60th Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee

U.S. Government Plenary Statement

Eric Schwartz,
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration

Geneva, Switzerland
September 29, 2009

Mr. Chairman, Mr. High Commissioner, distinguished delegates of governments and civil society,

I’m very pleased to be in Geneva leading the United States delegation to the 60th Session of the Executive Committee of UNHCR. We reaffirm UNHCR’s noble purposes, we share the organization’s objectives, and we believe that UNHCR is heading in the right direction in terms of its mandate and its programs.

Mr. Chairman,

As this is the first time I have represented the United States in this forum, I would like briefly to articulate our vision for engagement in international humanitarian response. In short, for the United States and for other governments, we believe that protection of persons around the world who are victims of persecution or armed conflict should be at the center of foreign policy and national security decision-making. Most importantly, there is a moral imperative – and the simple policy goal of saving and safeguarding lives. Moreover, our commitment to smart, generous, and impartial engagement in international humanitarian response promotes reconciliation, security, and well-being in circumstances where despair and misery threaten regional stability, peaceful development, and the security interests of many of the governments represented in this forum.

For policy makers involved in humanitarian response, these commitments mean that we – and our colleagues in UNHCR – must not only be there to provide assistance to the displaced after conflict has emerged, but must also engage in the prior discussions and policy decisions on peace and security issues that so affect vulnerable populations. We must ensure that their interests are a central part of the policy debate, and that the root causes of displacement are addressed. Whether the issue is the development of new peacekeeping mandates in areas of conflict and instability, international efforts to pursue justice for victims of abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law, or the requirements of post-conflict transitions, the humanitarian community must be at the table when decisions of doctrine and strategy are made and implemented.

Our vision of responsible humanitarian response also includes a critical role for humanitarian diplomacy, a vital component of protection. We strongly support UNHCR efforts to engage governments – donor governments as well as those hosting refugee and displaced populations – on fundamental issues of principle, such as freedom of movement, minimum standards relating to food, shelter and health, and protection against violence to refugees and displaced persons.

My government is concerned about situations in which these principles are at risk, three of which I will highlight today. In Sri Lanka, nearly 300,000 persons are still confined to camps many months after the conflict has ended, with little clear indication of when they will be permitted their freedom. In Kenya, the continued influx of thousands of Somalis each month has created conditions in the Dadaab camps that demand urgent attention, additional land, and swift efforts to expand capacity. And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), widespread gender-based violence that has become entangled with conflict has created a climate of fear that has only increased the despair faced by hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and refugees.

In each of these situations, the United States is deeply engaged with host governments to improve conditions. I was in Sri Lanka in July, and hope to travel to Kenya and the DRC next month. In the DRC, I will be following a recent visit of Secretary of State Clinton, who has reaffirmed that the protection of women and children will be a major priority for the United States Government. We are already providing generous levels of funding for assistance in Sri Lanka, Kenya and the DRC, and are prepared to do much more to support basic protection principles.

The United States Government is also guided by the realization that we must do better in our own efforts to afford protection: that we must seek to practice at home what we preach abroad. For example, the worldwide recession has created serious and substantial problems for newly resettled refugees in the United States, and we are determined to enhance our own efforts to ease this very difficult transition and improve the integration of refugees to whom we offer resettlement.

Mr. Chairman,

In looking towards 2010 and beyond, UNHCR faces an ambitious agenda, with areas of growth that appropriately reflect fundamental protection and assistance objectives.

First, we must effectively implement the UN system-wide determination that UNHCR should advise and support protection not only for those who have sought refuge from persecution or conflict by crossing borders, but also for those who have been displaced as a result of conflict within their countries of origin. Vulnerable populations with similar protection requirements merit similar attention and concern from the international community.

Second, we must now make genuine progress on resolving protracted refugee situations. Nearly 10 million people – over 60 percent of the world’s refugees – have been displaced for more than five years, and approximately eight million have lived as refugees for more than a decade.

I am pleased to inform you that the United States expects to make available at least $400 million next year to provide assistance and promote durable solutions for protracted refugee situations. We will be undertaking a more focused effort on this compelling issue, and look forward to working with other governments to build on recent successes in local integration, voluntary returns, and expanded third country resettlement – as well as to undertake sustained efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts that create and perpetuate displacement. We strongly believe in the Protection Conclusions Process and are confident that we will reach consensus on this year’s Conclusion on Protracted Refugee Situations.

As I stated earlier in my remarks, effective protection for conflict-affected women and children is a priority for my government, and we strongly support UNHCR efforts on prevention of and response to gender-based violence. We call on UNHCR to engage with EXCOM members as well as NGOs on the components and implementation of its new three-year strategy on gender-based violence.

Mr. Chairman,

Allow me to address briefly institutional issues that are critical to UNHCR effectiveness in humanitarian operations. We are keenly interested in the reform efforts outlined by the High Commissioner to better organize oversight over program implementation and we will monitor UNHCR’s performance closely. It is hard to overestimate the importance of effective oversight, which is critical to ensure the quality of UNHCR field efforts to protect vulnerable people from sexual abuse, from recruitment as child soldiers, and from a life in constant fear for themselves and their families.

We are also committed to strengthening protection for humanitarian workers, and mourn the loss of those individuals from UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations who have sacrificed their lives in service to others. We want UNHCR to ensure that staff security includes the concerns of UNHCR local staff, who are often the primary providers of assistance or even the sole point of contact with displaced populations.

And finally, let me take note of the Structural and Management Change process launched by the Deputy High Commissioner nearly three years ago, which has been markedly successful. We congratulate the Deputy High Commissioner for a job well done, and one which will require the continued strong commitment by UNHCR. And we thank him for his dedicated service as he moves on to other challenges.

In closing, I express my government’s deep appreciation to the staff of UNHCR, for the contributions to the cause we all serve: the protection of refugees and the displaced – and promotion of the solutions that allow them to lead their lives in freedom and with dignity.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.