Rediscovering Human Dignity

Following is a statement by Archbishop Renato Martino, in response to Item 108 of the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, concerning Questions Relating to Refugees and Displaced Persons and Humanitarian Questions, delivered before the Third Committee of the 53rd session of the General Assembly on November 1, 1998.

This Committee has discussed the issue of refugees and internally displaced persons for years. Suggestions were made during each session to address this complicated and urgent problem. But as we all know, this “wound which typifies and reveals the imbalance and conflicts of the modern world” (Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 24) has continued to bleed all the more and affect more people.

The New Refugees

The problem of displacement has seen significant changes and assumed complex and unparalleled proportions in the last two decades. One remarkable feature is that in addition to the almost 25 million refugees in the strict sense, people who have fled across borders, more than the same amount of people have been internally displaced by the unwar-ranted conflicts of these recent decades. Unlike refugees in the strict sense, those forcibly displaced within the borders of their own countries suffer from an absence of legal or institutional bases for their protection and assistance from the international community. These displaced persons are at the greatest risk of starvation, have the highest rates of preventable disease, and are the most vulnerable to human rights abuses. Some countries have deliberately starved the displaced while invoking their sovereignty. Sovereignty, one of the pillars of international relations, when it excludes the necessary responsibility to provide protection and assistance to citizens, becomes a modern disguise to uproot entire societies.

Further, refugees are no longer the byproduct of a conflict, but in many cases are its very substance and scope. The “immoral strategy of ethnic cleansing,” the unpunished attempts of total annihilation of communities, and armed pursuit of the displaced until they are exhausted to death, are just some of the new and abominable techniques in recent conflicts. Attacks on refugee camps or making them abodes of criminals, blocking humanitarian aid to the starving victims, and killing and hostage-taking of humanitarian aid workers, are some other violations of international humanitarian law.

Every humanitarian aid worker and every organization which extends a helping hand to the displaced, deserves the recognition and commendation of the international community. Many of them operate in often dangerous situations at the risk of their own lives. In this context the roles of the UNHCR, of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, of the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the ICRC and of the numerous religious relief agencies deserve special mention and praise. No doubt, humanitarian aid is and will continue to be crucial in protecting refugees and displaced persons, because survival is the first requirement in that situation.

Still, the problem of refugees and internally displaced persons cannot be resolved by providing humanitarian help alone. The problem itself and its lasting solution should be approached from deeper human and moral perspectives. Humanitarian aid, however crucial it might be, should be seen as a temporary emergency provision. The international community cannot be satisfied with providing humanitarian aid while lacking the necessary political will to solve the problem

A Human Issue

The plight of millions forced from their countries of origin or from their homes is in every sense a human problem The conflicts of recent years have made one out of every 120 people on earth a refugee or a displaced person. The saddest note of all is that the most vulnerable members of society, women, children and the aged, are the most affected and afflicted victims of unwarranted and violent conflicts. They are forced to leave their homes, go to environments strange and often unfriendly, confined to situations humiliating and hostile without any hope of returning home. By becoming dependent on the mercy of others for survival, their personal dignity is wounded and their identity destroyed. They carry with them the unjustly imposed burden of becoming strangers in a world which should belong to all

Mr. Chairman, most of today's refugees and displaced persons comes from developing countries, and a considerable majority from Africa, Most of them were bearing the sears of poverty long before becoming refugees or displaced persons Over 12 million children are on the move without the possibility of living a life worthy of children, nor having the ability to prepare for their future. Opportunities for education or vocational training become rarities

Since the question of refugees is a human issue, it has also serious moral implications. Behind every single conflict, there is a long story of continued and systematic violation of fundamental human rights. History has taught us that contempt for the dignity of the human person and denial of human rights will sooner or later lead to conflict situations. The best method to prevent conflicts is to create respect for the dignity of the human person and guarantees for human rights.

The Root of the Problem

The over fifty direct or indirect conflict fields of the world in this decade have produced over fifty million uprooted people. The international community itself has difficulties in finding the financial resources to procure the much-needed humanitarian aid to keep them alive. But none of those conflict fields lack in weapons. Weapons are what the warring countries have in abundance. In supplying arms to war-mongers and power-brokers, some countries turn out to be extraordinarily generous. The illegal and exaggerated sale of weapons to impoverished people, from whichever source or under whatever disguise they may come, is morally wrong. Stop the illegal flow of weapons and many conflicts will thus be prevented. Stop the flow of weapons, and most of the actual conflicts will considerably subside.

Behind the immediate causes of flight, there may also be interdependent economic and social factors. Poverty, the deterioration of economic conditions, social inequalities, conflicts concerning the distribution of resources, especially in times of economic recession, exacerbate already existing ethnic and social tensions. Minority groups become the main victims of economic crises. When already precarious conditions of life are worsened by war or civil and ethnic conflicts, famine and illness often claim more victims than the conflicts themselves. Sometimes, even economic decisions aimed at achieving economic growth that reach only certain sectors of the population, or that are not combined with human development and respect for the environment, can create a context for violence, armed conflict and the deterioration of the habitat. This may oblige many to leave their homes. States have a special responsibility in orienting their policies towards a participatory and environment-friendly development. This task is not, however, the monopoly of the state; it can and must be shared by the private sector as well as by the international community through a renewed effort of cooperation for development.

To the millions who are presently suffering from the pain of displacement, the right to protection in its diverse aspects, the right to remain in conditions worthy of human persons, and the right to return in security and dignity should be guaranteed. Return to situations of fragile peace might be the start of new cycles of renewed displacement, as cases in some parts of Africa and elsewhere have shown. Along with peace-making and peace-keeping, concrete action towards peace-building becomes a must in such situations.

Finally Mr. Chairman, the issue of displacement is not only a matter of humanitarian concern, but also of international peace and stability. The condition of refugees, with their sufferings and pains, becomes a pressing appeal to the conscience of the international community. It becomes, at the same time, an authentic challenge to solidarity and concerted action. Let the close of the second millennium be, for millions of refugees and displaced people, a time of new hope, marking a new page in history where displacement no longer exists.

Archbishop Renato Martino is Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.