Address to the Canadian Council for Refugees
Meeting in Ottawa
May 29, 2003
Amnesty International Canada
Let me begin with the obvious. Refugees have rights. No fewer rights than anyone, anywhere. An obvious proposition, but one that is misunderstood, overlooked, and blatantly trampled in every corner of this planet. I recall, years back, interviewing a Congolese refugee in Tanzania. She described difficult and harrowing conditions in a refugee camp in the east of Tanzania, where she had been before fleeing to the capital, Dar es Salaam. I asked if she had approached UNHCR or foreign embassies to explore the possibility of resettlement. I still remember her response: j’ai aucun droit à demander ça. I have no right to ask that. No right. Of course she did. Every right.
Our refugee work - be it as, with, or on behalf of, refugees - is all about one thing: human rights. And I have to tell you folks, in the global struggle to uphold human rights, the campaign to ensure all rights, for all people, including refugees: these are troubling and challenging times.
Before looking directly at the refugee side of things lets begin with a quick tour of the global human rights landscape. The past 20 months have brought the attacks of September 11th and a number of other harrowing acts of terrorist violence around the world. These attacks have unleashed a new campaign of counter-terrorism worldwide which has further eroded basic rights and offered a convenient repressive screen for governments around the world. Using the rhetoric of fighting terror governments from Colombia to Zimbabwe, the U.S. to China, have brazenly and callously decided to ignore international standards or have disguised ethnic, religious and political crackdowns, confident that if they talk about security, the world will complain little about arbitrary arrests, killings and torture.
The past 20 months have also brought war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Wars which we were assured were fought at least partially in the name of human rights and liberation. That commitment to human rights and liberation seems, no surprise, not to have translated into any noticeable concern for many other besieged corners of the world. The wars themselves were marked by human rights violations committed by all parties have left behind legacies of insecurity and disorder, vacuums of lawlessness within which human rights abuses multiply. This is particularly glaring with respect to Afghanistan, which does not currently stand as a particularly hopeful model of reconstruction. Quite clearly it seems that the world’s interest in Afghanistan, last year’s poster child, has begun to drop precipitously and consequently, insecurity and human rights abuses mount (none of which though has stopped a number of governments from moving quickly to aggressively encourage and even force refugees to return to the country.
And while the world has focused almost entirely on terrorism and counter-terrorism, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during these past 20 months; forgotten conflicts, forgotten human rights tragedies have continued to unfold in many corners of the world. In places like Colombia, in Chechnya, Liberia & Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Aceh, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These are troubling and challenging times. Never before, perhaps, has there been such a need for a strong, collective, global voice demanding that human rights be upheld. And all of you, gathered together for these several days of meetings, speaking with passion and insistence about the rights of refugees are a vital part of that voice.
Because these troubling, challenging times are particularly troubling and challenging for the countless youth, women and children around the world who flee for their lives. They flee because in the midst of vicious and unrelenting civil wars men are slaughtered for their political beliefs, women are raped because of their ethnicity, and children are forced to fight simply because it is easy to terrorize and dominate children. They flee because intolerance allows no political or religious freedom. They flee because discrimination means fear and violence for women, Indigenous peoples, sexual minorities. And as they flee, during these 20 months, they have faced more barriers, more suspicion, more hostility and more violence.
But the world has made two very simple promises to those youth, women and men. Both are powerfully included in this planet’s glorious human rights manifesto – the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The first is that every individual and every organ of society shall strive to promote respect for and to secure universal and effective recognition and observance of the Declaration’s catalogue of fundamental rights and freedoms. In other words we have pledged, all of us, one unto each other, to create a world based on rights.
The second promise though is that when we fall short
of that pledge, something we quite clearly and glaringly regularly do, there
will be haven for those who are forced to flee. It
too is stated as a right: the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries
asylum from persecution. Access to safety. But the cruel irony is that the world falls far short on
this pledge as well.
One of the starkest reminders of the inequities, danger and cruelty that lie at the heart of the global system for protecting refugees is West Africa. I have been there twice in the past two years, both times because of concerns that the protection and basic rights of refugees were desperately under siege. Each time I have returned inspired and in awe of the courage and resilience of individuals I have met, yet despairing, enraged and determined to do something about their fate.
