Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the 21st Meeting of the Standing Committee

As delivered

Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This Standing Committee meeting will be a somewhat different one from those of previous years. Firstly, it will remain issue-specific, in the absence of the Note on International Protection to frame a discussion of a more general nature. You will remember it was agreed, with 2001 being the 50th anniversary year of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, that the Executive Committee should turn particular attention to refugee protection as the overriding theme of the fifty-second session, and that the note should serve as the document to inform the debate in October. Secondly, as a result and because of the Global Consultations meeting which will follow this week, less time has been allocated for the protection deliberations of this Standing Committee meeting. Hence the need for a more selective introductory comment from me. In the following remarks I want to do three things:

Update you on the Global consultations process, with some reflections on its achievements to this point;
Offer a brief comment on the significance of the other two issues on the agenda, leaving their formal introduction to my colleagues; and
Bring to your attention a protection problem of broad and growing concern, together with some pointers as to how we are considering responding.

Global Consultations

Let me begin with the Global Consultations process. It has proved both the ambitious and the interesting exercise we expected it to be. It has certainly generated, to date at least, a dialogue on protection among a wider group of States and, within States, among a broader range of interlocutors. It has also refocused interest and enthusiasm – including within UNHCR – on a number of cross-cutting protection concerns and aroused renewed interest in building partnerships to tackle them effectively. In this sense it is our assessment that, as it was intended, the Consultations are making a positive contribution to promoting understanding of protection issues and a willingness, on all sides, to cooperate better to handle them. Alone the agenda for the Consultations has concerted thinking on what are the main dilemmas, how they are commonly experienced and who are the partners to work with. There are already ideas on the table for some activities that might be pursued to address problems that are central within the analytic frame of the Consultations. By crystallizing the issues and recommending follow-up action, the Consultations will usefully contribute to the development of an Agenda for Protection for the coming years.

The second track of expert discussions is offering insights into legal and jurisprudential developments. We need to reflect further on the utility of making these a more integral part of the Agenda for Protection. They will in any case find their place, since we are committed to distilling these insights into a set of UNHCR guidelines to complement our Handbook on Criteria for the Determination of Refugee Status. The updating of positions in the Handbook has already been identified, by a number of you, as an activity on the international protection agenda.

Of course we have all been feeling our way with the Global Consultations process to date. It can only benefit from participants taking more collective ownership in the product. By this I mean we would like to see as many States and non-governmental partners as possible stretching beyond their immediate concerns, creatively to suggest new protection-driven activities. For our part we have already seen the need to make some adjustments to parts of the process, for example as regards the expert roundtables, to ensure the best scope for balanced involvement and output.

Just a brief overview now on where we are with the three tracks of the Consultations. Invitations for the first track event, the Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the 1951 Convention and/or 1967 Protocol, which will be held in Geneva on 12 December, were dispatched in early April to all States Parties. In addition, all other UN Member States have been invited as observers, alongside UN, other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations that participate in Executive Committee meetings and related consultations. We have received a number of confirmations of participation. Nevertheless a number are still outstanding so I use this opportunity to encourage an early reply to the invitation letter of 12 April.

Switzerland, as co-host of the Ministerial Meeting and a State Party, has set up an Advisory Group of States Parties, which held its first meeting on 15 June. The purpose of the Advisory Group is to facilitate preparations for the preparatory conference planned for September of this year. The Ministerial Meeting will be an opportunity for States Parties to recognize and solemnly reaffirm, in the declaration to be adopted, that the basis of the Convention, the values it embodies and the specific framework for protection it set in place, are timeless, ever more valid and demanding of full respect and conscientious implementation. The meeting will also give participating ministers an opportunity to share their vision of new directions for refugee protection and how to improve international governance of refugee problems. We hope that States will use this 50th anniversary commemoration to accede to the Convention and Protocol. In this connection, I am pleased to announce that Belarus is in the process of formalizing its accession both instruments.

