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Address to the 50th Annual Session of UNHCR

Imagen del UNICEF

Geneva, 4 October 1999

Mr. Chairman, Madam High Commissioner, Distinguished Delegates, Colleagues, Friends:

I take special pleasure in this opportunity to address this historic 50th annual session of UNHCR's Executive Committee.

For our two agencies, the last half century has been a time of close and fruitful collaboration on behalf of the uprooted, the poor and the downtrodden - the vast majority of them women and children.

Mr. Chairman, ours is a excellent working relationship. Not only are we friends with a shared vision of multilateralism; we are also close as agencies on the ground, who see humanitarian action in the same way.

This closeness has clear practical consequences. It means that we can move quickly to support each other without becoming mired in bureaucratic complexities -- whether we are promoting protection of refugees and the displaced or seeking answers to vexing human problems.

Indeed, Mr. Chairman, the on-the-ground triumvirate of UNHCR, UNICEF and the World Food Programme has become a model for humanitarian collaboration among agencies in the UN System. And it continues, working with OCHA for overall co-ordination of the UN System response and with partners like the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict -- as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross and numerous non-governmental organization.
Now, with the new millennium almost upon us, we face challenges that dwarf many of the humanitarian emergencies of the past -- and make our strengthened collaboration to protect displaced children all the more crucial.

Mr. Chairman, the lynchpin for that strengthened collaboration is UNHCR's courageous staff, who -- like UNICEF's and WFP's -- labour day in and day out under maddeningly complex and often dangerous conditions. Recently I saw for myself the tremendous dedication of UNHCR's staff in Albania -- as well as in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere -- and I salute their clear and unshakeable commitment to helping those in need. UNHCR's commitment to assisting refugees while working to find durable solutions to their plight is why the organisation has compiled so remarkable a record -- a record that includes not one, but two, Nobel Peace Prizes.
In all of this, Mr. Chairman, we continue to benefit from the inspired leadership of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR's recent efforts in West Africa, East Asia and the Balkans on behalf of refugees and the internally displaced - half of them children -- are a testament to the skill and vision that she has brought to UNHCR in this decade.

In the same way, we salute the work of UNHCR's Executive Committee, whose innovative and forward-looking approach has led to initiatives in such areas as flexible budgetary mechanisms, predictable resource mobilization, deployment of staff and rapid response, and standard-setting for refugee children, as seen in the Executive Committee's 1997 Conclusion on Refugee Children and Adolescents.

UNHCR has also performed a great service to the rights of child refugees and internally displaced children through the development and dissemination of the Guidelines on Refugee Children and the Action for the Rights of Children programme (ARC).

These initiatives -- along with the appointment of UNHCR staff charged with focusing on child rights at the country, regional and Headquarters levels - have helped promote the special protection measures that all refugee children must have.

Mr. Chairman, the context within which humanitarian actors work has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War, largely because of the proliferation of conflicts within States, the routine targeting of civilian populations, and the "privatization" of warfare made possible by such factors as the vast trafficking in small arms.

Horrific violations of human rights and humanitarian law have become routine, with millions of civilians forced from their homes, abducted and killed in armed attacks, raped and deliberately mutilated.

Women and children of course suffer disproportionately, with many of those who survive caught up in the highly militarised environments found in camps for refugees and the displaced, where they are especially vulnerable to violence, sexual assault and forced recruitment.

In almost every situation, Mr. Chairman, we struggle daily with the task of gaining humanitarian access to endangered civilian populations -- a struggle made all the more difficult as the issue of access has become politicised, and as the ranks of the internally displaced have continued to swell.

There are also the brutal realities that UNHCR confronted in trying to mobilize the international community to disarm the militias in the Rwanda refugee camps in the mid-1990s -- a history that is now being repeated, five years later, in West Timor, where refugees are again being taken hostage.

Madam High Commissioner, UNICEF appreciates how difficult these situations are -- and we share with you the struggle to do what is right.

The unwillingness of the international community to respond to UNHCR's repeated pleas to disarm the genocidaires in Rwanda wreaked havoc on the countries of the Great Lakes region -- and that legacy is still being felt to this day.

Mr. Chairman, given the complexity of today's armed conflicts and humanitarian crises, a multi-actor and collaborative approach is the only way to provide effective protection of displaced women and children and civilian populations at large.

However, our strengthened collaboration must not relieve States of the responsibility to protect their own civilian populations and to take humanitarian action -- or to permit others to do so when States themselves are either unwilling or unable.

At the same time, Mr. Chairman, we find our own UN staff coming increasingly under attack -- kidnapped, detained, harassed, raped and in some cases murdered. UN aircraft have been downed, with extensive loss of life. UN property has been looted with impunity, with losses exceeding many tens of millions of dollars.

Mr. Chairman, these are the flesh-and-blood realities behind the complex emergencies we face -- and they are bringing about extensive changes in the function of humanitarian agencies.

With regard to staff security, UNICEF is exploring ways to strengthen its capacity to prepare for insecurity -- and is providing additional training and equipment so that staff can cope with the lawlessness and violence that awaits them. UNICEF, together with UNHCR and WFP, has invested heavily in this area. We are also exploring joint ventures, such as the shared operation of communications equipment in West Africa.

