UN refugee chief takes West to task for `compassion fatigue'

At a celebrity-studded roundtable on refugees at the Palais des Nations in Geneva recently, it was not diplomacy as usual. For the toughest comments came not from the controversial British author William Shawcross nor from the sharp-witted actor Peter Ustinov, but from a soft-spoken Swiss named Jean-Pierre Hock'e, the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Mr. Hock'e took donor countries to task for their so-called ``compassion fatigue'' and lashed out at political maneuvering by nations which receive refugee aid.

``Anguish, compassion, rejection, solidarity, or selfishness: where lie our true sentiments with regard to the millions of women, children, and men thrown onto the path of exodus by inexorbable violence?'' asked Hock'e.

Without naming names, he condemned governments which ``have seen in humanitarian action an illusory possibility to allow a political situation to stagnate.'' Such governments, said Hock'e, are making it next to impossible for the UN Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to fulfill its mission.

``Humanitarian activity must at any price be isolated from political haggling,'' concluded Hock'e.

The authority with which Hock'e speaks attests to a lifetime of experience with political detainees, prisoners of war, and refugees on several continents. Hock'e joined the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1968 and served as head of Red Cross operations from 1973 to 1985, launching large-scale relief efforts in Vietnam, Cambodia, Central America, and Ethiopia, among others.

Hock'e arrives in Washington today for his first official mission to North America since assuming his post January 1. In the United States, Hock'e will confer with Secretary of State George Shultz and journey to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress.

During his two-week visit to the US and Canada, Hock'e will attend a special UN session on Africa. In meetings with officials he will discuss a number of issues including: the drastic influx of Ethiopian refugees into Somalia; the estimated 2 million refugees in Central America and how the US could help ease tensions there; and the UNHCR's financial straits -- a budget cut from $459 million in 1985 to $377 million this year -- which has the organization scrambling for new sources of funding.

Unanimously endorsed by the UN in December, Hock'e moved quickly to restate the UNHCR mandate and restructure its bureaucracy.

In his first publicized remarks to the UNHCR executive committee in January, Hock'e addressed the recent tendency in Western nations to rely on the narrowest of definitions of ``refugee'' and thus turn away increasing numbers of asylum seekers.

He urged governments to ``resist the temptation to entrench themselves behind the limits of existing texts'' and to ``recognize the diversity of refugee situations, even if some of them fall into gray areas from the legal point of view.''

In mid-April, Hock'e convened a meeting in The Hague with representatives from eight West European nations and Canada to, as he put it, ``continue the search for common solutions'' on the aslyum issue. ``No government should feel that once it has decided an individual doesn't meet its definition of `refugee' it no longer has any responsibility to find a solution,'' says Hock'e. ``They bear an ongoing responsibility along with the UNHCR.''

The new high commissioner wants to dispel the image of the UNHCR as just another relief agency. ``Yes, we take the initial steps to see people fed and cared for medically, but the gist of our work is protection,'' says Hock'e.

On the whole, Hock'e sees repatriation and, when necessary, resettlement of refugees as the principle options to be pursued. ``We must see when possible refugees who are willing to go back can, and under what conditions,'' says Hock'e. ``Resettlement to a third country is what must be done for only a few''

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