Turning to track two, the first Expert Roundtable, co-organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was held in Lisbon on 3 and 4 May. It focused on the exclusion clauses contained in Article 1F and the cessation clauses in Article 1C. The rigorous application of the exclusion clauses is basic to the integrity of individual asylum systems. The Lisbon meeting placed emphasis on contemporary understandings of behavior at the core of exclusion, while promoting in tandem a sensitive application which takes into account developments in international law, notably in the fields of international criminal law, human rights law and international humanitarian law. As to cessation, the Lisbon participants tended to concur with prevailing UNHCR guidelines, albeit that a need was recognized for their updating and revision. More active and flexible use of the cessation clauses was promoted, including through their more directly targeted application.

The next expert roundtable will be held in Cambridge on 9 and 10 July, with the support of the Lauterpacht Research Centre for International Law. The discussions will centre on the principle of non-refoulement, set out in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention, as well as on UNHCR's supervisory responsibility under Article 35. Background papers on both subjects are available on UNHCR's Global Consultations website. The discussion on the why's and the how's of making implementation of the Convention and Protocol more effective should in turn feed into the Ministerial Meeting's reflection on the challenges of better implementation. Most important will be the mechanisms in this regard that may be discussed. The Cambridge roundtable will be followed by another in San Remo in early September and one in November here in Geneva.

Mr. Chairman, turning to track three, you have received a report on the March meeting, which will be considered later this week, as well as the projected follow up. You will find the latter in Annex II of conference room paper EC/51/SC/CRP.12.

I do not intend to dwell on the forthcoming third track meeting. Suffice to repeat our concern that the debate be as specific as possible and that it focus as much on commitments and actions called for from States as from UNHCR. In this connection, and with a view to promoting approaches sensitive to situations on the ground, five regional meetings have been held to date in Pretoria, Ottawa, Macau, Budapest and San José. The regional meetings have by and large demonstrated their value in correcting the perspective. Of particular importance to the third track meeting later this week, the Ottawa regional meeting examined interception in State practice and considered ways of incorporating refugee protection safeguards into interception measures. In this sense it took proposals an important step further from consideration in the Standing Committee last year. The Macau meeting was particularly significant in that it took place in a region where few States have acceded to the Convention and Protocol. It was therefore quite encouraging that State participants expressly recognized the need to strengthen their capacity to address refugee needs, within the framework of basic refugee protection principles, with UNHCR's role in providing expertise and support also being positively recognized. The Budapest meeting, held in early June, focused on the safe third country concept. Particularly interesting was the reflection given to the impact of its use on States where asylum structures are being consolidated. The recommendations of the meeting will hopefully contribute to a more harmonized approach to the safe third country notion.

The San José meeting was linked more to the second than to the third track of the Consultations. The focus was on comparing UNHCR's supervisory role under Article 35 of the Convention to that played by the inter-American human rights bodies in supervising regional human rights instruments. Its conclusions and recommendations will be made part of the discussion on implementation to take place in Cambridge. The reports of all of these regional meetings, or executive summaries thereof, will be available to participants in the next Global Consultations meeting this week.

In all tracks of the Global Consultations process, we are making efforts to associate both NGOs and refugees. As you know, UNHCR now has an NGO liaison officer for the consultations, deployed by ICVA. Her role is to ease the two-way flow of information between UNHCR and NGOs regarding all tracks, with the understanding that NGOs will continue to play their traditional lobbying role outside this mechanism. As for the refugee perspective, refugees made a substantial contribution to the International Conference on the Reception and Integration of Resettled Refugees held in Sweden in late April. The Refugee Parliament convened by the French National Assembly in Paris on 16 June assembled more than 500 refugees in a moving ceremony. They adopted the Paris Appeal, addressing a strong plea to States to respect and fully implement the 1951 Convention. Last week, UNHCR held consultations with refugee women that provoked a direct and lively dialogue on issues within the purview of the Global Consultations, including gender-based persecution, the civilian nature of asylum and the interface between migration and asylum. The concerns of the women were actual and immediate. They will find their proper place in the agenda for the third track discussion specific to protection of refugee women, scheduled for 2002. It is our hope, as well, that one of the refugee women participants will be able directly to address the forthcoming 3rd Track discussion later this week to present some of the main themes coming out of this Consultations. We are pleased that this can be accommodated on the agenda, in the absence of any foreseen difficulties by delegations.


