Finnish Nobel peace laureate calls on states to help refugees, stateless

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Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari on Thursday urged states attending a landmark ministerial conference in Geneva to do more to resolve the plight of millions of forcibly displaced and stateless people around the world.

“Almost all refugee situations are caused by humans. They can and must be solved by humans, by us, by our leaders, by the international community,” said the Nobel peace laureate, who in 1939 was forced to flee his own hometown of Viiipuri (now Vyborg in the Russian Federation) at the age of two.

“Let us recommit ourselves to seeking lasting solutions to conflicts. Let us see refugees as part of the solution, not part of the problem. Let us involve refugees in peace processes,” he said in a keynote address on the final day of the largest meeting dedicated to refugees and stateless people.

Top officials from almost 150 countries, including more than 70 at ministerial level, are attending the conference, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

“The conventions are crucial instruments to safeguard the fundamental rights of refugees and provide standards for their treatment,” said Ahtisaari. These legal treaties enable UNHCR to provide protection and assistance to millions of people worldwide.

Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey, meanwhile, announced that her country would from next year increase its support for the work of UNHCR and continue to co-sponsor the annual Nansen Refugee Award, which this year was won by the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity for its life-saving work helping refugees and migrants on the Yemeni coast.

Switzerland was one of dozens of countries to make pledges at the ministerial conference in Geneva, many of them related to statelessness [see separate story]. On Thursday, at a special treaty event, Serbia acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and Turkmenistan became party to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Other states pledged to consider acceding to either of the statelessness conventions in the near future.

The United States made 28 pledges, which were announced on Wednesday at the conference by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who highlighted an initiative to tackle a major cause of statelessness by ending discrimination against women.

The pledges made in Geneva relate to a wide range of issues, including statelessness, sexual and gender-based violence, strengthening of national asylum institutions, resettlement, protection of women and children, improving national refugee legislation, voluntary repatriation, combatting racism, climate change, alternatives to detention, integration and more.

States attending the conference will also sign a communiqué reaffirming the fundamentals of the international protection regime and of the refugee and statelessness conventions. “The communique also points to the future and encourages us to work further collaboratively on protection gaps and the challenges of the 21st Century,” said UNHCR Director of International Protection Volker Türk.

The conference opened on Wednesday with a call by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres for urgent reinforcing of the international system that deals with the world’s millions of stateless people and forcibly displaced.

Guterres warned that a succession of political crises and the global economic downturn were contributing to a significantly more challenging environment for protecting people who are forced to flee their homes. And he took a swipe at those playing on public uncertainty and anxiety to promote xenophobia.

Secretary of State Clinton, in a special address on Wednesday, reaffirmed her government’s support for UNHCR while calling on governments to work closer together to help the stateless and the displaced. “We have to do a better job of breaking down barriers, both within our governments and between our governments and multilateral organizations,” she said. “If we do what is necessary today, we can alleviate a lot of suffering.”

The conference is the culmination of political and diplomatic efforts over many years by UNHCR to rally renewed support and commitments for the fundamental legal treaties that enable the agency to operate.

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