In the last year, UNICEF helped to establish a UN-wide procedure allowing for post-exposure treatment for HIV infection for staff who have been raped. This service, which is now available in strategic locations world-wide, is just one example of the innovations that are required.

With regard to refugee situations, UNICEF's mandate is guided by the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child -- all children, all rights, everywhere.

As an organization that is present before, during and after armed conflicts, our Executive Board reaffirmed in 1992 that UNICEF should "continue providing emergency assistance to refugee and displaced women and children, particularly those living in areas affected by armed conflict and natural disasters" in accordance with our mandate and "in collaboration with other relevant United Nations Agencies and the international community."

In all its efforts, UNICEF is committed to finding joint strategies to deal not only with the humanitarian consequences of emergencies, but with their root causes and solutions. It is why UNICEF stresses a holistic approach that combines humanitarian relief with long-term development objectives, whether in Angola, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This includes ensuring protection for all children in situations of high risk; reducing under-5 and maternal mortality through preventative health and nutrition interventions like immunization, sanitation and micro-nutrient supplementation; and contending with scourges like HIV/AIDS and malaria.

It is also why UNICEF continues to stress the healing powers of education in countries struggling to recover from humanitarian catastrophes. In the aftermath of the earthquake disaster in Turkey, where I visited last week, and in places like Kosovo, as elsewhere, we have found reaffirmation that education helps re-establish stability on the long journey back from chaos -- for children and for their families.

In all these areas, the Memorandum of Understanding between UNHCR and UNICEF has inspired numerous joint undertakings to protect the rights of unaccompanied children; to provide education and psycho-social services for displaced children; to assure children the right to an identity and a nationality; and to halt the forced recruitment of children into armed forces and groups.

Mr. Chairman, the protection of children in armed conflict and other humanitarian crises must be framed by the standards and norms embodied in international human rights instruments and humanitarian law. And we have that framework in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Convention is not only history's most universally embraced human rights treaty, but the only one that explicitly refers to humanitarian law. Indeed, Article 38 of the Convention specifically obligates States Parties to respect the rules of international humanitarian law relevant to children in armed conflict.

It is because of this linkage, Mr. Chairman, that UNICEF has become increasingly focused on protection issues.

We recognize, of course, that protection is UNHCR's central mandate. Yet protection is such a key element of today's conflicts and instability that we must work together to ensure it.

UNICEF is not in a position to deal with individual protection cases except in rare instances. Instead, we are concentrating our efforts on strengthening the protection environment, using a bottom-up approach to rights-based programming.

In southern Sudan, for example, we are exploring ways to promote child rights and women's rights by linking them to local traditions and values. And in eastern DRC and Tanzania in 1996 and 1997, UNICEF collaborated with UNHCR and the ICRC to set up simple systems to prevent family separations.

These kinds of efforts, Mr. Chairman, come as child rights are moving ever higher on the international agenda. The signs are everywhere.

In his speech last month accepting the presidency of the 54th Session of the General Assembly, Theo-Ben Gurirab, Foreign Minister of Namibia, declared that children and the fulfillment of their rights must be a priority for the GA.

We are also gratified that UN peace-keeping missions now include training in child rights and child protection, as well as the designation of specific personnel to focus on child protection within the broader peace-keeping mandate.

Amid such developments, Mr. Chairman, UNICEF looks forward to working with UNHCR in preparing for a watershed event for children in 2001 -- an event that will mobilize international leadership to achieve the remaining goals of the World Summit for Children; tackle the huge obstacles of poverty, HIV/AIDS and armed conflict; and establish a new agenda for children for the first years of the 21st Century.

In linking it to the Special Session of the General Assembly in 2001 on follow-up to the World Summit, we envision this event as the most representative gathering for children the world has ever seen. It will include not only governments, but broad elements of civil society, including children themselves, NGOs, the media and the private sector -- and our colleague UN agencies, UNHCR prominent among them.

In closing, Mr. Chairman, I would like to convey to the Executive Committee the key elements of UNICEF's Peace and Security Agenda for Children, which I described to the Security Council last February. They are principles in which we know you are in full agreement, but which bear endless repetition. They are:

To end the use of children as soldiers and support 18 as the internationally recognized age of recruitment;
To support humanitarian mine action;
To protect children from the effects of sanctions;
To include children in peace-building, particularly in demobilization efforts;
To challenge the impunity of war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially those committed against children;
And to promote early warning and preventive action for children as the most effective humanitarian strategy.
Mr. Chairman, the virtually universal embrace of the Convention on the Rights of the Child -- the growing concern with the protection of refugees and internally displaced -- the increasing resolve to deal with those who commit atrocities during conflict -- and the recognition that lasting peace and sustainable development require the fulfillment of the rights of children and adults -- all of these are hopeful trends that can contribute to the mitigation of the effects of the many humanitarian emergencies we now face.

For UNICEF the truest measure of our success is the well-being of the world's children -and the strength of our determination to act always in their best interests.

In all of this, our close and ever stronger collaboration with UNHCR will always be a cornerstone of our efforts.

Thank you.