Commissioner-General’s Speech on the Human Security Conference

31 October 2011

CPRS Turkey and Kadir Has University
Istanbul, Turkey
27 October 2011

Vice Chancellor, Professor Ozerdem, Distinguished Guests and Colleagues,

I thank CPRS Turkey, Kadir Has University, and the other organisers for the invitation to speak here today and for contributing to this important event. Addressing human security is vital in finding peace and it is appropriate that this conference be held in Turkey, a pivotal country with increasing influence in a region where security is complex and fragile; a region however where political calculations far too regularly trump the rights, hopes, and aspirations of the people. You will appreciate that this is especially important from the point of view of my organization, UNRWA, the United Nations agency providing protection and assistance to Palestine refugees.

It is sadly appropriate to also take this opportunity to express sincere condolences to the people of Turkey and to the families of those who lost dear ones in the earthquake a few days ago. May the dead rest in peace, and may the survivors find the strength and support to rebuild their lives and homes.

I must admit – on behalf of the organisers – that I am a somewhat unusual choice of speaker to open this conference. But as the keynote addresses will be delivered by much more competent experts, I see it as my role to provide you at least with some food for thought from the point of view of a simple practitioner of human security, and from the perspective of my personal experiences.

My first overseas assignment was as a young volunteer with an NGO working on the Thai – Cambodian border back in 1984. During my first week, I was in a field hospital built for refugees fleeing the war in Cambodia and a young mother lay before me – helpless – as her baby son died of malaria in her arms.

I had prepared myself for the overall situation. I had read books about the Indochinese wars; studied reports about refugee camps; spoken with people who had served in similar situations.

And yet nothing prepared me for that experience and my first full and tangible realisation of what conflict and forced displacement concretely mean for people’s lives. How they turn them inside out; destroy their health; their livelihoods; their relationships; their dignity and their hopes. As I watched the mother’s emotions move between rage at her predicament and those who had caused it, and overwhelming despair at her son’s death, I also somehow understood that real peace would not be achieved until that tragic pain – her pain – had been addressed and until the lives of those sharing her plight had been rebuilt.

It was at that moment that one thing became clear to me: I wanted to try and deal with crises as my life’s work, but I wanted to do so from the human side of the spectrum. If I had been using today’s language, I would have said that I wanted to deal with human security.

Humanitarians, of which I am one, are experts in one critical and fundamental aspect of human security. Humanitarian work is focused on people and meeting their most basic needs in situations of crisis. We, however, deal only with ‘short term’ human security in situations where it is critically and immediately threatened, hoping and expecting others to address the political and longer term developmental challenges early and decisively to bring human insecurity to an end.

My main experience has been working for refugees and addressing crises in a variety of places. I was privileged to work for some years with the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, who – as you know – has done valuable work on human security. Like her, I believe that refugees are a very useful lens through which to analyse human security issues. Why would someone leave their home, job, and education, and make a decision to either abandon their family or expose them to hazards and dangers; why would anybody embrace a life of complete insecurity unless they felt even more gravely insecure in their own homes and countries?

Refugees tell us first and foremost that, if crises are to be addressed effectively, the human element of war must be appropriately tackled. I thought therefore that I would use the refugee angle to share with you five thoughts.

First, human security issues are complex, and crises that cause them must be dealt with through a variety of actors and interventions whose timing and sequencing are key. Regrettably, in my experience, the synergy and synchrony of these crucial elements do not always work well.

I lived in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2005 and helped coordinate the return of millions of refugees after decades in exile. The end of the Taliban regime in 2001 was a good opportunity to build peace in that country. One could very well argue that the Bonn Agreement in 2001 was a reasonably successful, even if imperfect, political milestone towards peace, rightly complemented by the international community’s quick focus on humanitarian needs. Funds flowed rapidly and substantively into urgent interventions such as a crucial back to school initiative, food security programmes and large immunisation campaigns, helping shape an environment of basic human security, and thus paving the way for another key operation, the voluntary return of refugees.

But while these proved successful interventions, they were not followed by a similarly rapid investment in post-conflict rehabilitation, reconstruction and development to complete or build upon the Bonn agreement’s initial achievements. Resources invested in things that make human security durable and predictable - roads and electricity for example, but also an effective police and a trustworthy judiciary – were slow, late, and inadequate. There were other factors, of course, but these failures undoubtedly contributed to the deterioration in the conditions in the country, and to the weakening of the sense of human security. I remember speaking to returnees who felt insecure again, and started doubting their decision to repatriate.

Second, human security lends itself to dangerous political manipulation from a completely different angle, especially in situations of crisis. In particular, crises involving refugee flows highlight a somehow paradoxical aspect of human security: the ability of this concept to be exploited for political means.

The fear of strangers has coexisted with humanity since time immemorial. In the complex contemporary situations of population movements that include refugees and illegal migrants, however, politicians stressing the threats to employment and safety – particularly in Europe, but elsewhere as well – have become a very common feature. The result of this skilful manipulation of feelings of insecurity has actually been further insecurity for all: for refugees and migrants, subjected to hostility, marginalization, deportation, and worse; and for receiving communities, whose fears are aroused in order to gain political support.

The (correct) perception that “strangers” – refugees, migrants – can make contributions to societies and communities hosting them, adding to their prosperity and their culture, has unfortunately little or no electoral traction. This phenomenon highlights the ambiguities that can surround the notion of human security, and it is important to counter it in the strongest and most effective manner.

