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IRENE KHAN: I mean, when it comes to internally displaced, it is really an issue of political will. Like so many other areas, the laws are there, the institutions are there. But if you don’t have the political will to move on these things, then it is very difficult to do something about it.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the debate over refugee status. And later, a one-on-one interview with UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette.
LOUISE FRECHETTE: Some of our big peace missions really required almost every part of the UN system to be involved. And one of my main responsibilities is to ensure that the UN system works together as a team.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke recently proposed that the UN High Commission for Refugees expand its role to help internally displaced people, not just refugees who cross international borders. While seemingly a minor change, the issue has provoked opposition within international relief agencies. Some fear that changing the law would lead to violations of national sovereignty and even military intervention in the name of facilitating humanitarian relief. Common Ground‘s special correspondent Reese Ehrlich has more.
EHRLICH: The situation in Kosovo today demonstrates the thin line walked by international relief workers. Before the NATO war, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees aided internally displaced Kosovo Albanians fleeing repression by Serbian forces. Today, the UNHCR unloads supply trucks to help ethnic Serbs attacked by the US-allied Kosovo Liberation Army.
[sound of people unloading a truck]
EHRLICH: This Kosovo Serb man was interviewed for an UNHCR video documentary.
KOSOVO SERB: [via a translator] We fled our homes because there was heavy shooting and shelling from all directions, with all types of weapons. There was only one way out. We spent four days and four nights in
the village, and then the shelling started to get closer, even to that village. So then we left and went towards another village after that.
JULIAN HERRERA: They’ve come here to seek refuge because they felt threatened. Some of them experienced harassment, verbal, and physical.
EHRLICH: Julian Herrera, a UNHCR protection officer in Kosovo, says the ethnic Serbs are under attack by the Kosovo Liberation Army, known by its Albanian initials as the UCK.
HERRERA: Are the UCK fostering a multiethnic province? Are they encouraging the people, and in a real sense, to stay? Unfortunately, some of the statements taken down point the other way.
EHRLICH: In former Yugoslavia, ex-USSR, Central Africa, and elsewhere, humanitarian agencies are increasingly called upon to help people displaced within their own countries. When the UNHCR began operations in 1951, the relief agency only helped refugees who crossed international boundaries. But in the 1990s, civil wars and rebel insurgencies have created an estimated twenty million internally displaced people, or IDPs. In January, US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, expressing his own opinion, proposed an expansion of the UNHCR to cover IDPs. Some officials within the UNHCR, however, oppose expanding their agency’s mandate. Irene Khan, is UNHCR’s Deputy Director of International Protection.
IRENE KHAN: I don’t think we need to change our mandate. Our mandate is flexible enough. I think what we really need is political will on the part of governments, and we need resources, like to do something about the issue. I mean, when it comes to internally displaced, it is really an issue of political will. Like so many other areas, the laws are there, the institutions are there. But if you don’t have the political will to move on these things, then it is very difficult to do something about it.
EHRLICH: Khan points out that the UNHCR has helped IDPs since the early 1970s in countries such as Bangladesh. It provides that aid only when asked by the UN and with the permission, or least acquiescence, of
the host country. But that’s not adequate, argues Soren Jessen-Petersen, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner. He says, in some cases, his organization was unable to respond to humanitarian emergencies because it lacked a legal mandate. He says that was one factor that prevented assistance to 500,000 internal refugees in Peru’s civil war.
SOREN JESSEN-PETERSEN: Ambassador Holbrooke and others, they are looking for an effective contribution to dealing what is today a very worrying gap in the international system. What I think Ambassador Holbrooke and the others are looking for, that is an international system structure which is much more “protectable.” And it’s believed that UNHCR, by going even further than we have gone so far, because today we are responsible for some six million internal displacements in various parts of the world, including Kosovo. But by going even further, maybe we could contribute in filling that gap.
EHRLICH: There has not always been such great international concern for IDPs. During the Cold War, the US and USSR prevented aid to IDPs bearing political embarrassment. For example, there was no major international effort to help IDPs in El Salvador or Guatemala during the US-backed counterinsurgency wars of the 1980s. Similarly, the USSR blocked help to internal refugees during its occupation of Afghanistan. But these days, one superpower has collapsed and the US doesn’t see its interests threatened by every civil war or guerrilla insurgency. The UNHCR’s Jessen-Petersen explains.
JESSEN-PETERSEN: The nature of conflicts have changed over the last ten years, mainly since the end of the Cold War. What we are seeing now is largely internal conflicts with resulting internal displacement. In the past wars between nations, refugees would cross international borders, and we would deal with refugees in fairly stable asylum situations. Today they are internally displaced, in the middle of conflicts. Their numbers have gone up. Linked to that, and that would be the second reason, with better global communication, some of these issues are now better known.