In 2001 it was Guinea, long home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from the horrendous decade long civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The violence which had forced people from their homes in the first place had spilled across the border into Guinea and had turned a once safe haven into one that was now unbelievably deadly. Refugees fled from camps and villages in a desperate effort to stay ahead of marauding rebel groups and angry Guineans. As I interviewed dozens and dozens of refugees over the course of several days, what I remember being most haunting of all was the eerie similarity between the human rights abuses that forced them to flee their homes years previous and the abuses which had now forced them to flee their places of refuge as well. Just change the names and places. The rest was the same. Same attacks, same attackers, same basis, same senselessness.
And where was the world? Certainly no coalitions of the willing, let alone coalitions of the reluctant. Insecurity became so extreme that even UN aid and relief agencies and many NGO’s pulled back from the area. Refugees were direly, truly left on their own in the midst of this chaos and violence, for several months. And the resolution? I still recall the despairing words of one woman who said it best: if she was meant to die anyway, she’d rather it happen at home. And that, in fact, is what happened. Left no other choice, refugees began to flood back home to Sierra Leone and even Liberia, even though the situation in those two countries was still far, far from stable and, in Liberia’s case, was still extremely dangerous. What greater indictment of the international refugee system, that she and thousands of other refugees were offered no choice, no access to anything other than death.
This year it was Cote d’Ivoire. Not a place refugee advocates have generally worried about. Traditionally a relatively hospitable place of refuge. Little use of camps, a generous policy of allowing settlement in local villages, sporadic concerns about violence and discrimination, but not widespread. All this despite having sheltered upwards of 300,000 refugees from Liberia alone at certain times over the past ten years. Imagine the hue and cry if Canada ever faced an influx of even a fraction of that amount. This relative calm was shattered dramatically last fall when Cote d’Ivoire erupted into civil war, a war with a complexity of allegiances and divisions. But one piece is the surprise appearance of 2 previously unknown rebel groups in the west of the country. Rebel groups responsible for a number of grisly attacks against Ivoirian citizens and refugees. Rebel groups made up themselves of a significant number of Liberians.
And overnight the tide turned. From compassion to hatred in one fell swoop. Liberian refugees were now broadly blamed for the Ivoirian war and accused of being in cahoots with the rebels. They were chased from their homes, attacked and killed. They had insults and death threats showered down upon them no matter where they went. And they fled. Many fled back to Liberia, at a time when fighting in Liberia was again intensifying. They fled back to Liberia at a time when fleeing Ivoirians were doing the same. But other Liberians looked for greater security in Cote d’Ivoire, flooding into camps which they had not needed before. But even that has not brought security. Soldiers and rebels alike arrive at the camps in the night to recruit refugees into the fighting. Trips out of the camps for simple things like going to the market are filled with fear. Parents struggle to keep their children in. No one dreams of sending kids out to school. There is even great fear in going to local hospitals when someone falls seriously ill.
And I heard the same despair as I heard in Guinea. One man who I met in Abidjan said that if he could get to the border with Liberia he would go because, as he put it: it was better to go back and take one’s chances at home than stay with friends who had become strangers and be killed. Another said simply: I’d rather they just put us out to sea, beyond everyone’s reach. Now in recent days the vicious circle of West African displacement revolves once more and thousands of the very Ivoirians and Liberians who had fled to Liberia in recent months, have flooded back into Cote d’Ivoire. Tensions mount again, insecurity still reigns in that part of Cote d’Ivoire. One wonders, with a heavy heart, how long it will be before they feel forced to return home again. There simply are no real, safe choices. Rumours and possibilities abound but no regional government, let alone a country further afield such as Canada, has stepped up and indicated that it would be prepared to offer safety, even on just a temporary basis.
The clear message to me from these trips to West Africa – is that the world has firmly turned its back on the region’s displaced people, especially Liberian refugees. Liberians have no right to access protection. No access to the means of protecting basic rights.
Which is your theme these few days: the right to access; access to rights. And be it Liberia, or here on the homefront, the current assessment would quite starkly have to be that for refugees the worldover there is less and less right to access and less and less access to rights. Demanding an end to that unforgivable betrayal of the UDHR’s 2 great promises to refugees must become the rallying cry of our advocacy and the focus of our public outreach.