Turning now to statelessness and document EC/51/SC/CRP.13, the main point I would like to underline is that, for UNHCR, this portfolio has become an increasingly demanding one. Our promotional activities have borne some positive results, including nine accessions to the 1954 Statelessness Convention and four to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Clearly, though, there is a way to go in extending the reach of these instruments, with only 53 states party to the first instrument and 23 to the second. What is also clear is that the problem of lack of an effective nationality is one that goes beyond better promotion of standards or international instruments. It is a very operational challenge, it knows no geographic boundaries and it impacts disproportionally on women and children, as the conference room paper makes clear. There is a need for more partners with UNHCR on statelessness issues, including in the non-government community. We all have a shared interest here. Statelessness problems can be not only extremely difficult and sensitive ones for countries to deal with, but they can also have very serious, even tragic, consequences for the individuals concerned. They can be key precursors to a displacement situation and a refugee outflow, as well as a product, often intended, of both. A recent evaluation of UNHCR's work in the field of statelessness has recommended a systematic expansion of our activities in all regions, so that we can meet needs on the ground, but also governments' expectations of us. One important limiting factor will, though, remain resources, for our financial situation has allowed us to have only two posts in UNHCR with a dedicated focus on the problem.


Mr. Chairman, allow me also a few remarks on resettlement. This is a protection tool, a durable solution and a responsibility sharing mechanism in which, clearly, hopes and expectations are being actively re-invested. This, in turn, requires of all of us some careful reflection about basics. A number of them, both operational and broader policy issues, are flagged in the information note EC/51/SC/INF.2 before you.

As the note makes clear, resettlement needs to be strengthened. This being said, it is only one of the available tools of protection within the wider governance structure for refugees. It cannot stand alone. Nor is it a panacea for all problems besetting asylum systems today, particularly those related to widespread illegal immigration. It would be inappropriate, in UNHCR's view, to distort the functions of resettlement by planning it around managing migration, particularly where this would be at the expense of the right to seek asylum. It is critical to the integrity of the international protection system that pursuing resettlement and preserving asylum work in tandem, not against each other.

As a protection mechanism, resettlement of refugees should not be approached in too discretionary a manner on the basis of considerations unrelated to protection needs or other relevant humanitarian considerations, such as family ties. There must not only be sufficient places available for the resettlement of refugees, but also systems and procedures which are responsive in addressing the increasing diversity of resettlement needs, including in mass influx situations, as well as which help to relieve the strain on countries of refuge. This was the subject of some discussion at the March meeting of the Global Consultations and again at the resettlement integration conference.

I would like to say a word about that meeting, the International Conference on the Reception and Integration of Resettled Refugees, generously hosted in April by the Government of Sweden. The Conference provided a welcome opportunity to hear the experiences of resettled refugees. It forged stronger ties, both formal and informal, between established and newer resettlement countries. It also endorsed proposals which should contribute to the more successful integration of resettled refugees. These are annexed to conference room paper EC/51/SC/INF.2. As a concrete outcome, UNHCR will be issuing a reception and integration addendum to the widely used UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, to reflect the conclusions and recommendations of the conference.


I would like to finish on a discrete protection issue. As I mentioned, the forthcoming second track expert meeting of the Global Consultations process will consider a paper on Article 33 of the Convention, the cardinal protection article of the Convention, dealing as it does with the most essential of protection principles – the principle of non-refoulement. It is on the agenda of the Consultations not least because the article is respected as much in the breach as in the observance. There are many manifestations of forced return, ranging from readily identifiable cross-border expulsion to less visible successive returns from one airport to the next. We felt that the time had come to submit the scope of application of this article, and of the principle in general, to rigorous analysis. Our interest here is not an academic one.

In our assessment the time has come for a more concerted international campaign to try and reverse this trend. We foresee a number of measures in this regard, which include but go beyond the forthcoming expert meeting. An active public information campaign and stepped up training efforts targeting border police, the military and government officials would be among them. Another measure would be a more explicit, predictable and incremental public UNHCR response to documented instances which suggest a pattern of refoulement in a given country. We would welcome your further ideas during this session as to how UNHCR – or indeed NGOs and States themselves – can promote more scrupulous respect for the non-refoulement principle. We hope to be able to rely on your full and committed support for this campaign.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.