EHRLICH: UNHCR’s Irene Khan says helping IDPs is far more difficult than aiding traditional refugees. She says helping IDPs should continue on a case-by-case basis when there is an international consensus.
KHAN: There are, of course, enormous political difficulties of trying to help people inside their own country, very often against, from their own governments, or their own people. So, taking into account the political difficulties, we also have the enormous difficulty of national sovereignty; many of the governments don’t want international organizations to intervene in their own country. So when you add up all those difficulties, then you can understand why some people feel that perhaps this is a very difficult issue and maybe we should be very cautious.
EHRLICH: If the UNHCR were to officially change its mandate, says Khan, countries such as Russia and China would object. They fear the refugee issue could be used as an excuse for Western military intervention in Chechnya or Tibet.
KHAN: I think there is concern among some governments that this is yet another way of certain powerful states intervening in domestic situations. This is why it’s very important, as far as UNHCR is concerned, that our work be seen entirely as humanitarian and as a nonpolitical action.
EHRLICH: The issue of national sovereignty is not an easy one to resolve. For example, the military government in Myanmar, once known as Burma, cites national sovereignty as a reason to exclude major projects by international relief agencies. The military wants a free hand to fight separatist rebels and they say the rebels use refugee camps in neighboring Thailand as a safe haven.
[sounds of life at a refugee camp]
EHRLICH: A visit to the Mae Sot refugee camp, just across Myanmar’s border inside Thailand, shows how complicated the situation has become.
[sounds of life at a refugee camp]
EHRLICH: International relief workers oversee distribution of rice to refugees waiting in long lines. The refugees are almost all of the Karen minority. They face tremendous repression by Myanmar’s military government. Camp resident Pastor Robert Kway, explains why many Karen come here.
PASTOR ROBERT KWAY: [speaking via a translator] Many have their homes burned down or their food stocks and home destroyed. So because of the insecurity and because of the lack of food in the area, then they have to leave their home and then come over to the border for refuge. Another reason that these people, I mean they left their home is because of forced labor. During these years, because the military operation, the military offensive I mean, thousands of villagers are required all the time to carry supplies from the rear bases to the front. And so everybody in this area, along the line of the communication, are affected. So much so that not only men, but even women and children also are required to work.
EHRLICH: Kway and others concede that the Karen National Union, an armed guerrilla group fighting for an independent Karen nation, has tremendous influence on camp residents. Camp leaders concede that KNU guerrillas come across the border to rest up in the camp. And children in camp schools learn that the Karen should have their own separate nation, as in this song sung by a camp leader.
KAREN SONG LEADER: This is a Karen political song. It’s called “This Is Our Land.” It’s talking about Kothwi. Kothwi is the Karen land, called in Karen Kothwi, you see. So this is our land.
[Song leader sings a song in English]:
Kothwi a wondrous motherland
This covered by our forefather’s land.
Harmony is land, the Burma’s clap from hand…..
EHRLICH: At a camp school this student was asked what she has learned in class about her people’s future.
A KAREN STUDENT: I want to see that the Karen has their own country and lives freely as they want.
EHRLICH: Independence for this small territory populated by Karen would splinter Myanmar, an already economically devastated country. No other country supports independence for the Karen minority. And international agencies certainly don’t want to be seen as supporting a guerrilla group, because, among other reasons, it would then become impossible to help refugees displaced inside Myanmar. Yet they need to help the refugees in the camps. UNHCR’s Jessen-Peterson says the UNHCR has faced this problem before.
JESSEN-PETERSEN: It is very difficult, because very often those who are fighters during the day are, as I say, the uncles and fathers in the evening. Certainly, UNHCR will not go into a place where military training is evident and visible, where arms are all over the camp, and all that. But how do you deal with it? This is clearly a state responsibility. To make sure that refugee camps are maintained as civilian humanitarian, to separate non-civilians from civilians. UNHCR evidently insists, on compliance with what are international conventions on that. And also, refuses to get involved if there is, what I would call, an obvious militarization.
KAREN SONG LEADER: [singing]
Stone me, oh fair weather
The Bible died.
The land be great for equal rights.