Third, addressing the human element of conflict is crucial also in finding solutions. Let me use the refugee lens again. The act of fleeing war and conflict in itself causes insecurity both on a personal level and in communities, countries, and regions. In fact, refugee movements are both a consequence and a factor of human insecurity. Thus, it is only when they are solved that conditions for a real and lasting peace can be achieved and those affected can move on with a future that is theirs to build. Anything less than this leaves refugees in a state of limbo, uncertainty and continued insecurity that reverberate beyond refugees themselves.

In places where comprehensive peace agreements have been fully implemented, including durable solutions for refugees, peace has been more robust, and has offered better opportunities for development and prosperity. This lesson has been demonstrated in many situations such as with the Indochinese boat people and other refugees in Southeast Asia, in several countries of Central America towards the end of the Cold War, and in Mozambique after the civil war, just to name a few examples.

Fourth, the definition of security and insecurity, is an important feature which merits attention. Here I would be remiss of course if I did not mention the refugee situation which I have been confronted with in the past few years, that of the Palestinians. Many human security lessons can be drawn from their plight. They are part of a conflict which is correctly presented as a threat to security – but this definition is almost invariably partial: a conflict threatening the security of Israel and of other governments in the region; threatening regional security; even threatening global security. These portrayals of the conflict do not encourage political actors to look at its deeper consequences, those affecting all the people involved – Israelis and Palestinians alike – but especially those, such as the Palestine refugees, who are the most exposed and affected. Security is delinked from real lives, and this is nowhere more evident than in the dynamics of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory.

Human security in a divided region can only be achieved if it is shared, but – obvious as it is – this basic truth is conveniently ignored. Instead of trying to tackle comprehensively the causes of insecurity, the issue is thus addressed selectively – with the result that measures aimed at protecting one people often affect the security of the other. The wall built by Israel and splitting Palestinian land is a true symbol, in my opinion, of how human security should not be addressed, not only because it runs against the tenets of international law, but also because it is a factor of profound, dramatic insecurity for thousands of Palestinians cut off from their land, services and families.

Through our work with refugees we at UNRWA are well placed to assess how this conflict and the absence of human security impact their everyday life. A Palestinian farmer or businessman in the West Bank is often forced to spend more time navigating checkpoints than tending to his fields or conducting his business. A mother from Gaza has to face a crisis that is often ill-defined as humanitarian, but which is in fact much greater. It encompasses all aspects of life – her savings, her family relations, her education and health, her drinking water, her sanity, and every other aspect of life as she is constrained in one of the world’s most densely populated areas with 1.5 million others. The profound insecurity generated by the occupation of Palestinian land and people is not addressed, thus making peace much more difficult.

And finally, and by the same token, Palestine refugees, now approaching nearly five million in the region, are often only partially or even superficially presented to the international community as a ‘final status issue’ – an abstract political and politicised matter – rather than as people in exile; a painful and decades-long exile away from their homes, their land, their history, with no solution in sight.

What is frequently forgotten is that they represent the human consequence of a protracted conflict which must also be addressed if peace is to be achieved. This brings me to my fifth and final point. It is remarkable that over the long years of the so-called “peace process”, little or no consultation has occurred with refugee communities about their future. This is a significant exclusion, and one that could eventually prove fatal to peace efforts, especially at a time where the “Arab Spring” has made it impossible for political leaders, finally, to ignore the voice of the people. Because while the conflict must of course be solved in the political domain, a lasting solution will be impossible if it does not rest on understanding, acceptance, participation and finally ownership by all the people affected by the conflict itself – including in particular one of its most important constituencies, the refugees.

In your important deliberations in the next few days, you will look at many variations on the themes which I have touched upon – but the core messages, I believe, are the same: efforts towards peace must take into account human security, which means that they must respond to people’s needs, tackle the consequences of conflict in their lives, and bring those affected into the search for solutions. As we have heard, one of the aims of this conference is to focus on Turkey – for Turkey, as a regional power, to focus on human security as a conflict resolution lens is, I believe, a worthy challenge, with Palestinians and Palestine refugees at its heart. We are certainly ready to be a partner in this effort.

Today, nearly thirty years on, I still think of that young mother on the Thai – Cambodian border, and a measure of pain and loss I can only try to imagine. If she has survived her ordeal, she must be a woman in her middle age, perhaps with children and grandchildren, living in a Cambodian village. I often wonder what happened to her after the death of her son on that fateful day; how – and if – she was able to move past her extraordinary suffering; what support she received outside the walls of that field hospital. Was she – and the countless like her – provided with the basics? Did the peace process allow her to rebuild her life following the war and terror that drove her from everything she knew, and the pain that she encountered while in exile? Was she able, even in small ways, to influence and participate in the process?

Peace has now come to Cambodia, but did it truly reach her?

These are the questions, ladies and gentlemen. I wish you a very good conference.

Background Information

UNRWA is confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growth in the number of registered Palestine refugees, the extent of their vulnerability and their deepening poverty. UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support has been outpaced by the growth in needs. As a result, the UNRWA Programme Budget, which supports the delivery of core essential services, operates with a large shortfall. UNRWA encourages all Member States to work collectively to exert all possible efforts to fully fund the Agency’s Programme Budget. UNRWA emergency programmes and key projects, also operating with large shortfalls, are funded through separate funding portals.

UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just and lasting solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, protection and microfinance.

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