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U.S. Government Plenary Statement

Samuel Witten, Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration
Remarks at the 59th Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee
Geneva, Switzerland
October 6, 2008

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for your outstanding leadership of this Committee over the past year. You have very skillfully helped this organization navigate through both challenges and opportunities. We welcome Benin, Luxembourg, Montenegro, and Macedonia as new members of EXCOM and look forward to their continued contributions in helping to provide durable solutions to refugees in need.

And thank you, Mr. High Commissioner, for sharing your strategic vision for the year ahead. In response, I would like to emphasize five central principles to help guide us in our collective work:

First, the principle of protection. The vulnerability of refugees and challenges to their protection has again been front and center this year. Refugees continue to be caught up in conflicts and subjected to forced recruitment, refoulement, expulsions from their camps or settlements, and sexual abuse. The security of refugees in many areas is tenuous as is the security of those who would help them. The challenge to UNHCR and its partners is increasingly complex and dangerous.

Mr. Chairman, refugee protection is an obligation, not a choice. We have worked closely with UNHCR and others over the past several years to ensure that experienced protection and community service officers are in places where they are most needed. As further structural and management reforms are considered and introduced, we urge UNHCR not to sacrifice this fundamental obligation and these core posts. Protection should be the prism through which these reform efforts are considered and reviewed for their impact on the people who need our help.

Second, the principle of burdensharing. No one government and no one agency or individual can be expected to succeed in protecting people forced to flee violence absent a truly international effort. Multilateralism, the foundation of the United Nations system, reflects the fact that our goals can only be achieved if nations work cooperatively. In this respect, burdensharing requires more than just financial contributions for refugee assistance and protection; implicit in the concept of burdensharing is States’ full participation in and support for the development and implementation of solutions.

No other undertaking requires more burdensharing than the permanent resolution of protracted refugee situations. We commend UNHCR for continuing to pursue durable solutions for refugees in protracted situations, and for the progress it has made in increasing access to third-country resettlement. Today, for example, the Burundi are going home or being offered permanent integration in Tanzania, and Sudanese in Uganda are returning to southern Sudan to help rebuild their country. And I am pleased to announce that more than 5300 Bhutanese have been resettled to the United States as part of a multi-government effort to resolve the 17 year-long protracted refugee situation in Nepal, with many more to be resettled in the United States during the coming year.

Third, the principle of good management. The United States strongly supports the motivation behind the critical reform work currently underway. Now that the important first phase of this effort – the initial Budapest outposting – has been completed, we, like other members of this Committee, are turning our attention to the next phase. In doing so, the goal should be the fundamental management concept of doing business more effectively and more efficiently, with our sights squarely targeted at the same time on how the needs of UNHCR’s beneficiaries will be better served. Accountability to our underlying mission must be our guide. Focusing on the number of staff is a measure of success, not necessarily the final goal. Getting the right people into the right jobs is paramount.


Fourth, the principle of need-based budgeting. We support UNHCR’s Global Needs Assessment initiative, which more coherently articulates humanitarian needs in relation to minimum international standards of assistance and more detailed analyses of the gaps between what UNHCR and its partners are doing and what would be required to address all the needs of UNHCR's beneficiaries. We realize this is a complicated undertaking, and further work needs to be done. We are also mindful of future funding implications for the wide-scale application of this initiative. Therefore, issues such as management of expectations and budget allocations, objective versus subjective analysis, and prioritization of unfunded or underfunded activities, all need additional hard-nosed intellectual scrutiny and discussion.

And finally, the principle of dialogue. UNHCR as an organization is undergoing unprecedented change. Some might even say this is a revolutionary change for a UN agency. Regular consultations with Member States should be viewed as an opportunity to gather support for this effort, not as an impediment for progress. Many bureaucracies in our own governments have faced many of the same issues now confronting UNHCR, such as downsizing and outposting back-office functions; better and more targeted training for staff to ensure they have the right skills to do the job; the impact on the organization of a large cadre of experienced and seasoned staff facing retirement in the next few years; and making sure there is the right balance between empowering staff in the field and policy coherence throughout the organization. We also want to make sure that we have the information necessary to make the case to colleagues in capitals why these reform efforts will make UNHCR a more effective partner worthy of increased support.

Mr. Chairman, in conclusion, the United States remains a steadfast and committed partner with UNHCR. Our fiscal year just concluded last week, on September 30, and I am pleased to announce that my government has contributed more than $500 million to UNHCR’s 2008 activities. We also resettled over 60,000 refugees to the U.S. this year, including – in addition to the Bhutanese I mentioned earlier – more than 18,000 ethnic Burmese and 13,800 Iraqi refugees, as well of vulnerable persons of many other nationalities. We know the work of UNHCR is never easy, and we again salute UNHCR’s staff for what they do in often difficult environments. We continue to look to UNHCR as the center of excellence for protection and solutions.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We look forward to a very productive week.


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