The right to access. There must be a safe place to go. Nothing more wretchedly points to the woeful state of this right than the situations I’ve just described in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. Yet while refugees in West Africa know only fear and impoverished countries in the region strain to provide shelter to staggering numbers of refugees, in the face of their own wars and poverty, the rest of the world constructs new and ever more imaginable ways to limit access. You know the litany of examples:
While all of this is underway, Liberians in Guinea and in Cote d’Ivoire feel compelled to choose which side of a border they would most prefer to face death. And those governments begin to model some of the “turn-‘em away” approaches taken by northern governments: such as simple border closings – which I heard all about when in Cote d’Ivoire in March, Guinea having closed its borders to both Ivoirians and Liberians fleeing Cote d’Ivoire.
It has to stop. The right to access, which has really for some time now been nothing but a virtually-insurmountable-global-labyrinth, is fast disappearing. The creativity and determination, not to mention unbelievable sums of money, devoted to making this labyrinth of access ever more impenetrable, obscenely dwarfs the creativity, determination and monies devoted to responding to the desperate and compelling protection needs of refugees and internally displaced persons, in Cote d’Ivoire, in Guinea, throughout Central Africa, in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Colombia, and more. More and more, it is our creativity, our determination, our monies that carry the day in ensuring safety and protection.
Governments talk increasingly about responsibility and burden-sharing. Our concern of course is that the motivation is generally nothing about sharing and ends up providing fewer refugees with the protection they require, exposing others to danger and insecurity. It is incumbent upon us to hold governments to the rhetoric of sharing. And press, press, press the message that the right to access, the right to seek asylum, 1 of the UDHR’s great promises to refugees, requires them to put protection needs at the forefront.
Marking the Refugee Convention’s 50th Anniversary, in 2001, governments recommitted themselves to these principles in the Agenda for Protection which flowed from the Global Consultations on International Protection. They acknowledged the “enduring importance” of the Refugee Convention and they committed themselves to “providing, within the framework of international solidarity and burden-sharing, better refugee protection through comprehensive strategies, … so as to ensure that refugees have access to safer and better conditions of stay and timely solutions to their problems.” And now we are faced with UNHCR’s “Convention Plus” initiative, which seeks to put in place a number of “special agreements” to complement the 1951 Convention, agreements which are meant to ensure a more reliable, effective and equitable response to refugee situations. We may feel nervous – with good reason. When governments have tinkered in the past with the refugee system the outcome has rarely been expansive or generous. But I would suggest that we need to put nerves aside and use this as an opportunity and to do so proactively and assertively. There is no question that we need new approaches. We know that the global refugee protection system is not completely broken, but it is certainly in a glaring state of disrepair. We know also that the way forward cannot be the Pacific Solution, or the UK’s Regional Protection Zones. The way forward must:
First, lead to concrete responsibility sharing agreements that include a strong protection component and unequivocally incorporate states’ human rights and refugee law obligations.
Second, the way forward must not, in any way, serve to dilute the responsibility of states for refugee protection or expose refugees to violations of their basic rights. As an aside, that is, I would suggest, one measure by which the Canada/US agreement so clearly fails. This agreement will inevitably expose significant numbers of individuals to arbitrary detention in cruel, harsh conditions in the United States. This agreement will increase the likelihood of refoulement for women fearing domestic violence, honour killings and other human rights abuses at the hands of private actors. This agreement should not be allowed to go ahead until it is clearly demonstrated that it will enhance refugee protection, not undermine it.
And third, the way forward must include an active and transparent role for non-governmental organizations.
I would add, given the apparent increasing government interest in approaches like the Pacific Solution – including the sketchy whispers we hear that there may be interest in Ottawa in pursuing some sort of Canadianized version, what we might term an Arctic Solution – that it is high time for a thorough, independent evaluation of the Australian model, an evaluation, in particular, of the protection impact of that approach. The UNHCR should be encouraged to take the lead in ensuring that such an evaluation takes place and quickly, before governments goany further with these emerging knock-offs of that approach.
And what about the other side of the equation. Access to rights. The right to access – to be able to reach safety and remain in safety until it is possible to return home, may be, in essence, the core refugee right. But it is not the end of the story. For the whole story – its beginning, middle and end, should be about rights. As I said at the outset this is the UDHR’s other great promise, not only to refugees of course, but to all citizens of this planet. When it comes to refugees this should mean:
- a new global commitment to protecting human rights which makes it possible for people to remain in their homes in the first place;
- upholding the basic rights of refugees while they are displaced; and
- a strong rights-based approach to reconstruction, making safe, dignified return home possible.
