An official website of the United States government

61st Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee – U.S. Government Plenary Statement
October 4, 2010

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

Geneva, Switzerland
October 4, 2010

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

I’m very pleased to be in Geneva once again leading the United States delegation to the Executive Committee of UNHCR. I am grateful for the High Commissioner’s statement laying out the broad scope both of the accomplishments of UNHCR over the past year, and of the challenges that lie ahead.

As we move forward collectively to consolidate those accomplishments and address those challenges, I believe we must do so with protection directly in our sights. Indeed, the protection of the most vulnerable – helping to advance their dignity and their rights — must be at the center of everything we do. This goal, of saving and safeguarding human life, is not only a moral imperative, but helps to avoid despair and desperation that fuels discontent and prevents reconciliation in societies in conflict.

Because this protection perspective must inform everything we do, allow me to lay out a few basic propositions that inform our thinking and our engagement with UNHCR and with others on protection.

First, it is essential that humanitarians embrace broader and more integrated perspectives on protection, both conceptually and operationally. Whether or not protection has ever been the exclusive domain of the specially mandated agencies such as UNHCR, protection is now a collective responsibility that involves vigilance and action by the full range of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, international organizations, donor governments, and hosting governments. Serious and sustained engagement of UNHCR with other parts of the international system – from peacekeepers to those negotiating political agreements to end conflicts which create suffering – has never been more important. And while first asylum and non-refoulement must remain at the heart of international refugee protection efforts, we must all rise to other protection challenges as well, such as combating gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse, promoting freedom of movement, security and rights related to personal status, and many others. And humanitarians must weave a protective approach more deeply into the design of the programs relating to food, shelter, health, sanitation, among others – what some call the mainstreaming of protection. The challenge is to develop and further refine best practices that seek to empower local communities in such efforts.

Secondly, more ambitious objectives related to protection must be matched by sustained and measureable efforts to monitor and evaluate progress – including efforts that more clearly identify protection gaps that traditional humanitarian providers will be unable to fill in the absence of stronger action in the political and security realm.

Third, we must recognize that a strengthened commitment to protection – to saving and safeguarding lives – requires a willingness to engage in active humanitarian diplomacy and in both private and public advocacy. From South Asia to Central Africa to North America, humanitarian diplomacy and advocacy has enhanced the quality of protection efforts on the ground. More importantly, it keeps faith with those vulnerable people whom UNHCR is mandated to seek to protect. As a U.S. Government official, for example, I don’t always relish being questioned – or even challenged – on policies or actions we are taking, but we must champion the right and responsibility of our partners to play this role.

One final proposition is that all of us must strive to practice at home what we preach in international forums like this one. For many donor governments, this relates to our policies on temporary protection, rescue at sea, treatment of asylum seekers on our territory, and many other issues. For refugee receiving countries, this often means gauging policy on safe haven and the appropriateness of returns not on the realities of geopolitics, but rather on a fair assessment of whether conditions in the country of origin, whether Burma or the Darfur region of Sudan, have changed sufficiently to enable people to return in safety.

On this general issue of practicing at home what we preach abroad, the United States has, over the past year, taken special interest in the U.S. refugee resettlement program – to ensure that are providing adequate support for the 75,000 or so refugees we have been admitting annually. And, in fact, we found we could do more to help. Despite a very difficult operating environment – and with the generous support of our Congress – we were able to double the amount of assistance provided by the Department of State to incoming refugees in the first several months after their arrivals. This increase has amounted to about $70 million on an annual basis.

Mr. Chairman, informed by these general observations on protection, allow me to turn to four critical issues that impact UNHCR’s ambitious agenda – and its capacity to continue to play a meaningful role in protection.

First, we must effectively consolidate the budgetary reforms initiated by the High Commissioner that are beginning to take root. UNHCR’s efforts to present real needs should be matched by the resources necessary to address them are essential if the agency is to fulfill its protection mandate. Providing protection takes resources – both financial and human. While I recognize that UNHCR’s global needs-based budget has unfolded during difficult economic times, I am also mindful that we are here this week in Geneva to champion and support the world’s most vulnerable – the persecuted, the conflict-affected, and stateless persons. Thus, while frustration and donor fatigue are understandable, they are not good options as they contrast with the progress humanitarians have made in alleviating the suffering of tens of millions of people in recent years.

There’s much more we can do to advance this noble cause. For this reason, I’m pleased to report that the Obama Administration, with the strong endorsement of our Congress, has augmented our support for UNHCR. We have just concluded our 2010 fiscal year in which we provided UNHCR with over $700 million – our largest annual contribution in history.

Second, better coordination of humanitarian assistance is essential to better protection. Our commitment to UNHCR must be matched by a deep commitment to enhance the tools for coordination of the proliferation of humanitarian responders who are trying to safeguard lives and create the conditions for sustainable recovery around the world. We are at a critical crossroads – facing humanitarian emergencies of historical proportions. Leadership is essential. We count on UNHCR to do its part, consistent with its mandate, resources, and guidance from Member States – in building the system for international humanitarian response. And we look forward to working with the new UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos on these critical issues.

Third, securing safe environments in which to provide protection is becoming more and more difficult. Relief workers embody the universal truth that we are at our best when we come together to help the most vulnerable among us. Time and again, this ideal puts humanitarian workers on the front lines of crises, from the earthquake in Haiti to the floods in Pakistan or any of the conflicts that dot the globe. I am painfully aware of the difficulties of reconciling the need to ensure the safety of both local and international staff with UNHCR’s mandate to protect and assist the most vulnerable, especially in highly insecure areas. But even as we do our utmost to protect humanitarian workers, security postures must shift from considering when to leave a situation to figuring out how to stay. We look forward to working with UNHCR as it develops its efforts in this area.

And finally, last year I spoke of my government’s commitment in word and deed to promote active efforts to address protracted refugee situations – one of the most compelling humanitarian challenges confronting governments around the world. Millions of refugees – mostly women and children – have lived in exile for more than a decade in 30 protracted situations around the world. Beyond the humanitarian imperative, progress on protracted refugee situations serves the interests of international peace and security. For example, when we effectively support assistance, education and livelihood opportunities for refugees in neighboring countries as well as for the communities that host them, we promote cooperation among these groups and enhance the ultimate capacity of the refugees to contribute to development in their countries of origin when return becomes possible. Strategic and sustained international engagement in a focused set of protracted situations will promote durable solutions, or at least better situations, for these refugees. We are now engaging in a strengthened U.S. effort on protracted refugee situations – and we look forward to working with UNHCR and Member States in the months ahead to bring durable solutions to many millions of people.

In closing, let me express my government’s deep gratitude to the staff of UNHCR for their contributions to the cause we all serve: the protection of refugees and the displaced – a responsibility for which we are proud and privileged to support.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.