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  December 1998    

Ogata speaks at UN Day Human Rights symposium
A wide range of official sponsors, including three Japanese government agencies, joined the UNU in commemorating United Nations Day at an October 23 symposium on "Human Rights and the Role of the United Nations."

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata (photo) was the keynote speaker, addressing the audience in Japanese and answering questions about her agency and Japan's refugee policies.

This was followed by an English panel discussion comprising former Adviser to the Jordanian Prime Minister Ibrahim Badran, Norwegian Ambassador to Japan John Bjornebye, UNESCO Chairholder for Human Rights Walter Kamba, UNHCR Regional Representative Gary Troeller and Senior Adviser to the UNU Rector Hideo Sato. Aiko Doden of NHK's "Good Morning Japan" served as moderator of the wide-ranging debate on human rights topics.

Rights vary in war, peace

Commissioner Ogata noted that the UN's agency to aid refugees is almost as old as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marks fifty years on 10 December 1998. UNHCR was established in 1951, and various other conventions and documents followed which she said set and disseminated norms that had never before been internationally discussed, much less accepted.

Ogata traced two "lineages" of human rights activism in the United Nations: those proceeding from peacetime concerns and those raised in times of war.

The peacetime efforts were unusual in that they focused on issues till then seen as "domestic" and unregulated by multilateral documents - they were sparked by widespread horror at the Nazi-organized genocide of Jews and others throughout Europe.

The human rights concerns during wartime were different in those years, because wars were largely international matters, obviously involving protection of prisoners and non-combatants. However, Ogata noted that recently most violent conflicts have been internal or intra-national, as in the cases of Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and most recently, Yugoslavia's Kosovo province.

"Displaced" outnumber "refugees"

For Commissioner Ogata and her predecessors at UNHCR, this has raised the question, "What sort of people do we have to protect?"

Although the 1950 UN Convention on refugee issues sought to protect those refugees who crossed international borders, UNHCR now tries to protect 23 million people who are largely "displaced" within their own nations - and their share of the larger refugee population is increasing.

"We should not divide them" into categories of internally displaced and international refugees, Ogata said, because both groups share the same desperate needs.

Other complex issues have been recognized recently, such as the difficulty of separating war criminals and armed groups from other apparent refugees in the Rwandan conflict. Two million Rwandans sought safe haven abroad, but in their midst and often coercing them were soldiers on the losing side of the internal conflict they fled.

And as Ogata noted, to disarm soldiers is a task often beyond the power of unarmed aid workers, particularly in that case where the UN Secretary-General asked 50 nations for aid, but only one nation responded.

New needs, new tactics

The Commissioner named several strategies for dealing with this enormous need. She pointed out that refugees' plight often does not improve when the shooting stops, as until the refugees return home they cannot resume their normal lives.

Ogata noted that it is easier for her agency to get financial assistance to help refugees during an armed conflict, but when they return to devastated homes and distrust, or until they are given asylum and resettled elsewhere, they cannot reconstruct their societies.

She recalled a harrowing incident in Kosovo, where she met with some of the forty thousand to fifty thousand refugees - up to a sixth of the refugee population there - who are still living outdoors as the winter approaches. Ogata said some of those she met with attempted to block her departure, because "As long as you are here, we are safe." Beyond their fears of further violence, shelter from the elements was nowhere near being provided.

"Compassion fatigue" cuts aid

The numbers of refugees are not always in the hundreds of thousands; Ogata noted that a full third of Africa's fifty nations are currently afflicted by violent conflicts. Perversely, although technology allows instant communication of their plights, the sheer overload of such images contributes to global indifference.

Finally, Ogata noted that her agency is overwhelmingly funded (97 per cent) by voluntary donations from UN member nations, and thus suffers from the uncertainty of such funding.

Also, she mentioned that certain nations are willing to provide funds but not to extend asylum to refugees requiring resettlement, another constant need that is nowhere near being met.

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