Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Sixty years ago an atmosphere of cooperation and resolve to protect those uprooted by war and persecution prevailed as States negotiated the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Back then, few UN Member States imagined that large-scale situations of statelessness and forced displacement would occur beyond the horrendous experiences of Europe during World War II. Yet conflict, persecution and crises have continued around the world and taken new forms. The need for international protection remains enormous and UNHCR’s role remains indispensable.
The number of refugees and internally displaced and stateless persons remains alarmingly high. For the United States, their protection and assistance is an enduring commitment. Still, we find that despite the best efforts of the international community and UNHCR’s robust mandate, basic principles of protection are under threat around the world. As we begin a year of reflection on the state of international protection 60 years after the drafting of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and 50 years after the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, we must acknowledge that in too many places incidents of refugee refoulement occur, displaced people are intimidated and attacked, refugee children are unable to attend school, and stateless persons lack documentation. We must acknowledge that solutions have not been achieved for millions of refugees, IDPs, and stateless persons in protracted situations. Protection of refugees in urban settings is inadequate. The threat of violence against women and children displaced by conflict is dire, and the security of humanitarian workers is far from assured. As members of UNHCR’s Executive Committee, we face many challenges and our responsibilities to protect refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, and stateless persons remain significant.
This is not to discount the considerable protection work that UNHCR and Member States have undertaken over the years, particularly those governments that have generously hosted refugees, or accepted them for permanent local integration or resettlement. We have agreed to numerous conclusions on international protection, including this year’s text on disabilities; we have developed extensive training and guidelines for UN, NGO and government officials; we have embarked on the cluster approach to better address the needs of those who are internally displaced; and we are integrating protection principles across our assistance programs. What more should we do? Abroad and at home, are we doing everything possible to defend and to promote the human rights, the well-being, and the empowerment of the world’s most vulnerable uprooted people?
We know that the most credible and persuasive protection advocacy comes from those who have experienced the suffering and indignities of displacement. This is why we have pressed UNHCR to increase its permanent protection and community services staff and deploy them to the deep field. This is why the United States has regional officers based in embassies around the world who are dedicated to humanitarian diplomacy and field monitoring. Effective protection requires strong advocacy informed by field presence. Protection principles need champions.
For the United States, protection of refugees, IDPs, stateless persons, and other populations of concern is always part of our diplomatic and humanitarian agenda, even with nations with whom we may have disagreements on other issues. There are many areas where field presence and strong advocacy are essential to achieving our protection objectives. Today I want to highlight three. First is the protection of internally displaced persons. UNHCR’s role within the UN cluster system has given UNHCR greater responsibilities for protection of conflict-affected IDPs. Protection of IDPs depends on cooperation with governments and adequate field presence. The U.S. government will continue to encourage governments with internally displaced populations to utilize the UN Guiding Principles, and to support UNHCR in its efforts to protect IDPs. We applaud the adoption of the Convention on Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa and encourage its entry into force. We note that UNHCR served as a protection cluster leader in 19 countries last year. With the cluster system now in its fifth year of implementation, we urge UNHCR, its partners, and other Member States to analyze closely the performance of protection clusters around the world to determine how they can be more effective and to strengthen the UN’s overall response in humanitarian crises through improved coordination with other clusters.
Second, I want to highlight the issue of gender-based violence as one that requires strong advocacy and field presence — including the protection of refugees who flee persecution or encounter human rights violations in asylum countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. President Obama has made clear that the United States condemns persecution and other violations of human rights against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We applaud the High Commissioner’s Roundtable on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity held last week and believe that UNHCR’s 2008 Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, and other forthcoming guidelines on this issue, can form a foundation for enhanced protection. The U.S. government will continue to look for strong UNHCR leadership on this issue.
Gender-based violence — including sexual exploitation and abuse — is a major protection concern throughout the world, particularly in conflict-affected countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Effective implementation of Age, Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming (AGDM) is key to improving protection. Collectively, we must find comprehensive solutions that include greater awareness and education, stricter law enforcement, promotion of gender equality and women’s rights, and enhanced protection presence by the international community. We expect continued commitment by UNHCR on this issue in the coming years, including the release of the AGDM Action Plan as soon as possible and to hold UNHCR accountable for full implementation of AGDM at every level.
Third is resettlement. The United States has long championed refugee resettlement as an important protection tool and durable solution, and field presence and strong advocacy remain critical to our program’s success. Throughout his tenure, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration Eric Schwartz has visited newly arriving refugees – Bhutanese, Burundians, Iraqis and so many others – in cities across the United States. While it is heartening for him to witness the deep and abiding commitment to refugees among reception agency staff and the welcoming spirit of local officials and volunteers, it was sobering to meet with refugees threatened with eviction or who had to choose between buying food or diapers for their children during these difficult economic times.
In this regard, we greatly appreciate the government of Nepal’s support for the resettlement process of refugees from Bhutan. The United States will consider for resettlement as many Bhutanese refugees as express interest. We applaud UNHCR’s efforts to develop programs for the long-term needs of these refugees and their host communities. The right of refugees to return to Bhutan is an important consideration for the United States, and we strongly urge the government of Bhutan to accept for repatriation refugee cases of special humanitarian concern.
Mr. Chairman, in light of our critical responsibilities to resettled refugees, the United States government was able to double the funding provided to support newly resettled refugees. This support ensures that refugees have a solid roof over their heads, a clean bed in which to sleep and basic assistance as they begin new lives in the United States. Overseas, we have strongly supported UNHCR’s own capacity building to identify vulnerable communities in need of resettlement and to develop innovative interim protection measures, such as emergency transit centers in Slovakia, Romania and the Philippines. These actions have improved protection for refugees arriving in the United States and promoted refugee protection and burden sharing in first asylum countries by encouraging host government policies of tolerance as well as encouraging other governments to do more on refugee resettlement issues.
In conclusion, as we look ahead, the United States will continue to champion the protection of refugees, IDPs, stateless persons and others of concern to UNHCR. Reminded of the era of UNHCR’s creation, we resolve that we will serve — and we urge UNHCR to serve — as relentless protection advocates informed by field experience. We are putting protection of the most vulnerable at the center of policy-making, and we call on other Member States to join us in doing the same.