Magazine article UN Chronicle

It Comes Down to Saving Lives

Magazine article UN Chronicle

It Comes Down to Saving Lives

Article excerpt

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 13 and 14 (1)

When, in June 1945, fifty sovereign nations convened in San Francisco to create the United Nations and sign the world Charter, John McCloy - one of America's "Wise Men" and architects of the American Century - was surprised by "the growing sense of Russia vs. the United States" he found at the Conference. A cold war was on the verge of breaking out. Thus, right from its beginning the United Nations has had to face a problem that paralyzes - and sometimes upsets - its daily work. The Organization remains to this day an international body composed of independent sovereign States, with a few States - the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States) - assuming particular responsibilities.

In essence and in practice, the United Nations can only fulfil its role within this yet-to-be established "international community", if its Member States respect the covenant they signed and, in particular, commit themselves to fulfilling their "overriding duty to preserve international peace", as Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminded us in a recent speech. Mr Annan further recalled that "the UN is prohibited by its own Charter from intervening in the domestic affairs of its Member States", but [that] the Charter also says that "national sovereignty can be set aside if it stands in the way of the overriding duty to preserve international peace".

Striking a proper balance between national sovereignty and international obligations has become a gruelling task for the United Nations leadership and its agencies in the field. One area where this responsibility is given high priority is refugee protection and assistance, an obligation explicitly devolved upon the States - "The High Contracting Parties" - that signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The world was then in the midst of the cold war. A "refugee" was defined as a displaced individual who had crossed internationally recognized borders, seeking asylum "outside the country of his nationality", often fleeing political persecution.

With the end of the cold war, not only has the international scene changed, but also the nature of war itself, turning civilian non-combatants into targets caught between the new front-lines. Civilians are today the main victims of wars that are mostly fought within countries; and they are increasingly used as instruments to further indiscriminate political goals. This dramatic shift has had a profound implication on the nature of displacement itself.

This shift also reminds us that the Charter was, after all, issued in the name of "the peoples" of the United Nations, not their Governments. According to Mr. Annan, the time has come to reassert that "the Charter protects the sovereignty of peoples. It was never meant as a license for Governments to trample on human rights and human dignity. The fact that a conflict is 'internal' does not give the parties any right to disregard the most basic rules of human conduct".

In the light of this new reality, both Member States and the United Nations have decided to review the world Organization's modus operandi. This tremendous task is currently underway, led by its Secretary-General. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) likewise has had to adapt to this new environment - an environment marked by growing numbers of civilians who are forcibly displaced "at home" - and is devising a humanitarian agenda of action for the future. Under the mandate of the current High Commissioner, the number of people of concern to the UN refugee agency has risen to a staggering 26 million. …

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