaker. It is not fair to the host countries, which are mostly developing countries. They are affected adversely.

So solution-oriented approach is what we have tried, I have in my 10 years tried to develop. And I think this is something very important. Whenever there is a crisis, we should be very strong in meeting emergencies as well. So there is a lot - a host of directions that I think came out of the 10 years that I have faced these problems, and I hope very much that my successor will not only carry on but come up with new visions and new approaches as well.

VASSILEVA: And finally, on a personal note - you have been quoted as saying that being UNHCR chief has come at an enormous personal cost and sacrifice to your family. Looking back, was it worth it?

OGATA: Oh, my family has been very good in supporting me. I think it was very - it is only by chance that you are given an opportunity to really help millions of people in the world and also to arouse international support and attention. I think that the 10 years have been a very worthwhile period for myself.

VASSILEVA: Mrs. Ogata, thank you very much. Good luck to you.

OGATA: Thank you.


VASSILEVA: In a moment - a conversation with Ogata's successor. We'll be right back.


VASSILEVA: Welcome back.

Former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers is accustomed to being in charge. But in his new job, he'll be responsible for 22 million refugees, and that's more than the population of his homeland. And those people are scattered across the globe.

I recently spoke to him about this new, very different challenge and the reforms that he hopes to bring to the UNHCR.


RUUD LUBBERS, UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES: Our core mandate is protection. We are, phrase it that way, in the business of protection. The number of refugees have increased during the years, and then we have, maybe you'll talk later about that a little bit more, also there are enormous streams of internally displaced persons. Then we have this - there are many situations in which we have to go to assist in emergency situations like now in Africa, again in certain places. We have a record of 10 years.

So people will see UNHCR, see it in basically in those emergency situations, but that is also about protection. What people mean is that the classical role of UNHCR to be sure that countries are prepared to receive refugees and to find solutions, that we keep that alive. And there is sort of strange situation. The wealthy of the world - in fact, we are economically very successful in this globalizing world - seem less to be a greater hospitality to receive refugees.

So I have to work hard on this, and for me at least, in that sense, protection is key on the agenda of UNHCR.

VASSILEVA: Will you be willing to.

LUBBERS: But I don't see a contradiction between protection and humanitarian assistance. We simply have to start with humanitarian assistance. People are very often in difficult situations and, by the way, we are doing that not only with our own resources and capability, we work (ph) very intensely with the other humanitarian organizations.

And this is going well, and I hope it goes even better, and it will give me the chance to concentrate more on the protection role of UNHCR.

VASSILEVA: Will you be willing to speak up to governments who do not guarantee the rights of the refugees?

LUBBERS: Yes, of course. It's my role to do that. We have two sorts of governments. You have the governments who in course of years became partners in the convention, so there is also a legal obligation. There, my office and our people will explain time and again what the obligation is about. And when they have problems for technical perspective, for example, to accomplish this function, we will assist them. If they have motives to withdraw a little bit because of political problems in that country, less generosity to receive people, I will have serious talks with the government.

Then we have a separate category of countries that is are those who are not partner in the convention. There its task convincing them to become part. I think we are living in times of modernity, it's a little bit unreal not to be a partner in any convention.

VASSILEVA: You mentioned the internally displaced people. Would you be willing to devote a lot of the resources of the UNHCR to internally displaced people? And how are you going to counter allegations from countries that say that this is an intervention in their sovereignty?

LUBBERS: Exactly the way you put it. It starts with countries which have problems to look after their citizens. Then they become internally displaced, and then still there is no solution. Now we have had already a number of situations in which refugees and internally displaced persons are, in fact, one group. You cannot separate.

We are not going to separate out. But what we'll do, of course, is to check case by case what can be done in a very pragmatic way. If you do that, you relate also to the government of the country. So the answer is a very simple one. We should not discuss this in theoretical terms. Then you get political opposition about the sovereignty and it's not the business of UNHCR.

But if you start from another point, there is a complete situation. You consult a country how they see the role of UNHCR. I make a bet that, in many cases, the country will say please do something because there are enormous problems of poverty in this location, and maybe you can assist us. So we should not discuss this on a theoretical level.

VASSILEVA: But still, there is a lot of.

LUBBERS: What does it mean for sovereignty but simply do what you can do.

VASSILEVA: But still, there is a lot of resistance to that by many countries, and this initiative has failed before.

LUBBERS: Yes, exactly. Therefore, I put it this way. I don't think it is productive to have here an abstract debate at a high level. Then you can predict that, of course, countries will say let's not go for another mission of the UNHCR. I think it's not needed.

If we are concentrating on the refugees, we simply say there were specific cases where refugees is added together with internally displaced persons, we consult the country, that particular government, and if they want to do somewhat more and to partner with other humanitarian organizations to do something for displaced persons, I think there is no problem because then it is the country itself who wants us to do something.

VASSILEVA: When I was talking to Sadako Ogata, she was very vocal in specifically singling out European countries, rich European countries in being very selective about the assistance that the funds that they offer the UNHCR. How do you intend to tackle that? You come from a European country yourself?

LUBBERS: I'll talk it over in Europe. As you might know, I was prime minister of the Netherlands. I have a long track record, especially in Europe. So I will talk with the president of the commission and with the other commissioners and also in the capitals to overcome a situation in which there obviously is a misunderstanding about the capacity - the key capacity and capability of UNHCR to do the sort of what European Union wishes to do, but still have not materialized to a sufficient extent.

And there, I will debate, of course, as well that it's not understandable for the outside world that some European countries, member states of the European Union are so much more generous than others. So we have talk about this straightforwardly. And then finally, see (ph) a clear connection on the receiving end of the asylum seekers coming to the European countries, which are considered as a problem by the citizens and by the government.

To a certain extent, I can understand that. But then we are there together in this task of protection, and I do think there are possibilities to find solutions either in terms of hospitality in Europe itself. But also finding solutions in the region. But that solutions will be better if there is a capacity also - a financial capacity of UNHCR. So it's in the interest of the European Union and the member states of the European Union to cooperate and to be more generous.

VASSILEVA: Mr. Lubbers, thank you very much and good luck.

LUBBERS: Thank you.


VASSILEVA: That is INSIGHT for this day. I'm Ralitsa Vassileva, in for Jonathan Mann. There's more news just ahead on CNN.




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