EHRLICH: As the situation in Myanmar demonstrates, the UNHCR faces an increasingly complicated world. Ambassador Holbrooke’s proposal to expand the organization’s mandate is just one more complication. Both supporters and critics of the proposal agree that millions of internal refugees desperately need help. Supporters argue that the UNHCR needs to make legal changes to help resolve the problem. Critics say relief agencies can do finding aid on a case-by-case basis, as they do now. In either case, however, providing aid to IDPs in faraway places will require a major shift in Western political priorities. The UN refusal to significantly help the Tutsi victims of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, for example, stemmed not from lack of legal mandate, but from a lack of political will. Jessen-Petersen says for the UNHCR to expand its role, the UN must commit a lot more money and resources.
JESSEN-PETERSEN: Before you accept additional responsibilities you want to make sure that you can deliver. You want to make sure that you are efficient. It is not enough just to accept the job because you are flattered or you were asking for more. If you are not absolutely satisfied that we can make a contribution, that we can be effective, I don’t think it would make sense.
EHRLICH: The Holbrooke proposal is currently being discussed by the US State Department to determine if it should be adopted as US policy. If it is, the proposal will be submitted for a discussion and vote in the UN later this year. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich reporting from Geneva..
PORTER: Coming up, a discussion with UN Deputy Secretary General Louise FRECHETTE.
FRECHETTE: There will be a summit, starting on the sixth of September, for three days, where we expect a very large number of heads of states and governments to come to New York, to really reflect together on what are the major challenges facing the world community; what should be the priorities of the UN; and hopefully, come out of this assembly with some real sense of direction, and perhaps some decisions on the few really important and urgent issues.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MCHUGH: When Kofi Annan became secretary-general of the United Nations in 1997, he already knew that one of his first reforms would be to create the post of deputy secretary-general. He wanted a deputy who could serve as his right-hand person at UN headquarters in New York. Common Ground producer Keith Porter recently spoke with the first ever Deputy Secretary-General, Madam Louise Frechette of Canada.
FRECHETTE: In practice, I devote a lot of my time on internal management issues and on coordination of the UN system. So many issues nowadays are complex issues that require the involvement of many parts of the UN system, especially when we think of economic and social issues, but also on some peace and security issues. Some of our big peace missions really required almost every part of the UN system to be involved. And one of my main responsibilities is to ensure that the UN system works together as a team. So very often I will come in to launch an operation, or set up a system, or resolve problems where there seems to be a disconnect, or issues that are not being attended to properly because they fall between two chairs. So my job has a big, has a lot of variety to it, if I may put it this way.
PORTER: Why wasn’t a position like this envisioned in the UN Charter to begin with?
FRECHETTE: I don’t know why at the time they didn’t think about it, but I think experience has shown that a secretary-general has to devote almost all of his time to the management of peace and security issues. The secretary-general is very much involved in crisis management. And when a big crisis erupts, like I remember some months ago in East Timor, the secretary-general was involved night and day for days on end, just on that issue, to prevent the situation from getting worse, from, to obtain agreement to deploy a force and all of that. Which leaves very little time for any secretary-general to actually invest time in internal management issues and the kind of coordination that I do. And I guess Kofi Annan, because he was from the house, knew that very well. And therefore the first thing he did when he put together his reform program was to ask the assembly to support the creation of that post.
PORTER: I have a couple of UN housekeeping questions for you. Security Council reform: we’ve seen no concrete action, and yet we see more countries like India questioning the legitimacy of the Security Council as it’s configured right now. What do we have to do? What has to happen before we can get real reform of the Security Council?
FRECHETTE: Well first of all, Security Council reform is an issue that really is in the realm of the member states themselves. So you have to ask ambassadors of the various countries then, the question that you are asking me. Because they hold the answers to the questions you are posing. But I would say this. I think there’s very clear recognition among the member states that there is change required in the Security Council, to make sure that the council reflects the realities of today rather than the realities of the post-war era. But this is also a very complex, complicated question to resolve because it does engage the interests of every single member state of the UN. There are no easy or obvious formulae. So I think there is a basic consensus that some change is required, and I think the general direction of change is also pretty well, pretty broadly supported. But the devil is in the details and to this day there hasn’t been an agreement on how to reform it and what would be a formula that would respond to the aspirations of the majority of member states in the UN.
PORTER: Earlier this year the American Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, invited US Senator Jesse Helms to come give a speech to the Security Council. First of all, I’m wondering if you think that was an appropriate use of the council. And secondly, do you think it will lead to more such invitations for members of parliaments and Congress from around the world to come address the Security Council?