But there is very little interest in talking about rights when it comes to the security and needs of refugees. Politicians, media, much of the general public prefer to view it is a matter of privilege. That it is a privilege for refugees to have freedom of movement, to have enough to eat, to go to school, to be able to work. And that the rest of us are free to determine when we wish to share those privileges with refugees and when not. But it is, of course all about rights and nothing about privilege. There is nothing in international treaties that says these fundamental rights apply to all people except those who have had to flee their homes because those very rights have been violated. But that is increasingly the absurd world in which we live.
Governments continue to talk about the human rights of refugees. But where is the evidence that it will be more than talk? A resolution at this year’s UN Commission on Human Rights dealing with human rights and mass exodus has numerous references to rights, including a passage urging “all states to promote and respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of refugees and asylum-seekers.” That resolution will, importantly, lead to a report at next year’s session of the Commission, outlining the obstacles to implementing this resolution. That could become a valuable forum in which we can press hard for a solidly rights-based approach to refugee protection; a forum in which governments can be more clearly held accountable for their failure to safeguard the basic rights of refugees. For that has long been a glaring gap in efforts to safeguard the basic rights of refugees – the lack of a venue for monitoring, reporting and accountability.
And we so need it - a venue in which the ways that initiatives like the Pacific solution constitute a frontal assault on human rights can be exposed. The Australian government seems to believe that just by changing words around, the violations can be hidden. So the camps on islands like Nauru are now referred to as “accommodation” and not “detention” and the guards doing the accommodating called “safety” officers, not “security”. But rights are rights and violations are violations, no matter the language used. Facilities in extremely isolated and remote locations, fully enclosed by high fencing with controlled access, from which people are not allowed to leave on an unaccompanied basis, even for medical purposes, and to which access, for international monitoring groups like AI, has been extremely limited and even denied - are not accommodating. It is detention. And must, therefore, be in keeping with international human rights standards.
We must increasingly put the human rights challenge in front of governments. In what way does it not violate basic rights to “accommodate” refugees in isolated, forbidding camps on remote Pacific islands? In what way does it not violate basic rights when refugee women and girls in West Africa and Nepal face sexual abuse and exploitation, including by humanitarian workers? In what way does it not violate basic rights to treat Haitian refugees differently, discriminatorily, from other refugees arriving in the United States? In what way does it not violate basic rights when there is nothing done to ensure that Liberian refugee children in Cote d’Ivoire will have a place to study? In what way does it not violate basic rights to withhold permanent resident status, travel documents and the ability to reunite with family to refugees in Canada who are unable to present a satisfactory identity document?
None of this is about generosity. It is about doing the right thing and the necessary thing. Failing to afford refugees their basic rights is an affront to their dignity. And ultimately it serves only to maintain the yawning global divisions between races, between religions, between rich and poor, between us and them. Divisions that foster injustice and greater insecurity.
As I began I talked of these being troubling and challenging times in the global human rights struggle. And it is easy to feel lost and overwhelmed, as we often feel that we do not have the power to mandate these changes and new approaches. But do remember that it is through our efforts that change does arise. I turn to the wider front of human rights advocacy and I think, for example, of the fact that this planet now has an International Criminal Court, a powerful new judicial body which should, by year’s end be hearing its first cases against accused war criminals, genocidaires and perpetrators of crimes against humanity. That is a development which is good news, great news, for all of us – very much including for refugees. And we, civil society around the world, have been instrumental, central to that dream of international justice coming into being; a dream which had long seemed fanciful and far-fetched.
Beyond the concrete and measurable achievements, like the ICC, I think also though of the words shared with me by a Mauritanian refugee in Senegal a number of years ago, work I know I’ve shared previously with many of you. I asked him about the utility of human rights groups continuing with their sometimes seemingly fruitless campaigns for refugee rights. He reminded me that refugees hear no at virtually every corner - no you cannot stay in your own home or your own country; no you cannot enter this country; no you cannot work or study or live here. But he reminded me that it is at our door that refugees hear, not yes, but we are trying and we will help. And that, as he said, is what sustains hope and without hope there is no dignity. Let those words, in turn, sustain your hope and your efforts. Because it is through that hope and those efforts that ultimately, rights will prevail.