FRECHETTE: Each country is represented on the council or in the General Assembly, and can choose whoever it wants to speak on its behalf. And it was an innovation for Senator Helms to address the council, but in
fact, in the General Assembly, very often a speech for a given country will be delivered by a senator or parliamentarian that is part of the delegation. So I think it’s totally appropriate. I think what was interesting in that is that Senator Helms has been a strong critic of the United Nations. He has had a number of concerns which he’s expressed very, very vocally and repeatedly. And when he came to the UN he repeated some of those concerns. But what was interesting was that there was an exchange because the other members of the Council reacted; there was, I think, on the whole a very positive and productive exchange on this. And it’s very important, I think, for the United Nations that there be good understanding in the Congress, of the United Nations, of the points of views of its various member states. And that vice-versa, that in the UN we understand clearly what are the concerns of legislators in Washington. So I think on the whole it was, it was an interesting and productive innovation.
PORTER: Recently, two of the top UN humanitarian officials in Iraq resigned, largely because they believe that the UN sanctions were distinctly damaging to the Iraqi people. In fact, one of them said that his conscience forced him to resign. What does your conscience tell you about what’s happening in Iraq.
FRECHETTE: First, as a UN official, I think my duty and the duty of my colleagues are to implement the decisions of the Security Council. The sanctions regime was voted by the Council, it continues to exist. It was
modified in very important ways, in fact recently, to permit a larger amount of humanitarian assistance to be delivered to Iraq. It has brought in some greater flexibility in the program, so our duty and our function is to implement the program. It is also our duty and our function to inform the members of the council as to the factual situations on the ground. And if you go back to the various reports that the secretary-general has submitted the council over the last several years, you will find very objective descriptions of the condition of life in Iraq. Clearly they are not, this is not easy, nobody ever thought that the sanctions would be, would not create some hardship for the people. I think we have, but we have delivered on our mandate by informing the council regularly, providing the council with objective information on the situation.
PORTER: Are you hopeful that real, effective weapons inspections will soon begin again in Iraq?
FRECHETTE: I really would not venture to predict that. I think what is important, however, is that the Council was able to finally reach some form of consensus on a new phase on this issue. I think on Iraq we have learned to take it one day at a time. So Mr. Blichs is going to join us in a few days from now.
PORTER: Hans Blichs is the new head of…
FRECHETTE: …Who is the new, who’s the new head of this monitoring and inspection commission. And we’ll take it from there.
PORTER: Another humanitarian-related question for you. Ambassador Holbrooke also reopened this issue of whether or not the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should have a mandate to serve internally displaced people as well as the original mandate to help refugees. How do you feel about that?
FRECHETTE: Well, I think that the key question there is whether we have the system and the means in place to respond adequately to the needs of the internally displaced people. One should not think that the internally displaced are totally ignored and left aside. That is not the case. In fact, the various UN organizations that work on the ground provide assistance to IDPs, internally displaced people, as well as to other war-affected people in a given country. I think the question that Ambassador Holbrooke has raised is whether the current division of labor is the most appropriate or the most effective to meet the needs of the internally displaced people. He has expressed a preference for the High Commissioner for Refugees. This will be something to be discussed by the member states.
Meanwhile I want to make it clear that with or without a direct mandate given to the High Commissioner for Refugees on the IDPs, there is an absolute commitment on the part of all the UN agencies to do the maximum for IDPs in a war situation. In fact, the community of humanitarian agencies, along with major NGOs who work with us, have in the last several months worked out clearer principles and guidelines on division of labor so as to make sure that the needs of these people are attended to.
PORTER: The Millennium Assembly will be celebrated by the United Nations in September of this year. Tell our audience what the Millennium Assembly is.
FRECHETTE: Well, the Millennium, round numbers are, often provide an opportunity or pretext to look into the future. And that’s what we want to do with the Millennium Assembly. In fact, there will be a summit,
starting on the sixth of September, for three days, where we expect a very large number of heads of states and governments to come to New York, to really reflect together on what are the major challenges facing the world community, what should be the priorities of the UN, and hopefully, come out of this assembly with some real sense of direction, and perhaps some decisions on the few really important and urgent issues.
PORTER: There have been so many Canadians who have served in posts of distinction in the United Nations. And first of all, I’m wondering why that is. Why it seems like this is where we sort of draw upon the resources from Canada so often. And I know a lot of people must ask you, “Well, Madam Frechette, will there ever be a female secretary-general?” And I want to ask you, “Will there ever be a Canadian secretary-general?”
FRECHETTE: Oh, god, these are very difficult questions! [laughing] I certainly hope that one day in the future there will be a female secretary-general. As a UN official I can express no preference with terms of nationality.
PORTER: All right, now…
FRECHETTE: But as a woman I can express a preference! [laughing]
PORTER: Madam Frechette, thank you so much for your time.
FRECHETTE: Thank you.
MCHUGH: That is Deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, Louise Frechette. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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